Venger Satanis’ latest foray into Lovecraftian territory is a compact, pick up and play game of investigative horror. It features an abbreviated (or streamlined) version of the Crimson Dragon Slayer rule set. It also includes a scenario, so it’s a bit of a double feature, which is appropriate considering the gritty Grindhouse style of the adventure itself.
It is 45 pages with a colour cover and black and white interior. This is a review of the PDF version.
As usual, the look of the product is great! The black and white artwork is decent and the layout, typography and editing gets more polished with each new release. Seriously, Venger’s layout person, Glynn Seal (MonkeyBlood Design) is getting better and better at this. The text flows well, the headings are stylized but clearly readable and the watermarks are not obtrusive in the least. It was a pleasure to read. Fantastic maps in the adventure by Glynn Seal as well.
A new feature in this book are little side notes or boxes with added Game Master tips and advice. This was a nice addition and I would like to see Venger do more of this. There were other bits here and there that I felt should have been highlighted in this way.
My only gripe, and this criticism applies to many, many other publishers, not just with Korthalis, are the extra empty pages of padding that are included for print reasons but serve absolutely no purpose for digital consumption. It’s tedious and annoying to flip through several blank pages on my tablet. To be clear, just about everyone does this, except for a very few, and I think that it is just the growing pains of the new digital era. I wish desktop publishers would make at least two versions of their PDFs: one for print and one for digital-only consumption. Anyway, moving on…
Quick and Dirty Rules for an Investigative Horror RPG
The first half of the book (pages 4 to 12) covers the game system itself, beginning with character creation. This is fast and loose: you pick or randomly determine a career for your investigator and this determines where and when they get an advantage or disadvantage on dice rolls, depending on context.
Next is a bit of a nice way to add background depth to your character. You pick or randomly determine which secret society or organization that you character has ties to and what sort of relationship that you have. We’ve seen this before in Crimson Dragon Slayer, but there’s a bit more depth to it here. I was very pleased with this.
Lastly you get to determine your character’s Drive to investigate and what sort of Weakness that they have. For the latter, the author explains how this concept is integral to horror narratives and I agree with him wholeheartedly. The brief Game Mastering advice here on how to channel these character flaws is also good and reasonable.
Here’s a sample character that I just rolled up:
Profession: Gangster (or Con Man)
Organization: Former member of a Scientific Team
Drive: Cold, hard cash
Weakness: Will do anything for power
The dice system is elegantly simple: everyone is considered to be average at everything unless consequences, or background career, would affect the chances of success or failure. Just like Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition, multiple “advantages” and “disadvantages” to a roll just cancel each other out and the character rolls with an average difficulty. Effective and straightforward, but depending on Game Master ruling, which I know doesn’t suit every play style out there. Then again, I only play RPGs with people whom I know and like so this is not an issue for me whatsoever.
Combat, just like regular checks, works in very much the same way. It’s also very simple, with varying degrees of effect. At worst your enemy gets a free hit on you, at best your foe is insta-killed. However, that’s also context-heavy: it all depends on the weapons used, the people (or creatures) involved and other factors. Some big monsters, such as Lovecraftian demigods and what have you, never die: they can only be subdued temporarily… which fits perfectly with the Mythos. Sometimes dynamite and big guns only buy you extra time to run away! It should be noted that there are no hit points to speak of in this game. There are basically two hurt conditions prior to death: wounded and incapacitated. Your character can theoretically get killed by a single monster attack or gun shot. Again, this lethality is fitting for the premise: getting into fights is typically not a good idea at all unless you’ve got the stakes highly in your favour.
There’s also simple Insanity rules and a reward system of Bonus Dice, which characters accumulate and can spend at any time to give them better chances of success. Considering that all dice rolls are constrained to 1, 2 or 3 dice at most, these Bonus Dice are a Big Deal.
The Insanity check rule is good but the table of results is… okay. Basically nothing very good can come from making an Insanity check unless the character rolls the best possible result. While I understand the need for streamlined simplicity, I’ve never been a fan of insanity or fear checks that can result in a player basically stepping away from the action for a while. If I ever run this, I think that I’ll tweak these a bit so that the effects are more insidious for a nice build up of tension or at least fun for the player to role play out the madness effect so that they’re still in the game. Then again I know some Call of Cthulhu purists who’d love the way that this table works as it is. Note: upon fully reading the adventure itself, it appears that the Insanity table is only triggered if the player rolls a single die and gets a pre-determined result (usually a 1 or 2, depending on the severity of the horror that they witness.
Overall a nice, tidy system for quick n’ dirty horror gaming. High lethality, a bit abstract and very dependant on GM rulings but very easy to learn and play.
The Outer Presence
The titular adventure of this book (fills out the remaining pages). The genre is horror and thus involves a few disturbing themes. Reader beware.
To give you a clear idea of what’s to come, the author cites his inspiration:
…such great films as Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox, and Jungle Holocaust, as well as, the 1960’s Jonny Quest television show….
Interestingly enough, we get a bit of a twist on a somewhat racist trope: the tribal people within this story have become degenerate crazed cannibals because they’ve been corrupted by an evil, twisted, western scholar in anthropology. The evil comes from outside the jungle, both figuratively and literally. In other words, the “aliens” are a tentacled horror in a pit and a white man.
To explain further, the villain is a cruel and sadistic expedition leader who is manipulating an isolated tribe into serving his needs. The people themselves are represented as victims of this creep’s abuse of their superstitions. He’s up to no good and has done bad things to a lot of people. These acts, combined with a few other factors, have led the characters to travel to this remote place in the jungle to investigate.
The adventure is well structured: the author gives suggestions on how to streamline events and encounters for a one-shot game versus a long-term campaign. There are a lot of options, even though the basic structure is pretty standard horror RPG fare. The author even gives a proposed timeline of events.
There’s some good advice on starting the adventure with some humour, in the form of a random table of “what was your character doing right before this adventure?”. All of which could potentially lead to some funny character and relationship building at the table. I think that this is a good idea because what follows is rather grim and the contrast helps.
Venger also suggests not being too harsh on the characters until the climax: as mentioned earlier, the results of a dice throw depend quite a bit on Game Master ruling and creativity. The best part is at the ending and everyone should get there mostly intact, after all! Again, very good advice that I agree with.
I won’t go into a lot of detail about the adventure itself, but overall I liked it. There are a lot of knobs and dials that a Game Master can tweak to suit the themes and events to taste. I’m not very fond of the treatment of the sole named female character and I think that I would change her situation a bit (spoiler: when she gets thrown into the pit with the titular tentacled cosmic horror, I’d have her become a vessel for it and evolve into a devious villain at odds with her desire to free her new master but also to have revenge on her traitorous ex-lover, possibly becoming the True Priestess instead of him as a twist ending).
Because it is rather system-agnostic, a group could use this adventure with any other Investigative Lovecraftian RPG, such as Silent Legions (Sine Nomine), Tremulus (Reality Blurs), Trail of Cthulhu (Pelgrane) or, of course, Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium). In fact, I think that a group could pick up any scenario written for any of those games and run it with Venger’s system.
Get this book for any of the following reasons:
If you’re a fan of Venger’s other works, especially Crimson Dragon Slayer for its simplicity
If you are a Lovecraft nut and love collecting RPGs in his style
If you like the style of 70s Italian Horror films
If you prefer rules-light systems that rely a lot on GM ruling
[5 of 5 Stars!]