2016. november 10., csütörtök

[The Outer Presence] A review/overview

I find that the 1970s are unjustly neglected in RPGs! There are plenty of 1920-30s Lovecraftian period pieces, WWII drama, "Atomic Age Cthulhu" for the 1950s, more contemporary settings than one can count, and somewhere in the middle there are "the lost decades" -- the Sixties and the Seventies, which clearly don't get as much love (in gaming) as they are entitled to. Correct me if I'm wrong.

The Eighties can be included as a lost decade as well. Though I consider all Shadowrun games to be set in the 1980s. That's my head canon. And there is that weird/kinda awesome sourcebook called "New Wave Requiem" for nWoD Vampire which has an equal amount of AIDS and platinum blonde hairdos.

So no surprise "The Outer Presence" sparked my interest when I saw it was set in the 1970s. Here's a review/overview of this intriguing little piece.

"The Outer Presence" digs deep inside

"The Outer Presence" (TOP for short) by Venger Satanis is a self-contained game/scenario with "Lovecraftian" sensibilities set the 1970s. It was also heavily influenced by cannibal exploitation movies.

The font in the titles and subtitles was taken from the original Tomorrow People series, none the less! Although to be honest I find that this style, though very 70s, is maybe not a perfect fit thematically, too "futuristic".


(A side note on 1970s fonts: I love how Labyrinth Lord and, more recently, Apes Victorious, use the Souvenir typeface!!)

The book is divided into two parts. The second half is the scenario "The Outer Presence" itself, while the first half describes a rules-lite system to run the game with.

Brazilian cannibals, described by Hans Staden,
engraved by Théodore de Bry

The ruleset was originally developed by the author for Crimson Dragon Slayer, and is now exploited here with some modifications. I really like it: it's quick and easy-to-use.

The system reminds me of Over the Edge (called WaRP Sytem, now made available under the Open Gaming Licence). Character generation is done via broad categories in both systems. You pick or randomize a "career" or profession in TOP and add a flaw in the end. In OtE/WaRP you pick four "traits", where a career/profession is quite often included; the fourth trait is always a flaw. Both systems give you a chance to be "special": in TOP you can get a hidden power in exchange for more flaws; in OtE you can take a "fringe power" as one of your traits if the GM allows it.

d6's are used in both game systems. TOP's standard roll for a check is 2d6, 3d6 if you have advantage, 1d6 if you have disadvantage. Very bad disadvantage is modeled by the 0d6 roll (roll 2d6, but pick the lower result), which is a very elegant method!! In OtE/WaRP you roll 2d6 for a check if your related trait is "average", 3d6 if it's "good", 4d6 in rare "superior" cases. The main difference is that OtE sums up dice rolls and compares the result to a target number; while TOP is dice pool based. You pick the highest roll and it is the grade of your success from 1 (critical failure) through 3-4 (partial failure and success) to 6 (critical success). 

In The Outer Presence there is also an optional rule that I dig: if you roll doubles, something unexpected happens.

I admit that I was prejudiced... I was surprised to see such a system coming from an "OSR author"... Sorry!! The only thing that is "OSR-esque" about this system as presented is the random tables for careers and motivation and the rest: a "new school rules lite minimalist" game would just say "make up anything you like, here are a few examples". The random table (which can also be considered a list of examples) is a good choice, as it provides a focus and quickly defines what type of game you're looking forward to.

I think I'd happily use the ruleset for other scenarios as well (the same way I sometimes use the WaRP system for non-Over the Edge purposes). 

Absolutely all anthropologists must die.

Now for the second half of the book, the scenario proper! I will provide just some general information, no spoilers here.

The story is about a group of investigators and Miskatonic alumni (the PCs) who travel to a New Guinean island, in the footsteps of a previous expedition, which was led by a certain Dr. Steiner. Obviously, you can expect cannibalism, dark cults, death, madness, cosmic intrusions. 

Part of the the story is presented chronologically (step-by-step, from the beginning, things that happen before the arrival to the island, preparatory steps, then the first encounters in New Guinea). I really like the characterizations: NPC write-ups are quite detailed, with attention to quirks and motivation. A single very important location on the island is described in detail, and there is also a very nice piece of cartography (by Glynn Seal). Venger goes heavy on the weird gonzo pulp here, which he is very good at... Many motives and tropes are invoked, but with just enough small twists and original details to make it not just familiar, but interesting and engaging as well. There are some "video nasty" moments, but not as much as I expected upon seeing that Cannibal Holocaust was an influence... I'm not complaining - you can always add in gore if you need more. At the end of the book there is a small appendix, a "Meepie dictionary", with a couple of words you can spice up the tribal NPCs dialogue with -- I was getting some serious Populous 3 vibes reading these...


Good stuff. 

Good stuff.

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