|Bold art, bland system.|
My first reaction upon reading VS's Quick And Dirty Rules For An Investigative Horror Roleplaying Game (the title of the section) is that there's a new contender for the owner of The Most Boring RPG Design of All Time trophy, currently held by Cadillacs and Dinosaurs (a game which, for its title alone, should scream "fun" and "interesting," but no...). That's my initial take, but upon a second read through...well, it's still pretty boring.
But I'll elaborate.
If you read my earlier review of Venger's Crimson Dragon Slayer, you'll see I had quite a few nice things to say about his rules light, D6-based system. Really...go back and check it out. The teaser on DTRPG led me to believe that I was getting the CDS system for a Call of Cthulhu-style game; here's what it says:
The system is simple. No attributes, skills, or weapon stats to keep track of. If you're playing an explorer, then you're the consummate explorer in the party. If your character is an occultist or professor, same thing. He'll have all the capabilities of that profession. PCs will also be defined by their weaknesses - just like in real life (heightened for dramatic effect).
The principal game mechanic is d6 dice pools. It's a simplified, closer-to-the-real-world version of Crimson Dragon Slayer.But the system is so streamlined as to cut out most of the interesting stuff one finds in CDS. Instead, we have a system that is highly reminiscent of Robin Laws's seminal RPG Over The Edge, combined with a resolution mechanic derived from Vincent Baker's Otherkind, but without the objective of apportioning narrative control in a non-arbitrary manner. And neither of these games, nor their approach to system mechanics are what I'd describe as "old school."
Now, while I like and appreciate those crazy story game people and their "antithesis-to-old-school-RPG" design sensibilities, this isn't what I was hoping for, nor expecting with The Outer Presence. I figured I'd see something like CDS, and I got some of it...but all the cool/neat stuff I praised in CDS was left out. The bonus dice for genre emulation appear to still be present (via Immersion), but it's neither explicit, nor clear as in CDS. The "dominance" mechanic is gone, and nothing fun replaces it. There are no "classes" (presumably in sticking with the Call of Cthulhu paradigm), which I think is a bit of a missed opportunity (see Beyond the Supernatural's OCCs or Horror Rules's archetypes). Alignment's out, there's no magic system in any form (for psychics and sorcerers, their skills are simply narrative color added to a standard dice roll), combat (and associated systems) has been rolled into the standard mechanic, and the neat advancement mechanic is absent. Characters gain bonus dice for surviving a game session (similar to OTE's "experience dice"), but they are a finite resource (they don't come back when spent) and require no justification for use. On the other hand, bonus dice are also awarded for portraying a character's weakness (like having the character show up drunk or running like Shaggy and Scoob at the sudden appearance of a sheet-wearing cultist), which to me would seem to encourage comedic (or non-heroic) role-playing...right up until someone needs to cash in those bonuses.
Despite the "light," abstract nature of the system there is one thing that's very "old school" about The Outer Presence: interpretation of dice results and narrative control rests squarely in the lap of the GM. Considering how abstract the system is, that requires a high degree of trust in the GM (and has the potential for abuse). The Insanity mechanic (the only "during play" system not based on the game's core mechanic) does have specific, objective results but the use and call for insanity checks is 100% subjective to the GM's whim...and the limited results, again, leads me to what I'd consider humorous role-playing circumstances. And I'm not sure that "comedic horror" is what Venger was going for with The Outer Presence.
[oh, yeah...there's a new doubles rule that allows dramatic editing outside of the normal results, but it's again subject to the narrative decision of the GM and, thus, at least a little redundant. How is a doubles result much different from a final die roll of 3, for example?]
Anyway, I guess I was more surprised than anything at the rules presented in The Outer Presence. Is it a lot less complex to use than, say, Call of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu (the Pelgrane Press version using GUMSHOE)? Sure. Is it less deliberately jokey than, CDS or similar themed, light games (like InSpecters)? Sure. But it's far from a robust system that supports the genre. You might as well use Risus. No, I didn't think much of it...sorry, Venger.
Then again, the bulk of the book is the titular adventure included, which Venger (and others) have pointed out is easily adapted to a different favorite system. So it's quite possible that horror-fan GMs will still find something useful in purchasing the PDF. Hell, I could easily see adapting The Temple of Dark Secrets to a standard D&D game...as I said, very nice maps.