Monday, August 31, 2015

The Outer Presence

Venger Satanis asked if I'd be interested in reviewing his new book, The Outer Presence, and I said 'sure.' He sent me a courtesy copy and, well, I guess there's no such thing as bad publicity, right?

Here's hoping.

Bold art, bland system.
The Outer Presence is a 45 page PDF containing (per the fly leaf) "rules for an old school, investigative horror roleplaying game, as well as a Lovecraftian scenario that takes place in the 1970's." Truth be told, the majority of the book is the adventure ("The Outer Presence") which starts on page 13. As I am not hugely experienced in Cthulhuian-inspired adventures, I really don't feel qualified to judge the latter part of Venger's work. It has very nice maps and good art, but I can't even hazard a guess how it would play at the table. You can read a fairly positive review of the adventure over here. I'll instead concentrate on the game rules, pages 4 to 12.

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 I said, very nice maps.


  1. I really appreciate the candid review.

    Sometimes we're so kind to one another in the Old School movement that we steer others wrong. I vividly remember buying something based on a positive review from Jim Maliszewski, and being appalled at the poor quality of the product.

    I enjoyed my one experience with narrativist gaming (Dogs in the Vineyard), so I still might check out the product. Also, I'm pretty happy with homebrew AD&D, so I'm not really looking for new game mechanics. If I were to buy the product, it would be for the adventure writing.

    1. @ Brian:

      Thanks. Sometimes "being candid" comes off as "being a jerk," especially the way I write.

      It's not like I'VE produced any books lately!

  2. Thanks for the review, hoss! Love the honesty. No worries. Just got back from Disney World, but I read your review of The Outer Presence and another one while away.

    Totally understand your reservations/disappointment. The Outer Presence was my experiment in self-restraint. It's Venger Satanis controlled, refined, and filtered - so, the opposite of Crimson Dragon Slayer.

    Future books will probably have a few new options for GMs and players, but the core shall remain as "gonzo-lite" as possible.

    1. @ Venger:

      Well, you didn't ask me to write a "puff piece."
      ; )

      If I have any disappointment, it's just I thought your CDS system has some potential to it, that could (with a little alteration) have been applied to the genre. Maybe I'm wrong on that.

      But The Outer Presence is mostly an elaborate adventure (which I wasn't expecting and which I don't feel qualified to review). As I said, I suspect it could be adapted with minimal effort to other games.

    2. Yes, I have high hopes that Call of Cthulhu gamers will take to The Outer Presence, even if they leave the system-with-no-clothes behind.