A troubling letter…

The generic location seems out of place in this fanciful script.

I received a letter yesterday. It was from a deliberately untraceable origin: a generic distribution centre in Toronto.

The return address was written in a spidery, nearly unintelligible script, as if by a crazed scholar or antiquarian. It felt rushed and desperate.

My name and a blood red stamp of “Received Undeliverable”…

Inside was another envelope. This one was more tattered, beaten up and dirty. It had a dusty, musty brown stain on it that smelled faintly of cinnamon. I’m getting a little worried here as I see my name written in the same decrepit handwriting.

Like a dream, I was trusted with forbidden texts…

Upon opening it, I found that it had been stuffed with a printed letter (water stained) and four small sheafs of paper; excerpts from a novel, it seemed.

The letter explained that due to governmental and institutional censorship of literature, someone was trying to preserve a forbidden, controversial work by spreading parts of it throughout to world (like seeds… shudder).

His or her signature was completely destroyed by a water stain:

“Please keep this safe… show it to the future…” – Anonymous

I dared to read the texts. I felt an exhilarating shudder as I saw the title of the play: The King in Yellow. I knew of this blasphemous play and of how it ruined lives. If it really existed, it deserved to be banned!

I could not help myself. I read all of the excerpts, feeling excitement and dread.

Camilla, Cassilda… the black lake… am I doomed?

Somehow, someone out there knows of my fascination with The Yellow King, Hastur, as well as with the famous Mythos spawned from Azathoth and it’s high Priest in R’lyeh.

How? Is it because I have friends out there on many forums and circles? I’ve spoken of dreaded Carcosa before on my blog. I’m both honoured and worried that I’ve been targeted by this mad, desperate scholar.

Carcosa. This isn’t some fun, geek fandom thing. This play destroys life, ruins minds. I both thank and curse whoever found me out and targetted me. My life- no, worse, my soul- is set upon a course that I can no longer understand. I may be doomed.

Stay tuned… Please my readers… I don’t know where this may go…

Pity me!

Review of Save Yourself from Hell

Save Yourself from Hell is a one-shot scenario. It is flexible enough to be dragged out to 2 or 3 sessions if the players really want to play things out in detail. All over it are Venger’s familiar trademark of gonzo sci-fi sleaze, with dashes of horror (especially of the Lovecraftian persuasion).

While written for Venger’s VSd6 system (which is used by Alpha Blue, Crimson Dragon Slayer or even the Outer Presence) this module is simple enough to be used with other game systems. To be honest, while I like the VSd6 rules, I appreciate how easily Venger’s adventures and settings can be ported over into other games.

Disclaimer

I acquired the PDF complimentary from the writer himself, Venger Satanis. I’ve done several reviews of his works in the past, which you can see here on my site.

Quick facts

The PDF is 20 pages, including the cover, credits and 6 full-page illustrations, so the actual content is about 12 pages long. This is a one-shot scenario, so the brevity is intentional.

My review is of the “print-friendly” PDF, which was absent of watermarks (the text is black on a plain white background). Nothing wrong with the colourful version; the watermarks are non-obtrusive. This is just how I prefer to read PDFs.

Visuals and usability

As usual the artwork and design flourishes do not interfere with basic readability. The illustrations are very good, the typography and layout excellent. As usual, Monkey Blood design did another real fine job.

The cover painting depicts a beautiful,  innocuous scene that could grace the cover of any science fiction work: it is actually kind of atypical from the gonzo sleaze of Alpha Blue. Calm before the storm. It has elements of a still-life, even (one wonders about the significance, if any, of that dish of sea shells and coral).

An aside about branding

It seems like Venger and Glenn Seal (Monkey Blood design) have settled on a style guide of sorts. Body text and headings consistently use the same standardized fonts and formatting between all of the recent publications. This is great and I think that they should continue down this path. The Korthalis Brand, so to speak.

Rules update: “Pulling a Stunt”

SYfH includes a new rule for all of Venger’s Vsd6 system (Alpha Blue, Crimson Dragon Slayer and even for The Outer Presence). The basic gist is that each PC may perform a neat manoeuver once per session (although there are rare, remarkable circumstances that allow this ability to recharge).

The caveat is that the Stunt has to be believable in the established fiction. For example, a PC couldn’t suddenly pull a space dragon out of their pocket. But they get to fully narrate what they intend to do and it happens with the DM’s consent. Very interesting.

Emotional Trauma

This scenario includes a surprisingly mature and serious rule. It is important that each character explores  and dwells on a past tragedy or shame. If, by the end of the scenario, the character gets some form of closure, they get a high-powered moment of “Spotlight” time.

Admittedly this raised a red flag in my mind: after all, part of the fun of Alpha Blue is it’s light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek sense of escapism. However, the suggested table of past traumatic events contain nothing squicky. None of these suggested traumas involve the character being a victim; they’re all about shameful mistakes, misunderstandings and failings. I’m quite impressed with how Venger handled this!

…and then the adventure starts and we’re right back on the silly sleaze train. The abrupt change in tone is hilarious.

The Adventure Hook

The description of the first encounter, and the introduction of the first NPC, sets the tone perfectly. It’s grotesque, X-rated, slapstick.

Basically the party gets hired, in some form or another, to find out what happened to an exploratory space ship.

There’s a very interesting feline (like, literally) NPC in this adventure. His connection to the PCs transport ship can be determined randomly via a table. This character is a quirky but useful addition to the party; one that I’ve never encountered before in a RPG module. Again, kudos to Venger for this idea.

The adventure kicks off in media res with a bounty hunter attack and his minions. A nice chance for an action scene within the confines of the ship.

A Truckstop

There’s a quick stop en route to the adventure because the ship needs to refuel. The station includes a Hooters-type place which, once again, is shameless in it’s sleaze factor. It’s like whenever the adventure starts to feel like traditional science fiction, we get “Blonde space waitress bimbos in tight pink and white uniforms” who have a 2 in 6 chance of offering extra kink to the protagonists.

There’s a random table of interesting events, one of which is an obvious homage to Space Balls, but which could quickly change the encounter to one of frantic action-horror due to the fallout.

There are several interesting NPCs here that the party might encounter (or will encounter as passengers and even a fascinating stowaway). This entire section reveals the author’s love of Science Fiction, I have to say (well, also of B-Movie sleaze, but that’s par for the course).

A series of events

The rest of the adventure is structured as a bunch of things that happen. As pointed out at the beginning, each of these can be breezed through (some even skipped without greatly affecting the final outcome, I think) or each could be the basis of an entire “episode” or game session. We’ve got

  • a space battle that kicks off by another joke from Space Balls
  • the discovery of an escape pod and its quirky NPC passenger
  • an awful reveal about some NPC crew members
  • Space Cthulhu and a doomed ship (time clock sets off before imminent destruction)
  • Space Cenobites that screw around with PCs and NPCs alike
  • A climax reminiscent of the film Event Horizon (the title of the adventure itself is a huge reference)

For such an intense, action-packed and horrific setting as the X-III starship, I’m curious about the absence of a floorplan. There are plenty of chances for haunted house exploration, intense chases and a ticking timebomb race to save the universe (or just to escape).  Strange.

The end of the book contains another few tables for name generation and NPC personalities. A small bonus, mostly an afterthought.

Conclusion

Of all of Venger’s works, this one has the greatest range of tonal shifts. You’ve got so many extremes: kinky sleaze, cheesy comedy, cosmic horror and disturbing Clive Barker-esque grotesqueness. It’s all over the place. The obvious references make this the most gonzo of all of his gonzo works. It was a bit jarring at times: I would definitely stretch this out to a campaign, not 2-3 quick episodes.

There’s a lot to do in each event, but the events happen regardless of what the players choose to do. This isn’t a railroad: there’s a LOT of options for the players. This could end in many ways; just as easily a high-five 80s action movie victory to mind-blasted, torturous madness and death. It just felt a bit like “this happens and then THIS happens and then THIS happens what do the characters do now?” including a bit of “the PCs might get captured here, but that’s another adventure” however, there’s nothing there for the GM to work with; they’ll have to come up with their own side scenarios. They’re all interesting, mind you, but still: the GM will need to do some extra work depending on the outcome of a few of the encounters.

I think that this would have greatly benefited from a few floor-plans or maps. Most of the time the set pieces could be done “theater of the mind” style but it really felt lacking here considering how much of the action occurs in 2-3 of the locations. Glynn Seal does great floor plans; I’m surprised that he didn’t make some for this adventure.

It looks like lots of fun, though. If I ran it, I might trim out a few of the encounters. Some of the sex bits felt a bit gratuitous, some of the NPCs could’ve been given a bit more to do; they get introduced but there aren’t many hooks for them later one (except as potential victims of the horrors in the climax).

 

Review of Blade Runner 2049

This was another one of those movies that stuck with me. Anything that fills my thoughts for hours—or even for days—is worth my appreciation.

Just like the original, Blade Runner 2049 has great music, gorgeous visuals, and gruesome action scenes. There’s a carful effort to make the audience question themes such as sentience and what constitutes humanity. Even if someone was programmed to have certain feelings, thoughts and to say certain things, are they still technically a sentient being? After all, our DNA programs us, our upbringing codifies our behaviours, our memories build our world view.

I was originally worried when I watched the trailer, which was edited to make the movie seem like a stereotypical action film. We had explosions, gun shots, a pretty love interest. But once again I was fooled: the movie works as a contemplative piece of speculative fiction, full of thoughtful moments and raw emotion.

The story is haunting and the visuals reinforce that feeling. There are some truly heartbreaking moments. Frightening violent actions. Acting and special effects that made me forget that I was watching actors on green screens.

The future is depressing and enticing. There are post-apocalyptic landscapes and grandiose, epic horizons. Everything has a worn, lived-in feel. Thankfully not all technology is hyper modern: there are lots of things that seem almost archaic and “old school”. It made it all feel more “real”.

The music is fantastic. Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch honour Vangelis without being patronizing. Moody electronic soundscapes that reinforce this vision of the future that was borne out of the 1980s. It doesn’t feel tacky or fake; they really tried to make it genuine.

Denis Villeneuve, the director, enchanted me with Arrival (my review here). He ensures that every emotion is given focus without being saccharine. He is a fantastically talented visual artist and I will always follow his endeavours.

I also liked how Harrison Ford’s reappearance as Decker doesn’t take over the story. It really is about the main protagonist, K (aka Joe). I thought that he was wonderfully subdued and earnest; more so than in the original.

Ryan Gosling is great as K/Joe. As usual, in his subtlety, Ryan nails it, lets us appreciate the story without interrupting it with his actor ego. It’s no spoiler that he’s a Replicant himself, although as the mystery unfolds (and his acting shows) this becomes ambiguous.

Robin Wright was great and strong. A very admirable actor. She has a reassuring presence that’s hard for me to explain.

Sylvia Hoeks was frightening. It’s rare that I’m actually really nervous and worried at the presence of an antagonist whenever they’re on the screen, but she nailed it as a sadistic, murderous, broken creature.

It’s a thoughtful Science Fiction movie that poses questions, makes you think as much as you feel, and takes its time to show you a story. My favourite kind of speculative fiction. Sadly, this will not be a huge success in the “Fast and the Furious” generation. Most people will be bored, but I didn’t feel the length at all. I think that you’ll enjoy this if you like films by Christopher Nolan or smart movies that aren’t made to strictly appeal to the cult of Michael Bay and Rom Coms.

The final action scene is very untraditional. No explosions, epic battles or fist-pumping moments of “yeah! Kick ass!”. It was disturbing and depressing. But in a good way. It just isn’t a dumb action flick; not that there’s anything wrong with that. I enjoy simple super hero movie once in a while. But, at the risk of being labelled as pretentious, Blade Runner is supposed to be more elevated than that. And this movie keeps that standard.

It’s moments like this:

…that make this film memorable. This scene in particular isn’t just a typical “kiss in the rain” scene. It has existentialism and even slight foreboding. In fact, all of the scenes between these two artificial intelligences had a feeling of tragic pathos. They’re both trying so hard to be real: to feel real feelings. Every scene of romance was filled with an equal part of sadness.

A great film, go see it, but be ready: it’s intense, rich and atmospheric. And long: don’t make any plans after unless they’re relaxed and contemplative. I really think that you should give it a try. Movies like this strive to be more than just a way to pass the time; the visual medium is also art.