Review of Stairway of V’dreen

This adventure module is 19 pages long and is one of the latest of works by Venger Satanis for the Crimson Dragon Slayer RPG. You can read my review of this game here.

My review was a read through of the PDF (not a play-through, sadly).

Layout and readability

The cover and interior page backgrounds (watermarks) are in full colour. All of the illustrations are in black and white or grey-scale. The print friendly version has no watermarks and is clean, crisp and crystal clear.

Kudos once again to Glynn Seal of MonkeyBlood Design. The text is nicely readable, the headings clear and obvious, the stat blocks distinct. The watermarked backgrounds did not interfere with the text too much: occasionally the blood stains made me squint at the tables. However, Glynn and Venger have supplied a print-friendly version without any watermarks which is wonderful (for both actual printing or better readability at the table). Then again, the eerie blood vessels are gore stains on every page part of the experience.

A nice looking product that balances style with readability.

Artwork

All good stuff by familiar artists. Most of the subject matter is disturbing tentacled horrors or fantasy/post-apocalyptic scenes evocative of Heavy Metal magazine.

There is one image with some cheesecake (a masked goon with a trio of chained female prisoners) but they’re looking bored or tired rather than distressed.

The adventure

The whole thing gives me vibes of the original Star Trek series. The environmental colour scheme and the situations make me envision typical planets seen on that 60s TV show. It helps that there are a more than a few references to Star Trek as well.

The adventure kicks off with the PCs needing to seek out shelter immediately from some lethal effect of the DM’s choosing. It’s hilariously straightforward. Practically speaking, it could be used in the middle of any campaign in just about any environment.

Shortly after, the PCs voluntarily (or involuntarily) choose to enter a portal that leads to the realm of the titular V’dreen.

V’dreen is a fantasy world that is vanishing; its borders are literally fading  away to a void resembling graph paper!

There are some rules using random tables to set up the setting of V’dreen, including:

  • strange voices on the “wind”, some of which kind of break the 4th wall. Very funny.
  • a table to generate beings for random encounters. As usual, they’re a mix of gonzo weirdness and generic, so you’ll have some contrast. Example: sure you could end up with a zombie or skeleton, but they could be made of pizza or be a Ghost-Dinosaur.
  • A few random NPCs. After reading the rest of the module, I saw several opportunities to use them for unnamed extras features in a few encounters.

There are a few hooks, but this module is very loose with only a few clear goals. Not a bad thing, just that I would need to fill many gaps myself (which I don’t mind doing, personally).

There is a fiendishly powerful monster called the Arachnosaur (such an awesome name) that the party might encounter, a Demon that wants to barter with the party to help him get free (who the hell ever falls for that) and a town populated by V’Dreen’s three factions:  insect people, Klingon elves and amorphous blob creatures. Good on Venger for going beyond Tolkienisms or Barsoom… uh… isms.

Overall impressions

This module is surreal, schlock and gonzo. I actually see myself using this product (and perhaps a few other of Venger’s works) to fill out the many gaps in Carcosa (from Lamentations of the Flame Princess). Perhaps replacing some of the more horrific and disturbing elements of that setting with the more light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek material by Venger.

While I like shorter modules, I tend to prefer a more narrow focus and smaller setting. In such a small page count, I would rather use it as a one-shot. There are a lot of characters and encounters here that are open-ended and without player buy-in to be creative, goofy and fun, they could turn out a little stale. I think that a DM should heavily use the random tables in this module to add some unpredictability to every encounter.

Finally, I wish that there was a map of some kind. The module is meant to be loose, but I think that it would have benefited greatly by having some cartography. Not necessarily full-on hexes; even a simple point crawl or sketch would have been appreciated. I’d probably draw one up myself during prep. Venger’s maps are always great.

Conclusion

I’d recommend this to anyone who’s already a fan of Venger’s “Mythos”. It contains lots of tie-ins into his other products, especially the Islands of Purple Putrescence (review here). On it’s own, it has some fun ideas but I think that it is dependant on the core game (and other books by Venger for thematic random tables that really make his works sing).

You can purchase Stairway of V’dreen here.

Review of Cults of Chaos

I was quite affected by my first viewing of the Wicker Man (the original thriller, not the comedy starring Nicholas “not the bees!” Cage).

I didn’t relate to the protagonist;  a stodgy, puritanical officer of the law. His stern, no-nonsense  demeanour – mixed with flashbacks of painfully familiar church attendance – was steeped in a predictable banality.

When contrasted with the strange, pagan villagers, I felt more empathy towards the latter. Sex positive nature lovers will always be more appealing to me than modern, urban sterility.

Then again, I’ve always identified more with movie and cartoon villains as a child. They always seemed more… Alive and vibrant. Sensual, perhaps.

Anyway, coupled with my ever-increasing interest in the occult and pagan spirituality, I was very eager for Cults of Chaos. Here was a book that promised a more historical take on occult organizations. At least, how people in the real middle ages thought of them. Written by a supposed actual history buff and occultist. I was rather excited.

Did Cults of Chaos disappoint?

cultsofchaosRPGPundit and Dominique Crouzet’s official supplement for Dark Albion (a mostly system-agnostic take on historical fantasy in 16th century England) is 92 pages of densely packed material to generate all manner of Satanic Chaos cults. What sets it apart from the many other books out there already covering the same subject is the ever present feeling of historicity. Despite having the Judeo-Christian serial numbers filed off and replaced with the forces of Law (the Unconquered Sun and Chaos), it still oozes a real world feel.

Perhaps an actual cultural anthropologist or historian might find plenty to nitpick but for a casual history / occult buff like me it seems genuine. Not in an offensive way to any faiths, mind you: this book isn’t meant to be an accurate portrayal of authentic pagans, Wicca or whomever. It seems to be based more on real world perceptions (or misconceptions) and fears about “Devil” worshippers.  The author sure seemed to have done his homework.

As an aside I think that the author – whom I believe is a devout Christian and spiritualist – didn’t sensationalise the subject matter or approach it with an adolescent heavy metal band type of brush. Sure there are some gruesome and disturbing details but never in an exploitative or “aw yeah” sort of way.

product_thumbnailJust like Dark Albion, Cults of Chaos is densely packed with historical artwork. It goes without saying that this adds to the eerie, historical feel. I noticed a few modern illustrations though, which, while technically competent, felt a little out of place. Not a big deal, though.

The layout, graphic design and typography are all top notch. Even if text wraps around the outline of some art pieces, it is never to the detriment of readability.

What I really liked was the approach on presenting different types of cult-generators for the social class levels of the setting (pseudo medieval Europe). Any generated cults felt better matchedto different settings or contexts. Hugely useful for many different tiers of play: from creepy rural villages, secret guild societies in urban settings and decadent, bored noble conspiracies. All of which can be tied into actual historical events and figures.

There are so many opportunities for mystery, intrigue, tragedy and horror in these tables. My mind still reels from the inspired possibilities. You could even end up with:

  • a manipulated peasant cult that worships a false deity and led by a scheming noble who’s embroiled in difficult wartime politics.
  • Or a merchant guild who’s most successful members made a doomed pact with a devil who’s actually just a nature deity who wants revenge on the descendants of those who destroyed her forests.
  • Or a town making offerings to a totally benign Arcadian (i.e. Greco-Roman) god of agriculture in exchange for ensuring a successful harvest: but they’re under heavy scrutiny by witch hunters because of a series of unrelated serial killings by a mentally ill mortal man.

I was hugely impressed.

Cults of Chaos is a worthy addition to any Referee’s library because of how useful it could be to a diverse range of games: from 20th Century Call of Cthulhu, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (any edition) or even more high fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons (for any edition or any of its derivatives / retroclones).

So no, Cults of Chaos didn’t disappoint. I only wish it were longer. Otherwise it’s a great book and I’m very glad that I acquired it.

You can get Cults of Chaos at DrivethruRPG or Lulu.

Review of Universal Exploits

Universal Exploits is the second supplement for Alpha Blue (the first being Girls Gone Rogue). It is chock full of random tables, setting fluff and adventure seeds. The content is system-agnostic, meaning that you could use it for any science fiction RPG out there. Tone-wise, it’s probably more suitable for comedic, tongue in cheek, R- or X-rated campaigns.

It contains lots of sexual material. Sometimes there’s a bit of a strange juxtaposition of cheesecake or pornographic art alongside rather tame, rather serious content. It’s quirky, that’s for sure. Definitely not for those who object to cheesecake art, nudity and sleazy sexual themes.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the PDF version of Universal Exploits by the author. I’ve reviewed other works by Venger, including Alpha blue: Review of Alpha Blue. I had donated two illustrations for Girls Gone Rogue, but I’m not officially affiliated with Kort’thalis publishing.

The cover has retro-inspired art that I’ve come to expect of the game so far: a scantily-clad woman, a reptilian humanoid (who looks a bit like Bossk the bounty hunter) wielding a laser sword and a guy who sort of resembles Snake Plissken (sans eye-patch) trading laser fire with an  opponent who’s off-screen. There’s also a spaceship conspicuously entering a cave for some added raunchy symbolism. It’s nicely done and appropriately cheesy for the genre.

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The Index of the PDF has actual clickable links, which is great! A very welcome functionality for the medium.

The layout and typography are handled well. Everything was easy to read except for the occasional subheading which was white text with thin black outlines. I always have trouble reading those, especially when the font is all caps and heavily stylised. Otherwise it was great and the watermarks didn’t interfere with readability.

The biggest change in this book compared with previous publications from Kort’thalis is that it has some colour art inside. I think that this is a first for them. Featured are many familiar artists from Alpha Blue and Girls Gone Rogue. Lots of aliens that go from grotesque to light-hearted and cartoony. Also nudity. Lots of it. And sex. One of the artists has very strong technical qualities but his subject matter (silicone-enhanced porn models) kind of grossed me out with how over-the-top they were.

The full-page artwork was particularly striking and memorable. I’m also a fan of the masked robotic sword-wielding guy. Not sure who that is, but he has a very cool design.

After a few pages of humorous prose the book begins with some new rules for the Alpha Blue roleplaying game. We’ve got things like handling extremely poor chances of success, an addendum for ship to ship combat, banking extra (wasted) damage for use on other targets, long-term effects of cryo-sleep, handling xenophobia, unarmed combat and some extra bits of stuff for character creation. This material, especially the tables, is what I like the most about Venger’s works. Short, sweet and easy to consume. Also very usable in other games: a virtue in RPG collecting, in my opinion.

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We also get some stuff to better cement and detail the campaign setting: big governments, space travel time, sci-fi horror, cloning, drugs, alien worlds,  and domain management. There’s a lot more: my point is that this book has an impressive amount of idea-generating content. Some goofy and gonzo, some of very specific and raunchy utility (e.g.: “cock-blocking”?) but all of it inspirational and entertaining to read.

The latter part of the book starts off with some GM advice. Venger has proposed some scene-based structure to a gaming session. If you’re an advanced GM, this might seem a bit obvious but it still might prove to be useful in a pinch or if you’re not feeling very improvisational some evening. Don’t worry; it happens to us all eventually. GM impotence is a nasty thing. So it’s a good addition to the book.

Next he covers some other techniques, such as “Leading the Witness” (sort of a “gotcha” bait and switch to entice the players into action and keep them on their toes) and”Getting there” (communicating with players to determine their actual wants and expectations). Again, good things to codify and discuss.

The book contains several adventure seeds with brief setups, some background information (which all adds to Alpha Blue’s setting, broadening the scope quite a bit) and even a few other random tables to generate encounters and side effects of exposure to things like specialised drugs or weird environments. Even if you never ever plan on running these adventure seeds, you’ll find plenty of interesting material here for re-use elsewhere. Of note is a handy little table  buried deep in this section to generate NPCs quickly. This one is so simple but useful that when I next run Alpha Blue, I’ll be printing this out and sticking it on a 4 x 6 card.

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Lastly (and somewhat out of order; I’d have put this at the beginning) is a quick and dirty table to generate random territories (planets, moons etc…). Also very handy on a Sci-fi game night if you forgot your copy of Star Without Numbers by Kevin Crawford.

The book also contains a neat 2-page character sheet by James V West: the cool thing here is that we’re provided with 2 versions: one is full colour with textured watermarks and a black and white print-friendly version. That’s awfully cool, actually.

Lastly are  a handful of blueprints/floorplans for some nifty space ships. Again, these are of high quality and are very usable in any science fiction game. I’d easily pull out the ‘Iron Pigeon’ for my next Firefly-esque campaign.

Conclusion

This is probably one of the nicest-looking products Venger has ever produced. The layout and design are top notch for Kort’thalis Publishing (or many other indie publishers, actually). As usual, buyer beware: this book is raunchy and gonzo. Lots of imagery and content with nudity and sexual themes that will not be appreciated by certain audiences.

Universal Exploits is available on DriveThruRPG behind the Adult Filter (as it should be; Alpha Blue is totally R- or X-Rated entertainment).