Review of Battle for the Purple Islands

Battle for the Purple Islands is an adventure module set in the same world as Venger’s previous adventure: Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence (review link). It’s a mix of the usual sword and sorcery, gonzo, horror and tongue-in-cheek pop culture references.

Basic info:

  • 24 pages
  • Colour exterior, black & white interior art
  • Two versions: print-friendly and regular (with coloured backgrounds and vein-y watermarks
  • Mostly system-neutral, although stat blocks seem to match VSD6, Venger’s game system  (used for Alpha Blue and Crimson Dragon Slayer)

Disclaimers:

  1. I received a review copy (PDF) from the writer. I’ve reviewed numerous works by Venger and even played a few. Here is a listing of all of my Venger-related reviews.
  2. Venger’s games have a reputation that is well established at this point.   It’s rated R for sure. I won’t go into  any further warnings about subject matter or maturity level.

Visual style

Once again Venger’s art direction and Glynn Seal (Monkey Bood Design) have done a very nice job.

The artwork is of fine quality and evocative of 70s and 80s Heavy Metal Magazine pop culture gonzo-ness. There are many nods to geek culture; some obvious, others not (consider those ones easter eggs).

Everything is crisp, tidy and clean. With every book that Korthatlis publishing puts out, the graphic design improves.

Usability

The typography is easy to read and the watermarks never got in the way. The tables are simple in construction and use alternating row shadings for better readability. Good stuff.

The headings add structure and the block-quotes add flavor: they don’t commit that annoying habit of repeating content already in the body text.

The artwork is usually contextual, but not always. They’re interesting and all well-drawn.

The PDF does not have an index but it does have well-structured bookmarks (so you wouldn’t need an index page anyway).

The adventure itself contains…

  • Basic info about the current state of the Purple Islands, establishing the general mood and setting. There isn’t a lot other than broad descriptions, so GMs will likely want to draw up some maps or basic geography themselves (there aren’t any in this book).
  • The Purple Destiny: each PC is generated a random “predestined” fate. The intent isn’t to railroad the adventure or to remove player agency. It’s to give the character a  new objective (of sorts) during their visit. Anytime that they perform an action that pushes that narrative forward, they get advantage to their roll. These destinies include things like “faithfully serving one or more demonic entities” or “to become an influential leader”. This is a neat idea and would theoretically make this module a memorable one for the players (it’s that time Jane Doe’s PC suddenly became obsessed with time travel!). Cool idea, Venger.
  • Reasons to travel to this setting, including entry points from other games, such as Alpha Blue or even as returning survivors of the previous Purple Islands adventure in the series. Of particular note is the idea that visitors from other planes of existence might lose their memory and “go native”. This can lead to some very interesting situations. Example: some orc invaders might now believe that they’re Anthropologists or Archaeologists.The entry points from other worlds (or pre-existing ones) each have a suggested starting point.
  • A name generator for NPCs on the island. They’re weird and full of apostrophes, but all easily pronounceable (and thus, easier to remember).
  • Outlines of some key personalities and factions such as a cannibal tribe and talking apes.
    • There’s a quirky NPC who borderline breaks the 4th wall. I found him funny: there’s potential for some subversive interactions. Won’t spoil it here.
    • Random curious customs for the cannibal tribes to make each one memorable or unique compared with others. These are usually grotesque, often horrifying and contain subtle geek culture references.
    • As an aside, the Cannibal tribe includes a twist on the usual captive damsel in distress trope. I found it pretty clever
  • Some key locations to visit (most of which are tied to some of those key personalities and factions).
  • A big random table for hexcrawl exploration (not all are combat-oriented, thankfully; many are just cool scenes or places to interact with)
  • A Reaction table for determining how NPCs (usually natives of the setting) react to witnessing the sudden appearance of Lovecraftian Horrors (a refreshing idea, actually: we always get rules on how PCs deal with Fear and Horror but rarely how bystanders handle it).
  • Weird random weather generator (custom-made to enhance the mood of the setting).

The “plot” itself

I admit that it took me a while to get this figured out. The Purple islands are being overcome with lovecraftian horrors. Lovecraft himself is a strange hermit in a mountain cave: he owns a MacGuffin that an evil Brotherhood needs to complete their evil apocalyptic plan. The PCs will likely meet a strange Courrier who’s mission is to find Lovecraft. Lots of different factions (the snake cult, the cannibal tribes, the evil brotherhood, the talking apes) are all in the way, interfering with the PCs’ progress (and with each others’ plans).

There are some moments that are very reminiscent of the film “in the Mouth of Madness” in which a creative writer of horror fiction confronts his own genius. The PCs might even witness a twisted movie that can have huge psychological effects on them. Again, neat ideas.

Out of all of Venger’s adventure modules, this one was the most surreal and weird to me: there’s definitely a sequence of events that will occur (or might not, if the PCs don’t do anything). There are consequences for inaction: mass radioactive apocalypse. It’s not a railroad, but there are some key NPCs and locations that need to be found/interacted with to further the timeline. I suppose that’s true of other modules as well, but it felt especially true here.

I think that this adventure would have benefited from a clearly laid out, bullet-by-bullet sequence of events (or flowchart) that will explain what will happen if the PCs fail or don’t interfere in time at different moments.

Conclusion

This module is brief but is densely packed and colourful. Lots of things to see and do and very high on the weirdness factor. I would have liked some maps or floorplans, but I suppose that it wouldn’t be hard to make some of your own (just pull up some floorplans of contemporary buildings: the setting is so gonzo that it would work).

If you’re a fan of Venger’s other works, or of weird, gonzo pulp adventures in general, I recommend this module. For 5$ USD, it’s not a bad purchase at all.

You can get it here on DriveThruRPG.

 

 

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.