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 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 Adventure Writing like a F’ing Boss

A brief but interesting take on the subject with some great advice.

I actually think of it as a companion piece, or addendum to How to Game Master like a F’ing Boss (link to my review of that work). Much of the advice is similar: try to entertain, don’t railroad, present situations not plot lines and keep a good balance between the three pillars of RPGs: Interaction, Exploration and Action (or Combat).

A lot of the information familiar to me, but it was helpful to read it in a structured way. Venger’s conversational tone makes it an easy, approachable read. There’s always a bit of humour which is always a bonus.

The actual PDF is well presented: the watermarks are mostly unobtrusive, and anyway, there’s a print-friendly version without them. I really appreciate this!

The artwork is done by familiar artists of Venger’s line of books. A mix of monsters, fantasy, sci fi, gonzo and cheesecake.

What was also interesting was to find out where Venger draws the line in terms of poor taste. He makes it explicit, in fact. I wonder how he feels about some of the more twisted modules by Lamentations of the Flame Princess…

In the back of my mind, I wondered about the handful of modules that I’ve been working on over the past four or five years. I can see a fresh way to approach them now, so there’s that.

For the price of a fancy coffee at Starbucks you get a decent little book with good advice on adventure module writing. I recommend it, but in all honesty I think that his book on Gamemastering is even more useful when it comes to explaining what makes a good game session.

You can buy this book here at DrivethruRPG.