[Review] Liberation of the Demon Slayer (OSR); A Hot Mess

[Adventure]
Liberation of the Demon Slayer (2013)
Venger Satanis (Kor’Thalis Publishing)
0-1 Levels
In no way whatsoever suitable for DCC uh I mean (((DCC)))

Back after a small break and damn have I got something for your sorry eyes today. Liberation of the Demon Slayer by self-declared Cthulhu High priest and loveable OSR raggamuffin Venger Satanis is an absolutely gonzo, bat-shit insane, balls-to-the-walls 61/2 level megadungeon this side of Raven S. McCracken, inhabited by all manner of demons, lovecraftian cultists, gods, robots, fire elementals and just about everything you can possibly encounter in DnD. It is also, despite some sweet ass encounters, a BIG FUCKING MESS, which is no more but to be expected given its style and the subject matter. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the Vengerfirst millenium there is only your 1980s DnD highschool campaign; an eternity of carnage and slaughter and the laughter of thirsting gods.

The setting is, unsurprisingly, gonzo as fuck, though most of the background can be ignored and the dungeon can be plonked into any sufficiently Ravenesque campaign setting (Arduin, Palladium Fantasy or any 80s highschool game should suffice). The backstory suffers from loggorhea; too many elements are introduced to convey the essence of the story, without those elements adding something in and off themselves. We also get an addage to either use it or don’t which is about as fucking helpful as the dutch national referendum before it was abrogated. Either write a fucking backstory and stand by it or don’t, if I feel like replacing all the demons with super-powered versions of Rutger Hauer that is my damn business.

The setting is the living planet of Razira and its two moons. On the second of these two live a bunch of Dark Gods that really want Razira to wake up, devour its inhabitants and thereby (somehow) give them enough power to destroy the universe. The Dark gods populated the planet with the Old Ones, but then Snake Men from another time/space arrived and tamed the Old Ones and eventually banish the Dark Gods and rule the world like kings. After some multiverse conquering escapades during which they obtained some magical polyhedral bling, a (non-dark) deity distracted them and their empire collapsed because of rebellion and internal struggle. After that the Dark Gods return, but now they can’t really spawn Old Ones anymore so they use…Demons and Devils instead which I think were former slaves or are from space?!? Thus the setting!

Uh what else…The inhumanity and soullessness of the elf is emphasized in this setting by their explicit connection with sorcery and the demonic. Demons and devils are differentiated but mostly by their goals, and the distinction is, like many things in this product, arbitrary. To its credit, the game also introduces overpowered magical materials tied to these creatures (Elf and Demon/Devils), with Lyrthum functioning as a sort of super-mythril that grants an additional attack and improved critical hit chance (though LoTDS is reticent to mention just how much your crit chance improves) and Zor’Lev is an infernal material that allows the wielder to TRIPLE his strength bonus for damage while also giving “better protection.” The fuck Venger, if you are going to go through the trouble of statting it out, don’t half ass it, be a little specific.

Another point of this setting is the introduction of several deities, with an explanation that in this setting, relations between deities and followers are vaguely moorcockian, with a give-and-take bargaining taking place between entity and follower, not unlike DCC, which Satanis should have taken the trouble to mention outright since he has clearly read it and taken inspiration from it. The deities are an eclectic mixture between Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones With Their Names Spelled Wrong, some elemental deities and a few miscellaneous ones like the separated twin gods Ulusek and Lokvaar, who were once said to be a single entity.

Liberation of the Demon Slayer is OSR and despite or perhaps because of its idiocy it manages to grasp what that actually means and thus it does not commit itself to any particular old-school ruleset, at least understanding their essential interchangeability. It then proceeds to take that understanding behind the shed and shoot it in the back of the head by introducing house-rules that make the game virtually identical to DCC, just less coherent.

LotDS is meant to function as a sort of character-funnel, meaning you each create 3 0th level characters with d4 hit points and let God and the almighty Dice sort out the meek from the righteous. Venger goes on to introduce the Luck Fortune characteristic (which may be burned in order to increase dice-rolls, again, very similar to DCC),  the Single Saving throw mechanic of 20 minus your level ?!?,  an admittedly neat ability score check houserule where you roll under your score using a number of D6s based on the difficulty of the task, exploding damage dice because why not and the concept of Sorcery corrupting the user. Venge neglects to make use of the awesome custom-spell corruption rules introduced in DCC, and instead introduces the more boring and FAR MORE UNFORGIVING spellcasting rules where a failed check means you can no longer cast that particular spell for the day and you also take a cockgargling d4 damage per spell level, making 1st level wizards likely to murder themselves casting a sleep spell if they take so much as a single scratch.

I like THE IDEA behind some of these sorcery rules, as well as the IDEA behind a sort of free-flowing casting house rule where both the GM and the PCs just improvise but the implementation comes down to ‘ehhhh just do whatever feels good at the time *takes bong hit*’ which both reminds me of Monkey Business and causes white-hot spears of anger to lance flickeringry through my peripheral vision as I type this. Some very decent rules put a cap on the number of magical items you can use but add a type of risk/reward mechanic where the sorceries intermingle if you pile on too many (which reminds me of the cypher rules in Numenera) and could conceivably fuck you over or save your life in a crisis situation, so well done.

A quick and dirty XP rule that I kind of dig because it almost comes down to the exact same formula wizards of the Coast did for their adventures runs as follows: You do not record XP, characters simply increase in levels at a rate of 1 session/next obtainable level. Want to be level 3? 3 sessions worth of play. Blam! There are numerous problems with it but if your group has a little intrinsic motivation it should work out about as well as most other alternative xp systems and at least it cuts down on the bookkeeping.

These houserules, for all their embryonic formlessness and copious amounts of hand-wavium, do strike me as actually having been used during play and serve to illustrate the type of mindset Venger approaches adventure writing from; fuck the details, roll some dice, have some fun, here is your WEIRD SHIT. The approach is not my favorite, but for a quick and dirty beer & pretzles frikandellen game, why the fuck not. Cut out the convoluted bullshit, thief skills are level x10% let’s go go go!

I keep jammering on about the house rules and we haven’t even gotten to the actual adventure yet. A few more; The game provides a LOVELY little primer on what motivates adventurers that is PERFECT in length for what it is meant to do. Motivations are basic and robust, like those of Howardian Heroes; Glory, Justice, Pleasure, Wealth, Self-Mastery etc. No tremulous waifs and overly cautious shilly-shalliers need enter. Perfect. These heroes, motivated by singular atavistic urges, can be burdened with a Dark Secret, and best of all, there is mechanical incentive to do so!

If you roll particularly average or even sub-average statts the GM is encouraged to allow you to reroll a SINGLE ability score in exchange for a d100 dark secret. These can vary from the embarassing “your mother was not only the best but also the filthiest prostitute in your native town,” to the potentially lethal “you are a child of a long line of Devil Worshippers” to the mechanically debilitating “cursed by a gypsy -2 to all saves” to the outright lunatic “You are an Android.” This table fucking nails it and almost each hook is bound to affect gameplay postively and grant depth to the character, and the mechanical penalties add a small but extant chance of a drawback, and why the fuck not! The adventure even USES this mechanic far later on in the game, by giving the Demon Lord Vord the ability to see and mentions someone’s DEEPEST DARKEST SECRET. Nice-ah.

Combat houserules by and large make sense and Venger mentions that if a player wants to try something cool like throwing a rock in a dragon’s mouth, the GM should just let him roll a dice and see if he nails it. Almost like he encourages you to perform Mighty Deeds of Arms or something. The other significant convention is the ability to bide one’s time, with a +2 bonus to hit and damage for each round of careful aiming/positioning or a similar bonus to Caster Level if one is a spellcaster. LotDS strives to make combat more engaging on both a roleplaying and a tactical level, and for that, I can only salute it.

Now without further adue, let me get to the actual FUCKING ADVENTURE part of the FUCKING ADVENTURE.

Part II: The Actual Fucking Adventure Part of the Fucking Adventure

So now that we have the amorphous Syannabar-meets-Cthulhu setting out of the way the actual adventure is pretty straightforward. Clear Meadows is a large village near a place of power, where ancient horrific rites used to take place. Dark Powers are periodically drawn to this village at which times a champion is needed to recover the Demon Slaying blade Kalthalax from the place of power and vanquish it. Unfortunately the blade corrupts its owner (though not, sadly, mechanically) and thus it always eventually ends up back in the cave. The time is at hand once again, and your PCs are unceremoniously locked within the cave with ample supplies, a bare minimum of arms (sorry friend, we need it to stave off the coming of the Star-Spawn) and zero fucks! But hey, if you get out, you might be a legendary champion, and at the very least you will no longer be a serf or slave if you were one!

Full credit where it is due, the adventure comes front loaded with intrigue and some hooks. If the heroes fail to retrieve the Demon-slayer in time the village will be besieged and eventually overcome by a horde of devils from the stars. As an added fuck you, some of the NPCs in the village, which are described only cursorily in the introduction and not given any stats, are in league with the Star-Spawn to add some intrigue. There is even a small chance of one player receiving a small vision and being marked as a Favoured of Ktulu, which leads to some roleplaying opportunities later on in the dungeon.

In fact, the introduction alone serves as a microcosm of the adventure as a whole; Sloppy, unfinished, unfocused, desperately in need of an editor but also brimming with ideas and filled with potential. I’d wager that if Venger had put this bun in the oven for another 2 weeks or so he would have come out with a tight as fuck adventure, as it is, it comes across as more of an outline at times.

The rumour table is alright btw. The rumours are single short sentences and read as though they could be spouted by 8 bit villagers with identical faces and three types of shirt;  The wise woman claims a great ship from the sky crash landed aeons ago far below the caves. The evocation of naive 80s gonzo fantasy comes across as heartwarming, which is probably correct since there is not a hint of irony in the entire adventure. If anything, Venger is sincere.

The dungeon proper is an odd place, with a single branching cavern descending into multiple dungeon floors. The maps are sprawling and mostly nonlinear, though relatively simple (i.e two directions with multiple side branches), but there is a BIG FUCKING PROBLEM here; the keying! It is completely unfucking clear how the maps are interconnected and what symbols are stairways leading up or down. At times mention is made of doors or even rooms (room AA6 I am looking at you!) that do not show up on the map. In addition, the place doesn’t make sense spatially, since the 2nd level is under water when you start. I GUESS that, since you can access level 3 from level 1, level 2 is more of a side level and since nowhere is an entrance to the next level mentioned anywhere I theorize you can treat it as such but it’s pretty damn confusing from where I am standing. The idea that you have to somehow pump away the water in order to access an entire dungeon floor is kickass though.

This is a very lethal adventure, hence the semi-six pack for every player. The random encounters alone should tip you off. 1d6 demon possessed kobolds is doable but how the fuck are your PCs going to surive a 7 HD silver robot with lazer fist (yes that is literally what it says). While they are VERY fucking tough, the random encounters are also imaginative, and Venger manages to convey something unique using only a clever name, a shittily edited AC (EDIT DAMN YOU), some HD and the odd attack + buzzword.

Supra-Intelligent Green Jelly with Telekinesis HD: 4 HP: 24 AC: 10 [9] Damage: variable depending on object moved via its mind

An eclectic balls to the walls monster mix that is unseen anywhere but a JRPG these days.

So the encounters in Liberation of the Demon Slayer are actually very good, and present  good mixture between various monstrosities that attack on sight (Vampire toads, ooze things, Demon-Dragon Spiders etc.), a boatload of NPCs that can be interacted with and plenty of factions (level 3, a crashed spaceship not unlike the Enterprise is divided between the worshippers of the twin gods that wage a relentless war upon eachother using phasers) and just about half the MM1 thrown in for good measure. This adventure is insane and it knows it. The only problem is that most of it feels rushed or incomplete because of how vague the adventure tends to be. I get it that with the kitchen sink/stream-of-consciousness type of adventure writing being employed here there is little incentive to spell it all out, but at times intriguing possibilities are simply not given enough room. The adventure introduces a plethora of new spells only by their titles, neglecting to even mention levels. Even for a rules-light dnd game, a single sentence and a level would have been essential.

Each level is loosely based on a theme, with the possible exception of the first. You have your underwater level, your star trek level, your underdark, your H.P Lovecraft Level and it all ends on the fiery bottom, with demons, fire-elementals and hell. If anything, Liberation of the Demon Slayer is strongly reminiscent of the magic of early 90s and late 80s video games, where plausibility is far less important then awe, gameplay and wonder. Mysterious tetraherons scattered throughout the dungeon with unique magical powers that can be combined to get EVEN MORE MAGICAL POWERS. A bizarre random encounter where a blue god-like entity kidnaps the party and forces them to compete in a race to obtain the “RUBY ROD” against other critters from throughout the multiverse in a sort of BONUS dungeon. The twin space-gods Ulusek and Loktaar and their Trekkian followers, complete with phasers.

It takes one a while to figure out the proper mindset and theme because the (admittedly gorgeous) art is dark and majestic and lovecraftian, tricking one into thinking this is a dark foray into eldritch terror and satanic depravity. I mean it totally is, and there is some squicky stuff going on with the Cthulhu cult and I did notice the ratio of naked female humbah humbah was higher then the average dungeon but if anything, Liberation of the Demon Slayer doesn’t take itself too seriously, and neither should you.

Do I even mention the batshit insane conclusion of the piece, where the PCs might inadvertently release some sort of techno-magical AI from suspended animation that might trigger a nuclear holocaust and turn the game into Mutant Crawl Classics I mean Mutant Future.

Liberation of the Demon Slayer is, as I mentioned before, a mess. A hot mess. It feels unfinished, needs a proper editing, the ten bazillion ideas need to be conveyed with more clarity and Venger has a tendency to either ramble or gesticulate vaguely, neither of which is conductive to the clear transferral of ideas. But for all its flaws, this module DOES have some very good encounters, it creative, is reasonably fun and it paradoxically does not outstay its welcome.

This is a very conditional review. If you are the sort of guy that can appreciate a good beer and pretzels DnD game, doesn’t mind some incongruity and likes his DnD wacky and wild then this might be your cup of tea, if you are prepared to put some work in it. At the same time Liberation of the Demon Slayer lacks depth. The encounters are all superficially engaging but each is an island and there is remarkably little connectivity between them. Each level feels like it is isolated from the rest. You never get the sense that each is merely a part of a greater whole. If you enjoy your dungeoncrawling with a little more rigeur and force majeste and a little more worldbuilding then LotDS will not satisfy you, not because it doesn’t have ideas, but because all those ideas are clearly thrown together for the maximum amount of fun and awesome.

I hesitate to call this a dungeon for dumb people, because different strokes for different folks and I’m not about to call someone a bad person for enjoying a different game then I do but I’m gonna go on and call a spade a spade and call this thing superficial, silly DnD fun with a lot of wild and at times awesome encounters and crazy ideas. I’m guessing Bryce’d like this one. If it wasn’t for the shitty maps, the breezy writing style and the almost stream of consciousness flow of the adventure that bombards you with dissasociated crazy ideas, I’d put it at about a 7. With those drawbacks, I can’t rate it any higher then 5 out of 10, with a recommendation for a very specific sort of audience (YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE). I don’t think Venger is a bad GM and this thing shows promise but it needed a little more time in the cooker.

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “[Review] Liberation of the Demon Slayer (OSR); A Hot Mess

  1. It sounds to me like Vengabus is the crown prince of publishing his own campaign notes more or less as he wrote them – inspired, but feverish, and with a structure that makes sense to him. I sense you struggling to be even this charitable – the “if you are prepared to put some work in” is a damnation by another name. Which is understandable.

    (I had no idea Venge was a Vampire man. That’s a game I’d enjoy sitting in on. The man is, after all, a breath away from IRL Setite…)

    Like

    1. [campaign notes[

      Nailed it. I give it some slack because it doesn’t come across as hacky (though perhaps lazy would be appropriate) and some of the encounters are solid gold but it’s all about that follow-through. Which reminds me that people probably need to be more critical of Deep Carbon Observatory which is an inspiring cavalcade of evocative imagery but also an unpolished mess that needs the GM to screw in all the bolts and replace the oil before it will fucking drive.

      [White Wolf]

      Venger a member of the Great Enemy? Where’d you get that from (and also yes that would be awesome, like a sleezy 70s Vampire exploitation flick).

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s