The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence (2014)
Venger Satanis (Kort’Thalis Publishing)
Levels ??? (est. 4 – 7)
Summary: Carcosa + Star Trek TOS + Barbarella + Rifts + 60s Doctor Who + Heavy Metal
“We are not the master of our fractured selves, but the servant.”
– Temard the Guru, page 57, hex 29.
This review has been on the back burner for a while so it while does coincide with Venger’s coming out as a something something something and the accompanying shitstorm this is purely by chance. Don’t get it twisted Hoss.
Isles of Purple Haunted Putrescence is a no-holds barred, 106-page, maximum gonzo kitchen-sink Hexcrawl set in the titular Purple Isles on the world of Razira, the former site of a hypertechnological civilization now infested with aliens, cultists, lovecraftian horrors, time-travellers and mutants. It feels like a spiritual successor to Liberation of the Demon Slayer and has many of the same characteristics and flaws, but because of the more open-ended nature of a hex-crawl vs a dungeon it works a lot better.
I’m starting to hate reviewing Venger products because their lack of cohesion makes it hard to summarize what exactly the books are about. They are, however, visually attractive with gorgeous dark artwork and eminently readable. They are filled to the brim with content, some of which is pretty cool but its damn hard to find the underlying design that underlies it all. Venger writes in an odd stream-of-consciousness style that is difficult to assimilate.
The adventure opens with some introductory fiction that is pretty bad and doesn’t really set up the point behind the Purple Islands very well. A big thing is made of the Purple Islands being the final resting place of the Snake Men Empire but the hexcrawl proper is not really all that concerned with them as anything but one of many factions inhabiting the Island. What is the central point of the Islands then you ask? It isn’t.
The book proper opens with some narrative advice and house rules that are pretty clever, showcasing that for all his faults and lack of follow-through, Venger is a thoroughly practical GM with knowledge drawn from empirical experience with a decent grasp of atmosphere and pacing. His suggestions on portraying the gonzo madness of the Purple Islands so the weirdness has the proper impact without burning out your player’s sense of wonder and suspension of disbelief and does a good job of conveying the feel of the Islands so it becomes something more then just a collection of gonzo encounters. Ruin-spattered islands of black sand, covered with purple ooze and violet mist and eerie, unearthly crystals. Nice.
Part 1: House Rules
The first optional rule is a refinement of the Venger ability check system that allows for more variables of success and failure but lacks a central design philosophy, operating as a collection of ad-hoc rules to add or remove extra dice to the 3d6 ability score check. The option to perform a bonus action at the cost of reducing one’s dice-pool and banking dice for future action strikes me as a distinctively anti-OSR design philosophy. I’d recommend not using the latter, though it is serviceable and adds tactical complexity (that makes no sense).
He follows it up with an EXCELLENT rule that gives players that use interesting narrative description “e.g I duck behind the granite and draw my Blade Eskelgar” instead of “I get my sword” to facilitate the roleplaying atmosphere get a +1 bonus to that roll. It’s subtle and would require some arbitration so the game doesn’t slow down but I am all for incentivizing good behavior with mechanical feedback so sign me up. Vengebuss also deserves credit for simple advice on character creation (i.e make up one unique detail that isn’t your class/race) and a slightly rambling structure for running campaigns that fails to get at the fundamentals or examine the reasoning behind its structure and is thus best left on the cutting-room floor.
What else? Venger has expanded the Dark Secrets table to include an EVEN DARKER SECRETS table that is far more debilitating and can be used if the players want TWO attribute rerolls. The secrets are no picnic, but they are all flavor. Deep-One Blood, Apocalyptic visions and Stygmata, or being a refuge from a sacrificial ritual are the least debilitating results. Severe consequences include being a religious fanatic with a death wish, having murdered your entire family, being a serial killer, having a tentacle for an arm, or being the host for some sort of parasitic alien organism that is your actual PC (Heh, fucking awesome). Edgy secrets include being the product of incest or a rapist. Yikes!
In fact, to give Vengebenger more credit, quite some time is spent on the narrative aspects of character generation. Instead of long ass backstories, IoPHP gives you a list of 20 flashback seeds that form pivotal events in the character’s history, with the result being decided by the player, like so;
You were never on good terms with your stepfather, but tonight he’s in a particularly dark and drunken mood. You accidentally spill a little wine on his cloak.
Raising his fist in anger, your stepfather calls upon the Ancient Ones to take your soul. His eyes are filled with hatred.
The system seems solid in theory but the writing is a bit off. I feel a lot of the flashbacks would just end in murder or flight and thus lack dynamic potential. Points for trying to do something with character motivation without page long timewasters but the execution is lacklustre.
Now would be a good time to complain about the editing like an arthritic 80-year old spinster hours before a monsoon because of the counter-intuitive and seemingly random order these house-rules were placed in. You’ve got background-aids, interspersed with rules or intelligent magical swords, interspersed with new combat rules. It’s a mess Venger. Lobsters are wired for dominance Hierarchies Venger. Clean your room!
(as a tip, divide the chapter up into different sections pertaining to general resolution, magic-use, background and combat for example).
Another section covers spellcasting on the Purple Islands, which is super fucking volatile and random because of the thousands of crystals that litter the sands which serve as magical amplifiers. Spells have a 1 in 6 chance of being Amplified (double damage, duration, effect, AoI etc.) a 1 in 6 chance of backfiring and a 1 in 6 chance of triggering some sort of wild magic surge (or more appropriately Weird magic surge). The caster can choose to devote himself to chaos and accept a mutation in lieu of triggering a backfire but Venger neglects to provide us with the ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL CORRUPTION AND MUTATION TABLES that we needed to get this section to work. Your book has three hundred tables, couldn’t you fit in one more?
Sample weird effects:  Tentacles erupting from the ground, a Demon prince appearing, items being drained, sexy alien ladies appearing. It’s like someone read Clark Ashton Smith while watching Barbarella twenty times. The effects are genuinely “weird” and there is a good balance of positive and negative effects, which is nice.
Everything on the Islands has been turned up to 11. Sorcery has a disastrous effect on the fabric of space time, creating portals to d20 otherworlds, letting in all manner of time-travellers, lovecraftian horrors, demons, aliens, robots, dark elves and something else Rifts . Do you like Rifts? This is like Rifts.
After taking in all that madness and before starting his description of the Islands proper, Venger gives us a last solid optional combat rule; First Blood means that anyone who is hit for the first time in combat gets a +2 to hit and damage for his next attack as a nice nod to 80s action movies. This only applies to hits that take off less then 75% of your hit points, since a fighter barely managing to throw himself on the floor to avoid a Dragons fiery breath and getting up unsteadily with singed off hair, a right-eye fused shut with third-degree burns and blackened armour is not going to creak his neck and proclaim that “now we are fighting for real. ”
To contrast the First Blood rules, Venger also introduces the Deaths door rules I have seen before in…Ravenloft? that give you a penalty to hit and damage if you drop below 25% hit points, or what I like to call the “downward-spiral” optional rule. Since it is just going to make combat more deterministic and prevent the sort of sudden returns that make combat exciting, I wouldn’t use it for a silly gonzo sci-fi horror game.
This thing is nuts and the new class it introduces is also nuts. A monk class is introduced with very rudimentary abilities (half level in AC bonus, no armour, increased unarmed damage with stunning chance at higher levels). No saving throws since Vengerbenger uses 20 minus character’s level for all saves. Two bizarre abilities. The monk has the ability to captivate an audience and gain access to people of increasingly higher status but what exactly this rule constitute is completely vague.
Captivate audience is the monk’s ability to grab a person’s attention and hold onto it, secreting his influence here and there whenever possible.
At lower levels a monk can make a great toast, distract a would-be opponent, and single out an individual for praise or disapproval. At mid levels he’s able to counsel bureaucrats,
administrators, and minor officials, as well as, gain the confidence of thieves and black marketers. High-level monks find their way into the private chambers of kings.
If anyone can tell me what this ability is meant to do that a normal PC cannot do then I’d love to hear it.
The second ability is a lot more straightforward; the monk can focus on an opponent and make his head explode Scanners style. It’s very much not a combat ability because it require the character remain motionless but you can conceive of a monk sequestering himself in an audience and exploding someone after multiple rounds of concentration. The monk rolls a d4 every round, and tallies the 4s. If he gets three 4s, the target’s head explodes. The ability costs a point of temporary constitution damage per round.
Not quite as bad as On the Shoulders of Giants but I think I’d rate this one a D. Still, if you are going to do a Vengercrawl you may as well get yourself one of these. It’s a dumb class but it somehow fits the milieu it is placed in. I recommend you forego all attempts at creativity and make each of these monks an exact duplicate of evil Jet Li in the movie the One and just run with it.
There is a very welcome addition to the use of magical swords on the Islands. Magical swords, particularly intelligent magical swords, are a staple of DnD and fantasy fiction in general and I salute Venger for giving the things some much needed extra time in the spotlight. There is an optional rule for harder criticals with magic swords (complete with a new sub-table) that I will, again, suggest everyone ignore because it just makes magic swords more powerful.
What IS usefull and very welcome is a helpful d100 of magical sword traits, all of them slightly obnoxious to set the tone of magic swords in the Purple Islands; Traits like Horny, Flaky, Quotes Nietzsche and Extremely Rude to Henchmen and Hirelings recalls fond memories of BG2’s Lilacor. Magic swords are thus powerful but also kind of annoying to own.
Venger deserves additional acclaim for the d8 sword origins, which reveal a little bit about the genesis of the weapon while keeping it ambigous enough so it doesn’t come off like a piece of technology. Cryptic hints, flavourfull as fuck:
The skin tone of Dark Elves is so unnatural that Night Elves call them the Violet Folk. They may not have souls, but Dark Elves are cultured. When they kill, it’s like a dance… a dance of death.
My destiny is all you need to know. Upon the starship Ellipsis I will hack and slash until everyone is a pile of gore-soaked limbs. That is where it shall end.
Demons may be older than man, but we all play the same game, don’t we? I was forged in fire and darkness, deep inside the world where Devils gazed upon me lovingly and with awe
A houserule that we have seen replicated dozens of times elsewhere that includes permanent injury each time you are brought below 0 hp yet survive is included near the end, but a lack of mechanical components essentially means that you already have this rule or you will not be using it.
Part II; Running the Purple Islands.
A considerable amount of time is spent on running the Purple Islands. The section begins with a timeline that encompasses 20.000 years and is immediately reminiscent of Synnabar. 
The entire timeline is almost perfectly nonsensical. There is no discernible Cause and Effect, merely a laundry list of consecutive Deus Ex Machinas that leave their mark on the Islands like birdshit on a car.
I guess I have to define what constitutes a good timeline. A good fictional history is composed of interacting components. Every event shapes the following event. Even in a fantasy game, periods or events do not just appear ex nihilo (sometimes they do, it is still fantasy) or pass without leaving their mark (why include them if it doesn’t matter). Good events serve to explain why the world is the way it is in the present i.e If you postulate that magic was a lot cooler back in 2000 BC it is up to you to explain why it is so much shittier now.
Even more importantly, cool events in the past fuel cooler events in the future. Reading a timeline should fill you with all sorts of adventure and campaign ideas.
Islands does almost the exact opposite. I think it could almost transcend its shittyness and serve as a sort of dada-esque counterpoint to a traditional fantasy timeline. Most events are non-contiguous with the ones preceding it and seem to exist in a vaccum. I will illustrate;
1. The Islands literally appear as if from nowhere.
2. A race of hypertechnological being arrives on it from nowhere and build seven pylons that serve as dimensional gates.
3. Aliens/dimensional travellers from all over the universe arrive on the island and chill out (contiguous)
4. The Island splits in three because of the stresses involved in the operation of the pylons and 4 pylons are lost (actually a good event. you can easily turn this into a quest).
5. Snake men conquer everything except the Island (that makes sense since the Island has super technology). Then they conquer the Island (how? I guess they wore them down).
[7.500 year GAP]
6. Alliance of different races (men, dwarves, elves) pool their knowledge and fight the snake men, eventually gaining victory by developing a rare red dust that is fatal to the formidable Wyrm Mounts of the Snake men. (An entry that makes sense, and now you have an excuse to litter the island with giant Wyrm bones).
7. Seductive Sorceress gains control of the Isles and forbids pylon use. (arrives from nowhere, the action doesn’t effect anything because the pylons would have been in use during the preceding 7.500 years and the island is still here).
8. Alien Warlord and the dreaded Purple Putrescence arrive and take control of the Island. (again, the event comes out of nowhere). Warlord is eventually deposed.
9. Giant meteor kills off most inhabitants. (and leaves no other mark).
10. Plague sweeps islands, causing other countries to block off trade.
[3000 year GAP]
11. Magic crystals arrive from nowhere, energy allows pylons to function again, despite them never being broken (maybe neglect?).
12. Dimensional travellers flood the place again, but this time a nullifier is constructed to prevent dimensional travellers. (by whom, why, what is happening?)
13. Tentacles from the Water arrives from nowhere 
14. Giant supercomputer is constructed by unknown race for unknown purpose.
15. Rest of the world figures a 4000 year quarantine about does it and re-institutes trade. (no one tried breaking that quarantine before?)
16. A king decides it is about time to try and colonize the place after 975 years of trade, and decides to offer rewards for any brave souls to make the attempt. None succeed because the Island is a death trap.
17. Island declared penal colony by the southern kingdoms (a rare event that makes sense).
18. You are here.
The Islands represent a causal event horizon. Things arrive and have an effect ON the Island but they don’t seem affect any other place. Warlords contain their urge to expand. Supercivilizations are content to squat peacefully. Horrors arrive but never spread. The Islands are a sort of non-place which gives them an odd appeal. A garbage dump of intersecting civilizations and factions.
But enough pettyfoggery, Venger introduces (yet another) new mechanic to function in lieu of alignment. The Islands are actually sentient and have an agenda. Anyone who furthers this agenda gets himself a purple token, which can be traded in for a one-time d6 bonus to a saving throw, attack rolls etc. A neat idea, particularly because the players are meant to figure out what exactly the Islands want in the course of play. The only problem with this is that this agenda appears to be, to a lesser degree, Random, which is bullshit. It is also not clear whether the Island has multiple agendas or we are meant to choose one, but since some are mutually exclusive (Chaos vs Balance), the latter is more likely.
The Islands come front-loaded with all manner of adventure seeds, rumors and personal connections to draw in adventurers. Seeds inevitably involve island-spanning plans of conquest by various factions after the acquisition of some sort of Mcguffin. The rumor table is alright, with plenty of falsehood and intriguing little bits. Motivations are a similarly diverse smorgasboard of expedition members, former slaves, chosen of prophecy, tax-collection, and even a father-son adventure. Ample incentive to check out the place.
I am a bit less thrilled about the d100 events that happen during the night once a week to inject more excitement. While waking up with a face-hugger stuck to your face or with one of your henchmen having their brain sucked out, there are several potential apocalypses and other world-shattering events (like the moon exploding or a nuke going off on one of the Islands) that lose most of their impact for their utter randomness. It’s silly and the Islands are supposed to be really gonzo but this is just too much for me. Anyone seeking to make use of those seeds had better be damn good at seat-of-the-pants GMing.
Another decision that only adds to the cluttered, disjointed feel of IotpHP is the use of currency, or specifically the lack of one. Instead there is barter, with the primary unit of barter being lascivious, scantily-clad dames (as it is in the real world), followed quickly by powerful magic/technology, shelter and knowledge. I actually find that a pretty interesting choice and while a conversion table would have been helpful, the price is likely to vary according to circumstance and the lack of formal currency on the Isles MAKES SENSE. Convenient? Hell no, but this is not a place where you peace out in the inn after a week of hard crawling, this is a place of danger, gonzo and mystery where you venture forth into the purple-stained beaches, stepping over corroded 70s chainmail bikini’s and molten cyborg hunter-killers in search of green alien babes to bang, gross sorcerers to blow up with lasers and ancient technology to loot and destroy.
Some points go to Venger for suggesting the use of a guide in exploring the Islands, in the form of one of the natives, along with some simple d6 based rules so the Guide is not omniscient. Neat!
I want to clarify something. While I might sneer at the way some of these elements have been executed, this is a very detailed and complex hex crawl with a lot of different elements that effect gameplay. While it can feel somewhat incoherent and rambling, I would never call it lazy (despite the fact that it has TWO dungeon maps that Venger informs us he couldn’t be bothered to turn into two fully fledged dungeons).
There is just so much stuff here, it’s almost as if you are travelling to another plane. No wait, scratch that, it is EXACTLY like that. Special rules for Blaspheming the gods. Mutant rain. Purple Mist that kills everything it touches. Alien crystals that have different effects and Alien pylons that can be activated by them to create doorways all over the multiverse. The detail accumulates until it is a wall of noise.
A last element of the hexcrawl that needs to be discussed is THE THING THAT ROTS FROM THE SKY. A vast, purple, tentacled mass floats 40 feet above the Island. Whether hideous alien from the deepest chasms of space or horror conjured from the Pit (there are many theories about its origin), the Thing is worshipped like a God, poops out purple slime and attacking it is likely to get you Purple-Fied. This is some good shit right here.
Part III; Setting proper
Uh wow how do I even describe this mess? The Island is inhabited by six different factions, described only in terms of Appearance, Numbers, Tech-level, Belief system, Leadership, Nature, Agenda, the Type of Currency they accept and special features. Tables are given to simulate change between the encounters and disposition towards other factions (but really bare bones ones, this is no Stars Without Number).
The factions themselves are pretty colorful and varied; the degenerate Purple Putrescence worshipers, the superscience Overlords who maintain the tunnels below the Islands, the ape-men Koshi, the Zealous Children of Light (who even have a sub-faction of their own) , the Snake Men thought long extinct and the gnostic Disciples of Zygak-Xith. I would have liked some standard stats and faction HW locations included in this section, now I have to pour through the hexes to find some good examples. Still, these factions are awesome in a 70s sci-fi grindhouse way. There is exactly enough description to give them a distinct identity and tell the GM how they would react to different stimuli, which is perfect .
The wandering monster table is a big fucking mess, like the one in Liberation of the Demon Slayer. Zombified Doom Hawks! Time displaced Wyrms! Cyborgs! Shoggoths! Hunter-killer Robots! Gorilla-gators (whatever the fuck that means)! It’s Carcosa with all the angst replaced with Gonzo! The statt blocks are simple and the monsters often have only a single special ability but that is enough. It is a pity the monsters are not doing anything specific but then again this table is meant to last the campaign, so any specificity in this area will quickly wear out its welcome. These encounters can be up to 15 HD, meaning low level parties who visit the Isles had better be damn careful or they will be turned into mincemeat.
There are 117 hexes 1-3 encounters each. There is a double-spit-taking 50% chance per hex of running into a trap (magical, technological, primitive etc.) when you explore one, which sounds like fucking bullshit to me. I get that the island is supposed to be dangerous but 50% chance of hitting a trap means the setting might as well be a south-american minefield.
The encounters are a colorful mess of references from different genres, mostly sci-fi and fantasy. In a hex you might encounter anything from murderous clowns, a 70s pornstar about to be sacrificed by a cult of Great Old One worshippers, mutant bikers, Mi-Go, corroded futuristic machinery, dinosaurs, robots to sorcerers. This thing is the sequel to Carcosa with the brakes filed off, shot in a dingy backroom studio against a green-screen while the director is constantly yelling instructions at a mannequin camera crew that isn’t even running while he does meth off an aging hooker’s buttcrack.
There are THREE encounters that cause a planet-wide extinction event if they are not stopped by the PCs. You have as much chance of running into a native american post-apocalyptic survivor as a breed of mutant spiders with illusion powers. +2 swords co-exist alongside plasma rifles and powered armour. Insanity.
The best encounters are not as awesome as the best encounters in Carcosa but it doesn’t have the same formulaic approach to its encounters and there is no 115 Jale men in a toilet shack bullshit here. Each encounter is unique, channeled from the primordial chaos of Venger’s subconscious, having virtually no correspondence with anything but itself. A mindless, primal, kaleidoscopic landscape of sorcery, smut and superscience and uncontrollable wonder where only Gods laugh.
Some encounters require massive elaboration by the GM, many are table ready in an instant. Venger usually gives you at least a paragraph and includes statts, which makes these encounters more useful then the ones in Carcosa.
You can repair some ancient technology with “spare parts” that you can get in other hexes. The Conan the destroyer wizard appears alongside a Demon challenging you to the greatest song in the world. The references pile up until they gain an inertia in and off themselves, like you are exploring some dream-lands graveyard of mankind’s collective unconscious. The whole transcends its component parts. Even the treasure is no longer recognizable as staple DnD gemstones and magic items but often includes seemingly meaningless items of all ages and all possible landscapes like an old VHS tape, shotgun or trapezehedroid mirror.
There is a good balance between combat encounters (it’s a little heavy on the combat, but there is still plenty of opportunity for interaction), interaction, devices you can repair and a mind-controlling cotton candy machine. Islands achieves what The Mad God’s Jest could only vaguely hint at. Dreamlike incoherence and mind-boggling variety. Awesome.
Things that are not awesome; the lack of editing and cross-referencing. The hexcrawl does make occasional use of correspondence (i.e one hex leads to another hex) but at times hexes will refer to items that are only explained in other hexes so the entire work must be absorbed if one is to make any sense of what, say, a Zulek is and who accepts one.
There is a squick factor with a lot of scantily clad nubile young women but it never reaches the creepy stage that Carcosa did, it comes across as slightly sleazy, and therefore perfect.
At the eleventh hour some new spells are introduced, presumably for wizards. The format is reminiscent of 0e but the intent of the spells is clear enough. Spells that allow you to haunt an enemy in his dreams like Freddy (who also makes his appearnce on the Island) or infest someone with an Ancient One are really awesome, but a lot of them are just damage spells with names like DARK ARROW or NAPALM, which is kind of a shame.
The magic item section is good shit, albeit it a little unclear. The Amulet of Invulnerability improves your AC by “a factor of 7”? What does that mean? Lots of unique magical swords with KOOL POWERZ, really metal sorcerous objects and silly shit like a canteen of ventriloquism that allows you to project your voice while you drink from it. Good old fashioned sword and sorcery shit. Damn cool.
It is judgement time for Islands. I liked this. Instead of transporting us to one fictional setting Venger raises one from the primordial darkness of the Ginnungagap composed of a thousand pieces of other worlds. It lurches grotesquely but fierce, braying challenges with the sound of trains fucking. Its silly, its gonzo, its metal.
Its poorly edited. You will have to do A LOT of work. It’s a lot to absorb in one reading and you won’t make sense out of it in one go (if there is any sense to it). I don’t think anyone will run this as written (if such a thing is even possible).
Forget versimilitude. Forget coherence. These things are useless to you in this place. Trade in Helms Deep for a styrofoam sci-fi set. On the Purple Isles you are sent to Destroy, to Poke, to Rescue scantily clad babes from crab monsters and to Bargain with all the inhabitants of the multiverse to the beat of discordant synthesizers and drunken garage metal. Get ready for some Grade A Gonzo Sleaze. 7 out of 10.
 If Venger is not going to obey standards of narrative and coherence I sure as hell won’t with my review of his stuff.
 For the younglings: Rifts is a (barely) playable 90s Paladium Roleplaying kitchen sink fantasy game by Kevin Siembada with shoulder-mounted missile-pod sub-systems and megadamage alien plant ponchos.
 Unless I happen to be playing that fighter in which case that is EXACTLY what he would be doing
 Presumably Venger’s next transformation will involve him coming out as the alternate universe doppelganger of Raven S. Mcracken
 Gigantic Purple Tentacles that lie between two of the Isles. I like it as a concept because it vaguely reminds me of Book of the New Sun’s Erebus and Abaia but there is no reason for the thing appearing. Contrast with Erebus and Abaia, whose arrival on earth is a terrifying, world-shaping event.
 Is that the drugs starting to kick in? It’s like one of those magic eye pictures. I see the light…
UPDATE: True to his word, after crawling back from the horrific massacre at tenfootpole.org Edger kindly mentions my review on both his blog and his podcast with Pundit & GrimJim (where I hope the dread cognomen Prince of Nothing still brings little twitches of rage and fear to Pundit’s withered corpus) and I do not think I flatter myself If I say my review seems to have been taken to heart. I hope it will inspire you to make more shit like this. Take care Hoss!