In my last post I reviewed the experimental Dead God Excavation by mr. Venger Satanis, previously featured (rather positively I might add) on this blog here and here. This more recent outing failed to titillate my elfgame taste buds, netting it a negative judgement, and he responded here. While he was very polite and agreed with roughly half of what I said, that means that he had the audacity to disagree with the totality of my verdict. This, naturally, cannot be left unanswered.
Reverend Satanis writes:
Sometimes, I provide tools, raw materials from which GMs can forge their own adventures. Stuff like The S’rulyan Vault or Totally Random Tables. I liken this to cookie dough. Inverting the formula, I’ve provided roughly 15% and the GM has to provide the additional 85% of the work.
Sometimes, I do pretty much all the heavy lifting, the adventure is more or less turnkey for the GM, allowing him to add the final details, that last 15%. These are fresh baked cookies.
Every once in awhile, and perhaps Dead God Excavation is the epitome of this style, I write something that’s mostly cooked but still kind of gooey in the center. Perhaps a medium-rare steak is a better analogy. Rather than providing 85% of what’s needed to run the session (taking into account GM improvisation), it’s more like 75%.
I agree and feel I understood your intent better then the Honourable Mr. Lynch did, which is why I took it upon myself to give your work a grilling in the spirit it was intended in, for I feel a product must be tackled on its own grounds to render the verdict all the clearer. If you will allow me to extend your culinary analogy, No Mr. Satanis. You not did provide me with a medium-rare stake. You provided me with a half-baked one while you promised to deliver a medium-rare one, which is the reason I judged you, rather harshly. If I may give my opinion as a humble epicurean and connoisseur of rich elfgame cuisine, I feel your talent is most effectively applied in the arena of the Lasagna or the Potagery, where a few sentences of description are applied many times over to create an area suitable for relatively directionless exploration.
This can be unsettling for those who’re used to 85% – 100% of the work provided for them by the adventure writer. I can understand that, and sympathize with those who feel cheated by the empty holes waiting to be filled.
While I enjoyed Prince of Nothing’s review (I can respect his over-the-top presentation), I’d like to touch on a few key concepts that many gamers, even the OSR, occasionally miss.
While I must commend Mr. Satanis on his superior taste in reviewers and his esteem for the use of my unconventional, somewhat melodramatic style in conveying my estimation across all the strata of the cerebrum (I am curious what he will think of this one), I feel he is engaging (undeliberately) in misdirection. I am a stout admirer of the hexcrawl format from my days of running Carcosa, and my reviews of such works as Wilderlands and Qelong and indeed your own Islands showcase my appreciation for the Invocative rather then Descriptive medium. My harsh verdict of works such as Frostbitten and Isle of the Unknown showcase that I am, however, not an Uncritical admirer of such works. One might as well accuse me of not being able to tell Escargot de Bourgogne from Brood met Hagelslag.
Stereotypes, cliches, and all-too-familiar tropes are usually a bad thing in fiction, tv shows, movies, etc. However, I believe they are sorely needed in RPGs, the ability to embody the themes, characters, motivations, and weird tales of the Lovecraft circle (and other Mythos contributors) makes for a greater roleplaying experience. It delivers the goods.
Why should this be? Well, roleplaying is specifically geared towards immersion – simulating a familiar world and breathing life into it so that we can pretend that we are Detective Legrasse, Old Castro, or Randolph Carter… feeling our way through the dark, slimy caves of impenetrable nightmare – awaiting the tentacle’s cold embrace.
I wish I could live (for a short while) inside a Cthulhu Mythos story. That’s why I roleplay, so I can immerse myself in that world. And why I identify as za’akier.
I fully agree with Mr. Satanis that stereotypes and familiar imagery are ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL to the appeal of Roleplaying games and The Worlds Most Popular Roleplaying Game in general. My somewhat wry comment on the irony of Lovecraft’s creatures now being emminently recognisable should not be taken as a condemnation of the inclusion that esteemed authors work in elfgame scenarios, far from it, I love a good Shoggoth as much as the next chap, I was merely observing that much of the potency behind Lovecraft’s work has been diminished as a result of its over-exposure. The Eldritch has become the Familiar. I blame the wretched harlots of mass media, responsible for the degeneration of everything from pirates to ninjas!
Let me assure Mr. Satanis I actually find the central concept of Dead God Excavation emminently suitable as a campaign kickstarter, which is why I can only lament the subsequent design choices that prevent it from reaching the potential it most certainly has.
Admittedly, some aspects might be too vague and/or subtle. I could have been more specific about NPC motivations and that first encounter could have tied into the dead god’s tomb even more. However, I did that by design rather than sheer sloth.
AHA SO YOU ADMIT I- *ahem*. In which case I heartily retract my accusation. Instead I must berate you for this design choice since it does not help you achieve your stated goals.
My stuff being OSR, I assume most GMs will mix and match a wide variety of gaming books together. I do that, and I’ve read thousands of blog posts that corroborate my preference. Dead God Excavation on its own may seem a little too minimalistic, a degree too hollow… but what if you planned on combining it with The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence, Carcosa, Anomalous Subsurface Environment, D30 Sandbox Companion, and Expedition To The Barrier Peaks?
If that’s the case, the GM needs a little room to operate. Detail things too much and it becomes harder to incorporate other books. The lack of specificity actually helps GMs marry concepts, bounce ideas off a variety of designers, and answer questions they’d never thought of. What are the business interests of that NPC? Crystal smuggling from the purple islands? Did he (or one of his ancestors) pilot that old wreck of a starship half-buried in the mountains a half-mile away? Is this tomb his chance to navigate the stars again?
I feel you undersell your work, which is anything but generic in its premise and most of its actual content. It does not matter one whit whether a bazillion blog posts proclaim with utter conviction that the sky is falling and pigs can now fly, they are still wrong. I state your advocacy of providing only generic, nonthreatening detail that may be easily integrated in the aforementioned campaigns is utterly incoherent with your earlier works (which have vast metaphysical and cosmological implications that would render them incompatible with a vanilla fantasy campaign), a surefire way to obsolescence (since there are already a tonne of generic fantasy modules), mediocrity and simply wrong.
A Good Module, Mr. Satanis, does not meekly spread its asscheeks so it may be halfheartedly buggered for tenpenny by all the lads of the Green Dragon on Saturday Gaming Night and swiftly forgotten afterward! A Good Module, Mr. Satanis, entices, teases and tantalizes the GM until he tearfully burns down whatever half-hearted clone of Loth-Lorien he had dreamed up at the races and replaces it with a 20 mile high obsidean pillar covered with Screaming Faces, a refuge from hypogean realms of incomprehensible horror seeking to escape an Alien Harlot Goddess even more terrifying by inverting the cycle of life and death and consuming the World Tree itself! A Good module inspires GMs to alter or even create entirely NEW campaigns just so they may experience the transcendent joy of running it. Help. Fie!
I agree with the general concept of what you are saying but I think we are of differing opinion on the degree of detail that is evocative rather then so formless it is merely generic. Room: 1 Orc 10 gp certainly leaves a lot to the imagination, but it does not get the creative juices going. Let me cite an example from your own Dead God Excavation that I actually found very intriguing. “The City of Voss’th Ekk was ancient even by the time of the Unholy Amaranthine Incursion.” Now THAT is what I am looking for. The name alone fires up the imagination, conjuring up vistas of Ultratelluric plagues born on Solar Winds and Legions of purple knights equipped to cross blades in the airless void. Your merchant does not have that. A tinkerer in the OSR will simply replace or alter whatever is provided to suit his campaign, but it is up to you to give him the material to do so in a way he could not do before.
I also disagree with the reviewer’s opinion that the NPC temporarily leaving the Al Azif book in the PCs’ hands is a bad or stupid thing. The PCs are helping him (one assumes). Can you imagine a benevolent character in a Doctor Who episode trusting the Doctor to take care of a rare and powerful device in his absence? Yeah, probably.
This, I will admit, is more a matter of taste, and I had inferred from the text he had simply abandoned it during his headache. It depends on the tone of one’s game. My games tend to assume adventurers are a singularly sorry lot that are mistrusted on general principle until they are sorely needed, at which point they will be treated with enthusiasm and fawning gratitude until they run out of booty to spend. Only once they gain a reputation can there be any degree of trust.
I had initially assumed the Sage was looking for a way in and therefore found the fact this could be inferred so simply from the pages of the work after a careful perusal by a mage hard to stomach but upon rereading the section it is left somewhat ambiguous so mea culpa.
Sorry, I don’t do gold piece value for 90% of the treasure provided. It varies wildly from system to system and campaign to campaign. However, if that kind of thing is something GMs are interested in knowing, I could create a random table. Seriously, let me know in a comment if that would be useful to you.
The reason, Mr. Satanis, I often demand gold piece values despite the incompatability or relative inflation between different systems and settings is so that I may gain an understanding of how much the treasure is meant to be worth in your estimation, so I may gain a better understanding of how you intended its use. As trivial bauble? As honest loot? As a dragon’s hoard?
This reminds me of my childhood. When I was but a sprightly young lad I had drawn up, with parchment and quill, a dungeon for me and my friends to explore. Full of pride I skipped to my father, brandishing my newly made map to showcase to him. “Look papa,” said I. “I made a Dungeon.” Looking it over for three heartbeats, my father spit out his milk, caned me for three hours with outraged cries of “There are not enough branching pathways” ‘The Orcs have no motivation” ‘These traps are not foreshadowed!” sentenced me to a night in the dog kennel and signed me up for World War One, where I learned everything I know about elfgames.
Generally speaking, non-combatant NPCs don’t have stats in my books. If the PCs want to kill something that can’t really defend itself and can’t effectively harm any of the PCs, then it can be dispatched with a sword thrust. Simply roleplay it without rolling dice.
This is the way I GM and I’m sure a lot of GMs do things differently. But that’s why most characters/creatures without combat ability are stat-less.
An unconvincing rebuttal Sir! This would be a perfectly viable approach if not for the fact that these NPCs have the potential of joining the expedition into the tomb and thus they cannot all safely be relegated to noncombatant status. Indeed, one limits their potential in this fashion. Surely you did not expect the evil sorceror Zirnakanen or the pernicious traitor Torvil Ent to remain Noncombatants? You describe Zirnakanen’s plot to cast Flesh and The Power It Holds on anyone who seeks to disrupt his evil god-bothering plot. He is the central antagonist! Mr. Satanis’s defense is inadequate to the charge! How can one omit stats for Kristoff Carlyle, decorated Veteran of the Tussle of Innsmouth Square (I must admit to inferring the particular battle since the text is devoid of specifics) when one all but assumes he will be along on the expedition since his motivation is to End His Boredom! Simple levels in brackets would have sufficed! Perhaps a unique ability or two!
I again see the reviewer’s point that the sorcerer NPC isn’t detailed enough for many GMs. But then I don’t know what the GM has planned for the rest of his campaign. Perhaps the sorcerer plans to lead the PCs to the Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer… perhaps he is the bone sorcerer?
Which is precisely why you should consider adding more detail. If the GM already has big plans you have provided him with a helpful starting point that he may tinker with to his heart’s content. If he does not your suggestion will help set him off on the path. If you will forgive me an illustrative description from my own co-written Red Prophet Rises (which I will emphatically recommend purchasing for the trifling price of 5 dollars) regarding the main villain, the enigmatic Khazra:
An exotic man of almost godlike physicality, exuding both terrible bone-crushing strength and a feline grace. His eyes are deep waters in which men drown. His voice is penetrating, hypnotic and strangely cultured. He is either from a faraway continent, a different time or another world altogether. His skin is inked with dead tongues and incomprehensible curses. He cares nothing for the lives of his new people and would sacrifice them all to attain the Crimson Paradise. Though he is by no means a coward, Khazra prefers to let his followers do the fighting.
That is his description entire. Notice how it is kept ambiguous, yet hints at many intriguing possibilities for the GM to use as a springboard for his imagination. It is my task to provide the GM the tools he might need to make his adventure work, I do not care if he decides that it is all rubbish afterward and recasts Khazra as an embittered ice-skater looking to use the blood-thirsty nomadic horde to get back at his partner for spurning him, I did my due diligence.
In conclusion, Dead God Excavation is your chance to collaborate with the author, Venger As’Nas Satanis. It’s like we’re working on your campaign together. I provide the premise, NPCs, location, complications, and ideas for continuing… you make the thing your own, inspired by my initial designs.
I can’t blame those not wanting to pay for such an opportunity, but that’s why Dead God Excavation is one of my least expensive titles. Currently priced on DTRPG at $2.50
In my mind, session zero means things should not be set in stone. On the contrary, they must be malleable so that possibilities may flow.
Of that we are in agreement, only I find this particular outing of your work to be so open that the possibilities pour right onto the floor, leaving me only with an empty cup and a single tear streaking down my moustache as I gaze dejectedly at a cob-web covered table, polyhedral dice stirred only by a stray spider or inquisitive field mouse, character sheets long since turned to dust!
I do not believe you are a bad RPG-writer, Mr. Satanis, but I believe you can do better. I would not respond to you in such detail if I was not, in some queer fashion, a fan of you. Show us the creativity that gave birth to the mighty Purple Isles. Titillate us with your creativity, gonzo and sleaze. Learn to Walk, Mr. Satanis, though you ought to Crawl.
Also, I created an entirely new weapon / magic item from scratch! With pictures!!! You don’t see that every day.
Your weapon was interesting and I like its potential for villainous use in subsequent campaigns. I would have made the ability to create spawn of Sir. Rupert Yak’thom Esq. automatic, creating an interesting trade off for the PCs to use it but nevertheless, it is a good item.
Personally, I prefer to see Gods crawling, makes them strange and fascinating, primordial rather than fashionable… and that’s what old school gaming needs more of. Ah, well. To each their own.
Though I must chastize you for your cheeky implication that I am a snooty man who prefers his deities to have a membership in the decadent parlours of Realms Forgotten I heartily agree with you. Let the OSR witness abomination undreamed of. Let them witness Horrors with the faces of Gods! Let them witness the Age of Dusk!
p.s. But if you do prefer lots of detail and specificity, Cha’alt will have your back. It’s going to be a huge campaign, and I plan on spending nearly a year writing the damned thing. Kickstarter launching just before Christmas. Here’s my KS profile (I think you can follow me from there).
I shall look forward to it, but I was considering checking out Battle for the Purple Isles. You may send me a review copy if you wish.
With Pomp and Fanfare,