Obscene Serpent Religion 2 (2018)
Jeff Rients (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
Levels ??? (2 – 4)
Summary: WhF + Vicodin + The Ramones “I wanna be Sedated”
Its back to Lotfp again children. The longer I do this shit the more I start to notice patterns. I propose again that even before #Zakgate Lotfp has been in a decline, its fanbase still strong but mostly driven by inertia, its brand rotten and sickly from the inside. A true child of the postmodernist era, Lotfp was never really anything beyond a vague aesthetic commitment to abnormality and gore, and for a while this served it terrifically, as the luminaries and aspiring champions of the OSR joined forces like a neckbearded aspergic Captain Planet, delivering a flurry of innovative, experimental and downright fine modules for the creativity starved masses of the OSR. After a diet of sanitized, homogenized D20 slop, featuring iconics polished to a mirror sheen with bloated statt blocks and soulless corporate dungeon-punk art, the modules appeared like Manna from heaven.
But the centre cannot hold, nothing lasts forever, we live in a fallen world and no we can’t have nice things. The lack of a coherent driving philosophy meant Lotfp never really settled, remaining always in flux, less a thing in itself then a subversion of something other, a decade long act of legerdermain to keep the attention of a fickle crowd. As soon as the initial creative impetus fades there is nothing to consolidate. Now comes a story of its declining years.
It was the Gencon of 2018, a year in which Lotfp brought out its worst thing yet, and in that year there was hope also. For Jeff Rients, the venerable, the renowned, had entered the fray once more. Who could but smile fondly, tittering silently with childlike mirth, at the memory of Broodmother Skyfortress, one of the finest introductions to the OSR for new players yet? Who could but reminisce and remember his columns of practical, whimsical advice? Perhaps there would be hope in these grief-wrought and uncertain times?
But it was not to be. Obscene Serpent Religion 2 is something vaguely adventure like and worryingly unsatisfying, and for all the occasional glimpses of effort, decent design or style it feels worn-out, hackneyed and left me cold. The title is emblematic of the product as a whole, a needless tie-in to an original 3rd party product by Rafael Chandler that people are likely to be entirely unfamiliar with. The grey water-color imagery against a backdrop of grey serves as a visual cue for the creative desolation to follow.
Before I continue let me emphasize that I do not wish to accuse Jeff Rients, a backbone of the OSR, of laziness or incompetence, stating merely that I feel the module’s attempted style and content is a terrible match for his habitually whimsical style (although his historical campaign of Essex seems to fit the content well enough) and that you never get a sense of passion or drive behind it all. After the color, zest and gonzo wonder of Broodmother Skyfortress OSR 2 is downright unsettling, as though a light-hearted romantic comedy had suddenly turned into Schindler’s List.
The module takes place in the hammlet of Nonsbeck, nominally situated in the Rhineland in some vaguely Reinassance year. The module consists of two parts; a description of the hammlet itself and the adventure proper, which concerns the visitation of a Snake Demon. The module purports to make the hammlet a recurring site of adventure in the campaign so that the characters will be all the more grief-stricken when the Snake Demon comes by, a bold design decision that hinges upon one thing and one thing only; the Hammlet being interesting enough to sustain adventure.
The Hammlet proper, which consists of a church, an inn, a stable and a smithy, is underwhelming. It is not badly written, merely drawn out and drab. The NPCs, which I suppose are meant to adhere to a sort of historical vibe, are well-fleshed out and have appropriate backgrounds but its all stark and grey. A retired sailor turned average blacksmith, his abrasive apprentice, a priest and his deacon (with a dark secret), a frenchmen and his wife and the graves of children in the backyard. The vibe is hard to describe, like someone has taken Warhammer Fantasy and stripped out the exaggerated grimdark aesthetic and you are left with something that is stark and bland.
A formerly happy middle-aged woman who has fallen on hard times, her hooded cloak
and frock are threadbare and patched in several places and her neck possesses that
saggy looseness of skin sometimes seen when a plump person loses too much weight too
quickly. Widow Grundle (Elze to her family) was once the wife of Hans Grundle, a relatively successful man living six miles to the south.
He and her two sons were killed in a bandit raid upon the farm some five years back.
She subsequently moved back to the area to live with her poor brother and his family.
Widow Grundle visits the Church several times a week to weep and pray for the souls
of her slain family.
The fantasy is Low, a very subtle hint that something MIGHT be off about the Church of St. Margaret by having two of the Stained Glass Windows be out of place. A well where a witch was drowned in that now serves as its Genius Loci. The adventure hooks are Low Fantasy also, requests to snatch a mummified Monkey from a neighbouring village, a menacing bandit known as the Wolf King (who might or might not be a werewolf) and some drunken ramblings about a treasure guarded by a mermaid. Town boys are squabbling over the love of the Inn’s maid.
I propose that perhaps my disposition is more suited to epic vistas and dash-daring tales of heroism, C-beams glittering off Tannhauser Gate, the hosts of Ar-Pharazon the Golden defying the edicts of Manwë and setting course for Valinor, Elric and his reincarnations thwarting the machinations of the alien Sorcerers Agak and Gagak during the Conjuction of a Million Spheres, Faffhrd and the Grey Mouser snatching the Jewel of the Earth from under the noses of the Seven Black Priests! The Hammlet seems understated, its restrictive equipment choices needlessly constraining, its coterie of guests plausible but terribly mundane and even its adventures subtly underwhelming and undermystifying, as though an epic ordeal had just been replaced with a drive to the DMV.
Even the random table of inn guests is a disappointment, Baron’s men picking fights, King’s Men picking slightly less fights (this section reeks more of the Medieval then it does of the early Reinassance, though this is more the result of the lack of blackpowder weaponry) and at last, gasp, a unique NPC in the form of Yolante the Red, travelling female minstrel in Men’s clothes with a sword to boot and a hint of lesbianism, something I would surely cry wolf about as yet another sign of Lotfp’s ideological decay were I not familiar with her actual historical counterpart. In truth Yolante the Red provides a welcome breath of life and unconventionality from the grey ranks of peasants, guardsmen and travelling merchants with aenemic stores.
Banal rules for purchasing equipment and mundane hazards of climbing the inn via a back entrance. The frequent reference to other Lotfp adventures as tie-ins and suggestions seems vaguely jarring, as though we can envision the town of Nonnsbeck, Deathfrost Mountain or the grim church of St. Augustine co-existing with the asinine Willy Wonka parody of Blood in the Chocolate or the crystal-headed children of Wiki-dot-pod and not Sneer in Incredulity.
Then as players are lulled into a coma from their frequent visits to this benighted place they are suddenly confronted with Part 2 when the evil snake cult attacks.
In concept and even execution of the Snake Cult, where most of the villagers have been turned into evil snakemen is fairly well done but the driving force behind the events is a Raggi-an conceit that defies credibility even in a fantasy game (appropriate since Raggi came up with the creature). Apparently the Snake Demon can travel back in time and alter someone’s DNA once it hits people, thus explaining how the town is now temporally changed, one character is a mute and insane beggar, most of the villagers are SUDDENLY snake people, dead characters are alive, living characters are dead, and so on. Its a Stephen King esque plot twist that defies all credibility. Compare this with the mechanism behind the Spider Cult in Scenic Dunnsmouth, a similar concept with infinitely superior execution.
Which is not to say there isn’t creepy snake stuff going on here. The body horror is effectively done, with venomous serpents popping and I am confident that should you actually invest the time and effort to introduce Nonnsbeck into your campaign the snake cult reveal will be all the more effective after the characters have been established but I am simply not convinced it is worth the effort to do so. It would probably have saved time and be just as effective to simply outline the snake cult phenomenon and have the GM work it into whatever familiar inn or location he is using and take effect there.
The various relationships between the characters do not really factor in once the Snake Cult effect manifests, though getting to know them pays off as the changing of history means that now things are subtly off, something that would have worked just as well if the NPCs had simply been possessed or otherwise altered. In short, the writing accomplishes in needlessly complex ways what could have been done more plausibly to no tangible benefit.
There is good use of foreshadowing with the mute beggar kid and the boarded up Church and a return to Norrwhich should put the characters appropriately on edge, and the treasonous assault and reveal of the corrupted villagers should provoke at least one yikes! but to demand multiple sessions of set up and lukewarm adventure for the low low cost of eight dollars so I may have the pleasure of triggering the Yikes seems a bit much from Mr. Rients.
Even the Snake Demon itself, in appearance a Marilith, is not in the adventure (for which we can thank merciful christ), and is referenced in the upcoming Lotfp Bestiary (another unwelcome advertisement I might add). Its bizarre time-altering powers means anyone hit by it is irrevocably altered by it meddling with their parents and history. Considering an attack against the creature triggers this time warping effect, which has results that reduce a person to 0th level, cause them to join the Snake Demon in battle, become retarded and assorted unpleasantness. With no saving throw. What. The. F?
The follow-up suggestions concern themselves with the disappearance of the priest and his deacon and this is again an utter non-sequitor, being only tangentially related to the adventure proper. Rather then place some hint of the perpetrator of the awful Snake Cult somewhere in the adventure SO AS TO STIMULATE FURTHER ADVENTURE we instead get this non-follow up.
In lieu of having treasure, like a normal adventure, Obscene Serpent Religion 2 has a rationale why it is better not to have treasure, as though you were some naughty child at Sunday School that needed to be taught a lesson; that life is cruel and there is nothing that you value that it cannot take away. This is no joke, the intended goal of the adventure is to have the characters end up subtly worse then they started. Succeeded, but where is the cool magical shit that I am entitled to be tantalized with in the meantime?
As a historical adventure it fails because it does not really tie in to any important historical event or place and as Grimdark it fails because it is too understated and sober while its daemon is too wacky. The understated low-fantasy vibe of a Game of Thrones cruelly ruptured by a Clive Barker at his least coherent. A Warhammer stripped of its mythology, grim, tragic nobility or black humor.
Obscene Serpent Religion 2 is not so much terrible or ill-conceived as it is poorly cobbled together, the myriad components interacting but grudgingly, with awful rattling and creaking, its usefulness at the table cumbersome, its scenery detailed but bland and its payoff mediocre. After such hearty fare as Scenic Dunnsmouth or Thulian Echoes it has all the impact of a wet firecracker. Several blanks are half-heartedly fired at the enemy before the order to charge is given with a shrill trumpet blast that putters out into a fart noise. Floppy bayonets are afixed to pencil-thin rifles as the troops stumble forwards whilst distant mocking mad laughter thunders across the battlefield. Underwhelming. 3 out of 10.
UPDATE: It appears I have ticked off the Lotfp faithful with my predictions of doom on Facebook. Choice comments (both High IQ and Low IQ) below.
LOTFP, for as long as I’ve been following it, has always waxed and waned depending on what they have in the pipeline and what turns out to be awesome and what turns out to be more mediocre, and what actually manifests and what doesn’t. Like in 2015 or 2016 I don’t think there were any publications at all and the next year like half a dozen. Raggi does seem to trying to ramp things up a bit and have the company function more like an actual company than an arts collective but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
That’s a fair point so I’ll explain my reasoning. In 2017 Lotfp came out with Veins of the Earth, an impressive book from what I’ve seen of it so far and I am guessing it probably did really well despite its high hardcover price (or actually because of), but nearly all of the other things that came out in that year and the year after it sort of sucked. Frostbitten was undoubtedly Zak’s worst work yet, Mushroom Kingdom sucked, Blood in the Chocolate sucked, She Bleeds sucked, Fish Fuckers was alright, the free rpg day new magic system was gimmicky as all hell and sucked, and Kowolski was good to excellent as usual. The creative direction seems to be wavering. In addition, Chenier quit, Sabbath threw a shitfit, Stuart and Sabbath had problems and then Zakgate came, which prohibited any new Sabbath products on Drivethru, Hite disavowed, Kowolski quit (to all appearances, if you have other news I’d love to hear it) and Stuart seems to have moved away from Lotfp for the forseeable future. I’d call that a decline. Now maybe Raggi can turn this around, employ some sort of bright new star and entice him with promises of elfgame riches and artists the likes of which the world has never seen, but so far, the future looks grim in my eyes. Though of course even if Lotfp the brand goes, that doesn’t mean the fanbase can’t keep homebrewing for the system, obviously (We still have the OSR after all).
That review, and the blog in general, deserves high praise for its pseudo-intellectual unintelligibility. You’ve got to work really fucking hard to reach that kind of nonsense level.
Partially fair but a little too much butthurt. I experiment with different styles to keep things fresh and this was very much a stream of consciousness review. I edited out some of the repetitious adjectives and polished it up a bit. That being said, my writing is neither (entirely) unintelligible nor nonsense, and the lack of any kind of counter-argument or example of general unfairness proves my point. I don’t see any of you defending Obscene Serpent Religion 2 as some sort of great milestone in the Lotfp catalogue. Its alright to admit that someone you like can produce garbage too.
He’s usually super-negative in his LotFp reviews.
As of late, sure. Still, I’ve awarded more positive grades then negatives to Lotfp over the years (just check my reviews), my only awarded 10 ever went to a 3rd party Lotfp product (Gardens of Ynn, get it!), I ran a Carcosa game for 20+ sessions and loved the shit out of (despite flaws), I think Better then Any Man and Deathfrost Doom are damn fine adventures and Zzarchov Kowolski’s work is fucking awesome. Am I negative about James’s latest publications? Hell yes! But generally when I am being critical even my detractors tend to admit I am fair.
I think he has a couple points but I agree the author is a bit pompous.
Immediately below it. Told you. Yeah fair, I write like a cross between Dennis Reynolds from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and John C Wright on a meth-bender, and every day I try to inject a little bit more of that pomposity into my luscious verbiage until one day I will collapse into my own asshole like a dying star. And it will be beautiful.
Just about to read it…need coffee first.
How many times does “postmodern’ appear in it?
On the subject of the review… I’ve yet to read and use an adventure rote. That’s just how I play I guess, but every book, word and image is a little bit of fuel or a signpost to fresh ideas and surprise. If you were to play OSR2 straight up then yes it will befuddle and probably leave you cold or wanting more. If you use it as a sketched skeleton on which to hang sinew, muscle and meat of your own imaginings then it’s blissful… But that’s why I stopped playing D&D I guess, too many by-the-book-ites
Yeah but if you read past the hardly earned unintelligability you see also that I call it bland and dull, or later ridiculous also. I’m willing to give a great game a pass as much as the next guy. Mines, Claws & Princesses and Deep Carbon Observatory are both really good examples of incredibly evocative modules. Hell, Carcosa is flawed as a game but great as a Lovecraf & Planet vista of hell. The problem is that Obscure Shark Revivial 2 didn’t do that for me either.
I’ve never run a scenario without tinkering with it at least a little (I guess Tower of the Stargazer is an exception) but you have to be able to determine a point where its more efficient to just read a book or come up with your own shit rather then reading the adventure. Maybe that is an inherent bias of the reviewing process, you can make that case. Obtuse Shrew Redemption 2 did not seem worth my time.
Jeff Rients: Well, dang.
I won’t pretend not to like a good, angry pseudointellectual tirade but yeah this one was kind of a shame. Hope you didn’t spend too much time on it. Writing for publication is damn hard and can be stressfull, so its shitty when people don’t like your stuff.