Monday, 27 April 2015
RPGPundit Reviews: The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence
This is a review of the OSR setting, "The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence", described as "an old school weird science-fantasy campaign setting and wilderness hex-crawl". It is written by "Venger As'Nas Satanis", the OSR's resident Cthulhu-Worshiping Satanist Magician; you know, the type of guy I've written about in some of my "Real Magick in RPGs" blog series. His continued existence is proof that he's either not a real magician, or Cthulhu is not a real being. Or maybe both.
Anyways, "Islands" is a 106 page softcover, published by "Kort'thalis Publishing" (Cthulhu sure does like his apostrophes!), with a full color cover of a needlessly-salacious pair of female buttocks looking over a nightmarish sort of landscape; the words "caution: mature content!" appear in bright red on the front cover, but somehow 'mature' is not the first word the image brings to mind.
I should mention that in my experience Venger is definitely one of these guys (like James Desborough) who like to court controversy and outrage on purpose (could you really expect anything less from a guy who's no doubt chosen the last name "Satanis"? I assume that's not an old family name..); I know I'm sometimes included in that same list but in my case (as in some others) it's really that I just don't give a shit, as opposed to actively trying to find (sophomoric) ways to be 'edgy' about sex or violence with my RPGs in the hopes of getting negative attention.
None of that impresses me much, but I won't judge a book by its cover (in this case literally). The interior art is certainly filled with relatively good-quality art, mostly of Lovecraftian monstrosities of different kinds, most of which manage to be impressive (a few even actually creepy) without being needlessly offensive; though I'll note that in the entire book out of the half-dozen or so images that have identifiable female figures in them, all but one are either naked or very scantily-clad (with a predominance of bare buttocks and thigh-high boots). While none of the images are explicitly sexual several are being attacked by monsters while naked and/or bound. I guess that's the author's interpretation of 'maturity'. It's the kind of thing that would give Tracy Hurley conniption fits if she wasn't too busy being worried about how tight Aleena the Cleric's full-body chain mail looks.
But fine; let's accept that the art here is almost certainly an intentional ploy to get attention by causing outrage, and move on. The question then is whether the content is any good? Note: you'll need to read this whole review, to get the big picture, because it's complicated.
The book starts (after some in-game fiction that, like most in-game fiction, is forgettable) with a set of "optional rules for the GM". The first few of these are not particularly good; in the sense that while nothing is terribly wrong with them they don't really fit (to me) the old-school model. You get a system of task-resolution that the author admits is inspired by countless dice-pool mechanics (which are really, to me, outside the whole boundary-markers of what defines old-school), where you roll a number of D6 based on the perceived difficulty of the task and have to count any die that results in a 6. Then you have an optional rule for giving players a +1 to their d20 rolls if they are suitably flowery in their description of their actions (an example: instead of saying "I put up my shield" they say "just before he shoots something from his luminous fingers I raise my shield for protection"; in other words, precisely the kind of needless wordiness without meaningful value that I don't particularly want to encourage). Then there's a mechanic whereby if a player asks a question about whether there is something in the environment (example: "is there something down that well?") the GM should roll a flat 33% chance that there in fact is. None of these are mechanics I would want to implement in an old-school game.
After some suggested porting-over of 3e D&D's "attack of opportunity" and "flanking" rules (again, no!), and a checklist for how to frame a one-shot adventure, you get the advice that every player should (when creating a character) tell the GM one thing about their character that is not written on the character sheet, which is not terrible but not exactly brilliant either.
It does start to get better after that, however. At this point we start getting into some of the mods that specifically apply to the "islands" setting. For example, you have a "darker secrets" table, which PCs can roll at character creation that involves strange details like "you have a special fondness for spiders and spider-like beings", or "after losing your wife and children in a recent war you want nothing more than to see the world burn". There's still a few problems with this table: it only has 20 options (which really isn't enough for an OSR-type game where presumably a lot of characters will end up being cycled through), and some of the selections are kind of questionable in various ways: from "you were the product of incest, so you are either physically sensitive or emotionally cruel" to "you were convicted of rape and successfully escaped from prison" to "you're extremely nearsighted and this can't be corrected by lenses or magic" (for some damn reason not explained in the entry). There's a rule for randomly rolling a flashback scene for each character before start of play, which is better than a lot of the background-stuff just by virtue of at least being interactive; it's the sort of thing that works really well in Amber (minus the randomness, of course) but probably won't be to the liking of a lot of Old-school gamers (for their old-school games at least). Again on a better note, there's a rule for how magic-use is affected by the immensely unstable influence of chaos on the Islands: anytime you cast a spell, you roll a D6. On a 6, the spell is doubled in all effects; on a 1 the spell has a disastrous discharge (it either has the opposite of its stated effect, or it affects the caster instead of its target). On a 3, a random magical effect happens, most of which effects are harmful to the caster but a couple are neutral or arguably useful. It's also stated, on a slightly later optional rule, that wizards can choose, on rolling a 1, to become chaos-aligned instead of having a disaster happen; and subsequently start to become mutated (unfortunately, it doesn't provide a random mutation table, which is a pity).
(note: in spite of Cthulhu-worship, this has not happened to Venger in real life)
We're also told that the Islands are full of dimensional gateways all over the place, so there's a random table as to where a given gateway leads. The selections are generally lovecraftian (a world of the Old Ones, the distant past or future, R'lyeh, the Dreamlands) but a couple are unusual (a world that looks like an Erol Otus painting, Earth in the present day).
After this we get a few other Islands-specific rules: there are apparently corpses of ancient worms lying around the island (not sure how that's an "optional rule"; maybe we switched sections without the reader being told?), and there are deep horrific things under the earth (again, that's all we're told, no 'optional rules' in sight). There's also an effect that happens when you travel in time called chronosis, which causes temporary disorientation and memory loss. There's some optional rules for fighting modifications after his first injury and when he's at death's door, and some rules for regaining hit points after resting.
Then we get an optional Monk class. It isn't radically different from other monk classes out there but with less special powers (only the ability to captivate an audience, and a sort of psychic attack that can potentially be deadly - literally blowing up an opponent's brain- but has a high element of chance and a constitution drain).
After this we find out about how magic swords work differently on the islands: they cause critical hits on a 19-20 if wielded by fighters; the crit effects are rolled on a table. Also, all magic swords that spend enough time on the island become intelligent, with a table of random personalities for said swords, and a random table for a sword's origin.
Finally, there's a random permanent injury table, rolled any time a PC gets to below 0 hp but somehow survives.
So the next section is called "Running Purple" and here we get a guide to the setting information. It starts with one of those lengthy past-history timelines, dating back from "20000 years ago". Back then the islands were apparently only one landmass, but later broke up. A snake-man empire rose up, who rode on the ancient wyrms. They ruled for 7500 years until a coalition of men, elves and dwarves drove them out using magic to kill the wyrms. Two thousand years later a powerful Azure Witch took power, but her rule was cut short by the rise of the Purple Putrescence (of the title), a horrible purple mist full of tentacles that even to this day floats over the islands that dissolves living creatures, causes mutations, and all other kinds of terrible things.
The islands were also infested with strange crystals some 3200 years ago; these crystals augment magic but make it more chaotic. There's other stuff too: the "tentacles from the water", a great inexplicable super-computer created by an unknown race, and in the last ten years some distant lands have started using the islands as a penal exile colony.
The islands, we are told, have a mind of their own, and there's a "what do the Islands want" table to roll on.
We are told that the Islands are intended as a sandbox, but in case a GM wants some more structure we're also given a table of potential adventure seeds.
We also have a random table that PCs can roll to determine what their own connection to the Islands are, why they're there.
There's also a good old 'rumor table', complete with a T and F rating for whether the rumor is true or false.
You can also get into truly gonzo territory with the "what happened when you were sleeping" table, which can cause a number of inexplicable effects, like having a severed head appear on a PC's bedroll, having a PC lose his memories, or a henchman getting his brain sucked out by something in the night, or a magic-user losing 1d6 memorized spells while they slept.
These various tables, and sections with interspersed detail, are not really put in any kind of coherent order as far as I can tell. Likewise, there are some of the sections in the previous chapter that I would have put in this one, and vice versa. Maybe Venger is trying to evoke the scrambled style that some old-school books had. Some people find that kind of thing quaint. I'd rather it had been put in some kind of more coherent arrangement, myself.
In regard to the economics of the Islands, we are told that gold pieces (or other forms of coin economy) are not really used here; instead, trade is mainly done in slaves (particularly human and elven women, which given the whole aesthetic of the setting comes as no surprise), in magic, and advanced technology, as well as shelter and information.
From there we switch to guidelines as to how to obtain a "sherpa", a local guide. And then, we suddenly veer to hearing about how if you profane the name of the Dark Gods you get a -2 penalty to saving throws for the next day, and if you profane the name of an Old One in the presence of a lead cultist you will get shot by a destructive wave of purple energy falling from the sky. Clerics, priests, and holy men do get a percentage chance of divine intervention, though.
There's also more details on the Purple Putrescence, which (when it shows up) can randomly attack people with a save-or-die type of situation.
There's some details on the dreamlands, and on randomly-occurring mutagenic rain which leaves behind a lethal purple mist in a way pretty much identical to the Putrescence itself.
The whole of the islands seem to be some kind of machine, too. There's random illusion-hidden control panels that can do various effects, and there is a "mechanical and mystical under-system" that is found deep beneath the islands that keep everything running, as it were.
Alongside this, there's also the mysterious "Black Pylons": trapezoidal monoliths that act as gateways to other dimensions, space and time, but only if you have the right crystals to use them.
The crystals are one of the more interesting details of the setting: they're all over the islands, mostly underground, though obviously a lot of people have ones that were already taken from under the earth. They come in a variety of colors; several of these allow you to use the Pylons to travel through dimensions or space/time. Many of them also grant you one or more powers if you carry them, but most of them also come at a serious cost (of temporary daily draining of an ability score). Sometimes, combining two or more crystals can have powerful or catastrophic effects. So they're good items in the sense of being a mix of powerful and dangerous.
After this, we get details on the various factions found on the Island. This include descriptions of the major ones that detail their leaderships, beliefs, numbers, behaviours, agenda, technology level, common trade currencies, and any special details. There's also random tables that simulate developments that may have happened with a faction since the last time the PC party encountered them; and a table for determining events that happen (between or at the start of adventures, presumably) if the PCs stay around with a certain faction for a while. Factions include the worshipers of the Purple Putrescence, the mysterious Overlords who operate the underground machine, the native monkey-men of the islands, the hapless followers of the god of light, the remnants of the once-great Snake Men empire, and the followers of a strange deity called Zygak-Xith
Then we get a wandering monster table, a one-number saving throw chart for monsters (that is, if you're using or want to use a system where all saves are based on a single base number, which is what's used in Swords & Wizardry, if I recall correctly, and Arrows of Indra, among others). There's a small outdoor-terrain trap table to finish off this section.
After this, we finally start to get to the section that details the islands themselves, arranged by hexes. There's a very short description of each of the three Islands: Korus is the biggest, with its prominent mountain range. It has populations of Mi-Go, Snake men, a necromancer with something called "doom hawks", and various other unnatural creatures. Kelis is a jungle-island that features the ruins of a previous civilization, and its main feature is something called the "Shattered Dome". Kravian is the island that features Zygak-Xith and his worshipers.
I'm obviously not going to detail every single hex; I will say that the hex entries cover 51 pages of the book, so nearly half of the total content. Almost all of them include small, medium or large-sized adventure/encounter hooks, with a wide diversity of subject matter. As much as I've been mocking the over-the-top 'heavy-metal turned-to-11' attitude of Venger's writing, and some of his other stylistic and structural foibles in the book, there's no question that the vast majority of the stuff he's got in the hex entries is spectacularly creative, playable, diverse, and interesting, if what you want is gory, sometimes sophomoric, occasionally sleazy, and highly weird gonzo-fantasy writing. If you look at his hex-crawl section, he writes the way I imagine Geoffrey McKinney only wishes he could write. That is to say, cleverly.
You won't find hex after hex of the same bullshit here, nor will it seem like he just randomly-generated the hex contents. They're all weird, sometimes ridiculously so, and rarely make much if any sense, but each one was obviously given inspiration and not just dialed-in. No "you encounter 2d6 bone-men" here, no fifty-hexes full of different-colored statues or hybrid animals that seem taken from mixing two randomly-generated normal animals and rolling on a randomly-generated special-attack table. This section was VASTLY better than I expected it to be based on the first forty pages of the book.
Discounting the Isle of Dread as vastly more vanilla than this product, when you look at the other important "lost island" or "weird world" products out in OSR-land, you have what? Isle of the Unknown, Carcosa, maybe LotFP's Weird New World.. are there any important ones I missed? As a setting (again, if you can bear the level of almost comical "extremeness" of the book), the Islands of Purple Putrescence kicks the living shit out of all of these, BOTH in terms of creativity and in terms of the level of Gonzo the book has.
The book concludes with a few pages of new spells (over a dozen spells, all of spell levels 2-4, of a suitably weird or badass-destructive nature), and some very interesting magic items; the latter (there's 28 of them, if I counted right) are of the dark-wizardry and nasty-chaos-sword variety, some of which are for all intents and purposes cursed items.
So what to conclude about this book? Well, it's clearly far from perfect; some of the style is grating to me personally. And some of the organization is haphazard. And given that I personal ADORE "gonzo" style play, there are parts of this book that feel like they're trying too hard, to be as "exxxtreme" as possible.
But ultimately none of this matters so much as all the good parts: most of the tables, and even a lot of the optional rules, fit the setting well, and at least some of them could easily be shifted over to other settings in a similar genre. The place where Islands really stands out is in the quality of the hexcrawl itself.
If you're looking for a weird-fantasy gonzo-sandbox with sci-fantasy, lots of lovecraftian overtones (does that make this Venger's equivalent of a really-Christian guy writing a Christian RPG?), and a "Heavy Metal" aesthetic, you pretty much have to get this book. Even if you want any of those component parts for use in your own D&D or OSR game, you'll get a lot of great stuff here.
Currently Smoking: Dunhill Shell Diplomat + C&D's Crowley's Best