Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 28 August 2015

A Muddled Presence

Understandably, the fixation of the Old School Renaissance has been upon fantasy. After all, it was born out of Dungeons & Dragons, the majority of its iterations seek to emulate Dungeons & Dragons in one form or another,  and it promotes itself as the inheritors of, if not ‘the’ true way to play Dungeons & Dragons, but ‘a’ true way to play Dungeons & Dragons. Now there have been attempts to do other genres, such as the Science Fiction of Grey Ranks’ X-Plorers or White Star from Barrel Rider Games, the post-apocalypse of Mutant Future, but until very recently, the horror genre has been all but ignored. Silent Legions from Sine Nomine Publishing is a recent exception, as is The Outer Presence.

Published by Kort'thalis Publishing after a successful Kickstarter campaign, The Outer Presence is an  investigative horror scenario designed to use a fast and easy, old school system allowing gamers to get on with it and start playing. It is an investigative horror scenario taking place in the real world during the 1970s. To play The Outer Presence, it presents ‘Quick and Dirty Rules for an Investigative Horror Roleplaying Game’, a set of light rules designed for ease of play rather than nuance.

To undertake an action, a character rolls one or more six-sided dice. If the action involves his Profession or has the advantage, he rolls three six-sided dice; if the action does not involve his Profession and is something that an ordinary person could do, he rolls two six-sided dice; or if the action is to be carried at a disadvantage, he rolls a single six-sided die. Only the result of the highest die counts. A result of a four is a Partial Success, a five gives a Success, a six a Critical Success, with lower results giving similar Defeats. An optional rule allows for shifts of luck should doubles be rolled.

Both combat and insanity use the same mechanic. The result is a light set of rules, easy to pick up, but again without a lot in the way of nuance and also unforgiving if not brutal in the possible results. Now the characters do have access to Bonus Dice, but only one at the start of a scenario and once used, it is lost. Bonus Dice are simply added to the dice rolled for any action—this is only way to exceed the limit of three six-sided dice for any roll. The only way to gain more Bonus Dice is to survive and complete more scenarios.

Although unnamed, this system is light and easy, but brutal and random in its effects. This may not find favour with all players, but at the same time, the stark brutality befits the Cosmic Horror sub-genre.

Mechanically, characters are lightly defined. They have a Profession, an Organisation and a Connection to said Organisation, a Drive, and one or more flaws. These can be rolled randomly or selected as agreed upon by the GM and his players. The sample character has been created entirely randomly.

Elvira Greer
Profession: Mercenary
Organisation: Well-connected and influential law firm
Connection: Colleague or valuable resource (symbiotic - you scratch their back, they scratch yours)
Drive: Looking for something (could be a family member, relic, cure to some rare tropical disease, etc.)
Flaw: Sociopath (antisocial behavior and no conscience)

A further option allows a character to receive a gift that makes him special, such as ‘Sorcery’ or ‘Being hard to Kill’. In return though, the character must take three Flaws or reduce his Profession to just two six-sided dice. These are not defined in any great depth and the aim is to have the actual effects come out in play.

The rules just take up twelve pages of The Outer Presence, the rest being devoted to the scenario, ‘The Outer Presence’. Inspired by films such as Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox, and Jungle Holocaust along with  the Jonny Quest television show from the 1960s, the scenario takes the investigators to New Guinea where an expedition from Miskatonic University has uncovered an ancient temple. The leader of the expedition, Doctor Karl Steiner, has requested that a second team help him study the temple.

There is something of a leap between the set-up in the USA and the player characters’ first meeting with the scenario’s antagonist in New Guinea. Once they learn that they are going to Melanesia,  there is almost no time for preparation or guidance as how the characters should be preparing. One option given is for the characters to visit the Miskatonic University Library and consult—even steal—the Necronomicon, though to what effect their researches might have is never explained. Once in New Guinea, there is no subtlety to the events of this meeting and no build up to the protagonist’s madness, such that there is the possibility of the scenario going awry depending upon the actions of the player characters. This may deny them one of the few chances for actual investigation in ‘The Outer Presence’. An experienced GM will probably work his way around such issues, but they should have been addressed.

Either way, the next step is to get the characters to the temple itself. Although accompanied by a fine map, the temple feels like a collection of random encounters. One or two are potentially interesting, but others add little to the plot or much in the way of atmosphere. It is in one of the more ‘interesting’ encounters that the plot to ‘The Outer Presence’ sort of becomes apparent, though not necessarily what the characters can do with this information.

Structurally there are a number of problems with ‘The Outer Presence’. For the players there is no guidance as to what characters they should create to play the scenario. After all, it makes no sense for the players to be creating random characters. For the GM, there is the underdeveloped and ill-explained plot which hampers his trying to impart it to the players and it hampers player character agency. This all stems from a lack of development that perhaps in the hands of an editor that ‘The Outer Presence’ might have received.

Physically The Outer Presence is slightly disappointing. Much of the artwork is excellent, but the writing is all too often undeveloped and its suggestions being just thrown away. This is exacerbated by the fact that any advice for the GM is left unmarked, so the GM will need to highlight it. The Outer Presence also needs another edit and in many places the writing is unnecessarily graphic and of an adult nature, some of it unnecessarily so. Lastly, the scenario comes as a forty-five page PDF, but really, five pages of that are just blank and add nothing to The Outer Presence.

The Outer Presence pitches itself as an  investigative horror scenario designed to use a fast and easy, old school system allowing gamers to get on with it and start playing. The system is not ‘Old School’, its stripped down simplicity echoing the WaRP System of Atlas Games’ Over the Edge, but it fits the brutalism of the Cosmic Horror of Lovecraftian investigative horror. The scenario, ‘The Outer Presence’ though, does have an Old School feel, but unfortunately not in the way that the author intended. It feels muddled and undeveloped, even random at times, with much for the GM to do in order to present it at the table.

The Outer Presence is available from RPGnow.