The Outer Presence (OSR)
This module/system for very rules-light investigative horror clocks in at 45 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 2 pages of editorial/introduction, 2 pages of space for notes, 2 empty pages, 2 pages depicting the Kort’thalis glyph, 1 page inside of back cover, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 33 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
We begin this book with character generation, which is pretty simple – we begin with choosing a profession from a list of 20, though adding new ones is heartily encouraged. For purposes of determining cohesion and identity within the world, 10 organizations and 6 possible relationships with said organizations can be found. A total of 8 different basic motivations and drives that push the character forward are similarly included and the system also assumes that you must pick one of 20 character flaws.
This background, mostly dressing, as you may have noticed, is in service to the very simple and important design paradigm that everyone is average until proven otherwise, which ties in with conflict resolution and basically anything. The system presented is based on the VSd6-engine also employed by other books by Kort’thalis Publishing, though with a modified focus towards the subject matter at hand. To reiterate: You usually roll a dice pool of 2d6 and consult the best value. Advantages on your end let you roll 3d6, disadvantages/slim chances are represented by rolling 1d6 and the worst cases require the rolling of 2d6 and taking the worse result.
The latter is particularly important if you wish to play a “Special” character – whether you’re psychic, a sorceror, an alien or other weird entity or just hard to kill, the decision to become special has a serious drawback, namely that you either must take 3 flaws…or just 1 flaw. If you elect to pursue the latter option, you, alas, suck at your background and thus reduce your dice pool for related tasks by minus 1d6…which can accrue a lot of flack fast. You see, while the backgrounds mentioned before don’t look like much on paper, they are your guideline to determine what you get to do and how many dice you can roll…
Dice pool interpretation is simple: 1 is a Critical failure, 2 is a failure, 3 a partial failure, 4 a partial success, 5 a success and 6 a critical success. I’d strongly suggest going with the optional rule, which lets you change your fate when rolling doubles, allowing for quirky twists of fate. Combat is also based on the dice pool system and the respective system: Even a roll of 4 wounds your victim and 2 wounds equal being rendered unconscious; 5 already knocks the foe out in one hit and 6…well. Instakill. It doesn’t take a genius to determine that combat with this system is very lethal. Here’s a very important aspect, though: You do get a bonus die per session, which you may use to increase your chances of success…and each session survived nets you another one. You’ll need them. Trust me.
Encountering the truly weird, i.e. the insanity-inducing, pretty much is an instant efF-U for the poor sap of a character, who rolls a d6 and may immediately be converted to basically cultist status, assume fetal catatonia, begin ranting and raving, faint, develop a phobia…or, on a roll of 6, just shake it off. Yeps, a 1 in 6 chance to remain basically in control. You won’t do a lot of fighting versus the weird (without dying horribly) in this system – a general notion I like as a fan of purist Cthulhu-esque games. Similarly, killing the basically unkillable is subject to GM-fiat more than just rolls and as such, can lend itself to appropriately bleak scenarios. Initiative, just fyi, is assumed to be handled via “common sense” – which may just boil down to rolling and going by results, but whatever works for your groups is fine. After the first combat, players won’t be so keen to begin one anyways…at least they won’t be after some of their own have died horribly.
Anyways, this is about the extent of the rules array; told you it was simple, right?
Anyways, the bulk of the book is actually devoted to a rather significantly-sized scenario, which lends the title its name. It is set in the 1970s (obviously) and begins when Dr. Karl Steiner and his expedition-force with rival Dr. Zachary Stevenson, assistant Vanessa Hargreaves and crony/lackey Elliot Richelieu and the student Jasper Johnson is lost in New Guinea, supposedly on an anthropology trip to study the Meepie tribe (which generates associations of “meek” and “sheeple”…at least for me) a random 12-entry table lets the GM easily determine what characters were doing when they got the class, for they are off to New Guinea on behalf of Miskatonic University!
…and this is as far as I can go without diving into SPOILER-territory. Players should jump to the conclusion.
All right, only GMs around? Great! So, basically, while the system looks like it is geared up for bleak, purist Cthulhu-style horror, the scenario herein is actually somewhat of a Frankenstein-entity, which is a good and a bad thing, as far as I’m concerned. Even in the introductory scenes at university, a missive from Steiner can be found, which bespeaks already his madness and if that alone did not send your alarm-bells a-ringin’ – well, then you probably haven’t see the movies and read the books I have. Anyways, the first section of this module boils down to a bow before the exploitation classics like Cannibal Holocaust…or, if you’d be more literally inclined, “Heart of Darkness”, one of the most misunderstood books ever written. The travel to the Meepie tribe, is, surprisingly, glossed over for the most part, which really surprised me, considering that Heart of Darkness is all about the progressive changes and the effects on the human psyche. Anyways, you may well insert and emphasize the journey – though the association with the aforementioned exploitation flicks becomes immediately obvious upon making contact with the Meepie – who are now lorded over by Dr. Steiner as a kind of god-king, leading them ever further into depravity.
The PCs will probably want to kill the Kurtz-ian villain that Steiner has become, but this is where the weird begins – for he does not perspire, victim to his self-inflicted, own horror and psychological devolution, but rather find out that the 7-eyes beast/deity Zor’raev Tsog is protecting the bestial man. Worse, his crony Eliot is very willing to kill. Let’s hope the PCs keep their composure for now, for there are things to be found in the Meepie village – Jasper’s journal, for example…as well as a scroll and a weird skull…but yeah. Between the feud with another tribe, the Kahli, and Steiner’s atrocities, it should be possible to slip away and move towards the temple that seems to be Steiner’s obsession – if the PCs manage to not be eaten by a giant snake, they may encounter an intriguing vignette here – the mountain does contain a weird, jellyfish-like thing, worshipped as deity by local tribesmen; examined by another expedition…and hunted by a large game hunter and his team, making for an intriguing dynamic…I just wished it had a bit more room to shine for its dynamics; at just one page, it feels like a captivating insertion and one you can easily cut in e.g. the convention-circuit. I think it could carry its own module…but onwards.
The second part of the module would be the exploration of Nafu Aata, the temple of dark secrets. The complex comes with a lavish map in b/w, though no player-friendly iteration can be found. Yes. Dungeon-exploration. With these rules. PCs will die. Horribly. The complex begins by throwing giant spiders at the PCs…thereafter, the hapless fools can find a statue of Zor’raev Tsog – who is lavishly-rendered in b/w…thogh, alas, in its obvious, awakened form. Pity that we don’t get the non-fool-grabbing art to show the PCs…the artwork is amazing, but now will only be used when PCs are stupid enough to tinker with it. The rest of the complex’s challenges, from water to strange, star-shaped entities, are surely sufficiently diverse…and include a battle of cultists of Zor’raev Tsog and teh Outer Presence sealed within the complex – both of which arrive from strange portals, ending in a combat of laser guns versus curved, magic daggers. The finale, ultimately, deals with the horrific-insight-granting, living black tentacle-studded relic. You see, the eponymous Outer Presence and Zor’raev Tsog don’t really see eye to eye regarding the extinction/enslavement of humankind. Tsoggie sounds bad…but see that cover? That’s what happens if the presence isn’t stopped…which is nigh impossible. Thankfully, both Meepie, mad journal, the horribly-impregnated Vanessa that can be found here or other NPCs can fill in at least a bit of the blanks here.
The pdf concludes with further adventure suggestions as well as a nice primer of Meepie words for your roleplaying edification.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no significant issues. Layout adheres to an easy-to-read, cleanly-presented two-column b/w-standard. The pdf sports several absolutely gorgeous b/w-artworks, including full-page ones that make for cool handouts. Cartography is excellent, though a key-less, player-friendly version would have been nice. The pdf iteration of the book has no bookmarks, which constitutes a comfort-detriment -I’d suggest getting the print-version, which has thus the upside regarding the navigation aspects.
Venger As’Nas Satanis’ Outer Presence is two things – for one, it is a simple, easy to explain and grasp roleplaying system that works rather well for purist horror modules. Oddly, then, would be the fact that the system eschews this basic strength (perhaps supplemented via a bit more investigation) and instead bashes you over the head with its barrage of the weird. This book is about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face and, to make that clear, in my book, this is about as scary as a dungeon of bones and blood.
If you expect fully developed psychological horror, the system can deliver that, though the module employing it does not – this is very much indebted to the aesthetics of exploitation movies and pulpy explorations into the weird. Reading the module, it frankly feels like a jumbled mess of themes – Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness/Cannibal holocaust, interlude of weird set-piece, then dungeon, which includes sudden influx of potential scifi aesthetics. If your players stop to wonder and think this through, the module may crumble under its own weight and the fact that its themes feel a bit too crowded. You don’t have one theme, but a rapid oscillation of horrible things. But guess what? In play, if you maintain a proper pace, you can actually employ this strategy to maintain a sense of wonder and surprise, always keeping the players on their toes. The Outer Presence, frankly, plays much, much better than it reads.
For all intents and purposes, this shouldn’t work this well, but it does…which is surprising. At the same time, you should probably generate an atmosphere that emphasizes this pulpy aesthetic: If you go the whole way with sounds, lighting and locale, the module is too inconsistent in its themes to make full use of these components. There is no linear rise of tension, but rather a rapid succession of spikes and as such, a beer-and-pretzel-environment may actually work better here and make it still feel like pulpy horror; something also emphasized by the simplicity of rules.
So, while we had a blast, I’d hesitate calling the module-portion “horror” – it features horrific themes, yes, but the engine could do the horrific better than what is presented here. That being said, this can be an incredibly fun, pulpy experience of dying in horrible ways and marveling at what’s around the next corner – think of this, in theme, closer to Cthulhu meets JohnnyQuest/Indiana Jones than bleak, nihilistic cthulhiana. In my own sense of the word, this is not horror – it does not generate fear, a sense of being disturbed or the like. This startles the players, it does not frighten them.
For people looking for a psychological scenario, I’d rate this as a low 4; however, for getting a fast-paced, easy to run and prepare pulpy one-shot, this is a fun book to have and works well in the context. Thus, my final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars…and while personally, I’d round down (since I’m very much a believer of the power of subtlety in horror, of establishing leitmotifs and themes and of some restraint being better than overkill), if you’re looking for popcorn-cinema horror, this delivers in bucketloads and spades. Hence, my official verdict will round up.
You can get this fun, fast-paced romp here on OBS!