His Flesh Becomes My Key (OSR/system neutral)
The Outer Presence-module for Venger’s second tripartite collection of modules for his rules-lite systems clocks in at 18 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page VERY basic char-sheet (just two tables – a long cry from e.g. Alpha Blue’s cool sheet), 1 page Kort’thalis glyph, leaving us with 14 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
The pdf begins with a nice 2d6 table that presents weird, personal experiences of the influx of the weird, which may be encountered by the PCs during the course of the module – from headaches to involuntary anger and the like, they can make for nice pieces of dressing. It should be noted that, structure-wise, the module does not offer a synopsis or the like – this is not a go-play module and the referee should most definitely prepare the entirety in advance.
It should also be noted that this module imho works best as a one-shot and, being a horror module, it does feature some content you’d consider…well, gory and horrific. There is a potential murder in particular that is pretty R-rated. Reader-discretion is advised.
Now, more than in comparable modules, I STRONGLY advise potential players to stop reading NOW. This module, more so than comparable ones, can be SPOILED hardcore by even having a rough idea of what to expect. Only referees should continue reading.
All right, so the module begins in a rather calm manner: Just as the investigators are sitting around, enjoying a nice cigar and a glass of brandy, they notice a snow globe on one investigator’s desk – inside it, they can see an office with facsimiles of men and women, matching the party’s composition, gender-wise. While this is strange on its own, the PCs are contacted by their friend Richard Blake on the phone – usually kind and upbeat, his latest case of a serial murder whose modus operandi contains ritualistic mutilations of his victims, seems to have him shaken up. He also asks the PCs if they have read Thomas Alhazred Lovejoy. …if you even remotely are into semi-obscure and underappreciated horror movies, a smile may have crossed your face: My own association was most assuredly: “Do you read Sutter Cane?”
Anyways, the PCs are stood up – Black is a no-show at the date and considering the genre, the PCs should be rather concerned. Contacting Black’s partner, Cecil Slandy, does not paint the positive picture of Black you’d expect: Cecil obviously has been less than impressed with Black’s methods and considers him to be a gloryhound. Cecil and Black disagreed how the murder case in question should be pursued and thus, he hasn’t seen Black in over a week.
Thankfully, Detective Fontineau is a friend to both investigators and Black and lets them rummage through his desk…where a black notebook unearth a disturbing piece of prose writing (reproduced in the module), mentioning a “Master”, who answers “Others” – which doesn’t bode well. The notebook does yield some nice easter-eggs/leads, though, from Theta Chartreuse (Venger’s nod to Delta Green) to Lovecraft and the aforementioned Mr. Lovejoy, there are some delightfully bonkers conspiracy ideas herein -which may well turn out to be true, considering the setting.
Now, beyond these, the notebook does mention the Brotherhood of Gleaming Divulgence – though the phone number and apartment associated yield no hot trail. Instead, the investigators can find a sealed envelope contained a dire prose poem about a work when the stars are right. Another venue of investigation, obviously, would be Black’s apartment, where the investigators can find a rather disquieting statue of an amphibian monstrosity – as the notebook unearths, a likeness of Tal’Jezakbahr. Moreover, a wooden box contains an ivory crucifix, strange liquids, an annotated bible, strange demonic glyphs…not good.
Speaking of which: Black has a fondness for prostitutes and his current fling, Treena, sports tattoos vaguely resembling the glyphs found at the crime-scenes, based on, you guessed it, vivid descriptions in Lovejoy’s writing. She tells the investigators she’ll contact them and will do so – when she feels she’s being followed by a curly-haired guy…and when they don’t immediately get to her, she’ll be the next victim, one eye scooped out and placed in her vagina. And yes, there is a b/w-artwork of that. I did warn you about gore, right?
Anyways, the PCs can also find Jay Harango, an informant of Black whom he met when he disappeared. Similarly, the pdf mentions the prior and potential future victims of the serial killer here – and Lovejoy actually seems to be shook up about the murders. Now, I mentioned before that the referee should read the module in its entirety – a reason for this is that you don’t really get a list of the information in the notebook – you have to compile that yourself, which makes the otherwise modular investigation a bit harder to run than it should be imho.
The true killer isn’t as you may have thought, Mr. Black – instead, a bug-eyed fanatic called Stanton LaVry, who seeks to kidnap Lovejoy…a task in which he’ll succeed via his magical tricks. The investigators can ostensibly cut through the tentacles with mystical means, but no stats or the like are provided for doing so/judging the difficulty. Speaking of no stats – neither LaVry, nor his familiar sport stats herein. These would be, once more, up to the referee to provide.
The investigators may also witness LaVry’s book – which comes with a glorious 1-page artwork and inside, the PCs can read their names, written in blood. Examining the names conjures forth a silhouette of pure blackness and a hint on how to escape from a form of imprisonment…but no sign of Richard Black can be found. Instead, the PCs are lured deeper into the complex (which is a bit opaque): Finding a flagstone, the PCs can remove more, witnessing a vast cavern below, where humans engage in all sorts of depraved behavior – from murder to rape to (self-) mutilation, they witness a decadent rite in honor of a toad-spider thing, circled by nubile witches that seek to curry favor with their demonic master…and a tall, horrid man with either a mask or distorted flesh in his face conducting the rite. How the PCs go down below to the rite is somewhat opaque, as far as I’m concerned, but movement through the throng of folks towards the strange Supplicant comes with a nice d6-table of dressing-events. While it requires Willpower to resist the libidinous advances of the witches, I am not sure how that is supposed to be handled – what’s a partially success (4+ in TOD), for example? Does it suffice? What are the consequences for failing the roll? All of that needs to be improvised by the referee.
Black is here as well, trying to dodge the ritualists. His involvement here, alas, is also left up to the referee. Upon reaching the servitor, he offers to send the PCs back and end their imprisonment, though everything apart from the soul as a toll will result in the servitor’s face melting off, leaving a black void…and upon gazing into it, the PCs will see themselves zoom out, revealing the investigators trapped inside the snow-globe that started all. The phone rings. Richard Black’s on the phone…and the cycle repeats ad infinitum. LaVry’s book provides the only clue to save the investigators – skin the servitor and wear his flesh (hence the title). However, since we don’t really have an idea of the servitor’s potency, nor any clues on how knowledge of prior cycles changes events, it may be preferable for the referee to end the module on this disturbing nod of an infinite loop of unwilling participants. It’s certainly the most impactful way to end this story.
Editing and formatting are very good, I didn’t notice any significant hiccups. Layout adheres to the nice, greenish-tinted two-column full-color standard of Outer Presence adventures. The pdf comes with a second, more printer-friendly version – big kudos. Speaking of which: The b/w-artworks herein are excellent indeed – this is a really nice-looking pdf.
Venger As’Nas Satanis’ latest “The Outer Presence” module is an excellent, rather horrifying tale of terror. I mean it. Where the first two modules in the series focused on pulp with a bit of Cthulhiana spliced in, this one can be considered to be actual HORROR. It’s build up is great, the end amazing. As a one-shot, this does a great job and in fact, represents, by FAR, my favorite story he’s woven so far. It’s intriguing, cool and fun, a bit gory and transcends the limits of being just a homage to a certain Carpenter-movie or Twilight Zone et al.
Let me make that abundantly clear: An experienced referee can have a glorious field-day with this. That being said, for me, this is less of an adventure and more of a story. It is slightly inconvenient that you have to compile the information from Black’s notebook and the final areas when facing the killer are a bit more sketch-like than I’d like them honestly to be. Since one of my readers asked me to state the like explicitly: This is not a go-play module and requires some referee-time-investment to run properly. The complete absence of any game mechanics apart from 2 dressing tables is jarring and the one thing I absolutely do not understand about this offering. We have an inspired, cool horror-yarn here, so how come that neither rolls for sanity, nor any other components from ToD’s already extremely minimalist rules can be found herein? This is, in short, not really an adventure module in the traditional sense. It leaves the referee pretty much alone with anything related to mechanics – stats for adversaries and obstacles can’t be found and while some entries, like the abduction of a certain NPC, do come with suggestions, there are no real consequences for succeeding. Nor does witnessing tentacles burst from the ground cause sanity checks.
In short, were I to rate this based solely on the merits of an adventure, I’d consider it a failure. Player agenda and choice doesn’t matter too much, the referee must do all the work for stats etc. and some serious improvising etc.
In short: I can see this fail horribly for some referees.
Still, as a person, this represents the first Outer Presence supplement I really LOVED. This, when seen as a story to be fleshed out, makes for an amazing experience. Yes, it requires more work on part of the referee. Yes, it is at times a bit obtuse and inconvenient – but if you do run its conclusion as I suggested and pull that aspect off, you’ll have an amazing, inspired experience on your hands.
Which brings me to the task I really dreaded regarding this review – namely, rating this. You see, even when not looked at as an adventure you can quickly and conveniently prepare, this could be structured better and is, at times, more inconvenient than it should be. The already rather thin rules of “The Outer Presence” take a further backseat (even compared to “A Green jewel They Must Possess”) and are pretty much completely omitted. The only dice you’ll RAW roll are dressing tables. So yeah, if you expect at least some sort of convenience and gaming material beyond a story, then steer clear of this.
On the plus-side, the story is amazing, inspiring and truly cool. As in: Best thing in the product-line, by far, levels of cool. As a person, I THOROUGHLY enjoyed this supplement. I like the story, the pacing of the module – from the beginning to the end, the module continuously increases the tension, has some nice stakes…and the finale is, as mentioned, a blast. If you’re looking for an inspired base to further develop into a module, then this will deliver in spades.
I only very rarely am this torn about any module. I can see some people hating this as a module and loving it as a story to develop. Ultimately, I have to account for both in my review. Which is why my final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars…but I honestly feel I have to round down for this one. However, since I really LOVED the story and finale, this is one of the rare cases where I award my seal of approval, in spite of the pdf’s flaws – if you can navigate them, this becomes amazing.
You can get this inconvenient, but inspiring horror-yarn here on OBS!
You can get this in print as part of its compilation here on OBS!