Saturday, July 4, 2020

Developer Interviews: Venger Satanis

Wicked Mentations of the Crimson Ink-Stained Warlock

(An Interview with Venger Satanis)

This is the first in what I hope will be a long series of Q&A jams with notable (or notorious) people in the Indie and OSR game communities about their work, ideas, and inspirations. I intend to write carefully researched, thought-provoking questions with each developer so tgey can give us their most complex, boldest takes on Gaming, Fantasy, and the future of our hobby. Not to mention a chance to plug their creations.

The anwers are unedited, their ideas are their own. Hopefully each one will find a way to blow your mind. This is going to be a wild ride.

Venger Satanis
: Venger As'Nas Satanis is the author of some of the wildest, weirdest, and occasionally most controversial material for the OSR. From his weird horror-fantasy hex crawl Islands of the Purple Putrescence, to his long-running exploitation Sci-Fi inspired Alpha Blue, his work is strange, subversive, and experimental. His latest book, Cha'alt is a gonzo science fantasy story that includes everything from space amazons to Lovecraftian horrors to high-stakes alien game shows. He is also a co-host of the podcast Inappropriate Characters alongside Kasimir Urbanski and Jobe Bittman (and previously, James Desborough), and writes the blog Venger's Old Time Gaming Blog. Thanks for letting me pick your brains, Venger!

VAS: Happy to do it. I think being asked interesting, probing, and possibly awkward questions gets us to open up and think about our process a little more. That's always a good thing, if occasionally uncomfortable. The sleeper must awaken! 

Let's start with the obvious questions: How long have you been playing RPGs? How did you start? When did you decide to take it that big step beyond being a DM to being a developer?

I was gifted the magenta box of Basic D&D way back in 1984 or thereabouts when I was about 9 or 10. Didn't come naturally, but eventually I figured out what was going on and played D&D with friends, their older brothers, cousins, babysitters, etc.

As soon as I started DMing, I injected my own original material into the game. Periodically, I would create my own games based on familiar properties, like G.I. Joe and Transformers. Just me writing a couple pages out with pencil on loose-leaf paper. It wasn't until around 2012 that I discovered the Old School Renaissance and really wanted to write a proper dungeon module that was clear enough for others to run. That first adventure was Liberation of the Demon Slayer. 

Front Cover to "Islands of the Purple-
Haunted Putresence " (C) 2014
Kort'thalis Publishing
Of all the things that have struck me about your work, one of the most compelling was the Foreword to The Islands of Purple Putrescence. You talk about Escapism as a path, and a way of defying everyday life. That really struck a chord with me. You create a different, better life for yourself through the virtual realities of TTRPGs. Are role-playing games more than a hobby?

Good question! Like my literary hero, H.P. Lovecraft, writing is a reaction to everyday life. I love being alive and the fruits of this world, but I seem to gravitate towards the unnatural, the weird, the gross, darkness in all its horrific glory. Both writing and roleplaying are my escape from the mundane. Immersion heightens that escapism, a sense of "being there" really makes you feel like you're no longer imprisoned in this three-dimensional, two-bit, one horse town we call reality.

Do you think your views on Escapism change the way you build your games and your worlds? Are you building to create a place where a certain kind of story can unfold? Are you building with an eye to a particular kind of player experience? Or are you building the world that you want to live in?

I think so... I certainly design adventures to have enough space for the PCs to take matters into their own hands. Sometimes, you can faintly see railroad tracks half-buried in the ground - places where the PCs were intended to go in a certain direction based on how the scenario was "meant" to go. But people should be able to do what they want in the game, and in life (within reason).

I provide opportunities. A lot of times, players don't take advantage of them... which is totally fine. But if the PCs want to get creative, I like to be prepared.

I build the world that I'd like to see other people trapped in, like if I was an all-powerful wizard on some kind of reality TV-show, looking down on the poor saps that have to struggle to survive in my domain. Would I want to live there? It's tempting, but I wouldn't put my life in actual jeopardy just for the chance to loot a magical sword from some demon's treasure hoard. Maybe if I was still single, sure. But I have a family now - that just makes my other life or lives, in the make-believe world, sweeter. 

Front Cover "Kobayahi Maroon"
(C) 2018 Kort'thalis Publishing
All of the worlds of yours that I have read about: The Purple Islands, Alpha Blue, Cha'alt, all interconnect. Will we ever see something like a big, unifying Kort'thalis RPG? Something that is built on travel across time-space? Is such a thing possible?

Such a thing might be possible, but I prefer to design things so they're all loosely connected without hammering the point home. Again, like Lovecraft, I prefer to mention a certain book or plateau in several adventures, allowing readers to connect the dots, if they wish. At the end of the day, these books are just tools for GMs to interpret and run their own games. I encourage cross-pollination with references here and there. It's up to the GM if he wants to run with it or choose a different path. I'd like to talk about subversiveness, because it is one of the things your games do really well. And that you do pretty well, for that matter. 

As a kid Dungeons &Dragons' subversiveness was one of its big appeals. It was a gateway to appendix N, it had gore and sex, themes of drug use and the occult. It was pretty irreverent about a lot of Shibboleths of mainstream culture... while somehow just barely staying within the Overton Window. How integral was that to D&D's success, importance, and appeal?

D&D appeals to children, adolescents, and adults. For children, they don't need subversion... but if it's baked-in, that doesn't hurt anyone. Adolescents and adults enjoy that kind of provocation, scoffing at sacred cows and transgressing boundaries of civilization and good taste. Part of escapism is not having to worry about current year politics, cultural etiquette, societal values, or religious piety. Do as thou wilt!

Obviously, sex, violence, occultism, etc. will pique the interest of many gamers. I mean, that's what a lot of people like. Exploitation / grindhouse movies didn't just exist to annoy prudes - if that's what the audience wants... give it to them! 

Dungeons & Dragons itself has made a lot of compromises over the years. AD&D2e was pretty much an effort to sanitize the game of some of its most controversial material. Every edition since then has been a little less risque, a little safer, and a lot less challenging. Does WotC-brand D&D have any potential left to shock, challenge, or make any strong social commentary?

You're right, 2nd edition AD&D really tried to stay away from potentially offending anyone - from religious conservatives deluded into thinking that D&D was Satanism for America's youth to concerned parents afraid their child would kill themselves, join a cult, or get lost in stream tunnels underneath the city. It's understandable, but kind of a shame.

With each subsequent edition, D&D became more corporate, safer... and possibly boring. Although, I'd be remiss for not mentioning some innovations ushered in by 3rd edition. The only thing WotC-brand D&D can do to shock us now is go full-tilt social justice warrior. The radical-left has tried to dominate culture for as long as I can remember. I don't think playing a gender-fluid elf is subversive. If people want to do that, fine. Today, D&D isn't any more dangerous than Shoots & Ladders.

If D&D wants to continue to be meaningful, it should let loose. Don't manufacture edginess like with the new iteration of Vampire: The Masquerade. Be edgy by doing your own thing and not giving a fuck what people think.

Your own work, especially Alpha Blue, is by comparison, definitely not afraid to tweak a few noses and try to get people to step outside their usual perspective. How important is it to you that your work challenges the reader or player to think differently?

That's not my first or even second aim, but if I can challenge the reader or player to think differently, that's a nice little bonus. For my sleazy sci-fi RPG Alpha Blue, I took my favorite elements from each of a dozen different 80's movies and used my creativity to bring it together, like a collage. So, I merely stepped on the shoulders of giants who came before - Flash Gordon, Ice Pirates, Heavy Metal, Star Wars, Star Trek, Dune, Starchaser: The Legend of Orin, etc. 

When I first started reading your work, I kept wondering “What sacred cow is this guy trying to tip?” I definitely got the impression that you were trying to mock the pretentiousness of a lot of games out there. But seeing as I have you, I'll ask: What idea or attitude do you most want to disabuse gamers of?

There's a few, I suppose. The most transparent would be the notion that RPGs have to include lots of rules, that entire systems of complicated formulas and convoluted mechanisms for each step of the process are a good thing, let along necessary. Roleplaying is something you do naturally, like communicating with other people. Sure, it might be useful to determine certain parts of it randomly, with a die roll or chart/table, but roleplaying doesn't need mechanics. It's just speaking with the occasional gesture or look.

Here's another... I love movies (and TV shows) that start out with people being so sure of themselves, so confident that it borders on arrogance. Everyone is living in their safe little bubble, their comfort zone. They think they have it all figured out. The hubris of man! Then, of course, it all comes crashing down - their worldview and, most likely, their entire world.

I also like disparaging authoritarians. I'm not against authority per se, and I don't think anarchy is sustainable, but pushing people around with rules and laws is just tyranny. It could by revolutionaries in the streets or deep-state operatives in the bureaucracy - either way, I'm against it.

Front Cover to "Cha'alt" (C) 2019
Kort'thalis Publishing
To ask almost the same question another way: How is Cha'alt going to blow my mind?

Cha'alt is the culmination of everything I'm passionate about. I keep using the same words, like some kind of chant or incantation... eldritch, gonzo, science-fantasy, post-apocalyptic. It's all that with a sense of humor, dash of sleaze, and pop-culture pizzazz. A lot of care went into layering an entire world. For instance, treasure found on a demon in The Black Pyramid relates to knowledge an NPC has in the city of A'agrybah. One faction has something that another wants, and so on...

The dungeons, background lore, artwork, new monsters, magic items, NPCs, and bonus stuff in the appendix... it's pretty amazing, though I say so myself. The PDF is out of this world, and that level of quality is only matched by

Cha'alt promo
the luxurious hardcover book itself. I spared no expense with the highest quality printing
From Friesens out of Canada.

Cha'alt: Fuchsia Malaise is getting the same treatment, so I'm thrilled to soon have two lavish hardcover books side by side. 

From your work, it is pretty clear that you are big on hacking together your own rules. In fact, you suggest replacing the familiar d20 game with your VSD6 system... and it is the core engine for Alpha Blue; is there any point these days in buying large mainstream games like Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder?

Roleplaying is a social thing, so going with what's popular will always be an advantage. I don't begrudge anyone who wants to play the latest mainstream game. Trends and fads have their upside. Having said that, I'm not a one-size-fits-all type of guy. I like individualized RPGs. Niche is my jam!

Originally, Crimson Dragon Slayer used d6 dice pools, just like Alpha Blue. In the end, I caved to the pressures of popularity and made Crimson Dragon Slayer D20 so that it was fully compatible with both old school and 5e D&D, though pared down with minimal rules. 

Why do you think 5e is as popular as it is?

5e D&D tries to satisfy almost everybody. That's it's strength. I've heard 5e called "everyone's second favorite edition", and I think that's accurate. It's got just enough crunch for people who like that sort of thing, those who grew up with 3rd and 4th edition. It's also a lot less crunchy than those editions, so 5e seems to have more in common with old school D&D. In fact, the Basic version of 5e is even more OSR and just about perfect for me. Although, I haven't checked it out since it was originally offered 5 years ago. Can't say for certain if it's changed or not. 

"Cha'alt O5R" promo banner
(C) 2019 Kort'thalis Publishing 

2020 has been a hell of a year for crusaders targeting Dungeons & Dragons. The Orc thing, the Twitter mobbing of Mike Mearls, calls to unperson Zak S. and Kasimir Urbanski 1984-style from D&D books, and now the obsession with “decolonizing” D&D, and the demands that Oriental Adventures be taken off of virtual shelves. This is all stuff you talk extensively about on Inappropriate Characters. What do you think is going on? What is with the relentless attacks on D&D?

The radical-left has been infiltrating hobbies like RPGs, comic books, and computer games for years. The world seems to be hyper-polarized between political factions, mainly the dominant left/right dichotomy. Just mentioning your support for President Trump can get you banned from and it seems the vast majority of reddit is swamped with knee-jerk SJWs. After a bit of reddit posting myself, I garnered something like a negative-65 "score" until one of the moderators reset it.

Leftists bulldoze through the things we love and a lot of people either go along with it or try to find a middle-ground to make everyone happy. Appeasement rarely works. If normal folks don't stand up to those feigning outrage and so eager to take offense at any little thing, we're just going to keep losing the things we're passionate about.

I have a feeling that people, in general, have it too easy. We live in the most free and prosperous and safe time in the world's history. What else do people have to do but rage against the machine?

Maybe, collectively, we feel like we should be suffering more than we are. Mankind was made to suffer, in my opinion, and if much of that suffering has been alleviated, then it makes sense that human beings would seek it out. Unnecessary suffering is a waste, so I wish people would awake to the idea that life is pretty good for the vast majority of people. Enjoy the fact that you have it better than 99% of the world's history. Live it up! 

Can WotC-brand Dungeons & Dragons survive if its stripped of all of its evil monsters, treasure hunting, exotic cultures, etc.? If the Twitter TTRPG crowd has their way, would the thing WotC makes be Dungeons and Dragons?

If we're talking about the spirit of D&D, then no. A pronounced divergence from what D&D has always been takes it in a different direction, a non-D&D direction. WotC proved that with 4th edition. Even people who liked it have said that it didn't really feel like D&D. So, if they keep going in that way, it could deflate the balloon... which could either be wonderful or disastrous for independent gamers and game designers.

There are hundreds of awesome little-known RPGs out there that could step in and fill the space left by the failed giant of D&D. Conversely, the RPG subculture could go further underground, losing what little mainstream appeal it currently enjoys. That's not necessarily a bad thing. I'd rather see my hobby flourish in obscurity than watered-down and lame but fashionable.

Get Woke Go Broke is a phrase I hear frequently and have used myself. It's not always true, but shows the way things are headed... and the way out. Look at Disney, they're bending over backwards to accommodate the woke brigade calling for a take-down of Splash Mountain, and I just read an article about removing The Hall of Presidents exhibit in favor of a show based on the Hamilton play. Every episode containing some form of the newly redefined racism is being removed from TV and streaming services, even Community's "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" episode with Senior Chang pretending to be a dark elf has been pulled.

Artwork from "Alpha Blue" (C) 2016
Kort'thalis Publishing 
So here's an easy question: What does the future of TTRPGs look like?

I've tried to watch people playing D&D. Unless it's people I know well or they're playing my own stuff, it doesn't keep my attention. I don't know if RPGs can make it as a spectator sport. If they can, that might be another niche RPGs could slide into. Movies and TV series are another avenue. Although, the bulk of the audience may not even play the game. Playing the game is more important than watching people play or a fantasy/sci-fi series on Netflix.

Fandom is a nice perk, but it's not what the game is about. It's about roleplaying with other people at a table. Different colors, creeds, sexual orientations, and so on. Doesn't matter who or what you are. If you've come to play, you're welcome.

What is the best piece of advice you can give to hopeful creator like me?

Write for yourself... whatever gets you going, whatever you can't wait to use at your table, that's where you should focus. Is there anything you would like to add for my readers?

Check out Venger's Old School Gaming Blog! That's where you can see what I'm up to.

If you want to buy the Cha'alt hardcover (and future Cha'alt: Fuchsia Malaise... Cthulhu willing, of course), go through me. I should still have a few books available.

Thank you, Venger!

No comments:

Post a Comment