Game Review: Islands of the Purple-Haunted Putresence
Publisher: Kort'thalis Publishing
Engine: OSR with VSd6
Note: This is the second of four Kort'thalis products I will be reviewing in rapid succession, as I went on a bit of a shopping spree.
The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putresence is part RPG, part setting book, and part hex-crawl adventure and all 'Metal. Written by Venger Satanis of Kort'thalis Publishing, it spans a colossal 108 pages of dense, weird, wild material.
Exploring "Purple" is like wandering across the pages of Heavy Metal Magazine in its heydey: campy, strange, violent, sexy in a sleazy kind of way, and open to almost any off-beat pulpy experiment. In fact, references to "Heavy Metal" are pretty fast and furious in its pages. You can even find the Loc-Nar from the Heavy Metal movie circa. 1981 at one point or trade in Zuleks.
Purple is the most straightforwardly OSR-Compatible of the books I have read by Venger Satanis. It uses stripped-down stat blocks for an older edition of Dungeons and Dragons using ascending Armour Classes and Attack Bonuses. It could easily be run with OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, OSE, Lamentations of the Flame Princess or any other Retroclone of your choice with little to no modification.
Venger offers his VSd6 system as an overlay for OSR play in the first section of the book. VSd6 is a system that replaces d20 rolls for attacks, ability checks, and saving throws with a pool of d6s. Ranging from 1d6 to 3d6 in normal circumstances, taking the highest d6 as the result and consulting a table with grades of success. 1 for utter failure, 6 for critical success with a failure with a silver lining or a success at a cost in the middle.
As it appears in Purple, VSd6 works alongside an OSR D&D retroclone as way to add more resolution than success/failure to D&D and make narrative advantages and disadvantages. At the same time, class, level, AC, and Ability Scores remain at least partially relevant.
What I Loved
|"Whoops! Missed that skill check!"|
The number of ways to reduce The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putresence to a smoking crater, destroy the entire world, or just annihilate the space-time continuum in Purple is gloriously comedic. From self-destructing androids, to waking Cthulhu, to settiing off an atomic weapon à la Beneath the Planet of the Apes, rupturing a space ship core, to opening a black hole... players can be saviors of the world, or, by blunder, leave it a smouldering ruin.
If players have the right sense of humour, this can be a lot of fun. I know I could play it for laughs. This is definitely a setting that has to be played with a sense of humour.
|Chaos Knight Slimed by the Purple Putresence |
By JLHB, © 2014 Kort'thalis
Just like Appendix-N lit, Purple isn't easy to stuff into a box. One minute you are chopping through a mysterious jungle on the heels of a sherpa, the next you are defying evil necromancers and their zombie minions, then you are losing you mind in the face of Lovecraftian horrors, before fighting kill-bots to claim an abandoned space-ship.
The only guide to how Purple is planned out is to bring ideas from some of the wildest and weirdest pulp of the 20th Century to life. There are some conventions that are used heavily of course. Like barbarians trading women as chattel, scantily-clad and nubile sacrifices, insane supercomputers with legions of killer robots, and mad mutant wizards. I lost count of the evil robe-wearing cults. It is all done with a tongue in cheek and a nod to the reader.
Geeky Easter-Egg Hunt
A toungue in cheek and a nod is a great way to describe a huge portion of Purple. References to "Heavy Metal," Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Flash Gordon, The Wizard of Oz, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, "The Rats in the Walls," "The Color out of Space", "The Whisperers in the Darkness" the music of GWAR, The Satisfiers of Alpha Blue, Sons of Anarchy, Star Trek, and Predator. Are just what I caught in my first, rapid scan of the book. Let alone what I caught on the second read. Purple is a glorious pastiche of some of the best geeky media out there. It can be a lot of fun to hunt for the scores of Easter Eggs woven into the setting. Some are a bit too blatant, or exist just for the hell of it, but that is a matter of the tastes of the table.
The references definitely establish the tone of the setting as a parody and a send-up of geek culture. Combined with its over-the-top violence, gore, and sex, it feels like a camp grindhouse flick; Critters II and Dusk 'til Dawn come to mind. This may or may not be to every table's taste, of course.
Purple contains a really fascinating character backstory mechanic: for each PC, the DM rolls on a flashback table. The table includes numerous situations fraught with tragedy,but betrayal, and moral hazard. The PCs role-play through the scenes as a flashback. Most are rich enough to be part or all of a complex character backstory. Players define a huge amount of ther character's moral stance, problem-solving ability, and values in a single, stressful moment.
Some Love for Fighters
With the exception of Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, most OSR games give fighter characters short shrift. Making a fighter interesting is up to role-play and description. And, mechanically, only a better chance to hit defines a fighter in an OSR system. Purple tries to make fighters feel more interesting, with specialized mechanics for fighters wielding magic swords (which the setting is lousy with) offering them improved critical hits.
Clerics are granted a divine intervention mechanic, and Magic-Users get exclusive control over most magic items. Most characters are given at least a small boost to make them feel more effective, except Thieves, who, bu benefit of the setting and structure, are going to enjoy a fair amount of spotlight time.
Magic, At a Cost
Purple includes wild magic, spell misfire, and corruption mechanics that make magic in the game feel wild, dangerous and strange.
The game also includes a random motivation for the consciousness of the Islands of Purple-Haunted Putresence, and taking actions that work for and against that motivation grants boons or penalties. This gives magic a sense of purpose and connection to otherworldly intelligence.
Love or hate his aesthetics, it is impossible to deny that Venger's stuff is vibrant, creative, playful, and playable. While his stuff may be "Gonzo" every encounter is built to engage and stimulate creative play. There is no laziness to the "random" events on the Islands.
More Meat for the Grinder!
There is no rhyme or reason to how lethal encounters are. No part of the islands is predictably safer than others. It is easy for characters to just blunder into their deaths after a series of relatively manageable encounters. The random encounter table is nightmarishly varied to boot. Unto themselves, these are not sins, but the Islands are going to chew PCs up and spit them out at an impressive rate, even for an OSR game.
The volume of save-or-die effects is also fairly high, even by OSR standards. Personally, I loathe save-or-die moments in Dungeons and Dragons, and find removing or mitigating them one of my favourite improvements of modern editions of D&D.
The Cannibal Holocaust
This encounter was clearly used as a template for copy/pasting the format of encounters in the book, as it appears twice identically in the book. This is doubles the frustration, as it is a compelling encounter: an entire tribe of barbarians charred and impaled for insulting a powerful wizard... and yet who that wizard is, and what happened are complete blanks,
|A lot of this goes on...|
Cover art for "The Unknown Five" by
Rowena Morrill, ©1978 Valiant
Purple is emulating a weird, pulpy kind of story where damsels in distress, nubile sex slaves, and virgin sacrifices are common tropes. And ones where sleazy sexual situations are pretty common. Again, think "Heavy Metal" magazine and Conan stories. Purple takes this to the limit, with hot, nubile, mostly-naked chicks in peril ever 4 hexes or so. You have to wonder: where they are all coming from? It begins to warp credulity.
Obviously this annoys a lot of prudes, scolds, and the representation obsessed. Doubtless, this is part of the point.
Personally, I like my helpless damsels with the occasional counter-point of very dangerous women who one would deeply regretful of treating as a damsel. This might be left up to the PCs.
Like in Alpha Blue, there is a lot in Purple designed to tittilate the inner twelve-year-old boy, and very little interest paid in creating equivalent fun for the female or gay audiences. This is fine by me, but might limit the audience appeal for some... although, again, it is all in presentation.
The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putresence is a clever, creative, and extremely deadly module that, if played with a sense of humour can deliver a lot of laughs and a lot of inspiration. It is not for everyone, however. It will have little appeal to players who find retro-pulp damsels in distress and sleazy sexuality. If you are expecting a deeply serious game, this definitely isn't for you.
If, on the other hand, you like a game that feels like a hybrid of Futurama and a Troma film, you have come to the right adventure. Crack open a beer and come right in. But bring spare character sheets.
The VSd6 engine offers an interesting alternative to d20 rolling in a Dungeons and Dragons retroclone, but I don't think it adds much that can't be added with a graduated way of interpreting the d20 and an advantage / disadvantage mechanic. I doubt I would use it in a playthrough. It is a matter of taste.
On the other hand, I like the sophistication of the Flashback system for builfing characters The corruption and wild msgic mechanics also make an excellent add on to the right OSR game.