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Author Topic: Review of Encounter Critical III by Venger Satanis  (Read 537 times)

ErikIndigo

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Review of Encounter Critical III by Venger Satanis
« on: December 20, 2022, 03:50:43 PM »
Review : Encounter Critical III published by Kort’thalis Publishing (2022)


This review is based on a courtesy PDF provided by the author, Venger Satanis. I don't know Mr. Satanis personally nor was anything requested by him beyond writing a review. The book should be out and available for print in a few days, I was told. The attached picture is the cover art, by Yannick Bouchard (famous for his Lamentations of the Flame Princess covers).


REVIEW PREMISE


I respect the work of creators who conversely respect my intelligence and freedom of agency. I don't bitch but I don't lie either. I don't do politics nor take sides.


When I read an RPG book, I expect the following, which will be my barometer for the subjective appreciation part:


I) Is it INNOVATIVE, that is, does it bring something I've never read before, or is it just a re-hash of tired tropes? The Contrary of Innovative is Traditional.


II) Is it SURPRISING beyond its premise, that is, how often will I be raising my eyebrows and thinking "I should really read this sentence again, I never thought about that before. If it's funny, it's even better. The contrary of Surprising is Filler.


III) Is it AESTHETIC to read and look at, and if it's not, does its ugliness bring something worthwhile and relevant? The contrary of Aesthetic is Bland.


IV)) Is it RESPECTFUL of my agency and freedom as an adult, and by that I mean, is it telling me how I should think and act, what I should find right or wrong, or letting me decide for myself? The contrary of Respectful is Patronizing.



VISUALS


The reviewed version of Encounter Critical III (EC3 thereafter for short) is a 72 page PDF file in colour. Its default font is size 11 Minion Pro, a serif font with easy readability against a golden parchment-like background, with dark red titles.
 

PREMISE


Glancing through, what stands out is that there's a lot of gold colour (the background) and that house-printing the PDF might not be the best of ideas given the drain on the printer.


There is fantasy fantasy art every 3-4 pages, mostly full page. It's varied in style, some scifi-ish, some fantasy-ish, some demon-ish, but globally good quality.

The colourful evil clowns stand out as weird and freakish. I really hate clowns but heck, given the author's name is Venger Satanis, portrays of the vilest thing on Earth (i.e. the aforementioned clowns) are to be be expected.


As far as aesthetics go, it’s pleasant looking, if somewhat conventional, and not very consistent from one image to another. While it’s all quality art, plus some AI Midjourney stuff,

some look like Jeff Easley classic fantasy (e.g. Megan Fox as wood babe) while others are very Star Wars-ish, and there are Demons and evil Clowns (!). Art style, while always “realistic” and quality, is also a bit inconsistent throughout the book. It looks more like a collection of random picks than something harmonious.


It does the job, it won’t win awards and it won’t mess up your brain the way Mork Borg and Dungeon Degenerates do (except for the clowns, of course), but it’s professional level and matches the theme. Nothing really gross nor prurient stood out (which is a small bit of a disappointment). Job done on Aesthetics: it’s not a weakness but not a strength either.


Writing-wise, the informal conversational tone is friendly and full of examples, it’s a pleasant read overall. It looks more personal and it’s not treating you as a child the way the Big Companies like Hasbro often do.


Structure-wise, it’s a bit disorganized. It’s hard to see how the game goes from point A to B as it lacks steps or a “big picture” view of what’s inside. It feels a bit like a haphazard collection of cool ideas.



ACTUAL CONTENT


The Foreword is enthusiastic and funny, though it doesn't tell us much about what's coming exactly, except that it's probably Sleazy. Fair warning.


The book starts by a short entrance called "How Stuff Works" and we're right onto mechanics about action resolution. At this point I still don't know what the book is about. I would have appreciated even a few paragraphs telling me "This book is about... It features XXX... Chapter 1 will show you... etc."  This entry is a bit confusing.


(Note: Before I began my review and, knowing the book wasn't out yet, I informed the author out of fairness I would make this last comment about the lack of an introduction, so possibly the comment has been dealt with already).



THE SETTING


EC3 is a game set on some kind of bizarre, not-serious sci fi magic setting on a fantasy planet called Cha’alt, with lots of Lovecraftian references alongside absurd humour. I know there’s another book by that name published by the same company so I guess there’s a link there.


I had the feeling of something like Carcosa (by Lamentations of the Flame Princess) originally, but it fact it’s nothing at all like that.


On page 14 appears the summary of the setting, something I would have liked to read on page 1: “In a world full of slimy tentacles and desert wastelands, sandworms and sleazy demons, weird elves and banana-men, swords and lasers… adventurers strive to make their presence known on this gonzo planet. (...) Cha’alt is Arabian Nights mixed with Arrakis,

Tatooine, and that campaign setting with the darksun.”


Now “banana-men” (with the hyphen) is something that stands out of what could be otherwise a Dune or Dark Sun or Barsoom Planetary Romance ersatz. (Especially because they’re gendered and not “banana people” or “banana folk”, considering that most people in fantasy settings seem to have lost their genitalia in this decade.)


Also, it appears that the natives use American measurement systems, as to “Cross the desert on your own, especially wearing armor, in 111-degree heat with unnatural

aberrations all around… “ would quickly cook you up in the universal (metric) system. Ah, Americans.




THE GAME SYSTEM


The game isn’t targeted at neophytes: it’s got no introduction or explanations about “what are RPGs” and “how to play”, it starts straight with how to manage rulings. It’s obviously intended for a public who’s familiar with what they’ll get.


System-wise, it’s an OSR variant based on d20 rolls and GM rulings. However, the game allows for player involvement in the narrative, such as the “Vulcan” trait, which gives the player a bonus if he or she can come up with a logical explanation of things, and “Divine Intervention”. A quote:


“Every time Divine Favor is spent, that player must describe what happens (perhaps why, as well) and roleplay the results. (...) Divine Favor CAN be traded to another or spent on behalf of someone else IF they come up with a plausible reason and roleplay it out.”


The rules favour roleplaying and player involvement, without rigid guidelines. It’s in the “rulings not rules” philosophy.


While OSR games aren’t - by definition - the most innovative systems since they are born out of a “back to basics” philosophy, they’ve got the merit of familiarity, so that the innovation can be put in the small things - like the narrative rules above - rather than having to memorize an entire new system. It can be a good thing as it facilitates entry and play and flattens the learning curve for new players. While it’s OSR, and the basics feel familiar to this grognard, there are innovative and new ways of playing with the OSR basics, such as:


“HD is what a character uses to calculate his HP – go with maximum HP for PCs of a single race and roll randomly for mixed-race PCs.”


And:


“Whatever melee weapon a warlock happens to use, it’s always going to do a d4 damage. Just like whenever a reaver swings his axe or sword or trident, it’s always going to do a d10.”


I’ve never read something like that but it feels intuitive and simple, a streamlined version of what feels like house rules done well.


Also, about leveling:


“PCs go up a level every other session (assuming standard 4-hour sessions).”


So it’s participatory XP. At least, that’s clearer than Mork Borg.


The system’s odds of success looks harsh. The default odds of succeeding at something like striking are 25% and, for saves, it’s 10% odds of success. In this aspect, the gameplay is more likely to feel like the first editions of Call of Cthulhu than modern D&D, but it’s a matter of tastes. That said, low odds of success at striking make for much longer combats, and extending task resolution times with results of “nothing” isn’t something positive in my humble opinion. Opposing rolls (like in Fighting Fantasy) where at least one side always succeeds would have made for faster fights.


That said, there’s a mechanic called “Death Is Not The End” that allows your character to come back under strange aeons (e.g. as a clone).



THE SETTING


It’s a messy, somewhat nonsensical mess of Dune and wacky 1980s cartoon series weirdness that makes Rifts look consistent and logical. Looks like it’s what the author’s aiming at, though.


The races are tongue-in-cheek references to several pop culture sci-fi franchises including Gremlins, Care Bears, Transformers, Doctor Who, Star Trek… at this point, while the classes were serious, the game gets totally silly considering that all choices are absurd (Chocolate Vampires?), except for humans. It’s tongue and cheek and brings a smile, though I can hardly believe in actual play that it wouldn’t degenerate within seconds as something totally stupid, making it hard for the players to stay involved on the game. The races look more like a joke than an actual mechanic, but it’s a funny read.


Also, you can mix those races (ex. Care Bear-Transformer), with weird mutations (Edible Excretions, Detachable Penis, Portable Vagina, Banana Moustache, Triple Breasts, Cookie Crumbs, Ice Cream Morphing, Desire for Pineapple Pizza…)


OK now, with the races and mutations, the game took a sudden twist and it’s no longer a Dune-Gamma World hybrid, it’s more like SJGames’ Toon.


This is really gonzo territory.



SEX


Despite the sexual name-dropping at several places, like the mutations, I couldn’t find anything actually explicit in the book. You can have a Detachable Penis with its (his?) own personality (Minicon!) but it’s a far cry from F.A.T.A.L. You don’t actually get to roll for anal circumference or accidental sodomy during combat. There are no rules for sexual congress or anything like that, just a flash of shocking words that might offend a prude parent, but nothing more. There are no penis drawings, nipples or anything like that.


Gwar’s songs are far more explicit, so if you’re a prude don’t worry too much about it, pruriency is just a little window dressing here.



FUN TIDBITS


(Minicons) The Warrior class reminded me of Soundwave, the Decepticon: “Law of Attraction – At the beginning of each new level (starting with 2nd level), the reaver gets his level out of 6 chance to attract a cherished companion (who’s up for anything and will never betray the reaver). This could be another reaver of lesser level, griffin, dragon, space monster, valiant steed, or romantic admirer (such as the Lady of the Lake)."


Gender Equality in Whoring: “Doxy / Rake: You’re a prostitute who knows how to read people, discovering what they want and how to exploit those desires. Pleasure is your trade. A rake is just a male doxy.”

Nevertheless, the global emphasis is on womanly wantonness, probably because the author isn't gay.

Satanic Virtue Signaling: “Deals with the Devil: Everything freezes as time stops, and a demonic emissary claws his way up from Hell to negotiate terms. The warlock roleplays a deal with the “Devil”. In exchange for a temporary boost in power (critical-success on the spell he just cast), the warlock takes a Satanic Oath to do whatever it is the infernal entity wants him to do in a certain amount of time, usually some type of quest.” I guess that was to be expected when the author's pen name is Venger Satanis!



THE SCENARIO (SPOILERS)


The book ends with a 25 page scenario.

In part 1, it’s about a gala where the wacky PCs are invited. Lots of weird things happen against a background of political opposition to the rulers, in regards to joining a galactic Federation or not. It’s not really clear what’s the party’s goal here or why they should care about this. Weird stuff, then soldiers declaring martial law for unclear reasons. Then, suddenly, it’s expected that the party goes into the desert, then a cave dungeon.


Somehow the logical progression on how the story goes between pages 47 and 48 (in this version), from the gala to the caves, is lost on me.


In part 2, you get a caravan, desert monsters, sexy alien women, a rumour table, demon clowns (the horror!), cultists of rival colours in a civil war, weird things, a Chinese restaurant, a shoggoth and what seem to be inside or cultural jokes I don’t get.


It ends with a table of content.



POLITICAL COMMENTARY


There’s some of it.


“Hysterical climate activists toiled for decades, trying to come up with a way to save their precious environment. In their panic, the devotees of True Scientific Realism came up

with a way to effectively combat climate change – manifest a black hole! Unfortunately, it annihilated the entire fucking planet. Some historians believed the black hole was

created to devour Vanth’s toxins and nonrenewable waste; others assumed the scientists had a hidden agenda of revenge – if ordinary people wouldn’t exalt the learned experts, they would be exterminated. Death by science!” (p.16)


“Low testosterone: Disadvantage on all strength-based rolls, propensity to cry, can’t keep a woman” (p.27)


“To make matters worse, the weak King of A’agrybah, Fahd-Salma’an, is allowing Federation officers to implement their policies on Cha’alt… (...) Mandatory immunization shots since Cha’alt natives will be subjected to alien viruses spread by incoming Federation workers.” (p.42)


“You are the carbon they’re trying to reduce!”, “Eat meat! Plant-based food is murder!” (p.43)


As you can see, there’s nothing much in the matter of politics beyond the occasional sarcastic jab at the political Left. Nothing to roll over and tantrum about.



SUMMARY


I’m not sure what to make of this and I couldn’t possibly give a rating. This isn’t for everyone. Not because it’s shocking, but because it’s very niche. Rating it would be like rating Technical Death Metal if you’re into radio pop music. If you’re reading this review on a platform where I’m forced to give a rating, I’ll pick “3/5”, the mean score, not because it’s “average” - it’s certainly not that - but rather because you’re either into this kind of thing or you’re not.


This book is obviously meant for a public who knows what they expect. It’s tongue-in-cheek and obviously made with whimsical fun. The prologue shows the author’s enthusiasm. Newcomers like me might be more likely to end up, after reading, thinking “WTF was that thing?” Not being American, I think I missed several of the cultural references and inside jokes that might be what the target public will be enjoying the most.


I’m not sure whether it’s really meant to be played, or more a joke, like Human Occupied Landfill (HOL). The parts about the funny races had me smiling. The classes and mechanics were more of a serious, classical gammaworld-ish OSR with a few variants.


It’s somewhat of a hard read because of the lack of structure in the book. It starts with hard rules, then Techno Sorcery Setting classes, then comical races, even more comical mutations, more serious spells, then a scenario that’s a bit like a Hawaian pizza in that it’s made of seemingly random content without a clear point to it.


The scenario is where the vague consistency totally falls apart. It’s more like a sightseeing of comical nonsense weird things, Monthy Python on acid. The way I understood it, it’s a desert world populated by insane and lecherous “toons”. In this regard, whimsical trashy Comix art like Robert Crumb’s would have made a better fit to the tone rather than the serious lifelike paintings we get, pretty as they can be.


By reading this review, you probably have a good idea whether it’s your kind of thing or not. If you like HOL, if you enjoy Gwar’s lyrics, this might be your thing. If you like serious or classical RPGs like the thousands of Tolkien derivatives, or if you’re a prude who gets stirred up at the words “penis” or “vagina”, it won’t be your thing.



AN OBJECTIVE APPRECIATION (as much as it can be).


Now back to my four initial criteria. Humour is difficult to judge as it’s highly subjective.


I) Is it INNOVATIVE?


It’s poking fun at traditional content. A game with Banana-Men can’t be called “Traditional”.


The system is Traditional with an open presence of some “Narrativist” mechanics and a willingness to open “sharing narrative” with the players.


So yeah, on the whole, it’s somewhat more Innovative than Traditional.



II) Is it SURPRISING?


The races section had me raising my eyebrows and chuckle. It was my favourite part of the book. It was surprising.


There wasn’t Filler as such. Seemingly pointless nonsense in troves, absolutely, but not Filler like endless like pages and pages of weapons. Surprising, it is, but by the odd tidbits more than the big picture.



III) Is it AESTHETIC?


It is, and it’s on a professional level, but it’s not very consistent from one image to another, and the match between the art and the tone is perfectible. It’s not a “wow”, but it’s not a “meh” either.



IV)) Is it RESPECTFUL of my agency and freedom as an adult?


Yes. It’s not Patronizing and it’s not enforcing an agenda on the players’ agency. The few political jabs I saw are low-key and aren't vicious. Only hystericals would mind.



CONCLUSION


I thought Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Troika were among the weirdest outlier things around in the RPG. While weird and good in their own way, they are not the *weirdest*.

Encounter Critical III is.

VengerSatanis

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Re: Review of Encounter Critical III by Venger Satanis
« Reply #1 on: December 22, 2022, 09:26:35 AM »

Thanks for the review, hoss!  I've been reliably informed that Encounter Critical III will be available for public release later today (this morning, maybe?)...

You'll have to be the judge on whether I did the original Encounter Critical justice, and the OSR, and good taste (probably not), should be lots of fun.  Plus, don't forget that EC3 is part of the Cha'alt Game Jam starting January 1st.  Details:  https://vengersatanis.blogspot.com/2022/12/chaalt-game-jam-in-january.html

Enjoy,

VS

VengerSatanis

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Re: Review of Encounter Critical III by Venger Satanis
« Reply #2 on: December 22, 2022, 05:15:37 PM »

The PDF is live on DriveThruRPG right now...  https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/420592/Encounter-Critical-III

VengerSatanis

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Re: Review of Encounter Critical III by Venger Satanis
« Reply #3 on: January 11, 2023, 11:23:57 AM »

Jeff Rients, whom I have a ton of respect for, wrote his own review of EC3.  I'll just put up a link so his blog gets the traffic...

http://jrients.blogspot.com/2023/01/game-of-theseus.html