Many apologies for my long absence. I was recently invited to review a new RPG product by Venger Satanis, Liberation of the Demon Slayer, a megadungeon-based mini-campaign with strong Lovecraftian elements. After a busy December and January I may soon have more time to resume posting updates on modules and other projects.
Created by Venger Satanis – a self-styled warlock, game-master, and auteur designer – Liberation of the Demon Slayer is a sprawling, oddball adventure, combining elements of an old school dungeon crawl with imagery culled from exploitation cinema and the Cthulhu Mythos. A strange amalgam of disparate parts, the adventure is something of a pastiche, a mutant beast of a mini-campaign that lurches from one strange scene to the next; levels of the caverns that form the central locus of the adventure include such weird vistas as a buried alien spacecraft, an abominable temple to K’tulu, a gladiatorial pocket-universe, and a magma-flooded devil’s lair. The adventure is clearly a labour of love, exuding an off-kilter, DIY approach that brings with it a particular exuberance but also a number of curious design decisions indicative of its idiosyncratic method of creation. Describing itself as a “grindhouse bloodbath,” the module aspires to a kind of heightened old school experience, hyper-violent and sexualized. It’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but those interested in a system-neutral dungeon crawl of the OSR mold with Lovecraftian elements and a taste for gore will probably find it to their liking.
The book begins with an outline of the assumed setting and a series of campaign notes. This section is probably the weakest in the book overall; some portions, such as the unusual physical cosmology featuring living planetoids and transdimensional serpent-folk, are thoroughly engrossing, but others feel a little hackneyed, such as a superfluous reiteration of D&D traditional dichotomy of Demonic vs. Devilish. Parts of the implied setting are quite inventive, but others feel reactionary: the setting cultivates a sense of weird atmosphere and bizarerrie one moment, then falls back on quasi-Tolkienian tropes (Elves, “Lyrthum,” i.e. Mithril, etc) the next. It’s also not wholly clear how some details of the world’s mythology gel together – there are Old Ones like Yog Sothoth and Cthulu/K’tulu, but there are also Judeo-Christian demonic malevolencies. Then again, the Old Ones here are portrayed very much in the August Derleth vein as malevolent entities out to foster chaos and evil, locked in a struggle against the “Lords of Light,” as opposed to the uncaring, unfathomably alien super-intelligences originally envisioned by Lovecraft, so the whole thing does hang together, more-or-less, in a slightly haphazard way. As I’ll explore in greater detail below, it’s this slightly slapdash design method that lends Liberation of the Demon Slayer its distinctively patchwork character.
This section of the text also offers a number of optional rules, some of them more useful than others. Given that the adventure advertises itself as “usable with practically every paper & pencil, tabletop fantasy roleplaying game,” the overall utility of some of these rules is questionable. I’m especially unsure of the “freestyle” magic system the module recommends: given the Lovecraftian vein that runs through the module one might have expected a more ponderously ritualistic mode of sorcery, where the stars must be right and the correct sacrifices given and the right glyphs inscribed and the proper incantations pronounced (something closer, perhaps to the rites of Carcosa), rather than the free-wheeling, improvisational approach the text urges. Still, some of the mechanics are intriguing, including the addition of a Fortune attribute and a “Dark Secrets” table that might have uses well beyond the module itself.
The campaign notes are fairly brief, however, and we quickly move on to the adventure itself. While the module’s setup is a little clichéd (retrieve a magical artifact from ye olde dungeon or bad things will happen) and the name of the starting town, “Clear Meadows,” made me groan inwardly, the dungeon crawl itself is largely well-designed and inventive. While a few elements of the crawl are rather workmanlike, even borderline passé – pit traps, kobolds, a fungus garden, glowing crystals – others are wildly, lavishly creative, like a techno-magical security network that the PCs can hack but which can also unleash nuclear/eldritch catastrophe on the surface, or a series of weird shapes scattered throughout the dungeon’s six levels that, when combined together, produce a range of magical effects and can eventually summon the manifestation of a megalomaniacal two-headed reptile god from beyond the furthest reaches of the galaxy, or a piece of mind-ravishing semi-sentient fruit. What the adventure does brilliantly is replicate the kind of lunatic hodgepodge atmosphere that characterized early D&D so strongly. In the first years of the hobby D&D threw together a strange grab-bag of influences, what James Maliszewski of lost Grognardia once called “a goulash of unspoken and contradictory inspirations”: in the case of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, Sword & Sorcery in the mode of Howard and Leiber hybridized with Hammer Horror, bits of the Mythos, Vance’s magic system, Tolkien’s races, and Arthurian romance, with a cosmology mostly pinched from Paradise Lost and Michael Moorcock. Liberation of the Demon Slayer pursues a similarly madcap, wilfully incohesive approach, borrowing gleefully from a variety of sources and stitching it all together into a messy gestalt; Venger cites Lovecraft and Howard as major influences, also mentioning such controversial films as The Last House on the Left and the notorious Ilsa: She Wolf of the S.S. If you’re looking for an adventure with carefully calibrated unity of effect you’ll be disappointed, but if you’re yearning for the chimerical helter-skelter of yore then Liberation will scratch your old-school itch.
The module’s cartography is plain but clear, and the structure of the dungeon is sufficiently intricate; there are, perhaps, rather too many enemies of different sorts crammed into a relatively small space, but this superfluity of monsters again recaptures something of the old-school feel. The layout is readable, although occasionally Venger seems to switch from text clearly intended to be read aloud to notes to be paraphrased, without any visually obvious cue as to what sort of text he’s writing – in other words, while the module eschews the boxed texts ubiquitous in modules from later editions, it occasionally employs a kind of “informal” boxed text which might have been differentiated a little more clearly. This is a minor quibble, however, as the module’s writing is one of its strong points, with loving descriptions of the dungeon’s multifarious monstrosities (including such unusual horrors as half-reptilian, half-arachnoid demons, giant flying vampire toads, extradimensional hornets, a psychic lion, and a light-absorbing, flesh-eating dire slug) interspersed with plainer, easily parsed information on the contents of rooms. It’s hard to estimate the overall lethality level of the place when the adventure is written mostly systems-neutral, but one does get the feeling the dungeon is intended as a bit of an Gygaxian abattoir: the author more-or-less describes it as such, suggesting that players create multiple characters to make it through the adventure as written. Save-or-die effects are not unknown; one entry, for example, describes a “slimy spawn of K’tulu” that permanently transmutes any it touches into bilious green slime. These effects, of course, could easily be tweaked by those less interested in a hyper-lethal style of play. The module is incredibly open-ended, and the simultaneous presence of things like reality-warping shapes, nuclear weapons, hungry Old Ones, and a sociopathic AI allow for the possibility for radically reshaping the world at large. On the one hand this non-linearity enables a truly spectacular climax; on the other hand, the potential for cataclysm might make it harder to drop the module into an existing setting.
Artistically, the module’s interior artwork varies quite wildly in quality; though never execrable some of the illustrations have a sketchy, bare-bones quality, but others are extraordinarily impressive, gorgeous black and white grotesques bringing to mind the work of Erol Otus. One illustration of a vaguely insectoid eldritch horror, tentacled but also possessing disturbingly humanoid appendages, is particularly finely done. The somewhat lurid cover, though colourful and well-executed, has a somewhat cartoonish style at odds with some of the interior art, but in its own way this dissonance makes sense, since the content of the adventure reflects the same spirit of variegation. By and large the illustrations complement the text well, reinforcing both the over-the-top tone and the OSR sensibility. The artwork does bring home the highly sexualized, grindhouse aesthetic of the piece, which some readers may find objectionable. While not squeamish myself – heck, I enjoyed Raggi’s oft-reviled paean to perversity Death Love Doom – I did find the sexual politics of Liberation of the Demon Slayer somewhat dated. Say what you will of Raggi’s excesses, he at least offers equal-opportunity obscenity, with juddering alien penises and brutally violated men as well as mutilated and exploited women. In contrast, Liberation of the Demon Slayer serves up a bevy of all-female sex slaves, female sacrificial victims, and scantily clad female Dark Elves described as wearing “lyrthum or leather bikinis in order to show off their smooth, delicate flesh” (strangely enough, the adventure switches the usual political structure of Dark Elves from a matriarchy to a patriarchy; Dark Elf males get magic and power, females are “depraved sex kittens”). One Devil is described as having three female concubines, presumably imprisoned against their will; two gleefully compete for his attentions despite their enslavement while the third “still requires discipline of the whip.”
In his defence, Venger does forewarn readers that the content is “decadently gratuitous” and includes a note that GMs should take their group’s temperature before including sexual themes. For my part it’s not the sexual themes themselves that perturb, nor the mixture of sex and violence – I say this as an avid devotee of Clive Barker – but the peculiarly old-fashioned nature of Liberation’s sexual content might be off-putting to some (the module is pretty clearly aimed at a male, heterosexual audience, to say the least). As one who tends to defend “transgressive art,” I won’t belabour the point further, and the depictions, both textual and visual, didn’t bother me personally (though they aren’t especially shocking or titillating, either) but suffice to say that in its replication of a grindhouse atmosphere the module does nothing to ameliorate the latent misogyny that afflicted some exploitation films of the 70s, and that’s something potential buyers should be aware of.
Little in Liberation of the Demon Slayer could legitimately be called original per se, but it alchemically combines a number of familiar ingredients into a new and pleasingly misshapen whole. The module takes the exploration-based megadungeon format from old-school D&D and mixes in Lovecraftian horror, exploitation-film imagery, and elements borrowed from science fiction B movies; in places I even get a kind of Masters of the Universe vibe. Those looking for a “serious” adventure should probably seek elsewhere, but while the module certainly isn’t for everyone, those interested in a hallucinatory hack n’ slash marathon will find much to enjoy.