Posted by : David Guyll September 02, 2017

Disclosure: I know Venger, we’ve exchanged a few words online, and I’ve given him a shout out here and there.

The Outer Presence is a very light-weight PDF that weighs in at just 45 pages, counting a few blank pages (might be space for writing/drawing stuff), a few black pages with a symbol on it, a page for notes, and an adventure that eats up most of the page count (it starts on page 13).

The header on page 4 describes it as “quick and dirty rules for an investigative horror role-playing game”: given that the entirety of the rules takes up only nine pages, yeah, that sounds about right.

The core mechanic is you tell the GM what you want to do and--assuming the GM think it’s something you can feasibly do--roll 2d6.

Now I know what you're thinking but it’s mercifully not another Powered by the Apocalypse hack: you compare the highest die result to a table, which means the results range from 1 (critical failure) to 6 (critical success). A 4 is a partial success/success-at-a-cost, while 5 is a standard success: you do what you were trying to do, no more, no less.

If conditions are favorable or you’re trying to do something your character would be good at (based on your profession), you get to roll 3d6 (still only take the single highest result), and if they’re really bad or it’s something you wouldn’t be good at you only get to roll 1d6.

My only gripe with the core mechanic is that it does the 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons advantage/disadvantage thing, where if you have good and bad things going on they just cancel out and you roll the standard 2d6, even if the good or bad circumstances vastly outweigh the other.

Frankly I’d prefer it if the GM just tallied things up (probably won’t be many in either case), and whichever wins out determines if you add or lose a die (or just roll 2d6 if they evenly cancel out). Easy enough tweak.

Each character starts with a bonus die, and each time you survive an adventure and/or act on your character’s flaw you get another bonus die. You can store and use as many as you want on a given check (which lets you exceed the usual 3d6 cap), but you can’t use them after making a check.

Character generation is as simple as choosing or rolling on the occupation table, as there are no stats or skills or hit points or anything like that. There are twenty choices, and whatever you pick or get helps the GM determine how many dice you roll when trying to do something. There are also several additional tables that determine an organization you’re associated with, how you’re associated with it, your motivation, and a flaw.

You can opt to choose three flaws in exchange for being “special”. There are unfortunately only four options (though I guess nothing stops you from cooking up more): psychic powers, sorcery, you’re actually an alien, machine, or something non-human, or simply being hard to kill (each time you die you roll a d6, and unless you roll a 1 you didn’t actually die). In addition to needing three flaws, the other downside of being special is you don’t get bonus dice from your flaws, only by surviving adventures.

Combat works similarly to standard tasks: you tell the GM what you’re doing, roll 1-to-3d6, compare the highest result to a combat-specific table. A roll of 1 means you miss and your opponent counters or does something immediate, 2-3 are basically misses, a 4 wounds your target (if you roll a 4 or higher again in the next few hours then they go down), a 5 is a knock-out, and a 6 is instant death so long as you have some sort of weapon (otherwise it’s also a knock out).

The game makes it clear that weapon, armor, stats, etc doesn’t matter, but I think you could cook up a very simple system for abstract weapons and armor. Like, fists could be 1d6, a gun could be 2d6, a really big gun could be 3d6, and explosives could be 4d6. You could also treat them like bonus dice, adding them to your usual dice pool. So, if you know how to use a gun you roll 2d6, but a big gun adds 1d6 all the time.

Characters could also have wounds, and a combat result of 3 would be 1 damage, 4 would be 2 damage, 5 would be 3 damage, and a 6 would be 4 damage or 3 damage plus something extra (could have a crit table). Armor could just add more wounds, which get removed when you take damage and can be repaired later. Ah, well, if you want to add a bit more complexity to the game (or Venger wants to make an "advanced" or 2nd Edition of this) I just did a good amount of the work for you!

Getting back on track, there’s no initiative system: whoever says what they’re doing goes first. I know this will rub some people the wrong way, but this is more or less how it works in Dungeon World, and sometimes to avoid grinding the action/pacing to a halt in my Dungeons & Delvers games, I just let the players go first in whatever order they choose (unless I got the drop on them). I guess if you want to add in initiative just have everyone roll a d6.

There’s a few paragraphs on handling gods, their spawn, eldritch horrors, demon lords, and similar things that are “nigh unkillable”. Basically they need special weapons to kill, or a LOT of firepower, and ignore combat results that would merely knock them out.

Lastly, there’s an insanity table you roll on when confronted with ideas, events, creatures, and so on that would shatter your worldview. Only 6 results, and I feel like this could have benefited from the dice pool mechanic (minor things call for a d6, bigger things 2d6, and gazing upon an ancient one 3d6).

My takeaway is that the game part is dirt simple, easy to pick up and play. You really just roll a few times to make a character, so if you get gobbled up, lost in time and space, or go insane, you can get right back into the game with a few rolls. If given the choice to play this or, say, something like Call of Cthulhu I'd just use this because it took not even 10 minutes to figure out how to play, I could explain to my group in like two minutes, and I figure I can get similar enough results out of it.

My main gripes are the lack of character advancement and gear (maybe: I'd play as-is and then with gear and see how much that actually benefits the game), I’d move the bonus dice section over to the dice pool section (it’s currently split so it’s only explained after combat), and the insanity table could be reworked. In case this is a factor for you,  think it’s great for one-shots (or 2-3 sessions maybe), less so for a long-term campaign. I also think the $10 price tag is a bit much for 45 pages: $5 I think would be perfect, but it has an adventure ready to go so $7 would still be fine.

Not a criticism but something I think would be cool, is if Venger made a nifty digest-sized rulebook and made it look like those small notebooks that police and detectives carry. Or like a tiny necronomicon. Hell, do both, put them on DriveThru, and let the customer decide.

I don't think it's complicated enough to need a GM screen (or even a table of contents or index), but if I were to redo the book layout, I'd put a single page with the check and combat result tables in the front or back for ease of reference. Could also make a letter-sized PDF sheet with the tables repeated across it, so it could be printed out, cut into smaller cards, and handed out.

DriveThru does cards, but I can't see anyone buying a deck of cards just for that. Maybe a deck with flavorful check/combat results and you just draw from the deck instead of rolling dice? I think one of those Lovecraftian board games did something like that...

Anyway, looks like a simple, fine game. I can see some players not liking the whole "get bonus dice for role-playing" thing, but like all the other things I mentioned it would be a simple thing to change. Very easy to learn, teach, and play. If you were turned off of Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu because of the complexity and/or mechanics, I'd give this a shot. Even the things I'd add/change look simple enough to do myself.

Announcements
It look a lot longer than expected, but we finally released The Jinni. As with our other monstrous classes, this one is more faithful to the mythology (so don't go in expecting elemental-themed jinn).

After putting it to a vote, the next couple of classes on the docket are the warden (think 4E D&D warden) and apothecary (gotta go see what they're all about).

Dwarven Vault is our sixth 10+ Treasures volume. If you're interested in thirty dwarven magic items (including an eye that lets you shoot lasers) and nearly a dozen new bits of dungeon gear, check it out!

Just released our second adventure for A Sundered World, The Golden Spiral. If a snail-themed dungeon crawl is your oddly-specific thing, check it out!

By fan demand, we've mashed all of our 10+ Treasure volumes into one big magic item book, making it cheaper and more convenient to buy in print (which you can now do).

{ 1 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. Thanks for the review, David! You've picked up on the old school spirit of the thing - it's virtually begging to be interpreted, customized, and house-ruled.

    What you mentioned about advantage/disadvantage is actually how I use it in play.

    And you'd think that the combat section is lacking because the battle could be over in a single roll, but for genres like investigative horror, it works surprisingly well. Not many PCs risk a evenly matched fight when death is so easy.

    It's been $6 on DriveThru for the last few days. And the softcover is relatively cheap over there and on Amazon. Give it a try!

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