Sunday 15 September 2019

Interview with Venger Satanis

Today we are sitting down with controversial rpg writer Venger Satanis about his newest release, Cha’alt and a few older releases. And yes, there is some talk about politics because our politics are pretty different and these days it has to be done. 

RCK:  So, before we talk about your latest project, there are a few things we should get out of the way. In some circles, you have a reputation for being…shall we say somewhat bombastic?

VS: Yes, I am outspoken and not shy about sharing my opinions… occasionally with dramatic flair. 

RCK: There is nothing wrong with a bit of drama. When running games, for instance, I reserve my biggest d20 for the baddest monsters. Also, nothing wrong with sharing opinions, so long as you have an open mind.

VS: I do try to have an open mind.  But I’m also at an age where no one can convince me that water isn’t wet, overly complex RPGs are more fun than simple ones, or that Socialism is worth trying one more time.

RCK: I’m in my 50s, and I am not old enough to remember FDR. Or to remember socialism in the United States, or anywhere in the world that the United States didn’t actively work against. I do know that socialist programs in the US include the military, public roads, schools, libraries, fire departments, and other things which I have benefitted from. I’ve worked for both the US Military (Legal Specialist) and the US Census Bureau (various positions, eventually the Finance department in Los Angeles). I’m not old enough not to have my mind changed, if the evidence points in a different direction. For instance, experiencing both the US and the Canadian health care systems, I know that the Canadian system is considerably better.

VS: In the United States, I’d call those social programs.  There are things that everyone in the country can use collectively, that we all have in common, such as roads and the military.  I just don’t want the government controlling companies or redistributing wealth or giving away free stuff and then taxing the middle and upper classes to the point where the rich (or their money) flee to the Cayman Islands.  I prefer freedom.

In the words of Joe Biden in the Democratic debate that just happened a couple days ago, “This is America.”  While our health care system is far from perfect, I’d rather have a procedure done here, where I know it’s going to be fast and performed by the best doctors with cutting-edge medical technology. 

Also, (I just Googled this) Canada’s population is approximately 35 million, and the population of the United States is about 290 million more than that.  Population makes a difference.

RCK: Well, you can do the research. American prices are substantially higher than in other parts of the world, and outcomes are generally worse. American exceptionalism isn’t supposed to mean that every other modern country can do it except America. And I certainly am no fan of Joe Biden!

But, ultimately, we can agree to disagree about this. I don’t expect to convince you in an interview about gaming.

I’ve seen at least one YouTube video you did where you drop the persona. You’re responding to criticism that one of your games isn’t OSR, which I’ll get to in the next question. You seem very relatable in that video, and here. I guess there is a balancing act deciding when to “put on the motley”?

VS: There isn’t that big a difference between the regular old me and Venger Satanis.  The latter can be larger than life, but so can the former.  I’m both relatable and a geeky weirdo, just depends on how far past the surface you want to go.

RCK: You are the person behind Alpha Blue as well. That, and some racy imagery in other products, contributes to a reputation as your being sort of a “soft porn” peddler. I’d like to ask you, first, how do you respond to that, and second, how prominently does sexual content feature in a game of Alpha Blue when you run it? Where do you fade to black?

VS: Ah, yes… Alpha Blue.  It’s one of the things I’m best known for and most proud of, but it also carries a stigma.  Alpha Blue triggers a lot of people.  20 years ago, it would have been the far-right that took offense to eroticism, sleaze, and soft-core porn in RPGs.  But now it’s the puritanical leftist types that condemn it because there aren’t any kid-friendly drag shows or power-bottom bear and twink action explicitly called out in examples. 

RCK: I’d just like to clarify that you are not using those terms in a derogatory manner.

VS: Correct, I wasn’t being derogatory with the gay slang I learned from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.  But several gamers who’ve denounced Alpha Blue have done so because it’s not specifically LBGTQ+ enough.  If they actually wanted Alpha Blue to include more of that stuff, then ask me about licensing your adventure or something, don’t just pitch a fit and crap all over my game.

On the other hand, I would like to go out of my way to denounce and oppose activities that combine kids with drag queens.  I have no problem with any sexual activity between consenting adults.  But I’m totally against pedophilia, the sexualization of children, and normalizing deviant sexual behavior by exposing kids to it at an impressionable age. 

Even “normal” sexual behavior should be kept away from children.  I’m not going to sit my kids down in front of a movie that’s graphically showing missionary sex between a man and a woman.  They’re kids!

RCK: I’m not sure how old you are, but I’m old enough to remember All in the Family in a fond way. All of the characters were flawed, but we loved them all despite that. Archie Bunker gave us a window into understanding bigotry, and it also gave us a window into how Archie could change for the better.

VS: I’ll be 45 in November, born the same year as D&D.  I’ve seen a few episodes of All in the Family, and I remember watching a lot of Gilligan’s Island and Bewitched as a kid, along with all the Saturday morning shows like Dungeons & Dragons, Thundarr, Scooby Doo, He-Man, G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Land of the Lost.

RCK: Sleestaks for the win! I watched a lot of those same shows, although G.I. Joe and Transformers never really caught my interest.

I don’t know where you stand politically, apart from the issue of health care, but I am somewhat to the Left of Bernie Sanders. We now live in an area where censoring people seems to belong to the “Left”. Which is weird, if you think about it. It’s like saying book burning is a progressive ideal.  It also leads to people self-censoring in case someone thinks that a person you talk to might be toxic, or some observation might be demonized. I think this has a tendency to create an echo chamber where everyone who is not “like us” is viewed as some kind of monster.

VS: Wait, to the “left” of Bernie Sanders?  What’s more leftist than an old school communist?  Pure anarchy?

RCK: The US political system has moved very far to the Right. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, Sanders is pretty moderate. From a historical perspective, Sanders is a Centrist. Most of the people who claim to be Centrists – including most modern Democrats – would have been considered Right Wing in the 70s.

VS: And 70’s Democrats would be called alt-right white supremacists by today’s standards. 

RCK: Not sure I can agree with that. Certainly racism was a lot more prevalent in the 70s than it is today.  Or, more prevalent in the mainstream.

VS: The US has always been to the right, though right and left are relative terms.  The world has a lot of problems.  Even though America isn’t perfect, I believe it’s still the greatest country in the world. 

Bernie is only calling it “Democratic Socialism” because he knows that half his base would leave if he actually went full-throttle Communist before getting elected President.  Some prominent lefties have stated that Socialism is just progress towards Communism.  Only a matter of time, slippery slope, and all that.

RCK: Hard disagreement there. There is a pretty big difference between what Sanders is talking about and what the media portrays it as.

VS: I think the vast majority are fed up with “cancel culture.”  Those types of witch hunts, demonetizing, deplatforming, online outrage, endless protests, and boycotts are toxic.  I think they’re making everything worse.  But it’s a minority of keyboard warriors perpetrating all this nonsense…  the media, Antifa, radical politicians, activists, and left-leaning twitter people following a trend.

RCK: There we can agree, at least to a degree. That kind of thinking is itself toxic. It harms our ability to understand (and thereby influence) movements in the hobby and the world. It makes us weaker as a group. And it poisons us as individuals. That’s not really “Left”. That’s fascism creeping into the Left. But anti-fascism is not itself a problem, and following Twitter trends is a problem regardless of which "side" you are on.

VS: I don’t think fascism is restricted to any political group.  Human beings are both good and bad.  Sometimes, the bad outweighs the good.  Doesn’t matter if its left or right.  Authoritarianism is destructive to a free society.  Too tight a grip and the people are strangled, too loose and there’s disarray.  I find the same philosophy goes for Game Mastering.

RCK: Which seems reasonable to me. I find the PoliticalCompass model useful, which uses a Left/Right and an Authoritarian/Libertarian axis.

VS: Under normal circumstances, I’d be in the middle.  But I feel the left has gone too far over the edge, and that has forced me further right.

RCK: Well, suffice to say that there are a lot of places where we disagree on the political front. And it is hard to escape talking politics these days.

VS: Sorry for the tangent.

RCK: Not a problem.  I tend to think we are all better off if we talk about these things, even with people we disagree with. Maybe especially when we disagree!

VS: Back to Alpha Blue… sex sells, controversy sells, and every so often good writing/design sells, too.  I love sex, exploitation movies, comedy, and sci-fi.  So, why not put them all together?  If that makes me a porn peddler, then fine by me.  About 15 years ago, I very nearly almost became a porn producer.  Like actual porn films.  Went to a weekend seminar to learn how and everything.  Thought I might get to meet Ron Jeremy, too, but unfortunately that didn’t happen.

Yes, sexual content of some kind almost always features in my Alpha Blue games.  Even if it’s a one-hour demo, I try to include something.  Maybe I’ll dangle a tantalizing cocktail waitress in front of the players or they’ll walk into an area of the space station where there’s a two-way mirror looking into the girls’ locker room.  Stuff you’d see in Porky’s, Police Academy, or Revenge of the Nerds, except it’s also science-fiction.

While I don’t detail every thrust and moan, it’s clear what’s going on.  There’s a beginning, middle, and end.  No fading to black.  Could be something like… you start rubbing WD-40 all over the sex-bot’s metallic body.  She’s getting turned on and opens her legs.  What are you doing?

Player: I want to start banging!

Ok, you penetrate her inviting soft-circuits.  You’re giving it to her good, it looks like she’s about to blow a gasket.  Eventually, you finish on her… [rolls dice]

RCK: To each his own.  I once had a player who wanted to make a “serious” D&D game about how his penis was like an elephant’s trunk. The game didn’t last that long.

VS: I can see where that might be an element of a D&D game, but the whole game?  Even something we can all agree on – like a dragon – how can the entire game be only about this dragon?  It needs other things.  I love hamburger, too, but an entire bowl of just cooked hamburger is hardly a satisfying meal.

RCK: He did, literally, want to keep bringing it up. Pun intended. It was an urban campaign, and the party couldn’t enter a bar without his describing how his dick grabbed peanuts from the bar.

VS: While I enjoy a good running gag, such things have their time and place.  Alpha Blue is that time and place, but probably not your everyday D&D campaign. 

RCK: I guess it makes a difference whether or not everyone at the table is into it.

VS: Right, we all have expectations.  That’s why there’s different games, each with their own flavor.

RCK: Last but not least – you exploded onto the scene around the same time I did, with the publication of Dungeon Crawl Classics. I can imagine that the material you were producing then didn’t hit the “family friendly” requirement for the DCC RPG logo. Can you tell us a little bit about your early experiences with the DCC community, as well as why and how you decided to go your own way?

VS: Yes, Dungeon Crawl Classics got me excited about the OSR and going back to old school gaming.  Up until then, it just seemed… kind of weird or crazy to just pick up the gaming materials we had from the early 80’s and start a campaign.

Mind you, I actually did run a Mentzer red box one-off way back in 1999 with some of my college buddies.  It was fun, but I don’t think anyone considered carrying on with it.  I guess we were playing it ironically, sort of.  But then I was a dumb-dumb in my mid-twenties and simply thought that new was always better… but it isn’t.  Progressive doesn’t equal progress. 

RCK: Not always, no.

VS: So, the OSR was a paradigm shift – a reaction to modern gaming culture ushered in by 3rd and 4th edition.  While DCC helped bridge the gap back to old school fundamentals, that game definitely has its own vibe.  Some stuff I like, but there are things I don’t care for.  And with hundreds of choices, plus the ability to craft your very own house-rules, I just didn’t see the need to follow DCC that closely.

RCK: Okay. That’s a lot of background out of the way! Now we can talk about Cha’alt.

I’m not certain if I am looking at something designed for use with a more typical fantasy rpg or something like Stars Without Number. There aren’t just science fiction elements in here – the setting is connected to other worlds. Where were you going with this, when you wrote it?

VS: It's supposed to be a hybrid of post-apocalyptic fantasy (like Dark Sun) and Stars Without Number, White Star, Star Wars, etc.  I re-use a lot of the same concepts when creating a new adventure or setting.  I’m never going to stop including tentacles, dark gods, evil sorcerers, crashed starships, robots, lasers, civilizations in ruin, and the like. 

If you like that about my stuff, great!  You get to see more of it in various shades, warped here and there so it’s fresh.  Another benefit is that most things connect, more or less.  You could use The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence and Liberation of the Demon Slayer with Cha’alt.  Or you could include elements in Cha’alt with Gamma Turquoise: Santa Fe Starport or Dead God Excavation.  Sky’s the limit!

RCK: The pdf includes Crimson Dragon Slayer, but the writing allows for almost any system to be used.

VS: Definitely.  I personally could use Cha’alt with every version of D&D or retro-clone, and pretty much any traditional rules-light system. 

The latest incarnation of Crimson Dragon Slayer focuses on a D20 hybrid between OSR and 5th edition, which I like to call O5R.  That’s what I use running virtual games on Roll20.  It lets us actually play a 60- or 90-minute game and get pretty far.  If I worried about character sheets and all the rules, we’d never get past the very first encounter! 

Plus, I like GMing for noobs.  They respond well to minimal, basic systems without all the fiddly bits.  Crimson Dragon Slayer D20 is a good fit for me, and that’s what counts.

RCK: Absolutely.

I have to ask you – Gamma Incel Cantina? What’s that about?

VS: Prince of Nothing, who consulted on Cha’alt, reviewed Alpha Blue and we were joking back and forth in the comments.  He said gamma incel something or other and it made me laugh.  I needed a name for the Mos Eisley cantina rip-off in Cha’alt, and decided to name it Gamma Incel Cantina. 

Personally, I think “incel” is kind of a dumb insult.  Just me sitting here in my chair at my desk, I’m rather involuntarily celibate.  If I had my way, I’d be having sex right now.  Alas, that’s not my day job.

RCK: I guess this interview isn’t as stimulating as you’d like?

VS: Well, even if I was having sex three times a day, I’d still need to take breaks.  I do enjoy a good interview, such as this one, so can’t really complain.

RCK: Good to hear. My understanding is that “incel” isn’t meant to imply that you aren’t having sex right now. It’s supposed to be both that you aren’t able to get a sexual partner, and that you are blaming the other (or same?) gender because they don’t find you attractive. A combination of self-sabotage combined with an unwillingness to recognize your own responsibility.

VS: Well, I’m married… so my options are rather limited.

RCK: It does get thrown around as an ad hominem pretty frequently when certain people encounter arguments that they aren’t ready to counter. Not unlike the idea that anyone who refused to support Clinton must be a racist or a misogynist.

VS: Yeah. 

RCK: As you said earlier, a certain type of Authoritarian/fascism isn’t limited to the Left or the Right. But the idea that a person’s inability to get a date makes actual misogyny or rape okay is clearly wrong. As you said earlier – I strongly believe that what consenting adults do is no one else’s business.

VS: Obviously, I’m against actual rape.

RCK: I didn’t mean to imply otherwise! And now I have to apologize for pulling the discussion off on a tangent again. But I think that we can both agree that, sometimes, when dealing with controversial content it is important to make things like this clear. It is all too easy to find yourself on the wrong side of people who want to declare you a sexist, racist, or whatever. Sometimes that tar is applied with a really broad brush.

VS: Those are the times we live in.  We’re almost at a tipping point, I think. 

RCK: There we agree...we just hope that things tip in different directions. Anyway, I’m looking at the layout of Cha’alt, and I think it is fantastic. Information is easy to find, and there is a great use of text boxes and callouts. That page background, though, is going to be murder on my printer!

VS: Thanks!  Gold Ennie winner Glynn Seal did the layout and cartography.  I wanted it to be both gorgeous and easy to use.

Yes, it would be murder on your printer. 

I’m hoping everyone that likes the PDF will buy the fancy hardcover (you’ll get a discount based on the amount spent on the digital version) coming in October.  I went the way of independent boutique RPG creators and ordered a print run from Friesens, who did Maze of the Blue Medusa, Silent Titans, and a few others.  Super high quality!

RCK: There’s a lot of stuff in your Adventure Writing and Game Master books that I really like. I’ve talked about that here. When I’m running games, I also like to include the occasional dramatic flourish.

VS: Gaming should be fun.  If it’s a slog for the GM, how great can it be for the players?  Little interesting elements added to the game here and there make sessions more enjoyable. 

I ran a playtest of Cha’alt at Gary Con this past March.  It was the Beneath Kra’adumek dungeon.  I decided to use that d100 table of things the PCs have done in their past.  One result rolled at character creation literally changed the entire session.  That tiny detail went from central character motivation to running joke to the thing that saved the day at the end. 

So, the moral of that story is never game without How To Game Master Like A Fucking Boss!

RCK: Care to expand on that? What happened?

VS: From memory, one of the PCs acquired a transparent cube.  He was fascinated by it and kept coming up with possible applications, like after the dungeon he’d go into business manufacturing and selling similar transparent cubes.  In one room of the Kra’adumek dungeon, there’s a way to subtly change reality.  The cube became a sphere.  There was a lot of inter-PC chatter about the sphere and what it might mean.  Eventually, it made sense that throwing the sphere into the purple demon-worm’s mouth could destroy it.

RCK: There is something magical about gaming that surprises everyone at the table, including the GM.

VS: Yes, the surprise or even possibility of surprise heightens the experience.  If I ran the exact same scenario the exact same way every time, I’d want to quit.

RCK: I could not agree more. There are some pretty off-the-wall things in Cha’alt that I imagine would be funny in play. The “fruities” in the Black Pyramid, for instance. As a father of three myself (two are now adults), I have seen enough kids’ programming to understand wanting the PCs to dice those things into little pieces!

VS: When I’m doing “gonzo work,” I try to find that balance between “normal” and totally batshit insane.  There are some dark things, fun things, off-the-wall things… a wide variety.  I dug deep, sifting and winnowing for as many references and influences as possible.  But I like to twist things around, cross-reference. 

RCK: Why should people buy Cha’alt? Give us your elevator pitch.

VS: I usually describe Cha’alt as eldritch, gonzo, science-fantasy, and post-apocalypse.  It’s both a campaign setting + megadungeon with lots in-between.  218 pages of delectable weirdness that will bludgeon your vanilla fantasy over the head like Negan, Glenn, and that barbed-wire baseball bat. 

RCK: You do Gary Con every year, I believe, but I don’t think we’ve run into each other yet. Maybe I could get in on one of your games next year?

VS: That would be awesome! 

My convention schedule is sporadic at best.  I try to hit up both Gary Con and Game Hole Con about every other year.  Five kids is no joke!  Due to a family vacation in March, I won’t be at the next Gary Con.  However, I’m planning on being there in 2021… with tentacles!

RCK: Well, 2021 then. It was a real pleasure talking to you!

VS: Thank you!  I enjoyed it.  And thanks to everyone who takes a chance on Kort’thalis Publishing.

Thursday 12 September 2019

Tabletop Scotland

Looking down at the Open Play area on Saturday afternoon

I was in Scotland in the latter part of August. Because I was considering how cool it would be to run a Road Crew game while there, I contacted Bill Heron at, who I found by using a Google search for Edinburgh gamers. He put me in touch with David Wright, who is the Convention Director for Tabletop Scotland.

The convention ran from the 24th-25th of August in Perth. The convention was in its second year, but managed to pull in quite a crowd. People were there from all over the United Kingdom, from Europe, and (in at least my case) from Canada. The event was well organized, well attended, and there was definitely energy. Dave told me that attendance was about twice that of their inaugural year.

There was a large focus on board games, but there was good participation for role-playing games as well. A room was set aside for Dungeons & Dragons, and another room set aside for other systems. I ran a playtest of Beneath the Temple of Doubt for a fantastic group of six in the Other Systems room.

From what I could tell by passing between areas, the Other Systems area received more traffic/players than did Dungeons & Dragons, but that could just be a result of the times I was in each area.

Beneath the Temple of Doubt is a 3rd level adventure. I was asked at several points if I was going to run a funnel by diverse people. I have little doubt that, had I planned my schedule around it and given sufficient notice to the convention, I could have run 6 games over the weekend with strong attendance (5-6 players) at each.

Beneath the Temple of Doubt

Because I was on vacation, and I had a fairly full schedule with the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, visiting the palace in Linlithgow, etc., I came by ScotRail to Perth on Saturday morning and had to leave fairly early on Sunday. This was poor planning on my part, because there was a lot going on at the convention which I wasn't able to get involved with.

Andy Meechan and myself; his photo
This was a great convention filled with wonderful people. If I could somehow defray the costs of airfare I would be happy to attend every year. If you are able to attend a future Tabletop Scotland, it gets my recommendation.