Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Venger As'Nas Satanis: An Appreciation

Seeing as I appear to be doing a lot of rambling about various OSR writers just now, I might as well do one on one of the OSR's more colourful figures: Venger As'Nas Satanis, the self-styled founder of the Cult of Cthulhu. Now, in my view, the single best writer currently working in the OSR is Patrick Stuart, who on a sentence-by-sentence level can outgun just about anyone. Scrap Princess probably has the edge over him in terms of raw delirious imagination, but it's a close-run thing. Zak S, Kenneth Hite, David McGrogan, James Raggi, Geoffrey McKinney, and Rafael Chandler have all put together some seriously impressive and well-crafted work over the last few years. But none of them make me want to grab half a dozen people and just yell, 'OK, guys, we're playing this right now' in quite the same way that Satanis does.

I've read three of his books, so far: Liberation of the Demon Slayer, Revelry in Torth, and The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence. As he cheerfully acknowledges, they all draw on pretty much the same set of material: Conan-style sword and sorcery, Lovecraftian horror, cheesy old science fantasy movies, and 70s exploitation flicks. In fact, most of his aesthetic could be summed up by quoting a single sentence from The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence:
'A powerful sorcerer, Surek, lives there along with his female slave named Satara; a half-Koshi, half-Human servant named Torg; and a robot from the future called X111.'
Koshi are ape-men; so what we have here is a sorcerer, a slave girl, an ape-man, and a robot from the future, hanging out together in a dungeon, in a kind of living tableau of pulp weird fiction clichés. Why is there a robot? How did it arrive here from 'the future'? What's 'the future' like, anyway? No explanation is given. Time-travelling robots are apparently just one of those things.

As are, um... combat thongs, I guess? This is what happens when you get monster porn artists to draw your cover for you...

As an RPG writer, Satanis certainly has his limitations. His writing is very unsystematic: he'll write at length about some aspect of a scene that interests him, and then neglect to mention such minor details as who these people are or what the hell is going on. He writes in a kind of eternal present-tense, presenting a series of set-pieces with no real sense of before or after: masked revellers rush by carrying a papier-mâché dragon! Crazed cultists prepare a beautiful girl for sacrifice! A gorilla with tentacles for arms wades across an endless desert! The skeletons of radioactive spacemen lurch up to attack! The situations he presents often make very little logical sense, and will fall apart quite rapidly if you have the kind of group who ask questions like 'but where have they been getting food from?' or 'why didn't they do this until now?' As a rollercoaster ride between scenes from space-rock and heavy metal album covers, though, it's hard to beat; and I find something enormously appealing about the sheer enthusiasm with which Satanis throws all this material down onto the page. He doesn't take this whole 'fantasy gaming' thing too seriously; he knows that if the average D&D campaign was a movie, it'd be a low-budget fantasy flick full of terrible actors and continuity errors and a really awful script. He doesn't fight that: he embraces it, inviting his readers to recognise that once you stop worrying about plot coherency and artistic value, Battle For the Planet of the Apes can actually be a pretty fun movie. He approaches his media of choice on its own terms, rather than condemning it for failing to be something else, and I have a lot of sympathy for that.

Satanis's work has been mildly controversial due to its wholehearted embrace of one part of the pulp aesthetic which many modern pulp revivalists have been keen to move away from: its sexism. His works are full of sexy near-naked slave girls, sexy near-naked sorceresses, sexy near-naked women who are about to be sacrificed to evil gods, and so on: the evil ones usually have seduction-based powers, and the good ones are often more-or-less explicitly presented as another kind of 'treasure' for the PCs to carry off. This is certainly true to its source material, but I entirely understand why many people might find it a real turn-off. As and when I run some of his adventures - which I really hope I will at some point - I'll just gender-flip half of them: so for every sexy naked elf-girl hanging around the place, being used as a slave or a sacrifice or whatever, there'll also be a sexy naked elf-boy in a similar situation somewhere to balance things out. That way the atmosphere of pulpy self-indulgent decadence is maintained, but in a more... ah... equal opportunities fashion.

I mean, guys can be sacrificed to demonic blob monsters in weird bondage rituals too! 
Because Satanis doesn't do things which are obviously 'difficult', like come up with super-complex storylines or nuanced characters or brilliantly-written descriptions, it would be easy to come away with the impression that what he does is easy: just a matter of combining a random Conan tale with a random Lovecraft short story and a random episode of Thundarr the Barbarian, and then adding some gratuitous female nudity to the resulting mix. Anyone who follows this formula will, indeed, come up with something that bears a surface similarity to one of Satanis's adventures; but I'd be willing to bet that, most of the time, it wouldn't be nearly as good. It would be a rote exercise: it would lack the energy which supercharges his works, all but demanding to be allowed to spill off the page and onto the gaming table. (Go on: come up with a better 'animal mash-up' monster than a gorilla with tentacle arms that wanders the sands of a sunless desert. See how long it really takes.) As I'm sure he'd be the first to admit, it's not the most sophisticated material in the world. But it's fun and vivid and attractively unpretentious, and above all it's eminently gameable: the work of someone who understands that what makes for great gaming is not necessarily the same thing as makes for great novels, and that while deep and complex characterisation can be good, an elephant-sized sand squid with a tentacle that ends in a scorpion tail is usually going to be even better. Your PCs won't forget meeting that one in a hurry.

So: Venger As'Nas Satanis. Satanist. Cthulhu cultist. Pretty damn good at this whole 'RPG writing' thing. I'd never run any of his adventures without making heaps of changes to them, adding back in all the logic and coherency and internal consistency which he so gleefully ignores; but give me half a chance and I will run them. They just look like being too much fun to pass up.

1 comment:

  1. I will chop to being a vile thread necromancer, but I have to say that it only took a few seconds to come up with an octopus with gorilla hands that settings through the trees of a mangrove swamp, dropping down on unsuspecting prey.