By Monte Cook Monte Cook Games System Agnostic (Uh uh. Sure.)
That house on the outskirts of town, sitting empty behind a crumbling wall. The one people whisper about. The one that has gone unlived in for years. Sometimes a few hearty souls creep in, it is said, to see what treasures or secrets they can find. Most find nothing—just an empty old house. Some return shaken. A few don’t return at all. You’ve seen this house before. If not in this city, then in some other. You’ve heard the rumors—and if not, well, someday they’ll find you. What happens to a house when it sits alone for so many long years? What jealousies and hatreds does it quietly nurture? What whispers echo through its empty hallways? What waits, crouched within its dark rooms, hungering for the return of life? For you?
(I just yanked a quote of the Mel Brooks Stand Up Philosopher bit. Which shows you where my thinking was going)
This is 150 pages of pretension fronting about seventy rooms/pages in a haunted house. It’s been designed for online play and has some interesting themes. Atmospheric, but, ultimately, an empty experience for most I’d guess. Actual adult themes inside. Seriously.
This thing is basically a computer program that you run, on your MAC or PC. It’s optimized for online play, although I believe a print version is available as well. I don’t think online play works well, ever, but, I’m open to the position that the tools and style of play still haven’t caught up with it. IE: We’re trying to emulate a tabletop experience when we should we looking to facilitate something a bit different. Vassal vs Unreal. So, Monte is trying, with this, to handle the online play environment. A page with everything the DM needs on it. Descriptions for the players, DM notes, a map, some artwork for the room to share with them, and for the monsters if they are present. And some “collapsible” bullet points that you can expand when the major room elements are explore. “I look in the chest” results in the DM expanding the “chest” section for the details relevant to it. It seems like a little more clicking, which I don’t think is good, but, also, that’s probably not meaningful given that the online game does tend to be a bit slower paced. Hyperlinked to fuck and back, it’s an ok effort in the core formatting. There IS a decent amount of red/maroon text on black background. OOOO!!!! How fancy! And also unreadable. I keep finding myself having to highlight, as if to copy/paste, in order to read it. That’s not good Monte. I don’t know how the fuck anyone involved thought it WAS a good idea. Anyway. Decent cross-references and core presentation. Elements the room descriptions are done well, for scanning purposes. Bullets, whitespace, and so on. But, then, also, some rooms have PARAGRAPHS of text for the expanded bullets. And in a room with a dozen sections to expand, with long paragraphs in some of them … these seems like a miss. It’s amiss both in editing, to make the descriptions shorter and more scannable, and in formatting … following your own innovations to perhaps embed more information in deeper levels of the “tree.” I really, really, really want to hate this just for the illegality of the red on black text. I shall not though
Shall I hate thee for a summer breeze? No, shall I for the 150 pages of pretension that contain “The GM’s secrets of the house.? IE: the GM guide. It has no secrets. It does not tell you, the DM, what is going on in the house. I don’t know, maybe, four pages have some info on running the house? Some themes in the five sections of the house and what happens when the house gets mad at you. The rest of it? Bullshit.
Monte spends a decent amount of time explaining a new RPG system that he wants you to use. So you can concentrate on “the story.” Shove it up your ass man. Your system aint better or worse than anything else. Credit where its due, you’re not shoving a plot down on our throats, imposing the designers Story on the party and DM, but, also, your system aint better or worse than D&D or CoC. He does spend a LARGE number of pages defending choices made and so on, trying to undercut the nerdrage that all of the fanboys feel for their home systems. I can only imagine what its like having everyones targets on you all the time. Anyway, this entire GM book is bullshit. The house can whatever it wants. “The mystical tools disappear lost in the house again, hidden in different places now because the house hates you” or “This essentially means that time works exactly how you, the GM, wants it to. If you don’t want to pay attention to the passage of time and then suddenly say, “It’s been a long time since you have eaten anything. Your stomach is growling,” that’s fine. If you want to keep closer track than that, that’s fine too.” So, basically, do whatever you want, as a DM. This is bullshit and when I, as a player, detect a DM doing this then I tune the fuck out. So, 150 pages of bullshit that appraches indie garbage. LIke “Have each player think of a truth and a lie that is true for them. A truth is something tha player and character believe and the lie is something that the character believes but the players does not.” Uh huh. You see where this is going, right? Yeah, telling the DM to challenge the players, character growth, blah blah blah. Fuck off with that pretension man. Anyway, like I said, you can just throw this entire thing out. All 150 pages. It’s pretty much useless.
The house isn’t really system agnostic, as it claims. First, it wants you to convert to his system, and second, its clearly a CoC/modern horror setting. Telephones, etc are in the game. And in fact, a rining phone is a big theme. Blah blah blah “fit it in” blah blah blah. Monte handwaves this shit in order to say its system agnostic/any system, when he should really just lean the fuck in to that fact that its a horror game in semi-modern times. (Conspiracy X bitches!)
His advice to the DM can be terribly non-specific. If you anger the house you are inflicting with a DOOM when you leave it. DOOMS such as “Terrible nightmares and night terrors” and “A physical malady, such as a limp that impedes quick movement, a back injury that flares up at the worst times, or a prominent—perhaps even animate—and disturbing scar, OR a mental malady, such as post-traumatic stress syndrome that incapacitates in moments of stress, a terrible paranoia, or a serious and lengthy bout of depression.” THis whole DOOM shit is supposed to be a major theme, selling your soul to the house for success, but its impacts are, again, just hand waved. Wrong decision. POh, oh, and lets not forget those rooms that “are placed to build dread.” Blah blah blah “its the house fucking with you” explains why you hear footsteps walking upstairs. Ok, sure, It’s horror. So Maybe. But, fuck your handwaving explanations.
The actual rooms don’t tend to be bad. And, in fact, I’d say the theming is pretty damn good. In the first section of the house The Father roams about. His description is “He appears impossibly tall, with a dark face and yellow eyes, and usually carries a massive leather belt as a weapon. He’s always angry and violent.” I’m not one for that consent checklist/trigger shit at the table, but this is bordering on needing that. Especially once Mom shows up. We gonna assume you didn’t just drop this on the players out of the blue. That would be rude of you to inflict actual adult themes in a game. So, if you can handle that … then this is well done. And I don’t say that lightly. Its got more its fair share of crappy rooms. But also its got a lot of decent puzzley rooms that dont feel too much like a puzzle. And then when the themes show up … The closest analog, I think, might be those 90’s horror games. Maybe crossed with a little Myst. The rooms are very atmospheric. The art contributes to this. The read-aloud borders on being a sentence or two too long, but it not terrible. And the actual challenges are pretty decent.
You’re gonna have to help sell the horror, as the DM (I’m thinking specifically of the second room, a completely dark one, and the third one, with a potential ghost.) The format can be clunky at times. The GM’s guide should just be thrown away. I’m only looking at the electronic version, I have no idea how a print version would pull this off. Whoever decided on Red Text On Black should be banned forever from ever being able to share an opinion or doing design. Otherwise … if you’re cool with some adult themes, not a bad effort. Which, frankly, is NOT the conclusion I though I was going to come to when I started this review. This may be Monte’s best work in a LONG time.
I might run this. If I were looking for something to run for a few sessions, Horror Related, then I might do this. Man, I really don’t like online play. But, if I were to do it I might use this. It brnngs down some of the highbrow theme shit present in the Indie press while still retaining some of it.
Jesus fucking help me, I think I’m giving this a No Regerts. You gotta go in to it ignoring a bunch of shit. And you gotta wanna run online. And be a good DM to convert this to your system and bring the atmosphere to life. That’s a lot of requirements.
This is $45 at DriveThru. There’s no preview. The DriveThru page gives you an idea of the artwork to be shared with the players. And the youtube video shows you a little of the “room page’ layout, with the map, art, DM text, expanding bullets, etc. Also, if you read through the product description you can get a feel for the kind of pretension you have to deal with in that book you are going to throw away. There’s nothing, though, to give you the vibe of themes, which is really too bad. That description of The Father? Go with that. You chill with that in your game?