Saturday, September 03, 2016

Flashback: Empire of Satanis By Darrick Dishaw

A lot of people probably don't remember the indie RPG known as Empire of Satanis. There are some pretty good reasons for that, but I thought that on this long American holiday weekend that we could take a look at the "classic" game by Darrick Dishaw.

My capsule review is that Empire of Satanis is a jejune attempt at horror role-playing that draws upon the overused tropes of 80s and 90s horror movies that you have probably already seen used (often more intelligently) in a multitude of other games.

He might be better remembered as the guy who "cursed" RPGNet after he received some bad reviews for his game on the site. The "curse" is probably of better quality than some of the writing in Empire of Satanis, which is kind of disappointing. The curse is kind of funny and sad, and definitely worth repeating here:
Hail Satan! Lord of the Pit! King of Hell! Ruler of the Earth! Master of the Abyss! I open the unknowable doorways and touch the violet flame, drink the revitalizing blood and break the skulls of those who cross Him or His brothers. I call upon the most vicious demons of Hell to intervene. From this night forth, you will be plagued by self-doubt, weakness, failure, hopelessness, hunger, pain, loss, insecurity, and envy. Nothing can save you and no one will come to your aid. All who have befriended you will now desert you in your hour of need. 
In the name of the Ancient Ones, I curse those who tear down Empire of Satanis! May Satan have no mercy whatsoever upon your miserable souls. 
Hail Satan! 
So it is done! 
Darrick Dishaw 
However, it does help to demonstrate the mishmash of conflicting influences that went into the game, not to mention how the author seems to blur the lines between fiction and reality. Empire of Satanis is presented as a metatextual attempt at creating a religion that draws upon Satanism and the fictional worlds of H.P. Lovecraft. We will, of course, overlook the obvious inconsistency of using the writings of an avowed atheist as the basis for a religion.

This review looks at the revised and expanded version of the game from 2011.

The presentation isn't much to look at. It looks as though the PDF was made from a Microsoft Word file with minimal formatting and no art. This is DIY RPG at its most basic. The image above is apparently the front cover, but it isn't included in the PDF.

The ideas of this game: demonic forces powered by corruption, Satanic Hell dimensions and progressing through acts of evil are nothing new in RPGs. But games like the horror classic Kult and writers like Rafael Chandler have handled these themes in much more intelligent and entertaining manners.

With Empire of Satanis we get a regurgitation of imagery stolen from movies like Hellraiser.

The presentation of the material moves between first and third person. I would assume that this is an attempt at immersion into the setting of the game. Perhaps it could work with a more skilled hand, as it has with the many other games that have dipped into this overdrawn well of inspiration.

The game outlines a number of demonic races that can be the basis of player characters, as well as some very, very brief ideas on how they react to each other. There are some interesting ideas to be found in this section of the game, but the brevity with which they are handled makes them hard to utilize within the game.

Creatures that you will encounter aren't given writeups, however. Most of the pieces of the setting are only given a page or two of description at most. The information isn't going to be enough to be useful in running a game without a great deal of work on the part of the GM.

Mechanically, the game uses a simple d6-based mechanic. There is an interesting idea to it because, while you roll a certain number of six sided dice each time, you don't add them together. Instead, you just take the highest roll on all of the dice. This is the "success number" for your roll. If it beats the target number of the task being resolved, the character succeeds at that task. Rolls of a six are what is commonly known as an exploding die. Each six is rerolled, until you get something other than a six. Add all of those together for the "success number."

On the surface, this mechanic is simple and it seems like a good way to handle things. But, the problem is that there aren't any modifiers to rolls that will significantly impact the resolution checks. This means that, without an exploding die action, characters will never be able to succeed at tasks more difficult than the highest number on the six-siders. Ironically, this means that a character can't succeed at an average (target number of 7) difficulty task or higher. That sounds like it could be a problem for characters.

There are interesting mechanical ideas that fall flat because the implementation of them haven't been thought out by the designer.

The character creation rules are jumbled. Things that should be advantages, or special abilities, for characters are instead set up as skills. This means that a character's inborn ability to see in the "secret darkness of the universe" will as often as not fail. That kind of sucks for a character.

Now, the "indieness" of the game comes in the "story alteration" mechanic. Again, it is a good idea spoiled by a mechanical implementation that was not thought out by the designer. The player gets to "declare a basic idea" of what will happen, and then they roll a single d6. On a six, the player's idea occurs in the game. This is a popular idea that you see in a lot of indie games anymore. There is a sort of sacrifice that is built into the game, where you can spend points of the character's Social Standing attribute, or Hit Points, to modify the story alteration roll. These expenditures can change the chances from 1 in 6 to 3 in 6.

Magic is freeform in the game (which probably doesn't come as a surprise to anyone). Damage is easy, you pick a difficulty for your spell, and that is how much damage it does. Of course, due to what I talked about earlier, your character isn't going to be able to get an Average difficulty success or better.

Basically, Empire of Satanis is a role-playing game like so many that has a lot more enthusiasm than merit, rending the game to be practically unplayable by gaming groups. The background could be of use with a gaming system that works, and it wouldn't take anymore work to get the setting material to work in that setting than it would to use it with the "system" presented in this book.

The book is also peppered with enough Thomas Ligotti quotes that he should get a cut of the profits.

Check out the links provided at the top of this post. The PDF is freely available at Lulu.com. I think that you'll find out that I'm not exaggerating about the lack of quality in this game. Empire of Satanis isn't even FATAL, because at least the awfulness of that game was original. You aren't going to find anything original in Empire of Satanis.

Dishaw is still nipping at the edges of the online RPG scene, these days under the uninspired nom du guerre of Venger Satanis. These days his strategies seem to be built around whipping angry, middle aged white guys into a frenzy over a world that has passed them by. Like a lot of "personalities" in the online RPG community, whipping up anger is easier than having creativity.

I await the flood of minions sealioning this post. I thank you in advance for the traffic to my blog.



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