Monday, January 09, 2023

Game of Theseus?

FULL DISCLOSURE: I was comped a copy of this game and I played in one of the playtest sessions.

I think that says Encounter Critical.

Q: If you take a game, replace the mechanics AND swap out the setting, is it still the same game?

This is the question that Venger Satanis's new Encounter Critical III demands an answer to. At first, I thought the answer was "No, duh." But consider how many changes have been made to D&D and how many settings have come and gone. Even with all the various changes over the years, the spirit of the game somehow remains.

That's kinda my conclusion with ECIII. In the S. John Ross Hank Riley and Jim Ireland original, Vanth is only a "sample setting." There's no real reason you must keep Vanth, Venger's setting Cha'alt (an Arrakis/Tatooine/Arabian Knights mash-up) works just as well. Hell, I ran a short Encounter Critical campaign set on Tatooine several years ago.

And as much as I like the intentionally arcane and fiddly mechanics of the original game, that's not everyone's bag, baby. Christian Conkle's Challengers of Vanth keeps the setting but swaps in the fast and functional Mörk Borg rules light d20 adaptation. Venger also has a light touch d20 approach here that looks quite functional to me, even slick.

What my mind's eye sees every time someone mentions Mörk Borg.

But Jeff, without the setting and the mechanics, what is left of the original EC in Venger's version? Well, for one thing, there's nearly all the weird races and classes from the original, albeit in streamlined d20 format. Venger also adds some new races. I quite like the Banana-Man, the Cereal Spooks, and the cyclops from freakin' Krull. One of the fun things about EC is that you can play all these weirdo race/class combos.

In the valley of the shadow a booberry attacks!
But for the other thing, a game has something beyond mechanics and setting: a tone, an attitude, a spirit. For EC, I always felt that tone was my god, this has so much goofy stuff in it. The ridiculous mishmash of it combined with the wonky rules all gave a sense of wahoo freedom, inviting you in as a co-collaborator. ECIII has that as well.

What might go too far for some is the sleaze. I thing Venger makes a pretty decent argument for why his brand of self-professed sleaziness intersects with Encounter Critical, so I am just going to quote the forward:

Remember, Encounter Critical supposedly came out in the late 70s. There’s something I’m about to call “sleaze inflation” or “sleaze-flation” that should help explain. What seems innocuous now was not so back in the 1970s because our culture is progressive – it’s progressing towards degeneracy. Back in the days of bell-bottoms and flower-power, a mutation such as “strange sexual gifts” was pretty damned sleazy.  

By today’s standards, “strange sexual gifts” is the title of a book handed out at your local library during story-hour. Gamers wouldn’t even raise a current-year eyebrow. If you want the same punch today that Encounter Critical had (or would have had) back in the 70s, you’d have to really go for it... ramping up the blue language, explicit details, and depraved ramifications (wink wink, nudge nudge).

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that Encounter Critical has always been sleazy (you just didn’t know it). Furthermore, I learned my decadent ways from reading Encounter Critical. I LEARNED HOW TO BE SLEAZY BY WATCHING YOU, DAD... uh, I mean... Encounter Critical.

This sort of thing is, of course, a matter of taste.  ECIII is naughtier than I normally get in my own games, but in general I'd rather be the most vanilla guy in a room full of freaks than hang out with the puritans.

Here's a few things individual items I want to note about the new ECIII:

  • The d100 mutation table is pretty effin' sweet.
  • Venger's command of the in's and out's of roleplaying are more sophisticated than his book titles and cover art choices let on. Heck, some of his roleplaying concepts are downright indie in nature.
  • Where the heck is the equipment list??? Is this a riff on the omission of the armor chart from the original game?
  • Some of the art is AI generated. I know this is a BIG CONTROVERSY right now, so I just wanted to warn folks.
  • I like how the sample adventure combines some palace intrigue with good ol' fashion dungeoneering and some cthulhoid horrors, but, man, that dungeon map does nothing for me.
  • I honestly thought I was done reading RPG products with faux aged-parchment effect on every ding dang page. It's not unreadable, but I still kinda hate it.

So would I run ECIII? Yes, if I had players requesting it. Would I play it? Again, yes, but I am not breaking down any doors to do so. Is this game a betrayal of the true fans of EC? Hell, I dunno and it doesn't even really matter since there were never more than like 16 people super into the original. Would someone who didn't know the original game get the wrong impression of EC from ECIII? Almost certainly, but I think it would be the right kind of wrong impression.

If you like gonzo games or if you consider yourself a connoisseur of retro stupid roleplaying products, you could do a lot worse than dropping 10 bucks on Encounter Critical III.


  1. A satisfying review, hoss! Thank you.

    I knew some people would be disappointed because the original Encounter Critical is such a unique RPG. I struggled for about 18 months on how to revamp it, agonizing whether to appease those who wanted it mechanically simpler with those who wanted it OSR, the folks who wanted a Venger Satanis version vs those preferring a purer distillation of the original.

    In the end, I pleased myself because I'm not a businessman... I'm a gamer. ;)

    1. Probably the best choice, all things considered.