Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Big Puppet Review

 Let's not bury the lede. "Big Puppet" by Aeron Alfrey and Alucard Finch is amazing. The best OSR product of 2020 that I've read. It's everything that attracted me to the OSR in the first place—completely unique, obssesively useable, unflinchingly adult, hilariously gross, Cronenbergian (or, maybe more accurately, William S. Burroughs-ian), and uncomprimising in its artistic vision. So there's my review; the rest is fluff. 

On flipping through the book, Aeron Alfrey's art immediately stands out. Aeron has a playful collage style that transforms the horrible things that happen in the module into something wickedly funny. This playfulness in the face of horror perfectly encapsulates the feel of the module—there really couldn't have been a better artist to pair with this book. The art doesn't just sit on the page, though; it actively supports and enhances the text. A good module has to straddle the line between technical writing and artistic writing. The prose of the Alucard Finch's text (credited on the cover as A. Finch—the nom de Plume is a possible reference to Atticus Finch?) is very clear and workmanlike like a good piece of technical writing. Aeron's art takes that clear text, amplifying and complimenting the dark humor of the subtext. The illustrations of each of the NPC has so much life that it is instantly obvious how the character moves and reacts without even having to read the descriptions—an immense aid to the GM running the module.

The book itself is, as per LotFP standards, a very well made A5 hardcover with stitch binding. The paper used is a glossy paper that very well compliments the art. Clearly a lot of care was taken with the layout by Alex Mayo, with all the information sitting very neatly on the page—even with small details like the endpapers. Lamentations is famous for including vital information (such as maps or summaries) for the GM on the endpapers. Quite notably, this module instead has a fleshy pink muscle pattern on the endpapers. I'm not sure whose idea this was, but the decision is brilliant given a recurring theme of the module—information stored on something biological. When you open the book and look at that fleshy endpaper, it gives you the impression that the whole module is writ on a slab of meat, It's subtle, but totally inspired.

From here on in, there's spoilers ahoy. If there's any chance you're going to be a player in this, please turn away. In fact, even if you are thinking of purchasing this module to run it, you may choose to avoid spoilers to give yourself the full pleasure of reading it.

The module starts with a description of its primary foils: a group of interdimensional beings who are able to remotely inhabit our world via biocontrol units made of the rare element Duonium. With these biocontrol units, they can shape organic matter however they please—most choose more or less human bodies, but some of the aliens have shaped for themselves bizarre and terrifying forms. They are a cool, utterly alien species with a five-fold mind that can control five bodies at once via these biocontrol units. Since they come from a different dimension, they don't view our world as real and treat it like a video game. Their only goal is to obtain more duonium so that they can bring in more "players." The easiest (and, for them, the most amusing) way to obtain the rare duonium is by harvesting the trace amounts of the element from human bodies (more on that later).

The module describes four of these five-fold entities, color coded for ease of reference. Each alien has five bodies, called "Avatars" or "puppets" in the module. The appearance and mannerisms of the puppets are well described, with each given a paragraph or so and an illustration. Many of them also have some interesting combat tactic. My personal favorite is Marienne. Often found knitting some amorphous baby clothes, if provoked she gives birth to baby bat-shaped drones that fly around and wreak havok. Some of them are really quite gross in a body-horror/Cronenburg/over-the-top sort of way that you will either find amusing, juevenile, or just plain disgusting depending on the kind of person that you are. As a thoroughly twisted individual, I found myself laughing out loud several times while reading this section.

The other important faction described in the module is the brilliant, but insane Pierre DuPont. He has taken over an old bookstore and turned it into a base of operation. He knows about the aliens and their plot, but of course no one believes him. He uses his chemical knowledge to produce drugs both to fund his operation and to addict a small army of "agents" to his cause. His goal is to stop these aliens at any cost.

The second part of the module is a detailed seven-day calendar of events. Modules with event sequences have to be handled carefully—if it is too detailed, the module runs the risk of railroading the whole adventure. Luckily, the event sequence in this module actually encourages sandbox play by providing several ways to interact with factions and a definite, "ticking clock" end point—when Pierre flies his balloon over the theatre where the aliens have based themselves and burns the whole place down with explosives.

This section also describes the aliens' plan in more details. They need to harvest bodies for duonium, but how to access the bodies without raising suspicion? The aliens have started a theatre company called "The Grand Guignol" (which, despite four years of French class, I literally just learned means "Big Puppet" while researching for this very review) that has been modeled after the real-life Parisian Grand Guignol theatre from the early 20th century. The aliens bring volunteers up on the stage and murder them in elaborately gore-tastic ways. The theatre-goers assume it's all just part of the show, since the volunteers are returned back to society quite unharmed. What the theatre-goers don't know, is that the volunteers really are brutally murdered and replaced by genetically engineered simulacra. These simulacra are dependent on a certain nutrient that the aliens use to control these simulacra and convert to their will. The English major in me can't help but point out that mistaking something very real as a harmless illusion is another recurring theme of the module—the aliens perceive our world as a game just like the theatre-goers perceive the dismemberment of their fellow villagers as a mere play.

By far the most striking piece of art in the module is the series of 2-page spreads in the center of the book illustrating this scene. The art piece is a bit interactive. It starts with full page of just an empty stage. A greasy bloodstain peers out from behind the curtain, parted very slightly—the show is about to start. Turn the page, and it's spread after spread of completely violent and gruesome dismemberment with a charming little rhyming couplet to accompany it. At the show's end, there is another full-page illustration of the back of the theatre to close out the piece. The elaborate deaths are just wonderfully over-the-top. You know that moment in a horror film  where a character dies in a wonderfully horrible way and you just turn to your friend and laugh (this mostly happens in older horror films as gorey fantastic deaths sadly seem to be a lost art in horror cinema)? This piece embodies that emotion hard. The art here transforms this whole section into something very special.

The module then provides a few dungeons that players might run into. Overall these are quite serviceable dungeons, especially the theatre itself, which has a few body-horror tricks up its sleeve. If I had one criticism of the module, it would be that I could have used one more dungeon. If I run this myself, I had an idea of turning my favorite scene from the Cronenburg film eXistenZ into a dungeon of sorts—a restaurant run by the aliens with genetically modified chickens whose bones can be assembled into firearms...

The module closes with some very nice items. Each item gets its own illustration. This is probably the most universally useful section of the module if you are running anything with body horror and need some inspiration for great items to use. Some of these are only barely mentioned in the module itself, but could really change how the game runs if a player gets their hot little hands on them.

This module fulfills LotFP's "weird fantasy roleplaying" tagline. If you are at all a Cronenburg, Clive Barker, Junji Ito, or William S Burroughs fan, this module is an insta-buy. That said, it may not be for everyone—it fits a weird niche of being both artsy and low-brow. I would highly encourage you to give this module a try.

1 comment:

  1. Goddamn do I love Big Puppet. The art, the writing, the weird. Everything in it is fucking great.

    Sweet review too.