I promised a surprise today. And here it is. My colleague Jim McClure of the Third Act Publishing invited me to try out his new role-playing game, Satanic Panic, which is currently in its last couple of days on Kickstarter. He’s the guy who previously made me play that samurai thing, Reflections. Well, we recorded the session and you can listen to it. We were joined by Jim’s girlfriend and fellow Satanic Panic designer Emily Reinhart and by Brian “Fiddleback” Casey who produces and records the GM Word of the Week Podcast, which you may have heard of.
If you listen to the thing and like the game, you can still support Satanic Panic on Kickstarter. If you want to know a little more about the game and my opinion of it, read on.
Listen to Angry and Friends Play Satanic Panic:
The Actual Satanic Panic
In the 1980’s, Dungeons & Dragons got some bad press. Most people didn’t know much about the game except that it was the sort of thing weird, loner kids played in the basement. After a couple of highly publicized suicides that involved table-top gamers, parents started getting concerned. Religious groups came out shortly thereafter and began to condemn the magic, mysticism, and religious themes in the game. Several books were written and one movie starring a young Tom Hanks hit the scene, further condeming Dungeons & Dragons as dangerous and potentially corrupting. It took years to die down and some people still hold those views. It’s kind of like how video games and the Harry Potter books get attacked for inspiring Satanism, school shootings, misogyny, rape, and other bulls$&%. The song is the same, it’s just a different dance hall.
Fiddleback and I discussed the entire thing in detail in the GM Word of the Week Episode: Malebranche. By the way… a lot of the stuff I bring up while playing the game are direct references to Satanic Panic incidents. See if you can spot them all!
The Satanic Panic Game
The game assumes the very worst hyperbolic fears during the Satanic Panic were true, amps it up, and plays it for laughs. The players are agents of an unnamed government organization trying to root out subversive table-top RPG groups whose players are in danger of turning into demons and threatening the American way of life. It’s a dark comedy, but a ridiculous and over-the-top one. The players begin each mission by requisition equipment using an assigned budget. During the mission, players must avoid causing too much panic or collateral damage. Excess panic and collateral damage result in reduced budgets for future missions. Players must also be wary of angering the dark forces of Tabletop. If those dark forces, represented by THE d20, become aware of the agent’s efforts, those dark forces intervene directly and try to kill the agents outright.
My Take on the Game
Full disclosure: Jim and I have been friends for several years. I’ve appeared on his podcast and we trade a lot of information back and forth about our corners of the gaming industry and community. We have plans to continue working together on projects in the future. That said, I currently have no financial ties to Jim or Third Act Publishing and I am not supporting any of their projects financially. Jim asked me if I’d be willing to play in a session of his game, if it could be recorded, and if I’d be willing to share that recording. Which is what I’m doing. I made no promises about publishing anything unless I thought the game was good. It is. I liked it. I’m only bringing all of this up because, as much as I try to unbiased, I can’t promise my relationship with Jim isn’t affecting my review. So you should keep that in mind.
The Good: The game has a very interesting feedback mechanic and uses trade-offs rather than straight-up die-rolls to resolve actions. Players have to balance the risks and rewards instead of considering their chances of success. The game is also quite approachable. The gridless, tactical combat mapping system is also neat. Unfortunately, because we played a one-shot game using voice-only over the internet, we didn’t use any of those things. Still, those things are definitely worth a look.
However, because we weren’t playing a campaign, didn’t pay much attention to the trade-offs and simply went in guns blazing. We went all out in the game session. Seriously. We made a MESS.
The Neutral: The humor is over-the-top. The game is not subtle. It’s like the Men in Black movies. I had fun with it in the short term, but I’m not sure I’d feel the need to keep playing the game based on the humor. And I think the GM will have to work hard to build an ongoing game. The subject matter is a little esoteric. As someone who lived through the tail end of the Satanic Panic and makes a joke out of everything, I was happy enough to embrace the humor. But players who suffered through the Satanic Panic might also find it off-putting. Gamers with no familiarity with the Satanic Panic era might find it enjoyably backwards or might miss a lot of the humor. I don’t know.
The Bad: I think the game NEEDS a short campaign, at least, if it’s going to have any real depth. Otherwise, the aforementioned tradeoffs and risks don’t mean anything. The consequences for screwing up missions come into play by removing resources from future missions. There really should be more consequences in the current mission for collateral damage and panic. That said, I think the game’s humor is too over-the-top and amped-up to carry anything more than a few missions or else it will get stale. And I don’t think the mechanical depth is strong enough to carry the game for too long. That stuff ain’t a dealbreaker for me, but it does limit how useful I think the game would be on my shelf. As a one-shot, I think it only plays well once. As an ongoing game, I think you’ll get about three to six missions out of it and be done.
My overall rating is 3.5 Angries out of 5. It’s cute, it does some interesting mechanical things, and you can get a few sessions out of it.