Rafael Chandler, through his Neoplastic Press, is a designer who emerged from the ranks of the Forge who isn’t usually thought of as a Forge-style indie designer, perhaps because of his idiosyncratic design approach. When people think of the Forge, they often think of the “narrativist” school that was heavily promoted by Ron Edwards and others, with games like Dogs In the Vineyard, My Life With Master, Polaris and others drawing on those ideas.
However, as I outlined in my retrospective on the Forge, narrativism and the RPG theory underpinning it was not the only preoccupation of the Forge, only the most loudly controversial. It was also, back in the day, an excellent resource for anyone looking to self-publish their own RPG materials. Whilst today websites like Lulu and others make putting your own book out on a print-on-demand basis about as simple as you could ever hope it to be, the Forge rose at a time when such tools were either still in their infancy or didn’t yet exist, and as such it served as an extremely useful concentration of information and expertise on the self-publication process.
Chandler was an early beneficiary of the Forge’s advice, and in 2002 put it into effect to release Dread: The First Book of Pandemonium, a high-octane gorehound splatterpunk RPG of demon hunting. A second edition followed in 2007, and a sequel themed around hunting equally despicable angels – Spite: The Second Book of Pandemonium – emerged. Chandler at this point seems to have decided that the games’ concepts overlapped enough that it made sense to combine them, so for a new release on PDF and print-on-demand platforms he combined them to produce Pandemonio. The PDF version is a single 512 document on DriveThruRPG; hard copies are available through Lulu in the form of a Player Guide and a Director Guide.
Pandemonio casts the player characters as Disciples – people who used to be ordinary human beings but have become bizarre agents of supernatural forces. Mysterious individuals called Vicars bring Disciples together into groups and send them on missions against demons and angels alike, both of whom are fighting an abhorrent final war in the shadows on Earth. Demons are vindictive and simply want to hurt people; angels are out to punish people for their perceived sins, but the distinction between this and the tortures inflicted by demons is mostly theoretical. Both demons and angels tend to manifest as gruesomely awful monsters with a splatterpunk aesthetic worthy of Clive Barker or Tokyo Gore Police, and the player characters are often similarly bizarre individuals. That’s especially the case once they gain Maledictions, a special type of magic that can only be acquired through exposure to the hideous Books of Pandemonium.
The Player’s Guide sets you up for this by providing most of the game systems written up in a style which manages to get across the violent, high-octane, splatter-happy style of the game without becoming overly grating. Chandler’s commitment to this very specific aesthetic vision shines through with the bizarre character classes, which include ideas like the Murderist, the product of what happens when a demon possesses a human being and they fall in love and merge into a single personality, or the Priest, a person who has been enlightened to higher truths and can now talk to cancer. Each of the classes has a bold, potent special ability which both underlines the grand guignol style of the game and gets across the idea that these aren’t fragile Call of Cthulhu investigators or dysfunctional Unknown Armies characters – these are badasses with a stench of Drive Angry-esque hellfire about them. Characters also get access to various gruesome varieties of magic to aid them in their investigation.
In terms of the system, it’s a reasonably simple dice pool approach with some wrinkles. The dice involved are D12s, and resolution works by comparing the highest number rolled with either a target number (for unopposed checks) or the best number the other party rolled (for opposed checks). Ties are resolved by comparing the second highest dice and so on until one party or the other runs out of dice. If you roll doubles or triples or whatever, you can choose to have the set count as a single die with a rolled value equal to the number rolled plus the number of dice in the set (so if you roll two 9s you can choose to have it count as an 11). This is reasonably quick and innovative without being outright gimmicky.
Overall, between the potent spells and the wild intrinsic abilities of characters, PCs in this game are pretty powerful – even when you consider the necessity of tracking supernatural corruption and unwanted publicity about their efforts. I’d even go so far as to say that this power, combined with the overall attitude of the game, helps to set up an interestingly different model of horror gaming. Whereas Call of Cthulhu and its imitators in the “investigative horror” subgenre casts player characters as basically normal folk out to defend society, Pandemonio casts you as a bizarre individual caught in a conflict in which social mores and an ordinary life get tossed in the shredder. Whilst Vampire: the Masquerade and its imitators in the “personal horror” realm attempt various gambits to prompt players to consider their characters’ essential humanity as worth preserving, Pandemonio has absolutely no qualms about letting players dive head-first into the extremes of their condition. It’s basically a different extreme of personal horror about embracing the grotesque, with a system built to support it from the ground up.
For instance, at the centre of the unnamed city the game is assumed to unfold in is the Abattoir, a vast tower that only Disciples and other supernaturals can see which sucks up bodies dumped into receiving tubes at its base and projects them into the sky; you can drive down the whole party’s spiritual corruption total simply by tossing dead people down there, so long as they are human beings that you have slain. Whereas in Vampire and its imitators you manage and shield yourself from corruption by trying to retain some semblance of human behaviour, here you manage your levels of corruption by embracing the weirdness even further.
One interesting decision is the inclusion of numerous actual play reports in the Player Guide, which reflects the game’s Forge origins. The Forge were great supporters of documenting actual play, both to help refine design and identify gameplay issues and to keep the emphasis on producing games that actually get played, rather than games thar get passively read and then left on a shelf. This was perhaps one of their best ideas, not least because it serves as a gratifying rebuke of the tendency of some publishers – White Wolf were chronic for this, and many imitated them – to include extensive chunks of game fiction in their products which not only didn’t arise from actual play, but couldn’t, because the rules of the game didn’t support it. Including actual play reports in your core book takes this full circle and I think is genuinely handy here, if only so it can serve as a style guide and give you a handle on what sort of action the game supports.
The Director Guide is mostly a monster manual; it does include some other systems, refereeing advice, and suggestions for a range of potential answers to the mysteries of the setting, but it’s the demons and angels that are the stars here, with power levels ranging from punishers of personal sins to the Ophanim, hideous kaiju-scale angels whose manifestation calls for the most powerful magics to be used in response.
The monster selection is both the game’s great strength and its great weakness. At its best, it displays a breadth of imagination which really helps support the whole Clive Barker/David Cronenberg splatterpunk gorefest ethos of the game. At its worst, there’s certain recurring themes which I could do without. In particular, whenever a demon or angel is supposed to be female, this is usually indicated by them having aesthetically pleasing breasts, as though Chandler told his artists that the entire rest of their body is fair game to make monstrous but the titties have to stay pristine. The most incongruous example of this is probably one of the biomechanical cyberangels, who has otherwise been totally comverted into blasphemous horror save that she still has a figure pleasing to the male gaze and unblemished boobs.
This isn’t the only instance of the game having an issue with women; there’s multiple demons where the basic aesthetic concept is “they look just like a sexy woman, except their genitals are a huge fanged mouth or a mass of tentacles or something”, and an example thrown out there where a demonic infestation can be traces back to infidelity on the part of women. Given the sheer mass of material here, it’s easy enough to ignore, but it’s not an especially gratifying display.
Still, as collections of monsters go, it’s a gratifyingly gruesome bunch. Chandler has in fact put out AD&D stats for them in the Teratic Tome, part of the Evolved Grottoes & Griffons line which he uses as the branding for his OSR-flavoured work. The physical book itself is presented in a nice imitation of the orange-spined trade dress of the late 1E hardbacks, and the altered rationales for the creatures (modified so as to make them fit Chandler’s eccentric take on D&D) are interesting, especially since they are mixed in with especially interesting variants on classic D&D races. It’s still got the tits and crotch surprises tendency that Pandemonio has, but aside from this wrinkle is a nicely malevolent collection of monsters that adapts them for the AD&D ethos well – it’d be particularly good for gorehound takes on OSR-style games, like Carcosa or Lamentations of the Flame Princess.