There are times when I am drawn to a game because it seems like a twist to a similar concept that already interests me. Anyone that has read a good number of my reviews knows that I’m an easy mark for urban fantasy and monster hunting games, so a game about hunting monsters inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe caught my attention quickly.
Imp of the Perverse goes beyond trying to be a Poe simulator, however. Instead of leaning heavily on elements intrinsic to any of Poe’s works, the game is much more about looking at the themes established in Poe’s work than recycling the literal elements found in any of them.
With all of that said, let’s take a look at Imp of the Perverse.
Defining the Opus
This review is based on the PDF and physical copies of Imp of the Perverse. The book deserves special commentary, because unlike many modern games, it eschews external artwork, but has a striking red cover with a gold title on the front of the book. The texture and appearance of the book reminds me of some of the older books I would find in my grandmother’s bookshelf, and it is a great aesthetic for the subject matter.
The PDF is 225 pages long, with red and black ink, and color plates that are highlighted in shades of red. The art in the book is reminiscent of political cartoons or illustrations of the time, with exaggerated but expressive figures. In many cases, given that the topic includes supernatural horrors, these figures are often very exaggerated.
There are also several bordered sidebars discussing ancillary topics throughout the text.
This game touches on a lot of potentially difficult subject matter. It is set during the Jacksonian era, and I have to admit, that made some sections difficult for me to read. While the core action deals with hunting monsters, the context of different perversions often deals with the evils of the time.
Topics touched on include racism, slavery, reproductive rights, and violence against domestic partners and children. There are several historical sidebars discussing how various marginalized people were treated in the Jacksonian era. While some of this exists to create a discussion about what to include and exclude in your game, the discussion brings up many of the least pleasant aspects of the era.
Part One of this book contains the Introduction and Central Concepts. As subcategories under these sections, the following topics are addressed:
- What You’re In For
- A Dark Reflection: Jacksonian Gothic America
- A Trembling Framework
- The Arc of Play
- Getting Started
- Continued Play
- Using This Book
In broad strokes, this section explains what the game is about. The game is very focused in America during the cited time period. Characters will have regional differences based on their origin, and each Protagonist (player character) will have their own Imp of the Perverse, a supernatural creature urging them to indulge in their worst traits.
Characters are tracking down monsters, people who have fully given in to the temptation presented by their own imps. The protagonists follow clues and stop the monster. The structure of play doesn’t make it a question of “if” the protagonists confront the monster, but rather how much damage the monster has done before it’s rampage is over.
Part Two contains the subsection Making Monsters, which is split between Born of Perversity and Making Monsters from Protagonists.
Monsters are connected in some way to The Shroud, the name for the supernatural in this setting. Monsters that are still alive are Close to the Shroud, monsters that have died, but never left the mortal realm are Past the Shroud, and monsters that have returned from the afterlife are Returned from Beyond the Shroud.
Monsters that are further removed from life can influence the imps attached to the protagonists more profoundly, resulting in more Weirding Dice for the Editor (Game Moderator). Monsters also have a web that shows different levels of victims. The longer it takes for the protagonists to confront the monster, the further out from the center the monster moves. The furthest points on the monster’s web will touch on characters important to the protagonists, making the monster’s rampage more personal the longer it goes on.
There is a sample monster, focusing on a monster Close to the Shroud that is obsessed with exacerbating the flaws of others, and who destroys lives with blackmail. A sample web is shown for this monster as well.
There is also a section on converting a protagonist to a monster. If the protagonist fully gives in to their perversity, they become a monster themselves. This means that the current editor can create a protagonist and let the player whose character became a monster take over the editor position, or the player can allow the current editor to use their character as the monster for the next session.
One thing I would like to touch on here, and revisit later, is that once someone becomes a monster, the game assumes there is no way out for them except to destroy them. There is not a redemption path for someone that has fully given in to their imps. It’s also worth noting that monsters are not meant to follow an existing monster’s structure. In other words, there aren’t vampires or werewolves, but individual perversions may cause someone to turn into a blood-drinking creature or something with bestial traits.
Part Three of the book includes the following:
- Dramatis Personae
- Composing a Protagonist
- The Workshop
There is also a sample protagonist shown at the end of this section.
There are a series of questions that the player answers. These questions are slightly different depending on what part of the country from whence the character originated. Depending on how questions are answered, points are added to various parts of the character sheet.
Characters will determine what kind of career they had, what kind of family life they had, and their marital and immediate familiar situation. Then the player must determine if the character has hunted a monster before, the perversity they struggle with, and their greatest strength. There are a lot of checklists and bullet points to guide a player through and to explain the differences between choices.
This section has a sidebar emblematic of both the positive aspects of what this game is doing, but also the challenges it presents. The sidebar discusses slavery, and mentions the practical realities of having a protagonist that is a slave (how free will they be to move about for the adventure), and rightly mentions that playing a slave or any marginalized person that will be dealing with the oppressive nature of the setting on their character needs to be discussed with the group and met with enthusiastic consent, and that the game should be played with safety tools.
This is all good advice, but what makes me a little more reticent is that there isn’t a discussion on the potential pitfalls of having non-marginalized players running marginalized protagonists, or any kind of best practices for that situation. It’s good to remind people to be careful, but there aren’t deep safety guidelines to show what that would look like in this case.
Another aspect of the game that is both intriguing, but also potentially frightening, is the character’s perversity. The text instructs players not to base their perversity on what people of the era would consider perverse, but something they find problematic. While this partially addresses characters built around harmful opinions of the time, perversity is left very open. Even the term “perverse,” while very era-appropriate, feels very loaded. In-game terms, it’s much more like a moral shortcoming of the player, but “perversity” adds a level of connotation that might push someone further than, for example, “I have a bad temper.”
I’m also a little uncomfortable with the sample character in the chapter. I am glad to see an example using a Creole sailor in New Orleans, showing the game’s inclusive nature, but I’m less thrilled with what could be seen as a stereotypical element added to the character, a child out of wedlock that is being cared for by a relative.
A welcome inclusion in this section is The Workshop, the phase of character creation where the table comes together to look at the concepts and the themes in the game, where they can discuss what they do and do not want to explore in play.
Part four includes the following subsections:
- The Basics
- Processes of Play
- Games with 1 or 2 Protagonists
Protagonists have several pools that represent their resources and their contacts, which they can spend to answer questions. Questions get increasingly more expensive, requiring more of an expenditure of the pools, as the anxiety die goes up in play. The anxiety die is a six-sided die that the editor has on the table to show how far the monster’s plans have progressed, and while the game itself does not play out similarly, this immediately reminded me of the Escalation Die from 13th Age.
Protagonists can ask their Imp a question directly. If they don’t want to spend points (or can’t) and don’t want to resort to giving in to their Imp, they can make an Exertion roll, representing them imposing their will on the world. Depending on their qualities, strengths, and relationships, they can add black dice to their pool. Depending on their perversity or edge, they can add red dice to the pool.
Other players have Weirding Dice they can offer to the player making the check, representing temptations from the character’s imp, and the Editor can spend their Weirding dice to replace dice in the protagonist’s pool. Protagonists have Lucidity and Composure as stats. Dice equal or above Lucidity are a success, but if more red than black dice scored hits, you record a red checkmark, and if you have more black than red, you record a black checkmark. Rated traits are at risk of going down if you don’t spend successes to maintain that aspect of your character, so this can represent losing part of your personality, or straining a bond with a family member.
At the end of a chapter, players roll a number of dice equal to their checkmarks of each kind, red and black. If a character rolls higher on the black dice, their Lucidity goes up. If they roll higher on their red dice, their Composure goes down. Characters that have spend points from their Empathy pool can choose to remove red checkmarks before making this check. If a character maxes out their Lucidity, they have banished their imp. They aren’t tormented by the supernatural any longer, but they are no longer part of the “hunting” community. If their composure drops to 1, they become a monster, losing all of their humanity.
Why not use the pools for everything? Because it gets increasingly more expensive to do so, and the pools take some time to replenish. Based on the number of black or red checks you have, you can modify relationships or traits, replenish pools, or even potentially increase your capacity in pools.
This section mentions safety in the process of play once again, and goes into detail on The Red Mist. This is a technique in this game where any scene where action is about to happen that the table does not want to describe in detail is shrouded in The Red Mist. In this case, the group knows something terrible has happened, and the general idea of what has happened, but it happens under the mist, out of sight.
Part five is an exhaustive look at Jacksonian America, with the following subsections:
- Why Now?
- Jacksonian America
- The East
- The South
- The West
This section explores why this point in time works for these types of stories, being a time where America was beginning to wrestle with its positive image of itself versus the actions taken in the name of Manifest Destiny.
From a historical standpoint, it’s a really extensive look at the period and the various conflicts that were brewing. Even outside of potentially running the game, I found the section to be a great read. That said, this section was also a potentially stressful read, because it clearly outlines some of the worst aspects of the time period, and I’ll admit that I have a great deal of antipathy for Andrew Jackson and the events that took place under his watch.
This section doesn’t just touch on the differences in the various geographical locations, but also discusses how those areas change over several decades, and what emergent issues come to light as time moves forward.
Part six is divided into A Menagerie of Horror and Ready-to-Play Chapters. The Menagerie introduces some sample monsters submitted by Kickstarter backers, and fully realized for use in play, and the Ready-to-Play chapters introduce monsters, webs, and notes on scenarios that can be used in the game.
This is another difficult part of the book. Some of the monsters touch on potentially troubling aspects of human existence, and while the workshop session should help establish boundaries, and active safety tools at the table should help to manage emergent issues, some of these monsters are so predicated on their perversities that an emergent issue is going to make them very difficult to modify at a moment’s notice.
This section also reminds me that I’m a little uncomfortable with the fate of all monsters being destruction. One of the monsters feels as if they are dominating and controlling situations, but it feels strange to kill someone as a response to even extreme domineering. The monsters Past the Shroud and Beyond the Shroud feel easier to reconcile with a destructive solution.
One interesting aspect of the Ready-to-Play chapters is that there are pre-made characters that leave enough blanks to quickly fill in with specific details, but cut down on the lengthier questioning process for protagonist creation.
I also don’t want to give the wrong impression of this chapter. There are a lot of fascinating horror scenarios posited in this section, I just think that this book’s greatest strength is often its sharpest edge. It pushes a lot of boundaries thoughtfully, but aggressively.
This section includes a bibliography, maps of various regions, the ludography (games that inspired this one), and the index for the book.
Emulating Poe by modeling that you will resolve the situation, and the only variables are what toll the resolution takes on you and others, makes perfect sense. I also love that the stakes aren’t life or death, but the state of your character’s soul.
I enjoy the idea of spending resources to advance the plot for much of the game, and reserving the use of dice for situations that feel a bit more desperate. In this case, the resolution mechanic then plays back into the idea of moving closer to freedom from, or total domination by, your imp.
Lack of ComposureI enjoy the idea of spending resources to advance the plot for much of the game, and reserving the use of dice for situations that feel a bit more desperate.
For some of the topics brought up, I would feel a lot better having a more in-depth treatment of how to handle various issues in discreet, dedicated sections. The era demands addressing issues of race, gender, and marginalization, but even though the book has some excellent discussion of safety tools, the safety tools themselves are more useful for the horror elements than the sociological elements.
I touched on this in the previous sections, but the language in this book is carefully used to convey the setting. Despite this, perversity feels like a very loaded term. I think I may have felt more comfortable with this terminology if we had more examples that emphasized “perversity” as “negative trait.” The strict definition is “a deliberate desire to behave in an unreasonable or unacceptable way,” but a more connotative definition is “human behavior that deviates from that which is understood to be orthodox or normal.” Under the second definition, it’s a lot easier to see behavior that isn’t negative, but just “not part of the mainstream,” being twisted into being a “perversion.”
Qualified Recommendation–A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.
The same things that make me love this game also make me hesitant to widely recommend it. Honestly speaking, I think the game does great things, and if you want to read a game that engages an interesting topic in a well-realized, gamified manner, you really should get this book. The historical aspects alone are a great read.
On the other hand, if the topics addressed are ones that cause you potential stress, or if you are planning to bring this to the table, you may need to examine what you want to get out of the game a bit more closely.
What games are your favorite alternative takes on history? What genres have you seen blended with other eras that you particularly enjoy? Let us know in the comments below, we’ll be looking forward to hearing from you.