An Endzeitgeist.com review
The Black Void’s core book is a massive tome of 404 pages if you take away editorial, front cover, ToC, backer lists, character sheet, (brief) glossary, index, etc., so quite a lot to digest.
I have received a print copy of this tome for the purpose of a fair and unbiased review; this has been simmering on my backburner for quite a while.
You can think of this book as pretty much two in one: Approximately the first half of the book is devoted to the rules, while the second half, the GM-chapter, is essentially the setting, including NPCs, bestiary, etc.; Personally, I’d have preferred them to be split in the middle, as I enjoy handing books to my players, but that just as an aside.
Before we dive into the analysis, how would I describe it? Well, picture this: Babylon’s in full swing, seen through a lens of Clark Ashton Smith. Suddenly, tendrils of black grasp everyone, and humanity ends up stranded in a strange, uncaring and far-off cosmos, and pretty much at the bottom of the social hierarchies. The cosmology knows three primary components: The cosmos is the vast expanse of space we know; the void lies beyond it, and is the home of the truly esoteric and strange creatures, but not necessarily in a Lovecraftian vein; instead, it also is the origin of beings we associate with real world mythology like the Lammasu, the asura, deva, etc. The interesting twist here, ultimately, is that the creatures from the esoteric realms might be more familiar than anything else, inverting the premise of fantasy as we know it in pretty much every game. Cosmos and void are separated by the Veil, which reminded me in its function of games like Esoterrorists and Bloodlines & Black Magic.
The assumed story-hub would be Llyhn, the eternal city, situated at a crossroads of sorts where the veil is thin, and where the trade-routes converge; the city is rules from vast towers by unseen rulers who generally do not directly interfere, and as such, the core playing tenet might remind you of a twist on Planescape’s Sigil, or the fantastic City of 7 Seraphs by Lost Spheres Publishing; that’s a good thing. We add a sprinkling of spelljamming, for the Void allows for planetary travel…but all of these decidedly high-fantasy concepts are presented in a way I have not seen before: Black Void has a distinct focus on dark fantasy, some might say horror – the in-character/flavor pieces throughout the book illustrate rather well how the world can be considered to be dark…but I probably wouldn’t use the word “grimdark” for it.
You see, in many ways, the core tenet of the game is that of a humanist fable: What would happen if humanity had been thrust into a thoroughly alien and indifferent environment where we are not the apex predators and dominant species? The world presented by Black Void assumes that there are quite a few massive civilizations out there, but for those Mesopotamian stragglers stranded in Llyhn, survival within a social hierarchy that is rigged against them is actually a struggle. Instead of the cosmicism of a vast pantheon of ancient gods trampling us like gnats, the horror in this setting stems more from the experience of living in a society that is at once alien and indifferent. It is effective because it is NOT simply an array of horrors and inevitable madness. As such, I do think that the dark fantasy label, with a definite weird fiction angle best encompasses what this is about. However, my first association when I put down this book for the first time was a different one: I thought: “Okay, so this is a Babylonian Tékumel with a dark fantasy/horror-focus!”
In case you wondered with the whole Babylon angle: Yes, sexuality, slavery and similar mature themes are included, but in a rather tasteful, mature manner, and the presentation is not explicit. For European sensibilities, this is pretty much PG-13, though some people from the US might situate this differently. That being said, like in every horror/dark fantasy game worth the moniker, I wouldn’t recommend it to the professionally offended, so if anything darker than Equestria Girls triggers you (no jab vs. Bronies intended! I think the series can rock hard!), I’d suggest going for a different game.
Okay, this basic premise out of the way, what about the game-engine aspects? How can one situate Black Void regarding its mechanics? Well, here things become more difficult to answer. In how the mechanics feel, I’d suggest probably likening this to WFRP or Storyteller – the Black Void has a pretty simple basic resolution mechanic, wherein you roll a d12 and various modifiers against a target value, with a natural 1 a failure, and a 12 “exploding” in certain instances, i.e. you get to roll again and add it to the result.
Character creation is based on point-buy, with 3 suggested point-ranges for different power-levels provided. The game knows 8 so-called “traits”, which are essentially the game’s ability scores: Agility, Awareness, Stamina, Strength, Intellect, Persuasion, Presence, Willpower. These range from a rating of 0 to 12, with modifiers ranging from -3 to +9, though it should be noted that humans have at least 1 in each score. For every 3 you have in a trait, you can select a talent, which are listed by trait.
Which brings me to a huge pet-peeve of mine: Like most roleplaying games, this begins with character creation, and throws you in on the deep end. While the book does explain the basics of a roleplaying game, it does not explain the basics of its mechanics in an adequate manner before prompting you to create a character. I HATE this tendency with a fiery passion. Why do I have to skip ahead to the “Playing the Game”-chapter (Chapter 3 in this book) and read that first? I can’t make an informed choice in character creation if I don’t understand how the game works.
To illustrate this: The talent Ambidexterity notes that it reduces the penalties for dual-wielding to 0/-3. Okay, at this point, we have no ideas how fighting, let alone regular dual-wielding, works. (You get essentially an extra attack per turn – main hand -3, off hand -6, and the penalties are applied to the action AND the initiative!) You can’t make an informed choice when you don’t know how to play the game. And this is all the more galling when you realize that the action-based gameplay actually has some neat depth and breadth to offer and is explained in a tight manner. Why not start with that, and instead erect this arbitrary difficulty/confusion wall at the start?
On another note, since we’re talking about initiative: If you roll a 12 on initiative, you get an additional action during the first round at -6; I assume that this happens regardless of modifiers, and stacks with e.g. dual-wielding, but couldn’t find clarification on that particular scenario.
But I digress. Actions are defined in a clear and concise manner: Some might require sequential successes; some might be contested, and cooperative. The game differentiates between resisted (passive) vs. opposed (active) actions, and an easy chart helps Arbiters (the term used for the GM) and player alike gain a good idea of positive and negative modifiers applied to actions.
The character creation includes a whole lot of means to tweak your character, offering wide and diverse choices that are meaningful: You are human, but you may be a half-blood, or a voidmarked; if you are a pureblood, you are human as we know it; otherwise, you might have attributes; voidmarked can have esoteric attributes, like being ageless…they can be considered to be the somewhat unearthly planetouched of the setting. All of these, however, draw upon the point budget. Beyond traits and homeworld, you can spend points on safe places to stay, connections, loyal allies, etc. – in that manner, the game reminded me of Shadowrun. Magic is generally used via Willpower (Furor – emotional casters) and Intellect (Gnostics – studied spellcasting) and organized in spheres. There also are blood rituals, but more on magic later.
Skills range from 0 (untrained, -3) to 12 (+9), and are associated with one of more traits: Acrobatics might be associated with Agility, Stamina or Strength, for example, depending on what you do. Your point budget also is used to determine your caste, for Llyhn has a rigid caste society, and humans are at the bottom of the barrel…and thus, even if you spend some serious points, you won’t start at the highest echelons…but everything’s better than being casteless...or a Kalbi (which literally translates to “dog”). Anyhow, there are two things that you can’t start investing in – Enlightenment and Wastah. Enlightenment is your cosmic understanding and can only be attained in play via interaction with entities from the void or the void itself; Wastah is the social clout/charisma/bearing of the individual.
The book contains a massive array of items, services and goods, and here, we get additional options, for there are different quality levels (illustrated lavishly), but here is a good place to note once more how the sequence of rules-presentation is needlessly obtuse. I consider myself to be an experienced roleplayer, but when I read the following in the drug section, I was puzzled:
“Refined varieties may induce stupor. Stamina Roll : Delirium effect < 7.” Note that, at this point, Delirium had not yet been defined; once you’ve read the book, this makes sense, but the like is not always the case. Terrible quality weapons, for example, note that they have a -1 to attack, damage and speed rolls. I am pretty sure that should be initiative or Agility. That sort of thing is jarring, since the game, as a whole, does a surprisingly great job at delivering the degree of customization I enjoy, so if you’re coming from PFRPG or 5e, you will have enough meaningful choices to fiddle with from the get-go. The breadth and depth is here, and in some aspects transcends those games. Want poison grooves, wave pattern blades? Not only can you have such weapons, these modifications actually have RELEVANT effects in-game. For a tinkerer like yours truly, this is frickin’ amazing. This amount of differentiation also extends to armors, fyi: They offer a variety of options to customize them, and act as essentially damage reduction. Weapons have a size, armor a bulk – these denote the minimum Strength required to sue them sans penalty – otherwise, you suffer a penalty for every point by which you fail to meet the prerequisite.
Surprising for a game with tables for exceptional hits and yes, health levels, the Black Void’s combats run in a relatively smooth and quick manner. The game has derived statistics like Health and Sanity, which pretty much do what you’d expect them to, the latter being harder to replenish…but you can essentially spend Experience Points to regain Stamina, so this is no game of uncontrolled escalation down the insanity rabbit hole. (And before you ask: Yep, fear, madness and delirium are presented in the sanity chapter…once more much later than where the concepts are first mentioned. Some internal cross-referencing “For delirium, see pg XX” or better sequence of presentation would have been prudent.)
While we’re talking about combat: I genuinely LOVE the action engine presented: There is differentiation between regular movement, running and sprinting, and a whole array of options: Parrying, blocking, aiming, called shots, grapples, and so much more – all available. A handy table lists the base combat actions with a handy shorthand table for your convenience, and with essentially attacks of opportunity (here called “attack opportunity”), the game runs surprisingly tactical combats….to a degree. You see, my main gripe with Black Void as a system comes from it feeling somewhat indecisive of what it actually wants to be. We have all these cool, tactical combat actions and concrete ranges for ranged weapons (yes, with increments), and guess what? The game tells you that it assumes “theater of the mind” for combat. Yeah, I have almost 20 years of in-depth experience with such games, and rest assured, that playstyle is great for more rules-lite games, but as soon as you add attack opportunities and components based on concrete tactical placement of individuals, things get messy in theater of the mind. FAST.
And this strange inconsistence can also be found in other aspects, most notably those associated with the voidmarked and magic: The esoteric attribute Daimonic Discord, for example, has this text:
“The character is able to twist other people’s spoken communication so that listeners will hear something different than what is actually being said. The player nominates a target within hearing distance. The character must be able to understand the conversation to twist the words. The conversation can be twisted as much as the player wishes, but the more the message is distorted, the less believable it becomes. A minor tweak, such as replacing a few names or details in a conversation would go unnoticed while making someone appear to say the opposite of what they actually are is conspicuous and would likely be noticed.”
That is the entire text provided regarding rules. Now, don’t get me wrong: I can really appreciate the ability; I picked it out since it’d be one I’d definitely take for my own PC. But notice something? We don’t get information on whether this can easily be done in combat; it doesn’t seem to be a resisted or opposed action. It just WORKS. And it has no limits. All details are left up to the arbiter. And there are quite a few instances in the book where these very narrative components suddenly pop up in a game that is otherwise rather meticulous regarding the precision of concrete rules to resolve its gameplay. For a while, I figured that this was intentional, mirroring cosmos vs. void: You know, concrete rules for the cosmos parts, while void-related stuff gets the more abstract, narrative tricks. And I think this actually is the rationale. But I maintain it doesn’t work well. In direct comparison, abilities like Daimonic Discord are ridiculously powerful in the hands of a half-way smart character (or NPC) – no limit, no concrete boundaries. It also creates this disjoint and underlines the fact that the game’s system is slightly confused regarding what it wants to be – a complex, tactical game, or a more narrative experience?
So yeah, as far as I’m concerned, the rules get a TON of things right; the core engine presented is GREAT. But in the details, this could most assuredly have used a capable and strict rules-editor to put the wishy-washy outliers in a proper, hard-coded context. Particularly since the (rather subdued) magical options actually tend to be codified in a precise manner, with ranges, etc. The system as a whole is presented in a concise manner that is rewarding to play, flawed in some details though it may be.
Anyhow, regardless of whether you want to actually use the game as presented or not, I do maintain that this tome has got something seriously amazing going on for it: The setting. From the bird-like Ka’alum to the shirr, who move on muscular-contractions, gliding over the ground, to the fauna presented, the second half of this book breathes wonder and excitement: Mysteries abound, the cosmopolis’ politics are diverse, and I have rarely read a setting that felt so fresh to me; indeed, not since I first read “Empire of the Petal Throne” have I had a similar experience of a fantasy not indebted to Lovecraft or Tolkien; and apart from City of 7 Seraphs, I would be hard-pressed to name a setting that is so fantastic.
But this? It’s also horrific and decadent, and if you know me, then you pretty much realize by now that this makes the campaign setting a homerun for me. This fantasy manages to feel both ancient and novel. Additionally, the underdog situation humanity finds itself in adds a great angle: In many ways, the whole system is constructed to make it very easy to ask questions of what it actually means to be human, of what one would do to thrive or survive. This reminded me of Shadowrun or Cyberpunk 2020/RED in quite a few of its underlying themes, save that is presents these notions in a holistic, fantastic vision. In its themes and how the game is set up, the Black Void has more in common with those games, than with the D&D-based reference settings like Planescape or Spelljammer. And yes, this is dark fantasy.
However, there is a reason for my Tékumel-comparison. This may be a dark setting, one that may seem nihilistic at first glance – but I’d argue that it really, really is not actually nihilistic or grimdark. Why? For every horrifying and disturbing concept presented, for every hopeless struggle, the book also provides something downright stunning and taps into that same wondrous feeling of jamias-vu Tékumel does. Heck, even the Void and the things, planes and creatures related to it are actually not (all) tentacled, sanity-blasting monstrosities. In what might eb the best meta-twist I’ve seen in a setting for quite a while, these aspects may well be the ones you consider to be more familiar, less weird, than those encountered within the “regular” confines of the setting. You might not notice consciously, but your brain will.
It’s been quite a while since I couldn’t put down a campaign setting’s information, since it captivated me to this degree. As far as the setting is concerned, this is a resounding success and amazing vision.
Editing and formatting are good on a formal and rules-language level; in some instances, the rules language felt more verbose than it needed to be, and I have encountered a couple of instances where the verbiage is less precise than it should be; on a formal level, I e.g. noticed minor glitches like a whole paragraph in italics, when only the play-example should have been in italics. I can’t help but feel that the book would have benefited from establishing some formatting conventions with italics, bold text etc. to make parsing of rules-language more effective. Layout adheres toa 3-column standard, and is per se gorgeous; the backgrounds etc. make this book beautiful to look at; however, from an information-design perspective, the book is rather inconvenient in its organization and lack of cross-referencing. The artworks of the book are DECADENT. The tome is littered with top-tier, stunning artworks ranging from glorious full-color to some b/w-pieces; most weapons and armors get their own artworks, for example; the majority of the artworks are full-color. The hardcover is a massive, really neat offset-printed book with sturdy binding; it’s beautiful. That being said, I think that some artworks are a tad bit too dark on the matte paper; I can’t help but feel that the book was intended to be printed on glossy paper at one point; the artworks are stunning, but their details sometimes become slightly indistinct on the matte paper. That is me nitpicking at the highest level, though—this book has one of the best art-directions I have seen.
Christoffer S. Sevaldsen, with contributions from Yadin Flammer, Cameron Day, Killian DeVriendt, Bryan j. McLean, Luke Maton, Gabriel Norwood, Predrag Filipovic, Dan Cross and Jon Creffield, has crafted a singular, distinct vision. The game system here manages to present a complex, rewarding engine that is not just a derivative of a d20-engine or similar game, and that shows off VERY well what kind of tactical depth you can achieve without increasing the complexity of the rules unduly. The system is very close to being a stunning, resounding success. However, its sequence of presentation is obtuse, its lack of cross-referencing annoying, and the instances where the book labors under the delusion of being a primarily narrative-driven game, when its complex engine makes pretty clear that it works much better with a battle-map, is jarring. All of these could have been easily caught and fixed. So yeah, as a system, it is one that has a ton of potential, but also plenty of stumbling stones, and here, “esoteric”, one of the buzzwords associated with this game, is not a positive descriptor. And yes, I am hard on this game – not out of spite, but because this gets everything I look for in a game ALMOST perfectly right.
The setting, in one word, is
I love it. I love its complexity, its daring, its distinct vision. I love how it flips familiar and unknown, I love its obvious humanist concepts; it love how it plays with feelings of estrangement and wonder, with the horrors of the conditio humana in an inhumane world. I seriously think that this book is worth its asking price even if you’re just looking for ideas or a genuinely fresh and exciting setting. And frankly, the setting is actually good enough to deal with the minor hiccups of the system.
But I can’t rate the two components divorced from each other. I have to rate this book as a whole. (Yep, that’s another reason I bemoaned it not being two books…) And that’s hard. You see, for the rules-section, with its inconvenient presentation-sequence, I’d probably settle on something in the 3.5 star vicinity; for the setting, I’d give this 5 stars and slap my seal of approval faster on this than you can say “blood ritual table.”
This book is not perfect, but oh boy is it exciting. My final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, and while I’d love to, I can’t round up. This, however, does get my seal of approval and a heartfelt recommendation for anyone looking for something novel, both in setting and mechanics.