By Anthony “LibrariaNPC” DeMinico, 11 September 2019
It is a rare occurrence when I cannot bring myself to finish a book after I get started. Sometimes the story doesn’t jive with me, the editing is bad, or, in the case of an RPG, the mechanics just aren’t there for me to effectively love it.
So when I say I finally met my match and couldn’t bear to finish Black Void, even though I’ve attempted to multiple times over the last month, bear in mind that it takes quite a bit to get through it, regardless of the shining lights it offered to guide me through.
Black Void is pitched as “a dark fantasy tabletop roleplaying game about the fall and resurgence of humanity.” Within these pages, you’ll learn how humanity faced a great threat in ancient times, finding themselves cast into other worlds beyond the stars and left to their own wits and hardiness to survive.
And survive they have, for you are one of the descendants of these people, following in their stead and surviving on your own as you travel the Void, face challenges, and carve your own fate.
==What You Get==
Black Void comes in at a formidable 424 pages, will full-color pages and art. Within these pages, you will find not only the core mechanic (d12+mods, base difficulty of 7), but an in-depth character creation and advancement process, magic systems, and an in-depth setting which will allow you to explore the Cosmos and the Void that stands beyond.
To be quite honest, two things inspired me to support Black Void.
The first is the setting. The idea of setting a game around the era of ancient Babylon was intriguing, and using that as the cultural baseline is a breath of fresh air. While I love my “traditional” medieval fantasy, the Eurocentric view gets rather dull after a while. This idea is different and fresh, and that very idea is worth my time.
But it didn’t stop there. Taking an ancient culture and hurling them into that unknown and suviving from there adds an even further spin. You are literally playing a human being that is multiple generations removed from those who were born on, and thrown from, Earth, and as such, you’ll find that both the cultural elements and the nature of humans will play a part in how your character has grown and developed in these clearly alien societies.
The book goes into detail to help you with your character’s journey, including details on Llynn, the massive city in which the game is suggested to take place (as it is a cosmopolitan crossroads). We are given the breakdown of the castes, the locales, the organizations that run things, and other worlds that you can find yourself heading off to (or coming from). The latter is interesting, as the technology level is still that of “ancient” Earth, meaning seafaring ships are used to travel to other worlds, melee weapons and bows are the primary means of combat, and there’s a wide universe of planets to find and explore…if you make it there.
The second point that pulled me into this game was the artwork.
Nearly every image in this book is meticulously done, and while there is a range when it comes to attention to detail, I don’t really think that’s a bit of art that jumps out as “bad.” Even the uncolored line drawings look nice, which I have to admit, is a wonderful thing to see after so much awkward and sometimes downright bad artwork over the last few months. Sure, some parts get a bit odd and seem to be blurry on purpose, but it’s often thematic, combining things that are unknown and different with that of ancient Babylon. In short, it’s a visually appealing book!
I’m going to put it bluntly: I did not like, nor did I have the ability to fully finish, this book. In short, this is a book not written for someone like me, nor is it made for the kind of games I enjoy.
As a game, Black Void heavily borrows from grimdark games such as Warhammer, Call of Cthulhu, Maelstrom: Domesday, and many others like it. All of these games have an in-depth character creation approach involving point expenditures and balances, but your character is easy to kill and is borderline disposable. If I’m spending that much time to make a character, I’d like to know that I can survive my first rough encounter and not lose my sanity in the process.
Speaking of, even in the “example of play” section, we have a PC killing another PC due to Madness checks and further stereotypical “you’ve gone insane” situations.
The mechanics are also heavily reminiscent of the late 80s and early 90s. From the character creation side, you are using a point-buy system to design a character, but everything has a price: you must purchase the caste you are a part of (from Slave~ish to Craftsman), attributes, skills, advantages, special powers, birthrights, and can take flaws to help offset these costs. Again, in-depth and versatile creation that works with the open-ended progression.
This wouldn’t be that big of a problem if I didn’t look at the rest of the mechanics. Like the aforementioned 80s and 90s RPGs, everything has a modifier; item quality impacts a roll, shooting a bow incurs a penalty if you don’t spend your action drawing and knocking the arrow, and there are multiple tables to showcase the various bonuses or penalties you can have tied to a specific roll. Considering the small variance of a d12, all of these modifiers can play a big role, and it reminds me so much of the problem I have with so many OSR and classic games: it resorts to “Whatever gives the most plusses.”
Finally, there’s something odd about the way the book is written. Like other recently reviewed books, it seems that English was not the writer’s native language, and there’s something that feels amiss with the flow. While it doesn’t have the same problem of improperly used words, it does just feel stilted and, for me, it’s a bit of a chore to read. There’s also some “typical editing mistakes” here, which is becoming less and less surprising when I take time to consider the publisher.
After a great deal of contemplating and screaming into the void, I am leaving my time with Black Void with 1.5 buns.
In short, Black Void reminds me of the worst parts of edgy grimdark and doesn’t bring much new to the table, while simultaneously being awkward via language and content. You could quite frankly take parts of this setting and drop it into nearly any other grimdark game and you wouldn’t be missing much, and vice-versa. I was hoping it was going to bring new things to the table, but instead it brought me back to why I never stayed with the style of game in the first place, while also reminding me what I dislike the rose-tinted nostalgia glasses many members of the OSR community wear.
If you are a fan of grimdark games, want to see a non-European inspired setting, and don’t mind “aliens” in your fantasy, then Black Void is absolutely a solid choice.
If you are like me and dislike the feelings of powerlessness that comes with a grimdark setting, get annoyed with fiddly modifiers, or just want to know that you’ll be able to play the same character for a while and not a gibbering ball of trope-laden insanity, then you’ll want to give this a hard pass.
Either way, I would suggest looking up the artists behind this game, because they are wonderful.
Black Void was designed and written by Christoffer S. Sevaldsen, and is currently being published by Modiphius. The book is available as a hardcopy from Modiphius for $49.99 USD, or as a PDF for $24.99 USD.