The name’s Davenport. I review games.
So the other day I answer a knock at the door, and I see… something. Whatever it was, it had green scales, a beak, four purple eyes, and three legs.
“Hello!” it says.
“Uh… hi,” I says. “What are you supposed to be? Or do I want to know?”
“What do you mean by that?” he says, gettin’ all huffy. “I’m a human being, same as you!”
I raise an eyebrow.
“Well, okay, not quite like you,” he confesses. “Mom… wasn’t from around here.”
“You don’t say,” I says. “So what can I do for you?”
“Oh!” he says. “I’m here with a review copy of Black Void, a game of dark fantasy and Lovecraftian horror. In Earth’s distant past, a supernatural calamity casts humanity adrift across an alien-filled universe in which they’re the lowest of the low.”
“Well, that sounds real cheery,” I says.
“I did say that it’s dark fantasy,” he points out.
“Fair point,” I admit. “Fine, I’ll give it a go. I’ll let you know when the review’s done.”
“Great!” he says. “I’ll keep three eyes out for it.”
This setting is really, really weird, and I’m only going to be able to scratch the surface of it without going down the proverbial rabbit hole. Your understanding is appreciated!
This is radically alternate history of a sort. At the height of ancient Babylon’s power, a Lovecraftian disaster of global proportions sucks every man, woman, and child on the planet into the sky and scatters them all across an uncaring Cosmos.
As it turns out, the universe is divided into two aspects. There’s the Cosmos, which is the physical world, and then there’s the Void, a kind of dark, swirling chaos filled with Lovecraftian beasts, some of them completely nameless.
The Cosmos is filled with planets, many inhabited. The book offers comprehensive coverage of the possible environmental aspects of these planets, including atmosphere, gravity, climate, and geology. In this respect, the game almost seems like sci-fi rather than dark fantasy, although it most certainly is the latter. The variations of each aspect all have game system effects.
In addition, planets fall into the categories of non-enlightened, enlightened, and Void worlds, depending upon the degree to which the world and its inhabitants interact with the Void. Non-enlightened worlds have yet to achieve “first contact” with the Cosmos at large, enlightened worlds are familiar with Void travel, and Void worlds are actually on the border of the Void, if not fully within it.
Travel between worlds is accomplished via Void rifts. Experienced travelers know how to enter a Void rift, navigate the currents of the Void, and arrive at another planet through the Void rift on the other side. This travel normally involves special ships designed to minimize the passengers’ experience of the Void’s maddening properties and takes a tiny fraction of the time non-Void travel. In this, it resembles Warhammer 40K’s Warp.
While the book features a list of nine worlds, the focus of the setting — for now, at least — rests very much on the city of Llyhn, a massive hub of Cosmic trade sitting on a Void-bordering world. Ruled by the mysterious Unseen Rulers and adhering to a strict caste system, the city receives detailed descriptions of its various neighborhoods, factions, noteworthy individuals, and multiple plot hooks. The only difficulty I have with this excellent section is that humans are, for the most part, the lowest of the low castes and as such are not allowed in a great many places within the city. Such travel can be accomplished with subterfuge but is extremely risky. Mind you, this befits the setting’s nature completely. I just regret that it’s somewhat unlikely that the PCs will see some of the city’s more opulent precincts.
Overall, the setting is very Mesopotamian, which seems a bit odd on the face of it, but it’s no stranger than other space-based settings with a Medieval European feel.
Humans may obtain two supernatural powers in Black Void: Blood rituals and mysticism.
Blood rituals, as the name suggests, involve the sacrifice of a living creature — the more powerful, the better. This is done to either temporarily enhance one’s own body or else for divination purposes. In the case of enhancements, as ritualists increase in skill, they gain more control over the otherwise random results. In the case of divination, an increase in skill allows for more specific questions. In either case, more skill results in more rituals allowed per day. These abilities aren’t particularly powerful, but anyone can learn to use them, and they certainly fit the brutal nature of the setting.
Mysticism, by contrast, is truly powerful and may only be obtained by those somehow affected by the Void. Mysticism is divided into the Spheres of Forces, Life, Matter, Mind, and Void. Effects are usually improvised using a list of criteria, although a mystic may specialize in repeated effects for greater ease of use. Mystics come in two types based upon how they access their powers: Furores, who tap their emotions to produce wild and dangerous displays of power, and Gnostics, who use cold intellect to create less potent but more controlled effects. I really like this aspect of the setting. My only regret is that the nature of mysticism precludes the presence of dangerous Lovecraftian tomes of magical lore.
Furthermore, as PCs gain epiphanies about the nature of reality, the Cosmos, and the Void, they gain abilities to manipulate the Void for a variety of effects, from manifesting an awe-inspiring halo to navigating the Void to ripping a hole from the Cosmos to the Void. Representing the transitioning of an individual to a higher state of being, this perfectly fits with the themes of the setting.
In addition, there are at least two powers that humans can’t possess themselves but that they can purchase: Blood Inking and Grafting. Both involve the sacrifice of beings — the former to use their blood in mystical tattoos, the latter to use their body parts to replace those of the beneficiary and thereby gain some of the powers of the sacrifice (a sort of horrific cybertech). I find both of these wonderfully creepy and unsettling.
Black Void divides creatures into four categories:
- Sentient Species: Self-aware beings of the Cosmos (16 entries).
- Esoteric Species: Powerful god-like beings not bound by the laws of the Cosmos (8 entries).
- Beasts: Non-sentient creatures of the Cosmos (13 entries).
- Void Entities: Bizarre creatures from beyond the Cosmos (7 entries).
Each entry gets full game stats, and details on the creature’s physical form, life-cycle, habitat or society, frequency of occurrence, behavior, diet, status, the probable nature of encounters, and the combat tactics the creature will use.
Most of these beings defy easy description, with the possible exception of certain esoteric species like the Lamassu that visited the Earth before the great disaster and became part of human mythology.
I really can’t praise this section highly enough for its portrayal of truly alien aliens, in both mind and body. I mean, these things are really weird.
Black Void uses a strictly point-based character creation system.
All player characters in Black Void are human… sort of. PCs come in three varieties:
- Purebloods: Completely human.
- Halfbloods: Humans crossed with a sentient alien species. These characters may possess Attributes — physical abilities related to their alien heritage.
- Voidmarked: Humans crossed with sentient esoteric species or otherwise strongly affected by the Void. These characters may take both Attributes and esoteric Attributes, the latter being abilities that are more supernatural in nature. They are also the only type of human capable of starting the game with mysticism.
The book provides a great number of both Attributes (such as horns, tentacles, and wings) and esoteric Attributes (such as possession, shapeshifting, and reincarnation). I like the way in which this setup keeps the focus on humanity while allowing for outlandish characters for players who wish to play them.
Characters may come from one of eight types of homeworld broadly grouped into three categories: Non-Enlightened Worlds, Enlightened Worlds, and Void Worlds. Each type of homeworld provides a few benefits.
PCs have eight Traits: Agility, Awareness, Stamina, Strength, Intellect, Persuasion, Presence, and Willpower. Traits range from 0-12, although the human range is 1-5 with 3 being average. I’m fine with the large number of Traits, considering the many ways the exotic species of Black Void can vary. I’m not as big of a fan of the hard universal cap of 12, but given the gap between the human maximum and the universal maximum, it’s by no means a deal-breaker.
Oddly, the actual dice roll modifier differs from the Trait value; for example, a Strength of 5 provides a modifier of +2. I don’t really see the advantage to adding another layer of values to the system.
What does make a remarkable amount of sense to me is the manner in which the game handles Talents (advantages) and Flaws. All Talents and Flaws are associated with specific Traits. Characters are able to take a Talent for every 3 points they have in the associated Trait, and they may earn more character creation points by taking a Flaw for a Trait of 3 or less, the severity of which can increase with the Trait’s decreasing score. In this way, noteworthy aspects of the characters only show up in characters with noteworthy (or at least average) Traits. I like that a lot.
I would say that the skills are moderately specific, particularly in terms of weapon skills. The latter don’t drill down to specific weapons, but they do fall along weapon categories like axes, blade weapons, blunt weapons, flexible weapons, and polearms. I’m okay with that.
The system takes a middle road between skills being hard-linked to specific Traits and skills being usable with any Trait. Instead, each skill has one or more Traits which might conceivably apply to the skill. Characters may purchase specializations for every three points in a skill.
Other noteworthy stats include Health ((Stamina x 6) + 1d12), Sanity ((Willpower x 6) + 1d12), and Wastah. The latter measures the character’s power of influence — not his social status, but rather his clout. I’m no anthropologist, but this certainly feels Mesopotamian.
I also really like the appearance tables for the halfbloods and Voidmarked. These can result in some truly freaky-looking individuals.
The game uses a simple Trait modifer + skill + 1d12 vs. difficulty rating mechanic. A roll of 1 is a critical failure and a roll of 12 is a critical success, unless the difficulty is 12 or higher. In the latter case, the player rolls the 1d12 a second time and adds the two die rolls together to get the result. The player will only score a critical success if the second die comes up 12.
I like the basic mechanic just fine, but I’m never a fan of flat chances for critical failures and successes — in particular, because certain effects in this game only take place on a critical success. I prefer criticals to be a matter of character ability, not random chance. When discussing this with the author, he suggested making a critical success the difficulty rating + 5. I much prefer that option.
When making an attack, the difficulty value is the Defense Value of the target, which is 7 plus the Agility modifier, the Defense skill, and shield modifiers.
Damage is randomized based on weapon type, with the Strength modifier applied to melee damage. Armor reduces damage. Critical successes call for a roll on the Exceptional Hits table, which can result in extra damage in addition to a number of increasingly stomach-churning effects. In addition, combatants losing half of their total starting Health points in a single hit suffer a random crippling injury. All of this potential carnage suits the grim setting perfectly.
Rather than falling back on the tired old “I swing”, Black Void offers up a plethora of combat maneuvers — movement, offensive, defensive, and miscellaneous. If anything, it’s an embarrassment of riches. I don’t think I could keep track of them all in the heat of battle, but it’s certainly nice to know that they’re available.
Also suiting the setting are the rules for mental damage. Far from the one-dimensional sanity loss of Call of Cthulhu, the myriad bizarre beings and situations encountered in Black Void can cause awe, delirium, fear, and, of course, madness. The system includes specific rules and tables for each of these.
The book features a truly expansive equipment section, including everything from exotic pets and mounts to scribe and physician tools. Of particular interest are the wide variety of customized features available for weapons: Extended shafts, hook blades, poison grooves, saw edges, wave pattern blades, you name it, each with their own mechanical effects. Armor may likewise be customized to a lesser extent. Furthermore, characters have the option of purchasing weapons and armor of varying qualities, which makes perfect sense for a game featuring a down-on-its-luck humanity. Great stuff.
The only real complaint I have about this section is the fact that it includes a gorgeous selection of exotic mounts but doesn’t provide game stats for them.
The full-color art is, simply put, outstanding. Some of it is a bit impressionistic, which befits the dreamlike/nightmarish feel of the setting. The rest is in disturbingly sharp focus, which is a good thing, because I honestly don’t know if I’d be capable of describing some of the beings in this setting. Yes, it really is that weird.
The text is as easy to follow as it can be, given the wildly exotic subject matter. I’m very thankful that it avoids any anachronistic language that would spoil the mood. The in-game fiction is used sparingly and remains of good quality throughout the book.
The layout is attractive and highly legible, even given the parchment-like background and ornate borders. No typos stood out to me. Given the complex nature of the setting, I am happy to report that the book includes a detailed glossary, table of contents, and index.
My biggest complaint would have to be the overall organization of the book, which puts the system before the setting. The result is a lot of context-free references to things with weird names that aren’t explained until you get to the setting information.
My only real concern about this remarkable setting is that I fear it may be too exotic for me to run. I mean, it’s just so creative, exotic, and weird that I’m not sure I’d be able to do it justice. As for the system, aside from the issue I have with critical fumbles and successes, it looks great.
Let’s be honest: This is very much a niche game. Ordinarily, I’d recommend Black Void to fans of similar games, but I don’t know that there are similar games out there, except perhaps for Call of Cthulhu’s Dreamlands setting. That being the case, I can only recommend it more broadly to fans of dark fantasy — in particular, dark fantasy with a Lovecraftian feel. In that respect, I cannot recommend this game highly enough. It is one of the most unique and well-realized settings that I have ever encountered.