Black Void is an unusual RPG. I think it gets pretty much everything right, but I suspect it’ll only appear to a select group of gamers.
Why? Black Void is very different. It’s a million miles different from Tolkien and Western-style fantasies.
Black Void is an unusual RPG. I think it’s one of the few games that combine completism with abstraction.
By abstraction I mean the rules do not try to simulate physics and chemistry by recreating their rules with clever sets of dice rolls and charts. There’s a D12 + bonus role in solving pretty much every set of system mechanics. “Simplicity grants Diversity” is the game’s stated maxim.
At the same time, there are rules for small claws, medium claws, large claws and retractable claws. There are over 30 different combat skill specialisations. There are rules for glass orbs and regulations for the difference between sharp edges and saw edge blades, for parrying hooks on weapons and poison grooves. There are prices for bird pages, and a description for them too. I won’t go on, but hopefully, that illustrates what I mean by completism.
It’s as if lead author Christoffer S. Sevaldsen wanted to prove “Simplicity grants Diversity” beyond all doubt. If that was the goal, then it’s been successful.
Usually, it’s simulationist games that strive for completism, and that’s because they need to. Black Void doesn’t need to. It wants to. If that appeals to you, then that’s a sign you might be in the Venn overlap of gamers who’ll most appreciate this RPG.
Let’s take a step back. At this point, I think we need to. Since Black Void on an alien planet and we’ve systems for different worlds, it might be easy to mistake the game for a sci-fi. It’s not. It’s a fantasy.
Go back in time to just when humanity was getting our act together, back when Babylon was the most magnificent city on Earth. Go back to then and watch in horror as the Void opens up on the planet, causing typhoons of inky dark tendrils to gobble up the population in a catastrophe.
By the skin of our teeth, mankind manages to survive. Some of survived that encounter with the Void and appeared elsewhere in the Cosmos. A chunk of the survivors from Earth arrived in a dangerous city called Llyhn which sits on the nexus of paths.
The four takeaway concepts from this are;
- Humanity are refugees.
- There’s a thing called the Void.
- There’s a thing called the Cosmos.
- There’s a place called Llyhn.
The Cosmos is reality as we know it. It’s space (cold and dark) with planets and aliens.
The Void is the supranatural unreality in between worlds. It changes people, it’s the source of some magic and some powerful entities. Creatures and characters who are Voidmarked can develop powers and mutations (and, yes, Black Void has rules for all of these).
Llyhn is a vast city that sits at a crossroads of routes through the Cosmos and of places where the barrier to the Void is thin. In places like that, it’s easier for ships and strange beings to pass between worlds. Llyhn is the default setting for the game, and Black Void provides maps, locations, factions, NPCs and a whole campaign setting.
Humanity is not top of the food chain. We’re nowhere near it. Across the Cosmos, humanity is the curiosities. We’re not the bureaucrats sitting in the halls of power making the decisions, nor the traders, nor the guards, nor anyone important. Black Void is a game about survival, about your own survival in an alien world that is either indifferent to your survival or acting against you. It’s also about the survival of the race.
There’s an experience point system in Black Void, but there’s also Wastah. Wastah is the measure of influence and significance you have. You can even have Wastah if you’re not part of an important caste. You can be that beggar to whom someone important owes a debt. The way to boost your Wastah is to play the game, engage the story and do well. Survival means gathering Wastah.
There is also Enlightenment. Academically, you might understand that between, and around our Cosmos there’s a place known as the Void. That’s not the same thing as the epiphany of comprehension. Characters (as with NPCs and alien encounters) might also become Enlightened and develop their supranatural potential as a result. This happens through gameplay.
Did I say that Black Void was a different sort of RPG? It’s two-page character sheet puts stats in the centre of the front, Wastash and Enlightenment on either side, and it has character background aspects like motivation, secrets, principles and quirks up at the top.
Character Generation in Black Void
I suspect the phrase “as easy or as complex as you want it” is overused in RPG reviews. Tough. I’m using it here. Character generation in Black Void is as easy or as complex as you want it.
If you’ve not played the game before then it is straight-forward enough to create a human, without powers or any exotic backgrounds in a reasonably normal position in Llyhn. A beggar, or docker, or cleaner, something like that.
If you’ve played the game before and have experience with the magic systems then, while you’re still likely to be playing a human, she could be a voidmarked mystic with tendrils and debts owed to her.
It’s a point-based system, with talents and flaws, health and sanity. It shouldn’t really matter whether you’re born on Llyhn, a descendant of Earth or from a mysterious homeworld, the characters are balanced.
What level that balance is at, though, depends on the Arbiter/GM. She can award a greater or lesser number of character generation points as she thinks the story requires.
As with many games, it helps significantly if at least one person in the group (ideally the Arbiter) knows the system well.
It’s here in the equipment section that the fact Black Void is set in the past really hits home. There are no blasters here. There’s just lots of medieval weapons and armour.
I made the bold claim at the start of this review that Black Void gets pretty much everything right. I think you see that in sly ways in the Equipment section. All those clever ideas players like to have and need rule assistance on? Black Void tends to have though of those.
For example, there are rules for pets and domestic animals. Characters are expected to have a background occupation that gives them some coins to spend automatically unless that also becomes part of the story, and there are rules for the cost of living.
What other challenging things do players like to do while picking out equipment? There are rules for customised and enchanted weapons and armour. There are systems, descriptions and prices for containers, medicines and poison.
It’s expensive in Black Void. Characters will not be well equipped. That’s the fate of humanity in this alternative distant past. We’re having to fight for everything we own and we don’t have much.
Black Void’s D12 + modifier system is flexible. The rules line up the different actions you can take;
- Basic actions (easy stuff)
- Standard actions (the usual dice rolls players make)
- Resisted actions
- Sequential actions
- Opposed actions
- Cooperative actions
Resisted actions are those that meet passive resistance. Opposed actions are those that have to deal with active defence.
Combat uses exceptional hits and combat mishaps to tie in with the notion of natural 12s and natural 1s on the D12. As a result, it can get messy and deadly. There are chunky tables to consult if you want to find out just how badly someone has done when a sword blow goes against them.
On that note; there is no shortage of tables in Black Void. Most of the time, the random element is optional; you just pick what you want, even if that’s the inspiration. At other times, even though Black Void stresses the rules are only guidelines and having fun is more important, it feels as if some random tables should be considered the default resort rather than a handy back-up.
Formless horrors spilling forth from the Void? Oh yes, there are sanity and mental health rules here too, with no shortage of considerations.
I don’t think Black Void will score perfectly with gamers who want all aspects of mental health treated with utmost care. On that same token conditions like obesity and fragility are treated as flaws. I suspect, also, that Black Void won’t score perfectly with edgelords who want to push the boundaries of tolerance – because Black Void doesn’t do that. I think, instead, Black Void through luck or design, fits itself safely in the acceptable middle-ground of the cultural conflicts the industry is currently weighing.
Powers in Black Void
There are two forms of ‘magic’ in the Black Void. These are both really using Void control to exert a change on the Cosmos.
The first are blood rituals. These rites are as adult and as gory as they sound. The more powerful the creature sacrificed, then the more power you might get to. So, you know, better to find an intelligent alien vagrant in the back allies and sacrifice him than snatch a doggo off the same streets.
I don’t have a problem with that. My main concern is that a good half of the reasons to get into blood rituals is for sacrificial divination.
My GM warning system flares. It’s almost impossible to do in-game divination because you don’t know what the players are going to do. The answer “The way ahead is unclear…” is tired, dull and a cop-out. Nevertheless, Black Void eventually admits you might have to take that route.
I’ve only a few concerns with the Black Void, but this is one of them. I’m not sure divination works.
The other system of power is mysticism, and that’s more closely aligned to traditional magic casting except it’s dark, dangerous and you’re unlikely to pull it off in combat.
The Arbiter Section
After the rules on character advancement, Black Void becomes a GM-only book. Sevaldsen returns to considerations around how and when to apply the rules.
We’re worked through how to run social and violent encounters, trade and treasure. There’s advice on creating games in Black Void, coping with the Void itself and the fact humanity is down to a struggling remnant.
The following chapters detail the city of Llyhn from the geography to The Unseen Rules and their minions and the Factions you’ll find there too.
You don’t have to stick to Llyhn, even though the city feels like a key part of the game, as the final chapter helps you go offworld.
Concerns and worries
I’ve read Black Void twice now because I liked it and wanted to dig deep, but I can’t convince myself I know it well enough to teach to others. We’ve played through one short scenario too.
One of the gotchas is that sometimes important rules are in the paragraph text before or after tables, not in the tables themselves. My eyes have been trained to look for tables or boxes with different coloured backgrounds to find all rules these days, and on occasion, Black Void puts them into the conversation.
I’ve already mentioned my extreme caution around the idea GMs can provide a satisfactory divination scene.
I think there’s also a conflict between staying on Llyhn, which feels like the intended campaign setting and going off to explore the Void and the Cosmos. I think savvy Arbiters will have to allow players to reach for that ambition, not blocking them or railroading them away but carefully controlling the tempo.
Then, after that, I think savvy Arbiters will have to weave in reasons why the great city becomes important again so characters want to return.
I love the fact that Black Void is very different. No orcs and elves here. There are illustrations in the right place – there are exotic beasts of burden, for example, and we get to see what they look like.
There are new sentient and esoteric species, which feel very different from other RPGs, and they are illustrated as well. There are beasts and void horrors; guess what, they’re illustrated too.
It’s good that I don’t need to remember the details between a sharp blade and a very sharp blade to run a combat scene. It’s also good that there are differences and therefore, different mechanical rewards and challenges for players should that become important.
I’m going to put myself into that group of gamers who like Black Void. Ideally, though, I’ll get to find myself an experienced Arbiter and an adult-minded group to play with. Despite the promise of action and adventure, it’s the politics and battles for influence in this deadly past that have caught my attention.
Hopefully, I’ve made it pretty clear that despite it’s simple and solid mechanics, Black Void feels like a very different setting. I think it’s an advantage, but I acknowledge some might not be able to cope with the change.
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