Black Void RPG Review
Somehow I missed last year’s Kickstarter campaign for the Black Void RPG by Christoffer Sevaldsen, but a friend mentioned it to me recently, and after a bit of browsing I found out what it was about. I contacted Christoffer for a late pledge and he was kind enough to send me an invite for the Pledge Manager. Needless to say, I immediately bought the PDF and ordered a physical copy of the book!
At first glance, Black Void has all the recognizable elements from other popular RPG systems, yet it feels unique in its own right. It starts in middle-east Bronze Age and ends up in an alien world between realities, and that’s just the intro to the setting! It got me hooked and wanting more, and as I read through the book, more and more adventure and campaign ideas popped into my head! From my experience, that’s always a good sign!
The setting and book layout
When I first looked at the setting, the first thing that came to mind was “why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?!”
Black Void starts on Earth in the days of Babylon, when human civilization started to flourish. However, the sky is soon filled with black spots out of which misty tendrils consumed everything! Humanity, or what was left of it, was cast into the Void, an endless blackness of madness governed by neither physics as we know it, nor by the will of gods, and it only wants to consume its counterpart of reality – the Cosmos.
However, this was not the end of humanity, for humans have proven to be a tenacious race, even when faced by literal earth-shattering events. Survivors started emerging on the outskirts of Llyhn the Eternal, a vast city on a border world close to both the Cosmos and the Void, yet fully in neither.
My first thought came to Stargate (the original 1994 movie), minus the soldiers, and interestingly enough, one of my regular players had the same reaction when I explained the system to her. When we later talked about the game, everyone found something interesting – there was a vast city ripe for political scheming, high tensions between factions and classes – an excellent starting point for urban adventures in general. There were unknown places on the starting world, and especially beyond, with lots of potential for combat- and exploration-driven adventures. Last but not least, there was the question of humanity amidst an alien world, for those who prefer inner struggle and personal horror.
The book is split into the Player and Arbiter section. The first five chapters deal with character creation, equipment, rules based on the 12-sided die, and player powers and level advancement. The remaining five chapters are focused on running Black Void adventures and campaigns, applying the rules in social and violent (combat) encounters, and how to properly reward players for every aspect within a session. There is also a whole chapter on the city of Llyhn, its inhabitants, culture and religion, the caste system within the city, the factions, and a list of important NPCs. The final 100 pages detail the various species (sentient, esoteric, void entities, and of course, beasts) the PCs may encounter on their adventures, as well as other worlds they may travel to.
The book is well-rounded and more than enough to flesh out the feel of Black Void. The 400+ pages may discourage some players at first, but for those who only to play as PCs, the first 150-or-so pages are easy to follow and include examples on sidebars for common situation a PC may find his or herself.
Character creation, advancement, and equipment
The characters you play in Black Void are human… or almost human. They are the descendants of the peoples that were sucked into the Void from Earth and brought either to Llyhn, some other world in the Cosmos, or even to the unknown Void. The game offers plenty of customization options in order to make your character feel unique. The 11 steps for the character creation process sound intimidating, but when you have a character concept in mind, those steps become quick and easy. For instance, the first step reminds you that you play a human (who can be either a pureblood, halfblood, or voidtouched)!
The character creation process will be mostly straightforward to veterans of RPGs, and I found it as a combination of point-by mechanics with added modifiers. For new players, each step is accompanied with a sidebar that serves as an example for that step, and a filled out character sheet is presented at the end of the chapter. It can be a little overwhelming at first due to the vast number of choices. I would suggest printing out a character sheet and assign points for the example character as you read, comparing it to the filled out sheet at the end of the chapter.
Your PC will have a fixed number of character points (CP) to assign to eight primary stats, which are Agility, Awareness, Stamina, Strength, Willpower, Presence, Persuasion and Intellect. The remaining CPs go to Talents, Background, Attributes, Powers and Skills. With points assigned, you will be at step nine, and the remaining three steps flesh out your character with entering health, movements, defense values, any starting possessions and wealth, as well some backstory for roleplaying purposes.
My only minor issue here was assigning talents and flaws, as it was not evident where to write them down just by looking at the blank character sheet. As soon as I saw the filled one however, I said to myself “of course, it’s here”.
Players advance by being awarded experience points which can be further used to enhance their capabilities. However, in addition to this classical model of “leveling up”, Black Void has divided the overall advancement process, adding Enlightenment and Wastah, both of which are detailed later.
The equipment section reminds us that although the game is set on an alien world, for the players, mostly casteless humans, it is still the Babylon era, so don’t expect to be equipped with some high tech alien weaponry from the start. The weapons are still daggers, swords, axes and maces, just with an oriental vibe to them. Think of scimitars, saifs, and sabers. Something not often seen is the addition of weapon quality, which not only effects cost, but weapon damage output as well. Whereas a poor weapon can cost half the regular price, it has a penalty to attack, damage, or speed, while an exceptional weapon has a +1 to both attack and damage rolls, but costs 25 times more.
There are lot of tables detailing various other equipment, goods, and services available to further flesh out the setting. For instance, there is a table for poisons and venom, as well as a table for infusions and teas a PC may acquire.
For all of us who wanted more love for the d12, this system is a treat! The complete ruleset of Black Void is based around the d12, and even when the game calls for rolling another dice (d3/d4/d6), it’s always a fraction of 12, so you can, if needed, just use the d12 for everything. Most systems that I’ve come across either use a percentile-, d20/2d20-, or d10-based rules, with some of them even outright omitting the d12; this was a nice surprise indeed.
The rules for completing an action are straightforward – you roll a d12, add or subtract appropriate modifiers and to succeed your total score needs to be equal or greater to a target number representing the difficulty of the task in hand. Of course, some tasks would automatically succeed, while others would be impossible to attempt, by the direction of the Arbiter.
Combat is broken down in rounds, and in each round a participant has a turn, determined by initiative order. A round lasts for 3 second in-game, and you can use you action to attack once or multiple times, react and/or move, depending on your stats, abilities, the weapons you carry, etc. For instance, if your character is wielding a weapon in each hand (which can be more than two by the way), you may attack multiple times, but each attack will have a lower and lower modifier. One thing that I particularly liked was that if you roll a 12 on your initiative, you gain “exceptional speed”, which allows you to make two actions in the first round of combat (the initiative order of the second action is calculated with a -6 penalty).
Things get really interesting when you roll a natural 12 or a natural one. You consult the “exceptional hits” and “mishaps” tables for resolving those actions. There are two additional rolls when you score a 12, one for the severity (d12) and one for the effect (d6). Sometimes, you can double or triple the damage you make in addition to some other effect you induce to the being on the unfortunate end of your weapon. Mishaps happen too, and (luckily) you roll just on a d12 table for that, and various effects can happen here as well – you can lose your weapon, injure yourself instead of your foe, or the Arbiter can think of new interesting ways what can happen.
In general, almost every type of action you want to make is listed in an appropriate table and has a description, so you can know what type of modifier you can add or subtract. It is a bit crunchy, and may cause a division between players who want more freedom in their decision making. The systems is built however, around the d12 from the ground up, and after a few social and violent encounters, you can easily get the hang of what modifier (and approximately what amount) to apply to your roll. You can always talk with your Arbiter to bend the rules if needed to keep the game more to your liking.
Magic, Sanity and the Void, Enlightenment and Wastah
A fantasy game wouldn’t be whole without magic, and needless to say, magic is present in Black Void, but perhaps not the type often found in other RPGs. Magic is based on mysticism, sacrifice and ritual often involving blood, and can grant the characters temporary bonuses or boons, or can even backfire. I got the feeling humans (and other species) do not fully understand magic, and it is meant to be dangerous and not often utilized.
Mysticism is more connected to the Void, although not completely. Mystics, divided into furores and gnostics, can cause various phenomena to occur. A mystic chooses (or composes) a phenomenon, shaping its duration, range, potency, and area, and rolls against a target difficulty number. Phenomena are grouped into spheres (forces, matter, mind, life, and void), each one associated with a type of effect. As an example, gravity effects are ruled by the forces sphere, while telepathy and hallucinations are ruled by the mind sphere.
Exposure to the often not-so-kind world of Black Void can have an ill effect on the mental stare of the PCs. More often than not, the PCs will experience something that the human mind simply cannot process. When in a such situation, PCs will often have check their sanity (with a resistance roll) to see if and how they are affected with the horrors of the Cosmos and the Void. Players can find themselves temporary or permanently in a state of fear, delirium, madness, or even in awe when witnessing something not just meant for the human mind.
The Cosmos is vast, and often unimaginable by the human mind, even to those who are living on an alien world. The Void is a different beast however. As PCs are exposed to the never-ending turmoil between the Cosmos and the Void, they become Enlightened, and with ascension they are more aware of the reality that surrounds them. Eventually, PCs are able to sense the Void, and ultimately utilize the Void to their benefit.
Wastah is the network that your PC creates through adventuring. As mankind is all but gone, gaining social and political influence in Llyhn where the casteless have almost no rights is a feat indeed. Wastah are awarded by the Arbiter and these award are meant to be story-driven. As a PC gains more influence, Wastah can be applied for social encounters, and the more ranks you have, the more it is easier to persuade, intimidate, or outright command those with lower Wastah, or gain access to otherwise restricted information, places, and people.
Black Void states that is a dark fantasy RPG, but I think that this is an understatement. Just as player characters (usually) start in Llyhn, so too can the players explore Black Void as a heroic-fantasy game either on the border world beyond Llyhn, go on adventures to explore worlds within the Cosmos, the Void, and beyond, deal with political intrigue within the cosmopolis Llyhn itself, of focus their game on the question of humanity and being outcasts in a foreign world.
The d12-based mechanics are relatively easy to learn, and combat does not drag too much. I especially like the tables for critical hits and fumbles. They add a new, random layer to the encounters and outcomes, and therefore combat does not break immersion as other PRGs tend to do.
Overall, I can highly recommend the Black Void RPG. The book itself is gorgeous, the art is excellent, and the text and sidebars are easy to read. The choices during character creation may be a little overwhelming for new players, especially with all the talents/flaws/attributes/skills. For them, I would suggest a somewhat lengthy session zero with the Arbiter to set everything up just right. Veteran players coming from any RPG system will find at least something they are familiar with in terms of mechanics, and should feel right at home after getting used to the d12 system. Black Void, in my opinion, is worth it just for the setting alone, and, if needed, can be easily incorporated into other games, but I recommend to at least try the d12 ruleset.
I would like to thank Christoffer and Black Void Games for providing me with a late pledge, and I cannot wait to get the physical copy of the book and start running Black Void on a regular basis!