Sunday, November 6, 2016

BlackSun DeathCrawl - A Review

BlackSun DeathCrawl was published in 2015 by James MacGeorge.  It’s a pay what you want PDF
and I’d call it one of those great free (or nearly so) products of the OSR that are made with heart and singular vision.  The book itself is 64 pages, though much of that is made up of ominous prophetic statements in large fonts and lovely full page etchings from the common domain (I recognize a lot of Gustav Dore’s illustrations from Dante’s Divine Comedy) that really add to the setting feel.  Actual, game ready content takes up far fewer pages, but that’s okay, because the Deathcrawl at its best is less of a module or adventure then setting for playing very grim survival based dungeon crawl. The adventure part of the books is actually its weakest, a set of scene based encounters that while unrelentingly bleak and open-ended provide a bare skeleton of an adventure that doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the setting.  That promise though and the horrifically spare setting itself are wonderful and make up for the minor weaknesses of other areas.

One such minor issue is that Deathcrawl uses DCC as it’s basis, which makes for some rules kludge that needs to be converted for most, but this is minimal and Deathcrawl generally avoids the fidgety nature of the DCC system by eliminating all classes except fighters.

OMINOUS STATEMENTS AS SETTING

“And yet the Cursed dig...because they have forgotten what it means to do anything but dig, fight and flee.”

That’s typical of the somewhat lyrical, somewhat overwrought declarations that MacGeorge  uses as the main setting vehicle.  Even setting rules (all players begin as a level 1 warrior) are communicated in this way, and it makes for an effective enough system to communicate setting and feel.  It’s rather evocative really, and allows justifies Deathcrawl’s interesting rules changes (Death occurs by burning up a character’s ‘hope’ - formerly Luck in the DCC rules and by the steady accumulation of terrible mutations).  More than anything Blacksun DeathCrawl feels bleak and allegorical, a mystery play from some religion based on Black Metal Album covers rather than normal tabletop fantasy or the series of evocative vignettes that the module sets out to promote ‘moral’ play (in the sense that more of the play derives from making moral decisions, not that it forces players into having a specific moral stance).  Yet I suspect it’s best played as a dungeon crawl where finding a way deeper to escape the Black Sun’s torturous light and unstoppable minions while discovering food and water are the only goals.

MECHANICS AS SETTING

Beneath the evocative pronouncements Blacksun Deathcrawl is a rather slick set of simple mechanical changes to DCC (itself a B/X clone of sorts) that pares away much of the game’s complexity to leave a core set of standard tabletop fantasy rules based on B/X Dungeons & Dragons.  These mechanical changes effectively remove the traditional supply based resource game of D&D, and make survival a function of the character’s Hope stat, which slowly depletes.  They also guarantee continuous exposure to the mutation table, which creates a feedback loop where hope must be used more and more to offset the statistic loss caused by mutation.

These mechanics are designed to create a certain type of game, one where characters are fundamentally disposable (and identical), and become more interesting through the acquisition of mutations and the actions they take.  Yet the mechanics also encourage some ugly interparty activities, which might utterly ruin congeniality at the table unless the overall setting fiction wasn’t so strong.

SETTING IS ALSO SETTING
Blacksun DeathCrawl does include setting content, some very successful, and some oddly jarring when set against the rest of the setting.  There’s a list of several monsters that are utterly perfect for the setting.  Extra-dimensional predators that appear only as sets of ravenous teeth in the dark, the literally unstoppable “Terrible Thoughts” of the Black Sun that have no HP, because they cannot be killed (though apparently they become quiescent when they are blocked from the Black Sun) and an inconsolable former god that moves backward in time growing stronger and less afraid of the characters each time he’s encountered.  These monsters are great, they fit the setting well and while mechanically quite simple are thematic and rich in story and setting material.
Hey this is great - let's ruin it with Dwarves!
The five or so staged scenes that follow these initial sections (setting maxims, mechanics, and monsters) are less effective.  Not only do they interject a standard fantasy world into the Deathcrawl by focusing on the antics and the inevitable destruction of two Dwarven Cities, but no matter how bleak the stories they tell are they are scene-based and hence GM driven narrative devices.  A couple of them, another fading god and even the treacherous deranged wizard who forces the party to fight a Terrible Thought, are striking and evocative, but again as simple scenes that lead from one to another they run counter to the overarching impulse of the Deathcrawl project.     

HOW I’D RUN BLACKSUN DEATHCRAWL
I’m a bit disappointed in BlackSun DeathCrawl - yes I recommend it unreservedly as a wonderful example of Dungeons and Dragons’ setting material as able to inspire, create wonder and showcase creativity.  Again there’s something beautifully apocalyptic about the setting conceits.  I am reminded a bit of the best parts (the first half) of M.K. Jemison’s “Fifth Season”, in that it starts with a fundamentally hostile world and shows how its people have adapted to it. BlackSun DeathCrawl adds a fair bit of Cormac McCarthy to it, but in good way - the setting is trying to create a specific feel and style of play.
That's Better
As a game product it also has this lovely core idea of reducing the game world to the minimum of elements that require the players to delve into a megadungeon (or the underdark really) without ever stopping.  The ideas and evocative setting cry out for the mechanics of a mega-dungeon crawl (resource depletion, underworld factions), yet the last few pages (the scene based dwarf tragedy in five acts) seem to run from this obvious playstyle in favor of a more contemporary scene based narrative about bleak choices.  I’d ignore this later part in favor of stringing together a set of dungeons and caves, with the main goal of finding a way down another level by the end of each session (or few sessions depending) to avoid the Black Sun’s deadly influence.  The secondary goals would be finding equipment, light, food, water and safety for rest.  I’d focus on the survival aspect of the setting (rather then pushing it aside to make the PCs indestructible wraiths), using food as the source of XP and the only trade good.  NPC groups of delvers would be common, as would groups that have found a source of food and water and are protecting them.  Otherworldy monsters, the decaying remnants of divine begins, underworld vermin and things warped by the Black Sun would be the opposition. Mechanics involving food, water and rest would also need to be included and maintained - I’d just use my exhaustion rules that require food fairly regularly or produce penalties.  I’d assume that light was very useful (granting bonuses perhaps, and scaring off a lot of enemies) but not necessary.  

I wish that rather than provide the vignettes in BlackSun DeathCrawl, its author had provided some random tables to flesh out its strange underworld - encounters, artifacts, even scenes would create a nice set of setting material to build on without diluting the fundamental strange bleakness of the setting.  

BlackSun Death Crawl is a really evocative product, and while it’s not exactly usable at the table it it’s present state, it could adapt very easily to running a one shot or short desperate campaign (I think I’d use the god travelling backward in time and the eventual death of the universe as the ‘goal’ or end).

5 comments:

  1. Black Sun Death Crawl is a favorite of mine. It is meant to be played as a one-off and, I think campaign play would be rough. That said, it blends perfectly with the DCC RPG rule set but if you need to convert it to run it, it is still very worth doing. If you want something dark and filled with gloom? Black Sun Death Crawl.

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    1. I like it as well, it's certainly dark and filled with gloom - and more so because it leverages certain parts of its ruleset in service of evoking gloomy darkness (or the grinding inevitability of defeat and loss). The conversions are really minimal (unless I assume one is converting it to GURPS or something else complex). I agree it's meant as part of a one-shot, but I think the that one-shot would be better as a dungeon crawl (See if you can survive to find another doomed refuge, deeper in the earth) rather then a scene based adventure-path.

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  2. It has neither scale landscape or social dimension other than neurosis. To say it sucks is an understatement. If you like adding detail to scab picking it's your itch so scratch it.

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    1. It is a bit short on content as I suggest, at least on the sort of content I'd want to play it with, but I think it has good bones, and a more compelling megadungeon/underdark core setting then most. There is a place for survival tabletop.

      As for social dimension I assume that spare PC will grow through play, plus of course reaction rolls and factions. Really needs food and water mechanics that act as a balance to the corruption mechanic (i.e. find food and water limit corruption) and maybe XP system to emphasize the exploration and scavenging aspect.

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    2. "10. Wormtongue: Tongue becomes metasentient
      and begins communicating with the player
      (note player, not character) via notes from the
      judge, prophesying doom."

      Note to judge... I'd rather play solo monopoly than this game.

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