Black Sun Deathcrawl by James MacGeorge
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Timing is everything . . .
I began reading William Barrett's masterpiece Irrational Man: A Study in Existentialist Philosophy while on vacation in Indianapolis, IN. This was about two weeks before Gencon, the world's largest gaming convention, came to Indy. Now, I've wanted to go to Gencon since I was a child-geek, back when it was in Lake Geneva, WI (though I've discovered a local convention that many are calling "one of the top three gaming conventions in the US"), so I was a little forlorn that I wouldn't be in town for the fabled convention. I did, however, read of many other gamer's preparations to go, including a bevy of small game publishers who were rushing to print their wares for sale at the con. This is how I discovered "Black Sun Deathcrawl". Man, have I been lucky in finding good modules lately!
Now that I'm eyeball and cerebral-cortex deep within Barrett's book, I seem to have hit a lucky stride with several books that I've just read or am currently reading. This wasn't by design - the gods of existentialism (har, har) are smiling on me . . . or is it scowling at me? Whatever the case, I feel as if I've been led by some higher cosmic power to a bunch of great books in the existentialist vein, but from disparate points of the literary spectrum, from non-fiction to modern fiction to post-modern fiction to gaming . . . SKRRRCH . . .
"Did he say 'gaming'?"
"Yeah . . . existentialist gaming? Like . . . Call of Cthulhu RPG. . .?"
(Cue evil laughter, then a booming voice from below) "Cthulhu? Bwahahahaha!!! Scary? Yes. Gross? A little. Existential? Not on the same level as Black Sun Deathcrawl," (the last phrase is said as if your jaw is spontaneously falling off and you are trying to keep the mandible attached by exaggerating all motion in your mouth - stick that tongue waaaay out) "not even close"!
Yes, Black Sun Deathcrawl (don't forget that exaggerated pronunciation!) is as existential a setting as you will ever see in role playing. It is illustrated throughout with Gustave Dore's drawings of Dante's Inferno, which gives the piece a somber, dark tone that artistically reflects the game mechanics included in the supplement.
Here, all is hopeless. Rather, you have "hope" as an attribute score, but it burns down as the influence of the Black Sun burns through the rock through which you are digging, twisting your body and mind and chipping away at your will to live as you chip through the rock that you hope will protect you (note: it won't). The Black Sun is relentless, and you are not. Death by the influence of the Black Sun's baleful rays isn't even a sure way of escape from its torment. Characters brought to zero hit points die and are then restored to full hit points one round later. There is only one way out. And only you can provide the way out. When your hope drops to zero (a long and painful process, to be sure), you are considered to have committed suicide and finally found relief from the incessant despair of the Black Sun.
The book is divided into several sections, beginning with an introduction to the world and its inhabitants, of which your character - nameless and raceless, known only as the Cursed - is one.The world is described in four short pages, which is all you need or want to know. Monsters, including "Black Thoughts" and "Terrible Thoughts" are described and statistics given, and the effects of the Black Sun are elucidated in the "Black Light Exposure Corruption Chart," which shows the horrific results of being exposed to the harmful rays. For example, one of the fifteen effects (and not one of the worst, by any means) is known as "Liquid Brain":
"A part of the character's brain liquefies and runs from their nose and mouth, -1d8 intelligence. If the liquid can be collected and ingested, regain the Intelligence, but only until it is passed from the system via urine, at which point it may be collected again, ad infinitum."
The next section consists of "Truths," including such gems as: "Identity is Irrelevant in the Face of Oblivion," "If There Is a Higher Power, It Does Not Care," "Life is Endless Conflict," "Existence is Random and Without Meaningful Purpose,"Everyone Digs Their Own Grave," "Only We Can Choose When the Suffering Ends," and others of a similar, somber nature. Each has a game mechanic or rule attached and while the intent is to apply these rule modifications to the Dungeon Crawl Classics gaming system, they can be easily applied to most old school role-playing games with a little work.
The final section is a series of encounters, which might be played in a single gaming session . . . played to its inevitable end, that is!
James MacGeorge has invoked such a mournful tone that this supplement will likely infect your own campaign in some way. This isn't the sort of place that characters from another campaign will want to visit, however. If they do, they will be subsumed into it and consumed by it. Best used for a series of one-shots (with new characters every time because who the heck can survive more than one session under these circumstances?).
The first edition sold out very quickly! If you want a copy of the second printing, you can order it here. But get it fast . . . then prepare for a slow, agonizing crawl!
Addendum: Eric Diaz of Methods and Madness curated another review of BSD here. Enjoy!
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