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Null Singularity
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 11/08/2018 05:25:44

An ENdzeitgeist.com review

This supplement/one-shot/setting-ish book clocks in at 56 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 52 pages of content (laid out in 6’’ by 9’’(A5), in a landscape orientation), so let’s take a look!

This review was requested and sponsored by one of my patreons, to be undertaken at my convenience.

I can review this book in one sentence: Black Sun Deathcrawl, Scifi-edition.

…I jest, of course. Partially. I assume familiarity with my review of Black Sun Deathcrawl in the discussion below. If you haven’t, please take a look at it. You can find it here.

You see, Null Singularity does note on its cover that it’s inspired by Black Sun Deathcrawl, and the author has actually asked Black Sun Deathcrawl’s (I’ll shorten that to BSD below) creator for his blessing – a brief interview can be found in the back of the book, spanning two pages.

And indeed, in a way, Null Singularity does imitate BSD in several obvious key components: The ominous flavor-text used to establish tone and setting? Check. The slightly obscure, doom-laden introductory scripture that invites individualized exegesis to fill out details? Check. The unstoppable, all-encompassing threat, coupled with a theme of futility and nihilism? Check. You get the idea – there are a lot of similarities, quite intentionally so.

However, there also are plenty of differences that mirror the science-fiction context and that influence, rather significantly, the tone and experience of playing this game. In a way, it is nigh impossible to discuss Null Singularity without spoiling some parts of it – before I get into the “story”-related components presented within, I will add another spoiler-warning, but in order to discuss it and how it diverges from BSD, I have to explain a couple of things, so if you want to go into this as a blank-slate experience for maximum efficiency, stop reading NOW and skip ahead to the conclusion.

..

.

Okay, only judges around? Okay, so a key difference of this supplement and BSD would be focus. BSD is very much a game of savagery, one wherein struggle for survival is often brutal on a physical and emotional level. Null Singularity is similar in that it gets rid of classes and races – there only are the Voidants (character sheet provided in the back). The Null-Singularity is basically consuming everything, a thing beyond even the Singularity as an event, something beyond the infinite, crushing in its endless inevitability – it is, to quote the pdf, “EveryWhere and EveryWhen.” Voidants, life, learned F/Utility aboard their VoidArks. There is just the mission. It has no parameters.

Voidants roll 3d6 for ability scores, get 1d6 +1d4 +2 for Stamina modifier hit points, and one ability is raised to the lowest score that improves its modifier. Voidants act, functionally as thieves, substituting the thief skill that works best for using a scifi item/accomplishing a task: Find Trap to diagnose malfunctions, etc. Alignment is randomly rolled, and each PC begins play with a Void Zoot, Oh-Too Well, Squawk Box, VoidZeal, HydraCycler, HeatPak, Battery and Ration (Ize-Kreem Brik and Or’nge-Flave Powder). You get a d12 roll for additional equipment, and you roll 1d4-1 to determine how many pieces of equipment are malfunctioning; then, a d12 to determine the extent of the malfunction. Every 30 minutes real time, every piece of equipment with failure imminent will be destroyed/shut down. Also, every PC rolls a d6. On a natural 1, one piece of survival gear will malfunction – for every additional 30 minutes passing, you ADD another d6. If you roll all sixes, you find a salvageable piece of gear.

There is no Luck score, only Resource Fullness. Resource Fullness may be burned, but PCs don’t get a luck die and do not recover burned points. A PC at 0 Resource Fullness is taken by the Void.

Resource Fullness is also on a timer: Every 20 minutes real time, all players mark off half a box of Oh-Too, H2O and Battery Pak (for heat). In any round that a PC has zero Oh-Too, H2O or Battery, or a malfunctioning Void Zoot or HeatPak, the PC MUST burn one point of Resource Fullness.

PCs may steal Resource Fullness from other PCs and monsters.

Okay, this is the basic rules-chassis, and it is radically different from BSD. It isn’t focused on exploring the dynamics between PCs and Hope, about what it’ll take for them to give up. This is not, like BSD, an attempt to depict the experience of depression or other such metaphysical experience. Instead, from language to rules, it is focused on one thing “F/Utility.” The duality encompassed in this term is stark and reverberates through the entirety of the supplement: For one, Voidants being thieves in functionality places a greater emphasis on trickery and adds options to their array, at least when compared with BSD’s Cursed.

The language, as you could glean from the equipment names above, depicts a clever evolution of terms, which adds a distinct feeling of both estrangement and familiarity – like many contemporary scifi books, it thus manages to enhance immersion. From the rules, you will have noticed one thing: The voidants are horribly fragile, and unlike the Cursed, they can, and will die without their consent mattering in the least. That there is the central and most important distinction: Beyond the scifi-theme, which, by font, language, etc., evokes a stark and harsh sense of clinical detachment, the central theme and goal of this game is radically different from BSD: This is a game of survival and doing whatever it takes; it is indebted to BSD, yes; it is similar in many components, yes. It’s a wholly different playing experience nonetheless.

Since the launch of the VoidArks, XenoData has been collected, which is represented by stats for the XenoPhases encountered so far – these include GravSpectra, malevolent fields of gravity; silicate, maggot-like things that leech heat and fungal masses that consume Otoo. Quantum fluctuations caused by the Null Singularity represent hazards based on spell effects, and among these, there also would be StarkReal – basically, the madness engine of the system. And, there would be XenoHorrors. In a way, this feels like a better realized mini-bestiary/hazard array to complicate matters…but this is also where Null Singularity drastically diverts from the course of BSD.

The following is slightly more SPOILER-laden that before. I strongly suggest that players jump ahead to the conclusion.

..

.

Only judges around? Great!

Know how I basically told you that the encounters in BSD, with one exception, pretty much sucked and probably should be ignored? Yeah, well Null Singularity goes a different route. The second half of the book is devoted to basically the adventure – we have massive read-aloud texts and a sequence of challenges that a judge could expand/develop further, if desired. It is here, where you can choose to play Null Singularity not as a customizable campaign template, but as a linear one-shot module, and honestly, it’s a pretty amazing series of encounters that we get here. The descriptive text really drives home the atmosphere of F/Utility suffusing the game, of the nightmarish existence depicted within. To quote from the introductory read-aloud text: "You were brought into being aboard Alektryon and you’ve spent 99.1968% of your life inside It. LifeDatum: you spend most of your time in SomniStays-Iz to help conserve resources. You hate it. In SomniStays-Iz you dream endlessly about the Null Singularity. Occasionally, you Re/Sur/Vive. And then, it happens. The VoidArk is experiencing catastrophic PlanetFall."

I am not going to explain the entirety of the plot here, but the F/Utility angle reaches its culmination in the end, when the book basically closes a loop, one that may not restract, but actually become worse. True to the focus on Survival, it is thus theoretically possible to replay this scenario over and over – to survive it. Null Singularity, within its bleak parameters, may be “won.”

The pdf does btw. offer an appendix for inspiring media.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are very good, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to a landscape, one-column b/w-standard, with the pdf using plenty of thematically fitting stock-art to enhance the stark atmosphere of the experience. Much to my chagrin, the pdf-version has no bookmarks, which makes navigating the pdf a colossal pain – a serious comfort detriment. I strongly suggest printing this or getting a print copy. I can’t comment on the merits or lack thereof of the print version, as I do not own it.

Steve Bean’s “Null Singularity” is more than Black Sun Deathcrawl in space – and that is quite a feat, considering the shared themes and obvious homage to the latter. In theme, this feels like someone took the black metal band Darkspace and wrote a game as bleak and uncompromising as their devastatingly bleak sound. The suggested bands in the appendix (Pink Floyd, Husker Du and Philip Glass) or acts like Mare Cognitum, imho, do not capture the mood half as well. The stark science-fiction backdrop is uncompromising in its vision, and the threats, the constant experience of malfunctions – they render this one brutally-tough game with a singular, most efficient vision.

And this brings me to the point that differentiates this most from Black Sun Deathcrawl, at least for me: While the trappings are similar, the function couldn’t be more different. Where Black Sun Deathcrawl, arguably, is more artwork than game, more experience than RPG, Null Singularity is, very clearly and distinctively, a game – a game of resource-management that shares themes and bleakness-levels with BSD, but a game that may be won – in a manner of speaking. Kind of. As a piece of game design, it is clearly superior in that its plot and playing experience is, by design, more differentiated. This, however, also means that it can’t duplicate the sledgehammer-like impact, the psychological intensity, of Black Sun Deathcrawl. I don’t think that this would trigger most folks, for example. So yeah, whichever of the two you prefer is ultimately up to what you want from the experience – or, as one of my players remarked, of “…how much of an RPG-hipster you are.”

Black Sun Deathcrawl manages, like e.g. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice did for psychosis, to depict, in a gaming context, how it can feel to live with depression.

Null Singularity does not attempt the like. Instead, its thesis could be summed up as follows: “Look, this is how you can make an experience like Black Sun Deathcrawl behave more like a game without losing the emergent storytelling from a super-bleak setting.” In a way, it re-gamifies the aesthetics of Black Sun Deathcrawl and creates something that is truly and wholly distinct from its parent. Beyond the different setting, Null Singularity is probably more fun for groups that like to see if they can “beat” or “endure” or “survive” something. It is more fun than Black Sun Deathcrawl, courtesy of the frantic resource consumption mechanics. On one hand, this makes it the better game; on the other, this means that it can’t, at least for me, reach the level of impact that Black Sun Deathcrawl had.

But what does it mean? Well, ultimately, in the face of the Null Singularity…nothing, of course. Only you can decide what meaning is, as a concept, to you and yours, only you can ascribe meaning, quantify and qualify your priorities and that of your group – whether you prefer this or Black Sun Deathcrawl is a matter of aesthetics and what you’re looking for.

As a reviewer, I consider Null Singularity a resounding success – it could have just been a lame clone of Black Sun Deathcrawl and instead created something wholly and radically distinct. While the lack of bookmarks hurts the book and makes it lose half a star, I still arrive at a final verdict of 4.5 stars, which I will round up for the purpose of this platform. This also deserves my seal of approval.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Null Singularity
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Null Singularity
by Forrest A. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 01/21/2016 15:44:55

For me, writing and tabletop roleplaying scratch two sides of the same creative itch. As I've examined the two hobbies (neither pays enough to be a profession . . . yet), I appreciate the creative freedom that each allows. I consider writing a very "open" individual creative act, one in which I can let my imagination run free. If I use the excuse of "poetic license," I can write whatever I want, rules of grammar be damned. At least for myself. Of course, there is an audience "out there" that I need to think about for works that I'm planning on having pub(lic)ished. Even then, my own wild flights of imagination fuel the writing.

Tabletop roleplaying is, or should be, in my style of playing and game-mastering, an "open" group creative act. Rules are there simply to adjudicate situations which characters do not fully control (e.g., combat resolution, "finding" of secreted doors or traps, etc). In other words, the game master facilitates the players as they cooperatively (NB: This does not mean "without internal conflict") "tell" a story where the outcome is not entirely known until the moment dice are rolled to determine the consequences of a particular course of action.

Of course, like any other group activity, you'll sometimes have someone who spoils the fun.

Sometimes, it's the game master herself!

We call this, in the Roleplaying Game (RPG) world, "Railroading". A Railroading game master pushes player characters into situations where they have to follow certain plot points in a certain order so that the story can be completed in the "right" way. Needless to say, this tends to stifle players who value, above all else, the right to choose their own character's actions. There's an old adage among game masters that "it doesn't matter what you plan as a GM, the players are going to screw everything up in the first ten minutes anyway". The character is, after all, hers or his, not the gamemaster's. Some systems (rightfully, I think) eschew the term "game master", instead using "judge" to reinforce the idea that the person in charge should be impartial, more of a facilitator than a dic(k)tator. The literary equivalent is the overbearing editor who simply will not allow the writer any creative freedom, who dithers with the author's work so much and in such a specific way that the author's work is no longer his own.

But there are instances where a writer works under self-imposed constraints in order to "squeeze" their own creativity. Italo Calvino's excellent If on a Winter's Night a Traveller is a prime example of this. In this novel, Calvino uses a complex mathematical iteration, as outlined in the book Oulipo Laboratory , to write what is one of the most brilliant second-person narratives in all of literature, possibly the only brilliant second-person narrative in literature. He purposefully used the constraint of the form to discipline the work and to create self-referential loops that, rather than alienating the reader with academic sterility, actually bring the reader further "in" to the story. The Oulipo, a rather exclusive and somewhat secretive group of writers and philosophers, have created an entire literary movement (though I doubt they would characterize their efforts that way) around this idea that creative writing can benefit from being constrained.

Until the last few months, I must admit that, while I have used Oulipo techniques to generate some of my own works, the idea of constraining my gaming was anathema . . . until Black Sun Deathcrawl! Here, author James MacGeorge opened my eyes to the possibilities of what could be done with gaming constraints. "BSDC," as it is popularly known, showed that, with its existential, even nihilistic atmosphere, gaming with constraints could be, dare I say it? Fun and full of despair?

The subtitle of Steve Bean's Null Singularity explicitly states that the adventure is "Inspired by James MacGeorge's Black Sun Deathcrawl, and this is clearly the case. The goal here is not to be heroic, not to defeat the powers of evil, the goal is to survive as long as you can. Defeat and death are inevitable. You will die! If you're lucky, you'll have the luxury of being driven insane before the unavoidable doom that awaits you, whether it is slow asphyxiation from lack of oxygen or being slashed to ribbons by the claws of the XenoHorror. Space is big and powerful. You are puny and weak. All is hopeless.

But it works. Perhaps it is the constraints themselves that allow for a full player immersion into the heart and mind of a character that is low on resources and in a great deal of trouble, an existentialist escapism that safely allows the player to face her worst fears, then walk away from the game table physically (though not psychically) unscathed. A story will play out and, judging from the mechanics, a very fun, if fatalistic story is to be had by players and judge alike. In other words, you won't mind being "railroaded", so long as you go into this knowing that you're going to die in the end. It's kind of like life that way, isn't it? There is a certain dark wonder to it all: the universe is doomed, you are low on resources, you are rather likely to go insane simply as a result of being where you are and realizing what is happening, and it is . . . awesome, in the truest sense of the word.

Mechanically, Bean's repurposing of the Dungeon Crawl Classics rules show just how resilient the DCC ruleset is. I am continually amazed by the different "flavors" of DCC that crop up. It is possibly one of the most malleable systems around. Null Singularity uses the skeleton of the DCC rules, but clothes it in its own . . . let's call it: "EVA Suit". Once you've participated in one of the scenarios in the book, you'll understand why this nomenclature is the only adequate description of this particular flavor of the rules. "Extravehicular activity" indeed!

All-in-all, I highly recommend Null Singularity. At $8+shipping for the hard-copy zine, it's definitely worth skipping Starbucks for a day. Available from Steve Bean Games. Get it while there's still time . . . before the Null Singularity swallows all of reality and your frail, puny body along with it!



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Null Singularity
by Jarrett C. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 01/02/2016 12:35:42

As a direct descendant of Black Sun Deathcrawl, Null Singularity succeeds at carrying the tone of its parent forward without sacrificing originality. Simple, concise rules for timekeeping help to build a sense of urgency while allowing the doomed players a slim chance of hope, mayhaps a bit more than BSDC. The use of the DCC Thief class as a basis for Voidants is perfect- at the end, hurtling through space, we'll all steal whatever is around to sustain our fragile dying breath. Definitely recommended for DCCers, fans of storygame (forge) style play and fans of the end times.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Null Singularity
by Customer Name Withheld [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 01/01/2016 23:42:25

This is an evocative little scenario, and really intrigues me despite its ultimately deadly endpoint. I would certainly be enthusiastic to run or play in it, though I feel it only fair to advise players of the genre conventions involved.

That said, there were a few aspects that didn't satisfy my personal tastes:

  • Wasted Space - This 56 page document uses the first score of pages to parse out the setting in spoon sized dallops. Most of the early pages have only a brief paragraph or an unaccompanied picture. It isn't until about p.25 that we start to get really denser text.

I suspect the intent was to hit readers with suscinct, self-contained bits of lore or chargen to reflect on. But in practice I just found myself annoyed at having to constantly click to page down.

  • DCC Lineage - I have nothing against Dungeon Crawl Classics, but I don't see why this was specifically intended for use with that system. Rather than giving an exhaustive list of Voidant related skills, it suggests reinterpreting DCC skills.

Aside from use of the Luck stat, I'm really not sure why an existing OGL space system like X-plorers or Hulks & Horrors wasn't used (White Star might've been in infancy when the game was being conceived). Or, for a fraction more page space, it could have been made as a self contained game, borrowing a page from Microlite20 or its ilk.

  • Stat generation - This is not particularly more complicated than normal, but the selection of dice being rolled for hit points, and the after-roll stat adjustment makes me wonder what was trying to be achieved.

  • NeoTekuLR terminology - There's a fancy word for everything. This is of course supposed to be evocative and show you how weirdly alien the future is to our modern conventions. And it works in that regard, I'll admit. But I found myself having to reparse words repeatedly, as I read along in the text even after figuring out their meaning the first time.

Also, I found that the spelled-out numbers above ten (as names and identifiers, not stat descriptors) really made me stumble over them while reading.

  • Keeping Track - In addition to constant hazards the scenario scenes specifically throw at players, there are also persistent problems:

    • Every 20 minutes check for resource consumption.
    • Every 30 minutes check for equipment issues. Also remember that this chance is increasing. I don't know if these worked fine in playtesting, but were I running, I think I'd find keeping track of all of them a bit frustrating.
  • End Notes - Throughout the text there were numbered references mentioned. It wasn't until my second read-through that I realized that a numbered list at the back of the book labeled "Course History DataLog" was actually a table of related end notes. Again, more of a personal preference, but I favor the immediacy of footnotes, so I don't have to scroll to the end of the PDF to read. Or at least a clearer (if less cleverly tone-setting) title to indicate an end notes section.

Despite these complaints, I'd like to reiterate that really do find the scenario grimly inspiring and do not regret the money spent on it.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Creator Reply:
Thanks for the review! Your points are all well taken. It may help other shoppers considering this for purchase to know: 1) This is a kind of \"spinoff homage\" to James MacGeorge\'s DCC-compatible BLACK SUN DEATHCRAWL. So it purposely follows the form laid out in BSDC to reference/invoke that work and is aimed at fans of BSDC within the larger context of the DCC RPG product line. Your having found it \"grimly inspiring\" tells me that it does have a wider audience than just BSDC and DCC fans. 2) While I think this piece could easily be adapted for use with other OSR and white box systems, especially anything d20-oriented, it was written for fans of the DCC RPG system. As far as I know, nothing in this genre exists for DCC while, as you point out with the products you list, \"space-horror\" and \"psychological thrillers in space\" material already exists for other OSR and white box sci fi game systems. I wanted to offer something within these genres for DCC. 3) You\'re right: the writing and formatting of the product was intended to create mood and/or setting immersion using a first person POV and to follow the form laid out in BLACK SUN DEATHCRAWL. Using it as an ebook, I can see how it might not be the most user-friendly format, especially if you\'re Judging (GMing) straight from the digital file. If people who buy the PDF want it, I\'d be happy to create a PDF with the text more concentrated to save you the page flipping. That kind of \"utility\" version could also place the endnotes as footnotes to increase the utility of that info. 4) As Judge (GM) of NULL SINGULARITY you don\'t need to be the one to track the resource consumption and equipment malfunction intervals. In testing I assigned this tracking job to players to do on their smart phones using the timer feature. It actually created a delicious tension as players watched the timers count down. This really helps create the feeling of a struggle for survival as well as keeping the session moving along without adding narrative railroading to what is already a pretty linear, prescribed storyline. The smart phones also added to the \"space tech\" flavor of the whole experience. 5) Both hit point determination and that one Ability Score buff help put PCs\' stats within the right \"power\" or \"resiliency\" margin for the \"challenge level\" of this one-shot adventure, without having them to go through an entire leveling up process that would add unnecessary length to the in-session character creation task. Since players aren\'t expected to use these PCs again, this seemed the most efficient way to handle the mechanics. Please do not hesitate to contact me at steve@stevebeangames.com if you\'d like to hear about what I saw during playtesting and please do come back to your review and share your experiences when you Judge (GM) the piece. And thanks again for your purchase and for taking the time to review the piece!
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