So, for some time now, we’ve had a number of RPGs inspired by the works of Robert Howard (swords-&-sandals, low-magic barbarian extravaganzas), and plenty of RPGs inspired by H.P. Lovecraft (the 20th Century vs. Things Man Wasn’t Meant To Know), but we’ve had very few, if any, games inspired by the third of the “Weird Tales Big Three,” Clark Ashton Smith. Smith was a poet whose prose more resembles Lovecraft’s than Howard’s, but rather than set his fantasies amid the fledgeling nations of Antediluvian Earth or the dream-worlds of the sleeping, most of Smith’s tales took place on worlds that were nearing their expiration date, worlds that knew about life on other planets around other stars, worlds that knew plenty about the unfathomable depths of Reality, but that had, essentially, learned to accept it and move on. These worlds had either devolved to a “pre-medieval state,” or never gotten past that state in the first place, and the result was starfaring wizards and “cosmic magic” and a sort of Science Fantasy that really helped to put the Weird in “Weird Tales.”
Enter “Black Void.”
“Black Void,” created by the good folks at the appropriately named Black Void Games, and distributed by Modiphius, comes in at a bit over 400 pages of Smith-esque Weird Fantasy goodness. The basic conceit of the game is that there’s a fairly stark divide between the Cosmic (that which we know and know to be “true”) and the Void (those chaotic, unnameable places where Azathoth and his buddies hang out). Rarely do the two cross paths, but when they do, Bad Shit happens, and when it happens on Earth, circa 2000 BCE, most of our planet is destroyed by Void Storms, and the peoples of the ancient Near East are tossed through the resulting rift to the world of Llyhn, where they end up on the low end of the ladder, surrounded by alien races who have been doing this Reality-Shredding Obscenities thing for quite some time now. We can’t find our way back to our home world, but we can make new homes, out there among the stars, as long as we do it before the bigger, badder species in our general vicinity decide to wipe us out.
I find the book to be fairly well-organized. Choices were made that I would not have made; e.g., I usually like to see an overview of the rules before I jump into character creation, that way I know why I’m putting X number of points into this stat or Y number into that skill.You’ll probably be doing some flipping back and forth for chargen, and this extends to play; “Black Void” is a very “chart-y” game, and they’ve got charts for magical mishaps, blood ritual results, losing sanity, and combat critical hits a la WFRP. In fact, a lot of this game reminds me of the older editions of WFRP: A nice, simple base mechanic (in this case, roll a d12, add your modifiers, and try to get over a target number) to which has been added a number of wrinkles that will probably frustrate some gamers and delight others.
That Warhammer comparison could probably be extended to the tone of the game as well, and this is where they lost me a wee bit. The game proclaims to be about cosmicism: “Poor little Humanity, adrift in a vast universe, unaware of the True Nature of things, and unloved by any higher power that might deign to assist us.” It’s definitely grimdark, and the setting material and various quotes throughout the book reflect that idea: “We suck, no one cares, and we’ll all die alone.” I, however, tend to view cosmicism a bit differently (and this may just be me), and feel that, if there’s no God to help us up when we fall down, there’s also no God to spank us when we break the rules; Humanity is in a pretty tight spot in “Black Void,” to be certain, but they’ve also been given the gift of greater comprehension and the opportunity to (given time) raise themselves to the level of the aliens around them. In fact, a quote you see in several spots throughout the book is “Survival is only the beginning…”, and I feel like the writers could’ve leaned into that mantra a bit more rather than play the nihilism card. This is, of course, something that can be adjusted to taste by the GM (or, as they’re known in “Black Void,” the Arbiter), but prepare yourself for a lot of bitter, black tears on your first reading.
All in all, I’m quite happy with my purchase of this game. I feel like the system is solid, if a little fiddly at times with the charts and tables, and the fluff is well-written, if a little maudlin. Best of all, I finally get the Clark Ashton Smith roleplaying game I’ve always wanted: Wooden galleys with shadowy oarsmen sailing to distant, dying stars; magicians consorting with alien seers in incense-filled cyclopean temples; a vast galaxy that contains plenty of chances for madness and death, but opportunities for wonder as well; and a flavor of Fantasy that, while not entirely unique to RPGs, is seldom seen and which provides a refreshing newness to the hobby.