This article is by Acep Hale.
My dear unknown friend,
I love role-playing games. I attended high school in the 1980’s, during the height of the Satanic panic and its attendant hysteria against Dungeons and Dragons, inadvertently best captured in Dark Dungeons. My introduction to the game came courtesy of my friend David whose father had played in college so we started with his stash. Nowadays when I think of that stack of OD&D rules I actually do have my first genuine moments of, “Ah, the folly of youth.”
There’s been an underground movement afoot in the RPG world, the OSR which stands for either Old School Revival or the Old School Renaissance depending on who you ask. The OSR grew from players seeking to return to the more creative times of RPGs, when the games made you want to bust out graph paper and pencils before spending hours lost in your own imagination designing campaigns you’d later DM for your friends. It marked a return, turning away from slick, fluff heavy source books towards simpler rules, tighter descriptions, an emphasis on gaming, not consumption.
Which is all well and good I hear you say, but what does that have to do with Lovecraft eZine? Well, as the majority of us know, Chaosium have ruled the roost with Call of Cthulhu for decades in Lovecraftian RPGs. There’s also some very good additions and contenders in the field, including but not limited to Delta Green, The Esoterrorists, Trail of Cthulhu or Cthulhu Dark, all of which I hope to cover in the future because they each have their own tastes and flavors they bring to the table for the Lovecraftian gamer.
Then we hit what was my gateway drug to the OSR, Lamentations of the Flame Princess. LotFP is D&D stripped to its core with magic made scarce, survival even more so, and a healthy dose of The Weird sprinkled on top. The recommended reading list: Clive Barker, Robert E Howard, H P Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber, Edgar Allen Poe, Clark Ashton Smith, JRR Tolkien, Jack Vance, Jules Verne, and H G Wells. However, this is not the usual bullet list with a few suggested works thrown in for good measure. James Raggi, the writer/creator of LotFP gives each author a lengthy treatment as to why he was included. To his credit LotFP feels as if it is indeed a world that sprang from the imagination of these author’s minds. Within LotFP’s Referee Book Raggi talks about the difference between setting the tone for the weird within a story, where the author has complete freedom to manipulate the characters as he sees fit, and within an adventure, where player characters must have agency. This is admittedly a challenge of a different order.
Then I stumbled across Black Sun Deathcrawl. Here’s another thing you may have to wrap your head around once you start down the dark forest path that is the OSR. A lot of the products you will find in this landscape are A6, digest, or just plain “zine” size as I like to refer to them. Now to myself, wearing a chopped Brainoil shirt listening to Coil and Discharge typing on a Linux laptop, this is a selling point. Zines have been part and parcel of the anarcho-punk DIY scene from the very beginning. However, if you’ve been raised on a steady diet of slickly produced Wizards of the Coast or Pathfinder products this can come as a culture shock. Black Sun Deathcrawl is available now as a ‘pay what you will’ PDF download. It’s based off the Dungeon Crawl Classics rules system yet like nearly all works within the OSR it can easily be modified to work with whatever system you feel most comfortable with.
BSDC is pure cosmic horror, terrifying bleak. The apocalypse has come and gone. The Sun of Light and all that was good fled, hoping to trap the Black Sun “within a prison of existence”. This is the world within which your players find themselves. One section of the 64 page zine is entitled “Truths”, short statements which are then followed by rules adjustments that effect your players such as, “Identity is Irrelevant in the Face of Oblivion. Characters have no names, no races. They are only the Cursed.” “Knowledge Has no Meaning in a Fallen World. There are no Wizards.” and “If There Is a Higher Power, It Does Not Care. There are no Clerics.”
The only way to escape the baleful effects of the Black Sun is to dig, the Earth will slow the mutating effects of the Black Sun’s rays, but not for long. The other side of the equation being the more the Cursed dig to escape the rays, the more they weaken the imprisoning Earth that keeps the Black Sun tethered, thereby ensuring the destruction of the universe. However, faced with the ghastly effects of the Black Sun’s mutating rays, who could blame them? Yes, there is a randomizing table included for those effects. Let me give just one example because I don’t want to betray the joys of discovery yet I wish to give you enough information to make an informed purchasing choice.
“14. Shrinking Skin: The skin shrinks around the body, causing blinding pain as it slowly pulls and finally tears over the course of a week, causing 1d6 points of Stamina loss. For every 2 points of Strength above 10, add plus 1 to the roll. Immersion in water for at least one hour a day will make the skin elastic enough to avoid this consequence.”
BSDC is a short zine filled with illustrations by Gustave Doré that lend an appropriately somber appeal that leaves a lot of space free to the DM’s imagination. Actually I feel this is closer to the truth and now I would reframe my earlier statement. The OSR values imagination over consumption and this zine highlights that ideal to perfection.
BSDC follows The Truths section with an adventure wherein the player’s party of the Cursed break through to an untouched Dwarven city whose citizens have been living for centuries in peaceful bliss, completely unaware of the turmoil and despair raging above their heads. It hardly needs to be stated that since the players have broken through the protective Earth…
I felt the appendix should be shown here in case you had any final doubts as to where in the continuum of existential horror Black Sun Deathcrawl lies.
If you have a regular gaming group, pull it out for an unexpected change, a night of cosmic horror where hack and slash is expected. If you don’t have a regular gaming group grab a couple of friends, some dice, munchies, and who knows? This may lead to the formation of a regular gaming group. Or maybe you’re one of those lucky people who simply enjoys reading role-playing game literature without having to play it. That’s marvelous as well, in fact there’s now a name associated with it, ergodic literature which I first discovered through this Guardian article which linked my love for RPG material and my love for Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves. If this is true for you as well, Black Sun Deathcrawl will be a treat. I’ve seen a reviewer on another blog refer to it as “RPG poetry” and that is a view I’d heartily second.
If I sound overly excited about Black Sun Deathcrawl I will freely admit I’m guilty as charged. I love cosmic horror, yet I readily admit it’s a feeling that is astoundingly difficult to communicate effectively. To convey that depth of wretched despair is a feat few writers achieve and as James Raggi pointed out earlier, they are control freaks. Writers make the demiurge look compassionate in his largesse and they fail all the time. So to create an RPG setting that allows agency, that allows the characters to be more than empty puppets mouthing their creator’s words and yet still succeeds where so many have failed? To come from a form of literature most still do not even consider a form of literature, a situation not unlike comics before Maus, and this from the OSR, the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers or Zap Comix of our metaphor, then yes, I am indeed excited. This works for me on so many levels I cannot help but to be excited.
Hope is a smashed decahedron.
As for a soundtrack, James MacGeorge provides a fine list above and a link to a Spotify which I have to admit, given the commercial breaks on Spotify I haven’t listened to myself but I have a feeling it will be very good. While reading the PDF I myself listened to Coil’s The Angelic Conversation and The Ape of Naples while writing this review. One can never go wrong with Coil.
This article is by Acep Hale.
Article image by Kris K. G. View his incredible photography here.