This supplement clocks in at 64 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 60 pages, laid out for 6’’ by 9’’ (A5), which means that you can fit up to 4 pages on a given sheet of paper when printing this one.
This supplement/module was brought to my attention by one of my patreons, who asked me to review this at my leisure and wished to remain anonymous. Thank you.
So, what is this? Well, “Black Sun Deathcrawl” is an experimental one-shot or basic campaign kit, depending on how you look at it. Others may call it “art”, while for some others, this may be about as enjoyable as a root canal; this is a polarizing booklet, and intentionally so.
This review could be said to “SPOIL”, the booklet, but it’s about experiencing *our* iteration of this anyhow – there is not much plot to SPOIL, but still, please consider this to be the obligatory SPOILER warning. This should also be considered to be a TRIGGER-WARNING regarding depression and all associated topics. If you exhibit strong reactions towards depressing movies, media or the like, if mono-no-aware stories can plunge you into days of bleak moods, then you should probably be very careful with this one.
From the first page, doom-laden proclamations in huge fonts are used to convey tone, rather than setting; indeed, that is perhaps one of the most defining characteristics of this booklet: The setting it assumes is paper-thin and mostly implied; this, like a good piece of atmospheric black metal or ambient, is not about the text it contains, though said text is important. Instead, this is more about giving you the toolkits and tone for a game unlike any I have ever encountered.
Flanked by full-page illustrations by none other than Gustave Doré, this archaic, savage tone is perfectly illustrated, the visuals of the public domain artworks arguably encompassing the despair inherent in this book in a way that few, if any other illustrations would have achieved.
The first page, in huge letters, almost screams at you “In the beginning…there was nothing.” Then, the twin suns ascended, and the eponymous Black Sun resulted in the anxiety of separation from the All; “The door between the All and the Other slammed shut”; in a kind of free-form poetry, in a form of gospel of the end-times, the pdf then proceeds to note that the Black Sun is now unleashed. It sits, a black hole, a singularity, a kind of entropy, at the center of a bleak and desolate land, and the survivors, the Cursed, they are digging, trying to escape the Black Sun’s dark light and the Terrible Thoughts it send forth.
Direct exposure to its light causes you to roll on a chart that ranges from migraines to skinscabs to extended limbs, with 15 entries provided. One grows a wormtongue, which will then proceed to have prophecies of doom being handed by the judge to the player. This is experimental in many ways, and it is not a supplement for those currently recovering from depression…or it may well be particularly useful for such folks…it depends on the temperament.
You see, in a way, the Black Sun is no antichrist – it will reach Ultima Omega and break free, consuming all; the Cursed, escaping its light, are loosening its shackles. The tone is further emphasized by the character-creation, veiled in so-called “truths”: “Identity is irrelevant in the face of oblivion.” Characters have no names, no races. They are only the Cursed. You roll 4d6 and drop the lowest result for attributes. Only the strong survive. Knowledge has no meaning – there are no wizards. Possessions have no value. There are no thieves. If there are higher powers, they don’t care. There are no clerics. PCs begin with 1d6 starting corruption and are warriors sans equipment.
Every half hour of real game time accumulates Black Light as well, with only a rare material offering temporary respite from the rays of the Black Sun. Most importantly, Luck is replaced with hope – and it is finite and does not replenish. Indeed, the book provides rules for the theft of hope between players, allowing for PvP and some nasty grieving. If your group can’t handle that and/or differentiate between PC and player actions. The final 3 points of Hope may not be stolen, only burned. Mighty deeds are only triggered by burning the last Hope.
Characters are immortal – if they are reduced to 0 hit points, they regenerate fully one round later, but they do gain Black Light corruption. Now, there is a level up system based on the entropy roll (which is never mentioned again…), but ultimately, that one is as moot a concept as you’d expect.
There is a god, the final god, falling back through time as a great leitmotif, and the aforementioned Terrible Thoughts…they can’t be killed. The appendix included for music, art and similar inspiration features btw. an assortment of media that I own and very much enjoy, but then again, that is no surprise.
If the minimalist rules-array and its consequences above don’t make that abundantly clear: This book is one of the bleakest supplements I have ever read, and it is remarkable in the purity of its desolate vision. That being said, somewhat to my chagrin, pg 47 ff, the book presents a series of 5 encounters with stats and read-aloud text that have in common that they employ regular fantasy elements…and that they feel, after the exceedingly tight first section of the book, like an addendum, like a watering down of what this is. It is an application of principles, yes, but it is one that is tamer than what has come before. You wouldn’t miss much skipping this whole section. The supplement comes with a char-sheet for the Cursed.
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal level; on a rules-language level, the material could be slightly more precise in a couple of instances. Layout adheres toa 1-column b/w-standard, with many pages containing but a few words, driving home the dogma of hopelessness that this seeks to evoke. The pdf has no bookmarks, which constitutes a comfort-detriment. The artworks by Gustave Doré are a perfect fit for the subject matter here.
James Mac George’s “Black Sun Deathcrawl” has been discounted as a lesson in abject nihilism, as a player-endurance test, as a grimdark test of the capacity to withstand misery. Those assertions, in a way, are correct, but they fail to see the whole picture…or they haven’t played it. Trying to run this will result in a couple of marvelous observations: As a species, we humans are conditioned to think in terms of cause and effect, according to quite a few philosophers and biologists, the explanation of the fear of the unknown and this tendency tended to forge us into the beings that we now are, that, as a whole, can believe in a higher power, in the fact that some random act of kindness will be repaid, that the evil are punished, etc., even though there is no objective metric by which this holds true. The fallacy of assuming cause and effect, of presuming a meaningful existence beyond the meaning we individually ascribe to it, is deeply ingrained in our psyche and cultural consciousness.
It’s why poetic justice resonates…and it’s also why some people exhibit an almost violent reaction towards any form of nihilism or nihilistic tendencies. The lack of a universal purpose is seen as an atrocious, all-consuming emptiness, and indeed, I have witnessed close friends reacting almost violently when confronted with this form of weltanschauung. The thing is, on a personal level, it is nigh impossible, perhaps due to an evolutionary imperative, to stop looking for or generating meaning, even if you subscribe to nihilism as your philosophy. It is impossible to play this supplement without the interplay of players and judge generating some form of meaning that is shared, even in a no-win-scenario like this, even if you preface the game by stating that there is no winning possible.
This is, perhaps, what can render this supplement, in the right hands, for the right groups, almost therapeutic.
In case you were wondering: the review above didn’t by accident evoke words that one would associate with Lars von Trier. In case you haven’t seen “Melancholia” – it is a movie that uses an end of the world scenario to showcase how basically an externalized metaphor for depression can prove depressive tendencies right and make it a somewhat benign factor. Suffice to say, I considered said movie to be extremely problematic, but also valuable, because it represents an apt visual metaphor for the depths of depression, when the certainty of futility and suffering is the only thing that can provide a twisted mockery of joy, when the depression-induced confirmation-bias of the very worst-case scenarios is all that you can accept.
Black Sun Deathcrawl, in spite of its grimdark trappings, tone and theme, in spite of doing something similar, is an infinitely more successful piece of fiction than the movie ever will be.
The Black Sun is an obvious metaphor for depression, or at least this should be obvious to anyone who ever had to fight it.
It sits square at the center of the world, and it expands, continuously. No matter how deep you dig, there is, no matter how far you retreat from the world, there is no escape. The Black Light will penetrate the covers, the doors, everything. The exposure chart, which features entries like migraine, skinscabs and mental and physical deterioration should sound familiar; the wormtongue mentioned before is reminiscent or a form of MPD due to a breakdown; degeneration, being only capable of walking of all fours (i.e. too weak to walk upright…akin to animals, akin to something lesser than human) – the whole chart, in a way, can be seen as symptoms as seen through the filter of gaming and dark fantasy.
It sends out Terrible Thoughts that destroy anything in their path, that can’t be stopped. Even the divine, even gods, can provide no succor, no shelter. The Black Sun is, in a way, a depression simulator disguised as a game.
That notwithstanding, I consider this to be an uplifting book; perhaps even a book that could help some people out there to claw their way out of the throes of depression. Why? Well, the first reason is one of mechanics. You can’t die. “Only when their Hope attribute reaches 0 may they actually perish.” May. Not Must. There is CHOICE there, and this single word is extremely important. It must be a CHOICE to succumb. Otherwise, the wheel in the sky keeps turning, and the nightmare continues. There never needs to be a game-over.
This serves an important purpose. It gives people who have never faced it a tiny glimpse, filtered through the lens of a game, of the immense struggle that depression demands from anyone afflicted, of the willpower required to even get out of bed, face another day with this horrid affliction, of the experience of universal futility and hopelessness sans recourse but the one you don’t want to take. Death. Choosing not to go on.
And yet, this is not a depressing book, contrary to the claims fielded against it. In a way, Black Sun Deathcrawl is a participatory performance artwork: By playing it, you cannot help but interact with other humans; you cannot help but tell your story, ascribe meaning on a personal level. The booklet employs the disjunction between the reality of the game and that of the table in an exceedingly clever manner: While, within the setting, there is no recourse, no salvation to be found, even if one subscribes as a person to the most fundamental anti-natalist level of pessimism and nihilism, this is, by its very structure, a performed subversion of the all-encompassing nature of depression; the Black Sun Deathcrawl, ironically, is the one thing that can defeat, or at least weaken, the Black Sun.
Because it, by nature of it being a roleplaying game supplement, exists beyond the confines of its narrative; because there will be laughter, anger, perhaps even tears at the table. Because there is something beyond the Black Sun, even if it seems to be impossible to defeat, even if it seems to be all-encompassing and all-consuming.
In a way, Black Sun Deathcrawl can be the light, the real light, that exists beyond the Black Sun; it, as a book, as a game, can help understand those affected by depression, while also having the potential of offering a brief glimpse of hope, just by being played.
This doesn’t have to work for everyone. I do not claim sovereignty regarding my interpretation or perception of this supplement, and I certainly don’t wish to claim that this is a therapeutic tool; this does not replace getting professional help, and it (probably – you never know!) won’t end a depression. I’m just saying that it can be a signpost, a compass, that, under the right circumstances, may point the way past the Black Sun’s seemingly all-encompassing glare.
I wouldn’t play this with strangers at a con; I wouldn’t play it with acquaintances. But I certainly think that, among true friends, this can indeed be a beautiful and eye-opening experience, and one that is not even marred by the somewhat lackluster encounters at the end or by the minor inconsistencies. This is not for everybody out there; but I maintain that, for some people, it may, at least for a while, garner understanding and perhaps even pierce the veil of the Black Sun and leave one or two Terrible Thoughts where they belong – in the pages of a small supplement, confined in the shape of a few letters and numbers.
Oh, and guess what? This is, at least in its electronic iteration, available for PWYW!
In spite of its minor flaws, this is very much worth checking out. If what I described even remotely resonates with you, then please, take a look.
If you suffer from depression, please get help; talk to your friends and family, and don’t be ashamed.
There is nothing to be ashamed of.
If I can do something for you, do tell me.
You are not alone.
My final verdict will be 5 stars + seal of approval.
You can (usually) get the pdf here! (As per the writing of this review, the PWYW pdf seems to be temporarily offline, but it’s likely to return!)
You can purchase the print version of this supplement here on Goodman Games’ store!