Memento Mori - Memento Vivere (5e/OSR/[not really]system agnostic)

 Memento Mori - Memento Vivere (5e/OSR/[not really]system agnostic)



Not counting the introductions, this book contains 120 pages of content, but I need to preface that from the get-go with a statement, namely that this is a VERY dense book; with a different layout, this could easily have been 240 pages, or even more, so the length here seems almost deceptive in a good way. And yes, before you ask, in spite of this density, the book does not feel cluttered.


This book was moved up in my reviewing queue due to being requested by my supporters, and due to receiving a print copy. I have consulted both the print and electronic version; for more details on the print version, please consult the section where I discuss the formal criteria in the conclusion of the review.


I’d like to ask you to read the entire review. This book tries to be a (not really) system agnostic (campaign) setting, mega-adventure, plus supplemental class options and rules-lite system.


So, before we start, I should note that this book has a hard standing with me; a very hard one indeed: When the pitch is to combine Albert Camus’ hope with Kafka’s futility and estrangement, and a sprinkling of Lovecraftian paranoia, my response is an owl-jpg that says “O RLY?” Camus’ writing has been a source of strength over the years for me, and I’d be hard-pressed to quote an author with whom (and with whose writing) I empathize as much as Kafka. Heck, I’ve even read all of Kafka’s letters and fragments. And there are a lot of those. I actually quote Kafka in my daily life. Yes, I’m that pretentious a prick, but what’s new? ;P


Anyhow, secondly, the book hits another angle that send me into the “Oh noes”-territory, namely that it is “system agnostic” in a way, but thankfully not really. I have no issue with flavor-centric books refraining from conforming to systems, but for rules-heavy stuff, adventures…well.

You see, all too often, “system agnostic” translates to “I want maximum market penetration without the hassle of having to actually learn a roleplaying game system in detail, much less its terminology or math.”

The resulting system agnostic books, for the most part, don’t properly work in ANY system; they creak and groan like rusty cogs in an otherwise pristine clockwork. When a book is made for a system, one can learn the system, its power-levels/assumptions, and convert accordingly; without a frame of reference, it becomes hard to decide what power-level something is supposed to have. Ever asked yourself why there are so many low-level OSR-modules, and almost no high-level options? That’s one reason. A character of level 1 in OSE, LotFP, OSRIC and For Gold & Glory character might have similar options, but those start to fall apart fast at higher levels, when utility spells, battle spells for AoE damage, cohorts and options come into the fray, not to speak of the assumed frequency of magic items and their potency. At higher levels, one has to account for all those pesky things like teleportation (easier in some systems than other), flight (ditto), etc. So just claiming to be no specific rules set ends up being inconvenient, and often an excuse to not engage with the design of a system and its assumptions. At higher power-levels, this seemingly unifying design core among old-school systems starts wearing thin like a wet tissue, and the issue is exacerbated when a book also tries to cater to the D&D 5e crowd, where even a 3rd-level character can vastly outperform pretty much anything in the old-school arena. So yeah, system agnostic makes all my alarm-bells go off.


Except…this book is not *really* system agnostic. Instead, it provides its own rules lite alternative system in the back, and otherwise uses D&D 5e as its default frame of reference. Essentially, this means that spells, magic items, etc. are provided in a way that is *almost* D&D 5e; there are a few annoying differences, for example that “checks” are referenced as “tests” instead, and that three letter ability score abbreviations are used in sections of the text where the ability scores should be fully written out, a hyphen missing, that sort of thing. It bothers me, but I’m OCD, so unless you’re similarly inclined, there’s a chance you might not even notice it. As a whole, though, this actually does a better job conforming to 5e’s design paradigms than MANY supplements that have the gall of calling themselves 5e. (*cough* tons of horrid dual-system offerings and sloppy conversions */cough*) Now, personally, it frustrates me that the team didn’t simply go the last step; implement proper 5e-nomenclature throughout, without these minor deviations, and make that the standard. It feels like deviation for deviation’s sake to me. On the plus side, the per se pretty stringent adherence to 5e’s paradigms also means that this *DOES* have a frame of reference, power-levels, etc. that you’re probably familiar with, and this in turn means that it’s easier to adapt to your respective system. This is a good thing indeed.


Moreover, the book includes a 4-page system, which, for a certain demographic, might well be a great reason to get this, namely the “Memento Ludere” rules light system.


Memento Ludere is essentially D&D 5e, boiled down to its essential core; the game retains the 6-ability-score paradigm, proficiency bonuses, resistances and vulnerabilities, advantage and disadvantage, etc. There are plenty of differences here, though. Damage inflicted has been streamlined, there are two classes, and the rules for this system (as opposed to the spells featured earlier in the book) do not differentiate between damage types. Similarly, bonus actions are rare and reactions are eliminated. There are some further streamlining procedures, such as item slots replacing weight-based encumbrance, HD being always d8s, and e.g. the exhaustion system being altered to be simpler. (I do love the 6-step condition mechanic, but if you wanted simpler, which you probably do when contemplating this system, then you’ll like it!)

There are a couple alterations herein that I very much enjoyed and deem worth commenting on, as they represent some factors I’ve been houseruling myself, if from the other side of the rules-aisle, so seeing rules-lite takes on these issues was enjoyable: The system offers a more differentiated approach to drowning/holding your breath; while I have my own system for that (published in the Survivalist’s Guide to Spelunking), I went the other way to tackle the issue that I did not enjoy the default system offered by 5e.

Memento Ludere provides a pretty harsh, but simple and sensible system, whereas I went for a more complex angle that allows for the creation of Breath-based puzzle dungeons. Very much appreciated seeing the other side of the design-paradigm approach here. Where we conform, it seems, is with the death and dying rules, as Memento Ludere dispenses of the death saving throw in favor of a harsher, more old school system; I appreciate that. Similarly, I appreciate that the system, in spite of its brevity, actually escalates falling damage beyond a linear progression of d6s; personally, I use an injury-system and an even steeper increase, but for a rules lite system, I was more than pleasantly surprised to see this. Fans of Maze Rats and Knave will also appreciate the spellcasting system, which lets you keep casting a spell until you fail your spell test, so the one-line spells presented can be used more often.

The system, as a whole, works exceedingly well. It requires pretty much no explanation to players familiar with the basics of D&D 5e, plays fast, and retains a degree of complexity and progression I appreciate. It’s precise, considerate and well-wrought. It certainly is significantly better than many an old-school hack I’ve covered, and leagues beyond half-baked attempts at blending OSR and 5e gaming. If you ever wanted a stripped down, easy 5e-version, then these few pages may already warrant the asking price.

Now, *personally*, I tend to gravitate to the other end of the rules-density spectrum, to the one where I like adding rather than subtracting options and complexity from D&D 5e to increase the number of things I can do, so I was rather happy to notice that the book, as a whole, was written with D&D 5e as a frame of reference, and this system as a secondary option for the ultra-rules-lite OSR-fans out there.

I consider this system’s presence in the book to be a win-win situation.


Now, while we’re on the subject of rules-relevant components, let’s take stock of the other components in the book that fall under that umbrella term. The book includes 4 well-wrought backgrounds (collector, dredger, oathbinder, gravekeeper), which each include an extra d8 table to roll for customizations (collectors can randomize which divinatory method they’re interested in, oathbinders their profession); these are all 4 really cool and evocative, and rules-wise, I have but one nitpick: Swim is not a skill; it’s just a subset of Athletics. That being said “Athletics checks made to swim” probably wouldn’t have fit in, since all 4 backgrounds are on a two-page spread. Similarly, all spells and magic items are on their own two-page spreads. The spells feature a couple of cosmetic deviations from standard formatting (hyphens, plane names not title case’d, that sort of thing), but otherwise work and fall into an interesting design-space, with exorcism as a 3rd-level spells, or the 1st-level parrot-blather, which forces the target to loudly speak what you think. See Dead People also got a chuckle out of me and sending an item into the immediate future via time stutter is also interesting. In short: the spells deal with creative and suitable things, instead of just presenting MOAR damage options. Creating a dome of telekinetically held together objects also made me smile. (Yes, the team obviously knows and enjoys Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell; there are several subtle and less subtle hints to that extent in the book.)


The magic item section provided is similarly strong, and contains familiar ashes, magical death shrouds, and what about that bell that lets ghosts attempt to shake off Overwhelming madness? Wait. Madness? Yep. Take a look at that character sheet included in the book. Before all the super-sensitive people start sharpening their knives and holding out torches and pitchforks: This book does not overgeneralize, nor does it treat mental illness in a disrespectful manner. It has that by now arbitrary “please don’t be offended”-caveat. Madness herein is actually a kind of psycho-spiritual altered state prompted by exposure to the supernatural, and while most beings have 0 MP (Madness Points), adventurers all start with 1. (Which makes sense, if you think about it. Also, cue in the Nietzsche quote, dancing stars and all that.) When you attain a MP, you roll 1d20, and try to beat your current MP. On a success, nothing happens; on a failure, you are overwhelmed by madness and roll on a d6 table that includes fainting, fight, flight, fugue state…you get the drift. You can reduce MP by 1d6 for every week spent in a safe, civilized environment, doing things that are not murderhoboing or confronting eldritch abominations. There is more to the system. If you have 1 MP, you also have a Psyche value, which is the combined total of Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma modifiers, minimum 1.  You can reduce your psyche by 1 to add 1d6 on a d20 roll, or to avoid being Overwhelmed by Madness, and you regain 1 psyche after a night’s rest (should be long rest), or 1d6 psyche per day spent in safe, not blood-soaked adventuring locales.


Each character also has a paroxysm, which is rolled secretly by the GM. Once a character’s MPs rise above 10 + maximum Psyche, the character Succumbs to Madness, unlocks the paroxysm, and resets MP to 1. Why did I use “unlock”? because a paroxysm is a two-edged sword: While they do come with hefty drawbacks, they also feature significant bonuses. These are paid for with Psyche. I very much enjoy this system. It’s fast, easy to use, and it rewards the players for roleplaying their characters. Oh, and once a paroxysm is unlocked, you roll 1d12 when Overwhelmed instead; on 7-12, the paroxysm’s respective overwhelm effect, the drawback, is triggered.


Then, there is this 1-page series of questions that every player should be able to answer…they’re all about when they died. Last thoughts, etc. For after that, they get to play the ghosts. Yep. Ghosts. And yes, I just flashed back to Ghostwalk as well, which I very much liked in theory, if not particularly in its “death is just the name for your gestalt-switch”-execution. Ghosts in this book play differently; they don’t heal as usual, and instead are very much governed by the stroke of Midnight, when they roll all HD, sans modifiers. That is the ghost’s HP maximum for the day. Yes, this means that there will be days when ghosts are rather vulnerable… The ghost rules take properties such as ghost touch into account on one hand, and on the other also cover folklore like lines of salt. Resurrecting and changing between being a ghost and alive is also not as casual or meaningless as in Ghostwalk, which is a good thing: Ghosts often have trouble remembering things from their life, and vice versa; and yes, this includes XP loss. I am very much in favor of this approach, as it discourages trivializing death. Ghosts do have more use for psyche, btw.: Ghost powers, some of which may also be powered by HD! Oh, and you can be a fashionista extraordinaire! What do I mean by that? Manikins! Ghosts can possess special manikin bodies, with 3 samples provided. AWESOME!


The book also features a brief bestiary and some massive tables of flavor only NPC-descriptions for your convenience. The critter math is solid, and the design is nice, but once more I found myself wondering why the book elected to almost hit 5e’s style. Anyhow, the coolest critter from a design-perspective would be an undead cat, whose potency relies on how many lives it has left


So, yeah…ghost characters, manikins, rules for psyche, items etc…all, aesthetics-wise, very interesting, and all pointing towards that kind of fantastic/occult weirdness I am fond of, so let us talk about the (campaign) setting, which does cover roughly the first 40 pages of the book.


Adrift in the sea of souls lies the isle of Anon, a transitory place, locked from the great wheel, and as such, we do get proper planar traits; the isle is surrounded by aforementioned sea and mists…yep, mists that steal your identity. Fans of Ravenloft and Silent Hill, such as yours truly, definitely appreciate this. Additionally, another analogue would be that the book acknowledges the anachronisms that made Ravenloft’s 3.X iteration the best in the setting’s history. (Srsly, if you like Ravenloft, get Arthaus’ books; their rules suck, but the flavor is the best Ravenloft has ever been.) Anyhow, Anon is, in some ways, closer to Renaissance aesthetics than to the early modern period that most settings assumed, which is also represented in the second isometric map included here: The isle of Anon gets one such map, and the city of Vestige gets the second one;  Anon has a square grid, but no distance-indicator on the map; vestige has no grid or distance indicator, but the architecture is genuinely interesting, providing a blend of age of sail aesthetics with classic Gothic architecture; picture a blend of age of sail and Bloodborne’s style, if you will.


Beyond these locales, the book also touches upon interesting concepts, such as obols: The true currency of Anon, these are items infused with meaning, with memories. Lightning that strikes the beaches of Anon can create Geistglass, a substance that can capture, in a way, the spirits of defeated ghosts (which otherwise reform), becoming soulstones, which are essentially one-use spells…but using them, ultimately, allows the ghost to reform. This duality alone is narrative gold. Of course, where a concept like obols is introduced, an 88-entry table of weird objects? Definitely appreciated!


Indeed, the book does make good use of its pages: Even on artwork pages for chapter-intros, we e.g., have lists of dressing. The city of Vestige is presented by district, teaching us about e.g., the docks, notable places (which include a huge shipwreck inhabited by fancy goblins), and yes, there are more posh neighborhoods, a mage academy, etc. Factions are also included, like the sellsword Order of Andras, which reminded me somewhat of a less malign take on a “Council of Owls” mythology. The factions also include the order of Yog-Sothoth, which is the one thing here that made me groan briefly; the Old Ones are just so…done to death. That being said, choosing a more esoteric one and tying the entity to will-o’-the-wisps was a smart call, and recontextualizing the Great Old One as kind of neutral was a smart call and can be considered to be a clever twist. And yes, there is a catacomb/graveyard district. Bear in mine that there are tons of supplemental tables for these locales. Curiously, btw., it is also in this section where playable skeletons as a kind of race are included; this section should probably have been in the character options section, not in the middle of the city write-up.


Oh, and there is the Wall. The wall between the living and the dead, that the dead constantly build, and that constantly sinks. A perfect pretense for an eternal dungeon crawl, and an atmospheric one to boot. (Also, of course, has that nifty Kafkaesque angle…); beyond that, we have fey; we have caravans of strange nomads, and he have the neverborn isles, which could be likened to a gothic twist on Peter Pan or Lord of the Flies; far enough away to be interesting, defined enough to inspire, and free enough to add the degree of grit and darkness, or whimsy and hope, that you desire. Did I mention the Blood Swamp?


Oh, but all of that seems so quaint to you? You and yours desire something more extravagant, more outré? Well, beyond the descent lies a place/faction opposed to the ferrymen Vestibul, a strange graveyard of empires, bureaucratic not-quite-there quasi-real place/faction/force of nature (??), a distorted reflection of Anon…and here, in the delightful place known as Flesh Row (and some others, if you so choose), is the Descent, which leads to The Other Side.


The Other Side is where the Kafka angle comes fully to the fore: A bureaucratic hell of random department generators and random rooms that makes “Das Schloss” almost seem sensible by comparison. Suffice to say, I loved it and would have loved the massive generators here to be expanded further.


The book also includes a 30-page adventure “Escape from Ghost island”; the module “only” covers 30 pages, but oh boy, is this one massive beast. The module starts off with a flow-chart of most likely events, and actually features a pretty broad array of development notes/trouble shooting. What it does not do, is specify an expected level-range, at least not in the book; the back cover mentions 5th level. Of course, the special nature of Anon does mean that the deaths of the party are…well…less of an issue, but difficulty-wise, I’d definitely recommend this for mid- to high-tier parties, and 5th level might be a bit low, as the module can be quite brutal. Then again, repercussions for failure are more ephemeral here.

The module does not feature read-aloud text in the traditional sense but does feature read-aloud text for key NPC interactions; nor does it include player-friendly iterations for the maps featured inside. The adventure is complex, has a lot of moving parts and some serious intrigue going on; that it managed to fit its massive content into 30 pages is impressive. That being said, the rudimentary synopsis is all but useless for the GM, and with the amount of moving parts, the adventure is clearly geared towards experienced groups; both regarding GM and players. On the huge plus side, the adventure does not have simply win/fail-states, often allowing, design-wise, for degrees of success of alternate paths. It also focuses very much on not simply requiring high rolls. Considering the potency and massive hit point pools of several creatures herein, the focus on roleplaying and problem-solving as opposed to just hack-n-slash is commendable. Oh, and yes, riddles included.


So, at one point, I was attempting to summarize the adventure in a way that does justice to it, but ultimately, I found myself in a position as a reviewer, where I kept writing and realized that this would further increase the already massive length of the review to all-time lengths.


Instead, let me try to first be a bit more opaque: The module begins with the arrival of the party on Anon, including a rather hilarious introduction to the Kafkaesque aspects of the setting featuring a semantic discourse on the intent of the word “and” in “Voluntary Registration and Arrival Tax.” That’s pretty much scene #1, and it’s less than a third of one page, including the adventure hooks. Soon after that, the party is introduced to Dr. Judas Lynch, multiverse famous escape artist, and his lady Miss Magnolia Strange (Strange and Norrell nod, obviously), witness the Houdini-like prowess of the man, and also are introduced, via séance and dialogue, to some of the key concepts. If you’re like me and into classic weird/strange fiction, then this entire section alone has sold you already. Fully realized and printed songs, GM guidelines etc. abound, and the module manages to cram so much more into it. Genre-wise, this heart-warming setting of the stage gets the characters involved in the fates of Dr. Judas and Ms. Magnolia, introduces them to Anon and Vestige…and represents the beginning of an adventure of a density I have not encountered since covering the fantastic Zeitgeist saga.


The following contains broad-strokes SPOILERS for the module; not for how it progresses, but for key components of the plot. If you’re a player, do yourself a favor and jump ahead to the conclusion. I will draw back the Veil (haha) on some structural elements that you DO NOT WANT SPOILED.





All right, only GMs around? Dr. Judas is a legend; super powerful, kind, a hero; his dialogue is inspiring, and both he and Ms. Magnolia would reek of Gary Stu/Mary Sue syndrome, were they not so damn likable. And were there not the fact that Dr. Judas is fated to die. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves: The party soon runs afoul of a legendary killer, the possessing ghost known as Guignol (nice!), and if they don’t take heed, the authorities might attempt to pin the deed on them; worse, Dr. Judas’ expertise threatens to shift the precarious balance in Vestige, as he has found a way to more easily breach the veil between life and death. Indeed, perhaps the most impressive achievement in the early parts of the module would be that it sells a) the party being captured, b) Judas helping to free them and c) Judas inevitably dying in the process (OR immediately thereafter) in a way that does not feel railroaded. It is one of the best instances of a scripted sequence I’ve seen in a while.

Following this tragedy and some regrouping, a séance with Ms. Magnolia yields no results; Dr. Judas is not in the afterlife, which sends the party to the spirit world with a hilarious roleplaying challenge of sorts, the Dumb Supper ritual, but all of that is only the beginning, as the module gets stranger, more fantastic, and interesting…including a trip into the mind/soul refuge of Dr. Judas (which includes, among other things, a chess puzzle, including tons of troubleshooting); the module also features a Chambers-reference and one to the Persona series (if the dungeon concept wasn’t clue enough) that include the Reaper. And yeah, like in Persona, fighting it is…well. Not smart. Oh, and, of course, the party will need to deal with the bureaucracy. All this against the backdrop of a massive conspiracy that you can easily expand.


The ending of the module is bittersweet and comes full circle to the convictions of the lovable pair; in many ways, it managed to be one of the most touching experiences when it comes to the fates of NPCs in a pen and paper roleplaying game that I have encountered so far.



Editing and formatting on a formal level, are very good; certainly better than what I expected to get from a freshman offering. On a rules-language level, I was consistently appalled by the module’s insistence to *almost* adhere to full 5e-standards, but not quite. Most people probably won’t mind, but to me, as a person, these admittedly internally consistent deviations seemed just so unnecessary. Whenever I saw a weapon not noting its physical damage type, whenever I saw not average damage value in the otherwise solid statblocks, something in me winced. But that’s probably just me, and most people will not mind. Layout usually adheres to one- or two-column standard for the setting etc., depending on how they could cram in the most information, and to a 3-column standard in the adventure section; either way, the book manages to sport a ridiculous amount of content for its page-count. The artwork deserves special mention: Artists are individually credited, and photos/pictures altered to fit the setting; the style is surprisingly consistent, stylish b/w, and the effect really worked for me. This is a surprisingly atmospheric book. The cartography is a weak spot: While the isometric pieces are solid, that's one aspect that needed a bit more oomph; player-friendly versions of the maps would have been great; as would have been scales for the larger ones...just so one has a better at-one-glance grasp. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks (YAY!), and the print version deserves special mention.

We get a perfect-bound softcover, yes, but it is one of the most durable ones I’ve seen. The book withstands use surprisingly well, sports THICK, quality paper, and sports its name on the spine. I was pleasantly surprised by its quality.


This is the first design by Wayne Canepa that I’ve seen since the Liber Influxus Communis days and the solid player’s guide for a series of adventures that never happened. It’s certainly the first massive book he’s written as the sole author. Now, the producers of this RPG are actually real life entertainers and performers (link below), and I have to commend them for being Patrons in the best sense of the word. Now, I did not notice the website-link in the credits before I read this book, and I did have the impression that there is some self-insertion going on with these two characters. However, I actually didn’t mind. I ENJOYED that aspect, because they are LIKABLE and because the player characters remain the stars of the show, the ones who actually adventure, and not just bystanders. This degree of self-restraint for patrons is something one doesn’t see that often; as a negative example, I just have to point at a certain, utterly obnoxious character in the Kingmaker CRPG. You all know who I’m talking about.

So yeah, huge kudos to these two people for having this book made.


Now, as you all know, and as you all have read me rant about above, the system agnostic almost 5e-angle irks me to no end as a person. Oh, and Ghostwalk set a pretty big and not too great precedent.

But in spite of that, I utterly adored this book.

Wayne Canepa’s vision here is one that makes an excellent case for roleplaying games as tools for the concept of Bildung in the sense of the Bildungsroman; as a tool for self-improvement in a lifelong quest of becoming a better self, and, one could make the case in this instance, as a tool to work through grief.

The setting presented here is one of macabre beauty; it is one that does feature despair, and death and madness, yes; but it similarly manages to be absurd, grotesque, and yes, funny. And, also thanks to the characters and writing, one that is genuinely heart-warming.

This book succeeded in touching the soot-black cynical coal that substitutes for my heart on workdays and days starting with “S” and left me genuinely touched at the end of the adventure. It left me wanting more, in the best of ways.

Now, in real life, I’m as diehard an atheist as you’ll likely find, but that doesn’t mean I can’t and don’t genuinely adore the vision presented here, because, in a way, every aspect of this setting, and I mean each and every one of them, could be read in a metaphorical manner. I could probably write another 10 pages of text on potential analysis for each aspect of them book and what they can signify, but for most of you, that’d be boring pontificating.

Instead, how about this:

One of the greatest joys for me as a reviewer, has always been to find books and showcase material that would be drowned out in the torrent of constant releases. Most significantly, when I managed to find an author, a designer, who created something special, something oozing heart’s blood…and, in very rare cases, perhaps something with genuine artistic value, one of those rare gems that no longer are just gaming books, but that can genuinely be considered to be art.

Not “art-punk”; I’m not talking just aesthetics here; I am talking about content. I am talking about genuine, humanist value. Not since Julian Barnes’ seminal “Nothing to be Frightened of” have I encountered a book on the subject of death that managed to impress me to this extent, and herein, it’s the very medium of roleplaying games, of interactivity, that makes it work. This book is not trying to be literature, to beat Camus or Kafka, because it can’t; but what it does do, is take those concepts, that atmosphere, and transport it into the frame of our elf-games. It does not try to shroud this goofiness; it does not try to be grimdark or bleak.

In these times, most of us have lost someone. A pandemic still rages outside, and people are divided along an ever-increasing array of lines in the sand, with discourse becoming ever more difficult. Online hate rages, and the lynch mobs of today scour social media for the next target to de-person and destroy. The economy is looking less than promising. This can be a bleak age; it’s easy to fall prey to only seeing things falling apart. Or that’s just my morbid disposition.

And yet.

This book constantly tells us, in all aspects, “Memento Mori—Remember that you must die”…

…but it also tells us “Memento Vivere—Remember to live.” And it performs those leitmotifs.

Again and again.

A wakeup call to live, to not just be defined by death and finality, but to embrace this ephemeral existence, for we only get this one life.

It’s exhilarating. Touching. And, depending on your state of mind, it can be a profound experience.

Or, you know, it can “just” be a genuinely novel, fantastic, well-crafted setting and adventure to just have fun with, to enjoy with the people you hold dear. Which we all should do, while we can.


Rating? 5 stars, seal of approval, best of-tag; if I currently had the time for a Top ten list, this’d be a contender. I’ll give it my EZG Essentials-tag instead.

I hope you check out this book and love it as much as I did.


You can get the pdf here on OBS!

The print version can be found here on the patrons' page!

The homepage of the two patrons can be found here!

If you enjoyed this review, consider leaving a donation via paypal, or by joining my patreon.



Thank you for reading this far.

Tell someone dear to you that you love them.

Wherever you are, if you’re reading this, know that I appreciate you.

I’ll turn off my PC now, and follow the book’s advice.

Live a little.











Endzeitgeist out.


Black Void: Core Rules (Black Void RPG)


Black Void: Core Book (Black Void RPG)

The Black Void’s core book is a massive tome of 404 pages if you take away editorial, front cover, ToC, backer lists, character sheet, (brief) glossary, index, etc., so quite a lot to digest.


I have received a print copy of this tome for the purpose of a fair and unbiased review; this has been simmering on my backburner for quite a while.


You can think of this book as pretty much two in one: Approximately the first half of the book is devoted to the rules, while the second half, the GM-chapter, is essentially the setting, including NPCs, bestiary, etc.; *Personally*, I’d have preferred them to be split in the middle, as I enjoy handing books to my players, but that just as an aside.


Before we dive into the analysis, how would I describe it? Well, picture this: Babylon’s in full swing, seen through a lens of Clark Ashton Smith. Suddenly, tendrils of black grasp everyone, and humanity ends up stranded in a strange, uncaring and far-off cosmos, and pretty much at the bottom of the social hierarchies. The cosmology knows three primary components: The cosmos is the vast expanse of space we know; the void lies beyond it, and is the home of the truly esoteric and strange creatures, but not *necessarily* in a Lovecraftian vein; instead, it also is the origin of beings we associate with real world mythology like the Lammasu, the asura, deva, etc. The interesting twist here, ultimately, is that the creatures from the esoteric realms might be more familiar than anything else, inverting the premise of fantasy as we know it in pretty much every game. Cosmos and void are separated by the Veil, which reminded me in its function of games like Esoterrorists and Bloodlines & Black Magic.


The assumed story-hub would be Llyhn, the eternal city, situated at a crossroads of sorts where the veil is thin, and where the trade-routes converge; the city is rules from vast towers by unseen rulers who generally do not directly interfere, and as such, the core playing tenet might remind you of a twist on Planescape’s Sigil, or the fantastic City of 7 Seraphs by Lost Spheres Publishing; that’s a good thing. We add a sprinkling of spelljamming, for the Void allows for planetary travel…but all of these decidedly high-fantasy concepts are presented in a way I have not seen before: Black Void has a distinct focus on dark fantasy, some might say horror – the in-character/flavor pieces throughout the book illustrate rather well how the world can be considered to be dark…but I probably wouldn’t use the word “grimdark” for it.


You see, in many ways, the core tenet of the game is that of a humanist fable: What would happen if humanity had been thrust into a thoroughly alien and indifferent environment where we are not the apex predators and dominant species? The world presented by Black Void assumes that there are quite a few massive civilizations out there, but for those Mesopotamian stragglers stranded in Llyhn, survival within a social hierarchy that is rigged against them is actually a struggle. Instead of the cosmicism of a vast pantheon of ancient gods trampling us like gnats, the horror in this setting stems more from the experience of living in a society that is at once alien and indifferent. It is effective because it is NOT simply an array of horrors and inevitable madness. As such, I do think that the dark fantasy label, with a definite weird fiction angle best encompasses what this is about. However, my first association when I put down this book for the first time was a different one: I thought: “Okay, so this is a Babylonian Tékumel with a dark fantasy/horror-focus!”


In case you wondered with the whole Babylon angle: Yes, sexuality, slavery and similar mature themes are included, but in a rather tasteful, mature manner, and the presentation is not explicit. For European sensibilities, this is pretty much PG-13, though some people from the US might situate this differently. That being said, like in every horror/dark fantasy game worth the moniker, I wouldn’t recommend it to the professionally offended, so if anything darker than Equestria Girls triggers you (no jab vs. Bronies intended! I think the series can rock hard!), I’d suggest going for a different game.


Okay, this basic premise out of the way, what about the game-engine aspects? How can one situate Black Void regarding its mechanics? Well, here things become more difficult to answer. In how the mechanics *feel*, I’d suggest probably likening this to WFRP or Storyteller – the Black Void has a pretty simple basic resolution mechanic, wherein you roll a d12 and various modifiers against a target value, with a natural 1 a failure, and a 12 “exploding” in certain instances, i.e. you get to roll again and add it to the result.


Character creation is based on point-buy, with 3 suggested point-ranges for different power-levels provided. The game knows 8 so-called “traits”, which are essentially the game’s ability scores: Agility, Awareness, Stamina, Strength, Intellect, Persuasion, Presence, Willpower. These range from a rating of 0 to 12, with modifiers ranging from -3 to +9, though it should be noted that humans have at least 1 in each score. For every 3 you have in a trait, you can select a talent, which are listed by trait.


Which brings me to a huge pet-peeve of mine: Like most roleplaying games, this begins with character creation, and throws you in on the deep end. While the book does explain the basics of a roleplaying game, it does not explain the basics of its mechanics in an adequate manner before prompting you to create a character. I HATE this tendency with a fiery passion. Why do I have to skip ahead to the “Playing the Game”-chapter (Chapter 3 in this book) and read that first? I can’t make an informed choice in character creation if I don’t understand how the game works.


To illustrate this: The talent Ambidexterity notes that it reduces the penalties for dual-wielding to 0/-3. Okay, at this point, we have no ideas how fighting, let alone regular dual-wielding, works. (You get essentially an extra attack per turn – main hand -3, off hand -6, and the penalties are applied to the action AND the initiative!) You can’t make an informed choice when you don’t know how to play the game. And this is all the more galling when you realize that the action-based gameplay actually has some neat depth and breadth to offer and is explained in a tight manner. Why not start with that, and instead erect this arbitrary difficulty/confusion wall at the start?

On another note, since we’re talking about initiative: If you roll a 12 on initiative, you get an additional action during the first round at -6; I assume that this happens regardless of modifiers, and stacks with e.g. dual-wielding, but couldn’t find clarification on that particular scenario.


But I digress. Actions are defined in a clear and concise manner: Some might require sequential successes; some might be contested, and cooperative. The game differentiates between resisted (passive) vs. opposed (active) actions, and an easy chart helps Arbiters (the term used for the GM) and player alike gain a good idea of positive and negative modifiers applied to actions.


The character creation includes a whole lot of means to tweak your character, offering wide and diverse choices that are meaningful: You are human, but you may be a half-blood, or a voidmarked; if you are a pureblood, you are human as we know it; otherwise, you might have attributes; voidmarked can have esoteric attributes, like being ageless…they can be considered to be the somewhat unearthly planetouched of the setting. All of these, however, draw upon the point budget. Beyond traits and homeworld, you can spend points on safe places to stay, connections, loyal allies, etc. – in that manner, the game reminded me of Shadowrun. Magic is generally used via Willpower (Furor – emotional casters) and Intellect (Gnostics – studied spellcasting) and organized in spheres. There also are blood rituals, but more on magic later.


Skills range from 0 (untrained, -3) to 12 (+9), and are associated with one of more traits: Acrobatics might be associated with Agility, Stamina or Strength, for example, depending on what you do. Your point budget also is used to determine your caste, for Llyhn has a rigid caste society, and humans are at the bottom of the barrel…and thus, even if you spend some serious points, you won’t start at the highest echelons…but everything’s better than being casteless...or a Kalbi (which literally translates to “dog”). Anyhow, there are two things that you can’t start investing in – Enlightenment and Wastah. Enlightenment is your cosmic understanding and can only be attained in play via interaction with entities from the void or the void itself; Wastah is the social clout/charisma/bearing of the individual.


The book contains a massive array of items, services and goods, and here, we get additional options, for there are different quality levels (illustrated lavishly), but here is a good place to note once more how the sequence of rules-presentation is needlessly obtuse. I consider myself to be an experienced roleplayer, but when I read the following in the drug section, I was puzzled:

“Refined varieties may induce stupor. Stamina Roll [7]: Delirium effect <7.” Note that, at this point, Delirium had not yet been defined; once you’ve read the book, this makes sense, but the like is not always the case. Terrible quality weapons, for example, note that they have a -1 to attack, damage and speed rolls. I am pretty sure that should be initiative or Agility. That sort of thing is jarring, since the game, as a whole, does a surprisingly great job at delivering the degree of customization I enjoy, so if you’re coming from PFRPG or 5e, you will have enough meaningful choices to fiddle with from the get-go. The breadth and depth is here, and in some aspects transcends those games. Want poison grooves, wave pattern blades? Not only can you have such weapons, these modifications actually have RELEVANT effects in-game. For a tinkerer like yours truly, this is frickin’ amazing. This amount of differentiation also extends to armors, fyi: They offer a variety of options to customize them, and act as essentially damage reduction. Weapons have a size, armor a bulk – these denote the minimum Strength required to sue them sans penalty – otherwise, you suffer a penalty for every point by which you fail to meet the prerequisite.


Surprising for a game with tables for exceptional hits and yes, health levels, the Black Void’s combats run in a relatively smooth and quick manner. The game has derived statistics like Health and Sanity, which pretty much do what you’d expect them to, the latter being harder to replenish…but you can essentially spend Experience Points to regain Stamina, so this is no game of uncontrolled escalation down the insanity rabbit hole. (And before you ask: Yep, fear, madness and delirium are presented in the sanity chapter…once more much later than where the concepts are first mentioned. Some internal cross-referencing “For delirium, see pg XX” or better sequence of presentation would have been prudent.)


While we’re talking about combat: I genuinely LOVE the action engine presented: There is differentiation between regular movement, running and sprinting, and a whole array of options: Parrying, blocking, aiming, called shots, grapples, and so much more – all available. A handy table lists the base combat actions with a handy shorthand table for your convenience, and with essentially attacks of opportunity (here called “attack opportunity”), the game runs surprisingly tactical combats….to a degree. You see, my main gripe with Black Void as a system comes from it feeling somewhat indecisive of what it actually wants to be. We have all these cool, tactical combat actions and concrete ranges for ranged weapons (yes, with increments), and guess what? The game tells you that it assumes “theater of the mind” for combat. Yeah, I have almost 20 years of in-depth experience with such games, and rest assured, that playstyle is great for more rules-lite games, but as soon as you add attack opportunities and components based on concrete tactical placement of individuals, things get messy in theater of the mind. FAST.


And this strange inconsistence can also be found in other aspects, most notably those associated with the voidmarked and magic: The esoteric attribute Daimonic Discord, for example, has this text:


“The character is able to twist other people’s spoken communication so that listeners will hear something different than what is actually being said. The player nominates a target within hearing distance. The character must be able to understand the conversation to twist the words. The conversation can be twisted as much as the player wishes, but the more the message is distorted, the less believable it becomes. A minor tweak, such as replacing a few names or details in a conversation would go unnoticed while making someone appear to say the opposite of what they actually are is conspicuous and would likely be noticed.”


That is the entire text provided regarding rules. Now, don’t get me wrong: I can really appreciate the ability; I picked it out since it’d be one I’d definitely take for my own PC. But notice something? We don’t get information on whether this can easily be done in combat; it doesn’t seem to be a resisted or opposed action. It just WORKS. And it has no limits. All details are left up to the arbiter. And there are quite a few instances in the book where these very narrative components suddenly pop up in a game that is otherwise rather meticulous regarding the precision of concrete rules to resolve its gameplay. For a while, I figured that this was intentional, mirroring cosmos vs. void: You know, concrete rules for the cosmos parts, while void-related stuff gets the more abstract, narrative tricks. And I think this actually is the rationale. But I maintain it doesn’t work well. In direct comparison, abilities like Daimonic Discord are ridiculously powerful in the hands of a half-way smart character (or NPC) – no limit, no concrete boundaries. It also creates this disjoint and underlines the fact that the game’s system is slightly confused regarding what it wants to be – a complex, tactical game, or a more narrative experience?


So yeah, as far as I’m concerned, the rules get a TON of things right; the core engine presented is GREAT. But in the details, this could most assuredly have used a capable and strict rules-editor to put the wishy-washy outliers in a proper, hard-coded context. Particularly since the (rather subdued) magical options actually tend to be codified in a precise manner, with ranges, etc. The system as a whole is presented in a concise manner that is rewarding to play, flawed in some details though it may be.


Anyhow, regardless of whether you want to actually use the game as presented or not, I do maintain that this tome has got something seriously amazing going on for it: The setting. From the bird-like Ka’alum to the shirr, who move on muscular-contractions, gliding over the ground, to the fauna presented, the second half of this book breathes wonder and excitement: Mysteries abound, the cosmopolis’ politics are diverse, and I have rarely read a setting that felt so fresh to me; indeed, not since I first read “Empire of the Petal Throne” have I had a similar experience of a fantasy not indebted to Lovecraft or Tolkien; and apart from City of 7 Seraphs, I would be hard-pressed to name a setting that is so fantastic.


But this? It’s also horrific and decadent, and if you know me, then you pretty much realize by now that this makes the campaign setting a homerun for me. This fantasy manages to feel both ancient and novel. Additionally, the underdog situation humanity finds itself in adds a great angle: In many ways, the whole system is constructed to make it very easy to ask questions of what it actually means to be human, of what one would do to thrive or survive. This reminded me of Shadowrun or Cyberpunk 2020/RED in quite a few of its underlying themes, save that is presents these notions in a holistic, fantastic vision. In its themes and how the game is set up, the Black Void has more in common with those games, than with the D&D-based reference settings like Planescape or Spelljammer. And yes, this is dark fantasy.

However, there is a reason for my Tékumel-comparison. This may be a dark setting, one that may seem nihilistic at first glance – but I’d argue that it really, really is not actually nihilistic or grimdark. Why? For every horrifying and disturbing concept presented, for every hopeless struggle, the book also provides something downright stunning and taps into that same wondrous feeling of jamias-vu Tékumel does. Heck, even the Void and the things, planes and creatures related to it are actually not (all) tentacled, sanity-blasting monstrosities. In what might eb the best meta-twist I’ve seen in a setting for quite a while, these aspects may well be the ones you consider to be more familiar, less weird, than those encountered within the “regular” confines of the setting. You might not notice consciously, but your brain will.


It’s been quite a while since I couldn’t put down a campaign setting’s information, since it captivated me to this degree. As far as the setting is concerned, this is a resounding success and amazing vision.



Editing and formatting are good on a formal and rules-language level; in some instances, the rules language felt more verbose than it needed to be, and I have encountered a couple of instances where the verbiage is less precise than it should be; on a formal level, I e.g. noticed minor glitches like a whole paragraph in italics, when only the play-example should have been in italics. I can’t help but feel that the book would have benefited from establishing some formatting conventions with italics, bold text etc. to make parsing of rules-language more effective. Layout adheres toa  3-column standard, and is per se gorgeous; the backgrounds etc. make this book beautiful to look at; however, from an information-design perspective, the book is rather inconvenient in its organization and lack of cross-referencing. The artworks of the book are DECADENT. The tome is littered with top-tier, stunning artworks ranging from glorious full-color to some b/w-pieces; most weapons and armors get their own artworks, for example; the majority of the artworks are full-color. The hardcover is a massive, really neat offset-printed book with sturdy binding; it’s beautiful. That being said, I think that some artworks are a tad bit too dark on the matte paper; I can’t help but feel that the book was intended to be printed on glossy paper at one point; the artworks are stunning, but their details sometimes become slightly indistinct on the matte paper. That is me nitpicking at the highest level, though—this book has one of the best art-directions I have seen.


Christoffer S. Sevaldsen, with contributions from Yadin Flammer, Cameron Day, Killian DeVriendt, Bryan j. McLean, Luke Maton, Gabriel Norwood, Predrag Filipovic, Dan Cross and Jon Creffield, has crafted a singular, distinct vision. The game system here manages to present a complex, rewarding engine that is not just a derivative of a d20-engine or similar game, and that shows off VERY well what kind of tactical depth you can achieve without increasing the complexity of the rules unduly. The system is very close to being a stunning, resounding success. However, its sequence of presentation is obtuse, its lack of cross-referencing annoying, and the instances where the book labors under the delusion of being a primarily narrative-driven game, when its complex engine makes pretty clear that it works much better with a battle-map, is jarring. All of these could have been easily caught and fixed. So yeah, as a system, it is one that has a ton of potential, but also plenty of stumbling stones, and here, “esoteric”, one of the buzzwords associated with this game, is not a positive descriptor. And yes, I am hard on this game – not out of spite, but because this gets everything I look for in a game ALMOST perfectly right.


The setting, in one word, is



I love it. I love its complexity, its daring, its distinct vision. I love how it flips familiar and unknown, I love its obvious humanist concepts; it love how it plays with feelings of estrangement and wonder, with the horrors of the conditio humana in an inhumane world. I seriously think that this book is worth its asking price even if you’re just looking for ideas or a genuinely fresh and exciting setting. And frankly, the setting is actually good enough to deal with the minor hiccups of the system.


But I can’t rate the two components divorced from each other. I have to rate this book as a whole. (Yep, that’s another reason I bemoaned it not being two books…) And that’s hard. You see, for the rules-section, with its inconvenient presentation-sequence, I’d probably settle on something in the 3.5 star vicinity; for the setting, I’d give this 5 stars and slap my seal of approval faster on this than you can say “blood ritual table.”


This book is not perfect, but oh boy is it exciting. My final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, and while I’d love to, I can’t round up. This, however, does get my seal of approval and a heartfelt recommendation for anyone looking for something novel, both in setting and mechanics.


There currently is a kickstarter for the first big expansion tome running! As per the writing of this review, Under Nebulous Skies is VERY close to being funded, so if you want to support the game, this is your chance! Black Void deserves to have more books to develop the amazing world, so if you can, please support the book!


The kickstarter has only about 60 hours or so left, so back now if you want this book to happen! Also: While the KS is running, the pdf and book are both available at a discounted rate!


You can get the pdf here on OBS!


The print version can be found here on Modiphius' store!


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Endzeitgeist out.