Black Crusade: A Retrospective

Ulisses Spiele have landed the licence to do Warhammer 40,000 RPGs and announced Wrath and Glory, a “one core book with supplements exploring many options”-type RPG with a D6 dice pool system which feels like a very different approach to doing a 40K roleplaying game from the design philosophy that Black Industries pioneered and Fantasy Flight Games followed. As such, it feels like a good time to start a run of retrospectives of the previous generation of 40K RPGs, and where better than the most nonstandard and obviously self-contained of them? Dan’s wrapped up his Black Crusade campaign recently, so I’ve had a chance to get quite familiar with the exciting roleplaying game of black metal mayhem in the service of the Chaos gods.

Black Crusade

One notable thing about Black Crusade is that it is absolutely and 100% Fantasy Flight’s baby. Black Industries had originally planned 3 Warhammer 40.000 RPGs – Dark HeresyRogue Trader, and Deathwatch, with the intention that each of them would be mutually compatible. Of course, in one of their regular stinging slaps to the faces of gamers everywhere Games Workshop decided to shut down Black Industries more or less immediately after the release of Dark Heresy and its GM screen and Inquisitor’s Handbook; according to the intro in Black Crusade, the materials Fantasy Flight received from Black Industries constituted of the completed Black Industries products plus the notes for Disciples of the Dark Gods. We may never know whether it was due to contractual commitments or simply an admirable willingness to see Black Industries’ original vision fulfilled, but Fantasy Flight didn’t really tamper with the core system all that much for producing Rogue Trader and Deathwatch, resulting in a more or less entirely mutually-compatible line that, if it wasn’t exactly what Black Industries had intended, was at least about as close as anyone could have reasonably expected Black Industries to get to it.

However, with Black Crusade Fantasy Flight were going outside the original Black Industries blueprint – and that seems to have encouraged them to make reforms to the system somewhat more substantial than any minor tweaks between the previous games. Whilst they do encourage using Black Crusade to cook up bespoke adversaries for the preceding games (and vice versa), in practice there’s enough little wrinkles between the two iterations that some care has to be taken transferring things between them.

The thing which sticks out the most for me – possibly because of how absurdly useful full auto fire was in earlier WH40K RPGs – is the shift in the way fully automatic weapons work so they don’t give you a big fat skill bonus in addition to being horribly lethal. But there are all sorts of other small changes too; in particular, the first thing people are likely to encounter is the way the character generation system is much less restrictive than those in the previous Warhammer 40.000 RPGs. Of course, those systems were for describing characters defined largely by their place in a totalitarian, regimented society with little scope for self-determination, so thematically it makes sense that the forces of Chaos are a bit freer and looser when it comes to who gets access to what. At the same time, giving every character at least some level of access to more or less any advance is also cleverly used for tracking alignment towards the various Chaos gods – the more you spend XP in such a way which shapes you to the liking of one of the Chaos gods over the others, the more likely it is they will pick you as one of their own, inflicting various Chaos-y features on you and unlocking various appropriate powers.

One nice addition to the system exclusive to this game is the Infamy score, which serves as your acquisition score, and as an alternative to Fate points for the sake of avoiding death, and is the score you want to ramp up faster than your Corruption increases if you want to ascend to become a Daemon Prince or Princess rather than degenerating into spawndom. And as well as giving a quick Chaos-eye-view rundown of the various settings offered in the previous games, the book also offers a Chaos-dominated region of space for games to take place in too. But largely, it’s the usual presentation of the Warhammer 40,000 RPG system, with the traits and equipment bits and psychic powers and so forth you’d expect, with comprehensive patching that ended up succeeding well enough that the Black Crusade rules update was used for Only War and the 2nd Edition of Dark Heresy. In short, it’s a little redundant here and there but nonetheless delivers more or less exactly what you’d want out of a Fantasy Flight Warhammer 40,000 RPG about Chaotic mayhem.

The Tomes

The major supplements for Black Crusade are, appropriately enough, the various Tomes which are each thematically dedicated to one of the major Chaos gods. You have the Tome of Fate for Tzeentch, the Tome of Blood for Khorne, the Tome of Excess for Slaanesh, and the Tome of Decay for Nurgle.

Cleverly, Fantasy Flight designed these books to appeal to referees and players alike, and to provide not just god-specific information but also expansions on the rules appropriate to the god in question. This does sometimes lead to slightly counterintuitive arrangement of information – for instance, all the extra psychic powers are in the Tome of Fate regardless of the Chaos god they are associated with because psychic powers are Tzeentchy, which means that the Tome of Excess or Tome of Decay aren’t the one-stop sources for their respective gods that the titles may imply.

Each of the supplements follows the same general format: a description of the god and their interests and their realm jn the Warp and their servants, then a brace of new character generation options and bits of equipment, then some supplemental rules of more general applicability, then a slab of setting information for the Screaming Vortex (the Black Crusade default setting), then an adventure.

As far as the specific rules expansions go, Fate gives you a stack of extra magic and psychic powers and rules for undertaking in-depth investigations without necessarily making them the primary component of uptime, Blood offers more mass combat rules, Excess adds minion rules and stuff on social interaction (including seduction because let’s face it, we’re lucky the Slaanesh book wasn’t just called Tome of Jizz), and Decay covers stuff like demon engines, possessed characters, ascension to Daemon Princedom and running Black Crusades. This last is a bit of a grab-bag (though I guess possession is kind of an infestation), and I’ve seen some fans grumping about the lack of a Chaos Undivided book for the line, but at this point I am genuinely not sure what more you would want to add to the line in such a tome.

As is often the case with such game supplements, this mass of supplementary material is a bit of a mixed bag, and you may well not want to implement it all at once, but it’s all stuff I’m glad to have handy for use if a campaign ends up focusing on one or another Chaos God, or more generically on an especially fighty or social-y or psyker-heavy style.

The Game Master’s Kit

Game Master’s Kits for previous game lines tended to have some really interesting bit of rules tucked into the booklet which came with the GM screen, like an alien species generator or something. That isn’t so with the Black Crusade one; you get your standard adventure, and you also get a welcome (but not essential) set of tips on running Black Crusade campaigns and the special considerations involved in that sort of thing.

Hand of Corruption

The sole published full-length campaign for Black Crusade is a bit of a let-down, to be honest. (I am going to spoiler it here because frankly the plot twist is so uninspiring and annoying that it spoils the adventure in the sense of ruining it anyway, so if you know what’s coming you can at least brace for it.)

In its early stretch, it reads like a fairly linear preamble to what ought to be a really exciting prospect – namely, infiltrating and corrupting an Imperial shrine world. The problem comes in the last act, when the designers suddenly realise that they haven’t thrown in a high-combat section against creatures with stats unique to this book (so as to up its value for completists), and they decide to have the necrons show up to spoil the PCs’ funtimes.

The big problem with Hand of Corruption is that it’s trying to cater to both varieties of Black Crusade player characters, the infiltration and corruption sections being better for human-scale sneaky types and the combat bit being more suitable for Chaos Space Marine combat monsters. I wonder, in fact, whether they knew from the beginning that this was the only campaign that they were going to do for Black Crusade; had they planned to do several, they could have gotten away with doing some pitched at human parties and some pitched at Chaos Space Marine parties, but as it stands they had to pander to both types here.

Another issue is that the corruption section is surprisingly linear; you’re essentially trying to get allies together to allow you to set up and perform a big ritual to dump the planet into a warpstorm, which on the one hand is cool and Chaos-y but on the other hand feels kind of like a cheat code – it seems to me like the process of corrupting a planet and delivering it to Chaos deserves both to be much more sandboxy in approach and much more of a long haul. It also really needs to be the climax of the story – having the necrons show up just feels like pointless escalation. (It doesn’t help that I find the necrons to be somewhat underwhelming adversaries in a tabletop RPG context – they’re great for a wargame, but for the purposes of an RPG they’re basically very dull enemies because they won’t talk to you or taunt you or do anything interesting beyond Terminator-ing it up over the landscape.)

I also feel that attempting to get this linear with a Chaos-aligned party feels… let’s go with “ambitious”. Whilst participationism is totally a thing and can be a thing with Black Crusade, I’d feel like a campaign which didn’t involve at least a certain amount of the players going off the reservation and tearing off after weird personal agendas wouldn’t feel chaotic enough to reflect Chaos.

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