[Review] Xas Irkalla (Core game); The Carcosa we Wanted, not the One we Deserved Pt. I – Rules

[Core Game]
Xas Irkalla (2018)
James Vail (Atramentis Games)

Suffer a Blackened Birth into a Desolate Land of Surreal Horror. A World Wounded by Psychic Warfare, Mind-Controlled Cities, Interdimensional Labyrinths and Wasteland Tribes. You are the Alien Here, the Last Survivor of your Species. Your Existence Must be Earned. 

Well fuck me sideways. I took a break from OSR shit only to stumble upon a surprise hit that might be one of the most interesting RPGs of the year and is starting to look like everything I wanted in Carcosa, but by virtue of its mechanical defects, could never really have.

Xas Irkalla by James Vail is one of the most metal, disturbing and atmospherically pitch perfect 163-page dark fantasy rpgs I have ever seen. Every word is beautifully illustrated in murky, grey rotting imagery by the author himself. The entire piece reads like an absinthe laden vision quest into the depth of some foreign hell of distant antiquity, and the accompanying art and passages evokes Giger, Bosch and Barlowe in shades of midnight black, the grey of dessicated flesh and the pure whites of a thousand blazing suns. It is a game that would have had the question “does DnD cause Satanism?” answered with an ear-splitting shriek of “Heil Satan!”. Time to put on black eyeliner, make the sign of the Horned One and prepare for some gnostic survival horror in a nightmare world of cannibalism, severed heads dangling from trees, psychic comatose god-kings, skinless horrors, nightmares given flesh and all enchanted artifacts of bone and flesh.

The at times maddening obtuseness of Xas Irkalla is introduced together with the opening fiction, a normally unfrogiveable sin that passes muster by introducing the tone of the game and giving the GM a narrative snapshot of what a session would be like. Characters arrive alone on the world of Xas Irkalla, the last survivors of extinct worlds, drawn by the dreams of dying psychics and cursed to survive in a hostile nightmare world. Deformity, cannibalism, suffering and a doom both inexorable yet incomprehensible in the manner of a dream punctuated by harsh choice is all that can be gleaned from this surreal introduction. If it is viewed from the purpose of setting the tone for the content to come I would call the opening fiction perfect, but it only makes sense after the fact, but perhaps that is the point.

Xas Irkalla is one of those games where both the PCs and the Players are meant to start entirely ignorant of the campaign setting, the basic rules of the world they have appeared in and even the overall goal, with knowledge being drip fed or more likely cudgelled and stabbed into the players over the course of several sessions. While creating the fully fleshed out characters that are essential to a successful horror game would normally be impossible in an unknown fantasy setting, the game circumvents this hindrance with a brilliant conceit; Each character is a fully fleshed out denizen of a world or universe that is entirely of the Player’s own creation and does not impact the game in the slightest since his world is now DEAD and he is the last remnant thereof that has now ended up in Xas Irkalla. Fucking aced it, and also a sneaky way to introduce a kitchen sink fantasy game with people from space world without scaring off the Serious Roleplayers (TM).

***Core Mechanics***

The core mechanics of Xas Irkalla are as exotic and byzantine as everything else about the game. The single most important character traits are Stress and Doom, which do not actually improve much as the characters gains and spends XP.

The basic skills test in Xas Irkalla is the 1-3d10. Before any action (with significant consequences) is attempted, the player must decide to roll up to 3d10. If the highest dice + any relevant modifiers (which will be +1 to +5 at best) is above 10, the action succeeds completely and everything goes off without a hitch. If the total is above the character’s Stress (which starts at a minimum of 3), the action succeeds partially; it works but there is a drawback or a catch. The only problem is that the game is reluctant to define exactly  what a partial success entails, though the sample adventures provided later on in the game help the GM get a feel for appropriate consequences. Failure generally means VERY BAD THINGS.

Why would you ever not use 3d10 you ask? An interesting risk reward mechanic permeates every diceroll in Xas Irkalla. A roll of 1 increases your Stress (and thus reduces the chance of partial success) by 1. On the other hand, a roll of 10 is treated as a Critical Success and not only means you achieve complete success but you also gain a specialty (a +1 bonus to rolls on a particular action, skill or terrain) or gain an additional plus in an existing specialty to a maximum of +5. Each successive bonus in a specialty applies to an increasingly specific element (i.e you can have a +1 to Mountains but a +2 to Mountain Climbing etc.). As soon as your Stress reaches 9, you are fucked and the second mechanic comes into play.

As soon as you reach Stress 9 there are two things that happen; you become Psychotic, meaning you can’t recover Stress until you recover and you can GAIN xp at any time by spawning horrific delusions into physical reality that the GM may now sic on your fellow party members and yourself, a wonderful incentivization to invite GM abuse.
Each point of stress you would gain above 9 means you gain 5 doom. Any time you fail a roll in a life-or-death situation (say, foraging for food while you are starving, being exposed to poison, failing to find shelter from a freezing storm etc.) or any time you take a mortal wound, you must roll percentile dice. If it the result is equal or less then your doom score, you are now dead. In addition, Doom is much harder to remove then Stress and does not automatically go down when resting (unless you invest XP in a very specific ability).

***Character Creation***

Character creation worried me at first because I thought I was accidentally reading a storygame with its open specialties and vague stats in lieu of hit points but my fears were quickly assuaged by the unmistakable gleam of customizable bonus abilities during character creation!

The first step of character creation is fairly simple; You roll your character’s background randomly using keywords from tables, and the keywords function as 1-point specialties on rolls related to that keyword! To illustrate how this would go, let us generate a character.

The character must roll a d10 to generate a Sentiment (something you are passsionate about), an Environment, a Past, a People and finally Identity, which functions as a type of profession, albeit it with only minor mechanical impact on the character.

We get a 9, 1, 5, 6 and a 3. Our character has a strong innate sense of Justice, grew up in a Wasteland, is haunted by at least one Horrific event that cannot be forgotten, his people were Grim and his natural profession is Physician, Witch Doctor, Shaman or Healer. That gives us a lot to go with, so we conceive our character as the Spirit speaker of a tribe of post-apocalyptic desert-men, living out short, brutal lives in the radioactive sands while they squabble over water and air. The traumatic event came when he was forced to administer poison in the guise of medicine to the women, children and elderly of the tribe so the few men of the tribe could survive.

Next there are some cosmetic details that have no rules implications. A physical feature is a Skin Pattern (presumably some sort of mutation or the result of geno-engineering, see below), the Fashion preference is Practical (which suits our Desert dwelling spirit speaker physician quite well) and his technology level is Interplanetary, so we change his profession from shaman to physician and make the tribe doomed colonists on a failed colony with a particularly vicious sun, change the poisoning to “necessary” Genocide at the command of a mad despot (in the manner of TOS The Conscience of the King) and carry on our merry way.

Now, the reason I could relax and didn’t need my inhaler was that the next step in character creation is actually a selection of up to 18 beneficial Traits. The caveat is that each one raises your starting Doom by 5 points (it starts at 5 normally, so yes, your character can have a Starting Doom of 95 in this game.). I fucking love that. The game has enough respect for you as a player that it will allow you to make completely unviable and even broken characters. Awesome.

The effect of Traits vary; enhanced senses (low-light vision/super-hearing), bulkiness, natural armor, natural weapons or something bizarre like Hooves that give you Advantage to Running related tests (advantage meaning all partial successes count as complete successes and all failures count as partial successes) or even Fucking Wings. While a box full of benis just lying there for the low low price of 5% doom score per FREE trait (just kidding, it’s tempting you to take bonuses that can easily kill you in this game) and +10 Armour on all locations for a paltry 25% doom increase sounds like a great deal its probably in the interest of our long term survival if we restrain ourselves to the absolute minimum and give Herash (for that shall be his name) two points in Resilience, which serves as armor against damage that bypasses armour (like Cold, Heat, radiation, falling damage etc) at the cost of increasing his doom to 10%. (We are not powergaming in this case, If we did, we’d realize Resistance is a shit trait as it is in Dark Souls and we’d pile up on armor or natural weaponry, which is bound to see frequent use).

And uh…that is it. Until we spend XP, that is our character, and we do not get Starting XP, nor starting equipment. We start naked, poorly equipped to handle the perils of this utterly hostile hellscape.

***Advancement***

Advancement is achieved by earning XP. Characters gain about 5 XP per session, as well as 1 XP each time succeed at a perilous task with Disadvantage, if they spawn a Horrific Vision during Psychosis or if they achieve a major goal (GM’s discretion). XP can actually be spent in numerous ways, and I am pleasantly surprised at how complex and inviting this system is to people who enjoy their RPGs with a lot of crunch.

Xp can only be spent at the beginning or end of a session. It can always be used to remove Stress or Doom at the cost 1 xp for 1 Doom or 5 xp for 1 Stress and there is even a gambling mechanic where you spend 5 xp to remove d10 doom, a little mechanic that, like many others in Xas Irkalla, seems to incentivize risk taking.
You can also spend various amounts of XP, from 5 – 50 (!) on increasing your load range (essentially your encumbrance), Armour rating, Weapon rating with one type of weapon (gives you a bonus on rolls), exsanguination limit (see below) and even the amount of Dice you have access to in Combat for a sanity blasting 50 XP! The real prizes are of course the Ascendancies, Inner Powers and Masteries. The key to surviving Irkalla in the long run probably comes as much from how you spend your Xp as it does on your immediate decision-making.

Yet another interesting Risk reward mechanic comes into play with keeping XP. You see, in Xas Irkalla, if your character dies, it does not mean the end. Death only means that the dead psychic that was subconsciously piloting your actions must now draw forth another person from a dying world. This new character gets all the XP that was spent but loses All Unspent XP. This means that saving up a large amount of XP to buy a particularly expensive Advance is risky as death means you will lose all your unspent XP, and it also means that anyone who is foolish or unlucky enough to die twice in one session will lose all their XP as XP can only be spent before or after a session.
The only problem with this I see is that your Endling (Xas Irkalla slang for PC) can only wake up within a psychic labyrinth which he has to escape from and this is probably hard to do in mid-session, requiring either brilliant improvisation on the part of the GM, or some clever leg-work beforehand. As an alternative, you can always rule your new PC enters the game next session, but that would mean he gets to spend XP and removes some of the tension of the two-deaths-and-you-lose-everything-mechanic.

But Prince! you clamour. Won’t infinite respawns mean your spooky scary survival horror game is actually for faggots now?!? Wrong Bitch! The pressure mounts continuously and inexorably, like a game of Dark Souls connected to a pound of c4 embedded in your colon. With each Death your character gains a Death Fear, meaning your character gains Disadvantage on all rolls if he is ever confronted with the thing/situation that killed him. Death fears pile up since the memories of the Eye on the Throne mean your current Endling gains flashes of memory from all her previous hosts. Also, Irkalla itself feeds on the psychic energies of the Eye Upon the Throne, meaning ALL ENCOUNTERS INCREASE IN DIFFICULTY WITH EACH SESSION ELAPSED. You get weaker with each death yet the game keeps getting harder. Perfection.

So about Ascendancies, Masteries and Inner Powers. Ascendancies can be levelled up from 1 – 10 and the XP cost increases by 5 with each level. Ascendancies are divided into Durability, Precision, Recovery, Expertise and Magick. Unfortunately you are limited to only 10 levels total across all five disciplines, meaning you don’t get to have your cake and eat it. Magick is the odd one of the bunch, allowing you to GAIN doom in order to gain bonuses on rolls involving the magical artifacts you will find in Xas Irkalla, as well as far more potent powers. Magick in Xas Irkalla is more of the Witch doctor variety, no flashy fireballs or conjured daemons but mumbled incantations, curses and enchantments that give all your allies Advantage against a single enemy 1/session, the bizarre ” Once per session, you can spawn an item into an enemy’s possession that grants Advantage to anyone using it (including the enemy), but the item will only last until the end of the scene.” and even more potent abilities. Each Ascendancy is useful in a certain field, meaning you will have to make hard decisions about where you specialize in. While some of the Ascendancies are self-explanatory, Recovery is a healing discipline and Expertise allows you to develop and gain specialized skills.

Inner Powers are an odd bunch, costing 10 XP per ability and are most analogous to the Traits from the Fallout video game series (1 or 2) and represent  “…abilities that characters gain from subconscious shifts in how they interact with reality. They are not quite psychic abilities, but they alter the reality for the character.” In practice, Inner Powers grant you an ability that is very potent in exchange for a drawback that is positively crippling to the extent that only a meticulous character build or excellent strategy can be of any use in offsetting the detrimental effect of an Inner Power. To give you some examples: A battlecry that automatically stuns an enemy for 1 turn in exchange for 3 Stress, A Berserk power that allows you to attack any character in melee range simultaneously but you gain 1 stress for each enemy you hit in this manner (I suspect Vail might be a Berserk fan), a Dark Hunger that allows you to heal injuries on critical hits but you cannot heal in any other way and other abilities that are even more Metal. I get the feeling Vail is a pretty smart guy that likes his games buttered with a thick layer of min-max gremlins as there is no rule that says you cannot purchase multiple Inner Powers and you’d better get a taste of Min-Max gremlins if you want to survive this bitch.

The Soy-boy alternative to Inner Powers are the Prohibitively expensive Masteries, which cost 20 xp a pop but on the up-side they have no draw-backs. Expect such metal abilities as Wearing the bones of your enemies as armor, bonuses to Weapon Ratings from items you craft for yourself, increased damage as the combat carries on, a malodorous stench that limits the amount of enemies that can attack you each turn, a Duelist ability that gives you advantage if you face an enemy one on one or increased armor if your body parts are grievously injured (nice).

Combined with Inner Powers and given copious XP, it should not be overly difficult to make a horrendously powerful character, but the only problem is that you will need to survive until you gain that sufficient experience, and Xas Irkalla provides enough hazards to prevent any single character from being able to face all sorts of challenges.

Time for the REAL DEAL. The Nitty gritty. Combat.

***[WARNING: EXTREMELY REAL SHIT INCOMING. BITCHASS ROLEPLAYERS NEED NOT APPLY]***

Combat in Xas Irkalla is a gritty and ultra-lethal affair that requires meticulous risk management and superior tactics to survive. Each player has a pool of 3 dice. You can spend these dice as you would on a skill check (so between 1-3 dice per attack, with multiple attacks being a possibility only if you wield multiple weapons). Movement does not require skill checks unless a character is moving through an area obviously threatened by the enemy but “you must spend dice as if you were rolling a skill test, just to represent the time it takes to perform the action. Distance is undefined.” Player movement really required further elaboration and any prospective Xas Irkalla GM will have to elaborate a proper system of just what constitutes distance from other games [1].  In this case, an experienced GM should have no trouble adjudicating movement during combat but any rookie is going to become hopelessly lost. A sample combat would also have been hugely helpful. Like distance, the real world duration of a turn is similarly left open.

Attack rolls are skill checks. Partial success means you inflict the Weapon damage + highest rolled dice, Complete success means you inflict the combined dice number + weapon damage and a critical success means you inflict a staggering 10 times the total number of dice rolled (it is unclear whether the other rules for critical success still apply, but presumably so, since an attack is considered a skill test).

After the attack phase, it is the monster’s turn, who gain one “move” and one “attack.” Monsters do not roll to attack, instead players roll to defend, spending dice as they do in the attack phase. Players regain 1 dice in both the attack and the defend phases, so there is a constant trade-off between offense and defence. Complete success on a defense roll means you take no damage, otherwise you take 1 or 2 dice of damage. Running out of defence dice means you are undefended and take 3 dice of damage, making combat against multiple adversaries particularly deadly for PCs (monsters do not have dice pools and do not suffer from this drawback with the rules as written).

Damage is handled differently for Enemies and PCs.  Enemies have simple hit points and die when they run out. PCs have a hit location Chart (of course!), with the amount of damage determining the type of injury the PCs take, major, grievous and mortal (if you take less then 10 points of damage you do not take an injury, but see below). Each limb has 3 major, 2 grievous and 1 mortal injury slot. If you run out of slots on that limb for the particular type of injury, you die instantly, which can lead to some interesting situations where an additional grievous head injury could kill you but you are fine as long as you take either a major or a mortal head injury instead. The number of hit locations (10) would normally mean your characters are incredibly durable, if not for a few niggling complications;

First of all, any time you take a mortal injury you must make an instant doom test. Secondly, Blood Loss (aka ersatz hit points for men)! For each 10 points of damage you take, you take 1 blood loss, up to your exsanguination limit of 10. If you go over the limit , you fall unconscious and get to make Doom rolls each round until someone successfully stops the bleeding. Blood loss can be reduced by bandaging (which reduces blood loss by d10 but gives the bandaged 1 Stress) or Cauterization if you are Bleeding Out (which removes ALL BLOOD LOSS but causes your MOST SEVERE INJURY on any body part to become PERMANENT, filling that slot). In short, Combat in Xas Irkalla is only a matter of TIME, and players must advance in power relentlessly to compensate for the inevitable degradation of their bodies.

The rules are very basic but deep enough for a survival horror game, especially with the addition of THE GRAPPLING RULES! Grappling is explained in a way that is maddeningly obtuse and too short but following the logic of the Game it is a skill check. There is no mention of initiating a grapple, merely the effect of Grappling, meaning you get a Disadvantage on anything but attacking your enemy or attempting to break free, but your enemy can’t do anything but attempt to break free or attack YOU in turn. There doesn’t seem to be a restriction on grappling nor on the amount of hands you need to be free. This section needed further elaboration on what constitutes Breaking Free or a Grapple but it’s not UNWORKABLE merely obtuse and unpolished.

Some special rules: poison merely increases one’s Doom Score and things like Cold and Heat and other environmental phenomena are blocked not by Armour but by Resistance. Which reminds me, worn equipment can provide Armour to certain locations, reducing damage taken on that location by that amount, and some gear provides Resistance but not armor (like thick hides against the cold, for example).

The last thing I should cover are Shields. Shields don’t provide a flat armor bonus but a bonus to your defence roll. Since even the most primitive, ramshackle cobbled together shield made of animal hides and wood gives you a +2 to your defence roll, Shields are, much like in real life combat, OP AS FUCK. A heavy shield of normal craftsmanship composed of good honest Steel gives you a cockgargling +7 to defence rolls, at the paltry cost of 12 Bulk and turning you into a sluggish automaton if you have additional armor. Nevertheless, Shields are REALLY FUCKING GOOD especially since you can wield a light weapon in the same hand. ALWAYS EQUIP SHIELDS.

***Survival***

Survival on Irkalla is a singularly bleak and desperate affair, with characters being always hungry no matter how much they eat, and the world being for the most part a grey, ash-wreathed wasteland with few stretches of edible material or wildlife. Or in the words of Vain:

The typical character appears with tattered pieces of rawhide or cloth, bandages wrapped around wounds, missing fingers from frostbite, blood stains around their mouth, ashes and filth coating every inch, starving and emaciated… generally just a haggard scavenger.

Exposure is, in general, a harrowing and brutal process, inflicting 3d10 + 15 points of damage on any exposed limb, quickly leaving you a crippled, battered, ruined mess. Falling damage is flat, also clocking in at 3d10+15 for three seperate body parts, meaning you have a small but significant chance to die instantly from falling damage (if you take more then 40 damage to a single limb you are killed instantly).

Xas Irkalla is not a merciful game and there are no TRUE safe places to rest. When resting, all party members must elect to roll a d10, with a 1 meaning the situation becomes significantly worse (i.e you get food poisoning, you contract a hideous disease, you get discovered by a terrifying predator or something else. On the plus side, each time you rest, you can choose to either remove a point of Stress, remove an injury of the lowest severity or spend time on a personal project (this is measured in points, with projects like deciphering a tome or crafting an Object being assigned a value beteen 1 and 10 by the GM). It helps to point out that resting can ONLY be done in a SAFE place since the night on Xas Irkalla is a terrifying experience that exposes all manner of phantasmagoric super-predators that thirst for human flesh and blood.

 

***The Funky domain management Subsystem***

Xas Irkalla has a bizarre sort of domain management settlement building system which is all the more frustrating for its brevity. If a settlement wants to construct something like say, a fucking hall against the cold, they need access to materials, which are defined as Stockpiles. Distance is not taken into account when finding these stockpiles, meaning the entire system can feel a bit TOO ABSTRACT at times and some sample stockpiles besides food and water for structures would have been of immense help. You need stockpiles of resources to construct buildings but no sample buildings are provided either. Man 😦

Anyway, settlements function exactly like characters in that they need to make skill tests to do shit like anything else. Failed or partially failed tests tend to cost population (if you are getting yourself a stockpile) or cost 1 Stockpile of the requisite material or more if you are building stuff. Rolls of 1 increase UNREST which is essentially Stress for your Village. If your Stress exceeds 9, half your population joins an enemy Army of 10d10 soldiers and makes war on your village (i.e an Uprising). The settlement equivalent of a Rest is a Festival.

The lifeblood of these communities is its Population score, which can be increased once the population has at least 1 stockpile of food. Population functions as hit points for Communities and also determine the amount of damage they inflict during combat (which is to say, War). Each multiple of 10 similarly multiplies the damage during War, meaning that anyone taking on a settlement 10 times its size is going to get his skull kicked in. In addition, for each population factor of 10, your settlements gets a Focus point that it can assign to either military endeavor, resource extraction/commerce, construction or diplomacy (which helps it grow and negotiate).

While the system is barebones it deserves massive credit for giving you a workable way to adjudicate this level of gameplay while taking up only 3 pages. Have an exalt. It’s like Vain cut out all the fat but left the meat intact. The drawback is that this section of the game ends up feeling almost skeletal but it avoids Black Hack syndrome [2] by the elaboration and meticulousness that is applied to its systems.

***Equipment***

What is left is to discuss equipment, the bulk of which must be crafted and rendered from the corpses of fallen enemies if I read the game correctly.  Xas Irkalla hates bookkeeping which is an odd choice for a survival horror game, so as a result you only ever run out of food or water or even ammunition as a serious Consequence (i.e failure or even partial success). Since exactly what constitutes currency is pretty diverse in a mostly stone-age gnostic nightmare world, Wealth is expressed as a simple score between 0 and 5 with 0 being utter destitution and 5 being the wealth of an emperor. Unfortunately the subsystem for purchasing items, while taking into account the amount of money you have by adding your Wealth score as a skill specialty and limiting the Quality of the items you can purchase to your wealth score or lower, means you could theoretically reduce your emperor-like fortunes to merely kinglike ones in the purchase of a single iron pickaxe. Objects do not effectively have a price so the system only makes a little sense if characters always buy the highest quality they can afford (and quality only matters for weaponry anyway).  Some subsystem for availability of materials, particularly the more exotic ones, is sorely needed. As it is, the GM needs to do most of the heavy lifting, and in princeland we call that UNDERDEVELOPED AND NOT WELL THOUGHT OUT.

Using items in place of your bare hands automatically means you get a +1 to any relevant skill roll and you may opt to use the Item’s Quality as a bonus on the roll in lieu of any specialization, though this does mean you cannot get a specialization on a critical success. This is actually huge because it means high quality weapons can provide a bonus to hit, which is fucking massive in this game and is the doorway to complete successes that are otherwise vanishingly improbable.

So, weapons. The game provides plenty of much-needed examples of primitive weapons and armor, with quality 1 one-handed weapons being essentially sharp rocks while a quality 3 weapon would be an ornate obsidian sacrificial dagger. You are given the impression technology beyond the Stone Age age is rare to nonexistent outside cities.
Each weapon also has a Weapon Rating, which is added to one’s total damage, and a Bulk, which is its a weight. Carrying a lot of gear means you will gradually begin to take penalties to mobility tests, and without a serious XP investment in Load Capacity anyone aiming for full iron armour on every limb is in for a rude awakening. In addition, item durability is handled by the merciful and omnipotent GM but Quality is not factored into any sort of roll, which is fucking bullshit.

What I dig is that besides the primitive equipment sample list, the game gives you a sort of toolbox with plenty of descriptors and modifiers to make up or statt out any type of equipment your PCs are likely to encounter, with a simple series of qualifiers like Improvised vs Martial, Material, Quality and Descriptors (everything else). There is even an explosive trait for modeling things like flasks of burning oil, hand grenades and other such nonsense. Let’s see how well this works when we try to generate several types of weapons and armor.

Katana.
Martial Weapon (+1 Wpn rating), Quality High (+2 Wpn rating), Medium sized (+1 Bulk, +1 Wpn rating), Hard materials (+3 Wpn Rating, x2 Bulk).
Katana: Weapon Rating: 7, Bulk: 2, Quality: +3 – Seems legit.

Rusted Medieval Platemail (Chest Piece only)
Quality: Poor (+0 armour). Design: Heavy (+1 armour, +2 Bulk), Primary Material (soft metal: Wrought Iron, +2 Armour/x2 Bulk)
Corroded Medieval Chestplate: Armour 3, Bulk 4.  Quality +2

40 Megawatt Plasma Phaser from Terminator 1
Martial Weapon (+1 Wpn Rating), Quality Normal (+1 Wpn rating), Heavy (2-hands, +4 Wpn Rating, +5 Bulk), Primary Material: Energy (+5 Wpn rating).
Plasma Cannon: Weapon rating 11, Bulk 5, Quality +1

Millenia old Giant-Flail Thing from the Witch-King of Angmar (nonmagical variant)
Martial Weapon (+1 Wpn), Quality (Legendary) (+4), Large (top-heavy) + 6 Wpn rating, +9 Bulk -2 to attack tests, Primary Material (Hard metals wpn +3, Bulk x2)
Wpn Rating 14, Bulk 18, -2 to attack tests, Quality +4

Probably more then a mortal man could wield which is about right.
While it might seem tempting to walk around everywhere dressed in full iron mail and a steel great shield (which seems to be near impossible obtain outside of a city), one would be quick to remember that natural hazards are an omni-present danger to the wandering adventurer and mobility checks get considerably harder if you stack up on bulk.

A glaring omission in a game where you mostly cobble together your own equipment from bone and sinew is a proper crafting subsystem which ties into the quality of the items as well as any specialties the PC might have. Instead it is all left on the cutting room floor, which is a fucking shame. This section really needed solid rules for item degredation as well as a crafting system, particularly since Crafting is even covered in some of the Masteries you can purchase. Was it left on the cutting room floor? Vail seems to be going for the ‘give-a-man-a-fish’ approach which I find admirable but an important demand of such a system is that it must indeed cover all the bases.

Let’s top off this interminable section with a quick look at the magic item (artifact) section. Artifacts are all really fucking strong but also very fucking heavy, providing 3d10 Wpn or armour and half that in weight to begin with. You can have 7 fucking artifacts at the same time because why not?!?

The random tables to determine their appearance are very generic, but the general tendency is that of items of lovecraftian otherworldliness and occult hideousness. A coral helmet with a circle of eyes embedded all around the crown would be a good example of your average Xas Irkalla artifact, as would that bizarre sceptre thing of severed tongues from the D&D 3e Book of Vile Darkness.

Artifacts can be randomly generated to have simple to powerful abilities in Diablo-like fashion. First you generate imbuements, with one random imbuement being a given, and one more for each 10 you rolled during the damage/armor generation phase. Then you remove all those tens from the pool and roll again, and if you get more 10s you repeat the process. If you get three or more Imbuements you move up to Enchantments, which are the big boy Imbuements.

I must gripe, both imbuements and enchantments here are very barebones straight up stat bonuses to Load ranges, Exsanguination limits, Wpn rating or even Death Rolls. Even the enchantments, while very powerful, are all straight up combat effects. The game then drops a brick on your face as you are dozing off at this generic bullshit by introducing several other Diablo-esque artifacts of the Dark Gods themselves that can only be acquired by combining 4-5 bizarre ingredients that read like shopping lists from that serial killer in The Cell starring Jeniffer Lopez, meaning they are like Sorcery in Carcosa only actually desirable and just as fucking unwieldly to obtain.

BAELPHIEL’S SARCOPHAGUS
A suit of armor that cannot be penetrated by physical attacks, nor can it be
removed from the wearer.
REQUIRES…
The Molten Blood of One Thousand Victims
The Armor of a Warlord
Armor Mold Made of Lava
The Black Flame

Overal Xas Irkalla’s ruleset was enough to get me excited about the game, and seems to emphasize exactly the kind of gritty motherfucking Survival Horror coupled with a sense of inevitable doom and omnipresent decay that I dig. Character creation is relatively simple, yet allows for vast flexibility while Character Progression is an intricate and byzantine labyrinth of interacting abilities that is as obtuse yet brimming with potential as the rest of the game. It is as though the interlocking abilities and trade-offs are merely one more aspect of Xas Irkalla that you must master if you are to survive. You get the impression both system mastery and oldschool improvisational cunning is needed to prosper or even barely cling to life in this brutal, oblique and complex game. I halfway suspect some abilities are actually beginner traps, especially the starting ones.

Xas Irkalla is terse, perhaps too terse, and requires familiarity with roleplaying games before one puts on one’s big boy shoes for both Player and GM. While I can forgive the abstract skill/specialty system ah la Sorcerer, the terseness for the combat section (hint: GET SHIELDS) and even the tomfoolery with the undefined Distance and the Grappling Rules and so on, the underdeveloped nature of the Crafting section is an absolutely crippling flaw in a survival game where most of the sample weaponry is made of natural elements and a big part of the game is to somehow forge a settlement.

My tears of joy aside, Xas Irkalla managed to get me absolutely energized and is the most refreshing thing I have come across since sex with blondes. I think this is about as close to Dark Souls as I have seen a game come, and for that I cry an inverted Hallelujah. Join me next time as I go over the bizarre gnostic hellscape that is Xas Irkalla the campaign setting.

DEATH TO ALL BUT METAL.

 

[1] My recommendation would have been to use something similar to Numenera’s Short and Long Distance system, where the precise distance is kept grainy but still defined.

[2] A debilitating illness whereby a system is rendered so abstract and simple that the reader could have come up with it himself in less then 15 minutes, essentially rendering it pointless.

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7 thoughts on “[Review] Xas Irkalla (Core game); The Carcosa we Wanted, not the One we Deserved Pt. I – Rules

    1. Hi Giacomo!

      I can’t actually say, it’s a very interesting question. Most of these single author Fantasy-Heartbreakers tend to evolve from someone’s home game so I am guessing Vail at least tested his introductory adventure and does play rpgs regularly but the bare-bones crafting system is kind of a puzzler in a game that has several abilities that rely on crafting or make crafting more potent. The Kickstarter says the guy has been at it for 4 years, but he does all the art, writing and so with his wife doing the management so it’s not like the dude has been running his Xas Irkalla game every wednesday. I suspect he didn’t playtest it thoroughly but it’s more of a hunch, nothing more.

      The levelling-up doesn’t seem that strange to me, it’s about on par with what you’d see in Dark Heresy, a game I ran the shit out of: you spend XP on either Ability Score advancements, Skills and Talents and it’s possible to count Psychic Powers as a seperate ability pool accessible to a few. There are probably games out there with even more wacky advancement options per level, and the reincarnation stuff is essentially a neat in-game way of handling xp during frequent character death (I caved and switched to 50% XP loss for your new character in Carcosa eventually).

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  1. Illuminating response as always.
    Probably I’ve been stuck too long with my homebrewed systems, but I can’t get along with XP. To me it seems they just complicate matters. I mean, you survive the bloody sandstorm, slaughter the mutant dragon, rescue that silly princess, gey your XP and finally you DECIDE to spend them on… let’s see… two advances in boatcrafting? Happy-feet talent? Becoming more carismatic? Man, that’s too much for me. Can’t voluntary suspend my disbelief that far. In real life, if you chop wood night and day for two weeks then you don’t decide where to put your XP. You advance in Chopping (wood) and fuck off.
    I know, RPGs are not real life. But to me, when game mechanics get too abstract immersivity get fucked.
    Man, did I just write immersivity? I don’t even know if such a word exists

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    1. [XP]

      Xp has never bugged me all that much, I always figured that unless it is absolutely ridiculous, the PCs would be able to pick up some skills by practice, during downtime or days/weeks of unsubscribed time. It’s really convenient and it works pretty well so it gets some slack. I wouldn’t buy some prison guy learning Advanced Mathematics in a maximum security death row but I might squint and decide that the myriad gang-signs, secret tongues and smuggling messages in and out could give him a Novice level in Cryptology for example. What you describe sounds a lot like Call of Cthulhu or Runequest, where your skills literally improve through use. I read about it and it SOUNDS good, but I don’t know what it actually looks like during play.

      [Immersivity]

      I think you were aiming for (the) Immersion (noun) and you ended up trying to turn it into an adjective and then back into a noun. I would have gambled Immersiveness myself (Immersivosity? Immersionality?) but its probably just (the) Immersion. I think I’ve always been fine with some abstraction in hit points or XP since it was never really clear what they meant so the GM can cheat and paper over any odd sort of regularities and pretend the rules as they are work differently in the imagined world they take place in. With XP I tend to look more at the Game balance then any sort of plausibility since humans learn in so many different ways, though I guess there are extremes that even I couldn’t overlook.

      The one thing I always found relentlessly stupid was nondescrete gold and food, particularly if it doens’t allow you to plan properly. I HATE a Wealth statt in almost every game I came across and I have yet to see it done in a way so as to not defy logical thinking in but a few heartbeats of analysis. It was a bizarre shithole in d20 modern and it will continue to be a bizarre shithole in World of Darkness forevermore.

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  2. Yup, money’s a mess. Either you keep track of every penny gained and spent (a pain in the ass) or resign to some sloppy system like those you mentioned. In my last campaign I sidestepped the whole thing having the players (my own children, poor creatures) running a bunch of orklings escaped from slavery just to end shipwrecked on a tropicaljungle island chocked with zombie dinosaures ,carnivouros plants and so on. No money, no food, big fun! Yet, there must be someway to handle money that’s neat, quick and un-wealthstattic…

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    1. [Money]

      It’s probably a question of personal preference, but I’d start discrete, then just start rounding up or down until you feel your currency system is getting too abstract. Don’t like Copper? Round up to Silver, see if it still makes sense, if so, see if you can do something with gold etc.

      [Jungle-orklings]

      That sounds hella fun.Glad you and the kids can spend time that way.

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