[Review] Xas Irkalla (Core Game); Bringer of Light, Forever Shrouded by Night Pt II – Setting

Welcome back to section two of our delve into the gnostic black metal survival horror fantasy heartbreaker that is Xas Irkalla. In the previous entry we covered the rules, now we take a look at the setting. And what a glorious setting it is! ALSO SPOILER ALERT. CODE OBSIDEAN! IF YOU PLANNING ON PLAYING THIS GAME AS A PLAYER AT THIS TIME OR IN THE NEARBY FUTURE, YOU ARE URGED TO SKIP THIS SECTION FOR YOUR OWN ENTERTAINMENT.

Essentially Xas Irkalla is a cross between Ravenloft and Dark Sun as conceived by Alexandro Jodorowski and H.R. Geiger on a meth bender; a sort of universal graveyard/prison where everything in the multiverse eventually ends up to die an agonizing final death, consisting mostly of wastelands ruled by the psychic overlords of a few city states and lorded over by sinister incomprehensible deities with malevolent designs. It goes without saying that the actual setting is a lot more complex, and Xas Irkalla delves deep into its own convoluted metaphysics in order to convey to you just what it is all about.
Seldom have I seen the metaphysical background of a game worked into the gameplay this well, going far beyond the weird bullshit that the GM spouts at you while you are waiting for the party to get to the next dungeon. Figuring out just what the fuck Irkalla is is actually vital to “beating it.” You read that correctly. Irkalla can be “won,” which only makes sense, given that its increasing power curve and cumulative death fear means that eventually either you must win by escaping, or it will win.

Spawned from Sitra Ahra, the Azerate are eleven anti-cosmic forces that are formless, yet when they are viewed by a mortal, the mind creates horrific images in order to make some sense of them, and may be considered archetypal demons or gods. 

As previously mentioned, Irkalla goes into considerable detail about the make-up of its cosmology, utilizing elements of Left-hand path occultism and the Kaballah which gives it more depth then merely the edge for edge factor that many of these types of games can fall prey too.

Irkalla is “ruled” by Architects, comatose God-Kings of immense power dreaming other universes that either lull their populations into compliance with visions of beauty or terrify them into obedience with nightmares. In their spare time, they make psychic war upon eachother and are constantly on the lookout for psychics to use as power-batteries or human shields, so feel free to add warhammer 40k to the growing list of influences on Xas Irkalla. For whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day indeed!

If an Architect ever gets his shit murdered you get yourself something special since the universe he imagined is now fused with Irkalla, creating an intersection called a Labyrinth, and this is where YOU ,the PCs, come into play. In addition to elements of these dream worlds, the Labyrinths are also a manifestation of the unspeakable torment that his psychic slaves underwent, virtually ensuring they will not be places that you want to visit, but then again no place in Irkalla meets those qualifications so we are good.

As in 40k, we should probably be grateful that someone is scooping up all the psychics from the wilderness and condemning them to lives of brutal servitude since their mere existence ruins it for the rest of Irkalla. Anytime a psychic has a particularly severe nightmare they manifest it into reality, which tends to decimate entire villages. In time and if not captured or murdered, psychics are entirely subsumed by their subconscious, becoming the walking reality holocausts known as Plague Gods, who stir up all sorts of nastiness. It is from the ranks of the oldest and most powerful of the Plague Gods that the Dark Gods came, eventually becoming part of Irkalla, and creating the unending misery so people are motivated to become Architects to escape it. A fucked up sort of natural harmony in the vein of (take a drink) Warhammer 40k, where the Dark Gods do not desire so much as to annihilate mankind but merely to keep it in a perpetual state of suffering.

Civilizations on Xas Irkalla are manifold and heterogeneous, but at the top of the foodchain are the Empires of the Architects, great city states of ziggurats, pyramids, monoliths and temples. They are either festering quagmires of degeneracy and cannibalism that are sustained by the beautific illusions spawned by their shrivelled gods (pick your own contemporary big city comparison here, they are all good) or nightmarish but orderly tyrannies that live in xenophobic terror of the world outside. Outside these few outposts of civilization you have yourself a rotting land of death, endless chasms, rains of ash and deadly supernatural predators. One can imagine that whatever tribes manage to carve out an existence in this bleakest of bleak wildernesses are not exactly friendly and resources are so scarce co-operation between tribes is seldom possible, let alone imaginable. Beyond a fondness for exceptionally cruel punishments for cultural offences and ancestor worship, wastelanders seem to be comparatively decent guys, if only they would stop eating people. Also, because Irkalla is a gnostic hellscape of terror and nightmare it’s okay if the GM just drags you from area to area and fuck geography or consistency.

At this point the setting gets into some sample Architect Empires, and here is where I was suffered the most dissapointment. By and large, Vain’s approach of taking a historical ancient civilization and adding Cannibalism, necromancy or pedophilia is unsatisfying and comes across as too mundane for the outlandishness of the rest of the setting. This, my children, is known as the lazy-man’s method of fantasy civilization writing, appropriate in a B/X OSR game, unforgivable in a game that aspires to greater heights of metal lit-nerd cred. They should have taken the smart man’s option; steal from TWO ancient civilisations and add cannibalism, necromancy or pedophilia.

This is arguably the weakest section of the entire setting. Though the game provides quest hooks, they read like DnD quest hooks, not like Gnostic Survival Horror in Satan-land quest hooks; An Alchemist has made something naughty and its killing people oh noes! Stop him!!! When I could be exploring the fused mausoleums of a thousand civilizations or torturing the secret of the Qlipothic Sphere of Nahemoth from the blind Seers of the Ultimate Pit?!? Get thee to a nunnery! I don’t want to ally with Prince Remesis and plot how to overthrow his naughty uncle, I want to crawl through a tunnel filled with broken glass and snakes, kill a thing that looks like a human with an eyeless bull face with a sharpened human jawbone and feast on its beating heart whilst visions of the Darkness Outside ravage my senses!
Instead we get all this political infighting between various factions which might be alright for another game but it just seems to jar with the tone of the rest of the book. On the plus side, there are some hooks that are clearly meant to be dungeons, or the gnostic satanic equivalent thereof, and that is EXACTLY what they should be.

I mean you get Egypt with a little necromancy (under tomb king levels),  warrior-cannibal land, Roman alchemy land and Grotesque walking human umbilical Game of Thrones Baron land with more diseases (admittedly that last one is kind of rad). The one shining bastion of exceptionalism in this sea of mediocrity is the moving city of Absallu. Here the game turns off the antiquity and turns up the Giger, Lovecraft and just about every black/doom metal album ever.

A lure for unwary travellers, a vast city of gigantic monoliths ruled by the living Corpse Arrashrahk, who is so fucking powerful even his Psychic Slaves are Architects, Absallu is EXACTLY what you’d imagine when you think of an Architect Empire in Xas Irkalla. Terrifying shock troops that have warred with nightmares in a thousand imagined realities, agriculture that runs on the sacrifice of psychics, a bizarre delusional clergy, vast state-run reproduction chambers, a telepathic inquisition and it also happens to be the headquarters of the most powerful Slavers ON THE FUCKING PLANET. Abasallu reads like the final boss of city-states and it sounds like an absoluely KICKASS place to visit, essentially Xas Irkalla’s Carcosa (the city, not the setting). I for one CANNOT WAIT to steal shit from the Architect’s Throne Room, fight for dear life in the slave pits, or go in search of scholars who can translate the Black Grimoire. Fuck. Yes.

Enough setting-fagging, time to get down to some Crunch. Since Xas Irkalla is determined to make me cry black tears of dissapointment and loathing every time it warms my cold, frost-wreathed heart, the monster section is positively aenemic. All we get are some general notes on the inhabitants and generic categories of antagonists. Irkalla has little wildlife, and much in the way of unnatural horror and of course, the most dangerous game called man. We get generic enemy stats with a size and a difficulty, along with a short list of abilities like poison, invisibility, the ability to become impermeable, possession or the power to spawn minions. Large enemies have additional abilities and you get the idea that, like in pretty much any other game, battling gigantic enemies is a terrible survival strategy since they (among other things) bypass shields, which is like being the first to invent gunpowder in the iron age in Xas Irkalla.

The fucking BULLSHIT continues to set in as the game doesn’t even provide some sample PLAGUE GOD or PSYCHIC stats despite them being such an important setting element. The fuck Xas Irkalla? It’s not like more then a page would have been necessary. To its credit, the sample adventures given in the back of the book manage to give you a pretty good idea of what Xas Irkalla combatants look like but still what the fuck man?!?

So what do you do in Xas Irkalla land after you have escaped from the Labyrinth, survived the wilderness, found shelter, made a community, visited cities and died about nine bazillion times? TRAVEL INTO 5 QLIPOTHIC MINDSCAPES AFTER YOU DISCOVER THEIR GRIMOIRES AND SPEND HUGE AMOUNTS OF XP DECIPHERING AND MASTERING THEM ON JOURNEYS INTO YOUR INNER MINDSCAPES WHERE YOU CAN UNLOCK THE QLIPOTHIC SPHERES YOU NEED TO BECOME AN ARCHITECT.

Oh yes Children. Xas Irkalla has an endgame, an endgame that sounds fucking awesome when it’s described but which, by virtue of its sheer length and XP requirement, takes so many sessions that I doubt anyone, even the creator, ever finished or will finish the damned game. It’s like the endgame for DnD Basic Immortals, where you relinquish your immortality and get it back twice before you have more or less won DnD.

Back to the Spheres; Unlocking the Qlipothic Spheres means you gain access to rather large, more flavor/story-based powers in the form of dream-manipulation, but also more bizarre powers like the ability to give birth to a horrific servant creature, sculpt flame, enslave psychics via black umbilicals that you spawn yourself (PSYCHICS HAVE NOT BEEN STATTED OUT AND THUS FAR ARE ONLY FLAVOR BE WARNED), make something appear as something it is not etc. etc. The game mentions that normally becoming an Architect means you end the campaign, but does explore possibilities for a follow-up of either Psychic-comatose Game of Thrones or reincarnation into the opposite gender counterpart of an Endling, meaning their species can now actually procreate and survive. Nice Ideas, but not really something the game gives you all that much support for (but then again, it IS supra-endgame content).

Of course, the process of becoming an Architect is not all that its cracked up to be, and on your path you have to give up some things. For example, the first Qlipothic Sphere (Nahemeoth) means you embrace your Shadow self in the Negative mindscape that represents the death of your civilization, and as a result you can now only regain Stress by killing an innocent. In the Anima Plane you destroy your soul, meaning you can no longer recover Doom and so on and so forth. I am a little perturbed as to what happens when you complete the Astral Plane and you become the Eye on the Throne, and whether you can still reincarnate after that, but I assume this is the case. If you get a case of buyer’s remorse, you can decide to change your mind about learning a Qlipothic Set (in some planes you unlock more then One Sphere at Once) but only once in the entire game.

To his credit, Vail made it so your companions can accompany you on your quest for Architectdom, and only one need unlock the Qlipothic Sphere in order to GTFO. What does everyone else do in Mindscape-land while the biggest nerd unlocks all his anti-chakra’s? Each plane is given a rough overview, no more then half a page, usually followed by between 1-3 little adventure locations of significance that make for a nice scene/terrifying attrition millstone and each plane has at least one uberpowerful artifact that is near impossible to remove, has horrific consequences if you bring it into Irkalla and generally takes about 50-100 XP to attune yourself to it, but given the fact that you PROBABLY get massive XP for unlocking these Qlipothic Spheres, this makes sense. This is a typical location in the mindscapes:

THE NOCTURNAL GARDEN
Seven obese witches perform a ritual under the night sky in the center of this garden of corpses arranged to look like plants and trees. Naamah, a beautiful goddess, tends this garden. She loves the dead, and those she loves become the dead. Characters periodically gain 10 Doom while in her presence. A kiss from Naamah is instant death. The guardian of Naamah is Uridimmu, the mad lion, a humanoid that crawls on all fours, with the head of a blood-soaked and diseased lion. Uridimmu wears Lamashtu’s Adornments, an artifact of the Azerate.

(Artifact statts follow).

While I find it all a bit vague and wishy washy at times, if you CANNOT make an interesting and fucking intense session out of Qlipothic Sphere Questing, YOU ARE LOST AS A GM. The imagery is vivid and haunting, the descriptions scratch unnervingly at whatever area of the brain the dark mirror of Jung’s collective Unconscious is buried in and boy oh boy those artifacts. On the other hand, I get a pretty strong “3e Immortals Handbook” vibe, where some guy describes some cool stuff to you and you just end up rolling 3.000.000 dice and using fifty abilities per round. For whatever it’s worth, the Five Planes are well described and have some great material in there, and the brevity means that they don’t outstay their welcome. While I question the number of times this section will make it to the gaming table and I think as written you might end up just fighting a lot of that beautiful imagery, I think it’s an excellent addition and by far the most interesting part of the setting. I will also bet on a cup of hemlock that this section as not playtested.

THE BLACK LABYRINTH
A massive labyrinth of five dungeons. The dungeon suppresses any sources of light, so the characters are essentially blind. Lucifuge, the furtive ruler of the Black Labyrinth, hides in a secret chamber wearing Adaru’s Veil. Acting as guardian of Lucifuge is Lahamu, a hermaphroditic goat-headed humanoid covered in long and tendriled black hair.

There is an outlandish sort of genius mixed with Hubris here. Who has the guts to run five Blind dungeons using only touch, sound and smell as description?

The GM advice section is actually pretty solid, with several tips like banking any unused material and re-using it at a later time that Vail has a fairly decent grip of the task of a GM. For all its pretensions of being hardcore and difficult, Xas Irkalla seems to expect maturity and mutual respect from both the GM and the Players, and the central focus remains entertainment (well, duh). I particularly liked the emphasis on only rolling dice when absolutely necessary (something more GMs need to fucking learn), and Telegraphing risks, so players can make informed decisions. While I am very much an OSR GM myself and I actually enjoy the odd trap, I agreed with most of the advice.

Besides lots of general advice, it’s interesting to see a book delve into such topics as Descriptive Narration, Horror, Pacing and come through with a modicum of useful advice on providing the Short Evocative Description we want from our GM’s. There is also, much later then necessary, a section on arbitrating Skill Tests, with an absolutely CRITICAL list of sample minor and major consequences that are suitable for a failed or partially successful skill test. This is EXACTLY what was needed to render the whole, very open-ended system intelligible to newer GMs and it should have been placed RIGHT UNDER THE SKILL TEST SECTION. A lengthy description of the themes of Survival Horror as opposed to simply Horror give one a very firm grasp of the requirements of such a campaign. It ends by listing some of the themes that pre-dominate the World of Xas Irkalla in particular, allowing the GM to extrapolate upon what has already been described.

That being said, the advice suffers from being too vague at times, devolving into platitudes or the generic vagueries that permeates internet forum discussions if one is bereft of examples. Consider the following constrast, both elements of Survival horror:

Psychology: The story explores the nature of horror and existence. Morality and the instinct to survive are constantly at odds, causing the characters to face the possibility that they are also monsters, or to sympathize with the beings they kill. A deeper, existential meaning in the story can be a lingering source of horror that frightens the players just as they think about it

Too vague.

Uncertainty: The horror is never completely revealed, the picture left unclear. Darkness itself is not scary—it is what could be in the darkness that is scary. Characters only get glimpses of the horror, even when facing it head-on. The appearance of a wolf is not described; the howls in the distance are heard, then there are the many glowing eyes, then the bared rows of bloodied teeth, the smell of wet fur, the ear-deafening barking,
the putrid stench of breath and the sound of teeth slamming against teeth.
Never are they called their names, they are called things, its, creatures…
The truth is never revealed, only implied.

A perfect summation of a narrative technique used to create a certain atmosphere.

All in all, the GM’s Advice section in Xas Irkalla is a very necessary component in getting it to run on an actual table, and hardly any advice misses the mark (there might be a bit too much focus on player consensus in handling GM arbitration, although as always the GM does get his final say).

Vail clearly put thought into how a typical campaign in Xas Irkalla would go, lining out the escape from labyrinth ->survival  -> settlement -> explore world (cities) -> figure out truth -> Qlipothic Spheres Architect Run that can be inferred from the structure of the game. In addition, the tension which is discussed earlier on is now applied to several typical settings of the game; labyrinths, wastelands, wasteland tribes, Slave Cities etc. and each is described in terms of low, medium and high tension with suggestions being provided on crafting encounters. A final passage deals with two other important elements of the game; Survival scenarios (described in a simple but eminently useful series of steps) and finally a list of example encounters that can happen during Nightime, the worst time ever in Xas Irkalla.

In summary the setting is almost gloriously bleak, with disturbing imagery and bizarre ideas leaping out at you from every page. I think the game could do with some additional errata after it has been released so some rough patches can be sanded down and developed further (for example: HOW do you start a New PC in mid-game without everyone having to sit still while he gets out of a labyrinth by himself. Does the GM just keep a stack of labyrinths nearby?) and I’d be damned interested to see how the Architect questing actually looks on the tabletop.

Join us next time as we look at the final part, which concerns adventuring. Thanks for reading!

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