Welcome again to the last section of uber-black metal fantasy heartbreaker and one-man rpg army Xas Irkalla. This section is the moment supreme, where we see whether Xas Irkalla’s brutal combat system can be married to its dream-like setting of psychic coma-patients and nestled nightmare universes? Can James Vail lead us through the darkness or will he falter and stumble, revealed for a false prophet? The answer is…sort of.
Xas Irkalla’s Adventure section begins on the wrong foot, with an almost OSR-like adventure generator that reads like a series of exploding tables and comes across as boring and lifeless for its simplicity and terseness. The keywords do not trigger an explosion of creativity within the mind but instead fall flat, generating dull combinations that, while technically functional, seem empty. There is seldom enough time to get everyone together to do the most awesome shit you can imagine, and with all the promises Xas Irkalla offers for late-game excellence, you have enough shit to do without running throwaway fetch-quests.
To delve deeper into the adventure generation tables, they consist of a type of mission (Delve, Investigate, Raid etc.), Location (ruins, wilderness, strange structure etc.) and some Complication. Each is further specified in turn, but the end result just feels flat.
Example: (7) Delve. (8) Wilderness. (9) Fresh Water. (3) Become Weakened.
Clearly we are going into the desert to find water for our tribe.
Wilderness: (7) Jungle. (8) Static Electricity. (3) Resource Wellspring.
Uh we are travelling into jungles laced with static electricity (that’s pretty cool at the very least), and our landmark shall be some sort of resource wellspring, in this case a Copper mine.
Obstacles: (7) Dilemma and (10) Quagmire
Per the book’s advice we generate two obstacles so the PCs are faced with a difficult choice.
We get (2) A strange Being offers useful information in exchange for one of your best items for the Dilemma and (6) Traversing Causes Stress.
We resolve that the way through the caverns is labyrinthine and very unsafe, offering a series of perilous and heart-rending climbs, unless the PCs accept help from The Averted Gaze, a two-headed abhuman goatman that makes the caverns his home, collects treasure, and occasionally feeds on the innards of children. It’s not great but it’s something. The question is, who did the heavy lifting here?
The suggestions on how to generate a map come across as overly restrictive in comparison to an OSR dungeon, with each dungeon having a single passage to the objective and the key to that passage hidden somewhere else in the dungeon. It’s not a terrible format to use every once in a while but why would you keep to that as a rule when so many more permutations and variations are possible. The suggestion to go from puzzles and social interactions to gradually more tense and perilous encounters as a general rule is a good one, however, and its just good practice to put a big, spectacular fucking smackdown at the end of a particularly befuddling puzzle section.
The actual adventures are of considerably higher quality. The first adventure describes the escape from the Labyrinth and functions as a starting/introductory adventure, which is a perfect choice. The second adventure is meant to be considerably farther down the line and describes what is almost a campaign against an Architect and eventually a plague god. The first adventure is a lot stronger then the second because of how well its fleshed out, with the second functioning more as an outline for a campaign then something that can be used immediately at the table.
The first adventure is called Nightmares of the Dead Dreamers and it is a mostly linear and puzzle and combat laden string of scenes that culminates in the characters escaping from the Labyrinth and into the wilderness of Xas Irkalla.
The premise is fairly simple and reminiscent of video games like Planescape or Shadowrun (SNES), with the characters waking up in stone sarcophagi and not knowing where they are, and the last thing they remember the death of their worlds or universes. After that the weirdness is turned up to 11 and the characters must find some means to escape the bizarre landscape in which they are imprisoned.
The prose is not perfect and lacks the cryptic subtlety which it exhorts from its would be followers but it’s effective and it conveys the place fairly well;
A withered hooded figure huddles by a fire, somehow constantly obscured by the smoke from the fire, yet still revealing the occasional glimpse of shriveled, raw skin. If approached or spoken to, the thing speaks in raspy whispers: “So the Endlings are vomited into Irkalla. You may wish to return home…but all of that was a lie anyway. Your worlds were merely the hallucinations of my psychic slaves. Your dimension is gone, and you are all that remains of it. For you, this is the land of no return…” The hooded figure answers no questions and quickly disintegrates, like a sand sculpture being blown away.
Needs more terse, but gets the point across and doesn’t waste your fucking time. One particular element I like about this adventure is that all characters start without equipment and the adventure is about the PCs using their wits to arm themselves with improvised weaponry.
The adventure has a nice selection of hideous enemies that could be straight out of Silent Hill or Dark Souls/Bloodborne, from skinless dogs to horrific man/animal hybrids or , some clearly symbolic or aligned to some dark faction the players have no knowledge of when they start. To the adventure’s credit, monsters must be avoided or escaped from as often as they must be killed, and succesful PCs had better learn to estimate when it is better to flee then to fight.
I was both delighted and dismayed at the amount of riddles and other puzzles in this section. While I love a good riddle from time to time, as long as its woven well woven into the Story, Xas Irkalla has the annoying tendency of alternately slamming it out of the park or dropping the ball entirely. There is an early section where the PCs must flee into a maze in order to avoid persuit or face another combat and finding their way through the maze is played out by an utterly jarring memory game of Simon Says that has nothing to do with the rest of the game and ends up being confusing and out of place. To contrast this, later on the PCs face a shrine to the Dark Gods that both serves as foreshadowing and an interesting puzzle in and of itself (very reminiscent of an adventure game actually) and failure to solve these riddles does not bring the game to a schreeching halt (a problem with riddles), it merely introduces an unpleasant consequence like a combat or a penalty.
The variety of obstacles is to the benefit of the adventure, an excellent mixture of formidable natural barriers, riddles and monsters. The much tauted Dilemma approach is fully utilized here, meaning that the PCs are generally forced to pick between 2 equally unpleasant alternatives, at times involving mutilation or morally repugnant behavior. A section later on involves likely flight from a horrific bird woman symbolizing the murdered psychic slaves of the Architect who spawned the labyrinth and involves a choice between two passageways, one fitted with revolving blades, the other with mist. In an interesting reversal of its own advice/total dick move, the blades one ends up being harmless.
The linearity of the whole piece is not to its strength. While each encounter can be solved in at least 2 different ways, the passages you take all lead inexorably to the next piece in the conga line, which is a shame. In addition, there is a segment in the middle where the characters explore some sort of Giger-esque xenomorph womb-structure with a black slug thing in it and it doesn’t seem to have any purpose to it except disturbing birth imagery.
Despite its relatively simple structure, Nightmares of the Dead Dreamers lives up to the promises made in the core book both in terms of disturbing psychedelic imagery and unforgiving difficulty, but (crucially) rewards excellence as well as punishing failure. There is an entire optional section that can only be unlocked if players were smart enough to gather a series of black gemstones and involves a series of difficult riddles and the possibility of obtaining a disturbing artifact if you pass the (at times admittedly arbitrary riddles, or perhaps my logic is not up to spec).
To the adventure’s credit, it spends a considerable amount of time fleshing out nearby wilderness locations after the PCs have escaped, along with providing several locations suitable for exploration, exploitation (if one creates a settlement) and some fucking quest hooks as well, which can really help the GM get started. Nice job. The location names alone are inspiring; the Swamp Cemetary, the Vale of Wind, the Ashen Forest, the Cairn of Kings. This is the stuff. No flowery bullshit or effeminate sophistication. A man’s horror game, with direct, brutal nomenclature that strikes directly at the hindbrain.
The second adventure is titled Throne of the Plague God, which is a fucking awesome title for either a metal album or an adventure. Unfortunately this one kind of blows. The problem is that this is far more of a campaign outline then it is an adventure outline and entire session’s worth of material are blazed through in less then a paragraph.
Our Endlings stumble across the vaguely african village of Makana, which doesn’t appear to be as much of a giant shithole as the rest of Irkalla. Lush valleys, blue-grey ocean, a secluded location and a veneration for abhumans (which your PCs are likely to be?). Fucking paradise! Anyway, they meet Mataweh, village Seer and former Psychic Slave, who claims all of the PCs are her children. Uh…sure. There is something of a dark side to Mataweh as she uses illusions to lure men to her bed and discards any of her offspring not born with psychic powers but you can’t look a gifthorse in the mouth.
Throne of the Plague God spends a few sentences going into the culture of Makana, with some minor notes on religion and lifestyle serving to flesh it out, which is crucial to the later stages of the adventure outline, since PCs are supposed to become invested in the place at least a little. To build up this rapport with the village and establish it as a sort of base of operations, several Events (essentially mini adventures that would probably take a competent GM about half a session to run, maybe more since after all YOU WILL BE WRITING THEM AND NOT THE ADVENTURE) take place to establish a routine and set up the plot, before rudely shattering this momentary paradise with a ferocious attack by Slave City soldiers that lays waste to most of the village.
The Events themselves are alright, rising above the level of fetch-quest or busy work in most places, and most involve beating the shit out of various threats that lurk near the village, from the child-snatching Basket-woman to the creature that looks like Satan that is a by-product of Makana’s psychic protection. One event is a confrontation with a rival tribe that ends up with both tribes having to work together to survive an attack by various monstrosities. Most of these would fill a session pretty well, but the fulcrum is the penultimate event, which involves Mataweh’s psychic son spawning nightmares that end up killing his mother, stripping the village of its psychic camouflage and eventually making the attack possible.
Uh fuck…How do you even review a campaign outline? I could go through each point separately and examine how well it faciliates you turning it into an adventure but that is too much work. There are two problems with the outline but it CAN be used and it does allow for multiple “Acts” and forms of problem solving throughout. The PCs fight as gladiators, get thrown into a pit, are tasked with liberating the evil Architect Queen’s former lover who is now a Plague God and end up having to gather survivors and fight through armies of undead in order to lay siege to the castle where the inverted Queen in the image of Kali and her Drowned One Plague God lover cavort madly and you fucking murder them. Biggest problem? No fucking stats, no mechanical support for any of the complex sections where the PCs must gather survivors in Inverted Architect City Nightmare Land and NO FUCKING PLAGUE GOD STATS. The second major problem? It is too much of a railroad, but at least its a railroad that involves murder, so it isn’t a complete loss. The adventure deigns to dole out some actual fucking artifact statts for the treasure at the end. This one conveys some information on how to run “mid-level” Xas Irkalla games but given the format that Vail uses for his first adventure, it would not have been that much trouble to just paste some stats into each section to make it easier to run for the GM. As it is, it’s a very long outline that would be spectacular but requires work to implement.
There are some backer created artifacts in the back and it lacks the problem I often have with fan-made stuff in that there is a big difference in the degree to which they seem to grasp the theme and mood of the setting. Most of the stuff syncs up pretty well with what has come before; ripped-out eyes, black spheres that imprison characters in a fucked up labyrinth, a stationary group of totems that traps the souls and can be called upon for power, a cursed shroud that makes it easier to understand a Qlipothic Grimoire and so on. Mad props to the backers for avoiding yet another Stormbringer and good on Vail for allowing a bit of interaction, which I guess is the whole point of the Kickstarter experience.
It is final verdict time. I started off calling Xas Irkalla the greatest thing since sex and while my initial hyperbole has diminished considerably in lieu of its several shortcomings I would still call it a very worthwhile effort and one of the most original yet playable standalone rpgs I have seen in quite a while.
Pros: Gets bleak surrealist fantasy horror right. Absolutely brutal combat system. Meaty character customization options for real men. Hideous otherwordly nightmare as far as the eye can see. Brutal difficulty. Supports faction play. Supports gnostic planewalking into inner realms of unfathomable horror. Supports the murder of disgusting children. Good take on reincarnation. Damn fine starting adventure.
Cons: The survival part of the survival game needs work. Poor item crafting/degredation system. Faction resource gathering rules need work. Cop-out on monster stats. Cop-out on adventure generation tables. The “normal” fantasy Architect cities are somewhat ho-hum. No Psychic or Plague God Statts. Overly specific dungeon generation. Second adventure outline sucks balls. Subject matter and brutal difficulty means you will either attract a crowd of pretty bro-tier hardcore gamers that like metal, R.Scott Bakker, Dark Heresy and have a 3dprinted Inquisitorial Rosette with a tiny whisky flask in it that they got from their awesome players as thanks for running all that Dark Heresy for 3 years and/or smelly metal-head psychopaths and powergamers.
For all of the many caveats and criticisms I have thrown up, none of them end up being dealbreakers, none of them are unfixable and none of it means you shouldn’t check out this flawed but awesome game. If you are part of the fairly select group of people who are into this then you will be INTO THIS. Grimdark fans, Metal Heads, Warriors and Deathbringers unite. The time of pussification is over! The edgiest of games has arrived. Death to all but Metal! 7 out of 10!