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Sunday 23 April 2023

An Epistle to the Eternal Champion

The world—nay, the universe—is drawing to its end, and the eternal struggle between Law and Chaos will come to its fruition. What will be born in the wake of that mighty battle, who knows, but now there are enemy forces upon enemy forces arrayed before, threatening you, your loved ones, and your family. Whether a doomed prince, cunning vagabond, or greedy mercenary, you cannot escape the conflict to come, so where will stand as the final trumpet is blown? Take up your mighty sword infused with the power of demons, place the helm capable of shining the light of law upon world upon your head, remember the spells you stole long ago from the longest library of the age and slip onto the tip of your tongue ready to cast, and renew the pacts of power with the lords of law and counts of chaos and the elemental earls. Their might and magics are yours to command one last time as you explore the dark streets and mausolea of the forbidden city, ride alongside a mercenary band in driving back the raiders from the north, entreat with the wealthiest of mercantile leagues for support lest all theirs be sunk by creatures summoned from the depths—and beyond, and more, for you are a champion of the age and the final fight will come to you.

This sounds much like the classic Swords & Sorcery stories of Michael Moorcock and his Eternal Champion, most notably Elric of Melniboné and Stormbringer, the great blade he wields which infamously feeds upon the souls it kills and infuses the albino prince with their vitality. And it is, but it is also the tales of R.E. Howard’s Conan, Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and Lankhmar, and Jack Vance’s Dying Earth. It is all of those things, but not. Rather this is a roleplaying game of dark Swords & Sorcery fantasy inspired by them—rough and ready, decadent and dangerous… Several of these story series have had their own roleplaying games. Most obviously Stormbringer from Chaosium, Inc., Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, the Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar Boxed Set from Goodman Games, and Dungeon Crawl Classics Dying Earth: Adventures in a Doomed World, also from Goodman Games. The influence of these stories is not just seen in these roleplaying games, but also Dungeons & Dragons going back to 1974, and thus to the Old School Renaissance. The Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition takes these influences—none more so than that of the Eternal Champion—and puts them front and centre.

The Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition is an update of the earlier Black Sword Hack. Published by The Merry Mushmen—best known for the Old School Renaissance magazine, Knock! An Old School Gaming Bric-à-Brac—following a successful Kickstarter campaign, as its title suggests, the Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition is written for The Black Hack Second Edition, the player-facing retroclone originally published in 2016. Although it uses the base architecture of Dungeons & Dragons, what this means is that the players are going to be making all the rolls—not just to attack, but also to defend, resist magic effects, and so on. The Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition is standalone though, eschews the Classes of The Black Hack and thus Dungeons & Dragons, allows the Player Characters of all backgrounds to learn sorcery and enter into demonic pacts, and provides the Game Master with the tools to create her own world (or worlds) and have her Player Characters encounter runic swords, the fae, arcane science, and more.

A Player Character in the Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition is defined by six Attributes—Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. These are initially rated between eight and thirteen. He also has an Origin, which is either Barbarian, Civilised, or Decadent, and three Backgrounds. These provide him with extra bonuses. There is one Background unique to each Origin, Berserker for Barbarian, Inventor for Civilised, and Assassin for Decadent. A Player Character can only have a unique Background if from its Origin. In effect, Backgrounds replace the Classes of The Black Hack. Each gives a single attribute bonus and a skill or ability. To create a character, a player rolls to generate the value for his character’s Attributes, selects an Origin category and rolls for its specifics, and then selects three Background. Two must tie into his Origin, but the other not. The process is quick and easy.

Name: Frivif
Origin: Civilised (Born on the prison island where the monarch’s political opponents are sent)
Backgrounds: Street Urchin, Sword Master, Storyteller
Languages: Thyrenian, Askavian

Doom Die: Ud6

Strength 11 Dexterity 12 Constitution 9
Intelligence 10 Wisdom 11 Charisma 13

Hit Points: 9
Damage: Weapon d6 Unarmed d4
Coins: 50

Mechanically, the Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition is simple. To have his character undertake an action, a player rolls an Attribute Test. He rolls the twenty-sided die and if under the appropriate attribute, his character succeeds. If it is equal to the Attribute or higher, he fails or succeeds at a cost. A roll of one is always a success and twenty a failure, and the Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition also uses a standard Advantage and Disadvantage mechanic. It also uses the Usage Die of The Black Hack, but where that employs the Usage Die to represent mundane resources, such as arrows or rations, 
Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition does not, instead using as a means to handle debt and other important resources that can affect the story. When a Player Character uses a resource, its associated Usage die is rolled. If the result is one or two, the die size is decreased and when a four-sided die has to be decreased, all of the resource it represents is expended. One genre addition that every Player Character has is the Doom Die. This is a Usage die. It is rolled when a Player Character repeats an action in combat, rolls a critical failure on an Attribute Test, or uses a Gift which requires it, and so on. However, it can be called upon and rolled to modify an Attribute Test, but this forces it to be downgraded. With rest it can reset. Once the Doom Die has been depleted, a Player Character cannot use any actions or Gifts which require it and is considered to be Doomed. All rolls are made with Disadvantage until the Player Character rests.

Combat in the Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition uses the same rules and is designed to be quick and deadly. Attacking with melee weapons and parrying require a Strength Test, ranged attacks and dodging a Dexterity Test. Armour subtracts damage, but a shield enables a player to roll a Strength Test at Advantage when parrying. Attack effects such as breaking an opponent’s weapon, disarming an opponent, and making a brutal attack are possible, but require a player to roll his character’s Doom Die. These effects provide a more cinematic feel to combat. Each time a Player Character survives a number of adventures—recorded as story titles—equal to his current Level, he goes up a Level. At all Levels, a Player Character gains a Hit Point, but at even Levels, he increases an attribute and at odd Levels, he is granted a Gift. These divided between the Gifts of Balance, Law, and Chaos, for example, Spirit Alliance, Riddle of Steel, and Bloodlust, respectively. A Player Character in the Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition has a maximum of ten Levels and the gifts his player chooses will affect his final fate.

The Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition grants certain Player Characters access to certain powers from ‘Dark Pacts & Other Vileness’. Initially, these are dependent on particular Backgrounds. Thus, the Warlock for Demonic Pacts, the Shaman for Spirit Alliances, Forbidden Knowledge for Sorcery, the Changeling for Faerie Ties, and Inventor for Twisted Science. None of these are quite straightforward. For example, Demonic Pacts can be invoked daily, such as ‘Ruin’ which breaks a single targeted item or ‘Nightmare’ which prevents the target from sleeping. If more than Demon is invoked per day, the Doom Die is rolled with Disadvantage and the Demon can take its revenge on the invoker if the Doom Die is depleted. There are also suggestions as to how new pacts can be created. Spirit Alliances work in a similar fashion, but are primal in nature and their powers are broader. Sorcery is tied to Chaos, but not as powerful as Demon Pacts and the roll to cast a spell is only at a Disadvantage if it has been cast before that day. Faerie Ties are broader and more varied, such as ‘Barrow Wisdom’ which lets the Player Character talk to the dead, but takes a Wisdom Test and decreasing the Doom Die to get them to co-operate or ‘Cold Iron Weapon’, an inherited blade of legend that inflicts extra damage on the faerie. Twisted Science allows the Player Character to design and build technological marvels a la Steampunk. There are some examples provided, but it is up to the player’s imagination and whether the device fits the world as what his character might create. The Player Character has weekly invention Points to spend creating devices, but must maintain the old ones he already has, so the more devices he has, the less time he has for inventing. This is simple and clever. Lastly, with Runic Weapons, the Game Master can create a great weapon to be wielded by an agent of Law, Chaos, or Balance, often as dangerous to the wielder and his friends as his foes.

The six categories for ‘Dark Pacts & Other Vileness’ are all optional and the Game Master can pick and choose which ones she wants to have for her Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition campaign world—or worlds. Their inspirations are obvious too from the works of Michael Moorcock. The Young Kingdoms for Demonic Pacts and Runic Weapons, the Dark Empire of Granbretan for Twisted Science, and so on. For the Game Master there is also bestiary as well as the all but obligatory for the Old School Renaissance ‘What Do You Find On The Corpse?’ table, and then a complete toolkit to help her create her campaign world. This provides options on the nature of Law and Chaos and the struggle between them; pages of adventure seeds by region or group, like a forbidden city or an iron horde; tables for creating great cities where the forces of Law and Chaos feud; and tables for making travel interesting as it should never be trivial. Balance receives its own section, which also discusses the end game, placing the point of True Balance far away, and it is here perhaps that in the final clash, the Player Characters will be forced to choose a side—losing the Gifts of Chaos if they side with Law and vice versa—and bring the campaign to then end. All of this is written in succinct style, yet this is not enough for the end game. More advice would have been useful for creating such a climatic, campaign-ending adventure.

Two adventures are included in the Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition. The first, ‘Dark Seeds’ is a good starting scenario, the Player Characters waking up with amnesia after having served some kind of prison sentence and forced to work together to survive in a strange land where everyone seem to want them dead. The ending is open and can go anywhere the Game Master decides her campaign is set. The second, ‘Slayers of the Blood God’ is more a mission, the Player Characters sent after a mercenary captain to prevent him from performing a ritual. Both scenarios are short, easily playable in a single session, and leave details ready to be expanded upon by the Game Master. Lastly, there is ‘Heimdallir: Port of the North’, a complete city port standing on the edge of the tundra, ready for the Player Characters to visit.

And there are the appendices. The Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition contains not just one, two, or three appendices, but twelve! In turn, they give advice on running the game, take advice from various inspirational authors, provide solo rules and a bibliography, introducing a Cosmic Usage Die for both Law and Chaos, a complete world with map by Evlyn Moreau in two pages, and more. It is an unexpected embarrassment of riches, short and direct, but always useful and interesting, giving the Game Master more tools and further inspiration.

Physically, the full colour Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition is clean, tidy, and very well laid out. The artwork, oppressive and foreboding, is excellent throughout, and the book easy to read and understand. There are plenty of examples too, and if the book is unnecessarily succinct in places, such occurrences are rare. Otherwise, the Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition is a grand treatment of The Black Hack.

To be clear, the Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition is not an Elric of Melniboné roleplaying game, a Conan roleplaying game, a Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane roleplaying game, a Lankhmar roleplaying game, or a Dying Earth roleplaying game. It is none of these—but it could be. Its inspirations are clear throughout and what they inspire is generic in nature, rather than specific to any particular setting. Think of it, instead, as a tribute act to all of them, but to Elric of Melniboné and the Eternal Champion in particular. And then it goes one step further in providing both players and the Game Master with the tools to tell great adventures and stories in the style of the constant struggle between the primal forces of the universe. In the absence of a roleplaying game in the English language set in the Young Kingdoms—there only being Mournblade from Département des Sombres Projets and that is in French—or indeed any of the other worlds of the Eternal Champion, the Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition not only fills that niche in but perfect fashion, but does so with a very well presented, accessible, and impressive set of roleplaying tools to run dark fantasy in its style.

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