I love roleplaying games–I’ve played them ever since Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in junior high, and today I’m involved in three different roleplaying campaigns (though one is on temporary hiatus). I’m getting my kids into it now that they’re older, and I have gone on record many times to say that if more parents understood what roleplaying games were really about, they’d actually push their kids into them. A cooperative storytelling activity that encourages imagination, social skills, communal problem solving, and reading? Sign me up!
Of course, the game I’m going to talk about today isn’t one I’ll be playing with my kids anytime soon, and is not going to win anyone over from the “RPGs are evil” side of the argument. It’s called Black Crusade, and it’s about playing the villains instead of the heroes.
Black Crusade is part of the Warhammer 40k RPG line from Fantasy Flight, a series of gorgeously over-produced hardback books steeped in one of the richest and most enormous settings you’ll ever see. “40k” is shorthand for “40,000,” ie, 38,000 years in the future when mankind has already gained and lost contact with more worlds than most other SF settings ever have in the first place. Half science and half dark fantasy, it’s a setting where FTL travel is made possible by magic portals that allow a ship to travel in and out of the Warp, which is basically hell. The setting’s been around forever, notably through the tabletop miniatures game and recent video games such as Dawn of War. In RPG form, the new line began in late 2007 with Dark Heresy, which focused on the Inquisitors who roam the intergalactic empire making sure nobody gets too friendly with the daemons in the Warp. It was a great game with a simple system and some very evocative options, and was followed by Rogue Trader (space pirates) and Deathwatch (space marines). That was intended to be the full trilogy, covering the three main archetypes of play in the setting, but last year they published a fourth book that turns the entire setting on its head: what if you want to play as the daemons in the Warp, seeking to corrupt and conquer the “real” world? Black Crusade won’t be for everybody, but those who like it are going to absolutely love it.
Villain campaigns are a tricky thing to handle, and many a game group has tried and failed to make them work. Usually they fall apart because one or more of the players interpret “I’m a bad guy” to mean “I can screw over the rest of the team if I want to.” Black Crusade addresses this directly by giving the players a common goal and different, often complimentary ways of achieving it. They have to work together if they want to get anything done.
The goal is simple: you are an acolyte of the Chaos Powers, and you want to gain in favor and strength to eventually become a Chaos Daemon. See what I said about being kind of dark? You track your progress towrd this goal with two tally charts: Infamy and Corruption. Everything you accomplish gives you Infamy, and everything you experience gives you Corruption. Choices you make, and situations you get yourself into, will raise your Corruption, and the more corrupted you get the more powers you’ll be granted by the Chaos Gods. Once you hit 100 Corruption your transformation will be complete, but what you transform into depends on your Infamy: with at least 100 Infamy you’ll become a Daemon Prince, but with anything less you’ll become a mindless Daemon Spawn. Your character arc is essentially a life-or-death balancing act, gaining enough Corruption to become hugely powerful without tipping over the edge and losing yourself completely. By working with other characters you have access to more abilities, more strings you can pull, and so on, so you can gain Infamy at a much faster rate. Screw the other players and you stand to lose a lot more than you gain.
Infamy is gained primarily through Compacts, which is an interesting adventure system that puts the players in a much more active role than normal–fitting, I think, for a game about villains. This is one of my favorite parts of the whole game. A Compact is a plan, more or less, where the players come together and say “We want to gain some infamy. What should we do?” This primary objective can be something small (assassinate an important leader, steal an artifact, etc.) or huge (conquer a planet, etc.) or anything in between; your goals are likely to be modest at first until you gain a little more leverage. Let’s say your group decides to raise an army–you can’t just do that out of the gate, so you need some secondary objectives to help get you there. Say there’s a penal colony in your sector of space, with an army of criminals just waiting to be freed and armed; your secondary objectives could involve killing the warden in charge, poisoning the guards, buying or stealing a bunch of weapons, and so on. The group defines the objectives based on the skills of its members: if one character is a traitorous Imperium official, he could position himself to replace the current warden through political machinations; if another character has connections to Nurgle, the Chaos God of disease and decay, he could put a mutagen into the water supply and corrupt the planet from within. Everyone has something to contribute, and step by step you conquer the galaxy. As your objectives are completed you gain Infamy, including a special boost for completing the Compact, and then it’s time to use your new resources (say, a shiny new army of mutated prisoners) to hatch a new plan and start a new Compact.
One of my favorite things about the Compact system are the personal objectives, an underhanded nod toward the “I’m evil so I can do whatever I want” mentality. You know some of the players are going to do it anyway, so why not make it part of the game? Personal objectives allow a player to do something selfish and unexpected without resorting to the obnoxious “steal all the loot” pattern that so many villain games fall into. Remember: the idea here is to be a villain for the helpless NPCs, not for the friends you hang out with to play the game. Let’s use our penal colony example: you’ve defined your main objective (raise an army of prisoners) and your secondary objectives (replace the current warden, mutate the prisoners and guards, and steal a shipment of weapons intended for a distant war). Each player now has the option of adding their own secret objective, in private discussion with the GM, which can gain them a bunch of infamy at the risk of complicating the job for everyone else. Let’s say your character is a follower of Khorne, the Chaos God of battle. You want to win his favor with a big fight, but your plan doesn’t really call for one. It does, on the other hand, call for a shipment of weapons to be delivered to a planet full of criminals. Your personal objective might be to deliver the weapons early, and distribute them before the guards have been incapacitated, thus resulting in a massive prison riot. The end results will be more or less the same–you’ll get your army, and the guards will be dealt with–but the path to get there will be a whole lot bloodier. Personal objectives get really interesting once you realize that everyone in the party probably has one, and many of them might conflict. It takes a very good GM to keep this house of cards intact, but the Compact system and the shared goals help keep the party together and each character (and player) personally invested in the group’s communal success. Like the Infamy/Corruption system, it’s a balancing act, but one with some very unique rewards you won’t find anywhere else.
The Corruption system, while we’re on the subject, has some cool features I want to be sure to mention, which go to the heart of character creation. The previous 40k RPGs have each had their own system for character class and progression, with varying degrees of success. The low-water mark for this might be Rogue Trader, which stratified the availability of certain skills and talents so tightly that many character types felt ridiculously constrictive; if you wanted to wield two guns at once, for instance, but you didn’t choose one of the few classes that had access to this ability, you were hosed no matter how strong your character concept might have been. Some strictures are important, naturally, but when they feel painful and arbitrary it gets to be too much. Black Crusade solves this problem beautifully, in a move that makes it, in my opinion, the hands-down best of the 40k RPGs: they did away with character class progression altogether, and base your progress instead on your actions in-game and your loyalty to the Chaos Powers. You start with an archetype, such as Apostate (a charismatic talker), Heretek (a corrupted cyber-mechanic), or the Sorcerer (a Chaos Space Marine with magic powers). As you play, you keep track of your actions and advances, which help determine your alignment, and your alignment will help determine how much you have to pay for new advances–anyone can get any skill or talent in the game, but your connection to a certain Chaos God (and, in conjunction with that, a certain playstyle) will determine how easy or hard it is to get. The Forbidden Lore skill, for example, belongs to Tzeentch, the Chaos God of sorcery and change, so taking it brings you closer in alignment to Tzeentch. Take enough Tzeentch-based advances and you become allied to Tzeentch, making similar advances cheaper and opposed advancements (anything aligned with Khorne or Nurgle) more expensive. Thus anyone can have Assassin Strike, for example, but followers of Slaanesh, the Chaos God of trickery and deception, can get it more easily.
Now: the Corruption thing I was talking about. You see, Corruption is not just a score in the corner of your character sheet, it’s an actual change, both physical and mental, that comes over your character. That change is marked with mutations and powers, some visible and some not, which add cool new options as your character grows. Just like skills and talents, the Corruption powers you have access to will change depending on which Chaos God you choose to follow. An unaligned character will still gain a mutation, but a character dedicated to, say, Nurgle will have a chance to gain a mutation specific to Nurgle, more powerful and thematic than the standard list (including such savory delights as Nurgle Rot and Corpulent Immensity). Closely aligned characters can also gain bonus Corruption points for doing things their patron approves of: killing a powerful foe is one thing, but if you want to please Nurgle you’ll do it with poison. Thus your actions throughout the game, and the rewards you reap for them, will be dripping with story (or in Nurgle’s case, oozing).
The game is not perfect, by any means. The options to include both humans and (ten-foot super-powered) Space Marines in the same party is problematic, not so much for balance (they’ve done a pretty good job) as for the difficulty of giving everyone equal opportunity to shine. I was also taken a bit aback by the lack of setting information inside the Warp–there’s some, to be fair about as much as the previous books had, but the Warp is such a weird place that I really felt like I needed more. I couldn’t assume that I knew what it was like, the way I did with the 40k games that take place in the “real” world of the Imperium. Another concern is the game’s focus on player-driven Compacts–I don’t consider this a failing of the game by any means, as I love the Compacts, but it is a bit of a barrier to entry for people expecting a more traditional campaign experience.
Perhaps most of all, villain campaigns are not for everyone. Maybe your group isn’t ready to work together as closely as a villain game (ironically) calls for, or maybe your players don’t want to be dastardly monsters who strive for daemonhood. If you don’t, that’s fine–play Dark Heresy, where you can root out corruption instead of sowing it. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a new perspective and an all-new playstyle, Black Crusade can be absolutely stellar. It’s the most unique and polished game set in one of the richest worlds in the industry, and I think you could have a lot of fun with it.