Black Crusade is the core book for the fourth Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay series from Fantasy Flight Games. Black Crusade is a full-color, 400-page hardcover that retails for about $60. This review will give a general impression of the book, break down the contents in more detail, and conclude with my personal opinions. Additionally, while this is a review of the book, not of the system, since this is a core book the system will get a discussion anyway. If you’re like me, you’ll probably end up buying and reading more RPG books than you’ll ever get to bring to the table, so this review will consider the perspective of the reader, in addition to that of a GM/player.
Black Crusade (along with Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, and Deathwatch) is set in Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40K universe (motto: “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.”). While the first three WH40K roleplay product lines placed the players as different sorts of agents for the Imperium of Man, Black Crusade has the players taking on the role of servants of Chaos, dedicated to the downfall of the Empire. Although there is plenty of railing against the corpse-god of the Imperium, there are no anti-heroes or misunderstood loners in Black Crusade – the player characters are pretty firmly in the “bad guy” camp, having traded rigid order for a more subtle bondage.
Characters can be either human Disciples of Chaos, or Chaos Space Marines. The “normal” humans get more skills and can start off a bit better outside of combat, but the Chaos Space Marines are substantially more powerful in combat, to the point where the book has to give tips on how to modify the system and/or tweak encounters to make them work for mixed groups (e.g., change the Horde rules for against humans, or have bad guys use lots of armor-piercing weapons). Although you can potentially take it wherever you want, the game’s sweet spot seems relatively combat focused.
Characters in Black Crusade have a definite expiration date – Chaos is fickle, and its servants are going to accrue Corruption points as time progresses. At the same time, characters will (hopefully) be accruing Infamy because of their victories. If a character hits the game’s Infamy target before he accrues 100 Corruption points, then he “wins” and becomes a Daemon Prince (the Infamy target is set by the GM, depending on how hard he wants this achievement to be). If the character hits 100 Corruption points before hitting the Infamy target, then he mutates out of control and becomes a sad little Chaos Spawn. Either way, the character is done.
The rules and technical presentation in Black Crusade were clear and not difficult to grasp. The fluff writing, while good, became a repetitive fairly quickly – there are only so many ways you can express the fairly limited philosophies of the four Chaos gods and, unlike the Imperium, Chaos doesn’t have the same amount of developed story and society to recite and expound upon.
The layout got the job done (which is mostly all you can ask of layout) – there didn’t appear to be any layout errors, the page borders were thematic, and the graphics didn’t get in the way. About the only thing I didn’t like is that some of the flavor sidebars were “handwriting” on parchment, but handwriting that was so cramped that I had to strain to make out what it was saying (maybe I’m the only one who has this issue, but I’d prefer to sacrifice that little bit of flavor to get more legibility).
The art itself was relatively sparse, and a decent bit of it was black-and-white instead of full color (in particular, I’m not sure why the Adversaries pictures were mostly B&W – that’s a place I tend to look for more images and detailed images, so a creature/entity can be described better to the players).
The editing of Black Crusade did not seem to live up to the standards of prior FFG RPG products I’ve read. There were, for example, quite a few “spellcheck” errors (e.g., hordes v. hoards), and a couple of instances of lines randomly having the wrong size font.
Introduction (~25 pages) – The Introduction provides a brief glance at the nature of the warp, and expounds on the four Gods of Chaos – Khorne (violence), Nurgle (disease and decay), Slaanesh (desire), and Tzeentch (change, fate, magic). There is also a survey of the Empire of Man, including a history of its foundation and the Horus Heresy and the Traitor Legions. The introduction then lays out what are basically the three possible sorts of setting for a Black Crusade campaign – beyond the edge of Imperial control (“Those Who Live Without”), hidden on an Imperial world (“Those Who Live Within”), and on a Daemon World (“Those Who Live Beyond”).
Playing the Game (~20 pages) – Black Crusade uses a variant of the same system that powers the other WH40K Roleplay books. Characters have nine normal Characteristics, plus Infamy. Each ranges from 1 to 100 (human characters start with a 25 in each). Along with Weapons Skill (hitting things), Ballistic Skill (shooting things), Strength and Toughness from the 40K tabletop game, Black Crusade characters also have Agility, Intelligence, Perception, Willpower, and Fellowship (the catch-all proactive social stat). A character also has Characteristic Bonuses, which are simply the tens digit of the Characteristic. The core mechanic for the game is to roll percentile dice, trying to roll lower than the appropriate Characteristic. More difficult tasks apply a penalty to Characteristic, while being skilled at a task gives a bonus to the characteristic. Characters achieve an extra degree of success for each 10 they beat their target by. There is also the usual array of extended, opposed, and assisted tests. Every roll in the game that isn’t a percentile die is some number of d10 (or d5, rolling a d10), so you only ever need d10 to play. This chapter also includes rules for movement (in Structured and Narrative Time, also known as combat and non-combat) and other basic mechanics – climbing, jumping, swimming, encumbrance, lighting, flying, and gravity.
Character Creation (~45 pages) – Character creation in Black Crusade has seven steps – pick a “race” (human or Chaos Space Marine), generate Characteristics, pick an archetype, “explore the passions,” customizing with starting experience, picking starting equipment, and checking to see which (if any) God of Chaos the character has embraced.
– Race: Humans (“Disciples of Chaos”) start with a handful of Skills and a bonus to Initiative. Chaos Space Marines start with about a dozen each of Skills and Talents, almost a score of small bonuses due to his altered physiology, plus the Unnatural Characteristics and fancy wargear that make them extra-potent in combat. Chaos Space Marines also start with a 30 in each Characteristic, instead of a 25.
– Characteristics: The default method of Characteristic generation is to roll 2d10 for each Characteristic, add that to the starting 25/30, and call it a day. Optionally, players can distribute 100 points as they see fit among the nine Characteristics (no more than 20 to each). Either way, starting Infamy is generated randomly.
– Archetypes: Each race has four archetypes to choose from. Each Archetype provides additional Skills, Talents, and Gear, plus the character’s starting Wounds. This is one place that the human characters can catch up, as their archetypes are much more generous – as a result, the Chaos Space Marines (who get most of their bonuses from their race) will tend to be more homogenous than the humans (who get most of their bonuses from their archetype, and later from customization experience). For Chaos Space Marines, the four archetypes are Champion (a leader), Chosen (straight up combat), Forsaken (survivability and wargear), and Sorcerer (psyker). For humans, the four archetypes are Apostate (social ability), Heretek (cybernetic), Renegade (combat-focused), and Psyker.
– Explore the Passions: This is where the book exhorts the player to put some personal touches on the character. Mechanically, these include a Pride, Disgrace, and Motivation, each of which provides a small benefit and a small penalty. They can be chosen by the player, or rolled randomly. The character can gain mechanical benefits if played in accordance with these descriptors.
– Spend Experience Points – Human characters gain 1000 xp, and Chaos Space Marines 500, to be spent as the player sees fit on boosting Characteristics, Skills, and Talents. Characteristics Advances (+5) and Skill Advances (+10) start at 250 and 200 xp, respectively, and go up for subsequent purchases of the same statistic. Talents, which provide unique benefits, are grouped into three Tiers, and cost 250-750xp. All Characteristics, Skills, and Talents are either unaligned, or dedicated to one of the four Chaos gods. A character becomes Aligned to a god when he has at least five more Advances that are dedicated to that god than he does Advances that are dedicated to any other god. Being Aligned with a god grants a reduction in xp costs for Advances that are dedicated to the god, and an increase in xp costs for Advances that are dedicated to the deity who is opposed to that god. Alignment is checked every 10 Corruption points. During character creation, characters are always unaligned. This system of Alignment (and other mechanical effects of growing closer to the Chaos gods) replaces the class-based advancement system used in the other WH40K Roleplay titles.
– Equipment: In addition to the equipment they received from their race and/or archetype, each character gets to choose a couple of pieces of gear.
– Embrace the Dark Gods: Mostly a discussion of the four Chaos Gods, this section has no mechanical effect unless a character has accrued 10 Corruption points during character creation, at which point he will become Aligned to one of the gods. Characters can gain Marks for their aligned god if they have enough Advances (20) with that god (and not too many with any of the other gods).
Skills (~15 pages)/Talents and Traits (~30 pages) – Black Crusade features about 30 skills, although some (such as the Lore skills) are many different skills. Most skills can be used untrained, at a -20 penalty, but some cannot. There are about 130 Talents, which can be bought for experience. They are weighted more towards the lower level Tiers – ~50 Tier 1, ~40 Tier 2, and ~30 Tier 3. They are mostly unique, although a few can be taken more than once. Among the Talents are the Black Crusade versions of Leadership, letting a character create a Retinue to tag along. Traits, unlike Talents, cannot be bought with experience and mostly represent biological/cybernetic features. A character may gain them as the game goes onbut typically not by choice (for example, a character may mutate as a result of Corruption).
Armoury (~60 pages) – The gear list is the biggest chapter in the book and is pretty comprehensive, including a wide array of ranged and melee weapons (for normal folk and for Chaos Space Marines), armor (including fields), ammunition, drugs, tools, gear, and cybernetics. In to a broad array of different pieces of gear, most gear can be of varying levels of craftsmanship, applying bonuses and penalties of various sorts. Weapons and Armor can also be modified in a variety of ways. Finally, this chapter has rules for creating Daemon Weapons, which bind a demon into a weapon to greatly enhance its potency – although this poses risks to the user.
Psychic Powers (~30 pages) – A character’s raw psychic power is represented by his Psy Rating (Chaos Sorcerers start with a 2; human Psykers start with a 3). Psy Rating is increased as a Talent, but is limited by the character’s Corruption level (more Corruption increases access to psychic abilities). Individual Psychic Powers are bought with xp, and are activated with a Focus Power Test. Depending on the ability, the test may be anything, but is most commonly a raw Willpower test. Psy Rating is a bonus on the test. Powers can be used Fettered, Unfettered, or Pushed. When the psyker is more restrained, he doesn’t get as much of a bonus, or as much of an effect, but had no chance of drawing negative attention from the Warp. When unfettered, the power operates as normal, with a chance of the warp intruding into reality. When a psyker pushes it, the effects will be bigger and the roll more likely to succeed, but there will also be some sort of psychic side effect, and it’s more likely than usual to be a harmful one.
Combat (~30 pages) – A character’s initiative is his Agility Bonus plus 1d10. Characters act in initiative order, and get to take one Full Action or two Half Actions (there are also Free Actions, Reactions, and Extended Actions). Normal movement and standard attacks are both Half Actions. Black Crusade also gives you a full array of combat moves – aiming, charging, grappling, assuming a defensive stance, delaying/readying actions, feinting, known-down, two-weapon fighting, and various sorts of movement. Because this is Warhammer 40K, you can also Overwatch. Attacks are tested against Weapon Skill or Ballistic skill, and can be dodged and/or parried, as appropriate. If you hit, then you determine where you hit, then roll damage, which is reduced by the target’s armor on that location and its Toughness. If you roll a 10 on a damage die, this causes Zealous Hatred – if the attack dealt damage, the target also suffers the effects of mild Critical Damage or, if no damage would be dealt, the target takes one anyway. Attacks can be modified for cover, darkness, terrain, range, fatigue, elevation, size, and surprise. Characters have Wounds and so long as they don’t take more damage than their Wounds, they’ll come back just fine. If a character starts taking more damage after running out of Wounds, then he has to start rolling on the Critical Damage tables (there’s a different table for each combination of body part and type of damage, so 16 tables taking up 8 pages) – mild results produce temporary negative consequences, and higher results from more Critical Damage start inflicting permanent effects, up to and including death.
The Game Master (~30 pages) – The GM chapter discusses three styles of Black Crusade campaign – militants, corruptors of men, and seekers of proscribed knowledge. This chapter also talks about Compacts, which are basically game aids where the GM and the players lay out a missions (be it short or long) with primary, secondary, and personal/tertiary objectives – the PCs will receive xp and infamy for completing these objectives. For each Compact, one character is dubbed the Anointed (aka, the guy in charge), the characters must kick in resources, and the mission may be dedicated to one of the gods of Chaos. The GM chapter includes material on social interaction and psychological conditions, plus extensive material on using Black Crusade with the other WH40K RPG product lines.
Corruption and Infamy (~15 pages) – Characters move up the corruption track as their careers progress, with a new “gift” of the gods earned every 20 points for humans, and every 30 for Chaos Space Marines (plus a bonus early one at 10 Corruption Points, regardless of race). These gifts are mostly random mutations, and often ones that will hamper the character in some way (you don’t mind that your arm became a mass of tentacles, right?). Alternatively, if a character is dedicated to a Chaos god, he may attempt an Infamy test in order to get a reward from his deity, instead of rolling on the “gifts” table. These gifts generally are positive, and include Daemon Weapons, a face that resembles the deity, and other appropriate benefits. This chapter also (finally) rolls out the rules for Infamy Points, which can be used rest, heal damage, gain bonuses on tests, un-Stun, obtain items, or activate deity-specific features. Characters have Infamy Points equal to their Infamy Bonus. The Infamy Characteristic can also be sacrificed to prevent death.
A Galaxy in Flame (~35 pages) – This is basically the setting chapter for the book. It contains more background on the Imperium, and then a brief look at each of the settings for the other WH40K Roleplay lines – the Calixis Sector (Dark Heresy), the Koronus Expanse (Rogue Trader), and the Jericho Reach (Deathwatch). All three of these locations are linked by the Koronus Passage, as is the default Black Crusade location, the Screaming Vortex (the passage runs from the Calixis Sector to the Koronus Expanse, with portals/gates from within the Passage to the Jericho Reach and the Screaming Vortex). Most of the chapter goes on to describe the Screaming Vortex and its denizens, with short write-ups of twenty worlds, a few important NPCs, and the Necrons and Dark Eldar. The Vortex itself is a place where the Warp, to greater or lesser extent, blends with realspace, typically to bizarre and/or horrifying effect.
Adversaries (~25 pages) – The adversaries chapter covers demons, heretics, soldiers of the Imperium (from line Imperial Guardsman to the Grey Knights), Necrons, Dark Eldar, and Eldar Harlequins. You will have to look elsewhere for warfare, however, as there are no vehicle write-ups (Rites of Battle for the Deathwatch line might do the trick). The selection of daemons is incomplete (there are only about half of the basic types included), so that you will also have to find elsewhere.
False Prophets (~15 pages) – A full adventure to get you started in Black Crusade. I shall avoid any spoilers.
Black Crusade also includes a detailed Table of Contents and Index.
First, if it wasn’t clear from the basic overview – the characters are going to be bad guys. The game (probably wisely) doesn’t even try to add more “depth” to the forces of Chaos. If you don’t think that you, or your group, will have fun playing a bunch of bad guys who are basically in it to tear stuff down and revel in the glory of it all, then Black Crusade is not the game for you. If you always wished your GM would run the demon side of In Nomine then, well, Black Crusade might be exactly what you’re looking for.
That, of course, is just a question of personal preference – the game seems solid for what it was designed to be. Even the most obvious potential problem – balancing both humans and Chaos Space Marines – was handled as well as it could have been. So if running/playing in this sort of campaign is interesting to you, then Black Crusade should be a good pickup.
A couple of areas felt lacking – the write-ups on the Traitor Legions, and the selection of daemons in the Adversaries chapter. I would not be surprised to see supplements covering both topics more fully, including Legion-specific Archetypes for the Chaos Space Marines. More material on the Chaos Space Marine Legions would have made for a nice read (moving out of the repetitive descriptions of Khorne/Nurgle/Slaanesh/Tzeentch and their concerns), but with that said, I can’t see where you could really shoehorn much of anything else into the book without cutting back on something mechanical.
Overall, Black Crusade is a high quality product, albeit one whose subject matter might not have as much appeal for as many players/readers as the Imperium-focused Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay product lines.