Xas Irkalla: A Brutal New Game Worthy of Metal
It seems pointless to have a black metal role-playing game when basically every black metal dude looks like he’s rocking Dungeons & Dragons cosplay already. Still, artist James Vail sees a niche that needs to be filled, and so Xas Irkalla rises from the primordial ooze. And to be fair, Xas Irkalla is way, way more brutal than any D&D campaign I’ve ever heard of. Hell, it’s more brutal than Oderus Urungus’ Towers Two adventure. This is a game for people who listen to Merzbow for funsies.
The world of Irkalla, as you might have guessed, is not exactly a welcoming one. Picture a Dan Seagrave album cover but with a Darkthrone color palette, and you’re 90% of the way there. A twisted landscape made of stitched together pieces of dying dimensions, it’s harsh, unforgiving and filled with strange, inhuman creatures. There’s even a table at the back of the book with descriptors like “vomiting,” “hair/cilia,” and “lair” to help you roll up setting features and locations. If there are any rolling shires here, they’re probably covered in pus-oozing thorns.
The characters don’t fare much better. The book suggests you start them off in a treacherous labyrinth with no resources and a hazy sense of who they used to be. Character generation is simple, at least – you roll a few d10s to assign adjectives from a table and you’re good to go. And that’s for the best. Your character will most likely die. Often. And not well. The recommended starting adventure alone will probably wipe out half your party before they even get to the Leviathan at the bottom of the chasm (Mastodon reference!). Like Cyberpunk 2020, the characters take location-specific damage, meaning they can get fucked up pretty badly. If your characters survive long enough to level up they do get more badass, but so do their adversaries – enemies automatically go up in difficulty as the PCs grow. Thankfully, the game allows you to just create a new character at the same level.
Assuming your players don’t get eaten by unspeakable horrors early on, eventually they get to explore the mythology of the world. Vail drew inspiration from the Satanic sect known as the Temple of the Black Light, a type of Chaos-Gnostic, left hand path occultism of the type that bands like Watain, Behexen, and Dissection follow. The world is populated by tortured psychics, ageless demons, decaying civilizations, and ruthless tyrants. Basically, a Clive Barker novel. Anything horrible you can imagine can exist here. Accordingly, it doesn’t seem too great to be a woman in this environment (the book mentions the existence of, uh, breeding pits), but the men aren’t much better off. At least it’s based in horror fantasy, not white supremacist fantasy!
The system reflects the brutal philosophy of the game. It’s similar to Fate or Apocalypse World, where it’s more of a loose conversation in which the players and GM go back and forth building the world and performing actions. When you do something that could fail, you roll dice against a high difficulty; that’s not unusual. That’s not the nasty part, though; you can take more dice to better your chances, but if you want more dice, you can take stress. Stress is bad because it makes it easier for the character to fail. And so it constricts, until the meat bags meet their doom (and the character sheets literally have a Doom track on them). You can relieve stress by feasting on carcasses, though. Good luck finding one that won’t poison you.
As a caveat, I can mention I’ve not yet played the game – the rulebook is still in progress, and I feel it would be unfair to judge based on that. Still, from flipping through the world description and rules, it seems like a fun way to spend a game night with friends of a similar sadomasochistic mindset. Throw on some Xasthur and immerse yourself in a bleak dystopia that’s at least not our real-life bleak dystopia.