If Call of Cthulu has players investigating cosmic horrors, Xas Irkalla invites you to wander the dream-haunted worlds of elder gods.
Xas Irkalla is an rpg steeped in extreme grimdark, cthulu-esque horror, acknowledging that good rarely wins, and when it does, it is only at great cost. Almost everything in this system is balanced with drawbacks, and even the greatest min/maxer will not come away with characters unscathed.
The system provides simple-yet-solid mechanics to make this game come alive with dread. You have to balance survival against advancement for yourself and potentially settlements that you want to grow. You’ll see everything is dark and ominous (in an “everything’s wrong” sort of way) by just opening the book. One of the things it does well is make you worry over what you should and should not get yourself tangled into – making every roll terrifying – as failures and even successes can push one further toward their doom.
Despite this praise, there are some unexpected quirks of the system. You can build characters so close to death from character creation that I wonder – given the lethality – why one would ever do that. Risk/reward is baked into every die roll, but there is always more risk than reward without taking certain character advancements, which I am sure any optimizer will build a character to if their goal is to survive. There are at least two big death spirals in the game, and if I can nitpick, the PDF is unoptimized, which made my phone cry. In my humble opinion, I think the system needs immediate tweaks regarding stress, psychosis, and doom, which I’m hesitant to play without.
While Xas Irkalla jumps out as a gritty addition to the horror genre of TTRPGs. It’s certainly not for everyone. If you can’t handle concepts that assault sensibilities of right and wrong, stay away. This game throws good and evil together, churns them up in a blender, and spits out an ooze of unapologetic, cosmic horror.
Ultimately, I’m excited for this game. I enjoy grimdark along the lines of the Berserk anime, Lovecraft, etc. and have wanted a system that would allow me to play in those worlds. It’s a great game not because there’s broken limbs, rules for bleeding out, casting magic, and recovering dark artifacts. All that’s there, but it’s a great game because it’s visceral, forcing you to exist in a world constantly at your throat. If you don’t mind death spirals and want a deadly-as-hell game, then I totally recommend it as-is!
Xas Irkalla is authored by James Vail and is available on DriveThruRPG.
- Truly horrifying setting with oodles of lore
- Freeform character creation with welcome attempts at balance
- Most everything character related has benefits paired with drawbacks
- (i.e. weapons, carrying capacity, advancements, etc.)
- Incorporates ideas like settlements
- Targeted health system that doesn’t feel problematic or tedious
- No HP; only injuries
- Bookmarked PDF
- Death Spirals (unless you dig that sorta thing)
- Psychosis character status is ripe for abuse
- Can make characters that start with 100% chance to die on certain failures
- Unoptimized PDF (phone couldn’t load past ~pg. 60)
WARNING: This review mentions dark things from the Xas setting, including direct excerpts from the book. Go watch some cat videos if you don’t want to hear about things like psychic enslavement.
Usually, this is where I’d give some background of things, like where the RPG world is at with games in the horror genre or how a particular system has evolved over time. This time, however, I’m going to start by letting the game speak for itself. Here is an excerpt from the introduction:
Under grey skies, an ancient, decayed planet quakes from the effects of sorcery, where at night the land itself becomes a nightmarish death trap, scavengers struggle to survive against abhorrent creatures in surreal labyrinths, wilderness villages of alien species and cannibal tribes fight against the armies that come to take their psychic young, and sorcerers enslave thousands to tend to their bodies while they dream of paradises in dimensions beyond. This is the world of Irkalla, a world of suffering that
all its denizens wish to escape. Survival must be earned here, and death can be found at every opportunity.
-Xas Irkalla (pg. 13)
I’ll also add that the game’s name comes from an ancient Sumerian story wherein Ishtar (or Inana), a fertility goddess akin to the Roman Venus, descends into the Netherworld. James Vail, the author of Xas Irkalla, gives the reader a little portion of the tale from what appears to be a different source. As someone who enjoys history, this made me smile. Irkalla is the Summerian name for the netherworld, ruled by the Queen of the Dead, Ereshkigal.
In the story (which you can read a version of here), Ishtar descends into Irkalla to attend a funeral of The Bull of Heaven, Gudgalana. Gudgalana is the husband of Ereshkigal. If you’ve read the Epic of Gilgamesh, you’ll might realize that Ishtar is responsible for Gudgalana’s death. So when Ishtar is killed and strung up by the Queen of the Dead, it’s not entirely unexpected.
This story perfectly frames the game’s setting. Irkalla is an ancient place where nothing is sacred and even gods can be killed.
Skill Tests, Stress, Doom, and Psychosis
All rolls in Xas are made by rolling 1-3 d10’s (and more with certain character options). The largest die plus any specialty bonus is the result. If any of the dice show a 1, you take 1 stress per die rolled. You start with 3 Stress and it can never be lower than 3. It goes up to 9, and after that, you start gaining 5 Doom per point of stress you would have taken.
Complete Success: Result of 10 or more
Partial Success: Result >= current stress
Disaster: Result < current stress
Your rolls can also have Advantage or Disadvantage. With advantage, all your roll results are upgraded by one step. e.g. a failure becomes a partial success. With disadvantage, you downgrade all results by one step.
Doom comes into play when you get a disaster in a life-or-death situation. In these disaster cases, you roll a death roll (a d100). If the result is <= your doom, your character is dead. D.E.A.D. You start with 10 Doom, can never be lower than 10, and goes up to 100.
Looking at this graph, we have the following:
1 Die in Pool: 10% Chance to gain 1 Stress (5 Doom)
2 Dice in Pool: 19% Chance to gain 2 Stress (10 Doom)
3 Dice in Pool: 27% Chance to gain 3 Stress (15 Doom)
4 Dice in Pool: 34% Chance to gain 4 Stress (20 Doom)
5 Dice in Pool: 41% Chance to gain 5 Stress (25 Doom)
These probabilities immediately expose a potential weakness of the system; the more dice you roll, the more likely you are to gain stress even if you succeed on the roll. Think about that for a moment. If you roll 5 dice (which some advancements will give you), and you get 10, 10, 10, 10, and 1, you gain 5 stress/25 doom, but get a Complete Success.
I’m ambivalent about this, because it’s counter-intuitive that anyone should gain doom if they completely succeed the roll. It makes sense that successes don’t prevent stress, but why am I more doomed for being successful? The only way I’m able to convince myself it’s okay is by remembering the setting is unapologetically harsh; that it may take several characters before you figure out what skill checks are worth making and what conflicts you need to avoid.
To sum up: Death Spirals.
Psychosis is gained whenever you would gain stress but you’re already at 9 stress. You can only be cured of Psychosis by taking it back down to 3 (the minimum) and while you have Psychosis, it takes twice as long to remove. Harsh.
The weird thing about psychosis is that it allows you to birth your own nightmarish horrors into reality in exchange for 1 XP. It’s unclear how often a player can (or should) do this, and what sort of consequences a nightmare made real would present. By tying the nightmare to your character’s past, the GM is encouraged to give more XP. This is where it could be possible to abuse the mechanic. It’s clear that Xas Irklalla’s psychosis-born nightmares want to be another risk-reward choice for players, and while I like the concept, it’s a little loosey-goosey for my taste.
Characters and Character Creation
The conceit for your character is that psychics summon random individuals into Irkalla. These individuals are referred to as endlings, and they are not strictly human; they could be crab-people, space pirates from the year 3535 AD, or even a werewolf gladiator from a parallel universe version of ancient Rome. Any character you want to imagine is fine.
You then pick 5 specialties; things you’re good at, and these should be broad. These specialties provide a +1 to all dice on your rolls in which it can be reasonably used.
For instance, let’s say my endling was a pirate during the 18th century. I might choose “Seafaring” as a specialty. When I roll something I can arguably say falls under seafaring, I will add a +1 to all my rolls. (This doesn’t save me from rolling 1’s and gaining stress/doom, however.)
You then roll for a sentiment and environment on a table, which will then give you a rank-1 specialty in each of them respectively. Sentiments are things like Warfare, Nature, Sexuality, Wisdom, etc. Environment has Ocean, City, Volcanic, etc. (I’d probably let players pick these backgrounds rather than roll, but that’s just me.)
There are some other details to fill out to help you realize your character, but Abberrant Traits are the “cool,” double-edged initial abilities your character can start with as part of their species. Every Aberrant Trait you take gives you 5 permanent doom. And yes, you can take 18 advancements giving you a total of 100 Doom at character creation. But maybe don’t do that?
An example of a mechanically clear advancement is Fins, which gives your species (remember, characters don’t have to be human) Advantage on skill tests involving swimming.
An example of a vague advancement is Bioluminescence, which gives your species the ability to produce light for camouflage, luring prey, attracting mates, warning, or illumination.
Bioluminescence is a vague advancement because the mechanical benefits aren’t immediately understood. How does “luring prey” help a character with their ability to succeed or fail in some skill test? Do they get a +1 to “luring prey?” Other uses of bioluminescene are more clear, such as lighting up an otherwise dark area so that you can see, maybe making a roll easier by removing disadvantage.
This isn’t trying to knock anything. There are obviously benefits not tied to dice rolls; things that keep a story moving forward or removes certain restrictions that might otherwise hinder players (e.g. adding advantage, removing disadvantage). The GM and players will just need to be creative to help bring these advancements to life during the course of the game, because while “luring prey” doesn’t have a clear mechanical benefit, the additional 5 doom you gain from the advancement is a clear and dangerous mechanical drawback that will be used against characters.
These are the character options that make you amazing. They cost XP and are expensive. The ascendancies are broken down into several categories: Durability, Recovery, Precision, Expertise, and Magick. Each ascendency has 10 levels to them, and you can mix-and-match up to 10 levels total. (e.g. Expertise 2, Magick 5, Recovery, 3.)
When I first read these over and looked at how characters can gain stress and doom so quickly, I thought Durability or Recovery would be the obvious ascendancies to pick, because they lower either the amount of doom or stress you gain; recovery removes both. As I continued to read, however, I decided they may not be so easily chosen.
Magick, for example, is dangerous, but it gives you the ability to shut down enemies at higher levels and allows for you to summon items that will provide anyone wielding it with advantage. The catch is that you always summon it into an enemy’s hand. Neat!
Expertise is also good, because it provides what I think should be standard in the system’s dice pool mechanics. At level 2, whenever you roll a 10 as part of your skill test dice pool, you ignore all 1’s. If the goal is longevity, Expertise will probably always be taken to level 2.
Again, I think Expertise 2 should just be baked into the system’s standard die roll mechanics. It pairs against the 1’s adding to stress/doom well and gives players a much better reward on taking the risk of rolling multiple dice. Maybe I’m totally wrong, but my experience in other systems has shown me that players don’t usually like to have characters die, even in settings where characters are supposed to struggle and die.
Some more double-edged powers that cost 10 XP apiece. There are some really interesting things here!
For instance, Carnage makes all of your attacks deal damage as if you had rolled a critical success (which is amazing, giving you multiplicative damage dealt), but you suffer Disadvantage on all skill tests in combat.
One I’m fond of is Provocation: You can make a provoking attack test against an enemy, and if you succeed, that enemy ignores your allies and focuses their attention on you, but you suffer Vulnerability (receiving double damage). This effect lasts until the start of your next turn. You wanna play a tank? You’ll may live just barely long enough to regret it.
These are all positive things that your character can gain as part of XP expenditures. Because they don’t have drawbacks, they cost 20 XP apiece.
An example is Calloused Heart: Reduce your minimum Stress to 2. Another mastery is Bone Collector: You wear the skulls and bones of your victims, granting 1 Armor to the body parts on which you wear them. Each skull or bone set weighs 1 Bulk.
There are actually two forms of combat in Xas Irkalla; a rules-light variant and a “normal” system. I’m going to focus on the normal system.
Every round of combat has an “offense” round and a “defend” round in which you have a pool of 3 dice. The Attack Round is where players get to make attacks, perform other skill tests, and generally do what they could reasonably do during combat. You can roll dice out of this 3 dice pool for attacks, skill tests, etc. but you only replenish dice in this pool by 1 at the beginning of any attack or defense round.
Using up all of your dice in the combat round can be a bad idea, because if you did, when the defense round starts, you’re only going to have 1 die to defend with. Having a pool of 0 dice to defend with is bad news. Why? Because enemies in this system don’t roll to hit; they ALWAYS HIT. In the defense round, you’re just rolling to see how much damage you take (armor reduces damage received).
Here’s how much damage you take based off your defense rolls:
Complete Success: No damage
Partial Success: 1d10 + enemy’s damage
Disaster: 2d10 + enemy’s damage
If you cannot or choose not to roll to defend, you are undefended:
Undefended: 3d10 + enemy damage
If you took damage from an enemy’s attack, the DM rolls a d10 to determine where on your body the attack hits (it’s on a character sheet). Then you check the damage ranges to determine what happens as part of the attack. If you took no damage, then good job! At 10 damage and every 10 thereafter, you’re adding injuries onto the character sheet’s skeleton that will harm limbs, chest, or head depending on where the hit landed.
This is actually one of my favorite things about the system. There’s no health; just injuries, and when you lose limbs, they’re gone. Get a head with enough unhealed injuries over time? Character dies.
And if your injury is severe enough, you may lost some blood. If your blood loss gets beyond your exsanguination limit, you fall unconscious and start to bleed out. Bleeding out + bloodletting adds yet another death spiral. While you’re bleeding out with blood loss greater than your exsanguination limit, you have to make a death roll (d100 roll against doom) every time another player performs a skill test (which includes attacks).
Repairing blood loss involves either bandaging a wound, which will give you 1 stress no matter what and does not work while you’re bleeding out. Or you can cauterize a wound, which will stop the blood loss, but the most serious injury on your character sheet becomes permanent.
The dice pool creates this risk/reward where your must balance attack tests with defense. Given that characters have the ability to do heroic amounts of damage and cleave apart strong enemies in a single swing while making these risk/reward decisions, combat is one place you might have a blast. I say might, because bloodletting introduces another death spiral, and any roll in combat must still abide by the stress/doom system. If you don’t like death spirals, combat is only going to strengthen that opinion.
Setting: Just how Dark is it?
Let’s put it this way, in some tabletop rpgs, you might “Sleep at a tavern overnight to recover all your health.” In Xas Irkalla, that recovery turns into “I cauterize my severed arm to stop the bleeding but permanently lose the limb. Now let’s get drunk before the nightmares turn real and try to murder us in our sleep.” Neat!
This is another place I’m just gonna let Xas Irkalla speak for itself:
“After capture, we were brought to one of the slave cities. They call this a slave city not because of us captives, but because its denizens give themselves to their king as if he were a god. People living in squalor and filth, yet frolicking about in some hallucinated paradise… They took us to a market of depravity. People in cages, watching as their family and friends were butchered, their meat hung from hooks on display for customers. The pretty ones were placed into devices that forced them onto all fours. The young ones were thrown into pens like cattle to be raised as livestock.”
Certainly some questionably moral things going on in this world. There’s a lot of other stuff not mentioned here, but things like lands of fetid muck and black roses abound. Forced breeding by dark powers to produce psychic servants of elder gods. People eating dead warriors to gain their strength.
Lots of other things, like shiny objects that would look enticing in a more romantic fantasy setting to acquire, such as an ornate silver dagger sitting in the chest of a corpse long dead. In a happier setting, this would be a +1 Silver Dagger. In Xas Irkalla, it fills you with guilt and you must resist shoving it into your chest once in-hand.
Mind control, depravity, cannibalism, nihilism, inescapable torture, death, and doom. Impossible odds and petty, wicked gods that think you’re little better than meat.
There are 100+ things players and GMs could think up to piggy-back off the setting and make things even darker. For instance, players might decide that their world has ghosts that curse the living and are envious of them such that they sometimes find a way to reach back into the living world, rip off the skin of a mortal, and then wear its flesh, wandering through the world like some eerie wallflower at a masquerade ball… and it – or worse things – are within the expectations of the setting.
Scoring this game was a struggle, because while I believe does what it set out to do, I wonder how much players need to learn/change to actually enjoy the game. It was scored based on a balance between what it tries to do and what I fear might happen when those who want such a deadly game actually sit at the table.
If players consistently take the safest options in order to keep their characters alive – because a lot of people put time into a character, and even if they expect the loss, it can be hard to cope – then what has the game achieved? A sense of dread and fear? Good. But how long can a game last on that alone? If a game is so unforgiving that people will consistently and quickly fall to death spirals, is that a good thing? How many characters will die before you’re too frustrated by constant death? Stress being given on every roll with a die showing 1, even on a critical success?
I think for a much fairer score, the game needs to be played, and by multiple groups. It’s possible that this game is a 10/10 for certain groups. For others, it might be a 0/10. The 9/10 is meant to express a score related to those who want to play in a deadly, unforgiving world, while maintaining my opinion that the death spiral of stress and doom may make your play experience frustrating. The collection of flaws mentioned in this post – which some could argue are features – are why it is not a 10/10.