With Netflix all but pushing me to see Black Death, popping up in multiple suggestion categories, I caved to peer pressure and gave it a view. It’s not exactly a groundbreaking movie; if you’ve seen an action-horror hybrid flick in recent years, you’ve probably seen this movie. Not that it’s a bad film; Sean Bean gives his usual stellar performance, the atmosphere is damn creepy in a non-horror way, and the movie’s big twist was one I didn’t actually see coming. It’s a tad short, and doesn’t feel fully developed—not living up to its full potential—which is kind of a letdown.
Still, what sticks with me from the film isn’t the film itself; instead, it put me in mind of Dark Ages Vampire, and I keep coming back to that.
Vampire players usually get typecast as gothy, tortured soul, fairy-wiccan-neo-pagans. And like most stereotypes, there’s an element of truth there. And the game isn’t actually a White Wolf line that interests me, partly because of the weird player base, and partly because I have no idea what I’d do with it. (Not that the latter stops me from liking Mummy or Changeling at all.)
And how does this relate back to Black Death? Dark Ages turned a lot of the WoD stereotypes on their head. See, as a historical supplement/setting, a surprising chunk of the game’s material deals with religion. Think about it: it takes place in a time period where the predominant part of the world is deeply religious, be it Catholicism or Islam. Bam, now you’re the living dead, unable to ever see the sun again, and forced to drink blood to survive; everyone you knew withers and dies while you remain untouched by the pass of ages.
Having turned into a supernatural being scorned by life—or, having discovered that such beings exist—how do your character rectify that? Is this a sign from divine, punishing you for sins you must have committed? Is this a reward, giving you the powers of the enemy to strike back at them? Do you embrace your base animal urges, having been cut free from morality? Plenty of interesting roleplaying opportunities, though I’m not sure every group would have fun delving into those questions, particularly with the slippery slope of roleplaying religion.
That’s also a huge part of Black Death, too: dealing with faith in a dark, oppressive world. It’s a character study, in a way, of how different people cope with the hellish world of the plague: compare the protagonist Osmund with Sean Bean’s crusader knight Ulrich, and if you think you’ve pegged it, wait until the end. This also ties into the other study, warring religions rolling into the “battle of good and evil” trope, where things are purely in shades of gray. The voice-over intro is what really caught my attention:
The fumes of the dead are in the air like poison. The plague, more cruel and more pitiless than war, descended upon us. A pestilence, that would leave half of our kingdom dead. Where did it come from? What carried its germ. The priests told us it was God’s punishment. For what sin? What commandment must we break that could earn this? No, we knew the truth. This was not God’s work, but devilry. Or witchcraft. But our task, to hunt down a demon, was God’s cure.
Black Death is a solid example of the World of Darkness in a Dark Ages setting. The film’s not exactly Dark Ages Vampire in particular—its plot and characters are far closer to Inquisitor—but there’s a lot of inspiration for the whole line in there. The time period is roughly a hundred years later (depending on your Dark Ages edition). It has a gloomy, oppressive world, pretty much the best visualization of the historical World of Darkness I’ve seen. And it has a solid blend of action, mystery, and horror.