Review: The Black Hack Second Edition

Old School Renaissance is a wonderful trend. I don’t know it too well myself, but every time I take a peek or venture a little deeper into the jungle, I find endless adventures, ideas, hacks, additions, and other stuff that all seems very cool. That, of course, means that it can be really difficult to spot the stuff that’s the best for you.

I’ve looked into a lot of games. Many of them promise room for imagination and a return to a rules-light approach, but to me, they don’t live up to the promise. Still, I have kept looking. To find a treasure. A real treasure: a game that would encapsulate OSR ideas and energy but whose design felt modern enough.

With David Black‘s The Black Hack, I may have found what I was looking for.

You might actually want to look at the preview on Drivethrurpg before continuing. It sold me on the game in two minutes. Then take a look at the low price. If you’re still unsure after that, read on and hopefully you’ll know if it’s a game for you.

I don’t want to crap on other old school games- to each their own. I believe they provide excellent for other people. I want to talk about some of their mechanics to show what The Black Hack, TBH from now on, does differently; and crucially, in a way that suits me better.

The cover of the game gives a pretty good idea of the art style.

The usual stats and the D20 are nice. I like classes and the premise of dungeons and sword’n’sorcery fantasy (the weird kind, not the usual high fantasy tropes). But then, there’s the mixture of THAC0 and saving throws and my pet peeve, thieving skills that use a zillion different mechanics. Sometimes it’s roll under, sometimes it’s roll above. Some folks like the non-unified mechanic – I just find it clunky.

TBH has the familiar six base stats, too, and uses attribute checks a lot. Whether it’s active or passive, skills or saving throws, roll under an attribute. Attack with a melee weapon? Roll under Strength. Defend against a melee attack? Roll under Dexterity. Resist a mind-bending spell? Roll under Wisdom. And so on.

This also affects character creation to ensure that no one will be excellent at everything. You determine the base stats with a 3D6 in order (with a chance to swap two around). If you roll 14 or more, your next attribute will be a 7.

If you have an advantage, roll two dice, and take your pick. If you have a disadvantage, roll two and the GM takes their pick. And this isn’t just for the D20, but any die roll in the game.

Most of TBH‘s die rolls are player-facing. The GM doesn’t roll to hit; the player rolls to defend, instead. The GM can roll for damage against the PCs, though, and they have a lot of random tables to roll on, too.

Yet another common mechanic in the game is Usage Die, Ud for short. You can use it for any resource or thing that can run out – even daylight. Ud can range from Ud20 all the way to Ud4. Every time you use something, roll a die; if it comes up as 1 or 2, roll a smaller die the next time. And once you roll a 1 or a 2 on a Ud4, it runs out.

Stuff like this is what permeates all of TBH. Rather than use only one core mechanic for everything, it has a few key mechanics and principles that it applies to different situations.

Everything is so simple that it’s very hackable. On page 4, the game explicitly encourages a DIY attitude. A lot of games do that, but I find it’s the easiest when the game gives you examples and doesn’t try to limit you too much in the first place.

One such limitation, to me, is drowning games in too much fluff. The more a game talks about different races, monsters, norms of the society, effects of spells, etc., the more it delineates what it’s about. Sure, you can strip it all off and substitute what you don’t like with your own stuff. Some people can do that. Personally, I find it easier and more fun to add stuff to a solid framework, rather than to take a complex machine apart and try to make it my own.

A prime example are spells. TBH has 76 spells, half of them for wizards, the other half for clerics. They’re listed, effects and all, on two pages. The names are plain and informative and the effects are simple – and I like it that way. When I read an RPG book, I read it for inspiration and getting into the right mood. If I don’t like the canon description of a spell, delving into all that can break that mood. (Yes, I’m sensitive and difficult, and that’s just who I am.) I admit that I abandoned the excellent Lamentations of the Flame Princess largely because of the setting assumptions it made in its spell list and GM section. With a game like TBH, I don’t have to worry about it. I can make stuff up on the fly.

If you want your spells with lots of pre-defined mechanical rigour, this approach isn’t for you. On the other hand, if you want a solid base to riff off on, this is an excellent approach. Because there are so few limitations to begin with, you can impose your own if you need to.

Of course, TBH isn’t without its own assumptions and limitations. While the basic rules can be adapted to any form of adventurous gaming, the game is about weird sword and sorcery. The characters and their abilities (that also generously fit on a single A5 page) aren’t superheroes. There are no detailed rules for playing elves, dwarves, halflings, or any other non-humans. Again, it’s easy to hack them in or use third-party products (or the freeform backgrounds to do so), but the game leaves non-humans to some mentions here and there. And all the random tables imply a pretty weird world of pulp fantasy. The black and white art style feels great; it’s a simple, somewhat cartoony style that doesn’t feel goofy at all. Rather, it just emphasizes the DIY feel.

The key is, I think, in how TBH always points and nudges in the right direction, but never tries to force you into anything. It never preaches.

In its writing, TBH is also easy to understand and it avoids weird terminology. Some people may find it off-putting, but I’m absolutely in love with it. As an example, Ye Olde D&D used rounds and turns, which I believe were 10 seconds and 10 minutes respectively. The fact that I’m unsure about it is important here, because you can’t actually deduce the content from the terminology. In contrast, TBH uses Moments and Minutes (and if need be, Hours and Days et cetera). It doesn’t suit a strict Gygaxian campaign where exact time-keeping is essential, but it’s very easy to understand: battles are over in minutes, things in dungeon-delving take minutes, some things take hours etc.

As another example, the game doesn’t use Experience Points. Instead, it uses Experiences. They aren’t abstract, but rather something concrete and momentous enough to change a character’s life. You need the number of Experiences equal to your current level to level up. Even if this feels too fast for you, the basics are so simple that it’s extremely easy to hack into something different.

Personally, the only exception to clarity were the rules and terminology for armor. I’m not sure others have had the some problem, so it’s a personal taste. Basically you use armor to negate all damage but it breaks your armor; the better your armor, the more you can do this. You can use dice to keep track of this. When you have the time, you can fix your armor and roll those dice. If you fail, you need someone to do it for you.  This sounds like an okay rule and better than the usual AC, for sure. But the way it’s written in the book made it hard for me to understand.

The basic rules take about 30 pages of the book. They cover pretty much everything: character creation, combat, spells, healing, turning undead, experience and all the things you usually do in a game like this. I believe it’s well suited even for a longer campaign, as long as you’re not expecting a ginormous tree of feats or other mechanical benefits. The characters do become more powerful as they level up, but they don’t grow more complex mechanically (apart for having more spells, magic items, and that sort of stuff). To me, that’s a good thing.

The book is 126 pages long, though, and the remaining 90 or so pages comprise the GM section. It hands out good tips for running a game like this, an illustrated bestiary, a starter dungeon, and adds some GM-specific rules; but most of all, it offers a crapton of random tables. They all seem pretty damn good. NPCs, things in the wilderness, monsters, new spells, drugs, reasons mundane doors are stuck in a dungeon, random encounters, traps, and lord knows what else. The sheer number of quality stuff here is mind-boggling. That’s the beauty of random tables and lists: you get the cool ideas and evocative words, and tools to use them easily; at the same time, you’re spared from the grammatical sentences that might make it easier to read but harder to use in game. And this is very much a book to be *used*.

I know this is a pretty uncritical review. I don’t mean to say the game is perfect, but even when it isn’t, it’s ridiculously easy to make it just the way you want it to be. The basic mechanics are robust and simple, but also versatile. The book is only short because it’s economic and efficient with its words. It packs a ton of tools for building worlds and running campaigns within 126 pages. Even the layout and the artstyle that utilizes thick ink is like tailor-made to me.

Everything in TBH oozes quality. It embodies an admirable attitude where roleplaying games are about creating and sharing. It’s just good. It’s ridiculously good, and I can’t recommend it enough. I haven’t been this thrilled about playing a new RPG in years.

4 thoughts on “Review: The Black Hack Second Edition

  1. This also affects character creation to ensure that no one will be excellent at everything. You determine the base stats with a 3D6 in order (with a chance to swap two around). If you roll 14 or more, your next attribute will be a 7.

    I find the intention here interesting, but lacks in exectution. If you roll in order, this automatically means that there are going to be weird limitations. It means that STR has a special place where it can’t suffer from this. However, the worse part is that this leads to weird things like intelligent people are always offputting or if you are healthy, you only understand the simplest of things.

    Seems like in this world, all weird stereotypes are going to be true. This works the other way around as well. If you are generally well-liked, it must mean that you can’t be too bright.

    (I’m making assumptions on the order of stats here, but anyhow.)

    • You’re absolutely right!

      One way to remedy this would be to roll in the order you wish, but deciding always declaring your next stat, as well.

      Then again, you can also interpret the stats in not actually describing your character, but their success rate when interacting with the world. Sure, it would lead to some things like “I’m super attractive but whenever I try to use it to my advantage, it always leads me to trouble”. For some, that’s cool, too.

  2. A good review!

    Regarding Aki’s comment on attribute generation, one rule that I’ve seen in a similar game was that if a player rolls a 15 or higher in one stat, the next one should be rolled on a 2d6+2, instead of giving it a static number. My current OSR-like d20 favorite is Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells. 50 pages of Tolkien-free sword&sorcery goodness, with a pay what you want pricetag, and a 90 page addendum at the same price!

    There’s a sci-fi game coming up from Old Skull publishing too, Solar Blades & Cosmic Spells, but it is currently in beta, I think, and available for free in google docs. It should be noted that this newer game doesn’t rely as much on GM fiat as the older one, giving it a current pagecount at 271 pages.

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