Old School World: Our First Session of The Black Hack

It had been some time since I’d last got to be a GM. After resolving a few challenging IRL random encounters, I was ready to step into the ring again and return to gamemastering withThe Black Hack, that made such a great impression on me upon reading it. My guild brother Harri had kindly printed out and bound a copy for me.

I felt the game would lend itself well to a First Session in the vein of Apocalypse World and its ilk. All the four character classes have a small table for some colorful items, and the players create a single, one-or-so sentence Background for their character which lets them participate in the worldbuilding, as well. My idea was to let the players make their characters and ask some more or less provocative questions from them, and use those as my main springboard for the world.

The only thing I’d decided beforehand was to use King Crimson’s classic song In the Court of the Crimson King (lyrics) as inspiration and include some of its lyrics in the world building. I also gave them a brief rundown on what sort of sandbox RPG and pulp fantasy feel I’d like to create.

Everyone knew what Warrior, Thief, Cleric, and Mage are, and everyone knew the basic D&D stats as well, so we were off to a very good start – except that everyone rolled terrible stats. Everything they needed to do were spelled out clearly in the book on one short page. The players wrote some backgrounds (and used the inspirational random table to help them out) and I asked a few more questions: “So, what’s that city called? Who was fighting against whom? Okay, that other guy mentioned these wormhole-style Gates, was the war about one of those? Ooh, so there were desert elves, I like that!”

While the players were doing their stuff, I rolled up a starting event from the book with 2d12. That made them start from a goblin labyrinth and in debt to the Thieves’ Guild. We’d established the characters’ Backgrounds and agreed that it’s better to start in medias res, also assuming that the characters already know and trust one another. We can figure out the whys and whens and wheres later through exposition and improvisation.

The rest of the session was based on this starting situation, and I riffed off of the random tables and great illustrations in the book. At times, I asked the players for some input on the background. One player decided to make his character look exactly like the Wizard character in the book, too.

This method worked out exactly as well as I’d hoped it would. I was feeling like trusting a lot to the random tables, and they did help with pretty much anything I needed – I also combined them liberally. The book helped me create atmosphere, interiors, purposes for the dungeon, shapes of the rooms, smells, inhabitants and their leaders and their motives, and pretty much anything.

Some of the results I took literally, others I used only as inspiration: for example, the players’ starting room had a pool of dark, murky water right in the middle of it. I thought it might be fun to have a creature in it. Flipping through the book for some inspiration, my eyes set on “elemental” and a little earlier, a picture of a dragon. The result: the water itself took the shape of a wyrm of sorts. I even rolled its initial attitude towards the players from the book.

I didn’t feel like sticking to the exact shapes of the rooms, however. The rooms in the random dungeon generator of the book are all regular, so when the characters ventured into a naturally formed part of the cave, I rolled on the table a couple of times and combined the two results into something new and natural-ish, so that two geometrically regular rooms with pillars became one rough, irregular larger cave with naturally formed stone pillars in it.

The beauty of the random tables here lies not only in how easy the information is to access, but also and maybe even more importantly for me, in how easy it is to flip through some the book in hopes of some inspiration. Eyeing through the book, you’re bound to spot some interesting words or pictures, even if you never roll on the tables. The only thing that seemed a little clumsy was that there are so many of the tables, and the DIY book isn’t the easiest to flip through. I think I much prefer this approach to the one I’m more used to, descriptive text and prose. It feels like it’s made to be played and used.

I couldn’t be happier with how well everything worked out. The book offered a lot of inspiration, and my imagination and some questions to the players filled in the rest. The result was an intriguing introduction to a world none of us had known a few hours earlier.

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