Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Bloodthirsty Children!

It turns out my daughters have something of a bloodthirsty streak. My ruthless little gamers are quickly becoming the scourge of the minions of chaos!

In my last post I talked about running the first ever campaign for my daughters. We're using The Black Hack with the old D&D module B2 The Keep on the Borderlands. This post is the first in a series of campaign play diaries of my daughter's first RPG campaign.


The first session went well, with the girls getting the lay of the land in the keep and interacting with the odd characters there. They spent some time asking around about the area and collecting rumours about The Caves of Chaos to the northeast. Unfortunately for them they picked up plenty of false rumours, including the one about "bree-yark" meaning "we surrender" in goblin. Random tables are a wonderful thing. Thanks to a critical success with their roll to find information, they managed to get some decent directions to The Caves of Chaos on top of their bundle of rumours, so they were able to find the valley without much trouble.

They had some luck on their first foray into the valley with all the caves and I rolled no encounter on their way in. The girls had heard there was magic armour in the southern caves so they started by sneaking into the entrance to the goblin caves.

They crept through the rough tunnels with care, avoiding one group of goblins walking through the halls by ducking down a dead-end passage. For all that sneaking around, when they found the goblin guardroom they decided to walk in with their weapons drawn and say: "Hi goblins! What's going on?"

While I loved that they strutted in there liked they owned the place, the response from the six goblins was negative. One pointed and shouted, "Bree-yark!"

At first the girls were excited, "They surrender? Wow!"

"No, not so much. They leap to their feet and charge at you with their spears raised," I said. "Looks like 'bree-yark' means attack or something like that."

Snekava let fly with an arrow and one-shotted the leading goblin in the face.
As the goblins closed, Wojeb whipped his rapier around like toddler going after a pinata. Most of the goblins went for Snekava and with three twenties, she was tasting the stone floor by the end of the round.

Snekava is even sneakier at level two!

It was looking bad for the group as the not so hand-to-hand characters tried to turn the tide back in their favour when Olys decided to use that Sleep spell she had prepared that morning. With that action the fight was over, but a failed intelligence check meant that Olys expended her spell slot for the day.

They placed Snekava on the table in the guardroom and Wojeb set about patching her up while Olys stabbed the crap out of the sleeping goblins with her dagger. Despite their desire to continue they realised they were not in any position to handle another fight. They looted the goblins and left the caves. They were lucky again and I rolled no encounter on their way out of the caves.

Once back at the keep they were pretty bummed about their poor performance in the caves. I've set the adventure in the old Grand Duchy of Karameikos. The Keep is on the Duke's Road just before it passes into the Black Peak Mountains. This information is relevant because it means the chapel in the keep is part of the Church of Karameikos. The party cleric is from the old Church of Traladara and was sent north to tend the old Traladaran shrine in the fountain square of the keep. The reason he is adventuring is he was given no funds for his mission and living in the keep is expensive.

The party managed to find a Traladaran priest who is staying at the keep. He was friendly and willing to heal Snekava for free as a favour to his fellow cleric. He also convinced the party of the dangers of touching any artefacts or altars of chaos. They promised to return to the keep and get him if they found anything like that in the caves. He was interested in their adventures and talkative. He was also surprised and grateful to learn about the old Traladaran shrine.

The next day they headed back to the caves with vengeance on their minds. They approached the goblin cave through the tree cover and spotted an ambush near the cave entrance. They used their longbows and made short work of the four waiting goblins.

They did better with the first guardroom this time and found the reinforced door to the hobgoblin lair. They heard what sounded like monsters too big and numerous to handle on the other side and decided to return, "When we're more experienced."

They found the second guardroom and entered with an actual plan this time. With no armour besides her shield, Snekava was finished with her bow and ready to mix it up with her sword from now on. They started the battle strong. Since the goblins were on alert, the goblin squad leader kicked over the water barrel and made for the hidden door with a large jingling sack.

Once it was clear the goblin was summoning help through the door, Olys decided it was time to use her sleep spell again. She rolled close to maximum on the 4D6 (twenty-one!) for the hit dice (HD) put to sleep. There are no restrictions on what creatures are affected by the spell in The Black Hack. That meant the Ogre coming through the door folded up like a cheap lawn chair and went to sleep along with the goblins.

They thought that even sleeping, the ogre was too big to kill outright, so after dispatching the goblins with their daggers, they left him alone and walked past into the lair. With no limit to their time, they searched all the nooks and crannies of the ogre's caves. Between his treasure and the gold the goblins had to pay him to fight, the girls hit the motherload!

They raced back to the keep, again with no encounter on the way out.

Once back at the keep they spent some money on better equipment, purchasing leather armour for Snekava and chain mail for the cleric. They basked in the glory of their success and partied in the keep's tavern, The Duke of Cups. I decided this was an effective milestone, having experienced both failure and success. They also had bested the ogre. They were thrilled when I told them they had levelled up!

Olys specialises in conjuring cans of whoop-ass!

The levelling process for the Black Hack was a blast with the kids. They rolled up the improvements to their characters with gusto! Cheering for each incremental bonus gained to their stats and hit points. My oldest, Chloe, actually managed to roll over her 17 intelligence so now Olys, her Conjurer, is a magical force to be reckoned with.

As far as first games go, it was a good one. The girls are hooked and it looks like my Wednesday nights are booked solid until the end of the winter.

Mechanically, I made a change to shields. They absorb damage every round, with small shields soaking 1 hit point of damage and large shields taking 2 points. The rest of the armour I left the same. It doesn't make a huge difference but it is nice for the shields to continue to be useful throughout all the fights. Otherwise, players could have their characters drop them after the first round. It also means characters will continue to use shields at higher levels when armour seems like not much of a big deal.

The other thing I'm considering is cutting the power of the Sleep Spell. At 4D6 hit dice it is always going to wipe a small group of opponents. There should be less certainty when it comes to using magic so I might use the 2D8 hit dice from the Lamentations of the Flame Princess version of the spell in the future.

#TheirFirstCampaign

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Their First Campaign

I've gamed with my daughters in the past. So far we've played a few one-shots to try out or playtest games aimed at kids.

I tried to get them into D&D with the Mentzer Red Box a few years ago. Both of them loved the images and the ideas in the book. The youngest didn't really have the attention span for it at the time and the game died out after the first session. D&D is not much of a solo game.

My oldest (12) has been pushing me to play again so I asked my youngest (9) this weekend how she felt about trying D&D again. She was super-excited to play!

We made their characters Sunday evening. The level of engagement this time was on a completely different level. When they were younger I was using the art to draw them in and help find out what they'd like to play. This time around we talked it out. Part of that came from their maturity level and part of it came from my decision to use The Black Hack as the rules for our campaign. It has no pictures and the rules are so simple all we needed to talk about was class-based concepts and what they wanted their characters to be able to do.

They responded well to starting with rolling the stats to find out about their characters and learn what they were good at. From there we looked at the four classes, what they could do and which ones would be complemented by the strengths and weaknesses of their characters. We also talked about what each class excelled at.

The short one liked the idea of a sneaky character who does things quietly and carefully, so she was keen to play a Thief despite her character's low Dexterity. Fortunately The Black Hack allows for two stats to be switched around during character generation and she didn't care if anyone liked her character, so she traded her DEX and CHA around to get herself a grumpy thief to play.

I barely started to ask the tall one what she wanted to play when she exploded: "Conjurer!"

This girl wants to play a wizard. I think it comes from reading her the Earthsea trilogy when she was little. She rolled a 17 Intelligence for her character so no stats were swapped.

Names came next and after some talk about naming fantasy characters we ended up with Snekava the Thief and Olys the Conjurer.

Snekava the Thief "...because she's so sneaky!"
While the girls shopped for their equipment I rolled up a henchman to help support their characters and avoid the TPKs that come with a party of two. Wojeb the Cleric (AKA Ol' Wojeb) came out of a low STR and CON but relatively high WIS. He can't carry much more than a torch and a shield but his hit points are high enough he should make an effective meatshield.

For the campaign I think I'll start with B2 The Keep on the Borderlands. It's a good spot for it and the Caves of Chaos allow for all kinds of different approaches to dealing with its monstrous inhabitants. Besides, it's an iconic adventure with sandbox elements that I ran recently in 5th edition so there's little for me to do in terms of prep.

The iconic Keep on the Borderlands
As for the larger world, I'm not sure what I'll do for that. I'm considering setting it in the old D&D Known World setting on Mystara. I've already done all the work of sprinkling my favourite OSR and classic D&D adventures throughout the setting. I've also subbed out chunks of the setting with cooler stuff from the Hydra Collective. For all that, the world has a history that makes suspension of disbelief easy to achieve. No matter what I do, it's all new to them, so exploring it will blow their little minds!

As far as system goes, I chose The Black Hack for a few reasons. I've already seen that it's simplicity makes it attractive as a way to bring beginners into D&D style gaming. I also like how it uses some of the modern gaming mechanics like usage dice and advantage/disadvantage. I want my girls to benefit from the old school, but I don't want them trapped there! I also like how damage by class makes weapon restrictions irrelevant so I could let them use whatever weapons they wanted without messing up the game balance. The biggest thing that made me want to use it for my daughters is the level advancement. Every level they'll roll for each statistic to see if it increases. This kind of obvious character improvement is going to make levelling that much more exciting and keep them engaged in the campaign. It also means low stats are not a big deal since they are more likely to increase than high ones.

We've decided on Wednesday evenings for our games since my wife is out that night and both of the girls are home. I'm looking forward to campaign play with the girls. I can't wait to see what they discover about their characters as they change and grow through play!

Saturday, 10 December 2016

A Dungeon Master's Favourite Spell or, Why Bother with Lichdom Anyway?


Since the very first edition of Dungeons & Dragons the spell list for magic users included Magic Jar. It is in every edition and almost every OSR retro-clone and second generation clone. Its inclusion is a huge benefit because this spell could be the core element of a horrific villain in any campaign.

Magic Jar is a fifth level spell in most D&D-type rules (except in 5e, where it's 6th to stop players from combining it with Contingency*). With slight variances between editions and games The Magic Jar spell works by placing the caster's essence, intellect, personality, experience and soul into some kind of gem or crystal receptacle (the magic jar).  From the magic jar the caster can possess the bodies of others. Originally the caster could possess any living creature but in later editions eventually became any living humanoid.

The potential for a magic user to terrorise a party with this spell is delicious!

Suddenly anyone, even trusted allies, could become an enemy wizard without warning! This device would be most useful in a long-running campaign where the player characters have connections to the world and the players have built up expectations about how the NPCs will act in certain situations. The disruption of those expectations would definitely freak out a party before they put together what is happening.

"Iannisport Spy" by Patrick Keith

Another feature of the spell is the effects of body death. If the host body dies the caster is pushed back into the gem, the soul of the host body is then pushed out and dies. From there the caster can try to take another host within range. The spell doesn't end until the caster returns to their own body so there is no limit to the number of times the caster can experience this kind of death. If the caster's body dies the spell effectively never ends. The caster continues to move back and forth between the magir jar and new hosts until the magic jar is destroyed. The destruction of the magic jar only strands the caster in the host they are in and destroys the soul of the host body. Even then, it's no big deal if the caster has another suitable container and time to cast Magic Jar again. The real danger comes from being in the jar when it is destroyed or stranded in a host when it is killed.

Why would a caster trade their humanity for lichdom when they could become functionally immortal with a fifth level spell?

The idea of a caster trapped in a gem creates some interesting possibilities. An adventuring wizard could cast Magic Jar in an attempt to survive certain death and become part of a treasure hoard. The party could defeat some terrible monster only to find out part of the treasure is cursed with the ghost of a dead wizard that keeps possessing people around them. The gem could be in the belly of a sea creature that attacks the ship the party is travelling on, leading to one of the crew suddenly casting spells and insisting they not let sea creature sink out of sight.

A magic user could be waiting in a gem for a suitable host any length of time. This circumstance will have a pretty profound effect on them once they are able to act in the world again. They would have lost all their resources in the intervening years! If they had a tower it would have new inhabitants at best and be a crumbling ruin at worst. They have no spellbook so all the spells they have are the ones memorised when they entered the magic jar. Any magic items or wealth they had at the time of their body's death would be long gone as well. All friends and allies are dead. It might be that no one even remembers they ever existed at all! A terrible blow to a heroic wizard! Such losses will likely motivate them to regain their lost wealth and position. They might be able to rationalise all kinds of terrible behaviour.  Even a hero who died defending their world may not feel any kinship to the people of the current era and plunder it ruthlessly.

A long sojourn in a gem could have some severe psychological effects as well. The caster might become unhinged. If you want to have a crazy, body-stealing wizard stalking your party, this setup is a plausible one.

"hello mother" by Paintausea

A magic user who started using the spell with the best of intentions to extend their life so they could continue to protect people will begin to feel less empathy for people with each life they steal. The party could meet this heroic figure of legend only to find them descended into a narcissistic psychopath and even more powerful than in the past in which they made their name.

What I like best about this idea is how I could use it in play. Even though such an enemy could start with less spells and resources at their disposal they can use hosts to spy on the party and influence others against them to undermine their position in the land. They could use hosts the party doesn't want to kill, or at least not want to let the locals see them kill. If the wizard possesses an eight-year-old girl to go after the party in the middle of a crowded market it's not going to go well for them when they fill her full of arrows.

Depending on how angry the villain makes the players with these sorts of antics the party might spend a whole campaign trying to track down this magic user and stop them with a minimum of collateral damage. They may need the help of others, need to quest for an artefact or special spell. Who knows what adventures it could lead to?

Memorising Lightning Bolt to blast the party!


* I think the designers of 5e D&D did an excellent job adjusting and tightening up the descriptions of almost every spell so it could be used only the way they thought it should be used. I would not call this situation progress.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Character Generation: How Much is Too Much?

Here's a look at my game development woes. Complications like these are part of what makes adapting something simple like Swords and Wizardry or the Black Hack to a unique setting so appealing!

While the playtesting for my 3D System is going well, I have run into what might be a snag with the character generation section. The graduated success mechanic using 3D6 that relies on the interaction of six attributes and 12 skills has turned out to be intuitive and robust in play, but the system I created to generate those attributes and skills has me worried.


For a variety of reasons, I integrated the character generation with the setting. It worked well with the small playtest setting for the Archipelago in Island Crashers. Going through the process delivered the assumptions of the setting to new players without spamming them with text they didn't want to read. It took ten minutes to create a character rolling randomly and about twenty minutes to use the generation tables like a flow chart and choose everything.

For the Island Crashers playtest character generation takes up ten pages of a google document and 35 small tables on spreadsheets. The process of moving through them is intuitive and easy. Brand new players are having no trouble with it even though no one has taken the time to read the rules first. Each area of origin has its own background that informs the basics of the character. These areas also have unique tables with some starting careers more likely than others. The tables themselves tell the player a bit about where their character is from.

Good thing character generation only takes ten minutes!
I'll use a more familiar setting to make the idea clear. Say you were using this system to play in Robert E Howard's "Conan the Barbarian" setting of Hyboria. Characters from Conan's homeland of Cimmeria would have basic survival skills they learned growing up in an uncivilised area. They also would get a boost to their physical attributes because their life makes them harder than the civilised peoples. The possible starting careers for characters from Cimmeria would include things like blacksmiths, barbarians, hunters, bandits, leather-workers and maybe druids. The kingdom Conan eventually conquered, Aquilonia, would have a table of starting careers that includes nobles, merchants, soldiers, courtiers, servants, thieves, priests and wizards. A place of ancient corruption like Stygia would have a table of starting careers filled with sorcerers, priests, sages, slavers, thieves and slaves. The flavour of each of these lands is evident in the choices provided.

That's what I'm doing with my setting for the larger game that is using the working title of: "The Last World." The problem is the Archipelago is a small cluster of islands. Even Hyboria is only an area the size of Europe and the Mediterranean! The Last World is huge in comparison, with all kinds of different areas! These areas aren't heavily defined, with the implied setting leaving room to develop them through game play, but each country and some major cities have their own tables. I'm only about a third of the way through the character generation section for the places of origin and I already have 26 pages of briefs and tables in my document. The descriptions of the playable creatures document is another 9 pages long! I haven't even started on the tables of general career progressions. I'm worried about it being unwieldy, but I want players to be able to start as nearly any creature or culture they could encounter in the Last World and move through a plausible list of careers to create a viable character with a developed past and a list of useful equipment.

Shopping for equipment is the time-killer!

The point is to create characters similar in power to what you'd find in levels five through seven in OSR-type games. Like Traveller's character generation, the process creates a competent character with a background story that makes sense. I find the most fun in old school campaigns happens around those levels, but the early levels help define the character's development and flesh out their personality. That's another reason I make a ten minute game out of character generation. It delivers setting information to new players and creates a backstory for the character that will help a player choose how to play in a way that makes sense. It also anchors them to the world with their past.

In playtest it's worked well so far, but I'm worried all the flipping back and forth thought the tables in the larger setting will kill it. A PDF could be cross-linked/bookmarked, but using a book might become unwieldy. I was hoping to get this all into an A5 (digest size) hardcover!


So how much is too much? Does it matter that there are pile of pages to flip through as long as character generation stays around ten to fifteen minutes? Do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks in any event? I feel like the only way to find out is to finish it all and play using the full setting.



If any of this stuff intrigues you and you want to be part of the larger playtest for the #3DSystem , let me know!




Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Black Hack Class Hack: Sorcery!

I reviewed The Black Hack in my last post. I mentioned that I felt like I had a few Hacks of my own to add to the growing number of genre specific clones of David Black's Modern OSR fantasy RPG.

I think an Early Modern Era, historical, weird-fantasy hack would be a lot of fun to play. For such a game I like my magic dangerous and unpredictable. It's something I've talked about before. Mike Evans came up with a good system to make sorcerers' casting flexible with an element of unpredictability with the usage die mechanic, but it lacks the danger I think is needed in RPG magic.


The usage die mechanic (from page 8 of the Black Hack) assigns a usage die to any resource ranging from 1d4 to 1d20 to roll when it is used. A roll of 1 or 2 brings the die to the next lowest value for subsequent rolls. Rolling 1 or 2 on the 1d4 means the resource (in this case magic) is exhausted until that resource can be replenished. The sorcerer can gain back one die for six hours of uninterrupted rest.

For my take on magic cast with the usage die I took a lot more inspiration from Barbarians of Lemuria, then mixed in a little Dungeon Crawl Classics and the spirit of weird fantasy.

Any time a sorcerer casts a spell the player rolls a number of usage dice matching the magic level of the spell. The spells are divided into three levels of sorcery: 1 - the Forbidden, 2 - the Infernal, and 3 - the Inscrutable (I'm still not entirely happy with the name of level 3).


The first level of sorcery consists of forbidden formulae and ancient rituals that allow the caster to bend reality enough to do anything a fully trained and equipped person could do, only with more ease. For example: a warrior with a sword can do 1d8 damage to a foe by attacking them. A sorcerer would utter a spell of forbidden magic and merely point at the foe to tear away their flesh for 1d6 + caster level in damage. A sorcerer can use this magic to create a light source, open a lock or climb a wall in a moment because a person could do so with a few minutes and the right equipment. It matches up in power roughly to the first and second levels of spells found in the Black Hack.

The second level of sorcery is more dangerous because it exposes the caster and everyone around them to infernal corruption. The player rolls two usage dice and takes the lower result because these spells are more taxing for the sorcerer to cast. The danger comes into play if the player rolls doubles on the usage dice. Doubles result in a casting mishap. Since it is more likely to roll doubles on D4s than D6s or D8s, it is more dangerous for low-level casters or exhausted high-level casters to use this level of magic.

Infernal magic calls upon the dread powers of chaos to reshape reality in larger ways for the caster's benefit. These spells allow the sorcerer to do things normally impossible for one person. A sorcerer can use this level of magic to fly, to transform something or knock a hole in a stone wall. Infernal magic could be used to create a poisonous fog that does 1d6 + caster level in damage to all nearby foes, or allow a sorcerer to vomit a swarm of demonic insects onto an opponent to eat their flesh for 1d6 damage per caster level. With so much possible in a moment with a whisper and a series of gestures this corrupt magic is tempting to use. It matches up in power level to many of the third, fourth and some fifth level spells in the Black Hack.


The Inscrutable level of magic comes from the recorded whispers of malignant intelligences in alien dimensions. Their motivations are as unknowable as their form.

This third level of magic is difficult, requiring special components such as time, place, specific alignment of astronomical bodies, assistants to help perform the ritual, and a specific tome or artifact. The more powerful the spell the more conditions the GM should apply to its casting.

These are spells of tremendous power that come at a terrible risk to the caster and their world. With this magic the sorcerer could create an earthquake that could level a city or create a magic plague that could bring an empire to its knees.

It can also be used to undo lower magical effects such as restoring a character turned to stone. It could be used to create a magical item. It could create a passage through chaos itself to allow a caster and their level in companions to travel anywhere in the world in an instant. It matches up in power to some of the higher level spells available in The Black Hack.

When a sorcerer casts an inscrutable spell they are flirting with disaster and draining their power. The player rolls three usage dice and reduces their magical power by one usage die for every 1 or 2 rolled. Doubles result in a casting mishap. Triples result in a casting catastrophe. There is no table for this result, match the effect to the scale of the spell, but tearing holes in time and space that allow extra-dimensional invaders to pour through is one way to go. Accidentally transporting the whole party to Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa is another.

One thing I like from both BoL and 5e D&D is the cantrip magic. Cantrips as minor feats of magic that can be cast with little danger of exhausting a sorcerer's magic sounds like a fun addition to the game. Little things like moving small objects, changing the apparent value of a coin for a few moments, creating a brief wind to blow a door shut, removing a stain, lighting a torch, creating small sounds as a distraction, detecting magic, etc. For these simple spells the sorcerer could test Int for success. A natural 20 would reduce their usage die for magic.

The usage die available to sorcerers would depend on their level:
  • Level 1-2 would have a D4 usage die
  • Level 3-4 would have a D6 usage die
  • Level 5-7 would have a D8 usage die
  • Level 8-11 would have a D10 usage die
  • Level 12+ would have a D12 usage die
Image by Doug Kovacs for Dungeon Crawl Classics

I also roughed out a 3D6 table for casting mishaps:

3. 1d6 random people/creatures present become hybrids with another random creature
4. Earthquake for 1d6 moments
5. Random extra-dimensional invader/demon summoned (usage die in HD) and attacks caster
6. The minds of all nearby people randomly switch bodies
7. Random caster's relative teleported to close range with caster
8. All nearby gold turns to lead
9. Random caster's possession disappears
10. Roll on corruption table for sorcerer *
11. Roll on corruption table for sorcerer *
12. All nearby wood turns to glass
13. All nearby drawn weapons turn into something random (flowers, butterflies, etc)
14. All nearby metal super-heats for 1d6 moments (1 damage for small items, 1d6 + caster level for metal armour)
15. 3D6 HD of creatures put to sleep, centred on but not including caster
16. Random extra-dimensional invader/demon summoned (usage die in HD) - roll on reaction table from (page 8 of the Black Hack)
17. gravity reversed for 1d6 moments
18. Roll on corruption table for 1d6 of sorcerer's random allies

*There are plenty of these all over the blogosphere, I'll simply pick one while I playtest. This result is by far the most likely, so the greatest risk is always to the sorcerers themselves.

The Sorcerer as a character class is basically the same as the Conjurer outside of casting. I'll be trying this one out as soon as I get a group together to play The Black Hack. I think any player of a sorcerer that pushes their luck too far or over-reaches their level will likely end up in deep trouble.


Monday, 17 October 2016

Review: The Black Hack

To say that I'm late to the party with this review is a bit of an understatement. When The Black Hack Kickstarter funded back in February is was a mere blip on my social-media radar. I looked at it briefly, thought, "Ugh, a roll-under mechanic," and "Do I really need another retro clone?" then moved on. What I can say now with no reservation is it deserved a closer look.


As the year progressed multiple genre-Hacks using David Black's "The Black Hack" as a base cropped up. It wasn't until I saw what Mike Evans over at DIY RPG Productions was doing with his own sword, sorcery and super-science genre hack called Barbarians of the Ruined Earth that I decided I had to pay the Two US Dollars to get the PDF and find out what all the fuss was about.

I get it now! I understand not only why people love this version of tabletop fantasy role-playing, but also why it has spawned so many of its own hacks!

It is described as: "The most straightforward modern OSR compatible clone available."

It's a bold claim, but it has merit. The game fits comfortably into twenty A5 (half-letter-sized) pages, including the cover, acknowledgements page, Open Game Licence and character sheet. That means the game only uses sixteen pages to explain how to play.

With a core mechanic based on rolling under character statistics, the rules are clear and for the most part easy to understand. The writing is straightforward and economical. As a former journalist and a parent with little time to read rulebooks, I appreciate David Black's tight writing.


There is no art beyond the cover, but the layout and design is clean, with good use of white space and easy-to-use tables. It has two columns per page for most of the book. The typeface used for the body text is a standard serif font, offering no distractions or obstructions to reading. The headings and titles all use the distressed sans serif typeface you see on the cover. I like this particular choice as it embraces the "quick and dirty" nature of the rule system. The effective headings, bolded text and good use of white space makes it easy to reference the book for specific information despite the lack of page numbers.

The best use of white space is on the four pages of character class descriptions where each class gets its own page with a single column running down the middle of the page. This gives a special emphasis to these pages and leaves room to make notes around the text in the huge margins. It also allowed me to print out a few character sheets with the rules for each class on the back.

The rules themselves surprised me in their simplicity and flexibility. The core mechanic involves rolling under the relevant stat for any given action on a twenty-sided die (D20). Since stats are rolled on three, six-sided dice (3D6) player characters all start with a good level of competency. The balance of power from the difference between the levels of the player characters and the Hit Dice of their opponents (monsters) creates bonuses and penalties to combat rolls. The advantage/disadvantage mechanic that is a big part of the success of 5th edition D&D is also used to maintain the power balance and protect the specialisation of the different classes.


The rules are a solid blend of old school simplicity with modern improvements. The system simplifies resource tracking with the usage dice that also creates an unpredictable element to resource management. There is a six-item death-and-dismemberment style table for characters who are knocked "Out of Action." The sundered shield option to sacrifice a shield to escape damage is included as well. Encumbrance is streamlined with obvious penalties.

One interesting mechanic is how the players do almost all of the rolling, similar to Monte Cook's Cypher System. The player rolls under their relevant stat to attack and again to avoid attack. Because of this change, armour provides extra hit points instead of making it more difficult to be hit.

I didn't like it the first time I came across the idea of class-based weapon damage, but here it serves to eliminate the pages of weapon lists that you see in other clones while still having some variability in damage. I like how it assumes that fighters are more dangerous with weapons than other classes. It certainly makes sense when you look at fantasy fiction. Conan is just a deadly with whatever weapon he picks up and Fahfrd names all his swords "Greywand" because they do the same thing. The addition of the unarmed/improvised damage by class is smart. It means a balanced weapon of war like a spear or sword is going to be more effective than a chair leg or shield bash.

Spells are handled in a way I think will see more use of utility spells at lower levels. The player starts with the spell slots you see in most OSR clones, but the slot only expires during casting if the player fails an Intelligence roll. The total of spells memorised is restricted by level so players need to decide what they want to have prepared for fast casting and what they'll be pulling out their spellbooks for. It feels like the ritual casting option in 5e D&D without being so finicky. Also, this design choice creates uncertainty in the resource management of spells. If anything should be uncertain, it's magic!

The spell lists themselves are short, with single line descriptions filling one page each for divine and arcane spells. This is another good choice. Reading the spells I find the shorter descriptions far harder to misinterpret and stretch to irrelevant purposes than the longer ones of other clones and editions of D&D.

The monster entries are also almost always one-line per creature. Since they only roll damage, that, their hit dice and any special attack or defence is all you need. The list is two pages long and has creatures from one hit die up to twelve. With these examples, conversion of any other monsters should be no problem.


Player character progression by level is a nice innovation that works with the core mechanic. The player rolls a D20 for each stat and raises any stat they roll over by one. Each class has at least one stat which they roll twice for. Besides that each class also has a hit die that they roll for more hit points.

The game only has four classes including Warrior, Thief, Cleric and Conjurer. These four cover the basics and leave plenty of room for meaningful differences between party members. There are no rules for different fantasy races, but if you need them in your game it's not difficult to add them. With such a simple system, bolting on extras will be half of the fun!

That is why we see so many genre-based hacks of this system out there. The system is so straightforward and simple it would take some serious effort to break it. While reading the rules I came up with three genre hacks I'd like to do with it myself!

The example of play is one of the better ones I've seen. A player could read that one page and grasp almost the entire system.

I'm not surprised the game is picking up momentum. The Kickstarter had 604 backers. I don't know how many PDFs have sold since then, but The Black Hack community on Google Plus has 810 members as I write this review, implying it is only gathering more fans.

Still, the game is not quite perfect. I would change a few things that I don't like.

The cleric has a spellbook. This choice is not terrible mechanically, but for the sake of flavour I would call it a prayer book and refer to casting divine spells as performing miracles. It would create better separation between the cleric and conjurer.

The conjurer spells have "read languages/magic" as a third level spell. I'd put that back into the first level list and add "fly" to the third level list. Before I run this system I might come up with a streamlined version of the "summon" spell from Lamentations of the Flame Princess as well. If I can get it down to two A5 pages I think I'll slip it into my copy.

Armour points are used up during combat, but return after a short rest. Shields are included in this rule. I think shields should be persistent in their effect. I would give a character a bonus to their level for the purpose of defending against attacks from monsters of plus one for a small shield and plus two for a large shield. That way a first level character attacked by three hit dice monster could roll without any penalty to avoid getting hit instead of the plus two penalty for fighting a more powerful monster. The persistence would make shields particularly useful and would make the choice to "sunder a shield" to avoid damage a harder one to make.

Fighters get one attack per level every round. That is way too much rolling in combat for my taste. I like the speed provided by this system and after third level the fighter player would grind every round to a halt during his or her turn while rolling hits and damage. I'd replace this ability with the ability to use shields offensively against more powerful monsters so they get the bonus levels when attacking as well. I'd also allow fighters to roll to hit with two-handed weapons without the plus-two penalty. Those two changes should protect them as the most effective characters in any combat without putting the rest of the party to sleep every round.

Overall, these are small things and likely have as much to do with my gaming taste as anything else.

For two bucks this game is a steal! I printed my PDF out as a booklet on five sheets of paper. This thing will go into my bag for every face-to-face game I play. I'll probably put a small notebook in with it with some quick adventure generation tables and class-based equipment lists so I can use this game as a quick replacement if some players cancel at the last minute.

I think the best use of The Black Hack is probably introducing new people to fantasy RPGs. Its blend of old-school flavour with modern mechanics is a great doorway into the possibilities of tabletop role-playing. Its simplicity means no one is left behind and there's way less of the, "What am I rolling now?" and more, "I do X!"

Well done David Black!


Thursday, 12 May 2016

Dangerous Magic in Fantasy Gaming

I started reading the Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock just before Christmas. The magic in the stories and some other things that have come up while gaming has me re-evaluating magic in fantasy RPGs.

Back in the days of 1e and 2e D&D, when I played a magic user I would bend spells until they broke. I found ways to use spells that had little to do with their original intent but worked within their description. I drove GMs nuts with my descriptions of how my characters were using the spells because they'd would constantly need to make a ruling on whether it would work out the way I wanted or not. Things like casting an Enlarge spell on a wooden door in a stone frame so it would shatter as it grew too big for the space it was in, or casting a Knock spell to unlatch all the buckles on the enemy's platemail.

The newer games have either nerfed the spells or created far more explicit descriptions that don't allow for these interpretations of effects. That's progress I suppose.

I recently found myself exercising those old creative muscles again in a Fifth Edition game I'm playing. We're well into our second year of play and my Warlock hit 9th level. That means she can summon Elementals now. When I saw that ability as one of many on the menu to choose from at 9th level I thought about the Elric stories and all the things I could get an Elemental to do during the one-hour duration.

Now I look at the abilities of the different elementals and figure out what kind of things I can do with them. The reaction of horror from the other players when my character commanded an Earth Elemental to drag an opponent into the ground and leave him there was something of a surprise. I figure a Warlock has the moral flexibility necessary to bury imaginary bad guys alive.

Between the four kinds of elementals my character can solve a lot of problems. Combat and movement are two common ones. For instance, Air Elementals can carry your character through the air and blast your enemies. So much more fun than a regular Fly spell!

I've mentioned before that I'm working on my own fantasy game system and one of the priorities I have is to make the magic system more open. To design it to reward creativity and unconventional thinking. As wonderful as that is, it's taking a long time for me to test everything and make certain the game does all the things I want it to do (like be fun to play). Not to mention that a lot of people don't want to change their game even though they might like to bring what I'm talking about to their table.

The pulps that influenced the creation of the first RPGs leave their marks on the magic systems we take for granted now but the structure keeps magic safe and largely predictable. Magic was always a bit scary in those old stories. A good example of something that they brought into the structure is the creature from Robert Howard's first Conan story, "The Phoenix on the Sword," inspiring the Invisible Stalker spell. When you read Michael Moorcock's Elric stories though, they summon water elementals to create a fog to hide their navy or fire elementals to set fire to a town when attacking. They summon terrible creatures of chaos to get secret knowledge or help navigating the different dimensions. These creatures have their own agendas and goals. Sometimes negotiation is necessary and sometimes they simply oblige.

I know that Stormbringer has a magic system that works like this, but I don't play Stormbringer nor do I know anyone that does. What I think I need is an OSR/5e D&D compatible character class that uses magic from other creatures and does no magic other than summoning and binding them to the caster's will.

Using the Magic User/Wizard class as a base, we could get there pretty quickly. For whatever system you are playing in simply adopt all the hit dice, skills, weapon and armour restrictions, etc of the Magic User/Wizard class and swap out the spellcasting for summoning and binding magic that can be used any time.

"Summoner"
This piece is actually my own attempt at drawing. I'm hugely jealous of people who can illustrate their own blogs so I'm going to try to learn to do this. If you are interested in my journey in that department or you want to see the links to the reference model you can see it at DeviantArt


This makes it easy to drop the class into whatever game you are playing without disrupting the game balance as it exists. If you are playing LotFP you get a character that can use any weapons and armour, like the rest of them but the lower hit points and lack of martial manoeuvres balances out the magic abilities. In 5e, the proficiencies and characteristics fit the flavour created by that system and its assumptions about setting.

Although for 5e, it might make more sense to use the warlock as a base for a summoner class. Once I've tested it out it would be nice to see if it would work for an Eldritch Knight. Elric was a warrior first. He only summoned elementals for large scale effects or to save him from drowning. He fought for himself.

The magic of summoning should be accessible but dangerous. Since the entities often want to get to our world for whatever reason summoning them should be easy while the real challenge comes when trying to control the creature. I also like the idea that it gets more difficult to control new entities throughout a single day. That way there's a good reason to conserve the magic and use it only when it's needed. That escalating danger is a good reason for characters using this kind of magic to be universally feared by ally and foe alike.

I already have summoning magic baked into my own game and tests are going well so far. I'll be putting together an OSR Class for summoning soon, but since I'm playing mostly 5e and playtesting my original game I'll probably do one for 5e D&D first. If you beat me to it, send me a link!