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!