Tuesday, 29 March 2016

[Review] The Black Hack

The Black Hack pdf can be bought from RPGNow.

The Black Hack is an OSR game inspired by 70's original rules and a result of very successful Kickstarter. I was going to review this immediately after getting the pdf reward, but decided to postpone, as the first version was really unsatisfying and they were going to update it soon. Now that I have the new(est) version of The Black Hack, I am ready to review it, as many of the flaws I (and probably many others) had pointed out to the creator.

With The Black Hack you get a simple system with unified mechanics across all the things you want to do in a roleplaying games. With familiar six attributes from Dungeons & Dragons, you roll under for skill checks (attribute checks), to attack, to avoid being attacked, and to save versus various effects and dangers. Basically this means you don't need all kinds of attribute modifiers and sub-systems. Everything is d20 roll under. That is simple, and quick, and even though it reduces every bit of attribute bonuses and usages and sub-systems and whatever downgrading the game into extremely simple one-rail system actually downgrading into the core simplicity of original alternative attribute test rule, it is extremely innovative. You get to keep the old-school feel and high compability with other OSR games' stats with a different kind of a system. This is what is great with OSR: Whitehack is different from Labyrinth Lord which is different from Basic Fantasy which is different from The Black Hack, yet all these different systems are highly compatible with six same attributes with same ranges, and with AC and HD. Even though AC is different from damage reducing to ascending to descending, you can easily convert them around.

Being a different game with similar stats really makes The Black Hack stand out in the crowd of clones. You get D&D feel with different rules. And there is a reason to use these rules, if you want something simple, easy, and quick, but still want to play D&D.

One innovative thing is also penalties from example armor. If you are not proficient in armor you wear, you add the armor's protection value to your roll under roll result. The better (higher points) your armor is you are not proficient with, more likely you fail the task tests. Great! There is one problem with armor, though. Armor points reduce as much as they reduce the damage taken, until you rest. The explanation is, that the character is too tired or wounded to use the armor efficiently before resting. I find this a bit unsatisfying, when a leather armor protects you from 2 points. That is less than average damage from an attack dealing 1d6 of damage, and half of dagger (1d4) attacks make your leather armor using too demanding... Deadly, and makes armors one-hit-protectors. Advantage is that you cannot be this knight in a tin can no one can hit, but disadvantage is that armor makes little difference.

Instead of different save values for different things like poison or wands, you roll under your attribute to save. This is great! All attributes are equally important, not only to bend bars and sneak, and attack, but also for this! In other games save score is attached to character's class and level. When you level your save gets better. In The Black Hack when you level (no experience points, you level after a session or adventure, or when Game Master decides), you try to roll higher than your attribute score to raise it. Similar system you can find in Call Of Cthulhu for skills. And I like it; the better/higher your attribute is, harder it is to increase and develop it!

Two-handed weapons, critical damage, and effects of dropping below 0 HP are all discussed, which are not necessarily covered in original edition(s) or other OSR games. There's even an advantage/disadvantage system similar to Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition presented.

Inventory rules are what I like a lot, thanks to Lamentations Of The Flame Princess, where instead of weight you consider sizes. Innovation in The Black Hack is usages. Instead of keeping track of how many items you own of a certain type, you track usage dice. Roll 1-2 on a die, and it drops to one category lower. This is brilliant!

The four basic classes even with not that much technical data are different from each other, which is naturally good. There are no races, but I don't mind. The Black Hack can very well be grittier human-only monsters-are-monsters-not-your-friendly-companions.

There are few changes to magic rules. Usually slots you memorize spells in are slots you can cast spells "from". So if your character has two first level slots and one second level slot (third level cleric - this is basically the table found in other OSR games to determine how many spells your caster can memorize per day). When casting a spell and a save is failed, you reduce one spell slot of corresponding level of the spell. So, you can cast lots of spells and only a failed save cuts back your daily spell casting limits. You can cast directly from a book or memorize spells to automatically cast them without referring to that clumsy old tome. The text in spells section is a bit unclear, so I hope I understood it correctly.

Spell descriptions are short, but enough. Same with monsters. Even though they are (now) arranged in descending HD order, the monsters of same HD are not in alphabetical order. Frustrating flaw. HD 3 monsters are listed in this order:
Bugbear, Harpy, Wererat, Shadow, Doppleganger, Wight.
A small flaw, but annoying.

Character sheet is neat. It would be awesome in all it's minimalistic glory only if "spells" section was more useful. Many games have a sucking spells section in their character sheet.

Last page is an example of play. It is not that bad giving all kinds of different situations how to use rules, but it is plagued with typos.


  • Poor editing (somehow edited)
  • Text a bit unclear at times (lots of inprovement)
  • Chapters badly organized (quite the same)
  • No spell list (added)
  • Monsters in random order instead of alphabetic or HD (organized with HD)
  • Banishing undead written so that you roll for each individual undead (fixed to groups of undead)
Biggest problem for me was the abstinence of spell list. The author explained, that you can get the spells from any of other games, so he didn't want to increase the page count with them. My argument was, that as The Black Hack is a small game and would be a stand-alone game with spells, it would be extremely stupid to carry a big hardcover (or whatever edition and version you take spells from) with a small game like this. My suggestion was to make spell list like in Tunnels & Trolls earlier editions, or like the monster entries, one liners.

Now as there are spells, this can be used as a complete game and you don't need to carry your big bulky PHB (or whatever rules with spells) with you to actually use The Black Hack.
Original score would have been:
4/5 for cool ideas and house rules
2/5 as a full game

Score for current edition 1.1.
4/5 for being a full game with neat ideas and simple playability