The Black Hack Review
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Maybe you are stumbling over this review at DTRPG/RPGnow or maybe you’ve picked it up on G+ or Twitter.
And you are probably reading this because you are an OSR fan. Perhaps you’re wondering if The Black Hack is worth your time and money. Or maybe you are just interested in my opinion. (Thanks.) Either way, you are probably familiar with old school Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) games.
The Black Hack (affiliate link) sells itself as
... a super-streamlined roleplaying game that uses the Original 1970s Fantasy Roleplaying Game as a base, and could well be the most straightforward modern OSR compatible clone available. If speed of play and character creation, compatibility, and simple - yet elegant rules are what you yearn for. Look no further!
You might want to know if the product can keep its promise. In a moment, we will take a look at the game. At the end of this article, you really should be able to decide for yourself. I know you’re wondering: such an effort for a 2 dollar product? But you will surely agree that people only want to spend their time and money for things which they hope will be valuable for them. So I’m writing a review for a 20-page product. Please note that this is a reading review.
Alright, let’s get this out of the way: this is a modern OSR clone. That means that it is old school D&D at its core with some tweaking and some ideas from more recent games. It’s not a hipster “indie” game per se, it’s not a newer version of D&D nor is it a (straight) retro-clone (like Delving Deeper and such).
First of all, the game uses the standard array of stats. Roll 3d6 in order. You can swap two stats. If you roll a 15+, the next stat must be rolled with 2d6. Basically, you end up with pretty well-rounded characters as the bell curve output of 3d6 ensures that you most of your attributes end up somewhere between 8 and 13 anyway.
4 classes: Warrior, Cleric, Conjurer, Thief. No races. Classes have armor and weapon restrictions. Weapon restrictions are silly as the attack damage depends on your class, not on your chosen weapon. So a Warrior always deals 1d8 with a weapon, be it an axe, a sword or a flail. And Clerics always deal 1d6 damage but are only allowed blunt weapons. The author probably wanted to stay true to the OD&D roots.
The core mechanic for the game is roll below a stat on a d20. No saving throws, this is also handled with an attribute check. Time and turns are a bit weird. The author renamed rounds into Moments and turns into Minutes. And Minutes can also be Hours or Days. But because that’s not very intuitive, both terms are spelled out (i.e. Minutes (turns)). I don’t get the need for new names. Additionally, the author doesn’t explain the duration of a turn.
There are some deviations from standard old school fare in the Black Hack.
Armor provides protection via Armor Points (AP). For example, Leather has 4 AP and reduced damage by that amount.
Only the players roll dice.
The rule is hidden but edit: It’s not really hidden. The text doesn’t directly say “Only the players roll dice” but it states what you need to do to attack or defend: if a monster attacks, the player might make a check to try to avoid. That means the GM doesn’t roll an attack roll.
For example, if it’s possible to dodge the monster’s attack, the player makes a Dexterity test. Powerful opponents make a test harder but the basic mechanism is the same.
Movement is abstract and uses 4 ranges: Close, Nearby, Far-Away, and Distant.
When your Hit Points are reduced to zero, you are taken Out of Action and must roll a d6 on a table. Results vary from KO’d to Dead. Let’s hope that Lady Luck is on your side.
The GM decides about advancement. There are no experience points, for every milestone a character gains a level.
Additionally, the Black Hack uses the now popular Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic (think Barbarians of Lemuria or D&D 5e). While there are some guidelines when these apply (for example when you use a weapon you’re not proficient with), the rules are really vague on this. Eventually, the GM will need to decide when to apply this formula to make tasks harder or easier. There are no rules for combat maneuvers or other fancy stuff. That means that the mechanics only cover the basic attacking and defending moves. Everything else you need to come up on your own, call for an attribute check and maybe roll with Advantage/Disadvantage. And that’s where you must decide if that’s ok for you or not. If you like minimalist and rules-lite games, you might embrace the freedom. If you want a bit more crunch or just a list with some more options, this game falls flat on its ass. The Black Hack doesn’t reinvent the wheel but asks you to draw from your previous gaming experiences with old school games.
What I like about the ruleset is how it handles equipment. Consumable items have a Usage Die. A quiver of arrows has a d10. You need to roll it and when you roll a 1-2, you step down the die. When you roll a 1-2 on a d4 item, the item is depleted. I like how this makes bookkeeping much easier. Chapeau! I’m a bit miffed about the equipment list, though. For instance, one-handed weapons are missing. Yes, a starter character gets one weapon of choice for free but what if I want to buy an additional ranged weapon?
Classes are imbalanced. Interestingly, characters start with much higher Hit Points (HP) than typical. For instance, a Warrior has 1d10 + 4 starting HP. Conjurers only have 1d4 + 4. So in the worst case scenario, you end up with 5 HP. Still, that’s not as bad as it sounds. That’s because monsters strangely deal less damage than characters. PCs can do between 1d4 (Conjurer) and 1d8 damage (Warrior) at level 1. A monster with 1 HD (Hit Die/Dice) deals only d4 damage (or a static 2 points). Per default rules, a fight can be pretty boring. There is no way to make a fight mechanically interesting except the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic (again, there are almost no guidelines for when to use them in combat). Well, there is a rule for critical hits. And why are characters much more capable than monsters of the same level? I’m a bit surprised about the four range increments because there are no rules for tactical movement. The basic rule is that on a turn every character can move somewhere Nearby and still make an action (i.e. an attack). You can forgo an action and move further etc. But still I wonder why there is a need for four combat zones. Of course, melee attacks are only possible at Close range. The range for ranged weapons is not defined in the book. That’s because there are no ranged weapons included in the equipment list. So the GM will have to come up with her own rulings.
What about spells? There is a spell list for Clerics (Divine Spells) and one for Conjurers (Arcane Spells) with the typical stuff. Clerics gain their first spell at level 2. So a 1st level Cleric can’t cast spells. A 1st level Conjurer only can cast one spell. The game uses spell slots. You can only cast as many spells as you have slots per day. I don’t want to spell out the whole rulebook (see what I did here?), suffice to say that they are no big surprises here. It all fits snugly into the rest of the game and the base mechanic of making an attribute check. Clerics can try to banish undead which can be a consolidation for the lack of spells at first level.
There is no GM section per se, the rules are scattered across the whole book. But as The Black Hack is minimalist, that’s not a problem. As a GM, you have two pages of monsters at your disposal. But notice that spareness comes at a cost. Strictly speaking, the rules are incomplete and you won’t understand them if you aren’t already familiar with role-playing games.
A word about the appearance: The book is nicely laid out, text and tables are easy to read, good font choices. It’s 20 pages total, including the cover and the OGL at the back of the book.
The price of USD $2.00 is fair.
The Black Hack is a rules-lite neo D&D clone. I like the mix of old school feeling and newer innovations. However, the game is not without fault. At times, the game text just stays too vague for my taste. And why does the author insist on weapon restrictions when the damage value is fixed per class? Plus, the balance between monsters and characters feels off. Is the game supposed to be more heroic? If so, why don’t characters start with max HP at first level? And why are spellcasting classes that restricted at first level? That said, as the target audience, I like The Black Hack. Yes, it’s the millionth D&D clone but it fits my preferences. It feels elegant and fun. Suppose that you are not a rules-lite OSR gamer with a taste for modern tweaks, then you will probably much more critical of the rules. I want you to discover for yourself if this description fits you or not. Then you will know if The Black Hack is worth a shot.