Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Black Hack: Test Run / Review

Brie was sick this weekend so she and I didn't play our usual Saturday Swords & Wizardry session.

Left to my own devices, I decided to play around with the mechanics of The Black Hack, my latest coup de coeur. I'm getting more and more interested in games that aren't "pure" clones of early editions, but which try to emulate their feel with new mechanics (Pits & Perils being another one such which I recently enjoyed very much).

I gave the Black Hack rules a read, then I made up a party of eight characters – three warriors, two conjurers, two clerics and a thief. I then ran this NPC party through the kobold lair in the "Caves of Chaos" from The Keep on the Borderlands. I used random die rolls to determine which direction(s) the NPC party would choose whenever they came to a junction or had to make some other decision.

The Black Hack played quite smoothly, and there are a number of things I like very much about the rules.

1. I like the descending die mechanism for resources (I think when I actually run this, I might do checks for food and torches at real out-of-game time intervals when applicable, using a kitchen timer or something to remind me).

2. I like that everything worked on attribute checks. This makes the characters' attribute scores feel *really* meaningful.

3. I also like how pretty much all the die rolling is done by players, rather than by the GM. Initiative? Roll under DEX and you go before the opponents, fail and you go after (the GM doesn't roll for the opponents' initiative at all). You want to make a melee attack? Roll under STR. The opponent attacks you in melee? YOU roll under STR to avoid it (again the GM doesn't make an attack roll for the opponent). Missile attacks or dodges? DEX check for both (and again only the player rolls). And so on and so on.

4. The game is not as lethal as many old-school games, but it still can be deadly. Zero HP does not necessarily mean death, but it can. When you get to zero, you roll on an "out of action" table, which provides an array of effects (and penalties) including disadvantage on future rolls, stat loss, and death itself. This works for me.

5. Spell-casting is interesting too. After you cast the spell, roll under INT (conjurers) or WIS (clerics). If you succeed, you don't lose the spell slot and can cast it again later. If you fail, the spell still works, but you lose the spell slot. The nice thing is, you can often cast your one, first-level spell more than once a day. But it is a crapshoot, so you still have to "conserve" your magical energy, and you won't want to waste spells on insignificant tasks and opponents.

So that said, here's how the NPC party's mini-delve went.

The party entered the lair, avoided a pit trap by making a successful WIS check, and defeated some guards quickly, preventing said guards from running away to raise the alarm.

Next the party wandered immediately into the main kobold lair (probably more kobolds than they could have handled in a fight), but the kobold reaction roll yielded "mistakes the party for friends." So I rolled a CHR check for the smoothest-talking character, with a huge margin of success, which I treated as the kobolds telling the party where the chieftain (and his loot) were.

The party fought past the guards outside the chieftain's room, but lost quite a few HP in the process.

Getting to the chieftain's room, it took two STR checks (the first one failed) to open the door, so I automatically gave the chieftain a first surprise attack when the party got in. Then all but one of the party failed the DEX check for initiative so in essence the chieftain and his concubines got in yet another round of attacks, and party HP started dropping pretty seriously.

But then one of the party's conjurers (with only 1 HP left) had a "sleep" spell which he cast with a successful INT check, and it was all over.

The thief stepped up and made a DEX check to open the chieftain's locked treasure chest, and the party made their way out.

All in all, The Black Hack is a nice, tight set of rules. They are short and sweet (something like 20 pages) and the roll under attribute principle is incredibly simple and flexible. I definitely see myself running these rules at some point in the near future.


  1. I've been wondering about that. Sounds interesting!

    1. It did run nicely in my solo test. Now I'm going to have to inflict it on some real players and see how that goes.

  2. Thank goodness for sleep spells, they were very lucky!

  3. This does look interesting. Seems like it will play well. And I like the fact that the players roll everything.

    1. Yeah, I may have to run you and Ken through something with this when my turn to GM cycles round again.

  4. Hope Brie is feeling better.

    PS: Your book got here and someone wrote in it.

    1. She is, thanks. Actually she has been for a while -- I'm so late on my replies it's pathetic.