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The Black Hack (Read)

Posted in Games, 12x2017

This post is part of 12x2017: read + play 12 new RPGs in 2017.

Turns out I set my self up for success to get started. The Black Hack is only 20 pages, well laid-out, so it was an embarrassingly quick read for my first challenge.

I’ll admit that all I knew going in was that lots of folks seemed to love TBH so I was a bit surprised at how accurate the name turned out to be: this is literally a hack. It’d be utterly incomprehensible to someone without some existing RPG knowledge.

And, uh, I kind of love it for that. I’ve read so many “What Is An RPG?” and “What Is This Game About?” sections that are roughly as long as The Black Hack that it’s refreshing to just get a smart set of mechanics presented quickly and efficiently.

The epitome of that is probably the spell list. No spell is longer than one line of text, including spell name. I want to see if I can do that, especially for some spells where TBH assumes you know what they do. Like Animate Dead, which totally explains what it does as long as you’re familiar with the idea that the caster can control the risen skeletons/zombies.

A bit like DCC, TBH also leans on some modern considerations. There’s a bit right up front about The Core Mechanic, which is a decidedly modern back port—the idea of having a standard procedure which everything else uses. TBH puts all the rolls in the hands of the characters, a bit like Apocalypse World (but with a fairly elegant system for dealing with large power discrepnacies). It’s pretty much my favorite type of game: one the appreciates early games but is willing to use whatever tools are available, however modern.

TBH’s approach to armor is particularly interesting as it helps build up the explore/rest cycle. Armor is ablative, but it returns with rest. This brings front-line combat characters in to the same short resource cycle as other classes, instead of having only long term HP recovery options.

I could go on about the details, but this is the gist: TBH is a best practices document for a certain type of retro-modern dungeon adventure.

At the end of those 20 pages I was wanting more, both in the good sense (this looks great to play) and in a less-good sense (there’s more promise here that doesn’t quite come through). From the name to the presentation The Black Hack’s style is a selling point, but not enough of that comes all the way through. On my first draft of this on G+ David Black mentioned a revision and being caught between brevity and completeness. If he can manage to walk that tight rope just a bit further with this concept I think it could easily be one of my old new school games of choice.

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and engineering manager at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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