Review: The Black Hack
by Ramanan Sivaranjan on April 07, 2019
I bought the Rad Hack in April of 2017.1 Ben Milton posted one of his videos flipping through the book and I was hooked. Karl’s art is killer. The game itself is a hack of another game, The Black Hack by David Black. For reasons I don’t really recall anymore I was thoroughly disinterested in the Black Hack, despite it being everywhere in the OSR at the time. I was probably busy running my Carcosa game and obsessed with OD&D to pay it much attention.
Games like Rad Hack felt like they were coming out every week. Everyone seemed to be making a “Hack”. Just like the early days of the OSR where people were all publishing their own character classes for Basic D&D, you also saw a lot of people publishing new classes for the Black Hack. I asked David what he thought made the game so compelling to the rules hackers out there. There are so many rules lite OSR games, what made this one standout so much? He had two thoughts. First, the rules were short and to the point. The core game was 24 A5 pages long, and these pages are far from dense tracts of text. Second, Bruno Bord converted the game to plain text and put the results of his efforts online as the Black Hack SRD. The barrier for entry when it came to making your own tweaked hack of the game was certainly low. The game feels like a true viral hit.
The Black Hack is on my mind because I helped Kickstart a new edition of the game. You can now get the second edition of The Black Hack as a dope-ass hard cover book, one that marries the simplicity and terseness of the original rules with pages and pages of tables and advice on running an old school fantasy game. A smaller booklet version of the rules still exists, clocking in at 20 pages. So, anyone worried David was going to bloat up his game should relax. This second edition feels like a gentle refinement of the earlier edition of the game. I suspect only the most ardent of Black Hack fans will notice the changes that have been made. (What did he do to armour! That crazy man.)
Black Hack is a mechanically simple game. Players have 6 attributes recognizable from D&D. To accomplish any task you must roll under the appropriate stat. Almost all rolls are done by the player. You roll under your STR to attack with a sword, and you’d probably roll under your DEX to dodge a dragon’s fire breathing, for example. I want to say that’s basically it, because that’s basically it. There are small rules included that make sense for a game designed with the game play of D&D in mind: a simple encumbrance system, rules for exhausting your supplies, etc. It’s all very well done and intuitive.
Compared to the first edition of the game, the second feels rounded out with an eye to helping new players to D&D get oriented. It begins with a page about role playing games and how this game works, followed by an example of play. The rules for the game then follow, those that both players and GMs will care about. A lot of what is often left unsaid in various versions of D&D is made a bit more explicit in this version of the Black Hack. David talks about the structure of the various phases of a D&D game (in the dungeon, exploring the wilderness, being in town, etc) and tries to break that all down into a common structure of play with a common language to describe what the players and dungeon masters are up to.
For old-hands of the OSR the Black Hack feels like it has a lot to offer. The rules are simple and get out of the way. They are easy to hack and tweak as needed. Some bespoke classes and new equipment lists you’ve taken your art-house D&D setting to the next level! The larger hard cover book is also packed to the brim with all sorts of little tables and advice useful when running a D&D game. Poison! Panic & Light! Rival Heroes! Drugs! What’s on the Corpse! Etc! If you can conceive of it coming up in a D&D game it’s likely David has made a page about it in the book. There’s a sample wilderness, dungeon, and tavern, so you likely could get quite far with this book alone.
Something else new with this edition is the inclusion of a small bestiary. Mechanically a monster is some HD and a bullet point or two about how they might attack the characters. It’s funny how small the entries are for these creatures compared to something like the entries from the Second Edition Monster Compediums. Each entry features some random tables that cover what the monster is up to when the party encounters them. (These things aren’t just standing around waiting to fight.) This bestiary isn’t exhaustive, but is likely good enough to get you going. It’s also instructive to see how simple it is to make a monster.
I normally run LotFP when I’m not running OD&D. The Black Hack feels like a nice alternative to both games, being simpler and a bit more of a blank slate than LotFP. I think if I was to pick up my Carcosa game again I’d run it using the Black Hack. (Maybe write up my own Carcosa Hack, borrowing from the Black Hack and the Rad Hack.2)
Hopefully it goes without saying you should buy this game. It’s available as a PDF if your means are modest. You can grab the box, dungeon screen, booklets, folders, and hardcover book from SquareHex. I regret not getting the box. Don’t make the same mistake as me when you’re doing your shopping.
I have lots more to say about this game, but I think i’d like to play it a bit more first.