Review of the Black Hack

UPDATE: the game has been updated since I wrote this. My views have changed! Please keep this in mind if you are still reading this post. I will be putting an update shortly…

The Black Hack is an ‘OSR’ First Edition hack written by David Black. The PDF is 19 pages (including front cover, Open Game License blurb and a character sheet).

I backed this on Kickstarter because I was interested in other ultra-minimalist approaches to Dungeons & Dragons. Right now I’m still absorbing Whitehack, a similar product. Expect a few comparisons between both books in this review (I can’t help it).

Overal impression

It’s a nice little book of house rules. There’s some really cool stuff in here that I’ll very likely cherry pick and use, but not all of it feels all that inspired.

Layout and style

The Black Hack has a polished, minimalistic look and feel. Each page is laid-out in two columns and there is only one size or “level” of header in  all-caps. The body is a serif font. All of it is very easy to read and scan.

There is no artwork other than the “devil” horns hand gesture on the cover and the occasional blobs of black here and there (perhaps supposed to be blood or stray black paint from a rebellious graffiti artist).

It is a very nice-looking PDF and I’m sure it will be a good-looking physical booklet.

Content (the Rules)

The Black Hack uses the traditional attribute scores (Strength, Dexterity etc…). Everything is determined by a “roll under” mechanic. That means that every check is done with a d20 and you have to roll under your ability score. there are no difficulty modifiers except for Advantage and Disadvantage (exactly the same thing as 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons and even Whitehack).

It uses the typical basic classes (Fighter, thief, cleric and wizard, although by other names). No surprises there.

Unlike Whitehack, but like Dungeon World, only the players roll dice. That means that the GM does not roll dice for the antagonists: the players roll to avoid their attacks. I’m a fan of this mechanic (I don’t care if I roll or not as long as the game moves smoothly and quickly).

Also like Dungeon World, each class has its own damage dice. Again, I like this a lot. The Fighter always excels at dealing damage with weapons and the Wizard is pretty awful, having to rely on their spells. Unlike Dungeon World, each class also has an “improvised” damage type. I personally feel that this is unnecessary, but I can see why some would want this level of detail.

Armor works very strangely in this game. It functions as damage reduction, not an abstract Armor “Class”. That’s nothing new, of course. But Black Hack differs from other games in that these armor points go away after being hit (they recharge after a rest). So a single lucky hit from even a minor threat can neutralize the heaviest and most expensive plate armor. That I don’t really get at all, especially considering the game’s super awesome system of resource management (more on this later). I felt that this was a real wasted opportunity.

Again, just like Dungeon World and D&D 5e, saving throws are categorized by attribute scores, depending on context. I do love this very much, especially the subtle distinction for when a character can use their Strength vs. their Dexterity save. Very clever.

When you level up, you gain more hit points and maybe a stat increase. Meh.

There’s a lot of neat, simplified stuff in this game that I won’t go over in detail because that would be spoiling it. Some rules are so close to being really elegant but are held back by a strange insistence on detail or numbers that feel… off somehow. Other things are just right and I want to use them immediately (Death & Dying, Creature Reactions, Encumbrance and… the Usage Die).

My favorite rule in Black Hack is the Usage Die. This is the main charm, in my opinion. Basically any equipment that you’d normally track after each use gets abstracted into a single die type. After you use the resource, you roll the die. On a 1 or 2, you reduce the die by one “level” or “type”. So, a d12 would degrade to a d10 and a d6 to a d4. Once it goes beyond a d4, you’re out.

I really, really like this. It mixes some of the abstract qualities of Dungeon World that I love so much. I only wish that Armor was tied into this mechanic somehow.

For a game with “modern d20 theory” in its sub-heading, I was disappointed by the magic system. The Black Hack is very traditional in this department with old school spells per day. There’s an insistence on splitting up the spells/day charts for wizards and clerics… for some reason. It feels really limited and if a spell caster is unlucky, they get even fewer spell slots than expected. The spells have no descriptions: you’re expected to refer to descriptions in other D&D games, so this means that the Black Hack is not a self-contained RPG. I was expecting something more abstracted, lean and innovative. What there is in this game works just fine, but it’s surprisingly boring.

Conclusion

The Black Hack is a nice little game. To be honest, I think that I’m going to mine the parts that I love (e.g., Encumbrance, Usage Die, Saves) and bring them over into Whitehack. I really prefer Whitehack’s loose class and magic systems. My eventual and unofficial “Black and White” Hack will be perfect for my tastes (especially when combined with Beyond the Wall’s play-books and the Freebooters on the Frontier’s spell name generators.

Do I recommend this? It’s a nice little book with some great ideas that I would love to use in other games, especially OSR ones like Whitehack or even Dungeons and Dragons 5th. I’m sure that folks who already have chosen their favorite OSR or retroclone (e.g. Labyrinth Lord, Lamentations of the Flame Princess) can get something useful out of Black Hack. It’s cheap too (2$ for the PDF).

I’d say go for it, but you won’t miss much if you don’t. Some of the best rules are in the free preview anyway.

You can buy it here.