About Newt

Games Designer, Publisher, Web Developer, Dad.

That Black Hack Thing

So here’s a post that is long overdue, an appreciation of David Black’s The Black Hack.

Like Dungeon World this was a game that I blindly stumbled into on Kickstarter, following a bit of a buzz online. In fact, if I was thinking critically it should have been a big nope. The pitch for the game was a bit meh “this is my version of D&D I run at cons, and people have asked me to make a printed version” and list of changes/features. But what sold me was its logo:

How badass and metal is that 🙂

So What is it?

In short, it’s David’s Rules for running no-nonsense D&D games at conventions and short online games. You can spin campaign games with it since it still has level progression, but beware the experience rules amount to “characters gain levels when the DM says they do”. Which I like, as a middle-aged dad I’ve not got time to run the old week in week out experience point grinds of my teenage years.

Its roots are firmly in the old school, with four OSR four classes, each of which gets a page listing their restrictions and special abilities in the A5 booklet. Then it expands and refines the rules base with cool bits from other modern derivatives ( such as Dungeon World’s GM doesn’t roll, 5th Edition’s Advantage roll) and bits of the author’s devising (such as usage dice for keeping track of expendable items, the initiative system where you test against Dexterity on a D20 and if you fail you go after the monsters). Monsters and spells are no-nonsense, a short paragraph with essential stats. that fit in a couple of tables over two or so pages. For example, monsters are presented as Armour, Hit Dice, and quick special abilities.  And that’s the big thing about the Black Hack, it really presents the game in a very clean bare-bones fashion, with no unnecessary padding.  Apart from the game’s logo which also acts as the cover image, there is no art, just a very clean and effective graphic design and typography (are you beginning to see a theme here?) At the time it had me scratching my head thinking “is this actually an RPG?”.

What its good for

Using the Black Hack at Furnace 2016

I got to test the rules out at Furnace 2016 where I had initially offered to run a 5th Edition game but had failed miserably to get my head around the three books in the time that I had pitched the game and I was due to run it. So instead of panicking, I thought “why bring three heavy thick hardcovers to the table, when I can bring one slim a5 booklet” 🙂 So I ran a playtest with my home group, who as fans of various editions of D&D had it under a stern gaze, and it passed with flying colours! Same when I ran it at the convention, with a group of players of varying experience with D&D. It just worked and delivered Maximum Gaming Fun.

Which is the win with any role-playing game, and the point where the Black Hack became one of my “you’ll pry this from my cold dead fingers” games.

Hacking the Black Hack

But this wasn’t the end of my adventures with the Black Hack. The game’s text is completely Open Gaming Content and comes with its own Open Gaming License. It encourages you to remix and remake it in whatever image you want. So I’ve done this myself a couple of times. Once for a Dark Sun tribute called Black Sun (get it 😉 ) and more seriously for a British Post Apocalyptic Game set in the 70s, called Un-United Kingdom. Both these remain unpublished because they need polish and playtesting. But they were both fun to build and write, and Un-United Kingdom has had an entertaining trip out as a Convention game, and worked out of the box first time 🙂

Polished games out there

While I may not have got my efforts out there, there is a dizzying array of free and low-cost games and supplements for the Black Hack. DriveThruRpg.com lists 386 at present.

Three that come to mind that are a bit more developed and standalone games in their own right:

Cthulhu Hack by Paul Baldowski (Just Crunch Games).  Cthulhu done lo-fat style using the Black Hack. Fully suppported with a range of adventures and supplements.

Heroic Fantasy by Graham Spearing (Wordplay Games). If you want more classes, such as the Barbarian and the Bard, more monsters, races (Dwarf, Elf etc) a bit more guidance and a full adventure, this 89-page game delivers.

Kaigaku by Jacob DC Ross (Thunder Egg Productions). A slimline take on Samurai Roleplaying, that has all the flavour of the 90s classics that inspired it but none of the rules bloat.

Second Edition now on Kickstarter

Author David Black has decided to do a 2nd edition packed with more examples, art, and other cool stuff to make the game even cooler than it already is.  It’s currently on Kickstarter now, and its legions of fans have pushed it over the 500% funded mark already.

Beyond Dread Portals part 2 – Beyond d20 System

Beyond Dread Portals cover by Jon Hodgson

Yesterday I looked at the Empire of Ys which is the setting for Beyond Dread Portals.

Today I jump right in and look at the system that powers the game.

Beyond D20, The System
A D20 fantasy system, significantly more straightforward than D20 D&D.

The basic rule: Roll d20 add modifiers over a target number.

Modifiers can come from

  • Ability modifiers
  • Backgrounds
  • Skill Rank (for Skill Tests)
  • Attack bonus (for combat)

So for example

Organo the Sly, a 5th Level Expert, doing a flying tumble over a large number of Mage-Guards of the Arcane Guild, rolls d20 with +5 for her Skill Rank, +8 for her background of being a member of a travelling circus and +3 for her Dexterity Modifier, for a whopping + 16 in total.

If Hargvard the Brute, a 5th level Warrior, is trying to do the same thing he doesn’t have any backgrounds that help acrobatics, so he would only get a + 1 from his Dex modifier. As a result, his player is far more likely to barge through the group of warriors, which allows Hargvard to bring in his background as a street thug and skills as a warrior into play for a much higher modifier. 

The target number is assigned by the Referee and starts at 10, +5 for each complication involved in the test.  Rolls can be opposed, so the target number can be a d20 roll generated by the opposition. So, in the above example, the Referee could roll a skill test for the Guards collectively and use the result as the target number.

Finally, if you can bring into play one of your character’s drives, which are written on the character sheet as short descriptions of what motivates the character, you get to roll twice picking the more favourable roll. However, if you fail, despite rolling twice, you land your character at great risk.

So in the above example, Organo’s player invokes her drive of “To live life to the full” and the Referee warns them that if Organo fails she will end up tumbling gracefully right into the middle of the crowd of Mage-Guards ready to pound her with their poleaxes.

Your character also has special class-based abilities. Such as fighting styles for warriors, spell casting and magic for magicians, various tricks of the trade for Experts. Some of these are expected D&D abilities, and some are from the setting.

Spell casting uses a familiar spell list, but casters have Magic Points, so it’s not the usual fire and forget system. All the spells from regular D&D that break a magic point system, such as Sleep and Charm Person, have either been removed or rewritten to fit in.

Beyond Dread Portals part 1 -The Empire of Ys

Beyond Dread Portals cover by Jon Hodgson

This is the first of a two-part “Beyond Dread Portals in a Nutshell”, looking at the setting.  Part 2 (coming tomorrow) looks at the system.

If you’ve not come across mention of Beyond Dread Portals before, its a completely self-contained game by Paul Mitchener, a burgeoning powerhouse of British RPG writing (partial credits Hunters of Alexandria, Age of Arthur, Starfall, Mythic Britain: Logres). Currently standing at 250+ pages sans art-work this is Dr Mitch’s post-D&D take on multidimensional fantasy adventure gaming.

Hoping to Kickstart this one, once I’ve cleared the decks of some outstanding work, probably either by the end of this year or at the start of next year. I’ve got a full draft of the game, which initially started off as Paul’s homage to Planescape, but mutated into its own thing. It’s a large fantasy setting, where a magical city-state of Ys sits at the centre of an empire of other worlds connected by magic portals (hence the title). Its also a ruleset – which I’m tagging as post-D&D. It takes D&D as its starting point and then cuts and adds to it to make the ruleset match the setting. The nearest analogy is I can make if that second wave of AD&D 1st edition settings (Planescape, Dark Sun, Ravenloft etc.) had been self-contained games with modified D&D based rulesets. Bear in mind Paul also takes into consideration 30 years of games design on top of that, although he does so in a way that isn’t jarring to the starting point.

So here’s a quick look at the setting: The Empire of Ys

What is the Empire of Ys?

Ys is a city on a ringworld. Although it has well-defined districts, these magically shift and change from time to time. It used to be human ruled Empire which aggressively conquered and colonised other worlds, using magical portals (the Dread Portals of the game’s title). Recently, Ys was invaded by the undead mega-fiend the Autarch, who now sits uncaring in the imperial palace, occasionally enforcing its will through the Guilds and the Noble Families, but otherwise allowing the empire to function as it did before without much interference.

The other worlds are:

  • A fallen colony world, whose portal is officially closed. A dark world of endless caverns, rich in minerals and metals (which initially drew the Ysians) but inhabited by monsters (which is why they left).
  • A well-established colony, the source of much of Ys’s food, controlled by playing off rival Kingdoms against each other.
  • At first contact a dead desert world full of ancient ruins rich with treasure. This is the world the undead Autarch came from.
  • Another colony world dominated by two factions, The Empire of the Lion and the Three Kingdoms.
  • An ocean world dotted with islands.

There is a system of Guilds that run various functions of the Empire.

  • The Guild of the Arcane.
  • The Army.
  • The Temples of the Six.
  • The Guilds of Headsman (Assassins).
  • The Society of Crafters.
  • The League of Explorers, who mount expeditions through the portals to the other worlds. All the player characters are members of this Guild by default, as well as one other.
  • The Black Rose. A merchants’ league.
  • The Steel Hand. An organisation of thugs, enforcers, bodyguards, general henchmen.
  • The Emerald Hand. Once a diplomatic and spy service, now stripped of its powers by the Autarch it appears a motley crew of knowledge-hungry scholars and performers.
  • The Five Noble Families:
    • The Acarni – as their name suggests they consider themselves to have a monopoly on magical matters. They are decadent powermongers who pretty much run the Guild of the Arcane.
    • The Lantari. Followers of the Goddess of Love and War they are practical and militaristic. They have a close association with the Army.
    • The Solari. Some say they are a house in deep decline after the banishment of their patron goddess Solaria (or Dawn) by the Autarch. Other say they are just plotting in the shadows.
    • The Telani. A rich house of merchants who prosper through the activities of the Black Rose.
    • The Valerii. Sinister and Machiavellian, they openly back the Autarch.

Overall the setting is a fantasy renaissance setting, where instead of ocean-borne trade the city-state of Ys profits from its business with the worlds it is in contact with through the magical portals. Without the regular edicts of the human Empire and the vague but fearful orders that occasionally come from Autarch, there is much political infighting between the Guilds and their agents.  There is a patronage system, and the player characters like everyone else will have a patron who will help them in return for support.

Next: Beyond D20 (the system that powers Beyond Dread Portals).

May is D&D Sale month

DriveThruRpg.com are having a 33% off sale for D&D products of all editions, and Crypts and Things and all its releases are available in pdf until the end of May.

Since its pdf only, I’m matching that 33% discount on the print with free pdf bundles I sell on the D101 Games web store on items I currently have in stock until the end of May.

So at the moment, that is

  • Crypts and Things Softcover £13/$17.5 (normally £20/$27).
  • Tombs of the Necromancer £4/$5 (normally £6/$8).
  • Life and Death £9/$12 (normally £14/$19).

Shipping is free to UK addresses on orders over £10.

Mythras in Review

I’m a long-time fan of Mythras. In many ways it’s the Rolls Royce of the D100 gaming world, being clean and dignified, as well as being a robust ruleset. It came from the same branch of the D100 systems tree, Mongoose RuneQuest (MRQ), as my own OpenQuest (OQ) and while I cut down and rationalised the MRQ SRD, Mythras’s authors (Lawrence Whitaker and Pete Nash) kept the complexity added with MRQ and refined it. I’ve promised myself that I would do a quick review of Mythras and its supplements when it came out two years ago in 2016, and the current Bundle of Holding seems to be an excellent time to do that. So if you are wondering whether Mythras is for you, read on.

A Bit of History and Context

For me, Mythras is the logical inheritor of all the non-Gloranthan RuneQuest (RQ) that got played in the 80s/90s via the Avalon Hill RQ3 ruleset, which us lucky Brits got via much improved Games Workshop hardcover releases. It came via Mongoose Publishing’s efforts when they had the RQ licence in the 2000s. Mythras’ authors Lawrence Whitaker and Pete Nash were then Mongoose staff writers who were tasked with producing a second edition of the somewhat wobbly first edition. This they did to much acclaim, and when Mongoose lost the RQ license, they put out the version of the MRQ2 that they wanted under their Design Mechanism moniker as RQ6. Mythras is the final link in this chain of releases, highly polished, with its own name and with all the Gloranthan references removed.

Presentation

305 pages of clearly laid out text, with clear black and white line art. Very evocative of the games’ 80s/90s roots.

The Pdf is fully bookmarked, and the contents, index and in page cross-references are all fully functional hyperlinks.

I’ve got the printed version, which is a very robust and cleanly printed hardcover which I can see easily surviving many years of use/abuse.

Characters

What are characters like in Mythras?  Well, they are mythic but based on realism. So you could quickly do the heroes of Homers Iliad/Odyssey with Mythras. They have exceptional abilities, but are fragile and bleed, with even the mightiest hero being at risk of death by a well-placed lucky blow by a minor character.

The character generation system breaks down into three chapters

  • Character
  • Culture & Community
  • Careers

Each of these sections focuses on building the characters’ abilities up while putting them in context of these three areas. For example the Culture and Community chapter, gets the player to decide which culture the character comes from (Primitive, Barbarian, Nomad, Civilised – are the defaults in the core rulebook) and from that they determine what social class they are members of that culture, as well as what ties and bonds (known as Passions) they have to fellow members. The chapter ends with a Background Events table of 100 entries. I’m a big fan of these (after first coming across them in Cyberpunk 2020 in the early 90s) since they stop characters who are numerically the same being identical and give the character an excellent in-built adventure hooks.

The System

The skill system is a roll equal or under percentile system. Each character (and monster) has a set of percentile skills that when it’s not clear what is going to happen are tested using two ten-sided dice.  Extra levels of success and failure are brought in with special results. If you succeed in the lower tenth of your success range (for example if your skill is 40%, 1-4%) you Critical, conversely if you fail and roll 99-00%  you fumble.

That’s the basics of it, and there are numerous quick and easy subsystems which elaborate on what happens in certain circumstances.

Combat gets a chapter of its own. Mythras combat is the most complex of all the D100 systems but is well thought out and streamlined. If you don’t want to use all the options, such as combat effects which bring in special effects dependant on weapon type on a critical, the system is modular enough to drop these without breaking it.

Five Magic Systems

D100 fantasy lives and breathes on its magic systems which unlike D&D is flexible and based upon spells costing magic points to cast. Mythras has five magic systems, which all share common features while having their own differences and focus.

Folk Magic the most common but least potent of all the magic systems. It gives characters quickfire utility type magic , such as Bladesharp which offers extra damage points and an improved chance to hit, with low bookkeeping. It’s the type of magic that if your players want a little bit of magic to improve their characters without magic becoming their speciality or focus.

Theism is the magic provided by the gods. It’s much more powerful than folk magic but similar in complexity bookkeeping wise. While you don’t need to spend Magic points to cast spells your character does have a relationship with a deity that you need to maintain to keep on using their magic.

Animism is primitive magic from using bound spirits. It’s flavoursome and powerful but relies on the character having a good relationship with the spirit world, and the player getting their head around the concept of spirits.

Sorcery is the most flexible type of Mythras magic, and while much more straightforward and playable than its RQ 3 roots, still requires the player to want to dedicate time to working out how the Sorcerer’s spells work the best for them. i.e. it’s only really for players who want to play a magic using character.

Mystic covers those characters who use magic as an expression of their physical and mental skills and is quickly set up to do Martial Arts type characters.

Other Bits of the Framework

The book finally has three chapters which fill out the Mythras rules framework.

Cults and Brotherhoods. Cults are the mini-religions that D100 systems classically use to provide magic and skills training to characters, as well as make their lives interesting with all sorts of inter cult politics. Mythras has a good selection of pre-made examples for each of the magic approaches but also includes non-magical Brotherhoods.

Creatures. In D100 games “monsters are people too”, and Mythras continues this approach giving full stats. Skills and magic for its creature descriptions, which are more templates for the GM to create unique individuals for their games. Also where relevant extra information is given if the creature is suitable as a player character race.

Games Mastery. This GM’s advice section rounds out the whole nuggets of advice that pepper the entire rulebook , with a short, robust article which highlights the features of the game and how best to use them.

Overall Mythras is a complete standalone game, but it is missing a starter adventure – but behold there is a free pdf “Games Masters Pack” which has two introductory adventures and lots of follow up adventures/setting books (some of which are included in the Mythras Bundle of Holding).

Why you should look at this

If you are coming from D&D and are looking for an alternative to rigidly enforced class/level system, were characters organically grow through play and their in-game experiences and can try anything they want to.

Mythras is well established and has a wealth of adventures and setting books, some of which go beyond the established mythic fantasy of the core rulebook. The recently released After the Vampire Wars, explores modern day horror, while Luther Arkwright: Roleplaying Across the Parallels, based upon the Brian Talbot graphic novels of the same name, is weird time-travelling science fiction.

It’s not for you if

You are a diehard storygamer. Mythras while being a cleaned up and up to date D100 ruleset, is still very much a traditional old-school game from the 1980/90s. It has all hallmarks of that gaming style: characteristics that map back to statistics that can be physically quantified, a clearly defined Gamesmaster/player split with well-defined roles and responsibilities, and a system that is literally peppered with modifiers and rules that simulate the gritty reality that characters find themselves in.  Mythras (and other D100 variants) does support a storytelling style of play, because of its freeform character advancement system and skill use system, but you have to engage with it and understand that to get the best out of it. It doesn’t lead you by the nose, hard coding it into lightweight rules systems like story games like Fate or Powered by the Apocalypse games do.

Coming next in Mythras Review: Mythic Rome.

Lyonesse RPG by Design Mechanism

Yesterday Lawrence Whitaker announced a new licensed Lyonnese Roleplaying game, which while being self-contained will use the Mythras system, based on Jack Vance’s novels:

We are delighted to announce the Lyonesse roleplaying game.

Jack Vance’s high fantasy masterpiece, Lyonesse, is to be brought to life in a new roleplaying game by The Design Mechanism. Licensed and approved by Spatterlight Press, Lyonesse is a standalone game based on the acclaimed Mythras system. The Lyonesse trilogy – Suldrun’s Garden, The Green Pearl, and Madouc – tells the story of the Elder Isles, and the ambitions of King Casmir of Lyonesse to bring its fractious kingdoms under his sole rule. Casmir is opposed by Aillas of Troicinet, the lover of Casmir’s daughter, Suldrun, and father of Dhrun, a child raised among the fairies of Thripsey Shee and destined to sit on the throne Evandig, which King Casmir believes to be his own destiny.

You can read the full press release here [http://thedesignmechanism.com/resources/Press_Releases/Lyonesse RPG Press Release.pdf].

Its early days in development, a 2019/2020 release date has been noted in comments by Lawrence, but the artists have been announced in the full press release, and the following teaser image was released with tannouncementent:

Dark, Deadly and Delicious part 5: Pre-made characters

In this the last of a series of excerpts from an article about running and creating Crypts and Things convention games, I exhort you, nay implore you to use pre-made characters.

Use Pre-made Characters

Pre-made characters are a must for convention games. Two reasons why:

  1. They save time. No matter how quick you think, Crypts and Things character generation are, at the start of a convention game it will eat up valuable game time, while impatient players twiddle their thumbs and unexpected roadblocks in the process get thrown up.
  2. The adventure can be tailor-made to make the most of their abilities. You want happy, engaged players who are having fun. The primary way that you can pre-destine this is by having characters who have the potential to be fun in play. While Crypts and Things use Class/Level based characters, so every character is going to have its own niche, make sure that the composition of your adventuring party is made up of characters who will all have a role to play in the adventure. Fighters always have a place, and Barbarians are good all-rounders. Magicians need to thrive in environments rich in magic and mystery, where their magic detecting abilities make them useful for explaining what is going on and detecting magical threats. Thieves are good sneaking through the shadows, taking out enemies using stealth, but are much more useful in combat than their Swords and Wizardry counterparts. For a four-player game merely make one of the core character classes, and you’ll have enough variation amongst the characters. If you have six players, add another fighter and sorcerer, with different fighter specialities and spells in their books than the others.

It’s often joked that part of the style of old-school play is having a pile or replacement characters and it is worth having at least two additional characters in case of impending character death.

An Excerpt from the upcoming Crypts and Things book “Tournament of Madness and Death.”

Tournaments of Madness and Death cover by David M.Wright

Dark, Deadly and Delicious part 4: Be the Monster Manager

In the penultimate part of this series of posts about Crypts and Things convention games, I look at an important role of the referee.

Be the Monster Manager

Don’t overwhelm the players with streams of monsters, unless that’s the point of the fight scene is that they can never overcome the flood of monsters and should run away!

Don’s mistake combat for automatic-fun. Make sure that you combat encounters are like scenes from a fun film, where the director has placed enemies and scenery in an exciting way, so the combat can play out with lots of unexpected turns and twists.

For example, don’t just throw 1d6+2 Men at Arms at the player characters who are strolling aimlessly through the palace. If you need a couple of men at arms to show up and challenge the characters about there right to be there, do so. It might lead into a fight (in which case they run away to the next courtyard where the rest of the palace guard is hanging out, with the court sorcerer and the King’s assassins who are practicing on various trampolines etc.), but it might also lead to an entertaining moment of role-playing as the players blag their way past the guards.

Next part 5: Pre-made characters.

An Excerpt from the upcoming Crypts and Things book “Tournament of Madness and Death.”

Tournaments of Madness and Death cover by David M.Wright