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 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.

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

Dark, Delicious and Deadly part 2: Pacing

Part 2 of 5 excerpts from Dark, Delicious and Deadly, an article about running Crypts and Things at conventions.

You can Never Have Enough Pace

(as my mate Evil Gaz says).

This is the primary principle to bear in mind when running a convention game. To keep your players entertained you should help to keep the game moving along at quite a speed. Characters should be jumping, running and occasionally fighting their way through the adventure, each location building on the excitement until the big thrilling finale.

If the action drags, something happens

Things that drag the action, which might be acceptable in a home game where you have all the time in the world, need to be quickly moved on from.

For example, there’s a Locked door that blocks the characters’ way. In a home game, you might let all the table of players try something to open the door. The Thief goes through all their abilities; checking for traps, picking the lock etc. Then the magician casts Detect Magic (“is the door magically locked?”), the Fighter uses their strength to force the door, then everybody else follows on because they can all try to bash the door down. Finally, the players extract as much information from the Crypt Keeper, small details such as moss around the door frame, become excruciatingly important (“I lick the moss, to see if it is poisonous or magical.”)

You’ve not got time for this is in a con game. Let one character have a go at unlocking the door. If they fail, a guard (or a passing patrol of guards if the door has nothing behind it) opens the door from the other side to see who is making that noise and play proceeds.

Don’t be afraid to slow the pace

With all this talk about speed, if you or your players are finding it too much, put the breaks on. Slow the pace. Gently put the player characters in a safe place, slow things down to talk to an NPC for example. Let everybody get their breath back and then get back into it.

There’s a time and a place for investigation

I’ll say it up front C&T is not an investigative game. There may be moments where the players have to find secret entrances, talk to an NPC and ask right questions to find out where they are going next, but these are usually quickly sorted out and moved on from. Characters in Crypts and Things, tend to be men and women of action, and the character classes empathise this.

Next part 3: Rewards

From the upcoming Tournaments of Madness and Death for Crypts and Things (and other old-school class/level based games).

Tournaments of Madness and Death cover by David M.Wright

Crikey, it’s a Crypt Keeper in a Crypt with Crypts and Things!

Shadow Over Dunsmore Point Kickstarter

I’m backing John Davis’ latest adventure Shadow Over Dunsmore Point.

This time he’s mixing up the Cthulhu Mythos with early TSR modules. To quote the man himself:

It pays homage to early 1st edition modules such as Sinister Secret of the Saltmarsh and Against the Cult of the Reptile God. It also draws inspiration from 1980s  adventures as featured in Tortured Souls, Imagine and White Dwarf Magazine, as well as the Call of Cthulhu novella and other Lovecraftian tales

I’ve yet to dip my toe in 5th Ed properly, but I find John’s adventures, with their distinctive  Jonny Gray art more inspiring than the official WoTC offerings.

He’s got a good clear funding model and delivers quality every time. So I’m in again.

The Shadow Over Dunsmore Point by Jonny Gray

 

Dark, Delicious and Deadly part 1: Focus

For the next five Fiendish Fridays, I shall be posting excerpts from “Dark, Delicious and Deadly” an article I’ve written for the upcoming Tournaments of Madness and Death adventure book for Crypts and Things (eta May?).  This article deals with how I write and present one-shot adventures for conventions.

So without further ado here’s part 1.

Focus on what makes Crypts and Things what it is

This is a big one. If you don’t focus on what C&T does, you might as well be playing one of the other variants of the World’s Favourite Fantasy Roleplaying game. Don’t let the fact that it has many features and troupes of that great Dungeon Crawling Game; Classes and Levels, the six characteristics, experience points and hit points are all there merely to make players and Crypt Keepers feel comfortable and at ease. The familiarity of some aspects of the rules is there to ease the players and Crypt Keepers into the game, rather than dropping them in from a considerable height with a huge learning curve. There’s also a delightful simplicity of the old school rules that makes them easy to build upon.

A lot of what C&T does is through tone and emphasis. The text of the game imparts this, but the extra layer of rules (Sanity, Black/Grey/White Magic, Corruption, Skill use and the abilities of the classes) highlights it too.

The big four points of what makes C&T special are:

  1. Player characters are the Heroes and Heroines. Even if they are anti-heroes, the player characters are deliberately the overpowered main characters of Swords and Sorcery fiction. Never make them the sideline in the adventures. Always put them centre stage.
  2. Enemies are horrible to horrific. As a counterpoint to the above, and to put the player characters in perspective, their opponents are the stuff of nightmares. They murder, they steal (so their victims will starve to death), they even suck souls. Even the most anti-heroic villainous player character should feel virtuous when confronted by the cruel machinations of a Greater Other.
  3. Humans are misguided power seekers struggling to survive (even insane cultists). Also though the default setting, The Continent of Terror, is human-centric, those humans aren’t forming lovely well-ordered Kingdoms. They are scrabbling in the ashes of their dying world for anything to keep them alive or give them a thrill that takes them away from their bleak day to day reality. If the players are looking for inspiration from non-player characters, they will soon find that they have to create that inspiration from themselves for others.
  4. Weird, beautiful and occasionally humorous. Despite the grimdark aspect of the game, there is much wonder and laughter in the setting. Let the players explore that and emphasise the fantastic nature of the world from time to time. It’s a critical factor of why people keep on coming back to the swords of and sorcery genre, again and again. The sheer playful escapism it provides.

Next Fiendish Friday: Pacing.

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

Tournaments of Madness and Death cover by David M.Wright