Monday, September 18, 2017

Review: The Black Hack

I am a weird fucking stickler when it comes to my RPGs. I'm a huge fan of 1981 Basic/Expert Dungeons and Dragons, and I love Advanced D&D and Dungeon Crawl Classics, but there's a certain sweet-spot of rules-light RPG content that I really, really love. I don't really care for ultra-light games because they tend to lack any inherent flavor of their own. I didn't think I'd like The Black Hack at all because it's essentially the platonic ideal of an ultra-light RPG. On the other hand, it's $2.00.

First of all, let me give you the basics. The Black Hack is an OSR hack of "that Original 1970s Fantasy Roleplaying Game", written by David Black. It's pretty heavily rooted in the spirit of OD&D, but it brings some interesting ideas to the table that seem like attempts to modernize the game, or maybe make it more arcadey? I can't quite tell. Anyway, that's the gist of the game, so let's dive in and see what's cool and what maybe isn't.

The Black Hack does a lot of things I tend to hate outright in RPGs, because at my heart I'm a stickler for the classics. It has armor negate damage instead of raising (or lowering) armor class. It has players roll saves to dodge attacks, rather than having monsters roll attacks. It doesn't even have a sample dungeon in the rulebook (although it does have an example of play, so there's that). There's also only four classes, and doesn't include demi-humans. I'm pretty neutral in that regard, since it's really easy to add features to just about any game, and there's a lot of supplemental material for this ruleset that's at a very similar price point.

However, I was surprised in that I liked all of that, or at least how it's implemented in The Black Hack. I've had a lot of players in my games get attacked by monsters and say "Hey! Can't I roll to dodge?", and I've had to be the un-fun DM and say "Nope. Just sit there while I read this THAC chart I haven't memorized because I'm a schlub." Rolling a saving throw against an attacker (probably, I haven't playtested the game yet) does some interesting things for a player.
First of all, it directly engages them by making them take an active part. As a player, I find it easy to lose track of things when it's not my turn, and just take my punches when I get hit and deal with the aftermath. Then I roll my dice, see if anything happens, and go back to Instagram. Another part of the fun is that it also puts the onus on the player to succeed on their roll. Sure, it's still a random result, but it's so much more fun to succeed or fail by your own doing. It's easy to get wrecked by a non-player monster and feel like the game is rigged against you, especially if you're a new player who doesn't quite get all the rules yet.

The Black Hack also uses Usage Dice. I first encountered usage dice during a pulpy WWII game at a con, where it was used as a simple method of tracking ammunition. The basic idea is that any given expendable item has a usage die associated with it, which is rolled every time that item is used. When a 1 is rolled, the die is reduced to the next die down the dice chain, until you get to a d4, in which case a roll of a 1 or 2 expends your last reserves.

For example: Fafhrd fires an arrow at the Goblin across the room, and rolls a d10 for his supply of arrows. The roll comes up as a 1, so the next time he uses an arrow, he'll roll a d8.

Anyway, this is a pretty cool concept that I like a lot. I prefer keeping track of logistics with specific figures, myself, but unless you're a huge nerd like me, or if you're a new player who's just trying to figure out what the hell is going on, it's a way simpler system, but as a near-complete abstraction of real-life logistics, it can be weird to wrap your head around in some regards.

Experience in The Black Hack is handled in a way that reminds me of something between Dungeon Crawl Classics and Dungeon World. You level up whenever you survive a major event, fight, dungeon level, or session (that's almost an exact paraphrase of the book). When this happens, you get more hit points (yay!) and a chance for an increase to your class's prime attributes (double yay!). This is fine, I guess? Each class also gets added bonuses to their specific abilities. It works. It's not my favorite, but it's straightforward and keeping track of experience points is kind of a bother to some people.

As far as formatting goes, The Black Hack is iffy in a lot of regards. It crams a whole ruleset onto 20 nicely laid-out pages (including the Cover, a title page, and the OGL in the back), which is SWEET if you're into printing off hard copies of your RPG stuff, like I am, but the order information is presented to the reader just feels off to me. Each class has its own page, which is cool (although they don't really need it at all, given how simple the rules for class are) but they're relegated to page 8 of the PDF, when most information for character generation is on pages 3 and 4. Maybe I'm too much of a stickler, but in my opinion, D&D character generation is best laid out as stats, race/class, equipment, everything else. That said, the layout as-is makes sure you know all the mechanics before you get to the classes themselves. I dunno. It's weird.

After the classes, there's a nice lil section on magic for your and a bit of a barebones spell list, but you could easily port over any other Vancian spells you wanted. It works. Nothing really new here.
Then there's a two-page bestiary with monsters listed in order of hit dice (low to high), which is cool. Alphabetical is good for a devoted book, but power level works fine for a two-page list. It's basically just OD&D's greatest hits as far as monsters go, but all you really need is hit dice and the number of attacks/abilities to port over so you can stock your game with anything your heart desires if that's your thing.

And that's it! The Black Hack doesn't seem like it would be my favorite way to play OD&D, but I could see it being fun for a pickup or introductory game with a limited timeframe. It's got some cool ideas and I can definitely see why a lot of people swear by it. It's probably a good alternative to Swords and Wizardry, for people who care about the little differences.
At the end of the day, I don't know if it's for me. but maybe that's okay.

The Black Hack is $2.00 on Drive-Thru

Here's my sample character I made, a Warrior named Theseus. Props for a game where a character can fit on an index card.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

New Post-Apocalypse Game!

This is the little piece of pre-writing I did for a game I'm going to try and run in the next couple months:

"The year is 1997.
The world is in ruins.

In 1983, a Soviet false alarm was triggered by NATO's Able Archer 83 wargame exercise.
They responded by unleashing an R-36 ICBM on Washington, DC.
Within 48 hours, the modern world had been annihilated in nuclear fire.

You have lived most of your lives in the aftermath of a global nuclear war that brought the world to its knees.

You and your companions managed to escape the slaughter in your hometown of New Hope, PA with your lives and what little you could carry.
The truck you stole broke down on the edge of an unnamed town about 6 hours West of your starting point, but by then it was already running on fumes.

You were most likely followed by the masked men that burned your homes and killed your families.

This is the world you live in.
Survive. "

I'm gonna be using the fantastic Ruinations of the Dust Princess, a Lamentations of the Flame Princess deriviative I happen to like.

Hopefully it'll be great!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Real-Life Dungeon Crawling

Under the town of Provins, about 100km from Paris, there's a super rad network of underground tunnels.
See, the French like to build on top of quarries. They tend to build the important shit first, like castles and walls and walled castles, using locally-quarried stone.


Then they go "Oh, fuck, we need to build other things here now, like houses for normal people that aren't castles."

Anyway, this is why a lot of French towns have some kind of tunnel network under them, Paris has its catacombs, and Provins has its underground (souterrain, in French). Everyone knows about the Paris catacombs, though. They've been a pretty popular tourist attraction since the 1700s, when bones got moved out of Paris's giant death pits from the middle ages into the cool pre-existing spooky zone beneath the streets.

Provins's have been made into a tourist attraction as well, but for centuries they were much more than that. After a huge chunk of the town got built out over where the quarry tunnels were located, the spaces got used by townsfolk in lieu of formal cellars, which were impossible in some portions of the town due to the network of ridiculous tunnels that was there instead.

Anyway, visiting those tunnels was probably one of the neatest things I've ever done. Can you imagine living over a huge underground complex and having to deal with it to get to all the crap you could otherwise have in your basement? Even with modern lighting and a recently-refinished floor, it's hard enough to navigate the terrain in the tunnels today. It's also really cold.

As a bonus to hearing me ramble about underground stuff, here's an encounter table of disgruntled townsfolk going about their business in the local dungeon:

On a d4 roll:

  1. Karl the Candler: Selling discount lighting implements to anyone who wanders by. Is accompanied by his two sons, who look exactly like him but shorter and less greasy.
  2. Bert the Mushroom Collector: Using his 2HD truffle-hunting pig, Darlene, to find only the finest medicinal mushrooms. Very smelly, but incredibly friendly. Offers the party vouchers at his market stand, which tends to be open when he feels like it.
  3. d6 Child Adventurers. Will insist they're not in mortal peril. They know where the nearest source of treasure is but insist they're capable of nabbing it. They are most certainly not.
  4. A lost merchant trying to find his underground warehouse. He just took two wrong turns, but no one knows that. He'll pay the party handsomely (1d6x100SP) to help him find his stuff and get it to market.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Encounters in the Great City's Hillside Cemetery

Here are some encounter ideas had while visiting the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris today! They can either be flavor or actual encounters, I'm not sure how I'm going to use them yet. 
Use them in your home games!

On 1d6:
  1. A family of squatters shelters in their camp among the tombs. They grip their rusty daggers nervously as you approach.
  2. A gravedigger lectures his 1d4 apprentice(s) on proper technique. He offers the younger among the party a new line of work, and the older members a good deal on a gravesite.
  3. A group of young pranksters who are casting a ritual for fun but getting into much bigger trouble than they reckoned for.
  4. Very apologetic graverobbers. They offer the party a split of the earnings to go into the crypt first, as they pass.
  5. Graffiti artist debating technique with a headstone artist. They wave as the party pass, and offer a swig of hooch.
  6. Funeral procession for: (1d4 roll) 1. A philanthropic merchant, 2. a hated but necessary politician, 3. the leader of a noble family that recently fell from grace, 4. a folk hero among the squatters, his burial paid for by theft and pan-handling
I might add to this, so keep an eye out!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Libraries and also the Future

Paris is a city from the future, probably. Turns out all the cool stuff is exactly where I haven't been for the last week and a half, and I'm just a little spicy about that.

I mean, look at the middle of the National Library here-
I look wistfully into the Neo-Paris skyline as I wait for my hacker contact to hand off 3 megs of hot RAM
It's got a tiny evergreen forest in it, which is not only rad, but is totally the closest we've gotten to the robot pets from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, in terms of creating artificial nature in our dystopian cities.

Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a little, but it sorta makes sense, though, thinking about it. A lot of speculative fiction is about people dealing with the issues presented by emerging technology, but we've been doing the same thing without thinking about it for pretty much all of history.

A lot of urban design is dedicated to making cities not only functional, but livable. You've gotta have people be willing to exist in your city, once it's built. Libraries and other public spaces are part of that, and reflect what's important to both the designers of these spaces, and the people who end up using them. The forested courtyard here isn't only cool to look at, it's also greenspace, and provides a means for warm, natural light to enter the mostly subterranean library. Also, it deals with an important issue that comes along with a big underground courtyard- dealing with water. 
I'm pretty sure if there were just a patch of grass there, you'd have a swamp the first time it rained. Cool, but not everyone's idea of ideal greenspace. Also, pine trees are cool to look at.

The forest itself isn't accessible as far as I know, but it's still cool to look at, and it's a lot better than the Manila folder-yellow public library I grew up visiting. Good move, France.

Friday, July 7, 2017

I Got Abandoned in a Parisian Shopping Mall and This is What I Learned

I went to a mall today and was immediately abandoned in the men's department of the H&M. It was terrifying and I got left to make my own really great fashion decisions.
They call me the whiter Ryan Gosling.
Anyway, there's also some really cool stuff to learn from the Forum Les Halles, one of Paris's several partially submerged shopping centers. Here's a couple things I picked up:

1.Anything can be a Social Space if you Try Hard Enough:
 The Forum is super neat because it actively does a lot to try and make both a commercial space and an environment where people can sorta just hang out. There's a lot of indoor and outdoor seating various spaces throughout the mall, so it can be enjoyed in pretty much any weather.
The thing is, though, that seating eventually runs out if you're underground and it's a thousand degrees outside. I saw a lot of people sitting in spaces not meant for sitting just because it was cool and comfy and better than living on the surface where the Sun is your enemy. People have a way of finding places to hang, even when they shouldn't, and the Forum's design both intentionally and unintentionally facilitates that.
I saw a lot of people sitting on ledges under escalators, on the ground, and all over the damn place. A lot of them were busy looking at phones or reading or making calls, but they were doing it en masse in a public space, not just while on the train or in a waiting room. Plenty more were interacting with each other directly, or were working in the library that's also housed in the forum. Even the obnoxious skater kids were out in force, though I didn't get to witness their inevitable clash with mall security.
This also relates to the second lesson I learned, which is:

2.The Sun is the Enemy and the Earth is Your Air Conditioning:
 There is no air conditioning in Paris. The museums are lying and there's one cold air vent in the Louvre total and that's probably some kind of elaborate trick so they can sell tickets. 
Anyway, the Forum is built underground and has plenty of air circulation and natural light due to it being built around a giant glass hole in the ground, but the fact that most of the complex is completely submerged is a godsend in the heat. There's enough air moving in and out to make things bearable, and I never felt as horrid as I did outside or on the Metro. The surface is an awful wasteland, but I can see the promise of a future race of Parisian molemen living underground in abandoned malls.

Also, I had to bum half a Euro off a friend to use the bathroom. What's up with that?

Monday, July 3, 2017

Ideas for Games that I Stole from a French Museum

Being in places where history happened tends to fill you with a sense of awe. Today, I got to see the Musee de Cluny, which is a super rad museum full of incredibly ornate medieval French stuff. The basement houses an old Roman bath, and the entire place is filled with religious and cultural artifacts beyond the typical old swords and more old swords. There was a lot of ruined statuary and a room just marked "treasure", and pretty soon the place was being mapped out as a dungeon in my head.
Look at these guys and tell me they're not about to animate, Ray Harryhausen-style. 

The "abandoned fortress/castle/manor with a horrible secret underneath" is a pretty classic trope both in literature and in games, but there's no problem with the classics if they're done well. Every room had a unique encounter idea in it. This is probably the lamest response to seeing some of the coolest stuff in the world, but I think it's key to solving a big problem I have with role-playing games.

A lot of fantasy RPGs (I mostly play older editions of D&D, for reference, but I've bounced around enough to be roughly authoritative here) are tentatively set in faux-medieval settings. More modern games (3rd/4th edition D&D and Pathfinder, for example) tend to deviate off into something some people call "dungeon-punk" in aesthetic. Think too many belts and also manbuns and other awful renfair nonsense. It's terrible, but I'm kind of getting off-track here. Anyway, if we're going for faux-medievalism, and faux European medievalism at that, we've got sort of a concrete setting and set of social rules and aesthetics and all that fun stuff.

This one was pretty tiny!
My big issue is verisimilitude. It's an awful, awful word to use in conversation and in writing, and it's horrible to try and spell. BUT, it's super important to game design, especially in the tabletop world, where half the action is all in the theater of the mind. It's a term ol' Gygax himself loved, and it essentially means refers to internal consistency and how believable something is, at least in game terms. How do you describe what a space in a castle looks like? How much do you explain? We've all seen pictures of castles, interior and exterior, but what does the floorplan look like? Is it going to come up? I've seen a thousand abandoned chapels in published adventures, but what does an actual medieval chapel in a castle (or an underground dungeon) look like? But most of all, how do you make these spaces feel real, or lived in, or like you could really go there?

It's cool to know how architecture works that's actually used. It may never really come up in a game, but it's useful to help describe a place evocatively, so that people can imagine what it looks like themselves.

Also, what the hell does treasure actually look like? Besides coinage (which is occasionally an anachronism), what's actually in a giant treasure mound? The answer is, if we're still going for faux medievalism, a lot of Jesus stuff. Most wealth got split between the church and the nobility (who were closely tied to the church) in Medieval Europe, so most precious metals got made into crucifixes or reliquaries or statues or got used in books or tiny crucifixes or a million other tacky pieces of religious knickknackery.
To me, this Catholic bling is so much more interesting than another big ol' gem or another sack of coins. That's not to say those are bad, of course. but as a player, I've always felt more immersed when the treasure I get is specific and weird. What's the golden foot worth? Is it magic? What happens when Hegdus the dwarf puts it on his orc-induced leg stump?

This has been long and rambly, but there's a few key points here that I think are super important.
  1. Steal ideas from your surroundings. If you can picture it, you can describe it so that other people can.
  2. Make things interesting and specific in a way that draws people in. Don't get over-long unless people ask for details, because the exact dimensions of the golden foot don't matter until Hegdus has it stuck on his leg and it's become self-aware.

Review: The Black Hack

I am a weird fucking stickler when it comes to my RPGs. I'm a huge fan of 1981 Basic/Expert Dungeons and Dragons, and I love Advanced D&...