Friday, 3 June 2016

Black Hack Test Run

The Black Hack – Fiendish Almanac Blog

For some Friday night fun I thought I would test out The Black Hack as "by the book" as possible. I'm considering using it for a one-shot this weekend, so to familiarise myself with the rules I rolled up four characters (one of each class) and ran a solo encounter against a "carrion creeper" and a "grizzly bear". 

Rolling up the characters...

As The Black Hack claims to take inspiration from the "Original 1970s [...] game", which I assumed to be OD&D, I was interested to see how it fared by way of character creation. I got out my 3d6 and began rolling. Character generation is amazingly close to the 3 little brown booklet process in both flavour and experience. It is certainly as quick, if not quicker, than the original game. I intended to test drive the four core classes: warrior, cleric, thief, conjurer.

The first character I rolled, a conjurer, had no stats above 15 and it ended up being a straight down the line character. As both intelligence and charisma were high, I thought the scores were appropriate for an enigmatic conjurer. It was 3d6 down the line for the cleric too. The warrior, however, had 16 in one attribute, while the thief was so shitty that I had to swap a few scores around – by the rules you can swap up to two – to make it a feasible character. I have seen some people whinging online about the mandatory 2d6+2 roll if the previous score is 15+. Honestly, it makes sense from a mechanical perspective and I didn't feel like it crippled the character particularly. Plus, here's a little secret: you don't have to play by the rules as written.

Anyway, the whole process was super easy. I had read through the booklet once or twice before today, so I was fairly familiar with the rules. Nevertheless, creating four characters can't have taken longer than thirty minutes. I do have a quibble with the "incomplete" nature of the equipment list. Certain items are listed very granularly, like armour, shields, and even herbs, but no weapons are given prices (besides arrows and two-handed weapons). This is kind of annoying and the referee is left to devise their own prices for weapons. Unlike OD&D, armour is especially expensive in The Black Hack, so one assumes that weapons would be too. I went with a quick and dirty house rule that all one-handed weapons are 25 gp if a two-handed weapon is 50 gp. The nature of thieves tools appear to be pretty vague too. I made the assumption that thieves require them to do any of their general thieveries. That quibble aside, making characters was fun. I even rolled all the beginning spells randomly using 1d5 and 1d6 to determine which spells the conjurer and cleric received. I immediately noticed that characters tend to be tougher than a white box game would usually permit. All characters have a higher hit point range and the conjurer and cleric have a high chance to be able to recast memorised spells if their intelligence/wisdom is respectively high. There is a larger range of known beginning spells too. Let me introduce the party:

Hit Points: 8
Strength: 5
Dexterity: 10
Con: 6
Intelligence: 13
Wisdom: 12
Charisma: 13

Sword (1d4 damage), backpack, oil x2, lantern, torches x6, rations, flint & steel, wineskin, 1 gp.

1st – Sleep, magic missile, charm, detect magic
2nd – Darkness, levitate

Hit Points: 13
Strength: 16
Dexterity: 12
Con: 9
Intelligence: 10
Wisdom: 9
Charisma: 11

Gambeson (2 AP), sword (1d8 damage), bow, arrows x10.

Hit Points: 9
Strength: 14
Dexterity: 12
Con: 9
Intelligence: 10
Wisdom: 15
Charisma: 7

Gambeson (2 AP), small shield (2 AP), club (1d6 damage), 45 gp.

1st – Light, detect evil
2nd – Speak with animals

Hit Points: 9
Strength: 12
Dexterity: 12
Con: 6
Intelligence: 11
Wisdom: 6
Charisma: 11

Gambeson (2 AP), bow (1d6 damage), arrows x10, thieves tools.

The Black Hack Playtest – Fiendish Almanac Blog

Three encounters...

To create a fair evaluation of the system I decided I would run at least three encounters. The first was the party against a 1 HD "carrion creeper" (smaller cousin to the carrion crawler?). It took a few skims of the book to work out how initiative and combat actually worked during play, but once I got the hang of things it was pretty intuitive. I immediately liked the initiative system. It was easy and seemed to flow. It's a bit different from how I normally do initiative – I basically use B/X – but it worked well. It appears that there is a single initiative roll per character, per encounter, rather than the round-by-round initiative system of earlier games. The pregen characters absolutely annihilated the carrion creeper. Surprisingly all the characters succeeded in their dexterity checks and gained the initiative before the crawler could act. The thief backstabbed it and the warrior chopped it to bits in a single round, before the cleric or conjurer could even get to it. I decided to pit them against something a bit stronger. I looked at the ogre and even fleetingly thought it would be funny to throw them at the mercy of a demon, until I saw the grizzly bear. On paper it seemed like a good challenge but doable for four 1st level characters. 

In the first run through, the thief won initiative, but everyone else failed their checks. The thief attempted to backstab but missed (the sneak check succeeded but not the attack roll). The grizzly bear retaliated and got the thief pretty good. I forgot that the thief was using a bow, and wouldn't necessarily have been in melee range; I guess that the thief can "backstab" with a bow? The warriors and the cleric both took hacks at the bear but missed, while the conjurer cast a sleep spell. The spell would have sent the bear to dreamland, though I did forget to offer the bear a saving throw; or rather, I forgot to offer the conjurer an intelligence check to determine the spell's efficacy. I did remember to test whether the spell had expended a slot and rolled an intelligence check for the conjurer, who passed, meaning the conjurer could cast sleep again that day. I assumed at this point that the characters would have made mincemeat of the bear once it was asleep.

I ran the same encounter a second time but decided that for whatever reason the conjurer wouldn't use sleep. The bear, as a "powerful opponent", easily bypassed character defences, while the characters made some unfortunately high rolls during their attacks (remember low is better). The cleric, for instance, missed all but one of his attacks! Finally, the encounter was over with the thief crippled (-2 strength) and the fighter disfigured (charisma reduced to 4). Both had been forced "out of action" – or effectively killed – by the bear. That was one tough ursine!

Well, that was fun..

Overall I thought the system was very streamlined and efficient. On paper I wondered how the game would flow, but it was very intuitive once I had clarified the quirks of the game. The "powerful opponents" rule made a HUGE difference. Without this rule I think the system would be pretty skewed. Obviously I cannot comment on how higher levels play out, particularly once some magic items are discovered, but I would definitely play The Black Hack again. The rules are perfectly short. All the essential elements that I like from OD&D are there. It left me excited because the rules lite nature allows prep time to be maximised, allowing focus on campaign details rather than stat blocks. 

Thursday, 12 May 2016

The Black Hack: Mini Review for a Mini Game

PDF: $2.00
Physical: £4.00+

Over the past few weeks my G+ feed has been raging about David Black's new game The Black Hack. "I don't need another system or clone", I told myself, "the hype will die down". But then I kept hearing good things and realised I had some publisher's credit on DriveThru RPG. The price-tag for the PDF is only $2.00, so I thought, "why the hell not?". I downloaded the PDF and began reading. It is only 20 pages long, which is astonishingly short for an entire system. I was immediately impressed.

The Black Hack is an innovative RPG publication. It reconceptualises Dungeons & Dragons, distilling it to its rawest essence, while offering some inspired rules variants. At times the simplicity threw me: "this can't be it?". But it is. I think the minimalism would put some people off, the spartan style is not for everyone. Those new to the hobby – those learning the game for the first time – might, I imagine, find the esoteric nature of the The Black Hack ruleset problematic. The writing implies that the reader has prior experiences with role-playing games. Having said that, it would be an excellent option for teaching the game to new players (assuming the GM has prior experience). Reading through the booklet makes me want to run a game. It is simple, elegant, and improves some of the flaws of D&D without forsaking what makes the game great. It would also be useful as an options booklet for existing systems. I could imagine using the torch/rations/ammunition rules in any edition of D&D: it's easier than the traditional way of doing things. If you are looking for an ultra rule-lite RPG, this is a great purchase. 

Buy it: if you like rules-lite systems.
Avoid it: if you froth over Runequest or Pathfinder. 

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Review: Wormskin No. 1

Wormskin No. 1 (Autumn 2015)

Author: Norman & Gorgonmilk
System: Labyrinth Lord (or similar)
PDF/Print: $3.00 / $5.75

It has been a solid three months since I last posted anything. Nonetheless, I have been busy on a number of projects, both gaming related and otherwise. It is shaping up to be a good year.

Before Wormskin was released I remember +The Real-ish Greg Gorgonmilk posting some compelling WIP shots of the cover and interior maps. That, combined with the professed tone and inspiration of the work — folklore and the fairy tale — sustained my curiosity. Consequently, when it was released recently as a print-on-demand product I decided to purchase the first issue of the zine.

The back cover of Wormskin ostensibly claims to explore:

"...the mythic forest called Dolmenwood, a setting for use with B/X campaigns or similar tabletop systems. Each issue will look at various elements of this eldritch realm situated on the leafy verges of Faerie, where austere Drunes rub elbows with weird elf-lords and talking beasts, where witches wander skyclad and armed with sinister magicks to bind the spirits of hapless adventurers. Be wary."

While in a very abstract sense this is true, much of the 41 pages are dedicated to two new race-as-classes (Moss Dwarf and Grimalkin), detailing thirty variety of fungi within Dolmenwood, and presenting a new monster. There is a two-page map of the area, but it scarcely describes anything canonical of the actual setting — "Drunes", "weird elf-lords", or indeed anything much about the kingdoms or environs within the setting. Personally I would like to see more of the pages of future issues dedicated to exploring this very thing.

With that quibble confessed let me tell you about the things that Wormskin does well. While the text may not explicitly say a whole lot about the setting of Dolmenwood it does imply a lot through the articles within the zine. Overall I appreciated the mood; it fits well with the assumptions of my own campaign world, and there was enough within its 41 pages that I can borrow or transplant to the gaming table.

The zine is attractively presented; Gorgonmilk (I presume) has managed to curate the content in an attractive and legible manner. The (public domain?) illustrations fit the theme of Dolmenwood and +Matthew Adams provides a number of pieces, quintessential of his offbeat and slightly creepy style. Andrew Walter is credited with a coloured piece of the moss dwarf which I really enjoyed. The whole work is latticed with small decorative flourishes, like pictures of 'shrooms and the occult-inspired title page.

The contents provide a reasonable bang for buck. The moss dwarf is an interesting class; I am unsure whether they would be better suited as an NPC (indeed, the "Moss Dwarf NPCs" table is rather inspired), but I can also imagine them being fun to play in a wilderness campaign. The Grimalkin class is imaginative too. It seems to draw upon a similar mythological antecedence to my own Werecat class, but fits within the implied assumptions of the Dolmenwood campaign very tidily. 

The section on fungi is an entertaining and practical addition because detailing specific flora is something I frequently overlook in my own milieux. Providing a wide selection of edible, poisonous, and psychotropic mushrooms adds a compelling layer of realism and richness to any world, and I will probably use this section more or less verbatim at the table. Within these three articles the reader catches glimpses of Dolmenwood: witches, woodsmen, poisoners, "demi-fey", "dank woods", and a relationship with the ephemeral Otherworld. As noted previously, this is something I would like to have seen developed more explicitly, or most certainly in future issues.

In sum, Wormskin is worth the money. Whether you are picking up the PDF or a physical copy, there will probably be something of interest if you enjoy new rules and a zine whose setting is seeped primarily in folklore and fable. 

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Campaign Languages

Since beginning my OD&D sandbox it became apparent that I needed to define the languages used within my world. The reason for this was twofold. First, a reasonable intelligence grants a shit-ton of known languages using the OD&D rules. Second, it was an excuse for me to better define the various races and creatures within my milieu. Superficially this was an easy task. Creating a list took 10 minutes or so. But deciding to go beyond that beginning point, and go into a bit more detail took much longer. The following text contains my current languages list, with a description for each one. With something like Majick Script or Runic, I would probably offer an intelligence roll based on the character's % to know spells. If the percentage chance was too high (considering the obscurity of the text), I would reduce this to half or one quarter.


Avakin: The written and spoken Avakin language is eponymous with the southern folk who conquered Suthræm[1] some centuries past. Avakin is now the primary language of the south, in addition to being the antecedent language from which the Trade Cant was derived. Fluency in Avakin enables a speaker to accurately converse with the Avakin people. Those fluent in the Trade Cant will also be able to communicate with Avakins, albeit inexactly.

Chaos [Darkling]: Devotees of malignance, anarchy, and ruin may learn the darkling language. Many fell creatures know this forbidden tongue, passed on through the aeons. Beings who share a similar ethical paradigm can use this “language” to crudely communicate with one another. Opponents of chaos will find its utterance wholly repulsive.

Common [Trade Cant]: A trade language spoke throughout the continent. Its linguistic foundations are mostly derived from Avakin. Although the Trade Cant has become bastardised, those able to speak it can commune in approximate terms with Avakins, as the language still holds much similarity.

Druidic [Secret]: Once the spiritual tongue of the continent, the language of the druids has now become rare and secretive. Those “chosen” by the old gods may learn Druidic; it is useful for learning and enacting hidden rites. Isolated or cultic sects of Wæld and Væya still speak Druidic, but most will speak an offshoot.

Ecclesia [Priestly]: Devout and educated followers of Avagæd[2] study and speak the dialect of Ecclesia: namely priests, friars, monks, and knightly Templars. The most sacred texts of Avagæd are written in Ecclesia, therefore serfs are unlikely to speak or understand it, though the elite of Avakin society might.

Exterst: Save for some rare artefacts inscribed with alien symbolism, the “language” of Exterst would be all but a myth. For over a half-millennia, remnants of unknowable apparatus have been unearthed in south-western Nozræm[3]. It is dubious whether anyone actually speaks an Exterst language, but at one point in history it is almost certain that such a people and language existed.

Frog-Man: Consisting mainly of croaks and groans, the tongue of the Frog-Man is primordial and hardly the subject of worthwhile scholarly pursuit. Those in or near swamp-like environments might learn this language, mostly borne from necessity, for to ignore a Frog-Man is to invite death. Some depraved human hunters yearn for the taste of Frog-Man flesh, learning the language in order to eavesdrop and discern when the ripest younglings will be born.

Grekon: This is the chief language spoken by the people of Nozræm. Spoken Grekon is still prolific in the North, though centuries of Avakin conquest has caused this language to ebb; the Trade Cant has become prominent as the standard mode of communication.

Hillfolk: Dwelling within crags, mountains, badlands, and desert locales, the stunted Hillfolk speak their own language. Disparate from the flatter (and arguably tamer) areas of the continent, the Hillfolk language has drastically evolved from other spoken tongues. Interestingly, there are hundreds of divergent sub-dialects based on one’s tribe and location.

Law: Guardians of order, establishment, and munificence can use a variety of shared conventions to interact, broadly conveying a sense of commonality and intuited meaning. Opponents of law will find such utterances platitudinous and vapid, filled with tiresome clichés and moralistic inanities.

Majick Script [Secret]: Some advanced scholars have gained a cursory knowledge of the mind-bending symbolism of Majick. However, thorough knowledge of this language is reserved for true practitioners of Majick, enabling them to decipher unknown scripts. Dabblers with lesser knowledge may glean an overall notion of what a text contains, but they will remain unable to release the latent Majick unless their skillset somehow allows them.

Neutrality: Those possessing neither the unbridled whim of chaos, nor the considered gravity of a lawful society, may share a common sense of neutrality. Two beings of a neutral paradigm can broadly converse with one another, using certain words or non-verbal patterns. Extremists of law or chaos will experience this communication to either radical on the one hand, or insipid on the other.

Runic: Anyone learned in runic scripting will be able to roughly discern abstracted visual messages contained on the surfaces of carven rocks, tombs, road markers, parchments, and so on. Runic writing is derived from Druidic, which in turn was derived from Wæld and Væya. Although a derivative, unless a reader has taken care to learn the nuances of this written language, the original intent will be nigh indiscernible. 

Swamp-Tongue: The Swamp-Tongue developed as bog denizens deigned value in trading, staking boundaries, and engaging in parlay. While primitive, it is the primary language of the bizarre Quagkings. Some evolved Aquatic Apes have finally grasped the basest rudiments of this simple language. Even Frog-Men have seen the necessity for communicating in this language. Swamp-Tongue is mainly comprised of clicks, grunts, animalistic noises, hoots, belches, and the crudest elements of old Druidic. There is no written form of Swamp-Tongue besides a handful of symbols, most of which signify dangerous sinkholes or food-traps.

Thieves Cant [Secret]: Thieves and assassins congregate in their guilds, meeting halls, and in the subterfuge of dark places. Their secret cant, useful for enacting chicanery, is comprised of hand signals, passwords, double-entendres, pitched whistles, odd noises, curious symbols, and a political doublespeak capable of conveying multitudinous messages. Some non-thieves may learn a few aspects of this “language”, but the cant is heavily guarded and secretive, with passwords prone to regular change.

Væya: Perhaps the most ancient language, Væya is undoubtedly the most pleasant to behold. Although akin to the Wæld language, it is much less harsh and guttural. In written form, Væya is striking and complex, forming the basis from which Majick and Runic scripting developed, and from which the spoken language of Druidic eventually evolved.

Wæld: The spoken language of Wæld is harsh and guttural. Wæld forsakes the elongated and softer vowel sounds of Væya, dropping certain words from its dialect entirely. It would be incorrect to suggest Wæld is an unintelligent language. Instead, like the culture it represents, two words are avoided when one will suffice.

[1] The Southern Realm
[2] The goddess
[3] The Northern Realm

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Review: Rogues in Remballo (Swords & Wizardry)

Rogues in Remballo: An Adventure for Swords & Wizardry

Author: Matt Finch
Character Levels: 1st
System: Swords & Wizardry (or similar)
PDF: Free!
Print: Kickstarter

When +Matt Finch asked for reviews of this adventure I put my hand up. I had recently acquired the hardcover of Swords & Wizardry Complete (which I really like) so I was eager to see what a city adventure may look like within this system.

I had every intention of writing/posting this earlier, but I have been kind of slack. Now that I've finally read through the adventure and given it some thought, here we are. Before I begin I want to mention two things. Firstly, this adventure is available as a free PDF from the Frog God Games website (link above). Secondly, there is an in-progress Kickstarter where one may acquire this adventure in print form as part of the larger "Borderlands" project. If this review stokes your interest I would recommend downloading the free copy first. It has been produced in black & white, making it printer-friendly. If you absolutely love it, and like the look of the Kickstarter (link above) you may wish to back the Kickstarter and get a print version.

Anyway, let's begin. Rogues in Remballo (hereafter referred to as "Rogues") is a city-based adventure of political intrigue. Finch suggests this adventure is suited for experienced groups, and I can see the logic behind this suggestion. While less experienced groups could probably handle the intricacy and relative open-endedness of the adventure, the skill required on the part of the players (and certainly the Ref) is better suited for gamers with a number of adventures/campaigns under their belt. Having said that, one of the first adventures I ran was The Speaker In Dreams which contains a similar level of nuance. Regardless, there is soundness in Finch's suggestion. In the unlikely event that you are reading this and have never run a game of Dungeons & Dragons or Swords & Wizardry, I would be inclined to echo Finch's advice. Pick something simpler. For true beginners, the 5th Edition Starter Set is not a bad way to go. But I digress.

Rogues is set within the Borderland Provinces of the "Lost Lands" setting. At times there were references to setting specific elements not explained within the adventure, but largely the adventure site would be easy enough to transplant to any setting. From the outset the reader is provided with some clear and functional maps of Remballo, keyed with particular sites of interest. This city could be placed in most generic fantasy settings, or with a bit of tweaking, would fit nicely in more eclectic realms. The setting does assume a relative level of technological sophistication (such as banking systems/letters of credit), so these aspects may need modification if your setting is more primitive.

The main contention of the adventure revolves around two powerful forces within the city: The House of Borgandy (who have had one of their own disappear) and the local Thieves Guild. Additionally there are some other major forces at work, particularly the Thieves Guild of Manas and the City Watch. This adventure is largely non-linear, though there is a logical progression between beginning and end which is likely to coalesce in a number of possible outcomes: beginning within the walls of the city, progressing to an area called "The Four Corners", and reaching climax beneath the city itself. What happens in between is largely up to the detective work of the players/characters, and without skilful implementation by the Ref, this adventure could quickly become directionless or somewhat vague. At times this adventure appeared to be an exercise in door-knocking: "Hello sir, could I bother you for a second? Oh, you don't know anything about this event? Okay, well good day." As some of the NPCs were described as grumpy, this may deter players, appearing to be a dead-end approach to discovering the required information. I suspect that the adventure could have been signposted a little better. There are, however, a number of compelling motivations to get the participants interested in the adventure — including the classic incentive of gold payable from the coffers of The House of Borgandy and the local Thieves Guild. Smart or lucky players will be able to double dip and capitalise on the rewards of both. There is room for deviancy too, particularly towards the end where certain...goods...can be "acquired" from certain (probably dead) individuals. Finch provides a satisfying level of detail regarding the political factions within and without the city. This inclusion creates a satisfying and believable backdrop from which to hinge the whole affair. At this point I won't give too much away, lest I spoil the adventure if you wish to play/run it.

The setup and presentation of Rogues is clear with a satisfying balance between sparseness and depth. The Ref is at substantial liberty to flesh out various places, people, or events. The adventure often paints broad brushstrokes, and while this is largely appreciated there were times where multiple entries became prosaic. For instance, let's look at area #19:

This entry is fairly mundane, and I would ask whether it's even needed? There were a handful of similar entries, which became dull to read. At this point I don't really feel the need to know Jarn's name; who is he? Instead, I thought these types of entries could have been tidily subsumed into a random table rather than afforded separate entries of their own. The Ref could roll on the table if he/she needed to know the occupant of the building. If Isarn Jarn were a more interesting character I probably wouldn't have minded. For example, maybe his leg is injured, and when asked about the goings on in the city he becomes cagey (inferring he's hiding something), maybe he has a block of cheese on his belt, offering slices to visitors, or maybe his eyes constantly shift to a part of the room the characters can't see. More detail would have been good, or a more compelling reason why Jarn warrants his own entry. The latter part of the text was more eventful and pertinent to the adventure. I enjoyed the inclusion of the opium den, and the notion that violence and thuggery was associated with this undercurrent of the city. Again though, I felt this could have been developed a bit further. I mean, an opium den should be rife with atmosphere. Maybe a well-known local figure is either funding or frequenting the joint, and happens to be there when the characters turn up. How does the den look, smell, or feel? Similarly, the thieves guild felt a little too familiar or friendly. There was one mention of guild members getting executed if they committed a certain offence, but otherwise I would have liked a more ominous or menacing guild for players to interact with.

Despite the flatter 2D aspects of this adventure, I still felt like it was a good effort. There is plenty of intrigue, and for parties who enjoy investigative scenarios this makes for a very viable adventure. While generic fantasy, I did not see this as a negative thing. I felt oddly excited reading parts of Rogues. Again, I return to The Speaker In Dreams, because I have fond memories of that adventure. Both adventures have a similar feel (I'm not sure why), providing the Ref with the framework for a broader campaign. There were many events, situations, or conflicts that I felt could be readily developed. Various things were implied or mentioned in passing which allows the Ref to build on Remballo as an interesting adventure location. I imagine this would be a very fun adventure with the right group. My players would certainly enjoy it.

My recommendation is to download a free copy. I enjoy Matt Finch's writing. It's clear, punchy, and to the point. At 26 pages it does not take long to read, and you will very quickly decide whether it is right for you. Of the free adventures floating around the Internet, this one is solid, so take a look. Overall it is very good, but the mentioned caveats reduced my estimations somewhat.