Friday 22 June 2018

Whitehack and The Black Hack

Whitehack's been my go-to RPG for some time now. I use it for regular games with the kids and their friends, for family sessions (my wife can occasionally be persuaded to play) and for occasional games with my old RPG muckers. It's great - sleek and elegant, and with nice, intuitive mechanics. The "roll equal or under" system sits nicely with those of us who were raised on RuneQuest rather than D&D, as does the freedom afforded by the flexible character-class system. I've tweaked it a bit with regard to shields and weapons, and it works very well.

I've heard good things, though, about The Black Hack, another take on old-school D&D. Astonished to find that the rules cost less than two quid on DriveThruRPG, I bought them the other day. And I'm very pleased I did.

So how do the two compare? At the most superficial level, Whitehack is more expensive (and not for sale as a PDF). It's also edited to a professional standard, which The Black Hack isn't. Editing aside, though, both are well written and clear. There's nothing in The Black Hack that's hard to understand, and my quibbles about the editing could be resolved in a quick sweep for run-on sentences and awry punctuation.

But what about the systems? Both use a "roll under" mechanic, and both make extensive use of a character's actual stats - STR, CON, DEX and so on. I love this: it very quickly gives the characters some "shape", and means that a DEX 13 thief is not identical to a DEX 15 one when it comes to fiddly tasks. A reliance on modifiers, rather than raw stats, is a weakness of Dungeon World, another re-imagining of old-school D&D that I like.

Where The Black Hack differs from Whitehack significantly, though, is in its combat system. Where Whitehack has an "attack value" stat modified by STR, The Black Hack uses the STR score itself. DEX is used for dodging and shooting, and INT or WIS for spell-casting. Saving throws are also done on the six stats rather than class-based derivatives.

Some might find this simplistic (while being strong helps in hand-to-hand fighting, surely the best swordsman isn't always the strongest?), but I can see it working just fine on the table. And it's easy to rationalise STR as including "strength-related skills" as well as raw brawn.

Like Dungeon World or Ganesha's Sellswords and Spellslingers skirmish game, The Black Hack has only the players rolling dice. Monster attacks are resolves by attempts to parry or dodge with STR or DEX; failure leads to the players rolling damage against themselves. Stronger monsters (i.e. those with more hit dice) give penalties to the roll. Like Whitehack, the Black Hack compresses a lot of information into the hit-dice number, but it goes further, so that armour, damage, hit points and penalties are all directly derived from a single number.

Spells are a major point of difference between the two games. Whitehack's "miracles" are created by the player through negotiation with the GM during character creation and cost hit points to cast. I like this; it captures the sense found in Tolkien and elsewhere that magic is physically draining (think of Gandalf after his initial encounter with the yet-to-be-revealed Balrog in Moria). The Black Hack has a spell list; a conjurer's chance of casting further spells that day falls with each casting. I like this too: it's got a nice unpredictability about it, so that you can't plan the use of magic too precisely.

The Black Hack also has a modern, dice-based system for encumbrance and supplies, including ammunition. You don't have to worry about counting individual arrows, but you'll know when your quiver's getting light. This is a bit like Dungeon World, I suppose, and a nice abstraction that might work well if imported to Whitehack.

Perhaps the most innovative element of the game is its approach to armour. Whitehack uses ascending armour class (0 is none, 6 is plate), which is clear and intuitive. In The Black Hack, traditional armour class is abandoned; instead, armour and shields act as a bank of "buffer" hit points that must be whittled down before wounds can be inflicted. This is highly abstract, of course, but no more so than hit points themselves. I like it: it means that heavily armoured warriors are more or less invulnerable at the start of a combat but become susceptible to injury the longer it lasts - and the more tired they get. Armour points regenerate after an hour.

It's easy to think of situations where this will strain realism; imagine, for example, two plate-armoured fighters who are just about to deal with the last of their orcish opponents when more orcs reveal themselves and start shooting. By the rules, I think, those fighters would be effectively unarmoured against the arrows if they've used up their armoured points. But of course you can easily rule that armour points renew themselves in such situations (perhaps fresh combatants replenish armour point automatically).

So what are the respective strengths of the systems? I think I'll stick with Whitehack for campaigns. It's a more subtle system, and its less rigid character classes allow for less stereotypical roles in the party. I'm increasingly flexible with the players, so that a Deft character can have a Wise miracle in return for forfeiting his attunement or something similar; a Strong character might forego one of the special fighting abilities in return for a miracle or a sneak-attack specialisation.

But I can see two clear roles for The Black Hack. First, we often play one-off family games on holiday or with visiting friends, and The Black Hack is perfect for that. Character creation is very quick, and the game has a tremendously no-frills approach. The set spells will work much better for occasional players than Whitehack's creative approach, and "time to table" is extremely short.

The other thing I'll be using The Black Hack for is out-and-out dungeon-crawling - games where the excitement comes as much from the rapid dwindling of your hit points as the coherence of the setting.  We've dabbled a bit in Descent, but I increasingly think that looking for the platonic dungeon-crawler board game is a fool's errand. Full-blown role-playing games simply do the job far better, giving you more opportunity for character individualisation and innovative problem-solving. Although The Black Hack is written primarily as a "theatre of the mind" game, with abstracted distances and ranges, it would work tremendously well as a miniature-based tabletop game. I occasionally lay out dungeon tiles for the kids on the premise that their characters have a map of the setting, and then let them work through it, with surprises coming from secret doors, treasure and - of course - inhabitants. The Black Hack looks ideal for that.

There are whispers, too, of demand for a one-off RPG session in my office. The Black Hack might just cater for that too ....

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