Black Hack is an interesting, rules light D20/OSR "hack"” that boils the essence of Dungeons & Dragons play into about twenty pages of A5-sized text. If you’re looking for a simple alternative for a pick up game, or you are just looking for easier mechanics for a long term fantasy campaign, Black Hack might be the game for you to check out. It is inexpensive, too, for the gamer on a budget. I saw Black Hack first, when the Kickstarter for it made the rounds of my various social media feeds. I filed away the note to look it up when it was out…and promptly forgot about it. It was when Hubris designer and blogger Mike Evans started posting "hacks" for the Black Hack rules on his Wrath of Zombie blog that I became interested in checking out the game again.
At its heart, Black Hack is a d20-based roll under system. Whether an attack or a save roll, all rolls (called "tests" in the rules) have to roll under the relevant attribute on a d20 to succeed. There are modifiers that can be applied to rolls, and Black Hack uses the advantage/disadvantage rule from D&D 5e as a way to change up things on your die rolling. I am a fan of unified resolution mechanics, so this is a plus for the game. My personal preference is “roll high,” because I think that it feels more like a victory psychologically, but this works as well.
Armor is a damage reducer, which I like, and the rules have a work around for class-based armor proficiency that I like. Characters can use any sort of armor that they want, however if it isn’t listed in their class the armor’s damage reducer is added to both attacking and defending rolls. This is a clever idea that I like a lot, and I can see it working its way into d20-based fantasy games that I might run in the future. It saves a lot of math and it allows for fidelity to character concept that you often have to work around in class-based games. It is also harder to hit more powerful opponents. Attacks against creatures with hit dice higher than a character’s level have the difference between the two added to a character’s attack test. For example, a 2nd level character attacking a 4 hit dice monster would get a +2 on their attack test. This is a smart mechanic that handles scalability well without adding a lot of extra detail to things.
Like with some other more contemporary games, all rolls in Black Hack are player facing. The GM doesn’t make an attack test against a character for an attacking monster, instead the player makes a test to determine if they avoid taking damage. This test is modified by the hit dice of the monster attacking.
I like this approach because it frees up the GM to run the game, and worry about what is happening in the game’s world. Not for everyone, it would be easy to houserule in an attack roll for monsters.
Encumbrance is done simply as well, with characters being able to carry a number of items equal to the Strength of the character.
Classes in Black Hack are more like a template than classes in typical D&D-derived games. Leveling is handled mostly by fiat, with characters leveling every quest/major event/dungeon level. There are no experience points in the game. This is also something I like, because it requires less things to keep track of by the GM or the players. Hit points are increased with level gains, and there is a chance that attributes can increase. There are the four standard fantasy game archetypes as classes: warrior, thief, cleric and conjuror. There have also already been hacks for Black Hack with more classes. Making custom classes for a home game would be pretty simple. Spells for clerics and conjurors are pretty much the same as you would expect in an OSR game, but further streamlined. The classes receive about as many spell slots as their equivalent in an OSR game.
Other than the game’s length (20 pages probably isn’t going to be enough game for a lot of people), I am not seeing a lot of negatives to the Black Hack rules. I think that this would be a good fit for our group, and grafting a skill system, one of the things that I like to have in a fantasy game, would be really simple. One of the great things about simple game systems is that they make it easier to use the game for different settings and genres. A 40K styled game using these rules could be interesting to run. Making the classes would be simple (just whip up a Marine, a Trader and an Inquisitor and you could be ready to go). I think that the Black Hack rules are going to be the next Swords & Wizardry Whitebox, and we are going to see a sizeable community build itself around the ability to hack the rules.
I recommend getting the PDF that is currently available, and I will probably jump onto a print copy when they become available to the general public. Hopefully they will be able to offer up one through OneBookShelf, because I like the printed books that I have received from them.