Review: The Black Hack

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” – Albert Einstein

This is something I’ve been wondering about for a while, but since it costs about the same as a cup of coffee I expect I’ll be safe from buyer’s remorse.

In a Nutshell: Heavily streamlined OD&D retroclone RPG in 20 pages, $2 at time of writing. Written by David Black.


With a total of 20 pages there are no chapters as such.

Character creation is the familiar roll 3d6 for each of six stats, then pick one of the four core classes (these are the usual suspects); there are no races in the core rules, although there are a wide range of supplements with races, more classes, and so on. The core mechanic is to roll under the most appropriate stat on 1d20. Advantageous or disadvantageous circumstances mean you roll twice and use one of the results, natural rolls of 1 or 20 are critical success and critical failure respectively.

Combat is player-facing in that monsters only roll for damage; PCs roll to hit, or to avoid being hit – more dangerous monsters apply modifiers to the rolls. Movement is abstracted into range bands. Armour absorbs damage, but appears to have a limit after which it can absorb no more until you rest; being reduced to no hit points takes a PC “out of the action”, but doesn’t necessarily kill him – there’s a table to roll on to see what happens.

Initiative is interesting; everyone makes a Dexterity check, winners go before the monsters and losers go after them. Consumable gear has a “usage die”; the theory is that you put a die of that type on your character sheet, and as you use it, you swap that die for ones with progressively fewer sides. Using the spots or number showing on the die to track uses seems more intuitive to me.

Spellcasters can memorise as many spells as their level, and make a stat roll to cast; failure means they lose a spell slot of the same level as the spell – this semi-Vancian approach is a bit like FATE stress tracks, you can keep casting until you have failed often enough to cross off all your slots.

Monsters have a single stat, hit dice, which is manipulated to give their other features.

Characters essentially level up when the GM deems them worthy, gaining extra hit points and a chance to increase their stats.

There are two pages of spells and two pages of monsters. There’s a character sheet, an example of play, and the OGL licence.


Single or two column black text on white background, basic cover art and no internal artwork. Does the job.


I don’t like how armour seems to work; maybe I’ve misunderstood it, but as I read the rules, once you have absorbed (say) the 4 incoming damage with your armour, it doesn’t help you any more. The example of play could do with explaining how that works. Easy enough to fix, simply ignore that rule and let armour absorb the listed amount of damage indefinitely.

I also don’t like the levelling up rule; I suspect characters would level up very quickly, and there is an implied level cap of 10, so campaigns would likely be short. My inclination would be to borrow a rule from The Petal Hack (of which more anon) and say a PC reaches a new level after a number of sessions equal to that level, so he would reach 2nd level after two sessions, and 3rd level after another three, or 5 in all.


This looks to me as if it would make a good beer-and-pretzels game, maybe one to take on holiday and play over a few drinks. The rules are simple enough and familiar enough that I had memorised most of them from a single read-through. However, I’m not sure that it has the legs for a full-blown campaign; it may be too simple for that.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5; deserves a trial run at some point.

Update: I had planned to review The Petal Hack, but since you can download the whole thing for free here, you should do that if you’re interested in it.


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