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The Black Hack Review

Among the several anniversaries I somehow neglected to celebrate on the blog this year was the fortieth of my first encounter with Dungeons and Dragons, back when it came in three tiny booklets in a white box. I bring it up now because reading The Black Hack takes me right back to my student days of late night dungeoneering sessions and permadeath treks across hexcrawl wildernesses. And I mean that in a good way.

The Black Hack describes itself as an OSR First Edition Hack. It’s named after its author, David Black. The game reads like the distilled essence of the D&D we played back before there were Players Handbooks, Monster Manuals and DM’s Guides. When you wanted rules, you made them up yourself, and every campaign was different. The Black Hack takes D&D, boils it down to the essential elements, then it lets you get on with it. It’s a complete role-playing game in twenty pages and the clever thing is that it lets you use pretty much all the existing material you have without much adaptation. Using Black Hack I could crawl through the first dungeon I ever wrote. I could mine the mountains of third edition stuff I acquired over the years. I could run the Frog God 5th edition stuff I got from Humble Bundle a couple of weeks back. All with the same ruleset.

How is this small miracle achieved? Well, you have levels, classes, hit points but it’s the familiar six attributes (Strength, Dex, Con etc) that are the key. Black Hack is a roll under system. It uses the big six for everything. Want to hit something in melee? Roll a D20 under your strength. Want to hit something at range? Roll under your dexterity. Want to see whether you can retain that spell or solve that puzzle? Roll under your intelligence. And so on. If you are dealing with targets or tests above your level, the difference in levels is added to your roll. First level character, trying to hit a four HD Ogre with a sword? Add 3 to that Strength check.

Advantage and disadvantage rules familiar to everyone who plays D&D 5e are used to handle big situational modifiers. The way the Black Hack uses all of the familiar components of D&D and yet separates out the die-rolling mechanisms from the rest of the mechanics means you can plug stuff from almost any edition in. You don’t need to worry about THACO or different bonuses to hit or types of saving throw.

Players make pretty much all the D20 dice rolls. When a monster rolls to hit you, make a saving throw. Armor provides a secondary pool of hit points that regenerate between fights. The number provided are roughly the same as the armor’s bonus in roll high D&D/Pathfinder.

Things like torches and other disposable items are handled with a resource dice mechanism. Roll the appropriate dice when a resource check is called for. If a 1 or 2 comes up the resource dice increments down to the next size dice, a d8 becomes a d6, a d6 becomes a D4. Fail the roll on the d4 and the resource is exhausted. It’s simple and it works.

My first response when I saw all this was to think, is that it? It’s too simple, but the more I tested it, the more I came to think David Black was right and I was wrong. To do Old School role-playing simple mechanisms and your own creativity are all you need.

Each class has a few core special abilities that make them feel like that class, and that is more than we got back in the White Box days. There’s a spell list and a monster list. If you are at all familiar with role-playing games you could run this game right out of the box using any old modules you happen to have around. If you want to feed complexity back in, it’s all modular and hackable. I am presently adapting Cubicle 7’s (excellent) Adventures in Middle Earth and The One Ring and it’s a walk in the park.

The Black Hack is an open system and there are a number of variants available. I am particularly fond of The Cthulhu Hack, a quick and easy Lovecraftian horror game (now that sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it?) which does away with levels completely and uses some interesting variants on the resource dice rules.

The rules are fast and flexible. Nothing gets in the way of the gaming. Prep time is low. Adapting scenarios is easy. It’s a lot of fun.

Downsides? I was not fond of the armor as hit points mechanism. The first thing I did was adapt classic D&D AC rules to the roll under system. It took me two minutes. The fighter looks grossly overpowered compared to any version in any D&D ruleset I can remember. One attack per level seems like overkill. Easily solved by making it one attack per odd-numbered level or whatever seems reasonable to you.

The Black Hack is a brilliant little book and the PDF costs $2. That’s considerably less than I paid for the White Box in pounds sterling back in 1977. Who says everything is getting more expensive? Highly recommended.

You can pick up a copy from Drivethrurpg or in print in the UK here.

Google Docs for Novel Writing

For the past ten years or so, I have mostly used Scrivener to write my books. It’s a powerful piece of software that gives you a great deal of control over the structure of any work in progress. It makes backups a breeze and it tracks your daily word count as you write. It can also do an enormous amount of other stuff. You can take snapshots of individual scenes and chapters in a work, and then roll back changes if you are unhappy with them. It can show views of your work as an outline or as a set of index cards. It lets you keep your research material alongside your work in progress. I have unhesitatingly recommended it to anyone who asked for advice on writing software, and to many people who have not. Within Scrivener, I used markdown for formatting. I used Microsoft Word for the final edits. It is the industry standard used by editors, copyeditors and proofreaders.

Over the past few years though, my writing process has changed. This has been in part because of health reasons. My RSI ailments have gotten worse and I find I have less energy than I used to, because of diabetes and the assorted medications I take for it. I also find that I work on the go a lot more than I used to, on many different computers and in many different places. I do more ten and fifteen minute writing sprints these days and less sitting in front of my computer for long periods. My books have often been shorter and required less structural changes.

I have also come to suspect that there have been times when using Scrivener has impaired my productivity. It has given me more opportunities to fiddle with things like tagging and status and so on. It allows many opportunities to procrastinate in a way that look like work but don’t involve any actual writing.
It can also be slow to load on the underpowered netbooks such as the Lenovo 100S that I sometimes use. If you are just sitting down to do a 10 minute sprint, a 30 to 45 second loading wait can eat into the writing time.

Over the past year or so I have been experimenting with my writing process and software. I have tried various methods and word processors. After reading Jamie Todd Rubin’s excellent article on how he managed 400K words in a year writing for 40 minutes or less a day,(yep, you read that right) one of the them was using Google Docs, the free word processor from Google. I tried Gdocs many years ago and it was not for me. It seemed like a slow, underpowered, online , cutdown version of Microsoft Word. It was always good for communal writing but I don’t do a lot of that.

Google Docs has changed a lot since the first time I looked at. It has a document map that lets you navigate long structured documents. It works pretty much anywhere you can get an internet connection and I have an Android phone where it runs well. In general, I don’t recommend working on a phone, but it is useful if you need to refer to a work in progress when you are out and about or if you just want to do a readthrough.

You don’t have to worry about making backups because everything is saved in the cloud automatically as you type. If you setup Google Drive on your various computers, you can have local copies as well. You can also set individual documents to work offline as well. This is useful for those times when you do not have access to the internet. Because you can work in a browser, Gdocs is universal and you don’t need Dropbox synchronisation. It also exports well to many other formats.

The main advantage of Google Docs and one that I did not even think about until I used it is a simple one. It lets me use tabs. I can have my outline open in one tab, my notes in another and the document I am working on in a third one. It is easy to switch between them using the Control+Tab keyboard shortcut. If I needed to check my outline or a note on character or setting it was just a key press away.

I worked happily in Google Docs for a couple of months. I got a lot done but it had a major disadvantage which frustrated me. On low-powered computers it took a long time to get started, at least as long as Scrivener. In the end this caused me to look at alternative methods. I found working in tabs invaluable so I looked for word processors that would allow me to do that. I found them too but that’s a story for another day.

Much to my surprise, Google Docs proved a viable alternative to both Microsoft Word and Scrivener for first draft long form writing. I can imagine circumstances where I might go back to using it. I can even imagine using a Chromebook to get work done, which was not something I ever considered likely in the past.

Armageddon Protocol Released

Armageddon Protocol, the first of my new cyberpunk military SF series is now out! Book 1 (with 2 and 3 soon to follow) is available on Amazon. Till the end of December, it will be 99 cents or the local currency equivalent. You can also borrow it if you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber.

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I’m trying KDP Select (which requires exclusivity) for the first 90 days, so the book is only available on Amazon. I plan to release the series in other online stores later in 2017 unless the results from KU are absolutely boggling. I know everybody does not read on the Kindle, so please be patient.

Here’s the blurb:

During the last interstellar war, the Brood almost wiped out humanity. Now they’re back and they’ve brought powerful allies. The bio-augmented super-soldiers of StarForce must mobilise the human race for total war. Unfortunately, the people they protect think that the Federal Stormtroopers are a bigger threat than alien monsters. And they might just be right.

You can find the book right here:


Amazon UK

Amazon DE

If you’re interested in finding out when my next book will be released as well as in getting discounts and free short stories, please sign up for my mailing list.

Armageddon Protocol Preview

As I promised last week, here’s a preview of the first chapter of my upcoming cyberpunk military SF novel, Armageddon Protocol. It should be available before the Christmas holidays. 

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“Stormtrooper 13? Stormtrooper 13? What is your status?”

The words burst through the static as Orbital made contact from geostationary. It could just have been one of the radiation storms over Faith. It could also be the locals jamming our communications. When in doubt always assume enemy action, as my old drill sergeant used to say.

A chaingun ricochet overloaded the kinetic exchanger of my armor. I pulled out the splinter of ceramic and slammed a flesh-patch on my upper left arm to stop the bleeding. It hurt like hell.

Bullets chewed into the shattered wall in front of me. The double moons hung daylight-visible in the green-tinged sky. Snow blanketed the remnants of the concrete bunkers all around. I called up an insert on my helmet HUD to show the video feed from the drone circling overhead. Things looked exactly as bad as I expected.

A carpet of white covered the ruined city. New flakes were burying the corpses of the ambushed Enforcers. A column of sooty smoke spiraled into the sky from the wreckage of our white painted transport flitter.

I had already jumped out and got inside the ruins when the rocket hit. Guess I moved faster than the attackers expected. It looked like I was the only survivor. Lucky me.

Several hundred militiamen, armed with good old fashioned assault rifles, circled what was left of the building. The black and gray urban DPM colors of the Aryan Jihad looked just spiffy on them. They had taken the day off from terrorizing the enemies of white humanity to stick it to us Feds.

A swastika-emblazoned gunship strafed me with more chaingun bullets. Three locals wheeled a pulse cannon into an enfilading position on a roof across the street. Soon they would have a clear field of fire down to my current position.

I saw myself, a big man in ceramic armor crouched behind a shattered wall. A hologram of a red cross showed inside my mirrored faceplate. I gave a one-digit wave for the cameras. Some sharpshooter almost took off my finger. It was a good job that my gauntlets were there to protect my delicate hands.

“Orbital, this is One Three,” I said. “We seem to be experiencing a breakdown of the ceasefire. Request you engage personal weapon systems.”

It was a foregone conclusion that the ceasefire was dead but there are rules about these things. The Federal Government is big on rules.

A hiss of static and then Orbital came online again. “We have detected drone deployment, Stormtrooper 13. Please explain.”

Great. I was being shot at by a few hundred angry militiamen, and some Accord Observer was upset because I might offend the locals’ sensibilities by deploying an unarmed drone. I hate peacekeeping missions.

“This is One Three. I am under fire, Orbital. Repeat, under fire. Request you engage personal weapon systems.”

What bureaucrat had thought that it was a good idea to lock down our weapons before sending us out into the streets of Sternheim? Probably the same genius who had thought of making our armor white and putting large red crosses on our helmets.

The Observers claimed that it showed the Federal Republic’s peaceful intent. My theory was different. Making us walking headshot targets gave the locals somebody other than their neighbors to snipe at. A burning cross would have been more suitable for making friends with these guys.

“Status update . . .” More static. Something large exploded nearby. An anti-mech rocket? Damn. The Jihad had the big stuff now. For days rumors had abounded. They had supposedly acquired some new doomsday device from the Weapon Ship. It was the reason I was down here sweeping Sternheim. Why else would a Federal Stormtrooper be in this hellhole?

And, what a surprise, it had turned out to be a trap. It certainly looked like someone had been arming these bad boys with hardware above their pay grade. I had a suspicion I knew who.

“Die, xeno loving scum!” The threat had the flat tones you get from instantaneous machine translation. I didn’t speak this local dialect. The locals wouldn’t speak mine. Old Terra was a couple of hundred light years away. These were the boys who taught themselves Old Deutsch in order to be able to read Mein Kampf in the original.

The shout came from nearby. I heard the distinctive hum of a battlefield generator. I had a fair idea of what was going to happen next. It wasn’t going to be pretty. I checked the position of the pulse cannon on the video feed and moved out of the line of fire. I had less than thirty seconds till it cycled to full power.

Chaingun bullets carved another chunk out of the wall as the gunship targeted me. I heard a few catcalls as it whizzed by overhead. Somebody was enjoying himself.

I looked down at the useless reaper in my hands. Theoretically, the pulse carbine was the most powerful man-portable weapon on the planet. Unfortunately, its system electronics were locked down by the peacekeeping protocols. It did not look like Orbital was going to give me the override code anytime soon.

Some wit in Ordinance had stenciled Your Tax Dollars at Work along the barrel of the weapon. The joke was on us. Most of the locals did not pay Federal taxes. They paid deductible tithes to their churches instead. Said churches just happened to also be their militias.

Orbital’s communications were a barrage of static and random words now. Definitely a jammer. This had been planned. It looked like the locals were determined to bag themselves a stormtrooper.

I wriggled to a new position as bullets tore chunks out of the brickwork. Any individual round had only a low percentage chance of breaching my armor but the Jihad were throwing thousands in my direction. A single one might cause me some serious health problems if the kinetic exchange mechanisms failed again.

“Dave, read them the Riot Act,” I said, ducking my head as the chaingun tore chunks out of the wall.

My drone said, “Are you sure that is appropriate, Stormtrooper 13? An aggressive verbal response might be construed as provocative.”

Dave was in advanced diplomatic mode, courtesy of the peacekeeping protocols.

“Just do it, Dave!”

“Affirmative, Stormtrooper 13.”

The drone’s amplified words boomed out across the town. Simultaneous machine translation allowed me to understand. “Citizens, you are in violation of section 4, paragraph 2, of Federal Security Act 931. Cease and desist from this anti-social behavior. Disperse and return to your homes or face due penalties of law. Thank you for your cooperation and have a nice day.”

That’s telling them, Dave, I thought. A burst of automatic weapon fire informed me that somebody had spotted Dave’s position.

Dave said, “Thank you for your feedback, Citizens.”

A blinking red icon on my heads up display told me that my drone was under attack. I could probably have worked that out for myself. It looked like it was time to take matters into my own hands.

I thumbed the systems override and bellowed, “Stop shooting at me, you inbred halfwits!”

My amplified and translated words boomed out from Dave’s speakers. I got the retranslation.”Please stop shooting at me, Citizens.”

Small arms fire and shouts of die, Fed were the considered response. There was something about minion of the Devil Machines in there too. Then came a wave of obscenities that the speech filters turned to static. Apparently, the Federal Government did not want the bad language of my fellow citizens causing long term damage to my self-esteem.

“Stormtrooper 13. Stormtrooper 13. We have detected damage to drone Dee Vee Zero Zero One Three. Are you acting in a provocative manner toward the locals?”

“Good guess, Orbital.” My amplified words boomed out over the square courtesy of Dave’s sound system. That probably confused the militiamen. It was time to give them my full and undivided attention.

“Stop shooting at me, or I’ll hand you your heads!” I snarled.

Dave thundered his saccharine-toned mistranslation. “Citizens, if you don’t stop shooting at me I will be forced to respond with extreme violence. I’m sure none of us will enjoy that.”

Dave was wrong about the last bit. After days of abuse, thrown garbage, and the odd sniper shot, I was about ready for some payback. I got jeers and catcalls as well as another rocket impacting on the side of the bunker. The building shook. Plaster clattered off my helmet. The structure was not going to take much more of this.

“Citizens, cease fire! This is your last warning.”

Dave managed the translation exactly right. His tone of voice left something to be desired in the menace department. He sounded like a kindergarten teacher threatening to take away a child’s milk if they did not behave.

“Stormtrooper 13. Please report!”

I unholstered my sidearm and checked the action. It was an old-fashioned Magnum revolver. Standard issue to stormtroopers. For those rare times when viral overload or hardshock EMP take out the systems on a reaper.

You never know when you’re going to need good old fashioned bullets. They can’t be locked down by peacekeeper protocols. Of course, the Magnum was supposed to be empty. The Arbitrators had even searched me before I dropped from Orbital. We wouldn’t want to upset the locals by arming their Federal oppressors now, would we? I still had that one bullet all stormtroopers like to carry in case we fall into the tentacles of the Assimilators. You don’t want to know how I smuggled it down.

“Stormtrooper 13, you have unholstered your sidearm. What is your situation?”

“Orbital, I am under fire. I am about to take measures for self-preservation under code three one seven.”

“Noted, Stormtrooper 13. Under the terms of the Accord, I cannot authorize the use of lethal force. Those are Federal citizens down there.”

Somebody was certainly covering their ass today. “Thank you, Orbital. I’ll try and be gentle with the voters. It is election year after all.”

The hum of the power generator reached its highest pitch. I hoped I had got the angle right. The wall melted as a high intensity, narrow focus pulse beam flared through it. Snow sizzled into a cloud of steam. At the same time, a grenade rolled in through one of the gaps in the wall.

So there I was, alone, wounded, outnumbered, surrounded, gunship overhead, flanked by heavy ordinance and armed with a single bullet I had pulled out of my ass. Under the circumstances, a few well-chosen last words seemed called for. “Citizens, you were warned!”


If you’re interested in finding out when my next book will be released as well as in getting discounts and free short stories, please sign up for my mailing list.


Another Day, Another Year

It had to happen sooner or later, my birthday falling on a blogging day. As an inveterately lazy man, I am tempted to just make my excuses now and go in search of cake, but there are a few bits and bobs I thought I would mention before I do.

First up, Black Library has just released a huge part of its backlist onto the Kindle in the UK and Europe. Hurrah for that, and about time, I say.

Among the many great ebooks you’ll find my seven Gotrek and Felix novels and my four Space Wolf books. It’s really nice to see these books out there. Black Library have done their usual magnificent job of production. I guess I really will have to get round to writing up the author’s notes for them now. The good folks in North America are going to have to wait until January.

Secondly,the first six of my Kormak novels are finally available in print. I laid them out a couple of years back, and then with my usual astounding efficiency sat back and did nothing. Eventually a random brain cell misfired and reminded me that I really should bring them out just in time to miss the Xmas sales rush. You can order them from Amazon or your local book store.

Thirdly, Armageddon Protocol, my Judge Dredd meets Starship Troopers style cyberpunk military SF novel first mentioned back in January, is almost ready to go. I am just putting the final touches to it now. I’ll stick up a sample chapter in a week or two.

If you’d signed up for my newsletter you would already have been able to read it. Assuming all goes according to plan, the book should be out before Xmas. Here’s Trevor Smith’s brilliant cover. I am really pleased with it.

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Trevor is already at work on the cover for Extinction Event which promises to be even better.

And that’s it for the moment. I am off in search of cake.

If you’re interested in finding out when my next book will be released as well as in getting discounts and free short stories, please sign up for my mailing list.