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.

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  1. I would add the really low price. i was a Runequest player, and i wish we had something like this. but form what you say doesn’t look hard to adapt

    • There are some similarities between the Cthulhu Hack and Runequest, Deka. I suppose that’s unsurprising in a level-free roll under system that uses much the same characteristics. You could certainly plug the magic system from first edition RQ into Black Hack without any difficulty. I considered it at one point. I also toyed with using something similar for some Kormak rules. I’ll see how I feel when I finish with AIM-E :).

  2. Care to share your version of the classic AC system? I’m not too fond of the current TBH armor rules, even with the Additional Things PDF and I’m not sure I understand the standard AC rules included in there.

    • Surely. My system turned out to look a lot like the one in the White Hack as I later found out. Basically, the number for a critical hit is exactly the stat you need to roll. So if you have STR 14, 14 is a critical hit. Roll to hit as normal. If the to hit dice comes up less than or equal to the armor class of the target, you’ve hit it but your blow bounces off the armor. You need to alter the way you look at dice modifiers to make this work and treat pluses and minuses as bonuses and penalties to the stat rather than modifers to the roll. That way you can look at the actual numbers on the die roll, if that makes any sense. If you don’t do this, you get the ludicrous situation where a powerful monsters bonus actually makes it easier to hit by moving the dice roll result over its armor class.

      This bit works really well once you’re used to it, but where it falls down is in dealing with player characters. Rolling under their AC does not make any sense and adding their AC to their chances of avoiding damage is a disaster. Anything that makes players harder to hit is problematical because they are often pretty hard to hit anyway. For a while, I tried using the monster’s hit dice in exactly the same way as a player would use the monster’s AC. I.e if the defense roll came up less than or equal to the monster’s HD then it hit you. Player armor blocked one step of this. If you had AC1, you ignored rolls of 1 and the monster missed. If you had AC of 2 you ignored the first two hit dice of the monster and so on. The problem with this is that it devalues the player’s armor which does not make them happy. I went back to BH armor rules for a while, and I am experimenting with armor stopping damage in various ways now. I was going to do a blog post about this actually. Hopefully, it will be more coherent and less rambling than this :).

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