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.

Writing Illidan Part Three

It was time to set about outlining Illidan. I knew who the main point of view characters of the book were going to be. The story of the Burning Crusade and Black Temple pretty much dictated three of them: Illidan, Maiev and Akama. The Demon Hunter Vandel was in the briefing document I got from Blizzard. Since this novel was going to tie into Legion and show us something about demon hunters, he was going to play quite a big part. Before I set out to write the outline I needed to think about the characters since a lot of the action would flow from them.

I needed to make some decisions. How much space was each going to get in the book? Which was the best point of view to use for the various events? How was I going to show their history and relationships with each other. More to the point, what did I want to show about each of them? What was their role? How do they interact? Who were they?

Illidan was the easiest to deal with. His name was on the title. He was the central figure around which everything revolved. He is a towering charismatic figure. To me, he’s not really a hero, although I know many people disagree. He’s more complicated than that. He’s a very bad person trying to do an awesomely heroic thing. He is driven, domineering, sardonic, and his own worst enemy. He’s the smartest man (ok elf) in the room and he knows it. He has no time for fools. He is lonely, thwarted in love, far too proud for his own good. Above all he has a mission and he is going to complete it. No matter what the cost to himself or anyone else. In some ways what destroys Illidan, his tragic flaw is hubris. He is too proud, too confident and too self-reliant. It brings him down in the end. He is also ambiguous. To most of the world he looks like a villain, a traitor that has betrayed his entire world to the forces of destruction.

Maiev is in some ways Illidan’a mirror image— a driven hunter with an over-riding purpose, which is to bring Illidan to justice. The irony of her position is that she has much more in common with him than the people she serves and protects. She too has given her life to a mission. In her case, imprisoning Illidan and now bringing him to justice. In the book, she was going to be our window into the world which Illidan has come from, and the one that sees him as a villain, quite correctly by their lights. She too is a charismatic leader, fighting a battle against overwhelming odds.

Akama always seemed to me an interesting character. He engineers Illidan’s downfall for what he sees as the best of reasons. He is a mighty spiritual leader of his people but he is kinder and gentler than Illidan or Maiev. He has a kind of ruined decency to him. He also mirrors Illidan from a different angle. He is forced to treachery and wickedness in the service of a cause he believes to be good.

Vandel was the easiest in some ways, the hardest in others. During the original discussions of Demon Hunters in Irvine it was made clear he would need to be either a Night Elf or a Blood Elf. I chose Night Elf, not just because my original main character was one, but because it was the background that would show the depth of the transformation he is to undergo in the strongest possible way. Blood Elves already had a tainted slightly corrupt nature that put them further along the dark path a demon hunter must follow. Making him a Night Elf would give him the furthest distance to travel and make the ordeal he was to endure all the more shocking to him and the reader.

As all of this thinking was going on I was also trying to look at things from a technical point of view.

The reader was going to have to spend some time in Illidan’s head, getting to know him. The idea was slowly to shift the reader’s perception from seeing him as an ambitious villain to something more heroic. One problem in doing scenes in this way, is a very basic one for a writer. Illidan is smarter than I am. A lot smarter.

Showing the mental processes of someone cleverer than you is always difficult. There are some tricks, of course. A very smart character can figure out solutions to complex problems that it would take me hours to solve (if I could solve them at all) in moments. All you need is the solution and you can show the lightning fast mental processes at work.

The other main trick is to show him from the outside, from the point of view of people closer to my own mental level. Both Akama and Vandel would be useful for this. They would have a lot of scenes with Illidan, and they both had ambiguous relationships with him. These would allow us to see both them and Illidan. Akama and Vandel provide foils for Illidan that let us see him as his own followers see him.

Maiev would tell us a lot about Illidan simply by the relentless nature of her pursuit. You can judge characters by the potency of their foes, and she was a very potent one.

By the time I finished writing my character sketches I had a pretty good idea of the people I was going to be dealing with. I needed to find some way of fitting their stories together. It was time to deal with the outline proper. Of which, more next time.


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Writing Illidan Part Two

So there I was back in Europe, trying to figure out how to proceed. I had a long document full of ideas from the folks at Blizzard and the somewhat confused and incoherent notes I had taken myself in Irvine. Now all I had to do was make a book out of them, and with a fairly tight deadline too.

My first stop was to read through the Blizzard notes. These gave an outline of the story, its themes and the marks I was going to have to hit. I had never really dealt with anything like this before. My previous tie-in works consisted of coming up with characters and/or storylines and getting them approved.

The outline I had been given was dramatic, and I was familiar with large chunks of the story. Most Blizzard fans would be. It was the tale of Illidan from Warcraft 3 and Burning Crusade very cleverly reworked to stand what people thought they knew about the lore on its head. Without changing any of the details of the story, it changed everything about my understanding of what had happened during BC.

Running inside the main narrative was a new one, detailing the recruitment, training and eventual fate of a Demon Hunter. This was exciting. In game terms, it was a whole new class, and as a player, I was thrilled to have some input here and to get a sneak preview of what was to come. There was a problem, though— the details of the class were not set yet, so I was going to have to go ahead with many specific details about the class and trust that they would be filled in as I went along.

In addition, there was a truly unique problem in my experience as a tie-in writer. I had actually been present at many of the events described in the outline, in some cases many times. In the case of Black Temple, I had seen it from both Alliance and Horde sides. This raised some questions.

I had to make a decision about what to cut and what to keep in. You could write a book just about the Black Temple Raid itself— which given everything else that was going on was not an option. I also had to find points of view and key scenes that would make it clear to the reader what was going on, and I could not assume that any reader of the book would necessarily be familiar with the raid itself.

The second question was a doozy. This novel would be part of continuity. How in the name of the Betrayer was I going to show something that hundreds of thousands of people had been part of, myself included, and not invalidate their experience?

I could hardly hand out definitive laurels for the victory at Black Temple to either the Alliance or the Horde. In the end, I chose to fudge it. Most of the scenes in Black Temple are shown from the point of view of people who have no real reason to know anything about the player characters they encounter. Thus I did not have to give too much detail.

I decided I needed to go back and take a look at the raids, just to remind myself of the details. So recruiting my eldest son’s Shaman and my own Rogue, I headed back to Outland and plunged into the heart of the Burning Crusade.

It was an interesting experiment in nostalgia, wandering through Magtheridon’s Lair, Black Temple and Tempest Keep with my level 100 and a personal healer. I only had to give many mobs a hard stare, and they died. The aggro distances were so low I virtually had to hit them to get noticed. It felt as if all these elite monsters were whistling to themselves and pretending not to see us. It was not like this during the Burning Crusade. Still I got to revisit a lot of fun places, and it was a lot less stressful this time around. I even took screenshots, like a demented tourist clicking away amid the ancient ruins of Outland. I imported them all into a Scrivener file for future reference.

I requested and got the soundtrack of the Burning Crusade from the good people at Blizzard, imported it onto iTunes, set it on a loop and got to work on my outline. Of which more next time.

And here are some more snaps from my trip to Irvine. That trike actually works, you know.

I am going to be on the road for the next few days so comments will be moderated and replied to even more slowly than usual. They will be read and responded to though! No pics this week either since the terrible hotel internet I am using keeps giving me a server timed out message when I try to upload them.


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Shadow of the Demon Lord

Not only have I backed this tremendous looking Kickstarter RPG Project, I have agreed to write a short story for it. If you interested in dark fantasy and, guess what, I am,  I recommend you take a look at it. Here are some more details lifted directly from the Kickstarter page.

Shadow of the Demon Lord is a roleplaying game of dark fantasy—a genre that weaves elements of horror into a fantasy world. In the game, you create and play characters struggling to survive in a land sliding toward oblivion, a place infested by demons, roaming mobs of undead, strange magic, unhinged cultists, and all in the ruins of the last great empire of mankind. If you love Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, the Ravenloft and Midnight settings, Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series, Glen Cook’s Black Company books, or heavy metal music, then this is the game is for you.

The game takes place in a world standing on the brink of the apocalypse.  What is the cause? Who is responsible? The Demon Lord, of course! This being of staggering power and boundless evil authors the catastrophes blighting the landscape. Each new horror released reflects the Demon Lord’s approach, the touch of its shadow, and its growing hunger for not only the planet but the entirety of all things. Although near, the Demon Lord remains outside the cosmos, rattling the cage of its prison as it strains to escape the Void to visit catastrophic destruction to your world.

The apocalyptic tone is on a dial. If you don’t want to blow everything up right away, tune it down low and the game plays fine as a less perilous, dark fantasy roleplaying game. But if you are inclined to crank up the volume, the game provides several catastrophic templates you can use to model how the world is falling apart. These templates represent the Shadow of the Demon Lord; wherever the Shadow falls, chaos and upheaval are born. The Shadow might loose global pandemics, famines, droughts, earthquakes, demon princes to stomp across the countryside, the living dead, and other world-spanning disasters and threats.

The game system helps you tell interesting and exciting stories. To make this happen, the game system is easy to learn, plays fast, and requires little preparation to play. All these ensure both novice and veteran players can enjoy the game together. Here are a few ways the game met its goals:

Easy to Learn: The GM decides if a character’s action happens, doesn’t happen, or might happen. If it might happen, a roll of the die determines the outcome. You use the core mechanic to resolve any task, whether you’re punching a demon in the face, trying to kick down a door to get away from that demon, or dodge the vomit it spews from its mouth.

Your character develops with the story. Each time your group completes an adventure, the group’s level increases. Each increase adds cool stuff to your character. You might learn spells, a trick with a weapon, or some thing else that might help you survive. All benefits you gain come from the paths your character follows. The first adventure you play through helps you decide the first path you will choose. If you spend a lot of time fighting, you might become a warrior. If you cast a spell from a tome bound in human skin and barbwire, you might become a magician. At higher group levels, you choose additional paths that might extend previous choices or take your character in all new directions. You can choose any path you like so you can play the character you want to play.

Plays Fast: Stories (adventures) are playable in one game session lasting from 3 to 5 hours. Stories are short, covering about one page per hour of expected play. You can also complete a typical campaign (a string of 11 connected adventures) in 11 game sessions. The core book has rules for playing characters up to level 10. This means that if you meet once a week for a 4-hour session each time, you can complete your campaign in about two months. That’s six campaigns a year!

The benefit of short campaigns is that the game lets you tell more stories, create more characters, and experience more of the game’s options. As a player, you’re not locked into one character for one year or longer. You can have several. And, as a Game Master, it is possible to run a complete campaign in a compressed time span. Best of all, the campaign brevity gives other interested members of the group a chance to become the  Game Master.

Little Preparation: You can make a starting character in about 5 minutes. You make one big choice, note the information on your character sheet, and you’re ready to go. And a Game Master can prepare for a game in the time it takes to read a couple of pages of text.

The game is being developed by veteran designer Robert J. Schwalb and I’m sure you’ll recognise many of the names associated with the project.


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The Joys of Kickstarter

Yesterday the nice man from DHL brought me a package. It contained a copy of Monte Cook’s new book Numenera, a role-playing game that I have been looking forward to for quite some time. I’ve had the PDF for awhile but there’s nothing quite like holding a physical book to make something real, as I know from my own experiments with producing a print version of Stealer of Flesh. 

I don’t want to do a review of Numenera right here, right now. Free time has been in short supply this year and I’ve just skimmed through it. It’s a good looking book laid out in a style that should be familiar to anyone who has read Arcana Evolved or Ptolus or any other Malhavoc products, which is to say its a clean, clear layout with lots of interesting art. At first glance the rules look simple and interesting.  I’ll give it a more thorough read now that I have the hardback and I may get round to reviewing it at some point. Today I want to talk about something else. 

The thing about Numenara is that I had a direct part in its creation. I don’t mean I wrote anything for it, or did any art or even playtested it. I didn’t do any of those things. All I did was help fund it and I did this by way of Kickstarter. And I have to say it gives me a little kick when I look at page 410 and see my name listed among the backers. 

This was a project I really wanted to see. It is a far future fantasy, influenced by Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer books and the SF comics of the French artist Jean Giraud (Moebius). Although Mr Cook does not mention it in his notes I would guess there is some influence from Jack Vance’s Dying Earth as well either directly or smuggled in via Wolfe. In any case, it’s in a genre I love and for which there are very few roleplaying games available. I really wanted to see what Monte was going to do with it so I ponied up my sixty dollars and, lo and behold, a year and a bit later I am holding the hardback in my hands and I am very well pleased with it. 

I am hardly what you would call a wild Kickstarter funder. So far I have backed two and a half Kickstarters. This was one of them, Matt Forbeck’s madly ambitious Twelve for Twelve project was another and Sasquatch Game Studio’s Primeval Thule. I say I backed half of one because I missed the deadline for Primeval Thule’s efforts on Kickstarter and got in through the backdoor on their Slacker Backer Pledge drive. 

I backed Matt’s Kickstarter because I wanted to see the books and I knew he could deliver them. I also thought that anyone demented enough to attempt to write 12 novels in a year deserved my backing. I backed Numenera for the reasons I gave above and I backed Primeval Thule because, well, it’s sword and sorcery, another genre I don’t think get’s enough love from the gaming industry.

People wanted to do cool things that I liked. All they required from me was a relatively small sum of money and they would give me them. It seemed like a fair trade to me so I coughed up. And therein lies the magic of Kickstarter and, in some ways, the era in which we live.

Making games and getting them in front of people is not an easy thing. It used to be that most game companies failed and running one, for most people, was a very expensive hobby. It cost them not just in terms of time and effort. It cost what for most people would be a huge life-savings size sum of money. Many people can write a game and produce the rules in their own spare time, but even then getting art and editing and layout and printing all cost money. Back in the day, you could throw in money for warehousing as well although that’s less problematical in these days of ebooks and PDFs.

All of this money, often tens of thousands of dollars, had to come from somewhere, and believe it or not, banks are not all that keen on lending money to small game companies. This means that producing a game was often a labour of love, funded by the people who were putting it out. For most people the sort of sums involved, while not gigantic in terms of what most businesses cost to startup, were still an enormous personal commitment, a second mortgage on the house sort of commitment. Now, rational sensible business people can say that its exactly the sort of thing that should keep people from going into the game business, but there are always people who will think with their hearts rather than their heads. 

Kickstarter not only provides a way of raising cash, it provides an interesting test market for the idea of a game, or any other product. You can see whether your idea has legs. If you’ve done your calculations correctly and you set your pledge levels right, you can see if there’s a market there for what you want to sell. If you can raise the money, it’s all systems go. If you can’t, you can take the warning and quit while you’re ahead. Nothing has been risked except the time and money you put into your proposal. I am sure that can still amount to a fair amount but I doubt that it compares to setting up a company and have it crash and burn. You are sending your idea out into the real world and letting your potential customers kick the tires. And if you can get the cash raised you’ve gone a long way towards creating a committed audience. 

Of course, it helps if your customers believe you can deliver, for sending money to a Kickstarter product is not like walking into your friendly local game store and slapping your cash on the counter. It’s possible that you might contribute your cash and never see any more of it. It hasn’t happened to me but I’ve heard of people pledging cash to Kickstarters that never delivered. It’s a risk.

In the case of the projects I backed, it’s a risk I was prepared to take. I believed the people asking for my cash could deliver and they have a track record of being able to do so. I have seen examples of their previous work and loved it. It also has to be said that in the case of one of the people asking for my dollars (hello, Matt!) they were a personal friend. All of this helps. 

We’ve moved into a new era for the gaming industry (and I would guess for small publishing in general.) You can raise capital without going to conventional sources. You can test market your ideas through websites that already exist at very low costs. You can mobilise fans and backers via social media. And you can distribute over the Interwebs themselves, moving to print on-demand, if you want hardcopies. 

I am sure none of this comes as a surprise to many of you who have been backing Kickstarters for a while but there was something about holding that hardback copy of Numenera in my hand that made it all so much more real for me.

A special mention here to Paul Bryant of  Gameslore for tracking me down and resending my copy of Numenera from the UK when it was returned undelivered from my previous address. Thank you, Paul!

 

Stuff!

So that was Gamesday then. As ever it was an enjoyable and, as I was sitting at a signing table between Dan Abnett and Graham McNeill, somewhat humbling experience. I got to see the newly released Bane of Malekith but during the chaos of departure yet again forgot to pick up an author copy. Never mind. I’ll do that at the upcoming Weekender.

It was a pleasure to meet and chat with readers. It was also a pleasure to be able to catch up with Black Library writing and editing folks I’ve known for a long time and meet other folks for the first time. As always I was sorry not to have more time to take a look around the hall and see all the amazing stuff that’s always there. It’s the eternal problem of going to cons as a pro–  you never get to see or do half the stuff you did as a fan.

On my way to Gamesday I managed to drop and break my old second generation Kindle while going through security at Amsterdam airport. Bummer. I’ve had that old machine for over 4 years and it served me well. Unfortunately, since being dropped, a triangle cut out of the top half of the screen shows  a few lines of what I was reading at the time– Blood Rites by Jim Butcher–and the rest of the screen shows a static haze.

On the way back to Prague, I bought one of the new generation of Kindle Wireless for the princely sum of £68 in Birmingham Airport duty free. It’s one of the clearest examples of the march of technology I have ever seen. My original Kindle cost me around £250 which admittedly included shipping and import duties from the United States. Even without those though it would have cost almost three times the price of my new Kindle. The new machine is two thirds of the weight, much more compact and has a slightly larger screen. Not only that the screen resolution is much better and battery life much longer. I think there’s more than just Moore’s Law in evidence here. There are advances in e-ink screen technology to take into account as well. 

I switched on the machine when I got home and within a few minutes I had my books downloading onto it. No muss, no fuss, all clean and tidy. Another neat thing about modern tech is you don’t need to spend hours charging it before you can do anything. I switched on the Kindle on Monday and its still running now two days later without having been charged yet. Kids today probably don’t even realise how impressive that is to old timers like me. Even while my Kindle was broken I got to read my books on the my phone using the Android app. It was a pretty clear demonstration of the advantages of modern technology. 

During the trip, I did not have much time or access to the Internet so my apologies to anybody waiting for a reply or to have their comments approved. I should also mention that I have a review of the very wonderful Crypts and Things over at BlackGate.com. If you feel the need to read any more of my ramblings at the present moment, you should probably mosey over there and check it out.