Saturday, October 12, 2019

Black Hack Musings

Jeremy has been pushing for a series of one-shot games using variations of The Black Hack recently. He's been using the Rad Hack, a post-apoc version of the system, for a game recently and it's been a lot of fun. It is definitely a simple system. And that may actually be my problem with it. It may be TOO simple.

Now, this post is not meant as an attack on Jeremy, or on the Black Hack family of games, or David Black. It's just, like, my opinion, man. So abide.

That said, there are a few things about TBH that just don't sit well with me. I'm going to enumerate them here, and discuss a bit about why I'm not fond of these mechanics/systems. And once more, for the people who didn't read the above - I'm enjoying Rad Hack, and I don't think it's a bad game at all. It's just not my cup of tea.

So there are a few things that bug me. Two that I've already blogged about are armor and active defense rolls (also armor in this post).

The armor rules require a fair amount of bookkeeping and/or really break immersion for me. The Rad Hack's BTB rules just are weird. In any battle, your armor absorbs X amount of damage then stops working. But ten minutes later, in the next battle, it can again absorb X amount of damage (then stops working). Jeremy has switched to a system of straight damage reduction (but not the usage die suggestion I made in my post liked above).
Again, I already posted that I'm not a huge fan of "active defense."* Supposedly it keeps players paying attention and allows them to take their fate in their own hands. Statistically, it doesn't matter if the DM needs to roll d20+mods against my AC, or I need to roll d20+mods against my AC to see if I'm hit. Making the players roll the monsters' attacks and the monster's saving throws for the DM I guess takes some pressure off the DM. But the DM still needs to be monitoring those rolls.

*Active defense has two meanings. One, the defense value is rolled each round, or each attack, against the attack roll. Very swingy. Not a fan of that, either. In TBH and hence in this post, the defense value is static (aside from occasional modifiers) but the player rolls avoidance rather than the monsters rolling to hit.

As a DM, I really shouldn't trust every player to be making their own rolls like that. I've played with enough players through the years who always seemed to make those crunch time rolls, and get plenty of natural 20s (although sometimes the dice are just like that, it's happened to me a time or two and maybe some of my fellow players suspected me of cheating too). As DM, if I roll, I know it's fair.

And as a player, it takes away some of the suspense. I don't know why it does. Until I roll in Rad Hack, I don't know if the monster hit me or not. But once I roll, I pretty much know right away. In traditional D&D (or other games) I'm in suspense until the DM announces the result. The time delay between the DM rolling and the DM announcing the result is exciting! Making the monsters' attack rolls for them just seems like more work for me. Again, this is just my personal
Milestone leveling is another problem I have with the system. I've posted before about how I think the experience system is one of the most important parts of the game. Maybe THE most important part. Because it informs play. If activities A, B, and C gain you XP, then "good play" tries to maximize A, B, and C. Milestone leveling just says the game master will reward you with levels when they feel it's time.

And yes, a DM can set out a comprehensive set of criteria that result in gaining a level. And then players can try to manage their game play to meet those criteria as often as possible. Jeremy has been using sessions of play as the milestones, rather than basing it off of subjective criteria related to the in-game fiction. And the result? Dean and I are clamoring for him to run Rad Hack more often instead of all these one-shot experiments. Because the more sessions we clock, the faster we level in this game.

OD&D~AD&D gives you XP for monsters defeated but mostly for treasure. Optimal game play is about finding treasure. 2E BTB had a bunch of weird requirements for each class that meant unless everyone was playing the same type of class, there was no "optimal" game play. But I never played with someone who ran 2E experience by the book. Everyone just used the O/AD&D treasure/monsters system. Maybe spellcasters got some bonus XP for casting spells or thieves for picking locks, but mostly it was just fight the monsters and get the treasure. 3E and 4E focused on combat as the way to get XP. And it led to combat heavy games. TBH milestone system leads's fuzzy.

OK, one last one. TBH uses the classic 6 ability scores (although the mecha hack game Jeremy sent uses only 4). And every roll is based on rolling a d20 under one ability score or another. It combines a universal mechanic (which IMO is not always the best way to model probabilities for various actions) with stat dependency.

It can be hard to play a non-combat character in many RPGs. But TBH (or at least the way Rad Hack is run by Jeremy -- again, not an attack, just explaining how I get my experience to base this off of) seems to actively punish you for having a character not optimized for combat. Again, part of this is the active defense system. If I have a low strength Cleric in D&D (and I did play one once), I'm not likely to hit often in combat. Fine. But with plate armor and shield, I'm well able to avoid the monster hits as well. But in Rad Hack, if I have low Strength (or low Dex in ranged combat), it makes my attacks less effective and the monster attacks MORE effective. And the armor only holds up so long.

So, there are my reasons why I don't think TBH is the game for me. It's still fun to play Jeremy's Rad Hack game. I'm invested in my character, Cybersys 842. And it's mainly this investment in the character, not any investment in the rules system, that makes me want to keep playing it.

In my first impression of Rad Hack (and TBH in general), the post linked above for active defense rolls, I said at the end I might try to make my own TBH variant. Now, though, I'm pretty sure I never will. The system, much like 5E, is fine for what it is, but it's just not what I want out of my games. I'm happy to play it, but won't likely DM it.


  1. I think I understand your criticisms. The XP thing had me thinking this last session too. XP for slugs? Possibly. As for the combat emphasis. You guys do quite a bit of fighting AND exploring. But, my prep has been lacking and I have not really given you guys enough details to immerse you lately. So, I think the fighty bits might just stand out more to you.

  2. No, man, I was trying to make it clear I'm not criticizing the way you're running Rad Hack. If anything, I think you got XP right. You gave us a concrete system to determine when we level up in the number of sessions we play.

    I think the fighty bits stand out because (and this is true of most RPGs) that's the area of game play where the rules most interact with play. Talking to NPCs in town or negotiating with intelligent creatures may involve a few rolls, but it's not rule-intensive. In combat, it's all about the rules.

    This post is more a general critique of The Black Hack overall than anything particular to your campaign. Just some stuff I'm not fond of but don't make it a deal-breaker as a player. But also why I'm unlikely to run a game using TBH.