Saturday, July 22, 2023

REVIEW: Black Sword Hack

During the nearly eight years this blog was inactive, I wasn't paying nearly as much attention to the wider old school roleplaying scene as I previously had been. Consequently, quite a number of releases, trends, and fads within this sphere completely passed me by. One of these was The Black Hack, a streamlined class-and-level RPG by David Black, whose first edition appeared in 2016. For a time, I am given to understand, The Black Hack and its design principles were much favored, leading to a proliferation of "Hacks" – Bluehack (for Holmes D&D), The Rad-Hack (Gamma World, etc.), Cthulhu Hack (Call of Cthulhu), even The Petal Hack (Empire of the Petal Throne), among many, many more.

Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with any of this. Gamers are as prone to enthusiasms as the next person and I try not to begrudge anyone else their preferences, even if I don't share them. Still, I can't deny that the intensity of the ardor for The Black Hack put me off looking into it for some time. What can I say: I'm prone to contrariness. When I finally did read The Black Hack for myself, I found it more agreeable than I expected, despite my dislike of certain aspects of its design. That's not knock against it, of course; I generally dislike certain aspects of most games' designs. That's more or less the nature of the beast.

That's why Black Sword Hack took me by surprise. I didn't even know it existed until it showed up in my mailbox one day as a complimentary copy sent to me by its publisher, The Merry Mushmen (best known for Knock!). Written by Alexandre "Kobayashi" Jeanette, Black Sword Hack is, in his words, "a dark fantasy roleplaying game inspired (but not limited to) the works of R.E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, Karl Edward Wagner's Kane series, Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar and Jack Vance's Dying Earth books." Being a fan of all those writers and their pulp fantasies, that description certainly got my attention, as did the eye-catching artwork by Goran Gligović, which can be found throughout the full-color, 112-page, A5-sized, hardcover book.

The core rules of Black Sword Hack are simple. A turn is an abstract measure of time, during which time a player character may act. During a time, a character can typically take two actions, such as movement and combat. All actions are resolved by making an attribute test. The goal of a test is to roll under a character's appropriate attribute score with a d20. A roll of 1 is always a critical success, while a roll of 20 is always a critical failure. I must admit that the lower-is-better d20 roll takes some getting used to, since it runs counter to decades of experience as a player of roleplaying games, but otherwise the rules of Black Sword Hack are straightforward.

The game retains the "Usage die" from The Black Hack, but with a twist. For those unfamiliar with it, the Usage die is a way to keep track of resources that have limited quantities, like rations or arrows. Whenever a resource is used, the die is rolled and, if the result is 1 or 2, the die "degrades" to the next die type (e.g. d8 becomes d6) until d4 is reached and 1 or 2 is rolled, at which point the resource is completely depleted. Black Sword Hack does not employ the Usage die for concrete resources, but only for abstract ones, like influence, debts, etc. Further, there is the Doom die, a type of Usage die that represents "the attention of Law and Chaos" on the characters. It's rolled whenever the character critically fails and under certain other specific conditions. Once the Doom die is depleted, the character makes all his tests and damage rolls with Disadvantage (i.e. rolling two dice and taking the lowest result).

While the D&D pedigree of Black Sword Hack (and The Black Hack on which it is based) is readily apparent (STR, DEX, CON, etc.), the game is class-less, placing greater emphasis on a character's origin (barbarian, civilized, or decadent) and background (berserker, diplomat, assassin, etc.). This provides a looser mechanical framework for characters, in keeping with the wide range of possible dark fantasy settings the referee might create (more on this in a bit). Characters can also acquire "gifts" – powers of Balance, Chaos, or Law – in addition to sorcery, faerie ties, twisted science, and runic weapons. As characters gain experience, they accrue more abilities and hit points, but a high-level Black Sword Hack character is much less robust than a D&D character of similar level. Consequently, combat is much more fraught with danger, which makes sense, given its literary inspirations.

Where Black Sword Hack really shines, though, is its world building tools. Approximately half the book is devoted to the referee – more if you include its sample bestiary. The game assumes the referee will create his own setting, one dominated by the struggle between Law and Chaos, as in Moorcock and Anderson's fantasies. There are tables and examples to aid him in deciding on the nature of the struggle and how it manifests in the setting, along numerous adventure seeds, two adventure, and the sketch of an entire city. There's even a sketch of a setting, complete with a map, to show one way to make use of the world building tools.

A conceit of the referee section is that any setting the referee designs will inevitably include certain stock locales – Forbidden City, Amber Enclave, Merchant League, Northern Raiders, etc. These are not just tropes from dark fantasy fiction but perhaps also eternal archetypes that reappear throughout the multiverse. Creating a setting for Black Sword Hack involves drawing a map and placing all these locales onto it somewhere and then fleshing out the details through play and the judicious use of random tables provided in the book. It's a clever approach and one that genuinely helps guide the referee in a useful way. The same goes, I think, with the bestiary, which includes plenty of archetypal enemies – demons, cannibals, serpent people – to spark the imagination, while still providing the tools needed to create unique and original antagonists.

If Black Sword Hack has a flaw, it's its looseness. Some players and referees may find its relative lack of concern for considering every possibility, whether in the rules or its myriad settings, disappointing. If you prefer something more defined, even concrete, you're better off with other options. Black Sword Hack revels in its light, almost freeform, rules and malleable setting elements and that won't be to everyone's taste. But as someone who's come to realize that my own preferences tend toward simple, flexible rules with lots of room for filling in the details as I go, this is right up my alley. When I get around to running that Stormbringer campaign of my dreams, there's no question in my mind that I'll be using Black Sword Hack. Perhaps others will like it too.

Black Sword Hack is available directly from the Merry Mushmen website in either print or PDF form.


  1. I was super impressed all around by Black Sword Hack: rules, art, tone etc

    The prolific Phil Reed has a Kickstarter ending soon for some of the first 3rd party support for it (at least that I am aware of) here:

    1. I am not at all surprised that Phil is already supporting this :)

  2. You're missing an 'e' in "as in Moorcock and Andrson's fantasies" I think.

    This reminds me of how long ago it was since I ran Stormbringer. It is after all one of my favourite games. I really don't think you need any other rules than those, but the Black Sword Hack sure looks enticing.

  3. I too missed the whole "Hack" phenomenon. (And I have to confess that I find the term "Hack" a bit annoying.)
    However, I too recently picked up "Black Sword Hack" (based on a recommendation from someone with similar fantasy and RPG tastes to my own). And I was similarly impressed by it.

  4. The rolling-low-is-best approach in The Black Hack bothers me too, which is odd as I'm perfectly happy with it in BRP-derived games.

    1. Exactly this for myself as well.

    2. I was so distracted by d20-roll low in The Black Hack that I wrote a rules hack to reverse it and make the game higher-is-better. Wasn't difficult, was instructive.

      The Petal Hack is my favorite take on Tekumel.

  5. I recently was a player in a 6 or 7 sessions-long game of Black Sword Hack (levels 1 to 3).
    We had fun, but I think combat would have worked better if everybody got one action and had to roll Doom for any kind of second action, rather than have everybody get two actions per round and roll Doom for a second action that is a duplicate of the first.
    The powers/magic system is very flavorful and we found it very interesting (we had Demonic Pacts and Sorcery).
    The game was both a success (for the players) and a disaster (for the characters): in the Sword & Sorcery tradition we pursued our goals with cynicism and independence, turning half the world upside down, sowing death and destruction only to discover that our conquests are castles made of sand.
    The game fits the genre well, the doom dice mechanic worked best at the end: it is a mechanic that needs a climax to work properly, and the grand finale allowed us to enjoy it better.
    I (we all actually) still think that Black Sword Hack is a somewhat ambiguos game with conflicting agendas (strict OSR and Moorcockian fantasy do not mix well imho, something got to give) but we enjoyed ourselves a lot and I would play it again without the shadow of a doubt.

  6. The backgrounds include “beggar”, I take it?

    I’m surprised the Usage die was abandoned for concrete items. Keeping track of arrows, lantern oil, rope, etc., doesn’t strike me as something you’d see in Moorcock’s stories. That sort of resource management seems more like a holdover from D&D-style dungeon exploration.

  7. Yeah, roll low on a d20 is just strange! Another good Moorcock-ian RPG is Crimson Blades, made by the dude who also wrote Barbarians of Lemuria.

    1. Bushido is roll low on d20... It's really a d100 system...