Black Hack Second Edition Review


tldr; Still a solid and simple system, but annoyances that could be deal breakers to some remain. Characters seem more powerful than in other old school games. I still think it’s best for one-shots or short-term play rather than campaigns. I prefer the original rules, but appreciate the tables and resources included with the new edition.

I recently ran David Black’s The Black Hack Second Edition, a very rules-light role playing system inspired by the original edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Previously, I ran my group through the Deep Carbon Observatory module using the first edition of Black Hack, so we had some familiarity with the underlying system. My review of the adventure we played, Winter’s Daughter, is here.

The Good:

  • The hardcover book is very nice and the art is fun.

  • There are lots of tables that could come in handy, such as random drugs, random poisons, side effects of using magic, and tables for randomly generating settlements and dungeons. I didn’t end up needing them for Winters’ Daughter but it’s nice to have them in the toolkit.

  • The “Every Monster” template also looks super useful for creating opponents.

  • The new background mechanic is cool.

  • So are the d6 tables that add a bit of personality to each character class (a familiar for a wizard, a battle trophy for the warrior, etc.), though they have a distinct flavor that might not work for all games.

  • The rules are still really simple. Character creation was a breeze.

Issues:

  • The new edition is only slightly less simple than the original, but the additional complexity makes the rules harder to parse. I had to read a few things multiple times to understand them. The old rules were instantly understandable, at least to me, which made first edition Black Hack perfect for one-shots or spur-of-the-moment games. The new edition is still good in that regard, but not as good as it was before.

  • I wish Black had stuck with Armor Points instead of Armor Values. In the old version, Armor Points functioned sort of like temporary hit points that would be restored after a rest. The new version is a little more complicated. You have a certain number of Armor Dice, depending on the Armor Value of your gear. You can set an armor die aside to cancel all damage dealt in a monster’s turn. Then, during a rest, you roll to see if you get to restore the die or if the armor is damaged and needs repair. For PCs, the change isn’t a big deal, but it felt cumbersome for managing opponents and I ended up forgetting to have them actually use their damage dice.

  • Usage dice for magic and the ability to read spells from the spellbook make characters seem more powerful than equivalent level characters from other old school games. As written, unless I misunderstood, a Cleric can just keep reading the Cure Light Wounds spell over and over outside of combat (though with the risk of a spell misfire each time). That makes combat a lot less risky.

  • The Black Hack is meant to be generally compatible with other old school D&D adventures. But having more powerful characters messes that up a bit, because the level recommendations are going be a little off. My players’ third level characters were able to sort of breeze through Winter’s Daughter, which is recommended for first through third level characters. I also worry that the gap between Black Hack characters and more traditional D&D characters will only grow as Black Hack characters advance in level. That’s because classic D&D characters’ combat abilities and saving throws correspond directly to their levels. Ability scores are generally static and are most important for determining character classes. But in Black Hack, saving throws and combat are both based on rolling under your ability scores. Plus, those ability scores may or may not increase as you gain levels. So the probabilities of success are much more random in Black Hack than in classic D&D games.

  • One of the big issues that people had with the first edition of the Black Hack is that Warriors get one attack per level per turn. So when it’s an 8th level Warrior’s turn, its’ time for all the other players to hit the bathroom or grab another beer because it could take a while. Second edition makes the Warrior’s turn more manageable by giving them one “damage die” per level. They can choose to use all those damage dice against one target, or distribute them among a few different targets. That makes that class a bit more tenable, because they don’t have to roll one attack per level, just an attack for each different target. It’s an improvement, but it contributes to the feeling that the characters being too powerful and the Warrior could still end up making a lot of attack rolls on their turn.

  • I’m just not into the basic combat mechanic, which uses the difference between the PC’s level and the opponent’s HD as a modifier. It’s not a new mechanic, but, like the armor dice pool, I just find it a little cumbersome.

  • Usage dice for tracking durations of spells is a little confusing.

  • The hardcover doesn’t include the PDF, so unless you shell out the price of both, you won’t be able to print out things like the die-drop tables.

Conclusion

If I run Black Hack again, I’ll probably run the first edition instead of the second edition. But I’ll definitely keep the second edition hardcover handy for the tables. But I might also either do some hacking or switch to another game. I was skeptical at first, but I really like Into the Odd’s combat system: you don’t roll to hit, you only roll damage. Armor deflects some of that damage. It’s quick and easy. I might try to use it with Black Hack. I should also give GLOG a look.

For longer-term play, I’ll be looking elsewhere. Maybe GLOG will work. But I’m also interested in Whitehack, which has a nice and simple combat mechanic and a more level-based progression for combat and saves. But I’m not sold on the freeform magic system because, as mentioned, a lot of modules assume access to specific spells. There are plenty of modern OSR-ish games I’d like to check out as well, like Shadow of the Demon Lord, King of Dungeons, Five Torches Deep, and Into the Unknown. In the more immediate future, I’m probably more likely to run Homebrew World or _. It’s how I generally like to play and after a couple years of mostly playing 5E, GURPS, and Delta Green, I’m itching to get some less traditional games back to the table.