Wednesday, 11 May 2016

The Black Hack CYBER-HACKED

There are all sorts of reasons why the cyberpunk genre tends to generate complicated games, and why the most popular RPG in the genre is a byword for unnecessary, brain-smashing complexity (here's looking at you, Shadowrun!). Even Cyberpunk 2020 requires hours and hours and hours to generate characters, adding up all the finicky skill-points. What rules-lite genre games there are tend to be FATE-y things like Tech-Noir: great game, but I honestly prefer more traditional rules-systems.

Cyberpunk attracts people into technology and detailed future speculation (also people into drug literature and JG Ballard and weird intersections between fashion and art and the military industrial complex, but they're unfortunately less represented in the gaming culture...). There's a drive there towards "accurate," detailed technical simulation, with lots of dice modifiers and reliability stats and ammunition counts. I confess I like that stuff. On the other hand I hate maths and can't remember equations for shit, which ruins most cyberpunk rules systems for me. 

I've been thinking about - even drafting - D&D derived rules ideas for cyberpunk for awhile now. D&D sits at an intersection between simplicity, technical detail and fast play. That last part is less because of any inherent virtue of the rules and more because everybody knows the system. Even I know the system (I can only retain 1.5 rules systems at a time. 0.75 of those systems will always be my beloved Cyberpunk 2020. Right now the other 0.75% of my rules retention capacity is taken up with D&D 5E).

So, I was genuinely excited to hear about Mike Evans' new old school D&D hack cyberpunk game, not least because I only heard about it about a week before it came out.


Fittingly, it took several attempts to actually buy the game because my bank interpreted a £1.43 payment to DrivethruRPG as evidence my account had been hacked (exactly how many purchases do I have to make from that place in one week before it realises I'm a regular customer?).

...£1.43? Yeah. The Black Hack Cyber Hacked is a complete game including bestiary and hacking rules and the Open Game License all in 21 pages, has no art except what you see on the cover above and has been testing my assumptions about exactly how much mechanical detail you need to represent the genre all evening.


RULES

TBHCH! seems to hew pretty closely to David Black's original The Black Hack old school fantasy game (you don't need it to play). TBH has like, eight rules and all of them are inspired. It's a mix of bare-minimum bare-essentials old school D&D mixed with the best bits of D&D 5E and condensed into about four pages, along with a few original additions (original to me, anyway). I gather there's some Dungeon World in there, but I confess I wouldn't know. There's a class system (in the loosest possible way) and a level system (even looser). The DM barely rolls a dice; instead players test to resist attacks on themselves. I'm not really a fan of opposed dice rolling systems, largely because I don't think they work very well in G+ hangouts, but Shadowrun's enormous dice pools have probably tainted my opinions on the subject. 
Advantage/Disadvantage and 5E's attribute based save system serve to keep character sheets short. Damage is based on a character's class and HP rather than their specific weapon, which keeps things simple but arguably isn't thematic to the genre. Her relationship to technology should be central to a cyberpunk character's place in the world, and I'm not sure the rules really reflect that. Maybe I've fallen into the same kind of gun-trance that creates sourcebooks like CP2020: Blackhand's Street Weapons, and me being a pinko an'all...

Innovations include an interesting ablative armour system and a simple "out of action" table that provides consequences for being dropped below 0HP without being too overtly damaging (most of the time). What really stands out is the usage dice, a one paragraph/one short table mechanism that turns resource management from an irritating bookkeeping chore into (what I suspect) will be a source of genuine tension. I'm nicking it for my regular 5E games. I'm nicking it for every game I ever run including "ammunition." Furthermore, TBHCH! uses it to fantastic effect in the hacking rules. It's worth the $2 cost of entry. It would have been worth at least $7, maybe even $12!

So I'm overusing the word 'inspired' this post. The hacking rules are inspired. It's a kind of randomly generated version of the hacking system in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, spilling dice all-over the table to create a varied web of security gates and traps the hacker must pass or bypass. Net pirates of Vornheim! The usage dice provides a fast moving countdown, strategic choice and escalating drama. If I were to run it, I'd probably expand it a bit to include more than one target point. Something to playtest, anyway.

...it probably wouldn't work as well in hangout games as at a real table (which is a problem for me), but that's what MS Paint is for.

One thing I'd like to have seen is more emphasis on fitting hacking into the environment around the party. While hacking runs in the same turn sequence as ordinary combat, as written it seems more about breaking into big mainframes and databases than influencing the "dungeon" environment the party are moving through. I'd love to see these rules expanded a bit (something I'm trying to avoid suggesting throughout this review!).

Speaking of which, it briefly occurred to me to gripe about additional rules I would have preferred to see, but every time I went to write something down I had a vision of the collective OSR community telling me to "make it up, that's the whole point!" It's that kind of game. I'd be betraying the spirit of it by wanting to add more.

So I won't. Well, maybe some vehicle examples in the bestiary would have been nice (even if a tank is probably just an HD11/AP10 monster?). Maybe a sentence about hacking into enemy drones.

Really, I spent half this evening trying to dislike this game for being too rules-lite for my taste, and failing. Everything is so elegant (occasionally obscured by clumsy prose, whatever).

SETTING AND CHARACTER

This is quite possibly the first time I've ever been more impressed by the rules of a game than the setting (also possibly the first time I've ever managed to read the complete rules of a game at all, let alone in one sitting...). Firstly, there isn't one - there isn't meant to be one, it's a toy-box. 

The classes are neat, simple, very stereotypical. The equipment section is strictly gutterpunk, just like the implied setting. This is very much a game for running the opening 30 pages of Neuromancer or The Wire with pink mohawks or CSI: Mega City One. I actually can't think of a game I'd rather run Judge Dredd with - it has completely the right feel for 2000AD cyberpunk stories. It's the kind of game where characters wear leather jackets and run around like Emilio Estevez in Repo Man.

TBHCH! doesn't have the kind of imagination that makes Stars Without Number's equipment sections so exciting to read. The cyberware section contains the old classics; the psychic powers list is just a workaday list of old D&D spells. The combat and damage rules are really too simple to allow much variety in the arsenal. I can't really recommend buying this as a source of setting, equipment or character inspiration (buy it for the hacking and the usage dice and because it costs $2 and we need more rules-lite cyberpunk games!). The paragraph of drug rules is neat. Umm, not much more to say...

I can't judge the game for the above because I don't really think it was trying to be anything other than a very trad-punk game, a base for others to mess about with and expand on. I'd love to see Evans follow it up with some kind of personal setting book, art and all. Just look at his blog and imagine how great it could be (hint hint nudge nudge bribe bribe).

I suspect a lot of my regular players will be put off playing this by the lack of character options. Levelling up is basically a matter of getting better attributes (through a fairly generous random system). There are no real choices to be made along the way, once you've picked from (the wide variety of) classes. All of a class's abilities and rules fit onto one page (with lots of line spaces and a large font). Characters in the old Necromunda wargame had more varied and characterful alternatives to choose from once the campaign started. This is all randomly generated, all super simple, very much an intentional design choice. Like, it's an Old School Renaissance game. Like, you know what you're getting. 

Similarly, the bestiary is a list of all the usual suspects listed down a table on one page. Being able to fit a monster into a single line of a table makes me sad inside, but I understand the desire for brevity. See "betraying the spirit of it by wanting to add more" above. I worry that there isn't enough room in a system where monsters are mechanically defined by a single HD value which also determines their damage to really encourage diverse, engaging combats with diverse, engaging opponents. No doubt hundreds of blog posts have been written arguing about this subject, and I'm not sure I have a firm opinion. This isn't the place to form one, anyway. 

I wouldn't use this to run Ghost in the Shell. The lack of technical details and character diversity would detract from the setting. The Warriors, though, or Escape from New York, or Judge Dredd - anything "pink mohawk" and gutter-smelling. Anything where fights are quick and dirty and mostly happen in back alleys, anything where grit and determination matter more than hi-tech equipment, anything where the DM intends to batter her players with a crowbar (and in the game). 

I can't wait to run a campaigns with this. I think I can justify asking people to buy the PDF before we start. Hell, I can buy it for them.

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