It was one of the those weeks.
There was the bedbug scare. (Just a scare.) The fender bender. The COVID tantrum. But what the hell am I telling you for? You’re alive in 2020, so you know the drill.
When our regular GM needed to travel out of town for work, I was sure to build some redundancy into our back-up plan. I spent a little time going through The Black Hack early in the week. Not a ton, mind you. Oh, no. If you have a kid to look after, focusing on anything for longer than 30 minutes is a Before Times thing.
I did my best to give TBH the grad school skim. I made a point to read all the player facing-stuff, scratched my head a little about the armor rules, and scanned the GM section. I was pleased to notice that there was a ton of stuff back there to support improvised play, even an inciting incident generator. (More games need that piece of tech!)
By mid-week it became clear that someone else in the group was going to run, so I stopped prepping. But of course, it being 2020, you know what happened. The morning of the game our backup DM got sick, and another of our players decided to work on their taxes. So that left me and my buddy, Zach.
Friends, I’ll tell you, gaming is the one thing I still actually look forward to doing each week. So, I didn’t even hesitate. Prep or no prep, I picked up my iPad, loaded The Black Hack, and leapt into the unknown…
Okay, yes, if you’ve been following the blog, then you know “the unknown” is a bit of artistic license. I’ve played a lot of Mecha Hack this summer with my wife and son, so I know the basic principles of The Black Hack. Things like Roll Low and the Usage Die. And, perhaps most importantly, the guiding idea that the GM doesn’t set difficulty levels. It’s player rolls under stat all the way down. (My 100% favorite thing about TBH!)
Equipment as Story
Since we were doing this without the benefit of Roll20 or the like, Zach printed out a character sheet at his place, and we jumped in to rolling up those stats. (We used our barebones tech stack for this run: Discord and Roll For Your Party.)
Zach was amused to discover that you roll straight 3d6 stats, and they aren’t even an array. You have to assign each stat as the roll falls. You can swap a couple of your stats, but that’s it. TBH has the old-time religion in its bones! Sensibly, Zach picked the Warrior to get to know the system. You get a couple of different choices for the Warrior’s equipment. And Zach chose (B.) the load out with the two-handed weapon, and, as we soon discovered, the kernel of his character.
The last item mentioned in his equipment list was a Book of Grudges. We both chuckled about that, and I might have said something like, “Well, that could be your whole character right there.” Zach picked up that ball and ran with it. Soon he was musing on why his character would have a book full of people he needed to kill, and whose names would be in it. In just a couple of minutes he was done with his Background sentence, another convention of TBH:
“My village was destroyed by the Greenlegs, and ever since then I’ve been a one-man army of vengeance.”
We decided the Greenlegs were somebody’s band of “knights” that forced people to bend the knee or suffer the consequences. Garon, Zach’s character, somehow escaped the fate of his village. Was he left for dead, a coward, or away on a journey when it all went bad? At this point we didn’t know, but we had a heck of a place to start. And it all sprang out of that one bit of evocative fiction on the character sheet.
Gift Horses and Table Results
In Graham Walmsley’s excellent little book, Play Unsafe, he talks about making the clear choice sometimes, the choice that’s the obvious next step. That’s what I did here. We’ve got a guy on a mission of vengeance, let’s just DO THAT.
I had Zach roll a d6. It came up a one. “Okay, that’s how many names you’ve crossed off your list.” Again, Zach was excellent. “Right, I’ve gone from stewing over it, thinking about it, to actually doing it. I’m committed now.”
It was great that we were on the same page… but I still had a session to run. What, exactly, were we going to do??? I dimly remembered that TBH had a list of cold open options, but it took me a minute to hunt them up. I found what I was looking for, a table called Inciting Incidents. A couple of rolls later and I had the following combo: Unconscious in an oubliette & A lying wind whispers the way out.
The first half is perfect. Garon is new to this whole murder-vengeance thing, so he’s gotten in over his head. He went after someone too far up the list, and got his ass kicked. Now he’s chained on a marble slab with a butchered cow for company. The “lying wind” I interpreted more liberally. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.
We join Garon just as he drifts back into consciousness…
A voice whispers to him, give up, give in, give in to your despair, embrace your death. He can’t tell where it’s coming from, which doesn’t exactly cheer him up. He can also hear some guards outside the slaughterhouse laughing and playing grabass. He tries the chains (STR roll with Disadvantage), but he can’t break them. Failing a follow-up DEX roll reveals he’s made a little too much noise.
A tread on the stair lets Garon know he’ll soon have company. Zach and I were both thinking of the old “prisoner strangles guard with his own chains” routine, but it was hitting me as obvious and tired, so I turned to another TBH chart, NPC Intentions, and came up with Confess their feelings.
Now I’m rubbing my hands together. On a whim I roll for one more random result on the NPC Clothing/Attire table. I’m rewarded with Rough and hand-stitched. Ooooo! I like this. These Greenlegs are supposed to be the shock troops for some feudal lord… what’s this poor bastard wearing homespun all about?
So, my guard, now named Kerber, comes in, and is borderline apologetic…
“My family saved up so that I could afford the fee to join the Greenlegs, and the pay is good, but I don’t like a lot of things we do. We hurt people. And the others always make fun of me for my uniform. Mother’s eyes aren’t so good anymore, but she did the best she could.”
Garon had a nice reply, “Well, buddy, if you don’t like it, I’m on kind of a mission here. If you want to join up with me…” I had Zach roll a Charisma check, and boom, critical success! The dice love good story.
Kerber looks up the stairs with hate in his eyes, turns back to Garon and quietly starts freeing him. He picks up the copper coin down by Garon’s feet. That’s what’s been whispering awful things to him. I’m thinking it’s something put there to break Garon’s spirit. In my own mind it’s now called the Bad Penny. Kerber produces a pouch, apparently made from a human scalp with wisps of hair still attached, and puts the penny inside. This silences it.
The allies creep up the stairs and jump the two remaining guards. It’s a short and nasty fight. Garon manages to get his two-headed battle axe stuck in a tree (crit fail), but then impales the tougher of the guards on the exposed edge. Kerber fights gamely for several rounds, but takes a mortal wound and starts bleeding out in the dust. His opponent takes one look at Garon, and takes off across the fields.
He’s running for the villa in the distance, screaming for help. Garon pursues. And, wait, is that the sound of music coming from the villa? We establish here that Garon’s ultimate target is Lord Plessy, perhaps one of the founders of the Greenlegs, or at least someone high up in the organization. If he can run down this guard, Garon will stalk his villa-owning prey until he can figure out his next move.
But it’s not to be. After a series of unfortunate rolls, the guard makes it out into the open, and Garon has to break off. When the Greenlegs sally out of the villa on horseback, Garon retreats into a murky swamp…
Let’s Get Weird, Rambo
So, The Black Hack definitely has that dark, old school Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay vibe, right? But up to now we’ve had a relatively straightforward vengeance plot. At first I say to Zach, “okay, you find this dry creek bed,” but then I realize it’s time to get a little weird. So I adjust… “No, no, it’s a swamp, a dark dank swamp. There’s something wrong about it, too, something malevolent.”
Garon finds a path through the muck, a causeway of colossal stones running just a few slimy inches below the water. Realizing this is probably the only way that the calvary can come, he digs in for some PsyOps. He looks around for a spot to set up an ambush. At some point he notices the coin is vibrating, “almost purring,” in its creepy little pouch.
Zach: “Yeah, that’s not disturbing, not at all.” So, without saying as much, the coin is connected to this place. Somehow.
Eventually the Greenlegs make their way in. Half a dozen riders creep down the causeway. They mutter about how they shouldn’t be in here, that it’s normally forbidden, etc. By now Garon has found a spot with some dangling vines, and he’s made a little trap. He springs it, and knocks one of the riders off into the water. TBH has a nice little Morale system, so I adapt it for this section… which I came to think of as the Rambo sequence.
The rider who got knocked off ends up lingering for awhile, which is exactly what Garon wants. Divide and conquer. The rider eventually gets curious about the vine that wiped him out, and follows it back towards where Garon is hiding. Better and better! Garon gets ready for the ambush…. I’m thinking, wow he could get his hands on a horse and get out of here… but, no, when he springs at the rider, it’s a critical failure.
So, I say to Zach, “Okay, it’d be fun if what happens here isn’t that you screw up, but that something else comes into the equation, something you weren’t expecting.” Zach nods, “Right, like a carnivorous plant or something.” And that’s really good, so we do that.
At least I know TBH well enough that I don’t waste time looking for a swamp monster in the back. I go straight to the monster creation section. I want a tough, but not too tough, bog flower monster thing. HD2 is fine for a first level adventure, but I want to give it a couple of fitting special abilities. I’m shooting from the hip here, and this is what I come up with…
Bog Murder Flower – HD2
Melee – STR (1 Close) 1d6 dmg
Slippery: Once per battle, when a Character hits the Monster, they are forced to re-roll the Attack.
Striker: Targets must make two Defence Rolls that each only deal half of the Monster’s normal damage.
The Murder Flower thwhapps you with all those vines, which is the Striker component, and the Slippery part is self-evident.
Anyway, while making his move Garon accidentally steps on the submerged head of this thing, and it’s pissed. It boils up out of the water flailing away. Garon manages to position himself so that the thing goes for the rider first. Soon the rider’s buddies are back, and in trying to free him manage to kill him with a crossbow bolt. (Crit fail.) If you’re starting to feel like there were a a lot of crits in both directions in this session… so am I!
A failed Morale roll sends these guys packing. They’ve had enough. They fall back to the edge of the swamp. One of them says, “He’ll never last the night in here anyway.” Garon follows them with the hopes of stealing away during the blackest part of the night…
… but Something has been following him, too.
A Monster of Muck
It’s clear I’m just going with my gut the whole time here, right? We are in the land of pure make’em ups. I’m making choices, and then looking at them like a story someone else is telling. Where is this guy (me) going with all this? Here’s the evidence so far: I’ve got the creepy coin; the causeway that leads somewhere that used to be extremely important; and the fact that this place is off limits to the Greenlegs. There’s approximately one thing that fits… a forgotten temple. And a forgotten temple means a forgotten god.
As Garon lies on his belly at the end of the causeway trying to time out the patrols, he hears something burbling up out of the muck. A wet and throaty voice says, “I think we have the same agenda, you and I… you want lives, and I need souls.” Garon flips over and sees a Horror looming over him. It’s a skeleton articulated by the vines and weeds of the swamp; pink flowers in the eye sockets blink thoughtfully at him.
At this point I have Zach roll on the Panic table. This is a slightly off label use, so I have him roll with Advantage. That way he can at least pick his poison. He chooses: Shock – Cannot perform any Actions that would involve the use of the hands.
That’s perfect. My horror leans in close and gently takes Garon’s axe away. “Fine, fine craftsmanship, and a keen edge, too.” It gives the axe back as nonchalantly as it took it.
When Garon is over his fright, Zach pleases me immensely by having his character haggle with the thing! Garon agrees to bring Lord Plessy back for a sacrifice if the Horror helps him… whatever that looks like.
But the Horror isn’t quite done. It wants an assurance that Garon will return. (Maybe it’s been burned before?)
Zach: “Does this thing give any indication of what it wants?”
Me: “Nope, it’s just sort of vaguely gesturing at your body.”
Me: “So… say yes and find out.”
Zach (as Garon): “Yes.”
With lightning speed The Horror snatches Garon’s tongue out of his mouth and puts it in its own, where it immediately animates.
The Horror gives a little speech about how lonely it’s been as it digs up a huge scoop of swamp goo and forms it into a ball of giant rats. It tells Garon that they should provide an excellent distraction.
The Caligula Interlude
With the rats clearing a path through startled horses and riders, Garon sneaks around to the back of the villa. The partying continues. He breaks in through a back gate to discover a raging bacchanal. Thanks to some comedically bad rolling Garon struggles to extract Lord Plessy from the naked, terrified revelers. His armor gets “used up” taking hits from the late-arriving guard’s crossbows, but he makes it back out to the swamp with Plessy in tow.
Giving the God Its Due
Stumbling with exhaustion, Garon makes it back to the swamp, across the causeway, and into a squat complex of buildings that make up the forgotten temple. The Horror is fluttering with delight; it has Garon dump Lord Plessy into the the muck-filled Rendering Pool. Barely conscious, Plessy pleads for his life.
Garon gets his tongue back and it seems to work just fine.
The Horror asks Garon his name. When he gives it and asks back in return, the Horror says, “I’m sorry, it’s been so long, I don’t remember anymore.” Garon calls it the Forgotten One, and that fits perfectly… so we go with it. (Trust your players, folks!)
Garon is happy to stick around to watch whatever terrors befall Lord Plessy. The Forgotten One breaks it to him gently that his mind could never withstand it. “Not yet,” it whispers. But it thoughtfully adds an enchantment to the Bad Penny that allows Garon to overhear as much of the procedure as he cares to. When Garon ask how he can get in touch with the Forgotten One, it tells him to swallow the Penny… that will put them in contact “until it passes.”
The Forgotten One also explains that he’s given Garon a gift. His tongue now has a special ability to lie and confabulate. (In mechanical terms he’ll get Advantage whenever he tries to deceive someone. I thought about giving Garon a magic item, but what could be cooler, and more thematic for this adventure, than a tricked out tongue.)
I’m enjoying this unlikely buddy flick, but the session has to end sometime. The Forgotten One asks Garon if he’d like to go somewhere else. (The Greenlegs are surely waiting for him to emerge from the swamp.) Since he’s all for going anywhere, he agrees to go down the steps into the mucky catacombs. Trusting the Forgotten One to follow through, he’s startled when the water starts to rise; he’s flushed out of the temple tunnels… only to surface in a sewer.
After climbing out and washing off in a horse trough, Garon discovers he’s in a place called Tar Town. At least nobody in the bar notices he reeks!
I wanted to give Zach the chance to see what leveling up looked like, but he went one better and asked me if we could use the armor repair subsystem, too. So, we did all the end of session/rest things. The armor repair wasn’t that tough to figure out, and the Warrior’s Self Reliant ability came in handy.
Next, Garon leveled up. In The Black Hack you collect “experiences.” They’re something that the character goes through that would change them. Good or bad, it just needs to be memorable. I gave Garon an experience for the mini-saga of getting out of bondage, and a second experience for bringing Lord Plessy to a terrible end.
Leveling up involves sharing the experiences mentioned above with the other players in a social setting. They carouse together, bond, and that’s what triggers the mechanical goodness. Since this was a duet game, Garon regales the hard-working patrons of Bartok’s Barrel of Guts with his sad and eerie tale. In addition to getting more hit points, Garon manages to up his Charisma (that goes nicely with his Liar’s Tongue) and Dexterity (which fits after trying to dodge so many crossbow bolts).
And that’s it!
We wrapped up the session as a couple of very satisfied gamers. All in all we’d spent about 3 hours playing, and it felt like time really well spent.
Over the years I’ve developed a taste for running improvised games… but I try to read the dang rules first! I’m certainly not advocating for slap-dash prep, but there’s definitely space at the table for, hey, let’s wing it. Especially if everyone knows what they’re getting into. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner in this than Zach.
When done in the right sprit, playing this way is liberating. I don’t have the pressure of second guessing myself. Maybe I’ll find those ambush rules, maybe I won’t, but it doesn’t matter. It puts me in the headspace of running a fun game, instead of a technically proficient one.
And while I’m very much a “rules matter” guy, surely we owe it to ourselves to get the maximum enjoyment out of the precious few hours we get to spend playing.
Surely, surely we do.
title image credit: zocalopublicsquare.org