I’m attempting to port the flavor of classic Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay over to the The Black Hack, with a very specific mission: to enable it to make The Enemy Within campaign sing. As much as I like the vibe of old school WFRP, I’m not at a place where I want the mechanical weight that goes with it.
In my own mind I’ve started to think of this hybrid beast I’m creating as The Hammer Hack.
Here are the previous related posts:
• No Prep? No Problem. Running The Black Hack on a Wing and a Prayer
• Preparing The Enemy Within campaign: Command-Shift-4, The Black Hack, & the Tech Stack
To be clear, I’m not trying to turn TBH into a WFRP emulator. Some details will be lost, but with that loss, there’ll be a corresponding gain in flexibility. We should be able to play light on our feet, and to put the Enemy Within plot right at the center of the action. (And remember, my hack doesn’t need to be able to tell all WFRP stories, just one!)
Sometimes the inspiration for this hack comes out of WFRP mechanics, sometimes it’s from the descriptive language (the “fluff” that some people so casually dismiss), and sometimes it comes from the places where I can see the two games almost, but not quite, touching.
Since my work isn’t for publication, I have the latitude to reference skill tables and career paths from the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st edition core book. If you don’t have that excellent tome already, then you can head over to Bundle of Holding where they have, as of this writing, a wonderful WFRP Bundle up for your delectation. In any case, when I reference a particular table, I’ll be sure to point it out in the text. I’ll do the same for The Black Hack (2nd edition).
Before we begin, I want to say that while I’ve worked hard on this, anything you see below is subject to change. This is still very much a work in progress. (In some ways I suspect it will stay a work in progress until I’ve taken my group all the way through Shadows over Bögenhafen, which I’m preparing as I work on this.)
If the approach I’m taking makes sense to you, but you think I’m making a wrong turn somewhere, let me know. Offer a suggestion or two. This is my baby, though, so please don’t take it personally if I don’t see it the way you do. It turns out reasonable people can disagree! Comments that won’t be helpful are of the “you should have used X system instead” or “this other person did it better” variety. You may well be right, but this is my first attempt at a (large) game hack, and I need to see it through on my own terms.
Oh, and one more thing… while I don’t want to create giant exploits, I’m not going to tear my hair out over balance. As long nothing breaks the game, I’m good!
The Big Skill Table
By far the heaviest lift of the Hammer Hack is going to be porting the 130+ skills I’ve decided to bring over from WFRP (pg. 45). I’m about a quarter of the way done, and I’m happy with the results so far. The Black Hack’s main toggle for Tests/Skill Checks is Advantage/Disadvantage.
My task then becomes deciding how to bring each skill into TBH within that framework. Does the skill allow you to do something others can’t, or does it make you better at a common activity (granting Advantage), or is it more like a Talent or Stunt? I’ll get into a more elaborate description below, but that’s the view from 10,000 ft.
I’ll share the big skill table in all its glory when it’s complete and in reasonable shape. (Currently it’s the front runner for next week’s post.)
But even with the skill table still under construction, there’s plenty to talk about this week…
3d6 and Pray
I see no need to depart from the first few steps of character creation as presented in The Black Hack (pg. 16). This involves rolling straight 3d6 in order for all Stats, and then swapping two Stats if desired. (This usually involves positioning your highest Stat for whatever your Class leans on most.)
Next, pick a Class/Basic Career. For Hammer Hack purposes here’s how we meld TBH Classes with WFRP Basic Careers: Warrior maps to Warrior, Ranger to Ranger, and Rogue to Thief. Pretty simple so far! The casters are a little trickier. TBH’s Wizard and Cleric are both versions of the Academic Basic Career. (This will all be unpacked more below.) To be clear, picking a TBH Class ties the character into the parallel WFRP Basic Career.
Now we take a detour into some WFRP-flavoured (see what I did there) character creation…
(I’m less and less fond all the time of the term “race” as a default in gaming, especially when what is meant is something closer to species or people… or any of a number of other terms I’ve seen knocked around. Anyway, that’s a whole other topic.)
Choose a race. In WFRP, you can play a Dwarf, Halfling, Human, or Wood Elf. The abilities and talents below are a blend of WFRP’s racial abilities (pg. 14-15) mandatory skills (pg. 16-17), and an effort to create some balance across the playable folk.
(Note: all characters speak Old Worlder in addition to any languages provided below.) When you play a Dwarf, Halfling, or Wood Elf, you are encouraged to invent culture and folkways where they don’t conflict with key module content.
Speak: Khazalid (Dwarfish)
Night Vision: 30 yards
Special: Hatred for Goblins, Orcs and Hobgoblins. Deep dislike of Elves. You are Hardy. Make any Out of Action roll with Advantage. Your people make their living in the depths of the earth. Choose the Mining, Smithing, or Metallurgy skill for your character.
Night Vision: 20 yards
Special: You are small! Roll with Advantage when that’s useful, and with Disadvantage when it isn’t. You come from a culture that respects food. Take the Cook skill. You grew up out-of-doors. Choose the Herb Lore, Specialist Weapon – Sling, or Silent Move Rural skill for your character.
Special: Somehow humans always manage to get ahead in the Empire. Re-roll any one die per session. Humans are also Versatile. Add a skill to your character by rolling once on the Basic Career skill table (WFRP, pg. 17) for your Basic Career type. (Re-roll duplicates, even if they occur later in character generation).
Speak: Eltharin (Elvish)
Night Vision: 30 yards
Special: You are Fearless. You roll with Advantage whenever you make an Attribute Test to resist Panic. Elves also have Excellent Vision (see skill list). Your culture values performance; choose the Dance, Musicianship, or Sing skill for your character.
In any particular scene, your race/species may give you fictional positioning that helps or hurts you immensely.
TBH doesn’t do alignment. It would be easy enough to hack it in, but it doesn’t seem fundamental to Enemy Within, at least not that I can tell yet. If it comes up during play, we will just adjudicate it in the moment… “Hunh, well, what do you think, seems like Maximinius Thrax is more Chaotic than anything, right?” [YMMV, but this will work just fine in my group.]
WFRP’s Basic Careers map onto TBH Classes almost seamlessly. (Refer to WHFRP, pg. 18; TBH, pg. 18-24; and Class Hack, pg. 17, for The Ranger)
|Ranger||Ranger (from Class Hack)|
Once a Basic Career/Class is chosen, then the next step is to pepper in a random skill, or two, from the character’s “pre-career” past. After boiling down some WFRP procedures, here’s how it works: each character rolls once on the skill chart for their Basic Career found on WFRP, pg. 17. (Wood elves get an additional roll due to their exceptional longevity.) Note: each Skill Chart has a column for race.
Example: Chandra the Rogue/Thief happens to be a Wood Elf, so she gets two rolls on the Rogue Chart under the Elf column. She rolls 16 (Bribery) and 61 (Ride). Perhaps she had a brief career as a horse thief?
Basic Career/TBH Class
Black Hack classes provide light builds of the familiar fantasy character types. Bringing in the career structure from WFRP adds versatility and capability to these characters.
Characters will get everything that appears on the TBH character sheet for their Class: equipment, proficiencies, skills, etc.. Many TBH abilities can be mapped as WFRP skills from the Big Skill List. For example, the Ranger’s ability to “Move silently and Unseen” becomes Silent Move Rural. Abilities with longer descriptions (like the Warrior’s Death Dealer) will get a special block on the character sheet.
Also, characters begin the Hammer Hack with the maximum number of hit points for their character type. This is partly for survivability (a Wizard with 1 HP is not going to last long), and partly because of how I’m going to handle level advancement. (I’ll discuss that in a later post.)
WFRP Careers and the Free Advance
The career advancement structure in WFRP seems a fundamental part not just of the game, but also of the setting. (The careers take up a surprising amount of core book real estate.) Therefore I will be following WFRP’s career advancement structure and using that material for the Hammer Hack.
At this point in character creation, the Ranger, Rogue, and Warrior roll randomly on their Basic Career charts (WFRP, pg. 18) to get their initial careers. (If it helps, think of these as sub-careers under the Basic Careers). To sync up with existing WFRP lore, the Cleric must have the Academic/Initiate “sub-career.” The Wizard may request a career from the Academic Basic Career chart (again, pg. 18) that makes sense and appeals to the player, or roll randomly (result subject to GM approval).
These sub-careers come with “trappings” (i.e. more equipment), which should be recorded with other starting items. (Incidentally, some of the trappings are hilarious. The Rat-catcher gets a “small, but vicious, dog,” and the Jailer has fleas.)
These sub-careers (WFRP, pg. 21-43) also come with a list of skills, and other abilities. Some of these are randomly determined, while others come as part of the package. Instead of tacking on a novel skill system, we use TBH’s native method for handling Attribute Tests (TBH, pg. 6-7) to abstract these skills in 4 different ways:
- As proficiencies that extend your character’s abilities. Let’s look at the skill Read/Write, for example. In a world where education is rare, you know how to read and write fluently. WFRP is a world of claims, contracts, and forgeries; the ability to understand language is a big deal. You know how to read when many of your companions don’t. How honest you are with your fellows is up to you!
- As professional or area knowledge that allows you to make an Attribute Test with one of TBH’s Stats (TBH, pg. 16) when other characters cannot. The Boatman career gets a skill called River Lore. Whenever the character wants to dredge up something about life on the waterways, they can make an Int Test. A success gives the appropriate bit of information. (Characters without River Lore would have no chance at this.) The same is true of professional skills like Smithing, Mining, and Surgery. In other words, there’s no such thing as an “amateur” Surgeon.
- As a skill improvement, a way to get Advantage on rolls for “common” situations. For example, many of the careers have a skill called Consume Alcohol. It goes without saying that lots of drinking goes on in the Old World. To show that the character with this skill is a particularly experienced drinker, they may roll with Advantage to resist the effects of alcohol, win drinking contests, etc.
- As a once per session stunt or talent. Several careers come with combat-oriented maneuvers. Here’s the list for the Pit Fighter: Disarm, Dodge Blow, Strike Mighty Blow, and Strike to Injure. These can be used at the rate of once per session/per career. They will all be translated into a simple format that meshes with TBH’s mechanics: Disarm, Advantage when using a melee attack to disarm a foe; Dodge Blow, Advantage when making a defense roll in melee combat; Strike Mighty Blow, add 1d6 damage to a successful attack; Strike to Injure, on a successful attack the attacker may injure the opponent in a way that reduces their ability to fight. If you’ve earned these stunts more than once, usually thanks to career advancement, then you can perform them the number of times you have them on your character sheet per session.
If defining combat abilities as one-use “stunts” seems overly restrictive, consider the following… Our sessions will probably be shorter due to online play. Once per session is not such a huge limitation if you’re doing one (or at most two) stand up fights in that time. Also, this is simply not a fight first game. Making the combat skills into limited use stunts leans into a “think first, fight last” aesthetic; I feel this is baked into the Enemy Within saga. Also, some of these abilities would simply be too powerful otherwise. Giving the Warrior the ability to Defend with Advantage (Dodge Blow) all the time would quickly turn them into an unstoppable killing machine.
This is not a power fantasy; it’s a game of hard won and costly victories.
Fate points allow to you cheat death. You spend one Fate point any time your character would die. Your pool of Fate points never regenerates under normal circumstances. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.
Here’s how Fate points are determined in the Hammer Hack. Each player adds up all of the stats for their character. The character with the lowest stat total gets 5 Fate points. The next lowest total gets 4 Fate points… and so forth. If you’ve got great Stats you’ve already been blessed… if you’re a hopeless wretch, then Fate smiles on you, at least until run out of points to spend. No matter how many characters there are in the game, no one starts with less than 2 Fate points.
Creating a character’s Background happens relatively early in the TBH process, but in the Hammer Hack it’s moved to the end. Why? In TBH, if you’re playing the game as written, The Background is world-building material, and it provides seeds for future stories. It makes sense that it’s part of the foundational thinking about the character. But embracing The Enemy Within means the characters need to fit into an existing setting, not define it. I’m still studying Shadows over Bögenhafen, but my initial impulse is to say that none of the characters should be from the towns they’ll be investigating. (I’ll definitely be looking to the module pregens for guidance in that regard.)
In any case the Background is an excellent piece of TBH technology I’m keen to hold onto:
Backgrounds are significant times in a Character’s past life that give them Advantages in their current exploits. They can represent all manner of experiences, skills and moments in a Character’s past – helping define who they were before their current adventures, and what type of Actions they are good at now. (TBH, pg. 17)
This is the cool part. Background gets tied into play both mechanically and narratively:
Once per session, a Player may tell the GM that their Character is using a Background to aid them in making an Attribute Test. The Player should give a convincing narrative explanation as to how their Character’s Background relates to the current Action, and provide some kind of useful exposition about the Character’s story. (TBH, pg. 15)
Background serves the same function as Inspiration in 5E, but with a better (IMHO) implementation.
Process Overview – Hammer Hack Character Creation
- Roll up TBH Character
- Pick TBH Class (also determines WFRP Basic Career)
- Pick Race (add abilities)
- Assign and apply Class/Basic Career
- Record TBH skills, equipment, abilities, etc.
- Maximize HP
- Determine Initial Skill(s)
- Free Advance (roll Career, apply skills & trappings)
- Compute Fate points
- Create Character Background
And that’s it!
Obviously the Big Skill List is going to be the heart of the hack. I like that once those skills are on the character sheets, the skill list will just drift into the background until needed again.
The other night my buddy Brian and I playtested these rules. We built a Warrior and advanced him to third level. Brian, who has the most WFRP experience in our group, said that the hack was lean, but still preserved that Warhammer feeling.
Playtesting also showed me that the Initial Skill piece was important. I’d eliminated it, not realizing that it’s the only way to access some of the more obscure and colorful skills. So, we put it back in.
Character Sheets vs. Character Keepers
I’m starting to realize I’ll need to build a custom character sheet to support all the additional content from the hack. Since it’s not in my skill set to build it in Roll20, that means putting something together in Google Sheets. My “friends who know” are already encouraging me to jump to a character keeper, which I hadn’t even heard of until a couple of weeks ago.
A keeper is a one sheet resource where all of the characters are kept for the players and the GM. Players can see each other’s status/conditions/abilities more easily, and the GM can get an overview of remaining health/resources/etc. Here’s a character keeper developed for The Black Hack by (probably) Jason Cordova.
My intention is to have the Big Skill List ready next week, along with some notes about my thinking here and there. I’ll include the link to the Google Sheet, so it’ll always be the most current version.
As I’ve been working on character creation, it’s occurring to me that I should also discuss the small but significant rules hacks I’m planning for the TBH engine. The biggest will involve leveling/career advancement. Also, I’m shooting for a little grittier game than TBH provides at higher levels, so I’ll also be toning down the Warrior/Ranger’s Death Dealer move.
Thanks for taking the time to look at these posts! Having an interested audience and a weekly deadline definitely helps me stay moving in the right direction. And I’m sure one or two of you will have great ideas to make this even better, so thanks in advance for that!