Preparing the Enemy Within Campaign: Heart of the Hack (The WFRP Skill List in The Black Hack)

What is this?

I’m attempting to port the flavor of classic Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay over to the The Black Hack, with a very specific mission: to play the classic Enemy Within campaign in a rules light system. As much as I like the vibe of old school WFRP, I’m not in a place where I want the mechanical weight that goes with it.

In my daydreams I call this 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
Preparing the Enemy Within Campaign: Nuts & Bolts of WFRP Character Creation in The Black Hack

Updates

I’m still a long way from actually getting this to the table, but I had a productive week.

Our current GM couldn’t play over the weekend, so I ran a “vanilla” Black Hack session for my buddies. It’s always useful to get more engagement with a system you’re trying to hack.

I’ve been working on building a Hammer Hack character sheet in Google Sheets, so we used those for the TBH characters. It had more features than we needed, but it worked well enough. And actually using it gave me the idea for a couple of tweaks. It always amazes me how much more clearly I can see the untidy bits when I put something I’ve made in front of other people.

Later in the weekend my buddy Brian and I attempted to a make a Wizard with the character creation rules I posted last week… we started with a Black Hack Wizard in the Herbalist career. With enough experience the character would probably have ended up being a Surgeon/Wizard, which is a little odd. Realizing we’d built Dr. Strange gave me a good laugh. It’s got me thinking about how some of the the Academic career paths are going to mesh (and not mesh) with the idea of a TBH Wizard. Food for thought.

Mad Skills

My main focus this week has been working out how to express the WFRP skills in a form that’s usable in TBH. The Warhammer skills turn out to be a mixed bag of proficiencies, abilities, trades, languages, etc., with a rather bad impulse control problem thrown in for good measure.

I’m happy to say that I’m feeling good about the work here! It’s been time consuming, but it’s all hanging together so far. Of course I may want to tweak things as I go along, or as we play, but as a first draft I can live with it.

Thinking about the skills as a hierarchy certainly helped. As I suggested last week, there are enhancing skills that make you better at doing things anyone could do, and knowledge/trade skills that open up special areas of expertise. My current thinking is that the enhancing skills should grant Advantage. Take this example… anyone can *try* to hide or sneak with a simple DEX Test, but the Concealment and Silent Move skills give you Advantage and make you much better at it than other characters.

Skills that open up whole new avenues typically come in two flavors: they either state the area of knowledge and give a “flat” roll (no Advantage), or they grant an ability, and only prompt a Test in difficult circumstances. Most of the “construction” skills (Boat Building, Engineer, etc.) are flat rolls, but you can gain Advantage with good help/tools/preparation. Implicit in my skill system is the ability to gain Advantage by doing some footwork. Want to get Advantage with a knowledge-based skill? Find a library or a talkative expert. Want to roll one of the performance skills with Advantage? Find a good venue with proper lighting and comfortable seats.

In general I like this idea of the skills encouraging players to pursue Advantage. It rewards strategic thinking and reinforces teamwork. Sure you can stand in the town square and decry the Mayor’s edict with Public Speaking… and maybe you’ll roll really well. But… what if you’ve spread a little coin around first, or if you’ve got a plant or two in the audience (you know the Mayor does!), or if your friend warms up the crowd with some Clown work.

I want the skill system to help create story by encouraging the players to plan, and then for that to come full circle by rewarding the players with better outcomes for doing that work. Pursue Advantage, create story, get mechanical benefits of Advantage. I like that reward cycle… a lot.

SHOW ME THE MONEY!!!

Okay, thank you for indulging my ramblings. Here’s what you’ve been waiting for… the link to The Big Skill List. You should have view access through that link in perpetuity. If you ever want to know if I’ve tweaked anything you can always check back there.

Like everything about this hack, it won’t be set in stone for awhile. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t think I’ll feel completely comfortable with it until I’ve gone through a cycle of play that takes my group from character creation all the way through finishing Shadows over Bögenhafen.

Design Notes

On the surface this is so simple, right? I’m just translating bits from an old school system with a funky, sometimes ad hoc feel, to a much sleeker game. But there’s a fine balance between curating for a particular kind of play, and getting bogged down in too much detail.

I went in with simplicity as my over-arching design goal, but things inevitably got more complicated. Certain skills just demanded to be a little more fiddly, or they had rough edges that I wanted to leave on. I found that in some cases I was willing to make a skill a little more powerful if it seemed unlikely to come to the table, and in other cases I struggled with how to keep a listing from sprawling out to paragraph length. (I had to keep a tight rein on Surgery, for example.) And then there’s the sense of balancing the skills against each other. At least Black Hack‘s tremendously simple “three state” system (Advantage/”flat”/Disadvantage) helps simplify this process. You can’t wander too far off course if that’s your only toggle.

Occasionally something clicked right into place. As I was turning over how to interpret Ambidextrous, it jumped into my mind that a straight one-time DEX increase would suffice, along with the fictional positioning of being good with both hands. It looked a little odd at first, but then I realized that along with Very Strong and Very Resilient, there was now a skill to bump up each physical stat.

When I got to Frenzied Attack, I realized that Frenzy needed to be supported not as a skill, but as a condition. WFRP’s Frenzy is a kind of berserk rage where the character fights until the combat is over no matter what the consequences. So, after some tinkering I added Frenzied as a new Hindrance for the Hammer Hack. (It’ll take its place alongside other TBH conditions like Distracted, Paralyzed, Stuck, and Weakened.) It’s also going to be an entry in the Panic table, but I’ll get into that in the next post.

When you look at all these skills closely, patterns emerge. There’s an almost astonishing array of performance skills. As a guy with a theater degree, this warms my heart. It’s next-level that there’s Clown, but also Jest. It’s certainly true to the source material. There’s a big difference between the knockabout silliness of the Fool, and the acidic observations of the Jester. It’s also a delight to see that sometimes these skills (Clown, Juggler, Fire Eater) come with little combat bonuses. I tried like hell to preserve those details.

Interpreting some of the combat-oriented skills as one per session “Stunts” is still working for me, but the real test will be at the table. I also discovered other places where the Stunt mechanic seemed appropriate. Since I’m defining Flee! as a sort of “get out of jail free card,” I thought once per session was plenty. And while we’re talking about Flee!, here’s how it’s defined: On your action leave the current scene, no questions asked. Now, at first glance this might seem overpowered, but I love the potential for some good at-the-table drama. If you’ve got this on your character sheet, then every combat is an exercise in risk tolerance. If you wait too late to bail, then you might be rolling up a new character; leave too early and your pals aren’t going to take it very kindly. And, think about this… if you run away, then wherever you end up, you’ll be very much alone.

<<<INSERT JOKE ABOUT NEEDING A BIGGER BOAT>>>

I’ve got a long way to go before this is the Hammer Hack of my dreams.

Every time I think, “Oh, this is the meat of it,” something else looms on the horizon. The deeper I go the more I realize that I’m going to have to engage with the WFRP magic system. It’s a painful discovery, but I don’t think Magic Missile is going to cut it. At the very least, I suspect I’m going to need to import the spell list and explore using TBH’s spell write-ups as a framework.

To be honest with you, magic may need to be a 2.0 build. This already feels like a big project even without going down that path. If I had to guess I suspect bringing WFRP spells into TBH is at least a two week commitment, and that’s if it all goes smoothly! At some point I’m going to need the release of actually playing this thing to keep me going.

I guess we’ll see what wins out, the feeling that I need to get the beast up on its feet, or the feeling that it won’t be “real” until I tackle magic…

Up Next!

I’ll admit it, I’m feeling the burn. Thankfully I already have some notes together about TBH rule hacks. I’m hoping to get those refined and written up in the next post. Suffice it to say that none of the core principles of the game will go away, because then what’s the point! In some cases I’m streamlining things a bit, and there’s a place where I think the TBH nomenclature is confusing. (If I’m already hacking, I might as well hack for clarity and simplicity where I can.)

Also, I’ve definitely learned a thing or two by play-testing the character creation rules, and by looking more closely at the Black Hack characters. In some cases this feeds back into how I’m thinking of altering the rules. And in other cases there are things that obviously need to be changed. There’s a bunch of cool implied setting on the TBH sheets that sometimes clashes with the WFRP feel, so those bits and tables will have to be altered or eliminated. (And yeah, that’s probably its own post.)

In any case, I like the idea of adapting some of the Black Hack‘s random tables to give them that Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay “flavour.” Who knows, maybe I’ll take a whack at remaking the TBH Magical Side Effects chart in the next couple of weeks. That would be a blast.

Who knows? I’m starting to get a little punchy… so stay tuned!

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