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

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My first rule of hacking is do no harm. Game designer Darren Watts said a smart thing a few months back about system hacks. His advice boiled down to this: be careful not to remove a load-bearing wall. I couldn’t agree more. (I’m a sucker for a good architectural metaphor.)

I won’t name any names, but I’ve definitely been involved in games over the years where people ignored this advice to their peril. A GM of mine once messed around with the skill system in a game and then quit in a huff when the characters advanced too quickly. (What he took out of the game was a barrier to character advancement.)

Everybody is a little prone to this. I’m not saying I’m not going to make mistakes… I’m saying I don’t have the hubris to think that I won’t. This is a big job with lots of moving parts. It’s tricky, and not always easy to get right, but I’m discovering a lot about what make both systems tick.

If you like a game, a deep hack is 100% guaranteed to give you a whole other level of engagement…

Alrighty, let’s get to it. I’ll start with my most radical hack.

Death Dealer ability (Warrior/Ranger)

I’m afraid I have to deal death to TBH’s Death Dealer. Death Dealer is the special reserve of the fighty character types in TBH circles. It allows them to gain a d6 every level to use for the purpose of making attacks.

It’s easiest to explain this by example… by 5th Level, the Warrior has 5 dice in her Death Dealer pool. The Warrior can throw all 5 of those dice at one target with one Attack roll; spread the pool out to five different targets, requiring five separate Attack rolls with a potential to do 1 die of damage to each target; or parcel out the five dice to any number of potential targets in between. And, she gets this pool of dice every round.

At higher levels this does a great job of representing a tornado of steel that allows our Warrior to keep pace with the increased damage potential of higher level casters. It also creates a couple of different problems for the Hammer Hack.

The biggest is that without a uniform way for character classes to do damage, it makes modeling some WFRP skills in TBH extremely difficult. The Cleric, Rogue, and Wizard all come with a damage die for armed combat, and a lower one for unarmed combat. Death Dealer breaks that framework.

Also, TBH comes pre-loaded with the concept that ANY roll can be made with Advantage, including damage dice. Unfortunately, that starts to look untenable when put together with Death Dealer. It’s one thing to give Advantage to a die now and then via skill use, but giving it to a pool to leverage “Advantage damage,” seems too much… especially when the Death Dealer pool refreshes every round.

Additionally, I suspect Death Dealer would make Boss fights too easy at higher levels for my purposes. Facing a demon or other chaos threat, even at higher level, should always be a daunting prospect. Having a character class that can concentrate, say, 7 dice of damage per round (at 7th level) at one target just doesn’t seem like the Warhammer aesthetic any more.

I was hoping to find a way to limit the growth of the die pool, possibly by awarding a new die every other level, but then it occurred to me that Warriors and Rangers don’t come with an unarmed combat die type either. Given that the Hammer Hack should have a “street level” feel, that started to seem like a problem as well. In the end, I concluded that the Death Dealer concept needed to go.

For now I’ve decided to bring Warriors and Rangers into line with how the rest of the character types do damage. Looking at Wizard, Thief, and Cleric for precedent, this is what I came up with for their new damage dice:
Warrior d10/d6 unarmed
Ranger d8/d6 unarmed

Of course, taking away Death Dealer eliminates a signature ability. To compensate, we awarded our playtest Warrior with a “free” instance of the Strike Mighty Blow stunt at 1st level. He’s 3rd level now and in no way feels underpowered. He has a tactically rich array of stunts to bring to each fight. He might not have the raw damage potential of the TBH Warrior, but he’s going to end up with a lot of combat stunts up his sleeve.

New Hindrance: Frenzied

I mentioned last week that when I got to the “skill” Frenzied Attack, it became clear to me that “frenzy” was not a skill, but a WFRP style hindrance or condition. Once I realized this, it didn’t take long to translate Frenzied into Black Hack friendly terms…

Frenzied – a Character can only Attack. All Attack Tests are rolled with Advantage, all Defend Tests are rolled with Disadvantage. The character’s attacks deal +1 damage; and the Character takes -1 damage from all attacks. A Frenzied character never leaves combat or rolls on the Panic Table. Frenzy ends when the current combat ends.

For purposes of the Hammer Hack, Frenized goes alongside the current TBH Hindrances (Distracted, Paralyzed, Stuck, Weakened). Also, as a nod to the WFRP source material, Frenzied earns a place on the TBH Panic table. Adding Frenzied meant taking something out… but it was easy to decide what to get rid of.

This result might be fun at the table, but online it would never work:
Fumble – The Player must perform everything this Turn with their eyes closed.

Instead we have now have this result:
Berserk! – The character becomes Frenzied.

We’ve already had this come up in playtest once, and it was a lot of fun. It happened to the Warrior, and the Cleric did some fancy footwork to get him through the fight in one piece. But I cannot wait to see this happen to a Wizard or Rogue.

Optional Rule: Tide of Battle (aka WFRP’s Winning and Losing)

My friend Ara Winter has done his own very deep dive into first edition WFRP, and pointed me towards the very interesting Winning and Losing section. I’m not sure how many groups use this rule, but it adds tactical depth…

Once the round is over, it is necessary to calculate who is ‘winn­ing’ each combat. In a straight one-to-one fight, the character causing the most damage is deemed to be winning – the other character is said to be losing. A character who is winning a com­bat gains a + 10 attack modifier on the following round only.

This still applies where a single character is fighting more than one opponent. Characters can only be said to be winning if they have caused more damage in total than they have received. Where the amount of damage caused/received is equal (or none) neither side is winning.

Characters winning a combat can be assumed to be forcing their opponent(s) into a defensive posture, being beaten back before a hail of blows. To indicate this, the model representing the losing character is moved away from the winning character by two yards (ie, the model is moved 1″). The opponent has not turned and run away, but has stepped or shuffled back in the face of the onslaught. If it is not possible to move back, then the model re­mains stationary, but is still losing.

Characters who are winning a combat may press the attack by following their retreating opponent, in which case the model(s) is moved at the beginning of the next round (irrespective of turn order) so that both models are still in base-to-base contact again. The winning character does not have to press the combat, but can move away or perform other actions – there is no penalty for this. If the winner decides not to press his attack, the losing character is temporarily thrown off-guard, and may not do anything in the remainder of that round other than turn to meet a fresh attack.” —Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 1st Edition, pg. 119.

This is dead easy to port into Hammer Hack, and I’m going to call it Tide of Battle to help the players visualize what’s happening…

Tide of Battle

At the end of each round of combat, total the damage done by both sides. If the Characters have done more damage, the Tide of Battle is “with” them. They gain a -1 bonus to all their attacks for the next round, and further, their opponents are pushed back 1 map square. (The opponent has not fled, they’ve just been shoved into a defensive position.)

If the characters have done less damage, then the Tide is “against” them, and they take a +1 penalty to all their attack rolls for the next round; they are pushed back 1 map square into a defensive position.

If both sides deal exactly the same amount of damage, then no side has the Tide of Battle for that round.

Combatants that are with the Tide can choose to press the attack by taking a free 1 square move towards their opponent(s). The side that’s with the Tide can also choose to move away or perform other actions. In this second case, enemy combatants are considered thrown off their guard for the round, and may only gather themselves for a fresh attack next round.

Tide of Battle can be applied to single combat, a fight where one faces many, or a traditional skirmish that features two opposing forces.

Note: Tide of Battle represents the ebb and flow of combat, and is figured anew for each round of fighting.

†††

It’s unlikely that we’ll be playing the Hammer Hack with minis, but committing to using Roll20 means (for my group) that there will battle maps and some tactical crunch. Pushing tokens back a square will be no problem, so we’ll definitely be trying this out.

Also, this little between round pause opens up a lot of tactical and strategic choices. Let’s say you’re away from your friends when three Town Guardsman jump you… do you unleash your most potent damage-causing abilities in round 1 to push them back so you can run for it, or do you save those abilities for a fight to the death? Or perhaps you and your companions are locked in a fight, but aren’t sure you even know what the opposition wants. If you get the tide of battle on your side, you can take a round to quaff a healing potion, while your best talker tries to deescalate things. I love the idea that you can decide not to press the advantage so that you can communicate, maneuver for position, move toward an objective, etc. My players are a clever lot, and I’m sure I’ll see some surprising uses of this at the table!

Magic

Yes. This is now officially the Elephant in the Room. I was hoping to leave TBH Magic as the default here, but I don’t think that’s going to work. At this point, I think the answer may lie in using the TBH system, but finding a way to pour the WFRP spells into that container. (In some respects this is like bringing over the WFRP Skill Table, and it’ll be a job that’s just as big, if not bigger.)

Up Next!

Now that I’m looking back over this, I’m surprised I only needed to tweak a couple of things, and add an optional rule. (Bringing over the Skills List was a much bigger deal.) To the extent that The Black Hack has load-bearing walls, I’ve stayed away from them so far. Obviously, magic may take me down a rabbit hole, but as long as I can stay with the TBH spine, I’m going to be very happy. Who knows what will show up as we keep playtesting, but so far so good.

I want to keep hacking away, but I feel like shifting to lighter work for a week. The Black Hack has a spell misfire table (TBH 2e, pg. 43) that I’m going to recast with a WFRP vibe. It’ll be fun work in and of itself, and it’ll also give me a chance to delve into the gods and cults of WFRP as well as the magic system.

Come on back next week and see how it turns out!

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