Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Take an axe to your modern RPG with Old School Hack by Kirin Robinson

Old School Hack by Kirin Robinson is a lite fantasy roleplaying game inspired by the "Old School" style. You play archetypal fantasy fodder and engage in adventures of daring do and mashing monsters and villains IN THE FACE. Its mechanics are simple, bright and infused with silly.

I've not really played D, D&D, AD&D, D&D&D, AD&D&D&AD&D. I've heard of them and I know I'm very much in a minority of one; but I tried it and its not for me. I am, perhaps, not the best person to review a game that is inspired from its roots but I rather enjoyed reading it so I'm going to anyway. Complaints about my ignorance to: RobDoesNotCareASingleJot@gmail.com.

Slasher making

Your character is boxed into one of the following classes: Fighter (choppy choppy), Magic User (whizzy fizzy), Cleric (holy moley), Thief (sneaky beaky), Elf (girly campy), Dwarf (roughty toughty) and Goblin (cheeky bastard). The randomly rolled attributes are Brawn, Daring, Commitment, Awareness, Charm, Cunning. Commitment being the odd one there - it's about willpower.

Talents come next, each character class starts with one. A Talent is special thing your character can do and each class has their own list. Talents include bonuses to weapon use, special magical abilities or bonuses on attribute checks. You then pile on sharp and pointy things (weapons), some armour, money and finally a goal. Every character gets a goal and there is a short list to choose from or be inspired by.


Combat is a typical roll-initiative, take in turns, attack, move, defend affair. You choose what you want to do and it goes in a certain order. All quite simple. Mashing faces is where it gets interesting...

First you need to know what the armour class of the defender is. The armour class acts as the target number you need to roll over. Buffoons entering a fight without any protection start at 8 and the more metalwork you strap to yourself, the higher it goes. You then roll 2D10, add them together. If your weapon is designed for the place you're using it in (called arena), you get a +2, being a fighter adds +1 and so on. You do at least one point of damage, with hardcore weapons doing more.

A neat extra is you assign one of your dice as a "face die". If the face die rolls 10, you hit the enemy in the face and do another point of damage. Criticals can be a little bland but there is something joyous in the act of smashing something IN THE FACE. I can't even type that without the Caps Lock key on. IN THE FACE. "in the face" doesn't look right. IN THE FACE. That's better.

Other mechanicalities

The player group start with a collective bowl of awesome points in the middle of the table. When someone says or does something cool then any player at the table takes a point out of the bowl and gives it to the player. They can then spend this awesome point later. If the GM makes the game more difficult, then more points are put into the bowl in the middle of the table. Awesome points are spent boosting actions. These are kept track of until everyone has spent 12 points and then the whole group levels up. Leveling up means beefier characters.

It feels like a modern rule to my roughly hewn system sensibilities but it's a really good one as I think it encourages risk taking. I much prefer risk-taking player teams rather than those who like to plan 3 hours for a 5 minute combat. Awesome points reward one-man-swing-into-battle-on-chandelier-while-the-others-plan tactics. It is rules like this that force the game to step away from the 'tactically most efficient' wargame-like play to frankly unhinged Awesomeness. As the players hand out the awesome points, it is up to each and every group to decide on what is awesome, Old School Hack makes some suggestions but doesn't lay down the law. My player group's definition of Awesome is stabbing the friendly NPC IN THE FACE before they have had a chance to explain the adventure.

Points of interest

The monsters section is a little lite but adequately describes how you might take any monster from anywhere and give it attributes. Kirin has also created some lovely handouts for helping to remember the order of play in combat. There are also battle map markers too. I like that each class has its own sheet to print and augment the character sheet.

There is a setting, too. Not what you might think of as a setting, though. The setting description is a masterclass in how to write setting descriptions:
The game starts out in a magic-infused medieval fantasy world on the edge of civilization, this “edge” perhaps being geographical (occuring in the borderlands or a wild frontier) or historical (either chronologically taking place after some sort of cataclysm or during the decline of a great empire); it is a world where fantastic dangers exist in a multitude of old ruins and underground lairs.

Lay me out

The layout? My relationship with it is complicated. I have a love/frown/love/hate/love/meh/love/eh? relationship with the Old School Hack layout. Without copious amounts of art and splendid typography, it does look pretty. I did clap the heels of my hands together like a little girl when I first paged-down through it. Now I've had to read, and re-read for review and reference, I'm not so sure. Iconography is excellent throughout and ties together concepts but I think there is an over-use of call-outs, boxed areas and font changes. The dark grey background is too dark, the grey text too light. Some important rules are asterisked in grey text. It looks like each section was made to fit to a page, rather than writing out all the content and then laying it out.

That said, there are very clever layour tricks, such as the Going Adventuring triangle, which shows the different attributes and how to use them.

What I would do to it

Old School hack assumes you know a lot about the origins of roleplaying, which I don't. As such, it could do with some more description for ignoramusses like me. It needs more examples of using things. I would like to see some example combat and example character builds, with all the boxes filled in. I'd also like the 'Going Adventuring' bit with all the attributes described put before combat.


I've avoided talking about its Old School credentials because I played truent from the Old School and wasting thousands of space mutants instead. The use of Awesome Points feels modern and it is by far the most interesting mechanic here. The layout is great/terrible/lively/inspired/awful/I've no idea. Old School Hack is alive with vibrance and vitality. It dances off the page at you with a mead infused jig.

Thank you Kirin for sharing!


Risus Monkey said...

Old School Hack was a smash hit with my players. Awesome points and the Face Die are inspired mechanics and I love the whole arena and weapon category system. The best part about the game is that it plays well with ZERO preparation.

koboldstyle said...

"Zero-prep, cocktail-napkin D&D" was basically the design goal.

This is one of the best reviews ever written ever! And I'm not just saying that because it's about my game.

Carpe Guitarrem said...

Great review! Though I will say that the combat system actually impressed me a lot. I loved the idea of phase-based combat, which I'd never seen in an RPG before.

Brennen Reece said...

I think that as Old School Hack is a masterpiece of instructional layout that all roleplaying games should strive to emulate.

Rob Lang said...

Brennan - I disagree. For a large game, this kind of layout would not work as the GM will need to reference the system quickly. The layout, as attractive as it is, is not conducive to quick reference or picking out bits of rules. I would also recommend most roleplaying games used graphics to lift the text, rather than boxing-out rules here and there.

Every game suits a different sort of layout and although OSH makes good use of this style, I am not convinced it is the best way to get your system across and would advise authors to tread with care.

Rob Wakefield said...

If you're interested, The Accidental Survivors just yesterday released our interview with Kirin, talking about OSH. Have a listen here; http://accidentalsurvivors.libsyn.com/episode-62-hackin-it-old-school

Byakuya said...

Very interesting, I might have to give this a go.

Rob Lang said...

Thanks Rob - I'll give that a listen.

Rob Lang said...
This comment has been removed by the author.