My first RPG project of the New Year has been to blow the dust off The Magus Hack, get some friends to create modern-day Magi and launch into a weird campaign. Game play has prompted a few rules changes. The setting is post-Lockdown Britain, but things are not as they seem but only the Magi are able to notice it.
The campaign introduction takes the form of these excerpts from mundane and magical news sources over the last 25 years:
The Avalon Crusade
The Magus Hack offers a set of different campaign ideas, referred to as Nemeses. This one is based on the Avalon Crusade Nemesis, with Fae lords invading our reality and subverting it to conform to their Dark Ages ideology.
In this version, the Fae infiltration began slowly and secretly, but has increased in the 21st century and is now becoming blatant. Because it is an alteration to the texture of reality itself, most ordinary humans don't notice anything out of the ordinary going on - but Magi do.
A couple of social changes have taken place. A Christian sect - referred to as Grail Christians - has dominated the Church of England and inspired a successful political party. Grail Christianity is superficially a Celtic-themed Christian sect, but mixes pagan themes with mortification and blood sacrifice. A linked movement is the Sons of Albion - Far Right street agitators who target foreigners and ethnic minorities. Both groups endorse a racist ideology that valorises whiteness and ancestral Britishness.
Huge 'Guest Camps' have been created for immigrants (and British residents whose nationality has been questioned). Needless to say, there are rumours of human sacrifice going on at these places and Fae redcaps 'stitched' into human bodies emerge from these hideous places.
Not everyone buys into this fascistic shift. Even humans who can't see through the Fae subversion of reality still oppose racism and witchcraft: outraged evangelical Christians and the Catholic Church oppose the Grail cult; the Muslim community pushes back against the Sons of Albion; human rights groups deplore the rising xenophobia. Brave journalists try to expose what goes on in the Guest Camps.
Ley Lines have been energised by the Fae and new ones are appearing - usually when a dolmen emerges from the ground. These are rune-encrusted standing stones that now loom over street corners and public parks, unremarked by ordinary people. When Magi cross (or 'trip') a ley line, the Nemesis Die is rolled, increasing the chance the Fae Lords will notice rebellious sorcerers.
Ley Lines: Mechanics
Ley Lines have a magical Power (1d4+1 for new ones, 1d6+2 for established one) and this must be overcome by magic trying to manipulate them - such as using Abjuration to suppress them temporarily or Evocation to re-route them or tap their power; any effect must be combined with Divination and so is at Disadvantage for combining Schools. Tapping a leyline generates temporary Thaum but each Thaum collected calls for a Nemesis check and the Thaum is only usable while the Magus remains on the ley line or at the dolmen. Difficult and dangerous, but a tempting source of magical power.
A Book of Ghosts by Jon Wright is a collection of eight modern ghost stories with an unusual framing device. The stories are presented as the unpublished manuscript of a once-successful writer who has composed these tales, claiming they are based on real life events. Between each story an email exchange unfolds between the writer and his agent, Joan Mailer, who isn’t impressed with this new direction in her client’s writing. At first, these emails seem like interruptions, but as the collection unfolds they take on an increasingly sinister significance
A Book of Ghosts is available on Amazon as paperback and Kindle e-book
The stories themselves are an imaginative set. All are rooted in British locales, especially small rural villages in Yorkshire, Scotland, Devon and elsewhere, although one is set in an unnamed Midlands city. The protagonists are the sceptical and diffident middle class types of the ghost story genre, unsure of how to process the supernatural within their rather staid but comfortable frame of reference. If a single theme runs through it is ‘Ambiguity’ because the stories often conclude abruptly, leaving events unexplained and contradictions unresolved.
There is one exception in the fifth story, ‘The Four Horseman,’ which features four working class friends and the failing football club they support. This is the one story with an entirely urban setting and in which the ghost is unambiguously present. This is the least satisfying of the set, perhaps because its rather light-hearted and sentimental treatment of ghosts is so at odd with the rest of the stories.
The first tale ‘Will-O-The-Wisp’ is set on the wintry Yorkshire Moors where an American hiker finds herself led astray by the mysterious flickering lights. There’s a surprising time-jump in the narrative that sets the main storyline in a tragic but deeply mysterious perspective. The final situation can be interpreted in many ways: are the lights malevolent spirits or warnings? is the menace from supernatural forces or an all-too-human killer? The narrative drops this conundrum in the reader’s lap: I was reminded of John Fowles’ A Maggot’ (1985) which offers several possible ways of explaining the disappearance of a part crossing Exmoor in the 1730s, subverting each wild hypothesis in turn and proposing nothing certain.
‘The Drummer in the Band’ is the most conventional ghost story in the set and the one that comes closest to horror. The narrator looks back on the punk band he was in during his youth and reflects on the disappearance of their friend and drummer Noel. The band splits and the narrator moves into a conventional career but reconnects with Noel years later, apparently by chance, and listens to his old friend’s account of the night of terror he endured in the old Rectory where he was staying.
The story of this night is simply spellbinding and the strongest piece of writing in the set. I’m reminded of H.G. Wells’ The Red Room (1894) in which the protagonist must spend the night in a haunted room and the encroaching darkness because a source of existential terror. This story captures that menace while leaving all other interpretations open: Noel was on drugs, was having a breakdown, was menaced by a spectre, was deranged by repressed grief. The denouement is no less ambiguous but chillingly effective. By far the scariest story in the collection.
‘The View Across The Sea Loch’ is a very different proposition. A young father buys a painting on a Hebridean holiday but in old age becomes fascinated with the increasingly eerie details that emerge from it. The description of the painting, its curious secrets and the sense of doomed narrative that develops inside its frame is really well-constructed. The narrator’s position – studying the painting in the toilet, during nocturnal visits to ease his prostate – grounds the story in a delightfully humdrum setting. What is finally revealed is spectrally imprecise yet starkly troubling. This story is a masterful exercise in slow-burning anxiety.
‘Back To School’ strives for a similar effect, though I think less successfully. A middle-aged widow holidays in a North Devon village where she is mistaken for a former pupil at the now-closed school. The batty old ex-teacher regales her with a sinister story, implying she murdered a young colleague. Subtle supernatural details intrude, but later the whole event seems to be imaginary, more like a vision or perhaps a strange case of possession. The narrative ends abruptly, but the lack of explanation here is not pregnant with possibilities, as it was with ‘Will-O-The-Wisp,’ but feels instead like the abandonment of a story that still had another twist or two left.
‘The Four Horseman’ comes next. Even though it is tonally at odds with everything else in the collection, it works well placed next to ‘Back To School’ because it delivers a clear and unambiguous ending. This is quite important because the next story, ‘The Old Path,’ repeats the formula of ‘Back To School’ and the effect is no more successful. Here, an arrogant social scientist turns his evening walk home into an experiment on fellow-walkers by creating a new path through a dense copse, to see if other people use it in response to behavioural cues. As the seasons turn to winter and the evenings darken, the narrator remains unaware of the growing menace in his journey. Finally, he finds himself pursued by a sinister force and trapped in a sea of mud. Again, the story ends abruptly: normal life is restored, without explanation or reflection, and the narrative feels aborted rather than resolved.
No such criticisms apply to ‘Walking The Dog’ which vies with ‘The Drummer In The Band’ for star position in this collection, albeit for very different reasons. An elderly dog-walker encounters a stranger on his route. The narrator is a type made familiar by this collection: staid in habits, rather smug, inclined to read too much into things. Nothing of moment occurs on each meeting – the two men exchange banal pleasantries – yet on each occasion the sense of strain grows, eventually becoming outright menace. At the outset the narrator reveals that he believes the other man to be a ghost; only at the very end does anything justify this. The closing coda contains a startling detail that sends you back to the two men’s parting, trying to work out which was the ghost all along.
‘Walking The Dog’ would probably nudge ‘Drummer’ out of top position, except for its positioning right after ‘Old Path’ which it resembles too closely: both recount journeys along a rustic path as the season changes, both with a similarly supercilious narrator. ‘Walking The Dog’ is the better story by a mile, but its strengths are obscured by being placed alongside its weaker, but structurally similar, predecessor.
After ‘Walking The Dog’ the final story, ‘Lansdowne Road,’ would have its work cut out for it. It’s a fine tale of premonition and the unfolding of fate over an imagined lifetime. It lacks the thematic punch of the earlier tales; although many scenes are sharply realised, it exists in the shadow of the preceding story. Most readers will come away misremembering ‘Walking The Dog’ as the climax of the set.
Discussion of sequencing needs to consider the framing device of the author’s correspondence with literary agent Joan Mailer. At first, Mailer is the star of this exchange with an outrageously flamboyant turn of phrase, all easy bonhomie and complacent privilege. As the author’s mental state deteriorates, Mailer becomes concerned, then frightened. The final story, ‘The Brocken Spectre’ which was mentioned back in ‘Will-O-The-Wisp’ has been redacted from the collection and we are left instead with a vanished author and, perhaps, vanished Mailer too. It’s an artful device that moves the sense of dread out of the literary world and into the real world of author and publisher. I’m not sure whether the closing lines – a menacing expression from the Spectre itself, directed at the reader? – are really warranted. The author’s email account revealed as unavailable and unresponsive is as final a message from the grave as you could wish for.
There’s a lot to enjoy in A Book Of Ghosts and Jon Wright’s steadfast commitment to ambiguity would warm M.R. James’ dusty heart. I’m not convinced that ‘The Four Horsemen’ really belongs in this set and there are a couple of stories that perhaps need a bit longer ‘in the oven’ so that satisfying resolutions can be found for them. I wonder at the decision to position ‘Lansdowne Road’ as the final tale. Yes, it features death, but the collection’s theme is more evident in ‘Walking The Dog’ and it is that story which makes explicit the device of narrator and ghost swapping places. I like using iTunes to re-sequence my music albums and I wish Kindle would let me move ‘Walking The Dog’ to the end, to round off the collection in a truly unsettling way.
The only other improvement to A Book Of Ghosts would be a bit more effort on presentation: a contents page is a really important tool for finding your way around e-books and the story titles could do with standing out a bit more (larger typeface, emboldened, etc); it would be nice to get an author bio. The stark text simply drops you into the first email then rattles on to the end without a break, after which blank pages and silence. Yes, it fits thematically with what the text is aiming for, but it's a barrier to enjoying the book in other ways.
There: I set out to write a few hundred words reviewing A Book Of Ghosts and I’ve done more than twice that: a clear testimony to the power of this collection of deeply thought-provoking ghost stories.
I'm not sure why I backed Best Left Buried on Kickstarter in 2020. I mean, I really like OSR roleplaying games, but I thought I'd found my sweet spot with White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game (for that old skool D&D itch) and The Black Hack (for everything else). What was I thinking, investing in some oddball dungeoncrawl game? After all, my own players had tired of dungeoncrawling, so who would I even use it with?
Maybe it was the ominous title or maybe it was the faux-amateurish chiaroscuro art. Maybe it's the irresistible blend of sanity-shredding horror and underground skirmishing. Whatever: I pledged. Then I forgot about it until the rulebooks arrived this summer. Then I forgot about them for a good few months. But they teased me from the Shelf Of Shame where I'd consigned them. Yes, I think it was the art that made me start dipping into them. And I was hooked. So I GMed a game with a couple of players. And they loved it!
Yeah. It's the art.
Best Left Buried is produced by SoulMuppet Publishing, a friendly duo of Zach Cox (words) and Ben Brown (art), who describe it as "a fantasy horror game where the monsters are scary and the players are scared."
In the format established by AD&D, there are three (slim) books in the rules set: The Cryptdigger's Guide to Survival (a Player's Handbook), The Doomsayer's Guide to Horror (a DM's Guide) and The Hunter's Guide to Monsters (a Monster Manual). Interior art is all black and white, but there's loads of it; the print is large and friendly to the eye, the paper is heavy and each book is about 100 pages.
Physical copies seem to be sold out but the PDFs are from SoulMuppet or drivethrurpg (and the bundle is £10 at the time of writing)
What you get is a very stripped back RPG. There are just three stats - Brawn, Will and Wits - and you assign +2, +1 and +0 to them. Tests involving rolling 9+ on 2d6, adding your stat bonus. In combat you roll 3d6 and choose two dice to pass the test and the third die is your damage. Damage is deducted from your Vigour (starting at 6 + Brawn) but a roll of 6 on a damage die usually imposes an Injury - roll on the Injury table; it could kill you outright.
If your Vigour hits zero, down you go. Flip a coin. Heads you wake up later with an Injury, tails you die. Yeah: it's that sort of game. The rules advise you to create three characters so that replacements are at hand as they die off. Don't get too attached.
Spawning a new character just became instantaneous with this cute character generator by David Schirduan
The other important stat is Grip, which starts at 4 + Will. You spend Grip to get re-rolls or use magical powers. Awful events will force Will tests which, if failed, cause you to lose Grip. When Grip hits zero you go irrevocably mad, have a heat attack, turn to evil or leave play in some other disturbing way. Unlike Vigour, which is healed by rest, it's very difficult to regain Grip.
Difficult, but not impossible. A player can choose to acquire an Injury or Affliction at some dramatic moment in play. Injuries reset your Grip to 5, Afflictions reset it to 10. Injuries might be temporary or minor (but could kill you outright); Afflictions are mental illnesses, mystical curses or spiritual corruptions that slowly turn your character into a basket-case or a monster: Debilitating Dread forces you to spend more Grip in triggering situations, Man-Eater means you can't heal through resting unless you've eaten human flesh. You get the idea?
This simple little system leads to interesting choices. Do you keep resetting your Grip while your character disintegrates physically and mentally? Or do you stay pristine and avoid using or spending Grip at any cost? As your character gains experience, they get more powerful Advancements (of which, more in a moment) but go madder and badder and more decrepit. When a character dies, a fresh-faced recruit won't have all the crazy skills the old one accumulated, but won't have the burdensome problems either.
Love the art.
Characters can be built from 13 Archetypes. These are your familiar character classes but given a grimdark twist: Believers have a holy mission and Cabalists have numbed themselves with horror already; Freeblades are mercenary warriors but the Everyman is an ordinary fish-out-of-water; Dastards are city-slicker scoundrels and Scholars have forbidden knowledge. You also get a Journeyman Advancement with a cool name like My Shining Armour Gleams or Spirits of the Beyond (or, y'know, just take +1 Brawn or +3 Grip).
Levelling up means earning 8 experience points and converting them into +1 to your Grip and Vigour plus a new Advancement. Four Advancement qualifies you for the Heroic Advancements (available in one of the PDF 'zinis' that detail all the stuff that was wisely left out of the core rules).
How do you earn xp? Well, not from killing monsters. Monsters are to be avoided, fled or outwitted and only fought as a last resort. You get 1 xp from passing a Grip test. You also get xp from the treasure you drag out of the dungeon (sorry, from the crypt). There's a neat system for this too. Each adjective adds or subtracts 1 xp for a treasure: a golden goblet is worth 1 xp, a gleaming golden goblet is worth 2 xp and a set of gleaming golden goblets is worth 3 xp, but a dented golden goblet is worth nothing ('dented' subtracting 1 xp) while a cracked gleaming golden goblet is only worth 1 xp.
That's it. There are rules tweaks for different weapon types. The Doomsayer's Guide has a 'toolbox' of house rules to choose from covering different approaches to healing, initiative, dying etc and those 'zinis' add even more. The rest is taken up with campaign settings, a complete dungeon (sorry, crypt) called Lord Edmund's Barrow and much sound advice for creating crypts (i.e. dungeons) and making the game scary.
Then there are the monsters.
OK, that's ... different
The Hunter's Guide offers templates for the generic monsters of fantasy RPGs, but offers some evocative names (like Cinderbeasts for demons) but then goes on to provide a selection of detailed beasts that are quirky and memorable - like the Lion Hydra above. Monsters have a pretty simple stat block (Armour and Vigour and the three stats are all that usually matter) plus a bunch of Adaptations which are the monster equivalent of the players' Advancements.
There are some very wise features here too. Monsters have Omens, which are the ways their appearance is foreshadowed (like bloodstains, claw marks on the walls, distant howls) - remember the point is not to fight these things? They have Moods that describe their behaviour. They might have a Wind-Up which occurs before they use their powers, tipping observant players off to what's coming. There are tables to generate everything randomly, if that's what you want.
In fact, designing tables seems to be Zach Cox's delight. There are (optional but fun) tables to roll up your starting equipment, your weapons, your old profession, even your name. The emphasis is on hitting the ground running with a new character or monster and then bringing creativity to bear to explain what you've concocted.
The final ingredient in Best Left Buried is your Company.
Best not go there ...
PCs are Cryptdiggers who belong to a Company that loots dungeons (I'm not going to call them crypts so stop trying to make me) as a business enterprise. Outside of the dungeon, the PCs have bosses, camp followers, quartermasters, healers, a complete military camp. You hand over your treasure in exchange for equipment and board. The GM and players are encouraged to develop this Company almost as a character in its own right and, naturally, there are quirky tables to help you do this.
There seem to be two inspirations at work here. One is RPGs like Blades In The Dark that position all the PCs as part of a 'crew' of thieves and ruffians: the crew will outlast individual characters and the players might take responsibility for several different characters within the outfit, choosing which one to roleplay on any particular occasion.
The other is Tyler Sigman's video game Darkest Dungeons which proposes that you manage a team of adventurers to explore the dungeons under a Gothic mansion, managing their unravelling sanity while you recruit new explorers to replace the ones who die, burn out, run away or murder each other.
Best Left Buried encourages you to create vivid and flawed characters who will lead short, but horrifically memorable lives and continuity is ensured by the ongoing drama of the Company for which they all work.
I'm going to be clear up front: I really like this game. I like its simple but flexible rules engine, I like its dark and scrappy aesthetic, I like its RPG philosophy of frail and flawed heroes spending a lot of time running away, I like the corporate roleplaying involved in developing a Company and Camp, I like the left-field imagination at play in the monsters and naming conventions, I like all the silly tables.
This means I can see why you might not like it. Maybe you like tactical combat. Maybe you don't like running away. Maybe you like characters to survive and prosper. Maybe you don't want your PC to die on a coin flip. Maybe you hate silly tables. Those are all fair and reasonable positions to take. They're just not my position.
Actually, I do wonder about dying on a coin flip. To be fair, the Doomsayer's Guide offers alternatives to this. As part of my old White Box campaign I developed some pretty rigorous mechanics for keeping PCs alive while imposing wounds and frailties on them for surviving. I'm not sure players really appreciated it, in the long run. Best Left Buried takes a very different approach: view your PC as a transient figure, a "poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage" and reconcile yourself to sudden and unjust death. Continue the story of the Company with a new character. Take a wider view of your role in the evolving story.
There are some flaws in the game and they are presentational, which is odd considering the role art and aesthetic plays in this game's appeal.
There is no index. This is a big problem. If a monster has an Adaptation like Gelatinous Grip, is that in the Hunter's Guide or is it in the Cryptdigger's Survival Guide, because different monster powers are described in both? Where are Wind-Ups explained? Even though there aren't many rules, there are occasions where you want to look one up (or find one of those tables) and there's little help doing this.
Adding to this problem is the way the rules are set out in the first place. There's a conversational approach that introduces concepts in the order that you need them while creating a character or designing a dungeon. That's great for the first read-through but it's terrible for using the rulebook as a reference tool, because weapon stats are in an early chapter (because you need to know about them while equipping your new PC) but combat rules are in a much later chapter.
To make matters worse, when page references are given, some of them are wrong. For example, on p77 we learn that rolling a 6 for damage imposes an Injury and are referred to p39 for more on Injuries. Injuries are actually detailed on p87. When Chapters are referenced, they are referred to by number - but the chapters aren't numbered. It's all very well assuring me that a rule can be found in Chapter 6, but which chapter is chapter six?
Giving powers quirky names is fine, but if you want to look up the power that lets a monster animate the dead and you've forgotten that it's called Corpse-mover you have to read through all the monster Adaptations until you find it. It's an unnecessary problem for what ought to be a pick-up-and-play game that looking something up 'in the moment' adds significant stress to the task of GMing.
Of course, adhesive tags come to the rescue but not everyone wants their RPG books to become adorned with fluttering coloured pennants.
A couple of rules don't seem to work as intended. Dealing an Injury to a monster is fiddly (off to p87 we go to roll on that table) and might kill an important enemy outright. Is that what we want? There's an Adaptation called Unstoppable that means a monster takes an extra d6 damage instead of an Injury - but that's actually worse than most Injuries. Would it be better to declare monsters immune to Injuries, even though that shortchanges players wielding heavy weapons? Or create a separate Injury table for monsters?
Gaining 1xp for passing a Grip test strikes me as the wrong way round. Surely passing the test is its own reward and you should gain 1 xp for failing a Grip test. That would be more in line with the game's destroy-yourself-to-advance ethos.
That art ...
A lot of love has been put into this game and it's a dark, demented and cruel love. There's a broad selection of scenarios for it and Zach kindly recommends a bunch of scenarios you can find online for free. I downloaded Skerples' Tomb of the Serpent King for my first game and that's a brilliant intro dungeon - so good, in fact, that it deserves a review of its own.
OSR fans ought to take a look at Best Left Buried, especially if you can track down a print version. It's a shot in the arm for a dungeoncrawl genre that's rather moribund at the moment. And the art is great.
Try it out. But don't go flipping tails!
I've not posted in a while and a big reason for that has been the Daily Ghost, a project to write an original ghost story every day for a year. And I did exactly that, completing 365 ghost stories (plus a few extra) and raising money for the First Story Charity that provides writers workshops for less privileged school children.
I found some time recently to bring all the stories together in a pretty substantial anthology: the stories might be only 400 words each but a year's-worth of them makes for a weighty tome. You can find A Year of Ghosts on Amazon and there are paperback, hardback and Kindle editions.
That's the physical copy on the left and the e-book on the right: take a Daily Ghost home for Christmas
A Year Of Ghosts features 365 ghost stories, each one short enough to read with a hot drink but guaranteed to keep you thinking for a cold and moon-drenched night. There are haunting tales of grief and parting, romances of reconciliation and devotion, spine tingling encounters with supernatural danger and satirical romps through the afterlife, mixed with adventure, mystery and mythology. Journey to a haunted planet in the far future, to the ghosts of the Roman Coliseum, follow the machinations of Egyptian necromancers and the legacy of a haunted doll. You will read ghost stories adapted from pop songs, classic fiction and historical celebrities as well as low key tales of life in Lockdown Britain, the testimony of Somali immigrants, a northern pensioner teaching his grandson to be an exorcist and the love song of a Syrian refugee.
The book lends itself to a casual reader who can dip into a story here or there, but there’s a huge range here, some of it literary, some mainstream commercial. There are Stephen King homages, a dramatic monologue, a pastiche of Damon ‘Guys & Dolls’ Runyon’s mobster fiction, a string of tales from the 17th century Scottish Borders as well as science fiction, Lovecraftian horror and parodies of Jane Austen and Raymond Chandler. Most of the tales stand alone but there are serials running month to month and of course a season of Christmas ghost stories.
RPGers might particularly enjoy the monthly serial 'A Loophole' in which the death goddess Anupet struggles against the machinations of the necromancer Qadaffah, with the necromancer's new apprentice as a pawn in their millennial conflict.
Fans of the ghost stories volunteered to narrate them, so there’s a Daily Ghost YouTube channel too with scores of the stories produced as 4-minute audiobooks by voice artists and authors like Nancy Weitz and John Clewarth – as well as myself, learning as I go. Here are two example, including a Christmas ghost story:
David Read narrates The Edge of the Platform and John Clewarth reads The Weeping Mothers
There will be more stories on the Daily Ghost site as they bubble up from the unconscious - and some of them will appear in the project that started all this but then got put on hold, a glamorous Second Edition for my Ghost Hack RPG (on Amazon and on drivethrurpg) with lots of campaign ideas in fiction form.
Otherwise, my attention is now on the Hedgerow Hack, the RPG of rustic weirdness, time travel, faeries and British mythology. There's some very exciting news about that which I'll reveal in a future post.
The RPG products that have been inspiring and distracting me in equal measure - and (fanfare) Ghost Hack is a silver best seller on drivethrurpg
Oooh-weee! Didn't THE MAGUS HACK meet with a lot of love! So, hot on its heels follows the big book of everything that didn't make it into the rules book, plus afterthoughts: THE SORCERERS COMPANION.
Both books are on driverthrurpg but there are physical copies on Amazon of the rules and the expansion.
But what, I hear you enquire, is it all about?
The Magus Hack makes no secret of its status as a love letter to Mage: The Ascension (see blogs passim) and my deep affection for David Black's The Black Hack as a thoroughly-modern way of channelling OSR sensibilities into roleplaying. The Magus Hack lets you roll up modern wizards on the classic 6 Stats wit Hit Dice and Hit Points, choose your Philosophy (an oh-so-familiar Nine are provided) and customise yourself with Virtues. The Sorcerers Companion doubles the number of Virtues and adds templates based around functional Archetypes rather than the Mage-baiting Philosophies. All well and good, but where's the beef?
Magic: Does Sir prefer Simple or Crunchy?
Magic gets a lot of thought. My original magic rules were tough and granular, starting 1st level Magi off as rather ineffective and forcing you all the time to trade range and duration against effectiveness. I'm a fan of that sort of thing, but I think I took it too far: people play OSR Hack-inspired games for high-jinks and adventure, not agonising decisions. So I loosened up the requirements, making charges more easily available for starting characters and reducing the likelihood of magic failing outright.
I went a bit further! I added a Simplified Magic System if you don't want any crunch at all. Basically, if you want a story-driven game where you're happy for the GM to make all the calls about how magic actually works out, this Simplified System offers a single dice roll and does away with the trade-offs. Now you can hack The Mage Hack itself and decide how YOU want your Modern Wizardry RPG to play out.
For the purists like myself who want crunchy, granular magic, I offer 30 magical effects broken down into the Schools they draw on and what you can accomplish with different amounts of mystical charges. All the classics are here: Dispel Magic, Scrying, Astral Projection, Warding and good old Fireball.
Familiars, Daemons and Dragons, oh my!
Then the fun starts. Familiars get a chapter. Now, The Magus Hack already lets you choose a Hallows that boosts your magic and this could be a pet creature or a person. Then there's the Companion Virtue, which lets you have an assistant who's an animal or a daemon or a faerie or whatnot. You can combine the two, into a Hallows-Companion. All of these options could reasonably be called Familiars.
But the new Familiar rules let you summon a creature that actually has its own Schools of Magic that it can combine with yours without any penalty. Well, without penalty, but not without cost. Before you can start using your Familiar in a game, you have to wake it up by feeding it raw magic ("Thaum") and the more powerful it gets, the hungrier it is.
Pocket-Dimensions get some consideration. These are personal paradises: spiritual hideaways where you can customise the laws of nature to your taste. You can do this with magic, but it's helluva expensive. The easier option is to draw on your Hubris Die. Now this is great and it generates lots of charges you can spend customising your realm as a space station, gothic fortress, undiscovered continent or alien citadel. The only catch is that your Hubris Die gets bigger every time you roll a 1-2: that way madness definitely lies.
The Magus Hack tries to be setting-neutral, but I felt I needed to offer some rules for Daemons (angels, actual demons and elementals) and Dragons. There are tables to help you customise these awesome entities.
And I add rules for magical duelling - the Magonas, based on ancient Greek traditions. I'll add more ideas for 'Wizard Sports' on this website.
The Story Generator
In a way, this bit is my pride and joy. Modern Wizardry games sound cool. You think of arcane duels in alleyways and confrontations with dragons in gleaming skyscrapers, but coming up with stories for such a setting can be tricky. Here is a set of tables that offer you an Opponents, their Dark Deeds, their Nefarious Ends, your Involvement and Motivation, what you're trying to achieve as your Awesome Goal and the Plot Twist and final Showdown, with some extra rolls for Cool Locations.
Here's the very first plot I rolled up:
I mean, jeez, wouldn't you pay to see that movie? And that's not even the best plot I rolled up - and I rolled up six. My favourite is The Dragon Child's Last Gift to Mankind. I think I'll use the system to roll up 30 or 40 plot hooks and put them in a future product as micro-scenarios.
I feel Sorcerers Companion takes the rather flippant The Magus Hack and turns it into a weighty and flexible RPG in its own right. A combined Expanded Edition will be along in due course. Then, original art and a Second Edition, let's hope.
I wanted to create something that would let me play the sort of games that White Wolf's '90s RPGs opened my eyes to, but with familiar mechanics of levels, hit points, saving throws and Stat tests. I feel really proud of this one. Yes, The Hedgerow Hack is my true sweetheart, because's it's properly original, but I like what I've done with The Magus Hack as a achievement in rules-wrangling. I hope you enjoy it too.
The other week, a chance conversation reminded me of how much I love RPGs and stories of modern wizardry: arcane duels in back alleys, fusing technology with witchcraft, dragons in the subway, old gods drinking in dive bars, demonic pacts in glass-and-steel boardrooms. Yeah, bring it to me.
So, a week of scribbling later, with many important duties neglected, and we have a new RPG. Say hello to The Magus Hack.
Beautiful cover art by the generous Christopher Smith-Wong (I was going to use it for a Ghost Hack scenario but that would be to waste it). You can buy The Mage Hack on drivethrurpg as PDF and if you want a physical copy it's over on Amazon.
Of course, the inspiration for all this is (whisper it!) Mage: The Ascension, which is far and away the best of White Wolf's lauded World of Darkness games from the 1990s. Just looking at the image from the 1993 GM's screen brings back the lysergic thrill that this game offered with its heady mixture of postmodern philosophy, serious esoteria and swashbuckling lunacy.
I mean, what the HELL !!?!?? What the actual Hell ??!!?
I eagerly GMed a Mage chronicle, back in the days of 1st ed, when there were no boundaries, and the players roamed the Hells and Faerie and the Digital Web and had a blast. A decade later, I GMed a chronicle using the Renaissance-set Sorcerers Crusade variation and the players tangled with Torquemada, witnessed the fall of Muslim Grenada, discovered the Americas with Columbus and survived the Aztec Invasion of Europe. Good times!
I still adore the beautiful Mage: The Ascension tarot deck and I still use it in my roleplaying games as a prompt for discussion or a colourful alternative to a dice roll
So you'd think, another decade on, I'd be super-keen to dive into Mage again. And I am. I really am. But ...
Partly what's holding me back is that Mage doesn't quite excite me as it used to. How could it? It's a quarter of a century old !!! Its wide open frontiers have been pretty carefully mapped out. The lore is canonical now. There's a whopping great 20th Anniversary rules set that you can spend a fortune on. It covers everything in fascinating detail. That's cool, I guess, but I miss the go-anywhere-do-anything Mage of the old days. The canon becomes constrictive. Am I getting bored of the Ahl-i-Batin?
Mage20: it's enormous.
There's other things about the Mage rules that only irked me slightly in the past, but bother me more now. It's a Great Handfuls Of Dice (GHOD) game, but an oddly reductive one. You roll a ton of dice, count your successes, deduct your failures; then the other guy does the same and takes his successes away from yours and ... the clear correlation between Being Really Good At A Thing and then Getting A Great Result is lost. As a rules mechanic, it's lumbering and it makes combat in particular into a drama-free grind.
Then there's the magic. What everybody loves about Mage - what you come away remembering and talking about - is the metaphysics: the idea of reality conforming to belief, the language of pattern and consensus and paradox, the coolness of making your spells look like coincidences. What we forget is how bland the rules for this are. You check your Spheres to see if you're allowed to do a thing, you roll a Small Handful Of Dice (maybe 3 or 4) and count your successes. That's all you do. Yes, OK, there's some stuff about tweaking the difficulty level in your favour, but mechanically, there's not a lot of decision-making.
This sounds like a big Hate on Mage, but it's not meant to be. I'm just reflecting on why, 25 years on, I'm not as excited by Arete rolls to pull off that Forces-3/Prime-2 effect as I ought to be.
Anyway, that's why I thought: There ought to be a simple OSR-themed version of Mage, with the familiar six attributes from D&D, with Hit Points and Levels and a freeform system that lets you enjoy constructing spells as well as roleplaying the casting of them.
Which is where The Magus Hack comes from.
The go-to source material is going to be David Black's The Black Hack, which identifies the roleplaying genome elegantly and succinctly and adds the innovation of usage dice rather than tracking points: whenever you call on a resource, you roll that resource's die and on a 1-2 it exhausts, getting smaller, with d8s turning into d6s and d6s turning into d4s and when d4s exhaust, well, you're not going to be using that resource any more.
The antidote to massive rule books.
I've already penned a couple of Hack-inspired RPGs: The Ghost Hack scratched the itch that Wraith: The Oblivion couldn't reach (at least, not for me) and The Hedgerow Hack channelled my love for '70s children's TV and fantasy novels into a game about travelling the byways of English history in the company of talking birds and living scarecrows to stop the Dark from swamping the pristine countryside.
Hey, I can praise my own stuff!
This provides the core engine. I borrowed the idea of characters created from Ability packages from Paul Baldowski's The Cthulhu Hack and the concept of a nasty usage die that gets bigger rather than smaller from Matthew Skail's The Blood Hack.
These games are both awesome OSR Hacks. Cthulhu Hack is slick and professional, Blood Hack a bit more indie, but both remind you why you don't need slick and weighty rules sets
Instead of Mage's abstract 'spheres' I went with the schools of magic that Gary Gygax came up with for AD&D back in 1977: Abjuration, Alteration, Charm, Divination, Evocation and Summoning. I ditched Illusion/Phantasm - I figure you can make illusions directly inside people's heads with Charm or out of light and sound itself with Alteration, so why break up the harmony of 6 Schools mapping onto 6 Stats for the sake of an unnecessary seventh magic type?
The magic system involves building up enough 'charges' to pay for the effects you want - say, damage or range or duration or a couple of other factors. You build up these charges by rolling one of your casting dice. Since these are usage dice, they exhaust on a 1-2, so the more you roll them, the smaller they get, eventually winking out of the game. Plus, you are limited to rolling your Level+2 casting dice for any effect. But there are loads of ways round that particular restriction. Like picking up free charges when using your thematic instruments (your 'Hallows') or breaking the limit of Level+2 when working magic inside your occult Philosophy or plenty of other things.
I reckon a core rules system is OK if you can express it as a flowchart taking up no more than one A5 page
There are the rules you'd expect for passing your magic of as ordinary coincidences (cryptic magic) as opposed to amazing violations of the laws of nature (outrageous magic). There are rules for permanent Dweomers, sympathetic links using True Names and longwinded Spells versus quick'n'dirty Hexes.
The other novel mechanic is Hubris - your Magus' out-of-control egoism - represented by a little d4 usage die that gets bigger and bigger when you roll it and it comes up 1-2. Highly hubristic Magi find it difficult interacting with mortals, lose the ability to do cryptic magic and eventually get expelled from Earth to a dimension of their own.
Hubris can be called upon to boost your own ,magic, but at the risk of growing even more out-of-control.
I've linked Hubris to the Nemesis Die, which is rolled to see if the bad guys notice you working magic. Highly hubristic Magi stand out more; they attract the attention of powerful enemies. Hubris also defines the consequences of Backlash from fumbled magic, making the retribution less likely but more deadly, escalating from birthing malevolent imps from your unconscious mind to dramatic explosions and dimension warping.
For fans of Mage, I include nine Philosophies of magic that bear a startling resemblance to (but are legally distinct from) some famous mystic traditions.
There are nine Nemeses suggested, with stat blocks for their minions and bosses, so Magi can confront the Machine Messiah's Terminator-style robots, the Nameless Cult's Lovecraftian abominations, the Fae Crusade's elven invasion or other Big Bads that sit up and notice when PCs are careless with their magic. I've developed the mechanic I introduced in The Hedgerow Hack of using a descending Nemesis Die that gets rolled when the players get into trouble and summons the Big Bad with lethal force if it fully exhausts itself.
With previous games, I tried to stick to royalty-free illustrations or stock art packages, but I splashed out a bit on this product. I approached a few talented creatives online and I'll return to them if The Magus Hack funds its own high-quality second edition for original art, but in the meantime I'm grateful for Christopher Smith-Wong offering his powerful cover art and I followed good advice by buying in some stock art by prolific artists on drivethrurpg. It's all B&W line drawings, but it's professional standard and it sets the tone.
There's a whole argument I don't want to have with myself, but it goes a bit like this: Hack RPGs are supposed to be seat-of-your-pants RPG experiences with minimal rules and a "just wing it" mentality - but you've written a Hack game here that's 84 pages long. Don't you see what you've done?
Well, if I were to have that argument with myself, I might retort that 84 pages of a slim little A5 booklet isn't really a burdensome exercise in rules-lawyering, that there are lots of pictures, that a lot of it is advice and suggestions for adversaries and settings and ... oh, look, a RPG about Modern Wizardry is just going to take up more words than dungeon bashing, alright? Jeez. Don't get so hostile.
Be that as it may: I've got my OSR-themed alternative RPG to delving into the dense lore of the source material. I'm going to play a few scenarios and see if my imagination takes flight - if so, I'll work on a scenario pack to support the game.
In the meantime, I'm setting up a Mage Hack support page on this site with a bunch of rules that didn't squeeze into the published book and a heap of sample spells, along with discussions of how the system builds them.
Next up: the Fae Hack. Now that might take a while ...
I'm working on a Player Pack that sums up character generation and adds a bunch of extra tables and rules to flesh out your characters and motivate them. Now your animated scarecrow can be all that's left of a Fae knight who loved a maiden who died and her grave is underneath platform 3 at Liefbury Station and once in every Age she returns and waits for the train (or carriage or palfrey, depending on the century) to carry her away and you have to be there before she leaves to tell her you love her and... oh you get it. Lovely complex roleplaying stuff to distract you from shooting crows and battling Lord Isengrim Von Ulf with flintlock pistols over the midnight rooftops of 17th century Thornyford.
Here's a taster of what's going to be in that booklet:
An Age Called Home
PCs in The Hedgerow Hack are mysterious strangers who arrive in an Age to solve a mystery or resolve a crisis. But where do they come from?
Each PC choose an Age that is the one in which they were born. For Ouzel, this must be the Age of Fable. For Wurzels it is the age in which their scarecrow body was built.
In their Home Age, Human PCs can test INT to know about any (non-supernatural) place or object and test CHA to know about any (mortal) person. If the test is successful, this knowledge can be related to the PC’s background.
For example, in the Age of Swords, Guyon is curious about a group of knights. He tests CHA and the GM says he recognises one of the knights as Cuthbert of Combe, because Cuthbert fought alongside his uncle to fend off a Danish raid some years ago.
Fae PCs can test INT or CHA to know about supernatural places, objects or persons.
Ouzel and Wurzels do not know where Legendary Locations are: these must be discovered in play.
NB. The GM has the right to declare any location or object to be ‘mysterious’ or person to be ‘strange’ or ‘unknown’ in which case no Stat test will reveal anything about them.
Although Briar Knights always speak and understand the language of the Age they visit, they don’t always grasp its norms and manners.
At the start of a story, PCs in an Age they are not native to roll 1d4, 1d6 or 1d8 depending on how far removed they are. That is the number of CHA tests with mortals they must make at Disadvantage until they settle in.
For example, Guyon is native to the Age of Swords so if he adventures in the Age of Steel he will be at Disadvantage for 1d6 CHA tests because that is ‘two Ages away’ from his Home Age.
Player Characters as Children
The Hedgerow Hack takes inspiration from some classic children’s literature of the 1960s and ‘70s – like Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen or Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising (and latterly, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials) – or TV shows like Catweazel and Children of the Stones. If you want to capture this atmosphere, then Heathen Clerks and Tinkers can be children.
If you feature children as PCs, then consider these rules changes:
The advantage of child-PCs in your campaign is that their family life becomes part of the drama. It is important to know what Age the family live in, because children need to slip away from their family to go on adventures with their weird friends.
Families can be placed in danger, especially if a Doom Die exhausts while a child-PC is with her family. The Feral Squires are not above threatening to harm a PC’s family, if only to coerce Briar Knights into not interfering with their schemes.
Families will have their duplicates in other ages, albeit without the PC in them and perhaps living in different circumstances. This can make for interesting roleplaying, if a child-PC wants to save or redeem their similar-family in a different Age.
For example, Guyon’s family in the Age of Swords are contented farmers, but in the Age of Steel the family is being forced into the workhouse after being evicted from their land by Isengrim Von Ulf.
Childhood’s end: All children (but one) grow up. Childhood could end when a PC reaches 10th level or 6th. GMs should decide in advance how long childhood lasts and whether the PC continues to adventure as a now-adult hero or if they forget about their childhood and settle down to a mortal life of love, labour and a family of their own, watched over by the comrades they no longer recognise.
You know how it is. Work is piling up. You've got a million things to do. But you've been struck by this idea that just tickles you so much that you have to sit down and write a RPG about it.
Yes, I know. First World Problems.
But here's the Hedgerow Hack RPG.
Eerie 'crucified scarecrow' cover art by Fraser Sandercombe (2014, by permission)
You see, it all started last week with an innocent game of D&D - or, actually, BlueHack RPG, as discussed in last weekend's blog. It was enjoyable high fantasy fare, but one player - Karl McMichael - went a bit moodier and darker with his character concept. He decided his generic 1st level Cleric would be a mute child worshipper of the god of scarecrows who wore a sack over his head and communicated through a ragged sock puppet. Then he draw this flavour art.
Bilge by Karl Michael (2021)
Now, if that doesn't make you want to design a brand new RPG, just so that this character can live and breathe and take part in macabre folk-horror stories - well, I don't know what will.
OK, yes, right - that will do it too, I suppose.
Umm. OK. That's another.
That one, maybe not so much.
I started off just creating Black Hack style character classes for druidic tramps, living scarecrows and talking animals. But the world of the Hedgerow really took me by the throat. The first shift was the idea that the characters be time travelling mystical hobos, sort of Sapphire & Steel meets Wurzel Gummidge.
Once you've had that idea, you need your own setting and mythology. So welcome to the Old Shires, a pristine patch of the English countryside caught somewhere between The Railway Children and Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General, with a dollop of Catweazel and Aqualung and Fairport Convention and, oh yes, some of Prince Valiant and The Vikings too please. And John Boorman's Excalibur and the 1980s Robin of Sherwood too while I'm at it.
And throw in some classic children's fantasy literature, why not !
We need a map of the Old Shires, or my favourite part of it, the part that looks like Herefordshire:
Then we need our cast of PCs - the Briar Company of Sky & Furrow. You can choose from Heathen Clerks who are your basic Clerics, but who follow the Heathen Saints, with names like King Wren, Elder Mandrake, Lady Hagthorne and Lord Brock. They can switch to a different saint each story or be exclusive to one. Ouzel are bird-headed Fae who are illusionists and spell-casters. Wurzels are animated scarecrows and mighty warriors. Tinkers are ragged beggars with hidden powers; depending on the season they follow they might be thieves, assassins, prophets or rangers. Gypceans are, well, gypsies really: they know about the Briar Company, they're loremasters and, if another Companion gifts them some magical power, they can craft wondrous items.
The Briar Knights can pass through the mystical Hedge between worlds, moving from the Age of Swords (9th century, Danes invading), the Age of Plagues (17th century, witch trials), Age of Steel (19th century, railways are here) and Age of Ashes (our time) as well as the Age of Fables (your classic high fantasy).
So, it's like Time Bandits isn't it? Why didn't I think to tell you it's like Time Bandits?
Should have won Best Film for 1982. Oscar went to Chariots of Fire and who re-watches THAT any more?
Heroes need villains. The Briar Company are up against the usual monsters - undead, daemons, goblyns (with a Y) - but also the Feral Squires who have invaded the Old Shires. There's Isengrim Von Ulf and his sister Hirsent Dame Wolf; there's the ridiculous Martin le Ape and Tibault Prince of Cats. Then there's Reynard the Fox who sometimes thwarts the PCs and sometimes assists them. They're served by the Wer-kynde who are changelings that grow into were-creatures.
You can play the Feral Squires for laughs but there's nothing funny about the Raven Margrave, who is a force of Darkness, with crows for spies, undead for servants and the Murdering Ministers as his lieutenants.
Finally there's the Witch-Harrow, a mortal organisation that hunts down supernatural creatures. Most of the agents are just Gossips and Snoops, but the Hexen Hammers are ferocious warriors and Inquisitors know spells to strip the Briar Knights of their powers.
The novel mechanic here is the Doom Die that ticks down when you attract the attention of one of these factions, finally forcing a confrontation with their agents while you're just, you know, trying to persuade a Fae Lord to return Jenny o'the Fell's baby to her or help Gareth Gamble-Green escape the constables.
I've added in a mechanic to replace gold pieces as the main reward. PCs must track down fragments of Lore and the Legendary Locations that match them, so it's also a game of exploring a mythic landscape.
I'm uncommonly pleased with this. I still delight in Susan Cooper's marvellous Dark Is Rising fantasy sequence, in which an order of time-traveling Old Ones move between the modern world, the Dark Ages and the faerie-themed Otherworld, assembling legendary treasures and finding eerie significance in folk celebrations. There was a 2007 movie, but it was rubbish, despite Ian McShane being in it. I think those books will haunt my life and they're a big influence on this game.
The editions I grew up with. Over Sea, Under Stone (1965) is a bit 'Famous Five Go To Cornwall and find the Holy Grail' but the fantasy really kicks in with 1973's The Dark is Rising. The sequel Greenwitch taught childhood-me the meaning of awe when Will and Merry confront the sea goddess and The Grey King is just haunting and beautiful and strange - so good, in fact, that it rather overshadows the series' 1977 climax, Silver On The Tree.
After a bit of playtesting, The Hedgerow Hack is be available as pay-what-you-want on drivethrurpg - but if anyone wants to offer criticism, beta testing or just to chat about it, send me an email.
Yes, it's Bob Dylan's best song ("Discuss...."), but it also describes my new fascination with Michael Thomas' Blue Hack RPG, after my lovely experience using it last weekend.
Click the image to see the page on drivethrurpg
What I now itch to do is expand the roster of character classes for Blue Hack, like I did for White Box in blogs passim. I want to take some of the so-called 'sub-classes' D&D players have loved over the decades and interpret them through the lens of Eric J. Holmes' 1977 Basic D&D Set, then refract it through the Blue Hack's own quirky sensibility.
For example, what about the Barbarian and the Bard?
The reason I focus on these two is that they specialise in Stats that Blue Hack neglects: CON and CHA. Currently, these Stats are prerequisites for demi-humans (Dwarves and Halflings need CON 9+) but none of the classes get the opportunity to increase CON and CHA when they gain HD.
Personally, I would house rule that all Blue Hack PCs can choose to roll to increase CHA when they gain a HD, instead of rolling to increase one of their class-specific Stats. Rising fame (or notoriety) ought to result in growing charisma.
Blue vs Black
Before creating new Blue Hack classes, we need to look at the distinctively Holmesian direction Michael Thomas has taken the game from its 'parent' publication, the Black Hack.
The Black Hack calls them Warriors. They have d10 Hit Dice, but Blue Hack increases their damage output from d8/d6 to d10/d8. This is perhaps because Blue Hack is a more dangerous game: 1-2 HD monsters deal 1d8 damage in Blue Hack compared to a d4 or d6 in Black Hack. (The two games become more similar as monsters get tougher)
Another difference is Armour. In Black Hack you might have up to 12 points of Armour (from Plate and a Large Shield) but once it's been used to protect you, it's gone until you rest. In Blue Hack you have less Armour (5 points from Plate and Shield) but it applies every turn. The same goes for monster armour: a 4 HD Ogre in Blue Hack is absorbing 3 points of damage every time you hit it, so it makes sense to boost PC damage output.
I presume Michael made this change to make his Blue Hack less fiddly - you don't have to keep track of Armour Points, you just apply them every turn - and perhaps to stretch fights out a little longer, in the style of Holmesian slug-fests of yore.
Black Hack Warriors heal when not in combat. This sort of regeneration fits Black's chugging momentum, but doesn't fit with Holmes' gritty take on D&D. Black Hack Warriors also get attacks equal to their HD, but Blue Hack changes this to one attack per 2 HD; the effect is to make Blue Hack less super-heroic, since Fighters don't get 2 attacks per round until they have 3HD or 3 attacks until they have 5HD, by which time Black Hack Warriors are attacking 5 times a round.
Blue Hack adds in Parrying for Fighters and Shrug Off Damage is a boost to their Armour points - again, equal to half their HD, so it doesn't start to benefit them until they have 2 HD.
Shield Sundering becomes something anyone can do in the Blue Hack - although, thinking about it, Clerics are the only other characters who carry shields.
Clerics are similar in both games, although Blue Hack Clerics have superior damage output (1d8/1d6).
Blue Hack never mentions that Clerics must add the monster's HD to their roll to turn undead - but I take this to be subsumed under general rules for Powerful/Weaker Opponents. Interestingly, Blue Hack does allow you to gain a bonus when testing your Stats against monsters with fewer HD than you. Black Hack seems to assume that, since you improve your Stats as you gain HD, that's enough of a reward in itself, but Blue Hack is more keen to make experienced PCs dominate lesser NPCs and monsters.
Blue Hack removes the Clerical bonus for resisting poison/paralyzation, but it does offer access to all the Clerical spells, rather than just 1d4 of them.
Michael adds some Clerical spells like Resist Cold/Fire and Control Snakes but removes Speak With Animals. This is maintaining continuity with Holmes' 1977 spell lists.
Black Hack calls them Conjurors. Blue Hack raises their HD to beefy d6s and their damage output to d6/d4 instead of d4/1.
Blue Hack retains Black's magic resistance (roll with Advantage when testing INT against magical damage or effects). It makes the unusual choice of offering Magicians access to all the spells of the appropriate level and lets the Magician 'carry' 3 x HD spells in their heads. This makes Blue Hack Magicians rather more competent than old Homesian magic-users. They can create scrolls too - and quite cheaply. There are definitely implications for treasure placement here, since Hack characters don't need gold pieces for XP, but Magicians will spend everything they can find on creating an arsenal of spell scrolls. A Blue Hack campaign would need to be very stingy with money.
Blue Hack spell lists port across everything from Holmes, with a few odd exceptions, like Dancing Lights. Read Magic is gone, because now of course Magicians have access to all the spells.
I'm in two minds about the removal of Read Magic. Forcing magic-users to go adventuring in order to find spells and increase their repertoire was an interesting aspect of D&D. It was perhaps only implied in Holmes and made explicit in AD&D. Holmes' Read Magic spell was for using scrolls - and I support making magic scrolls usable by any Magician without having to cast a spell first. But on the other hand, Blue Hack's more flexible spell-slot system encourages PCs to carry along utility spells just in case, in a way that the rigid Holmes/AD&D approach did not.
Thieves are almost identical in both systems. Blue Hack boosts their damage output to 1d8/1d6 and carries this across to their backstabbing. The Black Hack's rather broad ability to roll with Advantage on delicate tasks is now restricted to Hearing Noises. However, Blue Hack specifically empowers Thieves to test DEX to open locks, hide, sneak, etc. Black Hack seemed to allow anyone to do these things (just, Thieves were better at it), whereas Blue Hack makes this sort of work the specific proficiency of Thieves, which fits with Holmes' more exclusive view of character classes.
Principles for New Classes
A fine principle in D&D is that no new class or sub-class should be better at something than the primary class was. Actually, AD&D violated this principle quite often, making Rangers and Cavaliers better than Fighters. But Michael Thomas clearly adheres to it, because his elf-only Fighter-Magicians have lower HD than Fighters, don't gain the extra attacks of Fighters or the damage resistance or magic-resistance of the parent classes and gain spell-slots more slowly than Magicians.
A Blue Hack principle seems to be a slower ramping up of power, compared to Black Hack PCs. Blue Hack also treats certain abilities as the exclusive province of a character class (like Thieves opening locks) rather than something anyone can attempt by testing a Stat.
CON and CHA are under-used Stats in Blue Hack. Although the Blue Hack spell lists are generous, they're lacking some of the effects D&D players expect, like talking to animals, monster summoning, etc.
Blue Hack Barbarians
Brian Asbury introduced what was (to my mind) the finest iteration of the Barbarian sub-class back in White Dwarf #4 in 1977. I analysed the Asbury Barbarian in a previous blog and offered a reconstruction of it for White Box RPG.
If we accept the idea of the Barbarian as a specialist in ferocity - accomplishing by instinctual energy what other, more civilised characters do through study, technique or reflection - then we can build a Blue Hack Barbarian along these lines:
Personally, I think Barbarians should always be Humans, but if your campaign features savage Frost Elves, Desert Dwarves or Jungle Halflings, go ahead and mix it up.
Starting HP: 1d8 + 6
HP per HD/Resting: 1d8
Weapons & Armour: No armour or shield, may use any weapons
Attack Damage: 1d8 either armed or unarmed/improvising
Gaining HD: Roll twice to increase STR or CON.
Danger Sense: A Barbarian enjoys Armour Points based on an instinct for danger; unlike normal Armour, these points are removed when used and only regained by resting for a turn (like Armour Points in Black Hack); the Barbarian gains 1d4 points per HD and re-rolls them all after each rest.
First Attack Ferocity: A Barbarian tests with Advantage on her first attack against an opponent who is Close
Self Preservation: A Barbarian may test CON to avoid any penalty from being Out of Action but must add the result of the OoA roll (up to +6 for 'Death')
This is the loincloth-clad semi-nude barbarian of fantastic literary fiction, not a medieval Viking or Celt. The d8 HD makes this Barbarian equivalent to a Cleric, but note the superior starting Hit Points. The damage output is the same for any weapon or even bare fists: good for a savage meelee fighter.
No armour is a drawback, but offset by Danger Sense. A 1HD Barbarian enjoys 1d4 Armour Points, which might be equivalent to chainmail, but a 3HD Barbarian will have 3d4 Armour Points, possibly double figures, which few Fighters can match. However, these points are removed as they are used, so in a long fight, the Barbarian becomes helpless. The Armour Points aren't predictable: you might roll poorly. Referees might disallow using Armour Points in no-peril situations, such as getting your companions to attack you just to be allowed to re-roll your Armour Points.
Self Preservation encourages a Barbarian to take foolhardy risks and avoid being crippled or disfigured - or even dying.
First Attack Ferocity is a nod to the Asbury Barbarian's signature move. Attacking with Advantage is particularly sweet as it doubles the chance of getting a critical hit.
This Barbarian shouldn't compete for space with Fighters. He's a sprinter, whereas a Fighter is a marathon runner. The mechanics reward jumping headlong into the fray, taking crazy risks, maybe hoping your comrades will bail you out if it all goes wrong.
The Class Hack by Mark Craddock introduces an alternative build for Barbarians. The Craddock Barbarian has d12 HD, outshining Warriors and d10/d8 damage output, also outshining Warriors but to adapt that for Blue Hack it should be d12/d10. They get the same extra attacks as Warriors/Fighters and roll STR and CON when leveling up. This version of the Barbarian is a superb bruiser. Since they can use any weapons or armour, they end up outshining Fighters in almost every way - Blue Hack Fighters' only advantage is their Shrug Off Damage ability to boost their Armour Points slightly and a chance to increase DEX when leveling up: unless a Barbarian rolls a good DEX at character creation, they are likely to fall behind as ranged combatants.
Click on the image to view it on drivethrurpg. There's also a Class Hack 2nd Ed. with a more nuanced Barbarian build that's rather more distinct from an overpowered Warrior
I don't think Blue Hack really needs a super bruiser to outshine Fighters, but it's certainly another option.
Later in the week, I'll think about Bards and Druids.
Like a lot of people, I like to celebrate my birthday by getting friends together for a game: either one of those big brainy wargames like Dune where everyone ends up in the kitchen, plotting, or else a jolly, feel-good RPG session, a sort of festive one-shot.
Covid Lockdown imposes constraints on both activities, but the wargame more than most. So we gathered this afternoon to play old school D&D: five players and myself, talking through Zoom, rolling dice on Hangouts and me showing maps and floorplans by sharing a PowerPoint display.
But what adventure to run? I'm time-pressed, right ahead of returning to work tomorrow, so it has to be a pre-made module. Time to dust off one of those old classics from the glory days of White Dwarf magazine. My eye falls on Barney Sloane's The Search for the Temple of the Golden Spire from White Dwarf 22 (1980).
You can also find this mini-module in Best of White Dwarf Scenarios II
Barney's adventure had always been a favourite of mine, although I'd never run it. How would it stand up, after all these years?
I think, back when I was 13, Golden Spire impressed me immensely. This was no underground maze or skirmish in a fortress. Barney set out an attractive wilderness map extending around the village of Greywood, complete with ruined towers, Cloud Giant lairs, talking trees and a forest full of gnomes and sprites. There are two mini-dungeons to encounter. There's a riddle that serves as a coded map to guide players from one end of the wilderness to the other, culminating in the eponymous Temple where some very hardy monsters reside.
The whole thing has a folkloric, faerie atmosphere that appealed to me greatly (and still does), brewing up elements of Spenser's Faerie Queen with its forest in which big evil temples pop out of the landscape and queer woodland folk offer cryptic clues.
Remember, this was only 1980. This sort of above-ground adventure in an atmospheric wilderness setting was quite novel. B2 (The Keep on the Borderlands) only appeared the previous year and the wilderness segment of that was only a prelude to the real business of clearing out the Caves of Chaos, one goblin at a time. Usually, wilderness was just something to cross in order to get to the adventure: here it was part of the adventure itself, along with a small town-based segment as well. Although Jean Well's B3 (Palace of the Silver Princess) contained a wilderness element and a similar faerie vibe, it was (in)famously recalled and rewritten; the next product I would find with this sort of integration of setting and adventure, Judges Guild's The Illhiedrin Book, was still a year away.
If you're my age, your adolescence is defined by either these covers or The Clash's record sleeves.
Rereading Barney's adventure, 40 years on, I can see some flaws. It occupies that strange twilight zone between Original D&D and AD&D: creatures from the AD&D Monster Manual are referenced, but this is a OD&D adventure through-and-through, with little or no reference to the Dungeon Master's Guide's rules for wilderness travel, for example.
There are confusions and omissions. What's the scale of the map? How far can PCs travel? How often do you check for Wandering Monsters? More importantly: just why, exactly, are the PCs seeking the Temple of the Golden Spire? Nowhere does the scenario explain what it is or why anyone would want to go there. It's sort of assumed that, once a Celtic Cross expounds a riddling quest, adventurers will just rush off and risk their lives to fulfil it on general principle.
Certain aspects of the riddle are unexplained and there seem to be crucial details missing from the description of Greywood: what is the star that is stone? what's the deal with the abandoned house? what exactly do the clerics know about the Temple? what's the deal with Greycrag Citadel, visible on the horizon?
You get the impression that Barney didn't bother setting down on paper everything that was going on in his campaign setting. Nevertheless, this scenario inspired a host of imitators in the pages of White Dwarf who corrected his mistakes, even if they never quite capture the faerie charm of Golden Spire: Phil Masters' The Curse of the Wildland (#32 and exemplary, like most of Phil's stuff) and Paul Vernon's Troubles At Embertrees (#34) were both from 1982; Stuart Hunter's The Fear of Leefield (WD#60) from 1984 and Richard Andrew's prize-winning Plague from the Past (WD#69) from 1985; all did a fantastic job of sending the PCs from a village in peril, through a cleverly constructed wilderness setting to a micro-dungeon showdown, but with a tighter plot and closer attention to AD&D rules.
The thrill I used to get as a schoolkid when these things came thumping through the letter box....
It's not a problem filling in the gaps in Barney's scenario. He seems to intend some clue in the stone cross to send the PCs journeying down the road to the east. I introduced an evil presence in dreams that was recruiting villagers to the cult of the Golden Spire and the disappearing peasants act as impetus to investigate and the PCs' own nightmares make the stakes personal: if they cannot locate the evil temple and destroy its power, they too will convert to Chaos.
AD&D, OD&D or ... gasp .... Holmes ???
1980 was an odd time for D&D. The AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide had just been published - I acquired mine for Christmas in 1979 so it's quite possible Barney Sloane didn't even own it when he composed Golden Spire, perhaps using only the AD&D Monster Manual and the Original D&D rules set for his campaign. That would explain the odd, eldritch tone of his adventure.
Back in 2020 I ran a campaign using the wonderful White Box rules, which do a great job of capturing OD&D. In fact, there's a huge section of this website documenting my attempts to reverse-engineer lots of character classes into White Box's delightful 10-level world. I promised myself I'd next turn to Blueholme next to capture the flavour of the Holmes Basic Set. But for this scenario, I wanted to try something different: the Blue Hack RPG.
Three brilliant OSR rules sets - click on the images for links to purchase: PDFs of White Box and Blueholme are pay-what-you-want and Blue Hack is under £2
Blueholme and Blue Hack are both by Michael Thomas of Dreamscape Design. Blueholme is a straight-up retroclone of the Holmes Basic D&D Set, but the recent Journeymanne Rules expand the game to 20th level, introducing all sorts of PC race options beyond the basic Elves, Dwarves and Halflings along with lovely OSR art.
Blue Hack is a different proposition. In just 22 pages, it condenses the D&D experience in the same style as the groundbreaking Black Hack RPG. You roll your classic 6 abilities on 3d6: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence and Charisma. No modifiers or saving throws; if you want to hit something, you roll under your Strength on a d20; dodge an arrow, roll under your Dexterity; spot a secret door, roll under your Wisdom.
Your class offers you Hit Points and damage is based on your class, not your weapon. Going up a level grants you opportunities to increase your abilities (try to roll equal to or over them on a d20). Monsters with more Hit Dice than you impose a penalty to hit or dodge them. Armour soaks damage. Every spell gets a single line of description; same with every monster. That's it. The rest is up to you.
Blue Hack offers a few Holmesian tweaks to the Black Hack formula, like racial bonuses for the obligatory Dwarves, Elves and Halflings; some Holmesian spells and monsters; some refocusing of character classes. Enough to make it feel like 'Blue Book' era 1970s D&D.
The beauty of this is the sheer speed with which you get a character up and running. You might think it's fast creating a character for Basic D&D, but there are hardly any tables to consult in Blue Hack. If you're creating characters online, over Zoom, this sort of pick-up-and-play ethos is invaluable.
Blue Hack also suggests that PCs gain a level after every session/adventure/encounter - whenever the DM likes, really. With Golden Spire I wanted the PCs to start at 1HD (1st level) and rise to 3HD (3rd level) by the time they entered the Spire itself. This proved very straightforward - at various points, players got to roll and add those extra Hit Points, check to see if any abilities increased and expand their spell slots. Beautifully simple.
So, what happened? [SPOILERS]
Character generation throws up the usual adventuring misfits. David is a cretinous dwarven halberdier named Dimples; Emily an elven thief named Gnashe; Alex an elven fighter-mage named Azure-Wall; Oliver a good-looking human fighter named Gomez; and Karl turns to the macabre with a child cleric named Bilge who worships the god of scarecrows and communicates through a sock puppet..
This bunch don't ask for motivation: they study the riddle and get on with the quest.
The tone is larky and riddled with Monty Python-isms: the villagers export walnuts and take everything literally, arm-wrestling resolves most interactions, cultists complain about itchy robes, no one believes gnomes exist.
Not wanting to waste Barney Sloane's excellent scenario map, I moved it into PowerPoint for screen-sharing and covered the hexes with terrain-themed shapes, then deleted each shape as the party moved through the wilderness, revealing the map below.
This was such an effective way of revealing a map and dramatising exploration, I'd love to do it for a round-the-table game, if such a format ever resumes. Yeah, you can probably do something similar on RollD20 ...
The party discover Greycrag Citadel, infested with kobolds. It's a lovely castle map that I'll definitely re-purpose for future games. In this case, Gnashe sneaked in alone, found the viewpoint from the tower from which the Golden Spire could be located and the party covered her embattled retreat, chopping down kobolds and ghouls.
Greycrag and the Temple of the Golden Spire: aren't those lovely? White Dwarf always excelled at scenario maps
Heading to the Spire, the party have fun with wandering monsters: Yorkshire Centaurs and an Ogre teaching his son how to devour humans (feet first, of course). By the time they reach the evil temple, everyone is 3HD/3rd level and pimped enough to take on hard monsters, like a Harpy and the climactic Wraith (who of course drains several people of their levels before being pelted to death with the harpy's trove of silver coins).
I decided that the introductory riddle was in fact sent by the Wraith, to lure the party to the Golden Spire and trick them into freeing him from his prison. It's a feature of Barney Sloane's old school scenario construction that, in his version, there's no explanation given for the presence of various monsters in the Temple of the Golden Spire: they're not doing anything, they're just waiting for adventurers to turn up and attack them. However, to his credit, Barney's kobolds in Greycrag Citadel are a fairly dynamic bunch, busy getting on with all sorts of interesting things when the PCs turn up: roistering in the big hall, torturing prisoners, sleeping on guard duty. That's another example of this scenario from 1980 being a sort of half-way house between the aesthetics of Original and Advanced D&D. Later, more sophisticated scenarios in White Dwarf in the '80s, by people like Phil Masters, would give careful thought to the presence of every monster and use them all in the service of an overall plot or theme.
Overall, can Blue Hack really hack it?
Blue Hack was a big success for this sort of level-up-as-you-go scenario. I'd love to use it for some of the old TSR Modules: Tomb of Horrors, maybe? or White Plume Mountain? Or dust off some later, more complex White Dwarf adventures, like Daniel Collerton's fabled Irilian city/campaign (WD#42-47).
I'm not sure Blue Hack would serve for a conventional campaign. The roll-against-your-abilities system means that characters with high Strength or Dexterity will rarely miss - or get hit - in combat, even against tougher monsters. For example, with Strength 17, Dimples the Dwarf was hitting monsters with the same HD as him 80% of the time. How many 1st level characters in ordinary D&D have those odds? Without Armour Class, monsters enjoy some protection from damage, but a party of PCs can pile on the damage quickly, ending fights in just a round or two.
Now, I quite like that - nothing is more boring than one of those OSR D&D fights that just goes on and on - but a sense of peril is lacking, especially as being reduced to 0 HP only has a 1-in-6 chance of killing you assuming the rest of the party survive to rescue you.
The other feature is that, without experience points being needed to level up, PCs have no motives to seek out treasure. You might feel that's a good thing too: let adventurers be motivated by more realistic concerns, like duty or honour or saving the realm or rescuing loved ones. But it's surprising the amount of D&D material that's predicated on treasure as a motivator and if the PCs don't need to acquire it, all sorts of scenarios, traps, dilemmas and rewards need to be re-thought. Of course, you could easily paste a basic XP system onto Blue Hack to restore that mercenary motive.
I think Blue Hack will be my system-of-choice for D&D one-shots, especially re-vamping old scenarios. It fast set-up and rather abstracted combat system makes it ideal for online RPGing. I like the fast fights and the option to assign level-ups at dramatic moments, rather than tracking XP. Its lack of 'grit' or peril might be a drawback, but it offers a fresh perspective on those old-school modules and scenarios. Did somebody say C2: Ghost Tower of Inverness? Let's go get that Soul Gem!
30 Minute Dungeons
Essays on Forge
I'm a teacher and a writer and I love board games and RPGs. I got into D&D back in the '70s with Eric Holmes' 'Blue Book' set and I've started writing my own OSR-inspired games - as well as fantasy and supernatural fiction..
The shoddy PDF rulebook available at drivethrurpg is missing pp 66-67, 82-83, 86-87, 126-127, 140-141 and 162-5. You can read or download these below: