Friday, January 20, 2012

Old School Hack Review and Thoughts

I just finished a read-thru of this free game (link to the lower right, under Free Swag). I am impressed.

I avoided this download for a little while, because I had mistakenly linked it with Red Box Hack. I have no interest in RBH, mainly because I can't get my head around anthropomorphic animals as PCs. As it turns out, OSH is a hack of the Red Box hack. As far as I know, it uses the underlying systems of RBH and makes it a little more "normal". I can not attest to the actual veracity of those statements, as I've never read RBH, but it is what I gather from reviews and forum posts and the like.

Like I said, I am impressed by this game. It takes some old, and not-so-old, ideas and puts a refreshing spin on them. I'll lay out some of the things I like, bullet-style.

  • Attributes Rather than "stats" representing intrinsic qualities of the character, OSH uses "Attributes", which seem to be an indication of the raw, inherent quality in the character, combined with the character's ability to actually use that quality to best effect. Thus, Brawn isn't just raw strength and size, it is the character's ability to use that strength and size effectively. It covers obvious things such as weight allowance, but also provides a bonus to things like intimidation. So, attributes provide not only "stat checks", they also become a broadly applied sort of skill system.
  • Attributes are rated by their bonus/penalty only. So, rather than having a STR 15, granting a +1 bonus, you would have Brawn +1. The bonuses are randomly determined using 2d10 rolls for each attribute.
  • Talents Each class has a list of Talents associated with it. Each class receives one talent per level, including first. Talents are very similar to Powers in 4E in principle. In execution, however, they are vastly improved. They are generally quite simple, and where ambiguities do exist, it is almost expected. This is an old school game in spirit, after all. Talents are rated by their usage, much like Powers. Some are Constant meaning they are either always on or may be used as desired. Some are per Arena, basically meaning per combat. Some are Rested, being usable once per rest period. The chief difference, aside from simplicity of the individual talents, is that they don't define the character as much as Powers do. This game has a definite old school vibe, and in the old school role play defines the character. Talents just add a little spice.
  • Spells are Talents, pretty much like 4E. But wait til I get to Awesome Points and you'll see the difference.
  • In OSH any character can take any Talent, regardless of class. When the character gains a level and is able to select a new talent, he can select from any class. The only real restriction is that a character must have more class talents than cross-class talents. There's another restriction, but it is related to something I'd house rule out. I'll get to that later.
  • Weapons and Armor These are rated by categories, such as Light, Reach, Ranged, Heavy, etc, for weapons. Unarmored, Light, Heavy, etc, for armor. The weapon categories are based more on usage than anything else, and armor is based on material/coverage, yielding an Armor Class. There are examples given within each category, but the details are essentially a matter of role playing. As long as the mechanical aspects of the category your character is using are adhered to, it's all good. A Heavy Weapon could be a shiny bastard sword or an old tree limb covered in broken glass and rusty nails. Mechanically if they're both listed as Heavy Weapons, it all comes down to the same thing. Most weapons do a flat 1 point of damage on a successful hit. The main thing that differentiates them in game terms is the type of combat they are designed for, which brings us to . . .
  • Arenas I'll admit, I'm going to have to see an example of this in action. It is a pretty abstract concept, but I have a hunch it plays very well. I can't put my finger on it, because I don't fully understand it in practice, but I get a good vibe from it. As far I do understand it, Arenas are areas where combat occurs. It could be a narrow bridge, a tight tunnel, or across steeply pitched roof tops. They're abstract in that there is no specific map and movement between them is more than just an expenditure of movement points. I don't really want to say more because I don't want my limited understanding lead to misunderstandings.
  • Awesome Points I'm not crazy about the name, but that's just a personal thing. It's easy enough to call them whatever I want. It's not hard to imagine what they are, so I'll just gloss that over. One thing I find interesting about them is that advancement is entirely dependent on using them. The adventuring party advances as a group once all members have used 12 AP. Since AP will only be earned for doing awesome stuff, it means the characters will, by extension, advance by doing awesome stuff. It's an interesting mechanic and its effect on the game is much more nuanced than its brief write-up in the rules suggests.
  • Awesome Points can also be used to refresh Talents, so Magic Users will likely be hoarding them until a big fight, then spending them like water to keep those spells coming.
  • Task Resolution I had to read this one a couple of times to make sure I wasn't missing something. To resolve a task, the character rolls (the much underused) d12, adds relevant Attribute/Talent bonuses/penalties and must meet or exceed the target number. In a contested task check, that target number is d12 plus the opponent's bonuses/penalties. Here's the wonky portion: In a non-contested check, the target number is simply the d12. That's right, the target number is totally random. The DM can assign a modifier to it, if the situation warrants, but it is still random. From the perspective of a guy sitting at a table having fun, I like that. Nothing generates dramatic tension like a little uncertainty. On the other hand, from the point of view of a guy weighing the risk to the character I've been playing the last 10 months, I'd like something solid to base my decisions on.
  • Power Curve This game has a very modest power curve. Characters rarely have more than 8 HP. Almost all weapons and creatures deal 1 point per successful hit. The Talents, while not particularly balanced against each other mechanically, are pretty understated and no particular one should ever come to dominate play.
I really like this game. It isn't perfect, but none are. I may do another post with some quibbles, but quibbles are really all I have. No heavy criticisms, and even the quibbles I have are easily house ruled. Anyway, like I said, this is free and there is a link in my Free Swag thing at lower right. Go check it out.


  1. Hey, Kirin here!

    Thanks so much for taking the time to review the game, man. Very constructive feedback. A lot of people seem to like the Arena concept after they've played around with them in actual play, but I don't really explain them very elegantly in the rules. Certainly combat becomes much more interesting if a little Arena variety is introduced!

    Hope you get a chance to play it soon! I'll be sharing your review around, if you don't mind. Thanks again!

  2. Great article! I love how you attacked each element in turn.

    For what it's worth, my online group recorded our playtest of Old School Hack, and posted it here:

    Arenas did work well for us, though I needed to use them a couple of times to really grasp a practical size and position for each arena.

  3. Thanks for the compliments! This is the first review I've ever done. I've read at least one for every game I have, but I wasn't sure how I would go about writing one, so I just didn't. I guess OSH inspired me. Thanks for such a cool game, Kirin. Feel free to share my review as much as you like. I'm working on a follow-up based on my re-read, which should be up tomorrow.