Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Old School Hack - Playtest Review

I play tested “Old School Hack” this past week. A few members of the regular Thursday night group had conflicts and so it seemed like a good time for a “one-shot.” I had only 2 players and decided to give “Old School Hack” a try.

The time that I had planned to use working on the game session prior to play got away from me, and I found myself the night of the game with almost nothing in way of preparation. No pre-made characters, no adventure, or even an initial encounter to start the action, nothing … except that I had managed to print a copy of the rules.

Fortunately, OSH seems designed to be easy to pick up and play with minimal (in my case zero) preparation. I pulled the class pages out of the printout I had made and laid them out on the table. I told my players to look them over and pick one that looked interesting.

One player chose the Cleric class sheet and the other the Elf class sheet.

After choosing their Class, each player rolled attributes. This went very quickly and although I was worried at first as the Elf started out with two negative results, the rest of her rolls were much better and soon she had assigned all her rolls to her attributes and was ready to continue.

Although inspired by D&D, the Attributes for OSH are named differently and also used in some cases for different things. The six attributes in OSH are:

Brawn - sheer size, number of heavy things you can carry, physical intimidation factor.

Cunning - trickery, sneakiness, doing stuff that others are trying to prevent.

Daring - courage, facing your fears and attempting dangerous stuff without hesitation.

Commitment - devotion and intensity, catch-all saving throw, shrugging off magic and other wiles.

Charm - social aptitude, ability to inspire or encourage people to see things your way.

Awareness - alertness and perception, reflexes, reading between the lines.

The attributes page does a good job of showing how this particular set of attributes applies to various actions the players may wish to attempt. I like the choices made here over all, it's not how smart you are, but how clever, not how nimble you are, but how bold.

I believe that the goal here was to create a set of attributes that separates itself as much as possible from the combat model, so that the attributes would be chosen based on the sorts of things a player might want their character to do and no so much as simply another way to boost their combat numbers.

If that was the intent it works, and OSH looks to have a versatile attribute based task resolution mechanic that resists the need for a skill system. I like this. Skill heavy systems that micro-manage a character's scope can restrict player creativity. In avoiding this, OSH characters are not only more versatile, they are easier and faster to create.

The attribute assignment was over in a flash and we were on to class talents.

The Class Sheets describe a class' inherent ability and a “limitation” which is really just a guide for role-playing the class. In addition, each sheet has a description of five class specific talents. Each player chooses one talent at character creation with more talents becoming available to the character as they grow in experience.

The talents come in three different flavors. There are “continuous talents” that are either “always on” or usable as much as the player wishes, “arena talents” that are usable once per arena (like once per encounter, but better … more on arenas to come,) and “rested talents” that once used require a rest to recharge.

The Elf chose “Perfect Accuracy” which allowed the elf to add +2 to a “delayed attack” with a ranged weapon once per arena.

The Cleric chose “Prayers of the Hurt” which is a spell that allows the Cleric to heal wounds once per rest.

The nature of the talents and their use reminds me of D&D 4e powers, but they're not as restrictive. It seems to me like everything in 4e tries to define itself as a power. The game designers created a rules formula and then shoe-horned everything to fit that formula. When playing 4e, it felt like a character couldn't blow his nose unless he had a power defined for the action.

Here things don't feel as restrictive, the talents are “extra” a bonus … something you get, not something you're tied to. I am not sure how it is that 4e ends up feeling so restrictive or how OSH ends up avoiding this trap … but, it does. Or at least these are my impressions. Both my players had played 4e for about a year and decided they didn't like it. OSH did not produce immediate reactions of disdain or disinterest, so I felt encouraged as we forged onward.

The next step in character creation was choosing a weapon. This is actually a key part of the system as weapons categories are tied to combat arenas. Arenas are an incredible idea and part of what makes OSH burst ahead of other fantasy themed old school RPG clones and stand head and shoulders above them as something unique, better than the games that it strives to emulate and a true gem in a this overly crowded RPG landscape.

An arena is a simple enough idea. It is any place that characters might do battle that is different from any other place that characters might do battle. In a single combat this could mean, the crowded floor of a busy travelers inn, the stairwell leading up to a balcony overlooking the main floor of that same inn, and the narrow balcony itself.

These areas would then be defined as “arenas” and each arena possesses qualities that makes it different from the arena connected to it.

The crowded floor of the inn is a DENSE arena.

The stairs leading up to the balcony might be a HAZARDOUS arena.

And the narrow balcony might be a TIGHT arena.

The brilliance of arenas is that no longer are the descriptions of special abilities and effects defined as so many inches in range or radius. Now instead of thinking of things as miniatures on a combat grid, players are encouraged to imagine the environment, the actual qualities of the three dimensional space where the combat takes place.

What does this have to do with weapons? Well each weapon type is best suited for a specific arena and using the right weapon for the combat situation provides a bonus.

The weapons categories are further refined as each weapon type provides a different kind of advantage. The player is no longer taxed with simply selecting the weapon that does the most damage, some weapons allow the character to act earlier in the combat round, others add to defense, some are more accurate and finally still others do more base damage.

The balance of weapon types is so brilliant that an arbitrary limitation to a specific weapon type based upon a character's class is not needed and not used. Any class can use any weapon and everything feels just right.

The Elf player chose a Bow which is a ranged weapon and gains a bonus in OPEN arenas.

The Cleric player chose a Poleaxe which is a reach weapon and gains a bonus in HAZARDOUS arenas.

Next, was a choice of armor. Again, no restrictions are arbitrarily applied based on class, but heavier armor is cumbersome and so best left to characters with a higher Brawn, while a character who chooses to fight without any armor at all earns bonus Awesome points at the end of the combat because fighting without armor is awesome!

Awesome points are a special kind of in game currency that players can use to replenish their special abilities. So, although a Wizard could certainly wear armor, one who fought without would find themselves with more awesome points with which to fuel their spells. The mechanism is elegant and functional. Just another fragment of brilliance in a treasure trove of brilliant ideas.

The Elf with a -2 Brawn chooses to wear Leather Armor.

The Cleric opts to go without armor all together relying on his inherent armor class bonus (from his deity for wearing a visible sign of his faith) and the armor class bonus from his poleaxe to offer him the protection he needs.

With this we were ready to go. I came up with a reason for the two characters to be in the same place at the same time and we were off and running. It took about an hour to make characters, maybe a little less. And since neither of my players had ever even heard of OSH before, this seemed pretty good.

As mentioned before, I had nothing prepared so I just started making stuff up. The OSH rules are designed so that I really didn't need to have anything written down.

I made stuff up, and when we needed to make an attribute check we did that. I rolled a die, the player rolled a die, and we compared them. This system of “random difficulty” may not satisfy every DM in every situation, but it worked great for the improvisational nature of the evenings adventure, and the system can be easily modified to suit other styles of play.

During play, the rules document itself proved incredibly functional. Each major game concept and idea is defined and presented on a single page. Need to know about attributes? Everything I need is on the attributes page? Combat? All on the Combat Page. And here was another place where OSH shines. The combat sequence creates a logical flow that provides strategic options without the need for grids or miniatures or attacks of opportunity.

The sequence has a logical flow to it that feels natural and moves quickly and easily. These were some of the best, most interesting combats I can remember running ... ever. They played so quickly, and were incredibly easy to setup and manage.

All I needed to do was imagine what the environment where the combat took place looked like and define it as one of the arenas. Hit point totals were small (minions having only 1 each) and so record keeping was nearly nonexistent. The use of awesome points kept things dynamic and exciting.

Awesome points are awarded by the players to each other for doing something … well, awesome! I love the idea of involving the players in the rewards mechanic, it allows the players to interact on a whole new level and to congratulate one another when they do something cool or funny. I can see this promoting team work among players and eliminating the “so-in-so is being a jerk” factor … Brilliant!

Awesome points can then be spent by the player to replenish a character's talents or even to use class talents that they haven't yet learned. In our story, the final battle saw the characters facing a hoard of undead zombie minions. The Cleric did not possess the “Turn Undead” talent, but by spending 3 awesome points he was able to use it in a surprise move that destroyed all the zombie minions in an instant and earned him one of his Awesome points back on the spot (and a high-five from his fellow player.)

As players spend their awesome points they record this on their character sheet. The use of awesome points is the gauge by which characters advance in the game system. It's another great little innovation that not only works, but relieves the DM of further record keeping. (Have I over used the word, “Brilliant?”)

The “High-five moment” sums up a lot of my feelings about OSH. It's fun! OSH is fun to play. Higher praise I cannot give, and both players have saved their character sheets in anticipation of playing again, and soon.

OSH is a 26 page PDF. Of this only the first 20 pages are actual rules, the rest being play aids. And after character creation, only about 10 pages are really going to be needed to play. It's the kind of concise rules package that I look for when it comes time to bring an RPG to my game table.

This strength of concise presentation might also be the games only weakness. OSH may well be the best candidate for an entry level RPG I've seen, and as such it would be brilliant to see a version written with an eye toward introducing new players to the hobby.

The concise and compact nature of OSH also means that it only contains information for taking characters from 1st to 4th levels. The author promises a forthcoming “Heroic” edition, so maybe that's a strength after all, as it gives us something to look forward to. I for one am very anxious to see more of this RPG masterpiece.

Old School Hack is a rewrite/revamp of another free RPG called “Red Book Hack.” Looking at both of them, I have to smile, because this, to me, is what the free RPG community should be all about. The majority of the innovations that “Old School Hack” boasts are given first breath in “Red Book Hack” this material is then sharpened, distilled and perfected by the author of “Old School Hack.”

This is a wonderful example of the power of the “Creative Commons” license agreement. One person put forth an idea. Another person took this idea and built upon it. Neither person has ever met. They did not set out to collaborate on a project. But because of the internet, their ideas have found each other and gamers like you and I get to reap the rewards of their labors.

To Kirin Robinson and Eric Provost I say, “Thank you.”


Jeff Moore


  1. Glad to see the actual play write-up for this game. I have been itching to play it for some time, and have actually thought it bight make a fun lite blog game.

    Thanks for sharing!


  2. It might indeed, but don't let it's "rules lite" appearance fool you. There's some real depth here. I plan to run a campaign with it once my current Warehouse 13 Fudge game wraps up.