A quick overview of Black Hack tabletop RPGs using Gamma World-style settings.
One of the first RPGs I played with any frequency was Gamma World, the old TSR post-apocalypse game. The setting was a vaguely-defined future, after a vague apocalypse, full of strange creatures, lost technological artifacts, and characters with crazy mutant abilities. The settings were mostly light & pulpy, occasionally satirical.
Gamma World itself was never successful in the manner of D&D, but it was certainly influential. The idea of the gonzo, mutant-filled setting crops up again and again in RPG history, including games such as Rifts, Mutant Crawl Classics, Mutant Future and countless others. I’d argue even the Fallout video game franchise has quite a bit of Gamma World DNA in it.
The Black Hack
I wanted to talk specifically about Gamma World-style games using the Black Hack system, of which there have been several.
The Black Hack, for those of you not familiar with it, is a simple OSR system, originally developed by David Black. It’s designed to run quickly, with a minimum of rules and bookkeeping.
Characters tend to have the normal 3d6 stats (STR, DEX, CON, INT, WIS, CHA), Hit Points, classes, and levels that you’d find in most OSR systems. The primary differences from other OSR games are as follows:
Ability Checks – All actions are d20 roll-low ability tests. For example, Grog the barbarian wants to hit a guy with his axe. He rolls a d20, and compares it to his Strength of 12. If he rolls a 11 or below, he succeeds. In most Black Hack games, you can usually roll the d20 with Advantage or Disadvantage
This mechanic also takes the place of saving throws. Ursa the thief is poisoned. She has to roll under her Constitution of 9 on a d20 to avoid paralysis.
Usage Die – Things in Black Hack games that have limited usage, are often given a usage die. This is a regular die of a given size, usually a d8, d6, or d4. When the resource is used in any way, the player rolls the usage die. If they get a 1 or 2 the die type goes down one.
For example, a player has arrows with a Usage Die of d6. After each combat, they roll a d6. If it is a 1 or 2, the die type becomes a d4. The next combat they’ll roll a d4 instead.
Once a Usage Die is at d4, rolling a 1 or 2 means the resource is spent.
Class Attack Damage – In most Black Hack systems, the damage a player inflicts in combat is based entirely on the class of the character, not the specific weapon they’re using.
There have been a few Gamma World style games using Black Hack rules. Here’s a quick overview of each. I won’t be giving a full review of each, just covering the major differences between them. Let me know if I missed any.
A short 18-page book written and illustrated by Karl Stjernberg. It’s a fairly basic game, mostly sticking closely to the original Black Hack rules.
There are 4 classes: Human, Mutant, Robot and Psionic.
One of the interesting features of Rad-Hack is how rolling stats differs depending on your class. Humans get to roll 4d6, dropping the lowest die for stats. Psionics roll 2d6+2 for all stats, except INT, WIS, and CHA. Mutants roll a d20 for each stat resulting in wildly swingy characters. Robots don’t roll at all – they have a simple point-buy system. You literally build the robot.
Each class has a Radiation Die, a Usage die to determine how well they can withstand radiation.
Lists of mutations, psionic abilities, and robot modules are provided. Classes that can use these have a Ability Die, a Usage Die starting at a D4, to determine how long they can use the power before resting.
Other than a hex map, no setting is provided.
A 102-page full-color A5 book written and illustrated by Aaron Frost. This book is lavishly illustrated with cartoon-style art.
The default method to create characters in the Wasted Hack is to allow the players to assign stats using the numbers 13, 12, 12, 11, 10, 9. There’s a optional rule to roll randomly as well.
There are four classes: Savage, Veteran, Scavenger, and Infected. Each one has a series of Basic & Advanced Special Features. Essentially these are feats. Each one has a Usage Die.
As the players advance in level, there’s a chance they get mutant powers.
The combat rules are particularly detailed and “crunchy” for a Black Hack game, including rules for cover, auto & burst fire, and heavy weapons. Characters can be flanked, stunned, or bleeding. Most of the various weapons have detailed extra abilities. It’s a bit more to keep track of than most Black Hack games, but gives it a grittier sort of feel.
There’s a short list of wasteland monsters, and a number of ancient relics that essentially work as magic items. No setting is provided.
Unlike most of the games in this post, the Wasted Hack actually has some supporting products. There are books with expanded rules, a monster manual (with monster cards), and adventures.
This might be my personal favorite post-apocalypse Black Hack, despite the fact I’ve never met anyone else who’s ever played it or even heard of it. It’s a rather plain 20 page book, with very little art, but it’s got some really interesting mechanics.
The cover is simultaneously the greatest and dumbest RPG cover I’ve ever seen.
Characters roll 3d6 for each of six stats. It uses the six standard stats, except that Charisma is replaced with Chaos.
The Chaos stat is interesting. It can be used in place of any other stat. If the roll fails, the player must then roll a d4 to determine the negative consequences of the failure. The player can also choose to spend a point of the Chaos stat after a stat roll. They can then roll a d6. Even results are subtracted from the d20 rolls, odd results are added to the d20 roll.
There are no classes. The Gene Hack replaces them with Form and Flux, which are determined by the character’s stats.
Form is the physical structure of the character – Plant, Golem, Gargoyle, Gelatinous, Human, Android, Insectoid, Reptilian, or Bestial. A characters Form is determined from a table based on the characters STR and DEX scores. Each form gives the character their hit dice and some special abilities.
Flux is the nature of the characters powers: Telekinetic, Telepathic, Psionic, Primordial, Human, AI, Pyrokinetic, Cryokinetic, or Electrokinetic. A characters Flux is determined from a table based on the characters WIS and INT scores. Each flux gives the character some more special abilities.
There are no equipment lists, vehicle rules, or setting details. Only four enemies are provided. The GM would have to put a bit of work in to use this. This might also work well as a replacement character creation rules for another Black Hack game.
Certainly the largest and most well-produced Black Hack post-apoc RPG. It’s a full-color 170 page book by Mike Evans.
Openly inspired by the 80s cartoons Thundarr the Barbarian and He-Man. It’s set in a pulpy “World of depravity, Stupendous Science, and nefarious Sorcery!”. It’s closer to science fantasy than the other games here. There are literal spell lists.
Classes include Barbarian, Scavenger, Death Priest, Urchin, Beastman, Robot, Sorcerer, andVek (Raptorfolk). Each has special abilities.
There are tables for randomly generating weapons and armor types. Also, tables for mutations and cyberware.
Weaponized Animals – strange mutant animals that can be used as weapons for a limited time. i.e. Explosive Hedgehog, Regurgitating Rabbit, Sleeping Iguana Gun
There’s a nice little GM tools section with lots of interesting tables for fleshing out a post-apocalypse world. Includes tables for creating adventures, locations, and NPCs. It also has more exotic tables for weird weather, weird religions, punishments, and bizarre foods.
There’s a pointcrawl setting called the Western Lands, with 13 locations. One location, Nukatoni Plaza, a crumbling, balkanized arcology is described in a little more detail.
One adventure was released for this setting – Slave Mines of Vindicus the Terrible
I was hesitant to include this one, as it’s technically based on the OSR game Knave, rather than Black Hack. However, Knave is very much based on the Black Hack, so I think it applies. It’s a much more stripped down, simple system than the Black Hack.
There are no classes. All characters have the stats Muscle, Agility, Guts, Brains, Sense, and Weird, which are randomly generated. Characters also get randomly generated Perks or Mutations. Equipment is randomly generated as well.
All equipment has a usage die to keep track of wear and tear. There’s a short list of monsters and a sample adventure.