Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Old School Hack Actual-Play Report

Among the roleplaying game sessions I ran at a recent convention was a scenario introducing my Infinite Cathedral medieval fantasy setting currently under development. While I like the D6 System as my default game engine, I wanted to try Kirin Robinson’s Old School Hack. It recently won an ENnie Award for best free product and caught my interest with its innovative game mechanics that, while drawing on nostalgia for old-school Dungeons & Dragons dungeon-crawling, employs several innovative mechanics. I’ve featured Old School Hack before at Hobby Games Recce, but this convention game provided my first chance to play it.

Five players joined me at the table and we walked through character creation using materials from the rulebook I’d printed. Everyone had a character and class sheet, plus a set of cards outlining combat actions and handy stand-up tent card with awesome point notes on the inside; in hindsight I should have printed up a few weapons and combat pages for player reference. After spending some time creating and introducing characters, we dove into the scenario, which I kept shorter than usual to allow for character creation with some meaningful game time. I won’t harp on the short adventure other than to say it included two combat scenes, one against a goblin bandit party and another against goblins with support from two hammer trolls, with some roleplaying scenes sandwiched between the skirmishes. During actual play several issues arose, most emerging from everyone’s general unfamiliarity with the rules:

Bonuses Everywhere: Old School Hack has a number of rules for advantages to keep track of, especially for players and a gamemaster trying to absorb a new rule set. They’re on the character sheet as talents, plus those offered in the inherent section of each class, then those from weapons used in favored arenas (and I might be forgetting others). At times we had trouble finding and remembering all the applicable bonuses to combat rolls, armor class, and damage. An issue like this resolves itself over time as everyone becomes more familiar with both the rules and their characters.

Combat Action Resolution: Players loved the card mechanic to show what everyone was doing in combat and in what order to resolve it (though as gamemaster I fumbled a bit adjudicating counter-attacking from defending heroes). Some players found inspiration in the cards and instead of simply attacking found interesting ways to use the “impede” and “push or throw” tactics.

Reward and Spend Awesome Points: The players took a while to remember to use the awesome point mechanics, both in awarding them and spending them (and remembering to mark off their expenditure as experience on their character sheets). Similarly, I as gamemaster didn’t put many points from my “Stack” into the player’s awesome point “Bowl” to boost their adversaries’ performance. Most bonuses from spending awesome points made sense, but paying three points to use another class talent raised some questions; we weren’t sure how this related to constant talents, and in the heat of the game I allowed using it to engage constant talents for the duration of the adventure, but probably should have only allowed its use for a specific task or a short scene.

Note that these issues aren’t flaws in the game as presented, but mostly the results of in-game unfamiliarity with the rules by both the players and gamemaster. Most questions that arose during actual play I looked up later and clarified for future reference. Running a campaign would certainly increase everyone’s fluency in the game’s nuances. Using the system for a convention one-shot might move along better with a gamemaster more experience with the rules and perhaps a different set of players.

The players displayed great enthusiasm for the game as they learned the practicalities of the rules and found how they encouraged heroic-style play; their enthusiasm was tempered only by a few slow portions when I had to look up and clarify how several mechanics worked. Both players and a few interested onlookers expressed amazement that these innovative, original rules were available free online.

Overall I liked Old School Hack for emulating classic D&D action. I’d use it again in a home or convention game now that I’m a bit more familiar with how particular rules work in play. We found the game fostered a fun sense of camaraderie, not simply from trying out the rules together, but primarily from the thoughtful tactics the combat actions encouraged and the rewarding awesome point mechanic.
Already someone has taken the Old School Hack approach to another genre, this one for a Fallout-inspired game called Retrocalypse (though it could work for any post-apocalyptic setting). Now if only someone would adapt Old School Hack to the pulp genre….