Skip to content

Hackin’ It Old School

  • by

I was able to run a two session game of Old School Hack using the “play test rules.” Those have since been supplanted by the Basic Rules (beta). Having looked those over, I didn’t see any obvious system changes, just some interesting additions which might have changed at least one thing in our game.

So, I started out with a game based on Yojimbo. A war has just ended and order has not yet returned to the Dragon Kingdom (alt-Korea). The characters enter a town ruled by two gangs. Both gangs approach them, and then the local magistrate—sidelined since the war and the arrival of the second gang—makes the crew an offer they can’t refuse. The second session took a sharp left turn and zombie entered the mix.

Old School Hack (OSH) provides mechanical niche protection by allowing only one of each class at the game table. There are seven classes including fighter, cleric, magic user, thief, elf, dwarf and goblin. We had a fighter, a thief, and a magic user in the PC group. I like this aspect of niche protection and I like the “talents” to which each class has access—those talents being a kind of melding of the d20 Feat with the 4E Power. OSH does the class balance trick the same way 4E does it—by making spells Talents, just like the Talents provided all the other classes.

I find the use of Talents, and the Talents themselves, a simple, elegant mechanic that makes both Feats and Powers look clunky.

Of course, that’s the entire game right there. It makes everything look clunky. Is now a good time to tell you that the actual rules—sans FAQ and classes—run seven pages? That’s right, an RPG in seven pages. And it’s complete. Very complete.

Along with the Talents, each class has an inherent—which is basically a class feature—and a limitation—which is more narrative than mechanic, but is a nice touch. The characters have Attributes, which are both stats and skills. Rather than Strength and Dexterity et al, OSH has Brawn, Cunning, Daring, Commitment, Charm, and Awareness. It took me a while to get it through my thick d20 head that these did two duties, and therefore there was no need for a skill system.


These Attributes are rated as modifiers, kind of how True 20 does it, though they are random—one rolls on a table. Definitely harkening back to the OD&D/1E days.

Choice of weapon is simple, because it’s a choice between light, reach, ranged, heavy, and very heavy. Each weapon group has an “arena” in which it shines and gains a bonus. Everything does basically the same damage, except for the heavy and very heavy weapons, which provide more damage at the cost of weight.

And weight is important, while remaining simple. The character’s Brawn modifier is the number of heavy things the character can carry. Simple.

Armour is the same. There is none, light, heavy and very heavy, and each has a respective Armour Class. Nothing else modifies the AC. Magic Users and Clerics can wear any armour, but wearing none gets a character free Awesome Points after a fight, and a character can reuse limited Talents using said points, so there is a huge incentive for the two classes to wear no armour.

And Awesome Points are truly awesome. It is important to note that players hand out Awesome Points to other players, rather than the GM. And that characters progress to another level once every character in the party spends 10 Awesome Points. It is expected that the Awesome Points will flow fast and furious.

Listen, I’m not going to explain anything more about the game. Go download it. It’s free. With everything included (even cover) it’s 26 pages. The majority of those 26 pages are not rules. Go get it and read it.

Here’s my experience and thoughts.

First off, I love the system and intend to run it again. This is going to be my straight-up adventure/sword & sorcery game. I have a couple of other games for specific genres (like the two games I’m developing myself!), but I will not be running 4E, 3.5E or even the d20 Conan RPG. Whatever I would run with that, I can run with OSH, and it’ll be more fun.

Second, I got a little frustrated in the first session because the fights didn’t seem fun enough. It was “I attack”—roll—hit?—next—rinse—repeat. I didn’t use enough Awesome Points myself, so the bowl didn’t get replenished fast enough. I tried to create more interesting combat by putting incentives on describing actions.

All of this was my fault. I wasn’t familiar with the game, and I was expecting something from it, its rules alone could not deliver.

The second session the fighting seemed more fun. That was because I got into it more. I started describing the combat, and I started having more fun with it. I honestly can’t tell you if everyone joined in or my perception was that everyone joined in because I was having so much fun, but the fights went a lot faster, smoother, and with more drama.

I got the NPCs using Awesome Points like crazy. That bowl stayed full. I was using Awesome Points for everything a PC would use them for—like having an item handy. Even if it was a story element, I paid for it. Also, in combat, the NPCs used them more, both for soaking up damage and for dealing a little more.

In the end, we talked about the experience and the perceptions of the system. The biggest complaint was that combat acumen did not scale. There was very limited means to get better at fighting. We also decided this could be easily addressed by creating more Talents.

And I think that is the key to continued use of OSH. More Talents. That’s implicit in the Basic Game. To move forward, the classes will need more Talents. And we even decided how we could use Talents to allow players who wanted their characters to fight real well to advance their fighting skills.

Stay tuned, when I write that up, I’ll be sure to share it with you. However, the basics were allowing characters to take Armour of Scars and Weapon of Choice multiple times. We were looking at something else to also allow damage to increase. It’s all about the Talents.

We recorded some actual play, and I’ll put that up some time. Keep your eyes (and ears) open and I’ll let you know when it drops.

The conclusion to this very, very long article is that OSH is an excellent game. You need to try it. It’s not going to scratch everyone’s itch, but it does everything I need it to do. And it’s free! Seriously, how can you match that?

You can find Old School Hack here.

You can read about Yojimbo here.