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Friday, 2 September 2016

Game 'Old Style' like its 1890

In the wake following the publication of The Black Hack has come a slew of games that either added to the Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy of The Black Hack or took the Old School Renaissance play style/player facing mechanics combination in another direction. So The Class Hack and The Race Hack, both from Cross Planes Game Studio add new/old Classes and Races to the game respectively, whilst Feral Games’ The WasteLand Hack goes all post-apocalypse, The Space Hack from Ivanhoe Unbound takes to the stars, and Just Crunch Games’ Cthulhu Hack lets you confront the horrifying nature of the universe. As can be seen from just from mentions of these, there are plenty to choose from, so Reviews from R’lyeh selected one to review that looked interesting that one was The Jack Hack: A Role-Playing Game of Victorian Villains.

Published by John R Davis, The Jack Hack is a Victorian era set RPG like any other. In other Victorian-set RPGs, such as Victoriana and Cthulhu by Gaslight, the players take the roles of heroes, but not so in The Jack Hack. In this RPG, the player characters are not heroes, but villains—and not even great villains at that. They are the men broken by one too many war or fight, who have run one too many scams, who have fallen from grace, and who have lost power in the underworld, and the women who have fallen from grace and become ‘soiled doves’. They have all hit rock bottom and been driven into the dark, dank streets of Whitechapel where a mysterious stranger has rescued them from a likely death… Perhaps this is a chance to redeem themselves, perhaps this is a chance to make a name for themselves, but there is a rumour that the streets are not safe. A murderer is stalking Whitechapel and who knows if one of the characters is going to be his next victim or even responsible…?

The Jack Hack comes with five new Classes. These are The Broken, a tough ex-soldier, sailor, or prize-fighter who can withstand damage for both himself and others, is inured to the sight of blood, and can attack twice per action. The Cokum is a former con man who is equally as good at lying as he is making a speedy exit, is good for a night’s drinking, and can shift blame to others. The Disgraced can rely upon his former profession, wealth, and even his dignity to get by, whilst the Fine-Wire can lurk and skulk, knows the shortcuts and byways, is charismatic, and is adept at getting in the first blow in any combat. Lastly the Night-Flower can spurn certain advances, withstand poisons, the ague, the pox, and a night of excess, always find a place to stay, and use her Charisma in the first round against a member of the opposite sex.

The first interesting fact about these Classes is that the exact nature of each depends upon the Hit Points rolled for each. So The Broken starts with between five and twelve Hit Points. If he starts with five or six, then he was a rifleman in the army, seven or eight a sailor, with nine or ten a hired hand, and with eleven or twelve a prize-fighter. This also determines his starting gear and this is done for each of the Classes. This is also an odd way of determining such details, but it works. 

The second interesting fact is that some of these Classes are easier to play than others. The Broken and The Fine-Wire are going to be easier to play because they are less social Classes and rely less on their ability to interact with higher levels of society and less on the nebulous skills of their former profession. 

The third interesting fact about The Jack Hack is that it is set in a sexist society and the Classes do reflect this. So whilst it is possible for the Night-Flower to be male or female, it is very unlikely that The Broken or the Disgraced would be anything other than male.

The fourth interesting fact about The Jack Hack is that when Leveling Up and rolling for attribute improvements, a character can lose points to one of his attributes. For example, when The Broken is Levelling Up, a roll of a one to improve his Intelligence will cause him to lose a point in his Intelligence. This represents the lifestyle of the character and his descent into the moral and physical squalor of his new life in the East End.

The fifth interesting fact about the The Jack Hack is that it develops the use of The Usage Dice from The Black Hack to reflect the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ resources of the character. The White Usage Die represents a character’s ‘outer’ resources—his influence, infamy, contacts, and standing in Whitechapel, whilst the Black Usage Die represents his ‘inner’ resources, his self-esteem, even his sanity. When a Usage Die goes down through being used, the only way to improve it is when Levelling Up. Each of the Classes has a use for one the Usage Die types, but in general the use of either represents a means to handle a situation where an attribute may not be able to handle a situation. Their inclusion is clever, but the rules for their usage could have been better explained and better developed.

Being a ‘mundane’ Victorian set RPG, there is no ready healing in The Jack Hack and so this is much more brutal RPG than some players may be used to. So there is no magic and there is no supernatural, though the GM is free to add either, as well as the presence of Sherlock Holmes if he so chooses… There is room for one or more supplements dealing with each of these aspects of the setting, though this would push The Jack Hack towards being an Urban Fantasy RPG.

Over half of The Jack Hack is devoted to tables. From ‘20 things found floating in the Thames’ to ‘20 detailed menaces with long term goals’, thirteen or so tables give things to buy or find, places, personalities, goals, ways to die, and more. All of these to be found in the seedy squalor of the East End. It is absolutely not a guide to Whitechapel—for that the GM will need to conduct his own research—but rather a toolkit to spur game of The Jack Hack and to add detail and flavour. What definitely is missing is a table devoted to the player characters’ mysterious benefactor and what he might want.

Ultimately that is very much what The Jack Hack is—a toolkit. As such, it is somewhat stripped down, even underwritten, for example, even down to its bibliography. In fact, it does not actually have one, but the nearest it gets to that is mention of the one inspiration, BBC’s Ripper Street. Of course that series is is as much about the police as it is the crooks, where The Jack Hack is all about the crooks.

As a full RPG setting, The Jack Hack is underwritten. As a toolkit, The Jack Hack gives pointers and flavours aplenty to get a Victorian-set game mired in the seediness, squalor, and wretchedness of  London’s worst slums. Playing villains and ne'er-do-wells puts the players and their characters in that mire and enables them to play from a non-traditional angle. The inclusion of The Black and White Usage Dice allow The Jack Hack to model inner and outer desperation and is a welcome addition. Overall, The Jack Hack is underdeveloped—and both the GM and players alike will need to work hard to get it to work—but rife with gaming potential.