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Friday 31 March 2023

The Other OSR—The Black Hack – Classic Monsters

The Black Hack – Classic Monsters is a bestiary for use with The Black Hack, Second Edition, the player-facing retroclone originally published in 2016. It is both incredibly dull and incredibly useful before it gets a bit interesting. Designed to support the play of classic fantasy, it contains some of the stats and mechanical details of some two-hundred-and-forty monsters based on those that appeared in Original Dungeons & Dragons and the version of Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Expert Dungeons & Dragons designed by Tom Moldvay. So almost everything from Ankheg, Ant, Giant Worker, Soldier, and Queen, Ape, Man-eating, Basilisk, Bat, Giant, Bear, Black, Grizzly, Polar, and Cave—and that is just on the first page, to Wraith, Wyvern, Xorn, Yellow Mould, Yeti, and Zombie—and that is on the last page! Which is a lot of monsters to get on the one page. So, the question is, how does The Black Hack – Classic Monsters manage to cram as much monster on the one page?

The Black Hack – Classic Monsters is not a bestiary in the classic sense, despite containing a large number of classic monsters. To get as many monsters as it does in its forty-six pages it forgoes any monster description and almost any monster illustration. Instead, it contains just the stats, or rather the stat for each monster and a list of each monster’s abilities or notable features. Often with a little bit of humour. This for example, is the entry for the classic Dungeons & Dragons monster, the owlbear.

Owlbear – HD5
Claw, Claw, Bite – STR (1 Close) 6 dmg
  • Huggy bear! If a failed Defence Roll is an odd number, the target takes Ongoing Damage until they make a successful STR Test as an Action.
The result is short, to the point, easy to use, but not necessarily all that interesting to read or look at. Certainly, in comparison to The Black Hack, Second Edition, which has its own bestiary and illustrations. However, The Black Hack – Classic Monsters is handy, especially if the Game Master is running an old module or scenario which itself draws from the same sources, as a ready reference to have at the table. The Game Master will still need to add some flavour to any encounter using these stats, but the likelihood is that either she would actually know many of these monsters and what they look like or her players will—if not both. Further, the scenario she would be running would have details she could use to add flavour and detail as well. So, an eminently serviceable supplement then? Well actually, The Black Hack – Classic Monsters contains a bit more than just one big list of monsters and their stats virtually free of any illustrations.

In fact, The Black Hack – Classic Monsters contains several lists. The main and longest lists contains the aforementioned monsters. The rest of the slim book consists of appendices. The first of these is a page of dinosaurs—just the one?—whilst the second consists of ‘Monsters of Legend’. These are reinterpretations of monsters extremely specific to Dungeons & Dragons. These include the Bestial Eye, Dimension Cat, Hooked Lurker, Koi-Ped, Mushroom Men, Under-Mauler, and more. These are decent adaptations, slimmed to the minimum of information necessary. However, in contrast to the easier entries in the book, the ‘Monsters of Legend’ are illustrated. This is as much to indicate to the Game Master what they are actually given the fact that the names have been changed for reasons! So, the Bestial Eye is a floating orb with a single large eye, a maw full of large teeth, and a halo of tentacles each ending in an eye of their own. The third appendix is the ‘Monsters’ Spell Index’. This lists all of the spells used by the monsters in the supplement for easy reference. It includes on how monsters cast spells according to the rules, that is, the players rolling to avoid or reduce the effect of a spell rather than the Game Master making the equivalent of a casting roll. There are guidelines too for creating shaman and witch doctor Humanoid monsters.

The fourth appendix is more expansive and possibly the most useful section in book. The ‘Conversion Guide’ provides a means for the Game Master to adapt any monster from Dungeons & Dragons to The Black Hack. This is a step-by-step process, explaining which stats and elements of Dungeons & Dragons monsters to adapt to The Black Hack. It is a quick and easy process, which with a bit of practice, the Game Master can even do during play. The notes also cover how to create powerful foes as well, and there is a list of sample abilities too. Most of these have been drawn from the abilities given for the various monsters listed earlier in the book, and of course, the Game Master can peruse their entries for other ones as well. Lastly, the final appendix, ‘Poison Tables’, provides a set of tables for determining poison effects other than death of Out of Action. These work with the book’s monsters as well as any assassins wielding a poison-coated blade!

Physically, The Black Hack – Classic Monsters is a handsome little book. The artwork is decent, if occasionally cartoonish, but the writing is clear and the layout clean and simple.

The Black Hack – Classic Monsters is more serviceable than it first appears to be. The lists of monsters are useful—and with some adjustment could be used with other microclones such as Knave or Cairn, but the ‘Conversion Guide’ makes just about every scenario or supplement monsters for classic roleplaying fantasy accessible and convertible to The Black Hack. Which is why every Game Master for The Black Hack should have it on her shelf.

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