Monday, January 4, 2021

Game Review: The Wasted Hack

Game Review: The Wasted Hack

Author: Aaron Frost
Publisher: Shattered Pike Studio
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG
Engine: OSR compatible (B/X, Black Hack)

Confession time: I have nearly no experience playing "Atomic pulp" post-apocalyptic games. Gamma World passed me by and while I have been tempted to pick up Mutant Crawl Classics, I don't have players interested in the genre,  I own a copy of the recent Free League / Mödiphius iteration of Mutant : Year Zero, but again, have no one interested in playing it with me. (Mind you, I have mapped out most of a San Francisco Bay Area wasteland for it anyway, assuming the Ghirardelli factory as the enclave.)

I did once run my wife through the entirety of the original Fallout as a Cypher System game to help her grok some of the context of Fallout: New Vegas, but I suspect that barely counts. And I've done a small test play of Death is the New Pink

I mention this, to say I don't have much basis for comparison, so take my discussion of genre with a grain of salt. Aside from the Fallout games and a few novels by Phillip K. Dick, and a few movies, my scope is more limited than if we were talking about cyberpunk, horror, fantasy, or space opera. I received my copy of The Wasted Hack as a complimentary gift for having participated in the 2020 One-page Dungeon Contest. I quite enjoyed reading it, but as usual, got a "no" when I pitched it to my regular players.

Its a pity, because I think it would be a pretty approachable entry into the genre.

Mechanically, The Wasted Hack is built on The Black Hack, a heavily modified RPG built on a skeleton of B/X Dungeons and Dragons, but with significant modifications to make for a smoother gameplay experience. Among the major modifications to the Black Hack to Dungeons & Dragons:

  • All rolls are a d20 under an ability score.
  • Penalties are levied when enemies have more HD than the player character. 
  • All other mitigating circumstances on a roll are expressed using Advantage and Disadvantage. 
  • Your class' most important attributes have a chance of going up when leveling. 
  • Armour absorbs a limited amount of damage each day.
  • Encumbrance is handled through slots. 
  • Resources are tracked with usage dice. 
  • When characters reach 0hp they roll on a death & dismemberment table. 
  • Levelling up is handled by milestones. 
  • Spells are handled by rolling under INT or WIS. Casters may cast any spell they know, and use up spell slots when they fail spell rolls. 
  • Random encounters are rolled based on real session time instead of in-game time. 
  • Monster armor and damage is based on HD. 
  • Monster attack rolls are instead player-facing defense rolls. 

The Wasted Hack adds a system for degrees of success, special abilities that can be bought when characters level up, and a chance for PCs to gain beneficial mutations or psychic powers. Many abilities are controlled using a common usage die. It also adds in more complexity in Armour, terrain, and movement than in The Black Hack. Generally, the added crunch comes nowhere close to the level of crunchiness that was in Dungeons and Dragons itself, however. 

Just like Gamma World did with Dungeons and Dragons, the Wasted Hack replaces the four fantasy character classes of The Black Hack with post-apocalyptic character archetypes: the Savage (a barbaric Melee fighter), the Veteran (a gunslinger with survival skills), the Scavenger (a stealthy trap-springer), and the Infected (ghoulish mutants with superpowers.)

The game draws a lot of inspiration from the Fallout series, especially with the Infected class, which draws heavily of Fallout's ghouls for their powers and visual design.

What I Loved

Action Die

I have a love/hate relationship with usage dice, which I will discuss later. One use of them I do appreciate is the "Action Die" mechanic in The Wasted Hack: players have a d6 "Basic Action" usage die they roll when using special abilities. It has a chance of degrading with each use of an ability. This means a character's ability to use their special class features a random number of times, but at least twice in a day. The die replenishes after 8 hours of rest. 

More powerful abilities use a separate "Advanced Action Die" so that PCs don't risk losing out at using their coolest and hard-earned abilities just because they were unlucky while using their simple ones. 

Character Options

The Wasted Hack does character customization well. As characters level, they have the option to choose their abilities from a list of options for their class or a list of Universal options. These "specials" are all tightly designed to suit the core concept of the class. None are particularly complex or game-breaking, and rarely offer huge mechanical changes to the way the character works. What these options do is allow you to slowly expand the tools available to a character to cover their niche. 

Limited Healing Options 

Once per day characters may roll a class hit die to replenish their hit points. This makes it likely that a character will need a day or two to recover from a single injury, and several to recover from a major mauling.

Armour absorbs a limited amount of damage that replenishes when characters rest between encounters or use their special abilities. This makes Armour extremely valuable as it serves as a pool of temporary that refresh regularly, and incentivizes players to use their abilities judiciously. 

Multi-Stage Foes

One of those tropes from video games that has become popular in TTRPG adventure design, multi-stage enemies are hard to do well in TTRPGs, and few games offer guidance on them. The Wasted Hack had a pretty robust and well-considered section on handling multi-part and multi-stage encounters. 

Growth Points

Usage Dice

I am not a huge fan of usage dice for most things. When it comes to ammo, rations, and energy, it is no simpler than just keeping a count of your supplies manually. The only place where usage dice have ever made sense to me is used for light sources in Delve 2e, as the possibility of being stranded in the dark is significant and terrifying. 

Usage dice are used in The Wasted Hack for ammo, food, energy for equipment, and equipment quality. All of which might be better served with a flat number system. It does use them well in the Action Die, however, as discussed above. 

Dicey Ranged Combat

Ranged combat involves rolling attack, damage, and ammo usage all at once.  Low rolls can trigger weapon quality rolls as well. It's a lot of dice, especially when adding advantage, disadvantage, or special abilities that add extra damage dice. Is it 5e? No. But the ammo and quality dice are unnecessary. 

Luck Points and Narrative Control

The wasted hack includes a luck Point mechanic that can be used to power certain very potent abilities, me role, cancel this Advantage, Grant advantage, or improve the degree of success of a roll. I use a similar mechanic myself, and can't complain about this concept. However, luck points can also be spent to allow players to take small amounts of Naruto control over the game. Example provided is stating that hey certain door jams and takes a long time to close, giving players a chance to sneak into a place they might not have otherwise had.

When I first encountered mechanics like this in FATE Core and Cypher System, I was smitten with them, and I was confounded when my characters were not And as I dug in I realized why: this kills immersion for my players. Sure there is magic and special abilities for characters that might let them create that broken-down door, but they then have to use an in-game channel for creating the effect. They can't just decide the door is slow, their characters would have to do something to make it slow.

This is a whole article in and of itself. One I will be putting up very soon. But at its heart, the issue is that for players of more traditional role-playing games rather than more modern story games, there needs to be a sense of a strict divide between the role of the GM and the players that this sort of mechanic breaks. Players don't want to be gods of the game world, they want to be people in it. Seizing control of the narrative beyond their characters crosses that line. I could never sell my players on FATE and noticed that they are damn shy about the idea of using XP on the fly to change their characters or block a GM intrusion in Cypher System for this reason.

I see the reason for this line and I think game designers need to think carefully before they cross it.

Character v. Character Rules

There are two sets of Character vs. Character rules in The Wasted Hack, both of which make a certain kind of sense, but they also create problems. 

In the, first method a PC trying to oppose another PC tries to roll over their foe's stat rather than rolling under their own to represent the other PC's ability to defend themselves. This both reverses the die roll (which is a pain for some players) and breaks the fundamental design philosophy behind the core mechanic: that what matters is the acting PC's skill.

The second method fixes this by making the attacking (or interfering) player make a check to "hit" the defender, and then having that roll opposed by a defense roll by the defending player. This turns every roll in a PC on PC struggle into opposed checks. One of The Wasted Hack's strengths is that it resolves everything in one roll. This reduces the speed of the gameplay significantly.


The Wasted Hack is a pretty solid entry into the Gamma World retroclone arena. It offers character classes that fill most of the traditional archetypes, lets players build characters who specialize a little, but without getting bogged down in the need for rules mastery, and adds enough crunch to The Black Hack to satisfy my inner optimizer nerd without making system mastery a pillar of the game. I do find that it uses too many moving parts and involves more rolling than it needs to with the depletion dice, but that is a complaint easily hacked out by just counting bullets and food supplies, and giving items "quality points" rather than a quality depletion die.

If you are looking for a fast, lightweight post-apocalyptic adventure, but still want a little crunchiness to the system, The Wasted Hack is  solid contender.

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