This System Reference Document (SRD) contains the core rules of The Indie Hack Engine. It contains many of the tools that you need to make a story-centric, player-driven role-playing game.
The SRD does not provide those things that make up your setting; the items, skills, spells, enemies, economy, locations, classes, and advancements that make your game unique are not provided.
You can use all of the information and text provided herein in your hack, in full or in part, modified or left alone; if you use these mechanics, I ask that you include the following text "This game runs on The Indie Hack Engine." somewhere on the first page or so of your text. That's it! Go play your game. Go sell your game, if you want. Get in contact with me if you want to list your game on this page.
Here are the games that run on The Indie Hack Engine (TIH Engine)
The Indie Hack (TIH) is a minimalist fantasy roleplaying game, build up from the ideas in The Black Hack, that is played with pencils, paper, dice, and imagination. It takes old-school gaming and gives it an indie edge: you get heroes, magic, traps, and monsters but the players get more control over the richness of the story.
The characters are ruled not by abstract ideas of goodness and order, but by Masters (who they try to impress) and Goddesses (who they need to appease when they are near death). The characters have relationships with each other and NPCs that mechanically evolve. Players answer class-centric questions about the world during character creation, to help the GM develop the setting and tone of the adventure.
There are seven classes to choose from: The Veteran wades through battle. The Exorcist banishes the Unliving. The Hunter can find anything in the wilderness. The Scoundrel bypasses traps and locks. The Elementalist manipulates fire, water, and stone. The Occultist summons up dead things. And The Outlander is... well... different.
In The Indie Hack, you don't collect XP, you collect scars.
At just 28 pages, The Indie Hack a light-weight way to shift your dungeon-delving paradigm.
Grab Thomas Novosel's amazing form-fillable PDF character sheets here.
Dust, Fog, and Glowing Embers is an upcoming Renaissance-era sci-fi game. Characters augment themselves with alchemical mixtures to complete missions from unscrupulous patrons. Scablandspress is working with the inimitable Dirk Leichty on art. Oli Jeffery, who denies any and all claims that he draws his layout skills from a dark pact with pre-historic gods, is rumoured to be on board for layout.
The Monstrous Hack is an upcoming Elizabethan horror game.
The actions of characters meeting challenges that have risks and rewards are resolved by rolling two six-sided dice (2d6) with one Light Die and one Dark Die. The Light Die represents the difficulty of the challenge (and, if higher, GM details). The Dark Die represents the character’s heroism and prowess (and, if higher, player details). The player rolls 1 Light Die and 1 Dark Die (adding their attribute score to the Dark Die) and compares the results. The player always rolls both dice, even though the light die will represent GM details if higher.
Use the chart below to interpret the result:
A Draw — Each side adds one hard detail.
Over by 1 — Winning side adds one hard detail but incurs one hard negative detail (e.g., counting against the capacity of their armour or weapon) added by an ally.
Over by 2 — Winning side adds one hard detail.
Over by 3 — Winning side adds one hard detail and one scene detail.
Over by 4 — Winning side adds one hard detail and so does one ally.
Over by 5+ — Winning side adds two hard details.
Hard details are added when rolling the dice and describe a fundamental change to some property of a person, place, or thing (e.g., dealing damage, changing an object, annoying someone). During the game, in point form, note down all hard details added to a character, weapon, enemy, etc. (e.g., when a player says "I slash it with my sword!", rolls and is over by 2, and therefore, has one hard detail to spend, add a detail like Deep Incision to the monster. The player won the challenge by rolling and being over by 2; the effect of that victory is represented by a change to the monster in the form of a hard detail.)
Soft details can be added more freely and make only temporary or superficial changes to the world (e.g., moving around, calling out to an ally, asking a character a question). Soft details need not be written down. If granted a hard detail, you can choose to add a soft detail instead.
A scene detail is a detail that changes the scenery or your tactics, i.e., things that are part of the scene, but not a property of a character or item. (e.g., "My mace smashes the floor tile to pieces!" or "I slash at his left arm!" are scene details.) If granted a hard detail, you can choose to add a scene detail instead. For each scene, the GM will maintain a list of scene details.
Details are typically negative or positive. Negative details are often damage details, which indicate damage to a character or item. Positive details are beneficial properties (e.g., Shiny and Sharp for a well-maintained sword).
Negotiating what constitutes a good detail is a non-trivial exercise; it might be the most difficult part of running this game as GM or participating as player. If you are having trouble, here are two things to consider: 1) Is my detail making the game world exciting and interesting to me? and 2) Is my detail making the game world exciting and interesting to the other players and GM?" In a way, when you boil away all the systems, creatures, and tables, this is what all role-playing comes down to. In the first few sessions of TIH, the players were hesitant. Soon after, they took the reins. The game became, "How can I surprise and delight the other players and myself?" I love that.
If a detail would influence the outcome of a challenge (i.e., a roll), it can be exploited to change the Light Die roll result by +1 or -1 once per scene. (Put a small check mark next to an exploited detail, to be erased after the current scene.)
As a player, be sure to describe how you are exploiting the detail.
GMs might have to remind players about details that are available to exploit. Why can details only be exploited once? Because exploiting a detail represents characters seeing a rare opportunity and taking advantage of it. Perhaps the enemy will remember to compensate for that weakness in future.
Certain details have a capacity, which is a number of relevant negative details that must be added before the item or character is rendered out of action. (e.g., All characters have a detail of the form Fallen ( /4) that indicates the number of damage details that can be added before the character falls in battle. Here, the capacity of the detail Fallen is 4.)
Details that indicate the use (or abuse) of items will often be added during the story. These details are added either when you are over by 1 on a challenge, or when the story dictates some damage to an item. Physical-type damage details count toward the capacity of weapons and armour. Time-type details (on different scales) count toward the capacity of Rations, Candles, Flashlights (their batteries), Lanterns (their oil or gas), etc. Note that the use of ammunition/arrows does not immediately count toward the capacity of the 9mm Clip/Quiver of Arrows; that is, although the capacity is 3, the Quiver of Arrows contains more than three arrows (e.g., when over by 1 when firing a bow: You hit the enemy in the shoulder. He howls, reaches up, and snaps the shaft of the arrow, add the negative detail Snapped Arrow. If the player had been over by 2, no negative detail would be added; perhaps all fired arrows could be retrieved after the combat.).
Players can roll (typically using Precise or Clever) to learn about their environment. Player details are questions about the surroundings that the GM must answer (often as scene details). GM details are unpleasant truths, signs of danger, or ill omens.
The interpretation of this rule will determine the extent to which players participate in world-building. If the GM allows players to beg the question (that is, embed an assumed truth), players will be able to craft small (or large) parts of the setting. For example, a player might ask the GM, "What colour is the flesh-eating fungus I see all around me?" This question assumes that there is such a thing as flesh-eating fungus, and that it's all around; in this way, the player is adding to the world in a fundamental way, whereas the GM is only adding a superficial detail (the colour). On the other hand, the GM might insist on a direct, open-ended question of form "What kinds of plants do I see in the grotto?" In this case, the answer might be "red, flesh-eating fungus" but it could easily be "small pink berry bushes" or "thin vines, as strong as rope". It should be clear that in this second case, the GM has greater narrative control. More timid players might start with very open questions and move towards more closed ones over time, and as their confidence (or cockiness) increases.
Characters have several properties in TIH Engine, the most central of which are as follows:
Each class dictates what Attributes, Skills, and Aptitudes you start with. Classes are what make your game unique, so I won't list them here. Of course, clans, professions, or factions could easily replace classes.
The three attributes in the game are Tough, Precise, and Clever. Base attributes can be positive or negative, and start at zero (written in square brackets as ).
At character creation, depending on the game being played, you get different bonuses to stats based on randomness, class, background, etc.
Bonuses add together: [+1] added to [+1] equals [+2]; [+1] added to [-1] equals , etc.
Skills are special situation-specific challenges that certain characters can attempt. A guide for applying an effect or adding player details is listed with each skill. GM details might include being attacked by enemies, creating an effect that is too small or too large, aiming a skill or attack at the wrong target, or losing use of the skill until your next 8-hour rest (place a small check mark next to the skill, to be erased after a rest).
Aptitudes—special talents or realms of knowledge—can be called upon to provide help (and thus, an additional Dark Die to choose from) once per 8-hour rest. (Place a small check mark next to the aptitude used, to be erased after the rest.) Tell the GM and other players what you know and how it applies to the situation. The GM can also offer ideas that the character knows but that the player might not.
During character creation, each character forms a relationship with each other character. Relationships are details, and therefore, can be positive or negative, and can be exploited. Other relationships, including some with non-player characters in the world, will form during the story when having deep discussions, winning battles, or overcoming major obstacles in pairs or as a team.
Scars are accumulated during adventures, after healing damage details. Scars could be converted into an experience system or a flashback system, as you see fit.
The above properties form the core of characters; however, other properties can be added (and not all of the above need be included), depending on the hack. TIH adds Masters, which take the place of alignment and religion in other fantasy systems.
Each player names and briefly describes their Masters (or Master). The Masters can be several people, a single person, natural (or supernatural) forces, a set of principles, a belief, or an ideal.Each character decides to whom (or to what) they have sworn fealty. Masters starts with two details describing their goals and/or motivations and/or methods. Further details can be added to the Masters later in the story.
Masters can sometimes be called upon to provide help (and thus, an additional Dark Die to choose from).
If the character consistently disobeys the Masters or exploits their generosity, the character will be called to account. When called to account, the player has a scene in which the Masters berate the character (or the character berates herself) for failing to follow the righteous/just/penitent/corrupting/etc. path. It will be difficult to get help from the Masters after being called to account. Acts of atonement can be performed to regain the trust of the Masters. Work with the GM to determine what constitutes an act of atonement.
Once per scene, before a roll, you can declare that you are helping another character. The helper rolls a Dark Die. The player receiving help chooses which die to accept, then adds her bonus. If the helper’s die is not chosen, the helper forms a negative relationship with the helped character (i.e., out of indignation). If the helper’s die is chosen, the helped character forms a positive relationship with the helper (i.e., out of gratitude).
Hindering others would also be possible, but is unsuitable for TIH itself. The hinderer rolls an additional Light Die. The hindered character faces the worst (i.e., highest) Light Die. A negative relationship should be formed by the hindered character with the hinderer.
If you wish to allow player characters to come into direct conflict (even physical conflict), the aggressor takes the Light die and the victim takes the Dark die. Both dice are rolled, and the dice are interpreted as normal, except that rather than the GM getting details when the Light die is over, the aggressor gets the details.
My thanks go to Maria Rivera for showing me how this rule would work.
When granted details from healing or rest, characters convert damage details into scars (hard details) at the cost of one-to-one. Re-write the damage as a scar (e.g., Shallow Cuts becomes Thin Scars).
In an inn or hotel (or equivalent) in town, characters can fully rest over night (remove 2 damage details and add 2 related scars) in relative safety.
During a journey, characters may choose to take a rough rest (lasting 8 hours). In this case, face a Clever challenge to heal (yourself or another character) or remove details that negatively affect armour. GM details will typically be complications or damage to your tools.
Scars are a part of each character's adventure. If a character returned without scars, how would anyone know that great feats were accomplished, that foul deeds were thwarted? Alternate rules might count scars toward character advancement. Or perhaps a character must be retired after having too many injuries. I think that a list of scars is much more interesting than a simple number of XP.
The protection of armour is based on its ability to convert hard damage details to the character into hard damage details to the armour (on a one-to-one basis). Once its capacity is reached, the armour is in its damaged state and is no longer effective until repaired.
Wearing armour totaling 4 points or above reduces Precise attribute rolls by 1 for all actions requiring good mobility (e.g., climbing, stealth, swimming, dodging attacks). Additionally, wearing armour that you are not proficient with applies -1 to all Dark Die roll results.
When given a turn by the GM, the player can perform all kinds of actions within the narrative that are not particularly challenging, and add as many soft details as make sense to the story. When the stakes are high, however, the dice are rolled and hard details are added to people, objects, or items. The GM or player can opt to use a soft or scene detail instead of a hard detail, as dictated by the logic of the story.
Timing is a fluid concept in TIH. The focus of the narrative will jump from one character to another (to another, to another, ...). The GM will direct this focus and hand out turns in some natural order as dictated by the story and the desires of the players.
Reactions to hazards in the world (e.g., traps, spells, difficult climbs, stampeding horses, rolling tanks) are made by testing one of the three attributes. When you are not sure what kind of test to make, use the following table as a guide:
Tough — Things that hurt you, inside or out: Fast or close enemy physical attacks, falling, fire, poison, disease, necromancy, etc.
Precise — Things that might or might not hit you: Slow or ranged enemy physical attacks, fireballs, falling rocks, lightning, most traps, projectiles, etc.
Clever — Things that trick you: Illusions, mind-control, deception, charm effects, puzzle traps, tactical maneouvering, etc.
To save yourself, roll a Light Die and a Dark Die (and add the corresponding attribute bonus to the Dark Die). GM details might be damage details or other negative detail effects (Sleep, Paralysis, Trapped by Rocks, Charmed, Scorched Arm Flesh, etc.). Player details will typically be soft or scene details describing evading the danger.
When combat begins, unless the players are ambushed or surprised, they all act first (in an order of their choosing). Thereafter, the enemy might retaliate.
If there is any doubt as to which side is surprised, the player closest to the enemy must be over on a Precise challenge to have the players act first.
Time in combat is a fluid concept, and the GM will hand out turns as dictated by the narrative. However, as a general rule, do not allow the same player to roll the dice twice in a row, unless all of the players demand to see a resolution to that part of the conflict.
To attack with physical weapons, a player rolls a Tough or Precise challenge. The player adds their Tough or Precise score to the Dark Die; the monster adds their CL to the Light Die.
In general, players can choose to apply Tough or Precise in combat. However, certain weapons must use certain stats (In The Indie Hack, Heavy Weapons must use Tough. Dueling Weapons and Ranged Weapons must use Precise). When fighting with weapons that you are not proficient with, use the lowest of Tough and Precise. When fighting without a weapon, use your lowest Attribute.
When using skills in combat, a Tough, Clever, or Precise challenge is rolled, as dictated by the skill.
The winner applies damage and other details as described in the Meeting Challenges section above. GM wins indicate the inability of the players to defend themselves against monster attacks, and will apply damage or other negative effects to player characters.
The range listed for ranged weapons (and sometimes ranged skills) is the maximum range at which they can be targeted (for example, in The Indie Hack, a Longbow has a range of really quite far, but may also be fired at very far or far with no penalty). Ranged weapons can be fired at close range using the lowest of Tough or Precise. When using a ranged weapon that you are not proficient with at close range, use your lowest Attribute.
TIH Engine uses the following four distances: close, far, very far, and really quite far. A character can walk to far distance as a scene detail. A character can run to very far distance by spending two scene details (i.e., when over by 3 or over by 5 and converting all details to scene details). Characters wearing armour totaling 4 points or above or carrying a full pack must pass a Precise test to run; otherwise, they stumble, reaching only far distance.
The three basic weapons are as follows
Pistol Scarce Jammed ( /3) Range: very far, Two-handed, or One-handed but use your lowest stat Shotgun Rare Jammed ( /2) Range: very far, Deadly at close or far range, Two-handed Rifle Rare Jammed ( /4) Range: really quite far, Deadly at very far or really quite far range, Two-handed
Wearing a Bulletproof Vest (Rare) makes them non-deadly while it still has capacity, which is "Cracked ( /2)".
My thanks to Maria Rivera for helping me to see the balance issues with these.
Sometimes the GM or player in a given challenge does not know what detail(s) to add. In this case, bounce the detail to another player or the GM to write. If a highly player-oriented world is desired, most GM details can be bounced back to the player(s).
The complex web of relationships that develops during the game can be difficult to recall. Draw each character and write relationships along lines connecting related characters.
Regions have two kinds of details: features and notables. Neither should be purely positive or negative, just interesting. Features are geographical or physical. Temples, ruins, cities, towns, cliffs, forests, wastelands, rivers, bridges, and oceans are features. Notables are people that can make the characters’ lives interesting. Feared lords, influential merchants, thousand-year-old wizards, and talented artists are notables. Notables might have relationships with the characters, and notables might become enemies, allies, or new Masters.
If you have more positive relationships than the total number of (negative relationships) + (evil deeds dictated by the Masters that you carried out or allowed to occur) + (details that count toward Fallen), face a challenge (Tough for an all-out fight, Precise for an assassination, or Clever for a betrayal). If you succeed, your Masters are destroyed; then, create new Masters. If you fail, GM details include damage and turning positive relationships into negative relationships.
Unless you're co-GMing, you don't really have allies. Therefore, when you are over by 1 or over by 4, you can decide how to distribute those details. When over by 1, simply choose which negative detail to add. Most of the monsters have a weapon like "Vicious Teeth (as Hand Weapon)", so when adding a negative detail, smash up their teeth and add a capacity of form "[Broken ( /3)]". When over by 4, if there are multiple monsters, distribute the ally detail to another monster, or, get creative and bring another monster into the combat from the shadows at far range. If over by 4 when a player is working with the monsters, have the traitorous player add a detail.
If none of the above solutions make sense (for example, when you aren't fighting monsters), have the Fates/Gods/Nanomachines (or your game's equivalent) influence the situation and add a related detail. Following the logic of the fiction, when the player is over by 4 but no ally is present or able to participate, have another player add a detail about how the rolling player succeeds. If none of the other players has an idea, have the Fates/Gods/Nanomachines influence the situation and add a related detail.
When the player is under on a ranged attack or ranged skill, it can be hard to know what details to add. The enemy might move closer by one range step (a scene detail). The enemy might change their tactics to avoid further ranged attack (using large trees for cover, hiding behind a door, using a player's character as a human shield, all scene details). The monster might have their attention drawn by this ranged attacker (a soft detail). Simply missing the enemy is not an option in TIH Engine, because you're always changing the world and adding a detail.
As a general rule, the GM tells the players the detail(s) being added. However, if your players are amenable to it, you can hold a detail in reserve (written, but not divulged) until a suitably dramatic moment. Make a big deal about it!
Have the players talk about how they use their items to achieve goals; that way, when rolling over by 1, it should be clear which item gets a damage detail.
Players can get help from allies, Masters, and aptitudes. Each helping bonus stacks; therefore, the player might be rolling up to 4 dark dice and choosing the best. The only downside is that they have used up all of the help available to them (and possibly imposed upon their Masters). Players are responsible for knowing whether they have helped this scene, and therefore, that they cannot help again. One of the two players wrote down a relationship after the help, so it shouldn't be too hard for one of them to remember. Always have players describe how they help. Don't let them just say "I help!" and roll the die.
Work with the players to determine the kinds of stories you all (GM included) want to experience. In preparing for sessions, avoid having a strong idea of the goals that you, as GM, think that the players should accomplish. Instead, look at their Masters to determine the kinds of orders the players might get. Look at your notes and scene details from the last session to see how the world has changed. Move the plans of the evil and corrupting forces in the world forward one step, and show the impact of that step to the players.
When prepping the first session, be careful not to answer the character questions (if your game contains them). The character questions are a chance for the players to give useful input for the world-building process. After the first session, start to answer some of the questions for classes that were not chosen. One method of describing the world is to have one of the Masters call the player to their domain to answer for some disobedience or get a new assignment. Have the player describe the turf of their Master.
Keep the damage details in mind when narrating the movements and actions of the monsters. Perhaps they limp or cough blood as they act when they are 1 detail away from Fallen.
TIH Engine does not have a system by which turns are handed out in combat. Because of the way the GM gets details when the players roll under, it's not essential to have the enemies act in turns. Occasionally, give the monster a turn to do some characteristic action (use a special kind of attack or skill) and have the players react (see the section called "Saving Yourself"). When a player helps another successfully, if they were next up, reconsider giving them the turn (don't forget about them entirely, just move them down in your mental ordering by one).
The repercussions of not following the orders of the Masters are left vague in the main text. The player might lose the Master's help for a time. The player might next get a menial assignment. The Master might refuse payment or (suspiciously) miscalculate the reward for a task. The player might be sent on a mission that is doomed to fail (is this done intentionally to remove the character?). The character might be assigned a minder, someone to ensure that the character is following the Master's dictates. The Master might order the assassination of a rival. The Master might send assassins after the character.
Remember: The Masters strive always to further their own power; if they think that they can get away with something, they'll attempt it. If they think that they can avoid punishment by dastardly means, they will use them.
At every roll of the dice, the players are enriching the world in ways that get written down (and sometimes, eventually crossed out, but never erased). If there is any competition among players, it should be to have the other players and GM say "Wow, that's cool!" when writing details down. When your players are comfortable with the system, start to bounce the details. Be prepared to adapt to the playstyle of your group. In a playtest session, a player wanted to use his shield as a scoop to throw flesh-eating beetles at an enemy. "Okay, neat! Roll Precise!" was all that there was to say. When it failed quite badly, the character took a damage detail as he dropped many of the beetles on himself.
The characters should feel that they live in a mysterious and deadly world. Narrate interesting and dangerous situations and characters. Make failure fun by embracing it (statistically, you'll fail quite a bit in this game): Adventure wouldn't be adventure if the heroes could easily overcome every obstacle. Have the players converse (or even argue) with The Fates when they fall in battle (or fall off a cliff). Characters returning from adventures will be more scarred and wiser (and will not always get the loot that they were expecting).
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