Saturday, February 6, 2010

HackMaster Basic (Review Part 1)

All right, let's give the good news first:

HackMaster Basic isn't terrible.

As I'm writing this, I'm making an assumption that readers are already familiar with the original HackMaster game. In brief, HackMaster is AD&D (mainly 1st edition), organized into an over-the-top parody format...and yet a bit more coherent than the original 1st edition books. Called "the 4th edition" it was published 'round about 2001 by Kenzer, making it pretty much the earliest "retro-clone" to hit the market.

Not that Kenzer would call themselves a retro-cloner. However, when I was first disenchanted with D20 and Wizards of the Coast, HM4 was the first game that actually brought me back to Old School fantasy gaming. I loved it. I own both the PHB and DMG and if the monster manuals had been published in fewer than EIGHT BOOKS, I might still be playing HackMaster.

HackMaster Basic (hereafter called HMB) isn't terrible, but my first impression was that it was an unreadable mess. I have since revised my opinion. It is simply radically different from its predecessor game.

Part 2nd edition AD&D, part D20, part DragonQuest, and with some parts Palladium and GURPS, HackMaster Basic (a precursor to their "Advanced 5th Edition") is very, very different from HM4. It is no longer a parody; while still humorous (or at least irreverent), it has taken great pains to be its very own game.

It has truly become a fantasy heartbreaker.

HM4 wasn't a was an AD&D clone and parody, but it wasn't trying to eat into the fantasy RPG market, nor "fix" problems with AD&D. HMB (and presumably HackMaster 5) is most definitely a capital "H" Heartbreaker, trying to fix (or improve) all the things about AD&D that aren't done the way it likes.

And as I said, HMB isn't terrible. Neither is it gibberish (in my defense, my first impression came in part from trying to follow the "Quick Start" rules at the beginning of the book...once I skipped them and started with Chapter 1, things made a lot more sense). Is it unnecessarily over-complicated and over-burdened with rules? Well...

For a "basic" game, it's close to 200 pages long. That's pretty massive...far more than my 64 page interests. Sure, a lot of this can be attributed to monster and treasure descriptions, a ten page FULLY ILLUSTRATED combat example (more on that in a bit)...but even so, MASSIVE. And excessively fiddly in parts (do I care what my rate of "drag" is for dragging a body along the ground? No, not really).

So where to start with my analysis...the good, the bad, or the ugly?

I guess the good...after all, if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all, right?

The artwork is nice, though much of it is the usual (for HackMaster) recycled and tweaked TSR stuff. Some of the new rules I REALLY like. I'm a fan of dice mechanics that "blow the tops off" and the penetration dice are neat, though I wish there was more consistency to their use (that's not a back-handed compliment, just a plea for less search & handling time memorizing which mechanics use penetration dice and which ones don't).

I am a fan of the Honor System though I recognize it was certainly the clunkiest, most subjective part of the original HM4. In HMB it feels a bit more stream-lined, and it's still an arbitrary way for the GM to hand out "role-playing awards" (which I'm not a fan of). HOWEVER, Honor IS a reward system that affects behavior (especially with regard to alignment and class) far more than 2nd edition AD&D's f'd up XP system or 1st edition's XP penalties for poor alignment play. I suspect it would bring a lot of fun to a it eliminates any need for the GM to "fudge" dice rolls, given its use as a metagame mechanic (in fact, HMB is very explicit on the subject). Plus the whole concept of "Honor" feels more at home in HackMaster and its over-the-top-ness than in any other game I've ever read, including the myriad westernized "Oriental" games that have been published over the years. Putting an honor system in a samurai game makes it feel contrived...putting it in HackMaster is part of the game's wacky fun!

Quirks and Flaws are great for a similar reason, every character gets one of each at random. Not so debilitating that they'll ruin your character's day, these mandatory negative characteristics fit great with the HMB game world...who are these dysfunctional folks heading down into the dungeons to loot and pillage anyway? Less-than-perfect "heroes" for certain!

In the character class section, we find HMB only has four character classes: fighters, thieves, mages, and clerics. This is IS a "basic" game after all.

[note to all: folks who have been checking out the recent info on WotC's "Red Box" B&D will find some eerie similarities between it and HackMaster Basic, including the same four character classes, the same four character races - human, dwarf, elf, halfling - and the same limited level selection (HMB stops at 5th level; Red Box was supposed to stop at 5th level). Why these games seem to parallel each other is a mystery I don't care to solve right now]

Of the changes to the classes I very much like the thief's Luck ability which allows a thief character to use a metagame ability to avoid calamities. Basically the thief gets 20 luck points (+1 per level) that can be spent to save his bacon as long as the player can come up with a suitable reason for the thief to avoid his o-so-richly-deserved fate. It sure makes it easier for a guy to be disarming poison traps and such when you're packing "get out of jail free" cards!

Magic-user spells are NOT Vancian in nature (one of only many radical departures from AD&D) to which I say: uh, so? But they still have spell books the addition of Apprentice and Journeyman skills seem good...but even AD&D let an MU pack four spells in their starting spell book (here you get three). I guess what I like is the new way in which spells are categorized in'll find different spells at different levels than are familiar based on their tweaks and usefulness in the game. In the end I guess this is just "interesting."

Clerical spells, on the other hand, are great! Clerics gain ONE SPELL PER DAY PER LEVEL. Period. If their 3rd level, they have one first, one second, and one third level spell. Wisdom still gives them bonus spells, but since "deities consider it wasteful to grant the same spell twice" each spell must be different. Man, I love certainly makes clerical spells feel more miraculous and divine. Most clerics have the potential to use any weapon and they have the second best hit dice and full armor, so they don't feel under-powered. Again, the cleric becomes the paladin.

Skipping through most of the rest of the book, we find a 28 page monster section, containing a great many monsters with fairly brief stat blocks (there's no attempt by HMB to stat monsters like characters a la D20). Like Holmes Basic the list includes some monsters that will be deadly to lesser (i.e. HMB level) characters: trolls, vampires, hill giants, etc. Some especially notable absences include such D&D standards as the purple worm and the dragon. No, there is not a single dragon of any color in HMB. People who hate "level drain" will be pleased to note its absence from the game rules, with negative-energy undead draining Constitution points instead.

Okay, that's about it for "the Good." Part 2 will concern the Bad and the very, very Ugly.

: )


  1. Thanks for this. Very interesting. I *love* Knights Of The Dinner and really wanted to love this game as well, but I started to read it and just thought WTF? Then flicked to the massive combat example (to get an idea of how the game flowed) and my brain exploded. Looking forward to reading the next chapter of your review.

  2. Oh yeah... I sat down with this one weekend and decided to clean instead... I wanted so much to like it, but every which way I turned I got confused.

  3. The exact impression I got, from reading the first few chapters, was of someone attempting to "fix" D&D.

    Word verification: Challsy - A player's attempt to be "Ballsy," that comes off as "Cheesy."

  4. Hmmmm, I also liked the dice mechanics. But, my favorite system was continuous initiative which I fear is gonna be in your ugly section. Some of my thoughts on Hackmaster Basic

  5. @ Norm: Thanks: I hadn't seen your reviews from October but I just went back and read 'em. There IS an index in the .pdf I got but otherwise it feels like you and I had the same analysis with different conclusions (yeah, I'm not a big fan of the combat "innovations"). But open ended dice rolls can certainly be fun!