Saturday, February 6, 2010

HackMaster Basic (Review Part 2)

Continued from here. Sorry, this took so long to get out...I was interrupted yesterday by exercise (back to the yoga studio) followed by dinner and a movie.

So, anyway...the BAD and the UGLY.

I call HackMaster Basic a "fantasy heartbreaker," which is not of itself a "bad thing." It's only bad if your game is a commercial venture...which I presume is the case for Kenzer & Co.

It is certainly possible to create fantasy RPGs that are NOT derived from Dungeons & Dragons, and find a niche with those people that enjoy fantasy and dislike the original "granddaddy game of them all." Pendragon and Stormbringer are both exceptionally different from D&D, and very different from each other despite having Chaosium's BRP system as a base (I'm talking about the 1st edition versions). Ars Magica is a vastly different animal, despite having swords and spells and many of the same mythic/historic fantasy animals that populate D&D. And The Riddle of Steel, is even MORE different, and on many levels. John Wick's Orkworld has all the standard D&D races, but so twisted as to feel completely different from D&D...and its system, including tribal/group play is at the opposite end of the gaming spectrum from the individual achievement/character advancement of D&D.

By contrast, HackMaster Basic is clearly derived from Dungeons & Dragons. Got class, race, and level? Check...all the usual, expected ones. Characters advance through gaining "experience points?" Check. Long, derived weapon lists with damage and combat abilities determined by weapon type. Check. Spells divided into limited access levels? Check. Monsters as obstacles/adversaries? Check. "Saving throws?" Check. Premise of dungeon delving/adventuring? Check.

Now here's the thing: D&D has a large following of people. It's style of game play (pick options from class/race/equipment/spells now "Go!") appeals to folks. But if they're going to play a D&D-style game, why would they invest in something other than D&D? If they already know the rules and such.

The short answer: they won't. Which is why fantasy heartbreakers tend to be poor commercial ventures.

Now HackMaster (the original "4th edition") was not really a "heartbreaker." It was AD&D with a couple of add-ons. I have no idea how successful it was or how much money it made for Kenzer, I can only tell you why I bought it...'cause I did buy it and would have purchased many of their modules as well (I only got two) if they hadn't stopped printing them. I got it because I wanted AD&D...and AD&D was no longer on the shelves. I wasn't looking for a heartbreaker, I was looking for the original, and HM4 was pretty much the original game, albeit with some additional add-ons (pixie-fairies and anti-paladins and such). Humorous or not, once WotC started publishing DND3, HM4 became the only game in town for AD&D play. And humorous or not, it still beat the pants off 2nd edition AD&D as well.

HMB is NOT AD&D (and I draw the conclusion that HM5 will not be, either). It is its own game, though a derivative one:

- the standard coin appears to be the silver penny instead of the gold piece (hello, Dragon Quest!)
- combat counts up seconds instead of using rounds/segments (shades of DQ again, and 1st edition Shadow Run)
- ability scores, races, classes, levels, etc. are clearly D&D (though races especially are starting to look D20ish)
- skills...ugh, skills. Good thing they included Pottery and Lip Reading. Oh, and Torture! Because if I use a branding iron on someone and fail my "torture roll" the guy is just going to sneer at me, right? Skills also included: Interrogation AND Intimidation. Also, Glean Information and Current Affairs. A 30 page "skills" chapter.
- mage spells use spell points to cast (like BRP, cast until your "out-o-juice"), though mages only know a limited number of spells based on level
- monsters, despite a slightly different stat block set-up, are clearly modeled off the standard Monster Manual (though with the HM bonus hit points to offset penetration damage and critical hits)

So...the first big Bad is the commercial value of a fantasy heartbreaker (i.e. "not much"). The second big Bad (in my opinion) is also a commercial consideration: just who the hell is this game aimed at? Who's the target audience?

Despite being a 200 page "Basic" book, there're no instructions or introductions about what is an RPG or how the game is to be played. HMB falls prey to the great conceit that "anyone that buys this game must already be familiar with role-playing and will know how to play." Which, in addition to NOT growing the hobby (i.e. being accessible to new folks), isn't always accurate with respect to gamers anyway...if I have no prior background in Dungeons & Dragons or HM how the hell am I supposed to know what the game is supposed to look like? How am I supposed to know how the game is to be played?

Let alone how is the game to be run...there are no instructions to the Game Master as to how to run the game. Oh, there's a GameMaster Only section that includes 3 chapters: a Monsters chapter, a Magic and Treasures chapter (one of the "uglies;" I could not make heads or tails of this chapter), and one chapter called The GameMaster. This last chapter has NOTHING about how to run the game (or design an adventure scenario), being instead comprised of the HackMaster-specific "GM Code of Conduct" Oath (Articles I and II). Those familiar with HM4 know about this...a humorous attempt to codify GM behavior (shades of Synnibarr).

Strangely, the introduction to HMB says that this edition of the game is trying to excise the parody and silliness from the game; that the original HM4 required the parody as part of their licensing agreement and the new edition will be losing that while "keeping the fun."

And then they include an 11 page chapter on dice. How to choose them, how to roll them, how to make them luckier, procedures for isolating poor rolling dice so they don't "infect" your other dice, dice etiquette, etc. Eleven pages...and not a single page on how to run a game or craft an adventure.

Okay, so now we're starting to get into the Ugly parts of the game, and there IS some decided ugliness here, including the aforementioned skills chapter. Character creation is too long, in my least for a quick-moving adventure game where death lurks around the corner. The inclusion of BUILD POINTS is the real ball buster here; while attributes are rolled, Build Points (or BPs) are used for all sorts of customizations of your character: buying re-rolls, buying skills, buying special talents (call 'em "baby feats"), buying weapon proficiencies, etc. Including BPs takes one of the simple beauties of the original D&D game (roll stats, choose race/class/gear/spells, now Go!) and turned character death into an excessive punishment with a protracted procedure for character generation.

Combat is excessively fiddly, what with counting seconds, penetration, defensive rolls (hey, it's Palladium!), and armor reducing damage. Oh and shields...don't even get me started on the shields...there's over a page-and-a-half of rules for shields including an additional separate sidebar. Trying to "realistically model combat" in an RPG is a crazy, Quixotic exercise, one that HMB decides to stick a big, fat foot into.

Hit points are done interesting in HMB, being practically a throwback to OD&D as every other level a character re-rolls the last level's hit points rather than adding new ones. While interesting it turns ugly at the prospect of having to track prior levels hit point rolls...but this is a just minor ugly.

One thing I miss from HM4 is the "yield factor" of individual monsters...there's no yield in the descriptions here. There's also no "treasure type" or treasure found in lair. Instead, treasure is awarded based on EPV (Experience Point Value) of monsters. So a yeti (EPV 417) cross-referenced on the Encounter Levels table of the Treasure chapter, provides a "Silver piece equivalence of treasure" of 146. Intuitive, right? Then the GM chooses treasure for the Yeti equivalent to 146 silver maybe a great sword (30sp), a large shield (60sp) and a piece of jewelry worth 56sp. I guess.

[by the way, said Yeti with an EPV of 417 is an 8th level encounter, being suitable to challenge a 5-person party of 8th level characters. A yeti is roughly a 4HD creature that has two claw attacks ("staggered every 5 seconds") each doing damage as a dagger being wielded by someone with 18/51 strength. Their math about encounter levels seems a little iffy to me]

[did you catch the part about a great sword costing 30sp and a large shield costing 60sp? For 65sp I can pick up ringmail...and a shield can be splintered and destroyed by a heavy blow in combat]

There's no set chance for the appearance of magic items, but one special item should be included "for half or two-thirds of encounters." And "roughly half" of these should be of the non-permanent variety (potions and such). That's it as far as treasure selection guidelines, though there are some random tables dependent on level of encounter. However, in HMB these only go up to level 5 (so you'll have to make up your own chart for an 8th level encounter like the yeti).


And did I mention no dragons (nor purple worms) in the monster list? Well, I guess it's not called Dungeons & Dragons even if it is derived from the game.

Anyway, that's all the stuff I wanted to specifically note about the game. In case you can't tell, I am a bit disappointed. NOT because I was totally enthused about the publication of HackMaster Basic in the first all honesty, I had not expected to purchase it at all, having become completely enamored of B/X D&D for all my dungeon delving needs. However, I thought it would be more than this, better than this.

HMB is too smug, too arrogant. I'm not talking about the snarky humor and authorial voice throughout the game...THAT I enjoy. But the conceit that the people who are going to buy it already know how to play it (without instructions from the authors) is a gross assumption, especially for a "basic" game that is to be a precursor for a more "advanced" edition. It's laziness...unless you mean your game to be a humorous curiosity meant to be included in a gamer's collection rather than actually played. But if that's the case, it takes itself far too seriously and is far too heavy on rules.

And the page count...oh, hell. When I saw the Otus cover, I half-expected HMB to be a humorous/parody treatment of Moldvay's Basic set...a HackMaster version of B/X. THAT would have been cooler than what they gave us. I can scarcely imagine what the extended version (HackMaster 5th edition) is going to be like. Despite certain cool innovations, I have little interest in playing some 400+ page monstrosity, when B/X (or even HM4) is just fine and dandy.

Cheers, folks. Thanks to Kenzer for the nice .pdf...sorry if my assessment seems harsh.


  1. That's a shame. My sister played Hackmaster while she was working in Florida. She would recount some of the great times she had playing this game, which almost made me want to pick it up and give it a try.

  2. You read my review, so you know we largely congruent on HMB. I just wanted to throw out a couple repartees.

    I for one can't stand RPG's wasting space on "what is an RPG", "how to play". This is not the 70's. Everyone with access to HMB knows what an RPG is. But, I will concede that if it were to go anywhere it should go into the "Basic" book (like in place of that retarded dice handling drivel).

    Which leads to this isn't a "basic" book as in for new players. It is stopgap/taunt/preview for Kenzer's fans to keep them interested and hyped about Hackmaster's next version.

    The audience is Hackmaster/Kenzer fans. And people who want more fiddly shit in their D&D. That is same audience as Rolemaster, Arduin, S&W, and numerous d20.

    Finally I would expect the detailed DM how to run stuff to be in DMB not HMB. And possibly roleplaying advice in the PHB.

    I'll run a one shot (ditching skills/buildpoints) but wouldn't use HMB for extended campaign. Although I would like to lift some of it's mechanics. But, the more I house rule the more I realize that when I actually get game together it needs to be stock cause of the reasons you mention. players come to play D&D not some warped, "fixed in DM's mind", slightly different D&D derivative.

    Great analysis btw, esp the Fantasy Heartbreaker stuff which I sort of knew but your explanation really solidified it's meaning/consequences for me.

    Also, shields Rule!!! ;)

  3. @ Norm: while I recognize this isn't the 70s, I feel it's an enormous conceit for a GAME to not provide instructions on how to play it. Many role-players (or potential role-players) were not born until the 80s or 90s...and as time passes, we'll (hopefully) see even later generations picking up the torch. A game should explain how it's thought 10 of 200 pages was all right to devote to a fairly frivolous chapter on dice; I think 1-2 pages of introduction would have been just fine (and easily skipped by veteran role-players). Likewise, I think any game with a game master should provide instructions on how to run the game...different games have different objectives of play.

    However, my read and review was from the perspective that this is a COMPLETE basic game, not a "stopgap" measure. I'm not sure where I got this impression, unless it was from the Designers' Foreward:

    "First off what does "HackMaster Basic mean...?

    "This book provides just that - the basics. Everything the GM/Players need to run and play HackMaster for 1st through 5th level characters. All between two covers. And when you're ready to take the next step? Advanced HackMaster picks up where HMB leaves off. No need for conversions or changes to your characters or campaigns, just keep on playing..."

    See what I mean? It sounds like they're saying that EVERYTHING needed to run and play HackMaster is, it sounds like that because that's EXACTLY what they're saying! To then not provide the tools for doing so is disingenuous...or else it is skewing your product for a very small market demographic. It also leads me to believe that this information will NOT be present in the follow-up Advanced edition.

    @ Pal: HackMaster 4 seems just fine to me...especially for folks who have a serious ability to not take D&D too seriously. Whimsical violence can be fun (I assume that's why people loved those early Grand Theft Auto games, not just a secret desire to be carjackers). I'd advise her to pick up what she can from the used book shops!
    : )

  4. I most recently encountered this fiddly initiative system in Kenzer's Aces & Eights Western RPG, but it seemed a more comfortable fit for the mechanics of a gunfight than the wild hack 'n' slash of fantasy brawls.

    I too was stunned and slightly stupified by the inclusion of the "dice" chapter - given Kenzer's claims that the parody aspect of the game had been excised.

    I feel slightly sorry for them though because (a) they seem like great people and (b) they clearly love this game and play it a lot (but I guess THEY know the rules because they wrote them and aren't coming at them cold like the rest of us)

  5. Oh yeah, I'm not criticizing your review. If anything I'm criticizing Kenzer for producing something they call complete basic game but is really meant only to keep interest up and hype next version of HM.

    > you thought 10 of 200 pages was all right to devote to a fairly frivolous chapter on dice

    I must have mistyped or something cause I think the exact opposite. That chapter on dice was the biggest waste of paper ever perpetuated by man. It was stupid in original HM, it is a free download wtf print it!, it totally didn't need to be in basic game and it totally didn't fit in with the "serious" claims of HMB (as you pointed out). Even though I don't think "how to play" intro is needed I would rather see that than the utterly pointless / worthless chapter on dice.

  6. I don't care about Hackmaster at all. What I really want to say is... PURPLE WORMS! That link to your post about purple worms struck me to my very core. I suddenly realized... I have never ever used a purple worm in any of my games. Not once.

    Why not? I have no excuse. mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

    All I can say is, that's going to change. Ohe yeah.

  7. @ Flea: I agree they appear to love the game...and that it's sometimes hard to be objective from the inside.

    @ Norm: Whoops! I may need to go back and re-read your posts! "Biggest waste of paper perpetuated by man!" Wow.
    : )

    @ Fitz: If you don't have purple worms in your game, you are missing out. Time to put the fear of God in your players! ; )

  8. Thanks for taking the time to write your review. I agree that the rulebook is a total mess. I managed to run a couple sessions that turned out well, and I was quite excited by at the time (realizing now that it was the return to an old school flavor that really had me excited).

    Kenzer does seem to love fiddly systems, check out their youtube videos on determining where you hit a target in their wild west game, it involves a book of figures in different poses with cutouts for terrain to place appropriately and a transparent hit template (

    The initiative system in HMB, while seeming great on paper, was way too fiddly in practice. I had made a chart on cork board with pushpins for each combatant and it seemed to make it even worse.

    And the included skills and how you raise the percentages...yeah, you already hit on that and fully agree with you on that point.

    I did like armor as damage reduction along with the penetrating dice and damage thresholds. Sadly adding those features in as a houserule to other systems requires nearly a full rewrite. Quite a feat, though not one I haven't tried in vain.

    @Fitz: I also checked out that purple worm post, nasty buggers.

    @JB: You ever take a look at Castles and Crusades? Not related to HMB, but another fantasy heartbreaker that has managed to build a strong following. I think you might find more to like in that game, and curious what you might not.

  9. While I don't like their initiative system, I did read it about two weeks ago and the problem is presentation.

    Rather than saying "this occurs at tick X" and counting off, it should be done as follows.

    Players announce an action, and are given a cost. Every round the GM passes everyone a chit (or poker chip or cheeto or whatever), when you reach the cost of your action, cash in the chips (or eat the cheetoes) and perform your action.

    Alot of the hackamster innovation's seem fine, I also don't think its a big issue about players not wanting to play a derivative. If D&D has taught me one thing..almost no one plays D&D for very long. It ALWAYS becomes a pastiche of house rules, the longer the game, the more the house rules.

    And I think thats awesome. Few things have been wrought by man or nature than cannot be improved upon and D&D isn't one of them.

  10. I will have to post how I did HM initiative (in my playtest) basically I drew a oval track on battle mat. Had one token for "now" and placed minis (or tokens) of the characters and monsters on the track. I advanced token clockwise and when it got to square with mini character/monster took their action and were advanced x squares into the "future".

    Was pretty fast/simple when I ran 4 chars and 6 monsters in self-playtest.

    I liked it so much that I think I'd use it to track durations of effects/spells in "regular" round/segment based D&D.

  11. @ Harv: I have to say, the idea that characters start with random skill ratings (based on a penetration roll! and how many times they want to tack a chance spending build points) is fairly freakin' genius in my book...except that a) I don't think the skill system is necessary and b) as a DM I don't want to have to watch over everyone's shoulder during character creation. But the Random Starting Skill rates is something I would love to implement myself...if I could think of a game where I wanted a "skill system."

    By the way: I've broused C&C at the local shop but haven't purchased it. I'm familiar with its popularity amongst Old Schoolers; perhaps I'll blog about it in the near future.

    @ ZZ and Norm: I'd just like to say for the record that when I used to DM AD&D I used the whole segments/speed factor/casting time thing in initiative (hell I used the 1 in 6 chance of hitting a helm, too!) and loved it. But the combats were generally small group on small group...however, at this point in my (gaming) life I'm not interested in that, any more than I give a rip about figuring out "cool downs" and "damage over time" effects in World of Warcraft. I like my role-playing just a bit less, fiddly.

    Unfortunately, while I COULD "master the art" of second tracking should I need to, I've got a quarter-century of gaming under my this a good, introduction to a "basic" game? That's the real question in my mind (B/X doesn't use segments but AD&D does...that's the parallel I'd draw).

  12. I picked up a copy of C&C several months ago. It's a good "hybrid" substitute for BX/AD&D.

    While I love my old AD&D PH/MM/DMG books, I prefer B/X, LL and S&W as the rule-set for the players.

  13. A good review.

    I’m not sure that a game has to either be D&D or be totally different in order to be worthwhile or commercially viable. There’s room for both GURPS and HERO. I think there’s room for HMB alongside D&D.

    Of course, my biggest reason for getting the book was for ideas to swipe and adapt to other games.

    While I agree that there is a lot of stuff that could replace the dice chapter, I can’t help but like the dice chapter.

  14. @ Rob: Hmm, I may not have made the point clear on what is or is not a "fantasy heartbreaker." For reference, you might check out the original articles on the Forge.

    GURPS and HERO are NOT "heartbreakers." A heartbreaker is a game that takes the basic D&D chassis and tweaks it to be (in the authors' opinion) a "better fantasy RPG." Like maybe it adds skills. Or uses "spell points" instead of a Vancian magic system.

    Heartbreakers are not commercially viable. There are several other fantasy games (I listed some) that are VERY different from D&D and can certainly appeal to folks who dislike the D&D game system. For people who already enjoy the D&D system, well...chances are they'll stick with the original or else they'll make their own changes/house rules. What they AIN'T gonna' do is buy a "very-similar-but-tweaked-for-improvement" version. In general.

  15. Yes. I’ve read the article. I know the term. I just don’t agree with it. There are too many examples of commercially viable games that are very similar to each other.