Hackmaster core books review part 1
Written by Christopher Bishop
The author would like to state that he is reviewing his own personally bought copies of the product.
Hackmaster first appeared in Knights of the Dinner Table comic strip as early as 1995 (I asked Jolly Blackburn to confirm this). At the time, it was more of a tongue and cheek reference, but as the comic strip blossomed into its own comic book series and a firm grasp of what gameplay was like evolved, folks clamored for the real deal to be produced. Hackmaster 4th edition burst onto the gaming scene in 2001, a creative effort by the fine folks of Kenzerco molding 1st and 2nd edition mechanics into a new product. For roughly 8 years or so products were produced. The relationship between Kenzerco and Wizards changed, however, and the idea of making Hackmaster less a parody of 1st edition and instead its own product independent of the Open Gaming License sprang into being. In 2011 (wow has it really been 6 years!!) the Hackmaster Player’s Handbook was released, and a new more tactical, more intuitive rule system came about that frankly was a grand departure from the 4th edition’s AD&D roots. Let’s explore the trio of core books and examine if Hackmaster just might be what your table is missing!
Hackmaster Player’s Handbook
Character creation in Hackmaster is a semi-lengthy process. Players creating characters have a bevy of choices and each one is significant to how that character plays. Creation mixes old and new together in a fusion that frankly works very well. Players roll for attributes in a straight 3d6 fashion, as well as rolling percentages for each of the attributes. A build point system allows for customization of everything, from attributes to skill to talents. Players receive 40 builds points initially, extra points if they leave their attributes as is, 25 builds points for swapping just two, and none if they choose to swap more than two. The percentages are used to show how close an attribute is to changing to the next number up. In most cases, percentages themselves do not matter but strength and dexterity do allow for different bonuses based on being over or under 50% value.
I need to bring something up I really love about Hackmaster. The use of attributes in Hackmaster makes ALOT more sense. You don’t get a bonus to your attack because of your strength. Yes, with melee it allows you to deal more damage but that is the only real combat advantage. It is your intelligence and dexterity that affect your ability to attack which makes total sense. If you are a drooling nincompoop you are probably going to miss a lot of opportunities to attack, even if you can lift a house over your head.
After attribute rolling, we move on to picking out our race. The race descriptions are easy to read and it is here that the humor and sarcasm of 4th edition Hackmaster pervades. Kenzerco begins fusing Kingdoms of Kalamar references into the text of race description which is nice. It gives the reader a feeling that Hackmaster is not just another take on D&D but its own vibrant universe. Races modify attributes as one would come to expect and the decisions made with most of the race descriptions feel very Appendix N in flavor. I always like when I see respect paid to the past.
The race section is certainly where the humor of KoDT shines through as the race descriptions also supply a “how to play this race” section. Such delights as “As a dwarf people might insult your height but don’t fret, wait till they are asleep and piss in their canteens, or get real close and uncomfortable and let them take a whiff of your stink.” (I am paraphrasing here the original text is MUCH funnier) The racial description seems to hearken back to the class of 1974, with clear touches of Poul Anderson and Leiber within the text and even dare I say it, a hint of old Warhammer? (Dwarven Book of Grudges <cough>)
Once you select your race it is time to move on to your class. Classes are bought using your build points and referencing your chosen races stat block for the cost. The currently available classes at creation include Fighter, Ranger, Barbarian, Thief, Rogue(aka Bard sort of), Assassin, Mage, and Thief and finally the Cleric. Two multiclass options are available as well. Fighter/Thief and Mage/Thief (Fafhrd and Grey Mouser anyone?)
There are two other classes but they are not available at first. They are the Knight and later the Paladin. Knights must first be a fighter of 5th level, meet certain attribute requirements, and be of at least average honor. They must have no physical flaws or phobias. (Which is nigh impossible in Hackmaster). They must seek out and train in skills such as Diplomacy, horsemanship and the use of mount weapons. In other words, Hackmaster is coming close to historical accuracy with this. Most Squires began their path at age 14 and were Squires until the age of 21 where they either became Knights themselves or Arma Patrina.
Paladins are a class only available to an 11th level Knight. Not only do they have to meet all the requirements of knighthood but their attribute requirements are even more over the top. They must train in their specific deities weapon, learn a slew of other weapon requirements and their honor has to be of high or greater level. Essentially good luck, this is Hackmaster if you even make it to level 11 you are going to have some scars.
Last but not least I need to mention Clerics. Clerics in Hackmaster get so much love it is amazing. Every cleric is different depending on the god they serve. One cleric may be the atypical healer type while others are more militant than some fighters on a good day. Their spell selection is deity specific and the religions themselves are very well thought out. The Pantheon is very believable.
Alignment, Ability score finalization, and Honor
Hackmaster uses the tried and true alignment system of D&D. Nothing much to write home about there except the reinforcement of roleplay within alignment is much harsher. Acting out of alignment will cost you honor. Players are given the chance to modify their ability scores by spending build points to buy fractionals, but every point spent matters. Abilities can get better over time (they can also get worse due to injuries) as players level, so its worth having a good character concept nailed down before you spend build points you may not need too.
Finally, we need to discuss honor. The honor system is not a new concept, but it is rarely seen as thorough as Hackmaster does it. Your actions matter, and doing disreputable things will cost you. Saving a damsel in distress may give you a slight honor boost if the town witnesses it. Finding out the damsel was a harlot and priestess of House of Shackles will actually cost you honor. Honor is fickle and clever GM’s may find ways to trick you into losing honor which has game impacts such as raising prices and making some sects of society completely avoid you. So being a murder hobo will not get you far.
Priors and Particulars
The next aspect is in painting the physical image of the character and figuring out their childhood. Weight, height etc do figure into the picture as does handedness (ambidexterity, for instance, is actually a double-edged sword, sure you can dual wield more effectively but you often hesitate due to deciding which hand to attack with).
Your childhood actually figures into your starting honor and position in life. Are you a rich nobles son who is barely acknowledged growing up, or was your mother a loving soul who died at age 8 leaving you to walk the streets alone. All this shapes the options your character has before them, though none of it is really character breaking. It does provide some nice plot hook fodder for the GM when your long lost brother who hates you pays an assassin to kill you and secure his claim on your father’s fortune.
Quirks and Flaws
Hackmaster offers players the option of taking quirks and flaws in order to get more build points. As with many choices, this can be both a boon and curse. My character, for instance, was a narcoleptic mage who had a problem with sleepwalking. My current cleric is a Priest of the Caregiver with an OCD issue with cleanliness. If you take the flaw points the GM will be waiting to either use your flaw against you or ensure you are figuring it into your actions. Players have the choice of randomly rolling and getting the full benefit in build points for their first choice or cherry picking, which honestly provides very little build points in return. As you still have stuff to buy at this point, some players need more build points in order to take certain skills and talents. A slippery slope indeed.
Skills, Talents, and Proficiencies
Weapons proficiencies are a per weapon basis. Players do not get a catch-all category that broadly covers use of multiple weapons. Armor is much the same and broken down by weight.
Talents are kind of like feats in 3.5 or 5th Edition D&D. They are expensive but usually convey a pretty amazing ability. Most characters will be lucky to afford more than one or two of these. Invest wisely though because you still need to purchase skills.
Skills are the meat of a character. Certain races and classes convey automatic skills, but the rest you will have to purchase using build points. Skills use percentages values. Certain percentage blocks dictate if the skill is at a novice, journeyman, master etc level. When you spend points on buying a skill you actually roll a die type to figure out how many skill points you gain with each attempt. The higher a skill gets the lower the die type becomes which makes sense. It is a lot easier to begin learning a skill than it is to improve a skill once you approach mastery levels.
Purchase equipment and finish bookkeeping
The rest of the character creation is pretty typical. You figure out your starting money, spend it on equipment and write it down. You are lucky if you can buy a base set of leather armor, a decent weapon, and a shield. Luxuries such as horses, a lot of class-specific tools etc are pie in the sky dreams. Hackmaster is not the game for Monty Haul GM’s. It is a medium magic, low tech dangerous world. If Game of Thrones was to ever look for a new system to base their game in, it would fit well in Hackmaster. No breaks here!
Hackmaster fully addresses how combat works in great detail. The KoDT comic strip shows the players constantly in battle, with a very robust and deadly combat system. This book delivers on that notion. Combat has several interesting aspects to it worth mentioning. I already spent quite a bit of detail on character creation, so I will be brief in the interest of the reader but here are the highlights. The initiative starts with a die roll according to the type of encounter. Are you the victims of an ambush? Did you get the drop on a group of monsters? Did your party and your opponents run into each other at the same time? Each player gets their initial slot and then the count up begins.
The GM begins counting up from 1. Once it hits your initiative number you may attack move etc. Players actively attacking add their weapon speed minus any bonuses from talents or circumstances and that dictates their next spot on the count up. However, if you are not fighting in combat you are free to move around and interact each and every second count. Your character is not a bag of hit points standing around waiting. Neither are your opponents.
Hackmaster does away with the armor class system. You have a defense rating which comes from attribute benefits and training. Your armor adds nothing to your defense rating. In fact the more armor you have the worse your defense rating, as all that armor encumbers you and slows you down. If you need to see a realistic approach to this check out the movie Excalibur. Armor does provide a damage reduction aspect, however. All that armor you wear will reduce the damage you take. Your armor also has hit points however and degrades in effectiveness until you repair it.
When you attack you roll your d20 adding in any modifiers to attack and your opponent rolls his defense on a d20-4 adding in defensive modifiers. The higher roll wins and ties go to the defender. Different fighting styles (Sword and board, dual wield, aggressive stance etc) create different effects on combat.
Many factors apply in Hackmaster. Your Weapon’s reach matters as does a range weapons rate of fire. The damage you take creates wounds. Different damage taken makes different wounds to specific areas. So when you receive healing it only cures the most recent wound you receive.
I do not feel I have done justice to how robust the combat system is. In conversation with others, they always seem afraid of the complexity. I am here to tell you rarely does it bog down. It moves swiftly and once a GM has the hang of it, becomes exciting for players to take part in.
Penetration dice and Threshold of Pain
Two particularly interesting mechanics at play are penetration dice and Threshold of Pain. Exploding dice have been used in a few games I have played but essentially it puts the focus of dealing extra damage on the damage dice themselves rather than a roll of natural 20 during combat. Dice can penetrate for critical severity level, damage, skill mastery level, ability increases due to leveling, magical healing and rolling honor due to one of the above conditions. You know if a roll has a chance of penetrating by a “p” being added to the end of the dice pool amount. If the dice comes up as the maximum number you get to roll it again subtracting 1 off the number rolled to “buy” that extra die roll. So for instance, if my cleric heals d4p, this means I roll a 4 sided die and if it comes up a 4, I subtract 1 making it a roll of 3 roll the 4 sided dice again and add whatever I get on the second dice roll to the first result of 3. If I get another 4 I get to roll yes again until I do not get the max result. So lets say I roll a 4, subtract -1 roll again, get another 4, subtract -1 again so now I am at 7, ROLL AGAIN and get a 3. I just got 9 points of healing out of a 4 point spell. Sometimes the Gawds are with you!
The threshold of Pain is part of Hackmaster’s way of adding more realism to the combat. Remember that guy named Mike Tyson, and how he would step in the ring for a fight you paid 70 bucks to view and with one good roundhouse knock the crap out of his opponent ending the fight in seconds. That is because dear old Mike dealt more damage in 1 blow than his opponent was able to handle. Threshhold of Pain states that if your character takes more than 33% or 1/3rd of your hit points in one shot there is a good chance he might pass the heck out. The same of course applies to your enemies but it simulates being momentarily overwhelmed in combat by your wounds. This is affectionately referred to as being ToPed.
The art style through the book is very straightforward medieval in nature. A lot of the art could easily fit in a history book on the 12-16th century. For some fans of KoDT this was an odd choice, but I personally think it sets the tone. This game while it still retains a lot of humor in the ruleset explanation is very much a game to be taken seriously.
The real pleasure in the book comes from Jolly Blackburn’s addition of gameplay mechanics taught through a KoDT comic. There is quite a bit of comedic instruction, but it also fully outlines several gameplay examples in a logical manner. If you are struggling with understanding the system the comic strip does a great job of putting the pieces together.
The page layout is well done and the information is given in a two column format common in older rpg’s. The side panels have many annotations which further spell out crucial bits of information. Kind of like the teacher stomping their foot if someone “might” appear on the test.
The binding and cover are nothing short of amazing. The spine has gold foil embossing and the texture of the book reminds you of red dragon scales. The feature cover image is two knights battling one another, which does once again continue the theme of this being a more serious product. The book is sturdy and will take traveling to cons or in between games well. It is truly built to last and still look good. In the cover image at the start of this review, you can see depressions in the cover. That is because the cover has depressions packed in around the cover image sticker plate.
This brings me to the end of my review of players handbook. I will publish the next part of this 3 part review later this week, covering the Gamemaster’s Guide. I will make my buy it or not recommendations at the end of the 3rd review, but if you like what you have read head on over to Kenzerco’s website and pick up a copy today!
Until next time,
Keep rolling them bones!