Hackmaster Core books review part 2
Written by Christopher Bishop
The author would like to state that he is reviewing his own personally bought copies of the product.
Okay, it is time for some honesty folks. How many of you out there bought the Player’s Handbook of any game, read through the core rules and called it good. Sure you spent money buying the DM or Gamemaster’s Guide but you flipped through it looked at a ruling device here or there and it spent more time on the shelf than it did in practical use. Be honest now, because I know a lot of you (I include myself in this number) are guilty. There is nothing for you to feel shame about. That is there wasn’t…until now.
The Hackmaster Gamemaster’s Guide is one of those rare exceptions where good advice and straightforward mechanics are presented with a grand amount of hand holding. Wait! What did Chris just say? Yup, I said hand holding. The fine folks at Kenzer want to walk you through becoming a GM in a fashion that assumes you are smart, capable and very new at this. Over and over within the text of this book, they provide insightful and frankly inspiring commentary to guide you on your path from player to GM Overlord of all you survey. If only your first girlfriend or boyfriend had been this gentle and sure of your potential!
Hackmaster Gamemaster’s Guide
I will break down this review of the GM guide section by section. This is mainly to convey what each section brings to the table and to stress the features present in this tome and their in-game application.
Chapter 1: GameMastering Advice
If you grew up anywhere in the last half-century or so, you probably have seen a Brady Bunch episode. The minute they queued up the slower version of the theme song music, you knew the Brady kids (and you) were about to learn a life lesson. I have read a LOT of how to be a gamemaster books. While most have several nuggets of truth in them, few if any encompass what being a Gamesmaster is all about. The Hackmaster GameMaster’s Guide will not be one of those books.
The GameMastering advice section starts gently discussing what it is to be a gamemaster versus a player. It gives a clear and thorough explanation on how to make that leap. It covers several tropes of gamemastering, such as avoiding railroads, winging it, enhancing your table ambiance. The real gems though are in the discussion of tough table types, something I am personally a fan of. I just cannot say enough about this section to positively reflect the many benefits it provides for new GM’s. Man oh man, I only wish I had someone to take me aside and say this when I began.
I especially would call attention to the bit about Sporadic Attendance. This has always been a problem with tabletop gaming and having someone miss a session when your players are knee deep in the muck of a dungeon is often a hurdle that perplexes newer GM’s. Instructions are given on how to introduce players unfamiliar with gaming, players use to a certain style of RPG or just non-crunch system players to Hackmaster.
I will go on record as saying as of yet, I do not think I have read a how-to GM guide that has so inspired me to run a game as this one has. I have been playing since 1981 and GMing since roughly 1984 and this section makes me excited all over again for the hobby.
Chapter 2: Combat
The Combat section is broken into small bite size chunks. Each heading covers one topic such as ranged attacks, melee attacks etc and within that section, it covers specific issues revolving around that form of attack. Range attacks, for instance, both physical and magical can be affected by cover or concealment. Just because you duck behind a rock does not mean it is covering your entire body. The degree of cover determines how hard it is for the attacker to penetrate your defense. On the other hand that rock might protect you from a fireball sent dead on but if it is cast at the side of that rock it provides little to no protection.
The authors of the Hackmaster GameMaster’s Guide do not fill the book with repetitive information. One thing that always irks me is when I pick up a GameMaster’s Guide and it is 50% stuff that is in the player’s handbook. It is kind of insulting to the aspiring GM to assume that they did not read the player’s handbook first. The folks at Kenzer do not just stop there though. On top of many situational dilemmas due to the environment, weather and other conditions, they also offer advanced rules. If you click on the above image you can see the “advanced” tag. This places the choice of using a rule firmly in the GM’s hands. I like that they left it up to us to decide if we want that option added in.
Combat information from a GM perspective is given a full explanation. Footing, engaging and disengaging opponents, battling aerial opponents are just some of the topics the authors touch on. They even give a few tactics of common flying monsters as examples to help flesh out GMing such battles.
The biggest chunk of the combat section covers fumble tables and critical tables. Some may be put off by such expansive charts but it is not as complex as it first appears. Each flowchart utilizes a specific weapon type. Hacking, Piercing, Crushing each has tables. You roll results using a d10000 system, which is easily done on a phone app, or by using ten-sided dice for the roll. This reminds me a lot of Rolemaster’s classic systems. Players will learn to fear the crit. That is good, combat is random and unpredictable. To make things easier on the GM, Kenzerco has given flowcharts to help decide outcomes.
Chapter 3: The Adventure
As combat does play a focal point in the game, it makes sense it would be the first subject the authors’ tackle. This section, however, covers what happens outside the bloody encounters. It gives sensible guidelines to figuring out how NPC’s react to skill checks, feats of strength, even torture. The Hackmaster Gamemaster’s Guide does not shy away from any topic, instead embracing it in a methodical and logical method. Environmental perils like drowning, moving in darkness, starvation and extreme hot and cold effects get a full explanation. There is more than one way to kill a character, and in Hackmaster doubly so. The book even discusses arrow arc and how much clearance is necessary to shoot a ranged weapon a significant distance. Yes, that is right…arrows do not shoot 350 feet in a straight line.
A GM who takes the time to familiarize himself with at least a cursory glance can have this information at his/her fingertips in seconds. Not too shabby. Want to know if smothering that fire makes you choke from smoke inhalation..it’s in there. Trying to decide what effects carrying on through the night has on players. That is in there too. Hackmaster Gamemaster’s Guide manages to sum up in one nice chapter what some companies devote an entire book too.
Chapter 4: Spellcasting
The spellcasting chapter is both interesting and complex. It adds many optional layers to handling casting. Players can, if they choose, break from convention and risk possible mishap to bolster their magical spell. The chapter covers the use of:
- armor and casting (You do not have to use robes but it comes with risk)
- the relationship of magic to race (for instance elves are less prone to mishaps, which is very Poul Anderson)
- Spell volatility (what happens when you try to make a spell more powerful than it normally is. Not all spells are created equal and the risk of making that fireball amp up could well blow up in your face, and your neighbors face, and the goblin behind him, the wall behind both of them…you get the point)
- Suffering injuries while casting ( what happens when that orc whacks your hand off mid-gesture…the forces of magic have already been summoned the energy has to go somewhere)
- Spell volatility caps on mishap severity (figuring out bad mishaps become and how to combine rolls in some cases to achieve an answer)
- Various tables the GM rolls on to determine exactly what occurs when a mishap happens
- Rogue spellcasting (As they are kind of like bards or arcane tricksters in that regard in D&D 5E terms)
- Spellcasting in combat for various casters both arcane and clerical
Chapter 5: The Journey
Characters do a lot of traveling in roleplaying games. Sometimes it is purposeful, such as a caravan escort. Other times it is necessary to reach the dungeon or next plot point in the adventure. Regardless of that, the open road is not without perils or costs. There nothing out of the normal here. Most of the information is pretty dry but necessary. This section serves to give GM’s guidance in:
- Setting the costs of travel by different methods (mules, cart, horses, elephants, hell even llamas and camels)
- Load and carrying capacities
- Travel Rates and speed as well the effects of pushing your beasts of burden
- Locales and what mounts are native to them
- Road Quality
- Mounted combat specifics and barding
- Water transit as well as the mental effects of a landlubber trapped in a tiny cabin for long lengths of time
Chapter 6: Between Adventures
Inevitably, your heroes will quit the dungeon and return back to their base of operation in some small town or city. While there they will want to seek further training in the skills they have been working on while adventuring. Between levels 2 to 5 most training is the individual’s private study. Once they get past the 6th level, to achieve certain weapon specializations or advance their status with their skills it becomes necessary to seek a trainer. Players are welcome to try to learn without help but it costs double the amount of BP points to do so. You get 15 build points everytime you level, so having to spend double “bps” to stubbornly “do it yourself” will quickly exhaust that supply.
Trainers do not work for free, however, so players will have to pay coin to get that next bit of training. Which makes total sense. I highly doubt a subject matter expert in this day and age would expect to give their knowledge free. They had to endure time, costs of their own and ordeals to learn what they know and the players will catch no breaks either. Formal training has additional benefits. When players seek advanced training they are able to roll on the training events table. This can be anything from plot hook events, extra equipment, or multiple boons. In fact, with a few exceptions, the vast majority of outcomes are positive.
Adventuring equipment takes a beating, and GM’s are given the tools to handle repairs cost, the time it takes for repairs and the quality of items in general. Pricing for reselling of equipment, random tables for quick tavern generation and the effects of tavern binging are given flesh here too.
Chapter 7: Character Vitals
This chapter focuses in on the effects of aging. Group honor and fame are also discussed in decent detail. Your knight might be very honorable but his associates may do things that fall opposite of his desires. While his high honor bolsters the group interactions, his companions deeds reflect poorly on him with folks in his particular social ranking. As players become known for their deeds it follows them around and this provides a set way to determine what that exact effect is.
A few new proficiencies such as Farrier, Butchers, and Masons are given. A handful of talents and skills are given as well with entries consistent with the Player’s Handbook. The GM is also provided a few tips for handling certain quirks and flaws. It is nice to have limits with clear explanation, and for skills such as Glean Information especially so.
Chapter 8: Zero Level Characters
I have been a big fan of the zero level idea for a while. It does not work for every campaign but for those gaming groups that truly love answering the question “what is my character’s motivation”, the zero level character is a perfect solution. Taking the path of Zero to Hero is quite fun and Hackmaster delivers an optional way to facilitate this. Each class has certain zero level restrictions. Clerics even get special guidelines revolving around their ethos.
Chapter 9: NPC’s
NPC’s never get the depth to which the Hackmaster GameMaster’s Guide goes. 28 pages cover everything from designing NPC’s on the fly to the creation of sidekicks, proteges, and henchmen. In traditional D&D of years past, henchmen were critical to being able to haul all that treasure, carry that torch or take on any mundane task. Hackmaster, since 4th edition is a firm believer in players need for assistance. It is hard to hold a torch and a shield and a sword and be effective the minute combat starts. Players may want to invest in proteges. A protege or sidekick is kind of like an insurance policy should they die there is a character waiting in the wings for them to play. This is a completely Hackmaster idea, one more reason Hackmaster rises above the competition. Having a protege ready to go means a TPK does not mean the end of the GM’s campaign. It allows a player to still take part and helps to put a band-aid on the loss of a favorite character.
Chapter 10: Design Advice
Being a GM is not necessarily intuitive. It can be especially hard for the neophyte GM to put together their first adventure. This chapter outlines how to create an adventure from start to finish. Topics include engineering conflict, compelling players without railroading, and making change occur organically. It really feels like this chapter and many others were done by asking one simple question “What do you wish you would have known when you first ran a game?” Guidelines regarding experience gain, trap lethality, treasure rewards are all given easy to read tables. Even suggestions regarding how to end a campaign are written with great clarity for the pitfalls GM’s face.
Chapters 11-14: Treasure Tables, Non-Monetary Treasures, Quality Items and Magic Items
I have given a lot of words over to what makes the book excel over similar guides. It is not that the chapters in this section do not provide innovative ideas. They do a great job of conveying how to handle distribution of treasure. I just think that this aspect of any RPG is fairly mundane in nature. It is the attention to detail in specific that is continuously maintained throughout this book that sets it apart. These chapters outline everything from clothing to spices and even perfumes.
I especially enjoy the chapter on quality items. Just because a weapon or piece of armor does not glow with magical dweomers does not lessen its effectiveness. I have always liked the idea Leiber set forth. Greywand was not one 2-handed broadsword it was actually a virtual bevy of different blades. The legend around the blade grew from the user. A quality weapon or armor piece can very well exceed the usefulness of a magical counterpart.
Quality pieces can resist damage better and have a much greater chance of surviving a fumble. I have always found it odd, and impractical that magical weapons of any kind would be laying in a dungeon guarded by an orc or an ogre. I can see it happening here or there because a great hero falls, or perhaps resting in a fallen hero or king’s tomb itself. But not lying in a pile of refuse or in the possession of a creature who quite frankly is not capable of understanding its worth.
Magic Items are given interesting bits of lore and stats. All of them have a story of some kind, and they do feel pretty epic in purpose. This is the part where Hackmaster and really Kalamar shine for me. Yes, Magic is present in the world. But it is not so common that every jack, jill or joe has a +4 longsword of slaying hanging over the mantle of their farmhouse. Magic Items have specific purposes for existing and often the stories relate the blessing/curse of being in your possession.
Appendices 1-3: NPC Information, Diseases, and Kalamar
Appendix 1 adds more layers to the NPC information and potential. It lists off archetypes similar to classes but based on careers. Applicable skills are given based on the archetype, but using the skill profiles found in the player’s handbook or GameMaster’s Guide. Level of skill is given measurement and points given to spend on skill levels. There is also discussion of how expertise level directly applies to superior quality item creation.
Appendix 2 covers all forms of disease common to a medieval environment. Everything from contraction, remission and carrying and death get great definition. Several unique diseases,”Orc Shingles” for instance, get write-ups. Lycanthropy in specific is an excellently covered topic. I am not sure I am gonna be as comfortable on my Thursday night HM game if Keith says “You hear a howling outside the caravan”. The author even provides a moon schedule and its effects on those of lycanthropic nature.
Appendix 3 gives a brief synopsis of Kalamar. I will admit to being a campaign setting junky. I have always run my own settings with a few side exceptions such as Ravenloft for instance. It is not that I did not enjoy other author’s worlds, it was more I appreciate them enough to not want to monkey around with their canon. I will fully admit to cannibalizing aspects of them and molding them into my world. Kalamar is the first setting beside Greyhawk to make me break that habit. Tellene is lush and rife with political struggle and conflict. The gods are real forces and intractably interwoven into the daily lives of citizens but overall the world of Kalamar feels very gray. I especially am fond of the Brandobia area. The story of a craven and selfish king, disrespectful of the Elves and other races. So arrogant grew the humans they actually began to take credit for the very things that were taught to them.
In the end the king made war from his greed causing misery and strife to all his neighbors, However, the elves simply laugh at his efforts, their King giving him the false blessing of “Wishing his wife to be fruitful”. In typical elven fashion (aka Poul Anderson touches) the blessing is a curse in disguise, for the queen gives birth to three male children. Children that in turn grow bitter fighting over who is the rightful heir. This tears the kingdom apart fracturing it into three smaller domains.
It does appear that portions of that story have been given new touches. The same basic idea is present, and for me, that is all that matters. The major areas of Brandobia, Kalamar, the Young Kingdoms, The Wild Lands, Reanaaria Bay, Svimohzia (say that name 3 times fast!) are each given light coverage. I know space was a premium but just reading snippets made me pull out my 3.5 Kalamar products for a reread.
I am not going to lie, if there is any category that falls a little short on the GameMaster’s Guide it is the style and art. The interior art is well done and gorgeous. No real complaints there other than background imagery for critical tables is repetitive. Not a deal breaker by any means. The exterior is the black leather bound affair with the gold leaf embossing on the spine. It is more the lack of the stylized embossing on the front cover that sets it apart from the other two books. I would like to have seen some form of graphic, but in the end lack of pretty stuff does not take away from the overall functionality of the book.
The layout of the book is well done. The two column format nod to the past looks nice on the page and the bright color scheme helps to frame the text well. One issue I dislike is when products use overwhelming splotches of color all over the place. It distracts the eye when you are trying to read and makes it harder to focus. I think the palette selection was chosen with that in mind.
The Hackmaster GameMaster’s Guide is an indispensable tool for Gamemaster’s. I do not say that idly. The critical hit tables and Fumble tables, rules for spellcasting and advanced combat rules alone make it a must-have. The fact the authors took the time to outline how to gamemaster from start to finish, assuming knowledge of player level and building from there, is quite refreshing. You really feel like the folks at Kenzer & Company have your back. They constantly repeat the phrase “This is your game, run it the way you want too”. They do not discourage roleplaying and they fully acknowledge the marriage of their game to a tactical mindset. Who says you can’t have both. The Hackmaster GameMaster’s Guide proves beyond a doubt you can!
I will also point out the excellent Hackmaster community. I have taken part in all sorts of RPG community forums but the helpfulness of the Hackmaster players and GM’s is second to none. They love their chosen system like a mother loves a child, and the forums at Kenzerco are chock full of all sorts of community made aides. I will provide a link here to the excellent Kenzerco forums and specifically, a section for fan-made products. There are a few standouts such as the excellent GM screen being made by Chuck Lang. Most importantly even if you never intend to run Hackmaster the GameMaster’s Guide provides so many nonsystem dependent good tips it is easily still worth your while to pick up. You can pick up this product directly from Kenzer & Company here!
Before I close this review I want to take a moment to talk about one thing I have seen folks complain about in regards to Hackmaster. Hackmaster bases your reaction time with a weapon on its speed. The list of time in seconds is an average of what it takes to wield this weapon. One complaint I saw brought up recently was the speed of a Battle Axe. The person’s complaint stated that they were a LARPer whom used medieval style weapons and there is no way it would take 12 seconds to swing a battle ax. They are correct it takes less than a second to swing said weapon. Of course, swinging a weapon and employing it in combat are two different things entirely. Let me paint an example.
George the bold, madman of the field, a bloodthirsty member of the wolf clan, encounters an orc while out hunting for game. He throws his bow down, as he and the orc are literally feet from each other, both having been tracking the same moose. George whips out his battle ax. His ax weighs approximately 5.5 lbs and is 3.5 feet long. Sure he could go swinging with wild abandon, and quickly tire himself out. You see there is a big difference between a styrofoam ax and the real deal even if counterweights are added to the LARP weapon to achieve realistic weight measures.
George is a trained warrior. He knows that combat is a dance. He and the orc are circling each other, waiting for an opening. George knows with every swing he will sap a little more of his energy. He also knows the orcs crude sword and leather shield can easily block his blow and cause a counter-attack to happen. So now imagine yourself, cognitive of your weapons capabilities and its pitfalls. You are not just going to swing with wild abandon. You are going to wait till that blow counts and make it happen. I see the weapon speed as being a clear reflection of those choices. Built into that timeframe is also the factor that George will be defending himself in between his attacks…Especially since poor George did not notice the second Orc sneaking up on his flank.
I hope my poor example gives some context to why weapon speeds are the way they are in Hackmaster.
Until next time,
Keep rolling them bones