Hackmaster Core Books Review Part 3
Written by Christopher Bishop
The author would like to state that he is reviewing his own personally bought copies of the product.
Before I finish up my third and final review of the Hacklopedia of Beasts, I think it is important to relate WHY I am doing this. My goal in this review series was to find the perfect core set of books for going around the gamer’s tree. I know for myself anyway, getting roleplaying books for Christmas is about as close to feeling 8 again as I am likely to get. Here comes the honesty part though. I did not start off loving Hackmaster new edition. I am still a pretty big fan of Hackmaster 4E, if for no better reason than its comedic take on the past history of D&D. Reading and watching other reviews, (in a lot of cases from folks whom OBVIOUSLY did not read the material before reviewing..big shame on them) did nothing to help alleviate concerns.
It took me sitting in on a Hackmaster playthrough in Genghis Con here in Colorado to say hmm, there is something to this new system. Even then I still sat on the fence awhile. I was picking up 3.5 reference material for my son off an eBay sale, and in that purchase got several Kingdoms of Kalamar books. I was reading through the main core rulebook, one I have seen a million times over in bookstores and was really enjoying what I was seeing. Here is a low magic, political, grey world very reminiscent of the “points of light in a world of darkness” of old school ideology. The world of Kalamar is full of life, unique peoples and stories, and felt very similar in vibe to what I was doing with my own campaign. When I saw the Kenzer & Company copyright plate on the back of the book I knew I had some work to do.
My research further told me that Kalamar was the setting for Hackmaster now. I went back to look at my very beaten 4th edition player’s handbook of Hackmaster. We had sure seen some fun together. Finally, I bought the core books as a bundle deal. I went on the Kenzerco forums and found myself a game of Hackmaster on Roll20, and began to pour through each book. I knew when I had come to the end, it was now my mission to get an honest thorough word out on this product. It is my hope at the end, I have given the masses the information they need to make an informed decision. So here we are, the final review.
Hacklopedia of Beasts
As the product, this time is fairly straightforward entries, similar to a wildlife manual, I will not be breaking it down chapter by chapter. Instead, I will highlight different aspects of the manual and how it relates its information different than other similar products.
Our Illustrious Guides
The Hacklopedia of Beasts is a real text of sorts within the world of Kalamar. It is chiefly known as Dangerous Denizens of Tellene within the world of Kalamar. Its author, Greytar the Gentle, is known far and wide for his exhaustive knowledge of beasts and their habitats. As Greytar wrote of these creatures he kept finding many unanswered questions. In that vein, as an academic, he began seeking out hunters and fellow academics that also shared his passion, and began to scribe their experiences as well. Thus we not only get the academic perspective but the experiences of:
- Dealaan Daarmae, a self-professed master thief (and stretcher of truths)
- Helena Vitira, Cleric of the Eternal Lantern (Zealot and Exorcist)
- The Ravager, gratuitously gory fighter and wielder of the coveted “Tremble”
- Dorran Randril, Druid like priest and all around nice guy
- Larzon Bayz, crusty ranger with a slight fondness for ale
Each guide has a symbol, which the reader can use to determine who wrote each piece. The flavor of the monster description varies with each author, some being more helpful than others. I like this a lot because it allows the Gamemaster to decide exactly what pertains to his/her version of the monster. Maybe Dealaan’s comments about using string to navigate a minotaur maze are way off base..especially when the minotaur is following behind you gathering the string up and using it to track you.
The Monsters and their descriptions
Monsters are in alphabetical order. Each section begins with a recounting by one of the guides as to their experiences or thoughts on the monster. Small tips and sometimes humorous anecdotes provide an adventurer’s take on dealing with this beast. Below this Greytar gives a more scientific description, complete with coloration, body parts of concern and height/weight etc. Combat and tactics sections give the Gamemaster ideas on how best to employ this creature against the players. Habitat and society show how the creature lives in its own environment, where you can expect to encounter it and how long it takes to breed and mature. Ecology discusses its primary diet (oftentimes players or other humanoids) what it will avoid and what it won’t. Finally a Tellene (Kalamar) specific entry rounds up the description giving campaign setting specific information.
Surrounding the text are small boxes filled with more game mechanics information. It helps to relate to players things like what the footprint they are seeing looks like. I have used this myself in my trial home game to make the players try to guess what it is they were finding footprints of. It adds a layer of immersion and helps in relating details a player would “see”. I often times do not like to give my player a ton of information when they are low in level. How would they know what a kobold track looks like in comparison to a goblin track? If they grew up in a small village, it is not likely there are many if any retired adventurers present. Being in a large cosmopolitan center means even less exposure to monsters and humanoids.
Hackmaster uses a unique combat rose system. A simple box supplies all the pertinent game mechanic information for the beast. All this can fit on a scrap of paper smaller than a 3×5 card. This means a prepped GM can easily carry around 30 or 40 monsters in a card box for quick reference once they are familiar. Information covers the basics you would expect such as activity cycle, the number appearing on average, percentage chance to be in lair etc. The Yield section gives what you can expect to gain from killing the beast. It’s not just a bunch of mundane treasure tables. Every usable resource on the creature is given thought. Can you use it for medicine? What does the hide sell for? Does the creature produce spell components? This information alone provides tons of adventure hooks.
Other items of note
The Hacklopedia of Beasts has a few smaller features that really add to the value of the product. One of them is the inclusion of the Customizing Humanoids section. Most monster handbooks simply cover the most commonly found members of a species. Hackmaster acknowledges this by allowing the Gamemaster to further variants of these creatures. Not every goblin is a snot covered, grimy incompetent. Some strike out on adventures of their own, learn multiple skills and become a threat in their own right. The leaders themselves are given distinct entries for common humanoid types, with updated combat roses reflecting their danger.
A nice glossary of terms defines both scientific and Kalamaran terms. I like the fact they include this as very few games make the attempt to educate their player base. Gygax never changed his vernacular, instead choosing to challenge his readers to learn. Kenzerco seems to ascribe to the same philosophy.
Finally, a quick reference sheet in the back breaks down all the creatures for easily searchable reference. For as quick as the action occurs in Hackmaster this is clearly a must-have. I could easily see this being of use in a GM Screen perhaps some day.
The Hacklopedia of Beasts is easily the best looking of the 3 books. The artwork is stunning, lavish in fact in most cases. The exterior quality of the leather bound cover is second to none. However, I feel the previous review by Chandra Reyer does a great job of explaining exactly how great the art quality of the book is. Therefore I will refer my readers to check out her take here. Considering it comes from someone who bought the book on the looks alone, I think it speaks volumes.
My final thoughts on the three core books
My History with Kenzer & Company products
As I have brought up many times, I have been playing roleplaying games since around 1981. I have mostly stuck with 1st edition AD&D, begrudgingly moving to the 2nd edition in the early 90’s. I spent quite a bit of time playing MERP in the 1980’s and later Rolemaster as well. When the 3rd edition came out, I chose to stick with 2nd edition. It was not until 3.5 and the Mongoose Conan line that I took any interest in moving. When I did decide to make the leap Pathfinder was in its infancy and being beta tested. Around 2001, I was at Scott AFB, Illinois and a local comic book store which carried some small games had a copy of this book with an ominous cover that was reminiscent of the old 1st edition cover.
In this book, I found not only my love of AD&D being shown but the intermixing of more complex systems like Rolemaster as well at play. Critical hit charts, true race factors, an old school tone and the complete honor system. I do not think, looking back I could have been more excited. My games were now dangerous and the threat of death was real for my players. My players began to cringe at every die roll behind the screen again. Things felt alive at the table.
My players were always asking for more, I was always looking forward to the next session. In truth, the over the top nature of the 4th edition was a challenge for a table that had become stale with the same old same old. My players had no fear of dying in 3.5 because they felt godlike, and the more ridiculous and intricate I made encounters the more I felt like I was struggling. With Hackmaster we were all having to work.
A truly Veteran game for Veteran players
What I feel this edition of Hackmaster truly brings to the table is challenge. Challenge that comes from a well-written system that truly expects the best from its players and gamemasters. Hackmaster does reinvent the wheel by taking a new more tactical look at combat. More specifically it applies the same logic to both roleplay encounters as well as combat. The game enforces that the players are thinking. Murder Hobos will die, meta gamers will be completely out of their element and veterans will finally feel the sort of challenge they crave. You will not venture into that dungeon without a 10-foot pole. You will definitely look for hirelings. Parties will peel every last ounce of loot out of a dungeon. The player’s actions matter. The alignment system matters. Combat will bring the level of excitement it should.
Sure, any GM worth their salt can make a dungeon that is deadly. But it is reliant upon their talent alone to accomplish this. With Hackmaster any situation can be deadly and all require thinking. In a recent encounter with my Thursday night game, my character lost honor for doing the right thing. I always try to think about repercussions, especially as a player but I clearly was wrong this time. The realities of Hackmaster cause you to constantly evaluate your situation. The danger is a constant, and a hasty decision can produce disastrous results.
Value for the dollar
The books alone are leatherbound and gorgeous. Similiar full-color books of this quality can easily go for well over $100.00 dollars. Kenzer Company offers a bundle of all three core books for $149.99, which saves you over $30.00 on buying the books individually. The best news is, and this should really appeal to customers of the grognard generation, you do not have to worry about a metric ton of splat. Kenzer Company supports Hackmaster with many module offerings, a lot of very affordable $2.99 pdf downloads that add pertinent data only. You will not run into one book referring you to another book for a page or two of relevant game mechanics. Admittingly Kenzer Company is a small company. Their release schedule is slow on new products, but when they release something it actually adds a layer to the game that is necessary.
There are 7 Zealot Guide pdf’s focusing on the various religions. Hackmaster is unique in that no two clerics of different religions operate the same way. The PDF’s contain 3 new religions, spells for these sects and relevant information in each guide. They have also begun releasing Spellslinger guides which promise to do much the same. Kalamar supplements are on the agenda as well, with more affordable $2.99 products on PDF. They also have the module Frandor’s Keep available to get GM’s going in the perfect sandbox environment. I would honestly rank Frandor’s Keep easily beside such classics as Keep on the Borderlands for a frame of reference.
Overall, Hackmaster is, in my opinion, the best system out there for veteran gamers. The concepts once they are understood are fairly simple, but it can be daunting for those who have not sat behind the screen. Fortunately, the Kenzer forums have many postings of online games, so getting a chance to try it out is fairly simple. If you have a gamer in your household, tired of the same old same old, Hackmaster is the answer. If your players are yawning due to the lack of actual challenge, Hackmaster is once again the answer. Reinvigorate your table today by picking up Hackmaster! With the bundle price, it could be a great present for your holiday shopping.
Until next time,
Keep rolling them bones!