Learning to Hack with Hackmaster Ted

Ghengis Con 41 Hackmaster playthrough!

I recently had the pleasure of attending Genghis Con 41, held in lovely Colorado every year on the third weekend of the month of February.  I will be writing up a short review of the convention, but there was one piece due to the previous Hackmaster articles that I felt deserved to be the subject of its own article.  In November of 2017, I posted a series of articles detailing the three core rulebooks of Hackmaster.  I did my best to describe how the system worked, its many features and the differences between it and other RPG’s.

But this convention gave me a perfect chance to illustrate some of the ideas behind Hackmaster in action.  It also gave me a chance to better exemplify how this highly tactical game can also provide an equally enticing series of roleplay opportunities.

A Madman has taken our children!!!

There were 6 of us all cloistered around table 4 Friday night at 5 PM.  We were given a bevy of character choices all on 11×14 laminated pages in color.  Without fail, I chose the role of stalwart Dwarven Fighter!  Battle Axe in one hand, Medium Kite Shield in the other, I tromped off voicing my characters concerns in my often terrible imitation of what I think a Dwarf is supposed to sound like.  We placed our chosen miniature options upon a diorama Hackmaster Ted had lovingly crafted for us.  Our intrepid party had been around for awhile.  We were known to the citizens of the small town of Vew as helpful folks, who protected caravans and the trails between Vew and Frandor’s Keep.  Though we were mercenaries we also had proven our trustworthiness.  Upon crossing the bridge into the small rural village, we were assaulted by the cries of folks in sorrow.

It seems as of late children had been captured by some wicked man using evil magicks to ensorcell them, while a much larger man scooped them up and unceremoniously placed them within a bag.  We even had two lovely young ladies dressed in peasant garb live roleplay enact the tale of woe.  They recounted to us how their friends had been stolen before their very eyes, been frozen into place by a hunchbacked man clothed in black, and a tall man who looked very scary.  Further questions lead us to understand the captives had been taken to a long abandoned dwarven Fortress just over the rise of hills.  Without fail, we took up chase!


Who is taking our children the broken parents cry out!

Our party stepping into the town of Vew

If your gonna make a lair an abandoned Dwarven Fortress is hard to beat!

Cresting over the hills, the intrepid party of adventurers spies the target of their search.  A stone structure lies upon a craggy hillside,  Its main door, crafted to stand centuries lying torn asunder.  To add to our tension, the door built to withstand sieges has been torn asunder by a giant hand.  We cross beneath what remains, forcing a series of rolls testing to see if our actions upset the fragile structural integrity that remains.  With little effort and no encounters, we come upon a smaller entrance,  Just tall enough for a short human or elf or one dwarf to enter.  Blood streaks lead to the doorway, only driving us to move faster, though not without caution.


Dwarves build to last until half-crazed mutant men rip doors asunder!

The crushed door and our party members passing beneath

Some ominous signs, but as of yet other than rolls, no encounters.  Perhaps this will be a walk in the park.  I will complement our thief player, who was great about checking for traps and examining every door.  A truly different experience than other games I played at during the convention.  Finding nothing of immediate concern beyond the blood (which was very concerning since it might belong to the children) we plunged past the entrance and into the depths.

Into the darkness, we go!

choices lots of choices!

We step down into an acrid tunnel, many of us having to crouch, but continuing blood trails leading us onward.  Once we arrive at the bottom of the stairs, the tunnel opens providing us a bevy of possibly suicidal choices.  In front of us lies a green stone door, typical dwarven art adorning it.  To the south a metal door, which our thief identifies several more guttural tones coming from.  None of us recognize the crude language being spoken, but regardless who needs to communicate right?  I mean dungeon means bad guys.  My brave Dwarven warrior elects to be the guinea pig to open the door, but not before the Elven Wizard (in an act that shows what jerks elves can be) casts a spell that nullifies any sound I make.  ANY SOUND…for an hour. My poor trusting dwarf slowly opens the door to reveal…..ORCS arguing amongst themselves.  Sadly, I could not raise cry being silenced.  The elf did however cast another spell that let me talk inside my head to him.  Due to this, I spent the entire 5 minute duration of the spell berating him in dwarven about his obviously pompous elven ploy to silence the only sensible voice! A fun bit of comedic roleplay to say the least.


ORCS! oh my (sorry for the blurriness, this is why I am a writer and not a photographer)

Using my dwarven noggin, I quickly take up a position in front of the door shield out.  I shout out in husky tones, Fire over my head fighters to the side!  This is not a rocket science notion and Hackmaster actually encourages tactical thinking.  I sought to make a funnel, which did end up working out but nothing without a few mistakes on my part.  First off, If you intend to try to be the living wall in Hackmaster you should probably use the option of fighting defensively.  Secondly, it does not good to suggest folks fire over your head if they do so from several feet back.  The first orc to come forward knocked the crap out of my poor dwarf, until I remembered to fight defensively, which gives a -8 to my future attack rolls but gives a +4 to my defensive roll.

Hackmaster does not do the whole armor class system.  Being in full plate mail does not make you harder to hit.  It makes you easier to hit because you are slow it just absorbs a heck of a lot more damage.  Secondly, shields do absorb damage but only so much.  Your shield takes enough beating you may find yourself in dire straits.  When combat begins, you roll a d20 and add or subtract your defense score from the roll.  Your opponent rolls to strike you and adds any applicable bonuses in.  Highest roll wins with ties going to the defender.  While they might miss you if they get within so many points there is a good chance they struck your shield.  Your armor soaks damage, mitigating it down or completely removing it in entirety.

Speaking of combat, Hackmaster believes in friendly fire.  This means players use to a more narrative system are used to letting arrows fly….which in this case put about half the shots fired right into my poor dwarf when the shooter’s dice rolled poorly.  I think I took almost as much damage from my own team as I did from the enemy.  You have to use your brain in Hackmaster, you are not the infallible hero capable of no error!

In the end, our stalwart party routed the evil orcs, though not without much injury on our part.  Luckily, we had a priest of the caregiver with us to help patch up a few wounds and one of the peasants had given us each a vial of healing as well.  (Hackmaster Ted used many props to great effect, the healing potions being one of them.  He gave each of us a vial shaped container with 4 1d4 dice in it, to represent our healing potion.  Pretty neat!)


Funnel in action

You did not think they were just gonna let you walk in, did you?

After our defeat of the savage orcs, our party barricaded ourselves within the orcs old room.  We blocked the door up to make it difficult for anyone to come in on us while trusting the sturdy dwarven walls to do the rest.  We patched up as best we could (one of the fighters came very close to death from one encounter with an orc) but overall were still in high spirits.  We opted to avoid the blood covered hole and instead follow the more recent blood streaks going through the green stone doors.  This led us to another tunnel.  This one laden with multiple traps.  Not before our rogue had to disarm a trap however for us to proceed.  This is where Hackmaster Ted made him roll, which he passed but offered him the chance to better his situation by using yet another prop.  Ted had reskinned an operation game and made it lock pick themed.  It was pretty interesting to watch the thief player struggle with trying to delicately grab the piece out.  In the end, we met with failure so we are not sure what the bonus might have been.

The first trap confronting us was a man catcher log with several spikes upon it hanging dangerously above us.  We disconnected the tripwires in such a way to not set it off.  The second trap was a log coated in oil floating over a viscous substance we later figured out to be acid.  We also determined there was a way to flip open the log but the latch was on the opposite side of us.  A couple nerve-wracking feat of agility rolls later allowed our thief to make it across to the other side and make it safe to cross for the rest of us by flattening the log out like a small bridge.  Finally, we came before a spiked wall that again was controlled by a mechanism the thief managed to barely disarm.  This was a great illustration of using skills and creative problem-solving.  Sure all games have this ability, but few actually ensure that failure means instantaneous death like Hackmaster does.

One Hall of trapped death

Fish in a barrel

the grotto and the sundered bridge spanning it

Making our way past the trapped hall we came to open grotto that ended in a cliff falling into a black abyss below.  The span was crossed by a bridge that had seen better days.  Stationed across the other side were orcs with bows firing arrows at us as we attempted to cross.  Some of our party divided, using cover in the cavern to avoid arrow fire while using spells and their own bows to provide cover fire while the fighter types tried to cross the bridge.  The bridge however was a trial all on its own, worthy of an Indiana Jones adventure.  Feats of agility were constantly needed to make it across the bridge with a few of our party almost falling into the stygian abyss.  In the end 2 of our fighters made it across and with the help of our ranged softening the orcs were taken down while the rest of us just focused on not falling to our deaths.  We set up a rope guide for the return trip, if we were able to find the children again it seemed practical to effect our escape.

Dastardly Orcs

The Tall Man Cometh!

We made our way down the tunnel at the back of the grotto.  There we were to confront one of the two beings the peasant children had warned us of.  A gigantic man with a sword as monstrous as himself blocked our path.  He had the appearance of one of the undead but was completely unaffected by clerical turning.  He looked as though he had been stitched together, and what proceeded was a battle of semi-epic proportions, his sword laying waste to us, while we chopped away at him with abandon.  Finally, we toppled the beast but not without losing much more health and taking wounds ourselves.  It is important to note Hackmaster does not ascribe to the giant pool of hit points theory.  Every time you get hit in battle it creates a wound.  As the wounds mount up they each have to be addressed separately.  Quaffing a healing potion will apply healing magicks to each wound individually, but there is no sleeping and blowing hit dice to heal wounds.  Each wound heals at a rate of 1 hit point per day of rest, with first aid helping to speed that process up a bit.  Life is precious and going gonzo has very real consequences the worse of which is of course death.


The hallway we encountered the tall man in

The tall man himself

Peasants and Necromancers and Flesh Golems oh my!


The Necromancer’s Lair

At last, we came upon the evil halls of the Hunchbacked Necromancer himself.  It was never truly clear why he stole the children, but the tall man gave us an indication that we were fighting someone who employed flesh golems to do their bidding.  As we approached his refuge his evil voice tittered at us, cackling the foretelling of our doom.  He sent two more albeit smaller but equally dangerous servants at our party.  One of the fighters chose to evade them and plunge straight for the evil man, only to be met with deviltry.  As our party divided, the Necromancer began taking damage and summoned his ultimate creation, a hodge podge of a minotaur and giant parts of epic proportions.  One of our members was slain almost instantly by this beast and my dwarf bravely rushed forward to try to protect his party members behind him.  Once again I forgot to fight defensively in the moment and paid for it with an almost shield shattering blow.

The Necromancer, however, had taken much damage and was reeling from our assault.  Unsure of what to do but knowing that without their leader perhaps the golems would become less controlled, I dropped my battle ax, pulled out my trusty throwing ax, made a last-ditch throw.  The ax sailed true, beyond the grasping hands of the beast and one of the golem servants and straight into the forehead of the Necromancer.  With his last dying breath, the Necromancer smashed a wall panel releasing a poisonous gas cloud from the ceiling which descended down upon us.  Hackmaster Ted did give us a chance, however, putting a puzzle representing the trap mechanism out before us, and flipping an hourglass over to represent the time we had before the gas cloud consumed us.

Sadly, my parties epic adventure ended there because we were not able to solve the puzzle in time.  I abstained at first from helping because my grandfather had often made puzzles like this one and I thought (I was wrong) that I already knew the answer since it looked very similar and I did not want to cheat.  In the end, we fell to the gas and the children died with us.  Despite a less than heroic death, All the players of this convention game left with a smile on their face.  I think it speaks volumes of a games performance when folks can lose and still walk away happy.

My final thoughts after a live playthrough

I have played Hackmaster twice now live.  Both times have been with Hackmaster Ted running the game.  I can unequivocally say two things about the game.  First, as someone who has been doing this since the early 1980’s, no game has presented more of a challenge to me as gamemaster sitting in as a player than Hackmaster has.  I constantly have to think and evaluate, and as someone who has 36 years roughly behind the DM screen, that does not seem to happen as much anymore.  To be fair, that does not mean other games I sit in on as a player are not fun and enjoyable, but I often do not feel the risk of death quite so vibrantly as I do in Hackmaster.  Some of this is, of course, dependent upon whom is running the game, but a large part of this mortality is driven by the system itself.

Hackmaster has found a way to reward good decision making, with a balance of a much tighter bell curve, and randomness of the fantasy genre truly combining into a tour de force.  Good tactics will get you far.  Problem-solving is critical and combat is intense.  At some point, everyone of the players was standing with excitement due to the visceral combat.  Our characters were level 3 and level 4, a place where in other D&D style systems players begin to feel a bit tougher.  This is not so in Hackmaster.  You ALWAYS have to be on your toes and I do not see that changing anytime soon.  Bored with humdrum sessions that feel uninspired or worse yet tired of having your players make a mockery of your plotlines by ignoring your dangers due to a bloated system completely in favor of cinematic/MMORPG gameplay, Hackmaster might just be what the doctor ordered.  Check it out here!

I would like to thank Hackmaster Ted for running an outstanding game at Genghis Con.  His girlfriend and her children were also great participants doing a lot behind the scenes to flesh out this game for us.  Hackmaster Ted’s son is also running a very cool Kickstarter showing off some impressive modeling skills.  I invite everyone to check it out.  I know I pledged (I intend to use it for a world-ending scenario of a Tarrasque being summoned because it reminds me of some of the imagery for the beast.)

Titanicus 30 CM of player stomping fun


I hope you enjoy my retelling of my hackmaster adventure.  I currently play in an online game and I am heavily considering running my own game provided I can find willing victims, err players.

Until next time,

Keep rolling them bones!


Myself and Hackmaster Ted send our friend George Fields a shameless “Wish you were here!” selfie



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