Back before GenCon, I asked you guys what game you would like me to review , and you chose HackMaster Basic. I picked up the book at GenCon  and started reading it right away. I kept you up to date with my progress on Twitter with the tag #hmbreview .
Now, weeks later, summer breezes have turned to autumn chills, and I have finally gotten through the book and done some playtesting as well. This is the first part of a two part review. Today’s article looks at character creation. Tomorrow’s article will review the combat and GM sections of the book.
So let’s get started…
Before we get into the meat of this review, there are a few things I need to confess. First, I am a closet Grognard. I don’t play White Box D&D or Swords & Sorcery, but I love the spirit of Old School Gaming . Second, and likely more inflammatory, is that I have never liked the 1e D&D rules. THACO was the reason that I ran from D&D into a string of other games through the 80’s until 3rd edition.
That said, I did not really have much interest in the original HackMaster. My take after a casually flipping through the book was that it was a parody game based on AD&D. That alone had me running in the other direction. The titles for the modules sounded funny, but when I stared at the near 10” of rule books to be read, just to get started, I passed.
Consequently, I am coming at this article without having read or played the original HackMaster (4th edition). So, there may be some mechanics that were in original HackMaster that I am commenting on in this review. Don’t get your chain mail in a bunch, and just let me review this book on its own merits.
Why Another Version?
Kenzer & Co were required to make the original HackMaster a parody as part of their contract to use the D&D rules. That contract expired, and Kenzer & Company decided to take HackMaster in a new direction. I won’t get in the nitty-gritty of how the new version of HackMaster came to be (for that, check out the Wikipedia  article), but the new rules have left behind the AD&D core mechanics, and moved from a parody into a more serious game.
The book is soft-cover and 192 pages. The cover is a new Erol Otus piece that takes me back to my Moldvay D&D basic book. The interior artwork is all black and white, and has a very old school feel. No “Elminster Beyond Thunderdome” illustrations.
The interior text is two columns, with a clean layout, including very simple tables. Each chapter has a quarter banner with black and white artwork. The binding is solid, and the book lays open nicely on any page.
The Rulebook contains rules covering levels 1-5. It hearkens back to the D&D basic set, where you have just enough rules to get started, including monsters and treasure. Like the D&D basic book, after a few adventures, you will be looking for the rest of the rules, which are coming in the form of Advanced HackMaster.
What struck me about the rules, was that the game fully embraces the old school spirit. It has that, “be smart, or get killed” feel. It places importance on things like cartography, rations, and racial dispositions. At the the same time, the rules have a modern feel. The mechanics are a real departure from the previous versions of AD&D inspired mechanics and feel innovative and fresh.
As I read through the rules, there were many times I forgot that I was reading HackMaster, and instead reading some new retro clone game, but then I would stumble onto a line like this:
…there are those that who’d tell you that the battle is the be-all and end-all, melee, is glory and combat is the most important thing in HackMaster. I’m here to tell you that the players trying to sell you such nonsense are nothing but inexperienced rubes. Engaging in combat is not the most important thing in HackMaster; it’s a weak third behind surviving and, most importantly, winning combat! –Chapter 9: Combat
I found myself on several occasions, bursting out laughing while reading the rules. These passages never make the game feel like a parody, but at the same time, they are a reminder that this game is about having fun.
The first 50 pages of the book are dedicated to character creation. Character creation uses the classic D&D attributes and adds in one for Looks. Attributes are determined by 3d6 to come up with the base number, and a d100 to determine the decimal part of the attribute. The end result is that your character looks like a AD&D Unearthed Arcana Caviler.
Characters also receive a base set of Build Points (BP) and can receive bonus points based on how they use their rolls. You get the most bonus points if you leave your rolls in the order you rolled them, half if you swap two of the attributes, and none if you put them in any order you want. One interesting thing about the attributes is that there is no real dump-stat. Every attribute contributes to the character build. The physical skills modify combat, where the mental attributes give bonus BPs.
Players choose among the four classic fantasy races: Human, Dwarf, Elf, Halfling. The races have modifiers to attributes: pros (low light vision), cons (short reach), and bonus skills. There is nothing shocking about the races; they are classical in their presentation. An additional bit of a old school feel, there is a racial disposition table outlining which races like and dislike each other.
The rules offer four classic character classes: Fighter, Thief, Mage, Cleric. The classes each have their own advantages and limitations. The Fighter is the martial expert, the Thief sneaky and backstabbing, the Mage casts arcane spells, and the Cleric has divine power and some martial ability.
Another example of old school feel combined with modern mechanics can be found in the categories of Race and Class. Certain races favor certain classes, but rather than restricting race and class, the rules require you to purchase your class with Build Points, making favored classes cost the least, and the least stereotypical cost the most.
Build Points can be used in a number of ways. They can increase the decimal part of attributes. There are not enough to make any dramatic changes, but high decimal attributes can be pushed to the next number. The skill system is a percentile-based system that uses Build Points to purchase expertise. There are a wide variety of skills that cover all your fantasy needs. In addition, there is a limited list of Talents (read: feats), and Proficiencies (weapons and armor) which are also purchased with Build Points.
To round out your character there are Quirks & Flaws, which are rolled randomly. Neither grant you any bonuses, and some come with some mechanical negatives. They do create some interesting role playing opportunities and play a part in the Honor mechanic (see below).
To finish off the details for your character, and for your need to roll on tables, there is the Detailed Character Backgrounds chapter. There you will find tables for birth order, upbringing, and handedness.
HackMaster Basic uses an honor system that gives the players a pool of honor points allowing them to influence dice rolls. Players can spend individual points to bump a die up and down one point at a time or spend 10 points to get a re-roll.
The rules go on to say that the use of honor empowers the player to take some control of the mechanical fate of the game. This frees the GM from the need to “fudge” rolls. To quote the rules:
Finally, the Honor rules absolutely eliminate the need for anyone, be he player or, so help me gawds, GameMaster to fudge a roll. Fudging, also known as cheating, has no place in a game that already ahs a mechanic designed to eliminate freak occurrences.—Chapter 2, Honor
Again, the rules embrace the old school feel by letting the dice fall where they may, but at the same time the mechanics create a way to empower the player to take some control of his own fate.
For me, the most interesting part of the honor system is that it is awarded in part though the proper play of class, alignment, and quirks and flaws. I like that there there is a mechanical incentive that reinforces good role playing.
The equipment chapter is pretty thin, only 4 pages long, but it covers all the basics: general equipment, armor, weapons. To be honest, for starting characters, it’s all you are going to need. The weapons list has swords, axes, pole arms, and ranged weapons. The armor list goes from thick robes up to scalemail, but lacks the classic plate mail.
Magic is divided up into Arcane and Divine, and each get their own chapter. Arcane magic, the more interesting of the two, is a spell point system. Mages gain a pool of spell points that increases per level. Spell points are expended in the casting of spells. In addition to casting spells, points can be used to increase the effect of spells. Memorized spells cost less than spontaneous casting, but both options are available for the Mage.
As for spells, the list of spells has 7 levels: Apprentice level, Journeyman level, and First level through 5th level. There are 6 spells offered per level. Many of the spells are classics, such as Charm, and some are interesting twists on other well known spells: Magic Projectile of Skewering.
Divine Magic are the Clerics prayers. They do not use the spell points, and are more like traditional Vancian magic. There are no Apprentice or Journeyman level spells, only First through Fifth level; again 6 spells per level.
What is interesting about Divine spells, is that the effects of the spells work better on followers of the cleric’s deity. For instance, the Cure Injury spell restores 2d4+1 hit points on a non-follower, but anointed followers re-gain 2d6 hit points. This is a great mechanic for the cleric class and encourages party members to worship the same deity.
Reading rules is nice, but in the spirit of HackMaster, all the reading in the world doesn’t mean a thing unless you actually play the game. So, I gathered up some friends, all experienced D&D players, and we rolled up some characters.
Character creation was pretty straight forward. My players found that traditional 3d6 rolls for stats, were a lot tougher than any of us remembered: a sign that most of us had grown soft using stat lines. The end result was the weak, and not so bright Thief, the very weak Mage, and two very uncharismatic Dwarves. As I said before, there are no dump stats, so any choices that were made had effects in the final character builds.
Everyone moved through character creation without any problems. The spending of build points was straight forward, and the only confusion that occurred was in purchasing skills and determining the starting skill levels. After re-reading of the rules, we were back on track.
In the end, we had our characters, none of them perfect, and none of them invincible. All of them had some kind of weakness that each player would have to deal with.
What struck my group during character creation was that despite the races and classes being classical and somewhat limited in number, the use of Build Points really allows the players to create unique characters; tailoring them to their preferences.
In Our Next Installment
In the end, our party of characters were ready to get into some combat…but that is a story for another day (tomorrow).
Tomorrow we take a look at what makes HackMaster tick, the Combat system, the GM tools, and the fate of our playtest characters when they are ambushed by a pack of wolves.