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HackMaster Basic Review Part 2: Combat!

In yesterday’s article [1] we looked at the character creation system in HackMaster, but let’s face facts, if you are interested in HackMaster, you want to know about the Combat system.  So let’s not waste any time and get right into it…

Combat Overhaul

With the new edition of HackMaster gone is THACO! The new combat system focuses around competing attack and defense rolls, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. There are a number of innovative elements that make up this system, and my biggest fear is not being able to fit all of it into this review. I am going to highlight some of the most innovative and exciting parts of the system.

Count Up Initiative

HackMaster Basic has departed from the classic initiative order and turn system, by adapting the initiative system that Kenzer & Co. first used in their Aces & Eights western game. The system abolishes turns and starts combat at the first second and moves second-by-second.

Characters move second-by-second across the battlefield until they enter into melee. Once in melee, the attacker makes his attack, and then the weapon speed of his weapon determines when they will attack next. Large weapons have high weapon speeds taking 10 or more seconds to make their next attack. Other actions also determine when you act next in the count.

The initial order of combat is set by taking your initiative modifier (larger is worst) and rolling a d12. In cases where one party has a tactical advantage over another, smaller dice are rolled for setting the order, and the thief class gets to use a lower die as a class feature.

The end result is that combat is a flowing battle that lacks the predictability of traditional turn-based combat with combatants moving and attacking around the battlefield all at the same time.

Melee Combat

Combat revolves around competing attack and defense rolls. In melee combat the attack roll is a d20 plus your attack modifier, which is made up from bonuses for your attributes, class, weapon proficiencies, etc. The defense roll is often a d20 -4 plus your defense modifier, which is made up of bonuses for your attributes, armor, etc. In some situations the Defense roll requires a smaller die, such as flat-footed opponents who only get a d8 to their defense roll.

The attacker rolls his attack, the defender his defense, and the high roll wins. I like that this puts the player’s defense in his hand and allows him to use honor to keep himself from getting hit.

Range Combat

Bows, crossbows, slings, and thrown melee weapons get a great treatment in the combat system. Rather than assigning penalties to the attack roll based on range, the designers have changed it up by assigning a smaller die for the attacker’s roll. So at optimal range, the weapon starts with a d20, and then to a d12, d8, and then a d4.


Shields, which are often the red-headed stepchildren of armor, get some great attention in the combat system. In HackMaster the shield has two functions. The first is to block incoming attacks, by adding a bonus to the defender’s defense roll. The second is to absorb damage. The shield, like armor, absorbs damage.

When using a shield, successful defense attacks that strike the shield do half damage. The remaining damage is absorbed by the shield and then by the armor. In many cases an attack will do little or no damage.

Shields can also be shattered if they take a massive attack. A crushing shot on a shield can call for a save. A failed save can turn your shield into chunks.

Penetrating Dice

HackMaster uses what they call the penetrating die roll. In other games this would be called exploding dice. Basically, if you roll the maximum value on a die, you get to roll that die again (exception: d20 rolls a d6, and d100 rolls d20). The penetrating die allows for a wider range of of numbers in different rolls. This is most notably seen in damage rolls.

What you see with penetrating damage dice is an increase in the use of the d4. Weapons that have a high potential of damage, are assigned multiple d4s rather than higher dice. At first this does not seem intuitive, but remember that a d4 penetrates 25% of the time. This is also seen with the damage dice for spells, which are often represented in multiple d4s.


In addition to hit points, HackMaster Basic uses the Threshold of Pain. This is a percentage of your hit points and increases per level (faster for fighters). An attack that does more damage than the ToP requires a trauma check. This check is a d20 rolled under 1/2 constitution , which will often be under 10. If the check fails, the character (NPC or monster) falls down in pain for a number of seconds equal to the difference between 1/2 Con and the roll x5.

Failing this check is a near combat ender. Once you are down you are vulnerable to further attacks defending with only a d8, or a Coup de Grace (taking 10 seconds). From my playtest, more characters and monsters went down by failing the ToP then from losing all their hit points.

The ToP makes combat a much scarier endeavor, and one that should not be entered into lightly. It also makes penetrating dice that much more scary. A dagger attack, with some penetration, can trigger a ToP.

Combat Example

Ending off the combat chapter is a great illustrated example of the combat system in action, done by the Knights of the Dinner Table.  The example blends, panels of the KoTD group playing out a combat, a battlemat showing the positions of the combatants, and a rules summary.

The example does a great job of walking the reader through the combat system, especially the Count Up initiative, which is likely to be the hardest part of the combat system to master. It is entertaining and highly useful.


After reading such a serious combat section and navigating all the rules, I started to forget that I was reading HackMaster, but then I reached Chapter 12…Dice.  Yes, a whole chapter dedicated to the proper use of dice, dice etiquette, and dice rolling techniques. The chapter is part funny and part insightful. It is done tongue-in-cheek, but I found myself using some of the techniques including the Two Fisted Monkey Roll. And I am here to tell you that when my character was on the line, in a recent game, that Two Fisted Monkey Roll delivered some high rolls.

There is also a section on how to save your dice when they start rolling bad. Many of these techniques have appeared in the previous version of HackMaster, but they are still important techniques.  While I wanted to treat them as tongue-in-cheek, deep down inside we all know that dice have their own will. So be mindful and read the chapter….twice.

GM Sections

The last 41 pages of the book are dedicated to the GameMaster. You will know this section by the 3/4 page illustration and the bold title “GameMasters Only Beyond This Point.” With this being the basic book, the GM section is pretty light. I would expect in the advanced HackMaster rules, there to be an expanded section. In some ways, this reminds me of my Moldvay D&D basic rules, which were also pretty light on GMing information.

There are very few rules on encounter levels, leaving the GM to determine foes and encounter difficulties for adventures he is writing. This may be difficult for less experienced GMs but seasoned GMs should be able to build encounters.

The Monster chapter contains 77 monsters of varying difficulty. Many fantasy classics are listed: Goblin, Orc, Giants, Kobolds, Skeletons, Zombies, etc. What is noticeably missing are Dragons. I suspect that the Dragon is an advanced monster and should make its appearance in the full book. The monster chapter has fewer graphics than I would have liked. The book banks off the fact that the GM that is running the game has a strong fantasy background.

The Magic and Treasure chapter offers a modest selection of items in all the common categories, grouped by level. The selection is very functional and well balanced. There are plenty of items to carry your characters to 5th level.

The GMing section finishes out with the official HackMaster guidelines for being a GameMaster. The guidelines are are delivered like the by laws of a secret society. While the presentation is funny, the rules themselves are rather functional. Future GM’s should take the time to read the chapter, for there are some gems of advice in there.


After the characters were done, I took them for a spin. Four players (Fighter, Thief, Cleric, Magic User), were ambushed by 5 wolves. The combat system worked very well. The Count Up initiative was a lot of fun to use. I did find that the bookkeeping for the overall count and the current count for all 5 combatants was a bit tricky.

In our combat, the Mage went down before he got off a single spell. He got bitten by a wolf, failed his ToP, and was down for 50 seconds; a lifetime in terms of the combat. Hindsight being 20/20, that player should have used some Honor to force a re-roll or lowered his d20 roll to make his save…live and learn.

The combat rules were easy to follow. and we all got the basics down pretty quickly. One thing became clear: our year of playing D&D 4e was showing. This was not a high octane combat system where every class shines, rather this was some back alley knife fight that was dirty and dangerous.

After my game, I got a some advice on Twitter from @RevilFox on using a line counter, the kind you click, to keep the overall count and a small white board for keeping the monster counts. Sounded like good advice to me, and something I will consider when I run this next.

On The Horizon

I talked to the guys at Kenzer & Company today, and they said that Advance Hackmaster is currently targeted for Spring/Summer 2010. They will be comprised of three hardcover books:  Hacklopedia of Beasts, the Player’s Guide and the GameMaster’s Guide.

In the meantime, keep your eye out for PDF releases, including the first level adventure: White Palette, Ivory Horns [2], a free PDF available now.  Then in late 2009/early 2010 will be the release of Frandor’s Keep. From the sounds of it, it will be a combination worldbook and adventuring material that will keep you busy.

Final Impressions

HackMaster Basic is a great fantasy game in a classical sense. The game has a very old school feel to it, but a very refreshing set of of rules that feel new. The book is a great on-ramp to the game, giving you just enough options, rules, monsters, and magic items to ease into the game and whet your appetite for the upcoming Advanced HackMaster rules.

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "HackMaster Basic Review Part 2: Combat!"

#1 Comment By rwenderlich On October 6, 2009 @ 8:25 am

Seems like an interesting system. I’m curious about the defender having to roll to see if they’re hit though. Do you think the player feeling more involved in whether they’re hit or not is worth the extra time it takes for the rolls in combat?

#2 Comment By Lee Hanna On October 6, 2009 @ 8:59 am

That initiative system sounds really interesting! And so do the penetrating dice. I might have to look into this or Aces & Eights.

#3 Comment By Revil Fox On October 6, 2009 @ 9:59 am

@rwenderlich To be honest, it doesn’t really take any extra time if you have each person roll together.

#4 Comment By DNAphil On October 6, 2009 @ 10:18 am

[3] – I agree with Revil Fox. The extra roll did not take any more time in combat, and what I liked was that the determination if a player was going to be hit, was partly in the hands of the player. A player on a hot rolling streak can save themselves, in the face of a GM having a good rolling night.

On the flip side of that, a player on a bad rolling streak is going to get some extra lumps. But that is what the Dice chapter is for.

As a note, D&D 3.0 can work just like this. The Arcana Unearthed, shows you that the formula for AC 10 + modifiers, is a Take 10 on a defensive roll. So for 3.x players out there that want to try Defensive rolls, almost no changes to your game are necessary.

#5 Comment By DNAphil On October 6, 2009 @ 10:20 am

[4] – My first experience with the Count Up was playing a demo of Aces & Eights. If you like Westerns and not afraid of some mechanical crunch, Aces & Eights is an amazing book.

I really was impressed with the combat system for HackMaster Basic. I am anxious to see how the combat rules expand in the Advanced book, because there are a few hints that additional rules are forthcoming, including Crit Tables.

#6 Comment By Tyson J. Hayes On October 6, 2009 @ 10:24 am

@rwenderlich & @revil fox

Personally if I were running it I’d roll at the same time, preferably playing some gun showdown music (which I have no idea what it’s called). If only for the lol factor.

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On October 6, 2009 @ 10:38 am

Sounds interesting, and like some of the good stuff from Aces and Eights made its way over. It sounds like they didn’t bring over the targeting wheel for ranged attacks, which was probably good– or may be an advanced rule.

It sounds like you found combat easy enough to run the first time through [though there’s a learning curve as the poor wizard found out]. Other than counting up, were there lots of modifiers or specialty rules to consult, or was combat pretty streamlined?

#8 Comment By DNAphil On October 6, 2009 @ 11:58 am

[5] – I am glad that the targeting wheel did not come over either. As much fun as it was for A&8, not sure it would have translated to HMb as well.

Modifiers were pretty few. There are a few cases where you need to know what sized defensive die to use so that part was easy enough.

As for specialty rules there are a few rules that you have to use in running combat: Knock Back, Perfect and Near-Perfect defense, etc. Those are not hard but did require a little page flipping to check during combat.

There are some other offensive and defensive moves: Using Reach, Setting for a Charge, Yielding Ground, etc that you could use or not during combat. Most of my players did not used them, but I suspect in a few more combats, they would have started trying them out as well. Those required a quick review as well.

#9 Comment By Brent On October 6, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

Thanks so much for the review! Very helpful.

Can you explain a bit more about how the initiative system works during combat? How do you keep track of who’s coming up next, practically speaking?

I envision a game where everyone has a separate “countdown” — player one says, “I have 10 seconds until my next turn,” player two says “I have 7 seconds,” the GM says, “I have 3 seconds,” etc., so you then fast-forward to the next available turn (in this case, 3 seconds from now), so everyone has to subtract that number of seconds (in this case, 3) from their countdown. Is that how it works?

#10 Comment By Revil Fox On October 6, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

@Brent Not really. The way I do it with my group is to just call out each number, and if anyone has anything they want to do on that number they let me know. The thing to remember about the inititive system in Hackmaster is that it truly is free of rounds. Your weapon speed doesn’t mean you can only act once every x number of seconds. If I attack you on the count of seven, and my weapon speed is 10, then I won’t be able to make another meaningful attack until 17. But if it looks like the tide of the battle is turning in your favor, I can try moving away as early as count number 8.

#11 Comment By DNAphil On October 6, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

[6] – I will try to explain it here in the comment.

You start at the 1st second of combat and continue to go up 1 second at a time. I will give an example of mid-combat, as the opening of combat is not quite as interesting:

Count: 15
Orc 1: Moves 5ft towards Fighter
Orc 2: Moves 5ft towards Cleric
Fighter: Attacks with sword. (Now adds 10 to his count based on weapon speed. Acts next on Count 25).
Cleric: Moves 5ft towards Orc 2

Count 16:
Orc 1: Attacks Fighter with Sword (Acts Next on Count 26).
Orc 2: Attacks Cleric (Acts next on Count 26).
Fighter: cannot act (next action on 25)
Cleric: Attacks Orc 2 (Adds 8 due to weapon speed, acts next on 24).

Count 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23:
No one acts

Count 24:
Orc 1: cannot act
Orc 2: cannot act
Fighter: cannot act
Cleric: Attacks Orc 2 (goes next on 32)

Count 25:
Orc 1: cannot act
Orc 2: cannot act
Fighter: Attacks Orc 1 (goes next on 35)
Cleric: cannot act

Count 26:
Orc 1: Attacks Fighter
Orc 2: Attacks Cleric
Fighter: cannot act
Cleric: cannot act

Hopefully that makes sense. So faster weapons can actually attack again in the count, before heavier weapons, which is pretty cool.

#12 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On October 6, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

That kind of initiative system has been around for a while, but the best way of handling it I’ve seen was in White Wolf’s Scion system.

The way they did it was to have a segmented wheel and a counter for each combatant and one that showed where the “current” initiative was. Each segment of the wheel was one combat second, and each second you moved the “current” counter ahead a segment. If there were other counters on that segment, those combatants got to act. When you acted, you moved your counter forward the correct number of seconds. (If you took an action that took 10 seconds, your counter moved ahead 10 spaces. If you took an action that took 3 seconds, you moved ahead 3 spaces.) The only hairy part is making sure your wheel has enough segments that combatants can never confuse everything by taking massively long actions and “lapping” the current initiative counter. My guess is that for the most part, actions would fall within a certain maximum time, and actions like ritual casting that could take longer could be noted by a number of chips under them to be removed each pass or something similar.

#13 Comment By Brent On October 6, 2009 @ 8:34 pm

Interesting! Thanks very much for the explanation; you rock.

I wish there were a better way of handling it; that initiative system would great for the giant robot combat system I’m developing, but I think I’d rather avoid the wheel. Hmmm.

#14 Comment By theEmrys On October 7, 2009 @ 5:37 am

I’ve run HMB a few times now and it really does get easier as you go. The thing I like the most about the count up system is how you can react as you go… so just because you’re in the middle of a 10 second count up until your next attack doesn’t mean you can’t decide to move, or parry, or fight defensive… Also having movement go on a second by second basis allows for a bit more realistic reactions rather than seeing where they go before you do anything

The defensive roles are also really nice. It adds a lot more variability to combat. Also, it was touched on but the “perfect defense” and “near perfect defense” are also quite fun. That’s when you roll a natural 20 or 19 on your defense… if you succesfully defend, then you get a counter attack (on perfect defense) or an unarmed strike on near perfect. Also, if you roll a 1 on defense or attack, your opponent could get a free attack on you. We’ve had some pretty interesting battles where the tied turned quickly due to a defenders roll…

#15 Comment By Greylond On October 7, 2009 @ 4:30 pm

Hey, I’ve been running HMB for a while now. My group is one of the PlayTest Groups. Combat is pretty easy after a couple of sessions. My group can go through a combat(6 characters vs 5 or 6 Monsters) in about 15 minutes. The thing(s) that make HMB so great(IMO) is that it takes several game mechanics from the past and combines them in a way that works and makes it feel like a real combat. The best example of Combat is the Free PDF Download that is discussed in the Review. You can find it here: [7]

Great Review. I like to see reviews by people who actually try the game out. HMB is one of those games in which you really can’t fully appreciate the rules without playing it. In play, you get to see how all the concepts work, it’s more than just adding mechanics, they all just mesh so well.

And yep, I agree with those who say the Shot Clock didn’t need to be in HMB or AHM(Advanced HackMaster).

#16 Comment By itliaf On October 7, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

Thanks for the great review. This game definitely sounds like a buy to me. I’m glad you gave some more detail on defense rolls, because I always wondered what the equivalent of a critical defense would be in that sort of system. It seems like an idea that could be easily ported into other systems.
When read about Scions initiative system, I pictured tracking seconds on a 6X6 grid rather than a wheel, thus allowing you to mark not only your next move, but also the duration of a power that lasts more than one six second round. The other advantage over the wheel being that it’s a lot easier to whip up an .xls of a grid and print out as many as would be needed, with room for important character combat stats along the sides.

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