Mark Damon Hughes RPG: Review: HackMaster Basic [Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics] [about]

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I've had HackMaster Basic (5th Edition—they started at 4th, so it's not that old) for a week now. This is a long analysis, get a cup of coffee.

First, what HackMaster Basic is and is not. It's not Dungeons & Dragons®. It's not OD+D, it's not AD&D with some extra bits and parody like Hackmaster 4th Ed. was. It's a new game. It happens to have exactly the same stats, races, classes, alignments, and so on of D&D. But there's so much else that's different, it is actually a new game.

The Book

The Erol Otus cover art is awesome. Go look at that on Kenzer's product page, it's old-school all the way. And that creepy figure in the doorway… Is that an Elder Thing? I want a poster of this cover art.

The book is softcover, 192 pages. The paper is cheap and nasty, not quite toilet paper, but not far from it, and it's just glued to the binding. The ink is, a week later, still smudging under a dry finger, total amateur hour. I'm accustomed to Palladium's book quality, where heavy white paper is stitched and glued, with fixed ink, so their books will last literally for decades without damage. HackMaster Basic won't last through a year of table use. Kenzer can do better: HackMaster 4th Ed. was well-printed. Aces & Eights is magnificent, stitched binding in leather hardcover (unplayable, annoying game design, IMO, but one of the most gorgeous books I've ever seen). I feel ripped off by the print quality, to be blunt.

The layout is okay, clean 2-column style. The tables are somewhat cheesy, like HTML alternating-row tables, except when they screw up the alternation and you get gray-white-gray-gray-gray-white. The reproduction of the interior art is awful, it looks muddy, almost inkjet-quality. This is just appalling. Whoever approved this printing, I'd haul him out back and give him d20 lashes and a groin-stomp.

I've bought photocopied and print-on-demand books that were better-quality printing than this. Fortunately the content is better than the container, but it speaks very poorly of Kenzer & Co. that they allowed the book to ship in this state.

There is NO FUCKING INDEX. [update: see below]

This isn't brain rocketry. TSR made an index in 1979 for the AD&D books ON A MANUAL TYPEWRITER. No computers. No built-in cross-indexing, like any modern word processor can do. Just by hand, writing down where things are, and listing those references. It takes a day or two of actual work.

If you produce short little gamelets, like I'm wont to do, an index is irrelevant. If you're making a 64-page book, an index starts looking useful. At 192 badly-organized pages, the lack of an index is just a giant "FUCK YOU" sign to the reader. Extra groin-stomp for the editor. I understand that in the comic, Gary™ Jackson® was dead and came back to life, but in reality, the editor was a drunkard or AWOL.

[Update 2009-07-13: Mark Plemmons, the editor, is not a drunkard or AWOL after all. He was kind enough to address this:

Thanks for posting your thoughts on HackMaster Basic!

Just wanted to let you know that we have listened to concerns, and we
now have a downloadable index PDF on our store page, along with other

The index does seem to be reasonably complete. It's a shame it has to be downloaded and printed out separately, but at least things can now be found, which is a vast improvement. ]

A word about dice notation, randomly explained in the middle of the ability scores (NO FUCKING INDEX): "p" after a die (e.g., d6p) means "penetrating", aka in other games "open-ended": roll again and add if you get the max value, except only roll d6p for d20p, or d20p for d100p. Open-ending with a single die type (like Shadowrun) is pretty easy, you can just scan for 6's or whatever. With a big mess of dice, it's a pain to think "this is a d8, I need to find all the 8s" on every roll. Most of the die rolls in the game are penetrating, but not all. For something so unintuitive, it would be nice if there were statistical charts for penetration dice, perhaps in that "On Dice" chapter, right? No such kindness awaits you.

0. Quick-Start Rules

So, this is nice. A streamlined, straight-forward path through character creation, make a few choices, roll some dice, you're done.

EXCEPT. It deliberately has no modifiers for the races. Those are easily added, just by giving the player all the bonuses, talents, and skills from each race in chapter 1. It's a strange decision. There's a certain sense to it, in that the quick-start doesn't use Building Points (BP), which talents rely on, but it's obnoxious.

Stats have an added complication, in that they have a 3d6 score, and a percentile fraction. This matters, somewhat, for the BP system, but is totally irrelevant in quick-start, and wastes time. I'd say just assign /01 to every stat and be done with it.

Other than that, this is a good, old-school, 15-minute character creator.

1. HackMaster Character Creation

The "real", HackMaster Advanced character creation starts here. And goes on for some time. It's an endless, tedious slog step by step, fiddle with numbers, buy some things with BP, go back because the steps are not clearly laid out in sequence, repeat until you throw the character away and go back to quick-start.

I like character point systems, normally. My favorite fantasy RPG, sadly defunct almost immediately after release, was Fantasy Hero 1st Ed. (the standalone Champions 3rd Ed.-based game, not the more complex HERO System 4th Ed.-based Fantasy Hero 2nd Ed.; it's a confusing lineage). FH had a single pool of points and you bought what you wanted from a short and manageable list, and you were done. Even HERO 5th Ed. and GURPS 4th Ed. are still on that model; there may be too many options, but they're all in one big pot.

HackMaster Basic doesn't work like that. You roll for things, then maybe spend BP to reroll, then have a gigantic section of skills, talents, etc. to pore over to pick useful abilties, with no convenient summary of how much things cost. Skill costs can vary from 1 BP to 10 BP, so it's hard to work out what kind of tradeoff you're making.

So, my conclusion is that the full character creation is for masochists, accountants, and the dogmatic true believers. It's tedious, stupid, and annoying, and produces broken characters. Sticking to the quick-start rules looks reasonable.

Races are the typical Human, Elf, Dwarf, Halfling tripe. Not even any sub-races or half-breeds. Halflings are as disposable, trademark-violating, and under-defined as ever. Elves are a lot more fragile than usual, but have so many advantages as both nature-warriors and mages that they're still godlike. Dwarfs are reasonably balanced. Of course Humans are boring and irrelevant. Any race can take any class, but it costs a LOT of BP (crippled character LOTS) to make a Dwarf Mage, Elf Priest, or Halfling Mage or Priest.

Alignments are the cliché AD&D Law/Neutral/Chaos × Good/Neutral/Evil combination.

2. Honor

The Honor mechanic was the best thing about HackMaster 4th Ed., and it's just as good here. Or annoying, depending on your view.

Have you ever wondered why the Knights of the Dinner Table characters play the way they do? Their obsession with wuss-slaps and honor and never taking sass from NPCs? Well, it's because your honor is used to shift die rolls and gain bonuses.

Accurately role-playing your class, alignment, and background is vital to gaining and maintaining honor, which at least in theory may drive munchkins to learn to role-play and not just huck dice.

3. Quirks & Flaws

A set of random personality traits, each with several paragraphs of explanation. As a character background idea-generator, it's a lot of wasted pages when short summaries would be enough. If intended to be used as legalese for how to play your character's background, which I suspect Kenzer does, it's a straightjacket.

It might be good training wheels for munchkins, but for adults, I'd suggest dumping the "official" quirks & flaws and making your own background.

4. Character Classes

All characters advance from experience at the same rate, and gain 15 more BP to spend on skills/talents each level. HackMaster Basic only covers levels 1-5, but it's not hard to write your own experience tables… Later, in the Monster section, we'll learn that you're "awarded" experience for defeating monsters, and in Magic and Treasures (totally inappropriately placed), you get some more experience rules. It's never quite a complete experience system, but it's sort of all there, just badly organized.

Hit Points work differently than in D&D. Every character starts with their Constitution score in HP, plus one or more hit dice from class (d10 for Fighters, d6 for Thieves, d4 for Mages, d8 for Clerics) at each odd-numbered level. At even-numbered levels, you get to reroll your last hit die, and take the better of the two scores.

So, this addresses both the fragility of the common person (who now has 3d6 + 10 HP from Constitution and race), and reduces HP inflation as you go up in level.

The classes are a little less generic than their names suggest: Fighter, Thief, Mage, and Cleric. Yawn… what?

The Fighter is pretty boring, other than weapon specialization. However, the skill system does open them up to more interesting uses. You can buy all the thieving skills, for instance, and have a competent Conan-like character. Or leadership and military skills, and have a path towards ruling your own army or kingdom. Anyone can take skills, but a Fighter has the most to gain from them.

The Thief has the usual backstabbing and stealth skills, but also has Luck Points (LP), which can be spent to change die rolls during the game. LP are a very limited commodity, 20-some for an entire level, but offer the chance of a truly surprising upset victory by a thief. Thieves are still annoying, parasitic, and disruptive, though. While the Luck Points are interesting, I'm likely to just eliminate Thieves and only allow Fighters.

The Mage has had some serious changes. The old Vancian magic (created by Jack Vance as a JOKE about fantasy tropes, not to be taken seriously!) is (sort of) gone. Spells are arranged by character level (not "spell levels"), and each spell costs Magic Points (MP) to cast. One spell at each level can be "memorized", and costs half the MP of an "un-memorized" spell, but you're no longer crippled by "forgetting" spells. MP can also be spent to boost the performance of a spell; it's not as flexibile as HARP's base spell+boosting mechanic, but it's similar. If the spells are good, or good spells can be added, the Mage looks to be HUGELY improved over any D&D-like game. Also, Mages are allowed to learn to use any weapon, though it will cost them more BP than a Fighter, and can carry a shield (but cannot cast spells while holding it). The Mage might feel a bit less useless when out of MP now.

The Cleric's spell-casting powers have been greatly reduced. They can cast one spell at each level (like the Mage, the Cleric's spell list is now organized by character level, not spell level) per day, plus a few more for high Wisdom. Each religion has a specific alignment the Cleric must belong to, and provides special powers, limits on weapons and armor, etc. However, since only 5 religions are presented here, not every alignment is represented. The current set are: The True (LG, annoyingly honest, turns undead), The Caregiver (NG, annoyingly compassionate, turns undead and heals more damage per spell), The Guardian (aka "The Liberator") (CG, rebels and rabble-rousers, escapes restraints), The Overlord (LE, slavers, command undead, charm), The Creator of Strife (CE, bad luck, plays bagpipes). Creating more religions, or ones more tuned to a specific world, should be pretty easy.

Overall, not bad. Broad enough classes to really be useful and cover most character concepts. The Clerics are almost unique in fantasy RPGs in having an actual religious orientation, instead of being white mages with generic holy symbols.

5. Skills, Talents, & Proficiencies

Every skill has a BP cost, and every "purchase" of a skill gets you some die roll of points added to it; the first purchase also gets a stat-based bonus, and purchases get smaller dice as your skill level goes up. A starting skill can reasonably be rated 10-30, maybe up to 50. Higher than that is serious professional territory. Making a skill check is just a percentile roll with modifiers, less than or equal succeeds.

It's simple and quick. There are some D20-heads who have quite predictably freaked out at having different mechanics for different actions. I don't have that reaction, and I suspect no normal, sane person does, but it may well happen to the unstable person at your gaming table (if you don't know who that is, it's you).

That said, it probably wouldn't have hurt the game to use a d20-based mechanic here as they did in most places, with an increasing BP cost per skill point, instead of a decreasing number of skill points per constant BP cost.

The skills themselves are grossly over-detailed, with specific results depending on your skill level. Having this much "detail" just encourages checking the rulebook instead of roleplaying and considering the situation.

The lack of a table showing all the skills, a description, and BP costs is HUGELY annoying.

Talents are advantages with varying BP costs, which "break the rules" in various ways, e.g. "Hit Point Bonus" (20 BP) gives +1d4 HP, and can be bought as often as you like; "Less Sleep" (24 BP) reduces sleep needs, and gives a bonus to save vs. Sleep spells.

Many of these are racial advantages, and really somewhat inappropriate for general purchase.

Proficiencies cover weapon and armor proficiencies, with increasing costs by difficulty of the weapon or armor, and a couple of abilities that are really talents.

6. Armor, Weapons, & Equipment

The game uses silver, not gold as the basis of the economy. Something vaguely like historical values! However, the actual details of the economy are not listed here, but back in Chapter 10: Misc. Rules, which you'd never know because there's NO FUCKING INDEX.

Otherwise, it's a pretty standard medieval equipment list. No weights for anything, which is amusing since there's a big fuss made under Strength and movement about encumbrance.

7. Mage Spells

See Mage above. The spell list has 6 spells each for Apprentice, Journeyman (cantrip equivalents), and character levels 1 through 5. 42 spells, which really isn't bad for low-level games. Most are obvious copies of D&D spells, but there are a few new ones, and they have the HackMaster slightly-comic tone to their names, like "Fireball, Skipping Betty".

8. Cleric Spells

See Cleric above. The spell list has 6 spells for each character level 1 through 5, plus an upgraded level 6 healing spell (for Caregiver Clerics). Most spells are again obvious copies of D&D's, but with less humor.

9. Combat

Combat in HackMaster is… extensive. And weird. And complicated. Fortunately, there's a 10-page combat example comic with the Knights of the Dinner Table characters.

All actions are done on a second-by-second count. When your initiative number comes up, you can act. The action you chose will determine how many seconds later you can act again. The only way I can think of to organize this is to have a big chart with a count down the side, and combatants at the top, and mark their next action on it, but there's no such example in the book:

#   Alice   Bob     Charlie Dexter  Orc #1  Orc #2
1X  _______ _______ _______ _______ _______ _______ 
2X  ___X___ _______ _______ _______ _______ _______ 
3   _______ _______ _______ _______ ___X___ ___X___ 
4   _______ ___X___ _______ _______ _______ _______ 
5   ___X___ _______ ___X___ ___X___ _______ _______ 

(Alice took a 3-second action in second 2, it's now the 3rd second, and the orcs are ready to go…)

The example shows use of counters on a map, and movement is second-by-second, so I have a hard time picturing non-map-based combat in this game.

Hitting a foe requries making a d20p roll against the target's d20p defense, unless the target is poorly defended (running away, etc.) when it gets d12p, d10p, or something. Whoever rolls higher wins. I'm all in favor of defensive rolls, they're one of the best features of Palladium's combat, but changing the die type instead of applying a penalty to a fixed die slows the game down, and is irritating.

Damage uses MANY dice: a dagger does 2d4p, a longsword does 2d8p, and a battle axe does 4d4p. With penetration, this means you're actually capable of killing someone with a dagger, though it takes some luck (about 2% of rolls will be 16 or higher). A longsword is more reliable, but less random.

There's a lot of rules here, but many of them are special cases you can ignore. So really there's a HackMaster Basic Basic…

10. Misc. Rules

Falling is handled in some detail, with distance and surface struck determining the result. I don't buy falling 10' and taking only d6p-1 damage, falling 10' onto a hard surface is actually dangerous, but it beats "d6 per 10' fallen" in most games.

Healing is by individual wound. The explanation is contradictory, but apparently it takes (1 day per HP of wound) to heal 1 HP from each wound. So a 3 HP wound takes 3 days to heal to 2 HP, 2 days to heal to 1 HP, 1 day to heal to 0 HP (wound cured). All wounds heal simultaneously, so a dozen 1 HP scratches can heal overnight. Not bad, but complicated, and requires tracking every wound. I can see that getting tedious REAL fast.

Light, Doors, Coins, and Aging are all short and workmanlike. I would have expected to see poison (actually found at the end of the monster section—NO FUCKING INDEX), fire, drowning, and other hazards here, too, but no such luck.

11. Detailed Character Backgrounds

Random-roll height & weight tables, and tables to determine if your character is a bastard son of a whore with no father. No, seriously. Better hope for two loving parents, or you're messed up. Wait. What kind of well-adjusted person becomes a murderous, grave-robbing adventurer?

12. On Dice

For ELEVEN FUCKING PAGES, a stupid Knights of the Dinner Table parody article about dice superstitions and how to palm-roll or fellate your dice to get better "luck" is included.

The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Ed. Dungeon Master's Guide, by the late, great Gary Gygax, had a single page on dice including statistical analysis and alternative ways to get random numbers. That was invaluable, rational, mathematical information which was difficult or impossible to acquire elsewhere.

This "On Dice" chapter is beyond garbage, it's retarded, it's a waste of paper, and an insult to the reader's intelligence. There's no groin-stomp heavy enough for the editor who included this crap, especially when the space could have been used for a FUCKING INDEX or a couple pages of GMing and campaign systems.

GM 1. Monsters

The monster list is pretty decent, 57 monsters (and some variants) with ecology and combat notes. Missing (though I don't miss them) are the pelt-scavenging material notes from the old Hacklopedia of Beasts.

There are no encounter tables. This is a glaring oversight, and makes that retarded "On Dice" chapter even more horrible, when a page or two of encounter tables would make the game immensely better.

GM 2. Magic & Treasure

The item tables are organized by character level, and thus only low-level items are included, but it's fairly complete. The lack of artifacts and other really weird items is disappointing.

GM 3. The GameMaster

The stupid "HackMaster Game Master's Association" oath, nothing practical about actually running a game.

Player Character Record Sheet

The character sheet is actually pretty good, well-organized, has space for almost everything, and yet has a decent amount of whitespace. However, you'll want to print the PDF, because the book is so badly bound that the left half-inch of the sheet can't be photocopied.

What's Not Here

The things Basic would need to be a complete game:

  • Encounter tables
  • Dungeon generation/stocking
  • Wilderness generation
  • Campaign design
  • Clear experience guidelines
  • High-level magic items


System: A-
Despite some flaws, I like the actual game. A quick solo test showed me that while combat isn't fast, it should be over in 15-30 minutes once you're past the "how do I attack?" stage. Skills are so much simpler, I wish the entire game was built around them, but it works. Magic doesn't suck.
Content for Players: B
The quick-start character creation, skills, and rules of play are all complete and interesting. If they had deleted the full character creation rules and complexities based on it, it could be an A.
Content for Game Masters: C
Decent monster and magic list, but total lack of support for running a campaign.
Organization: C-
Even aside from my constant refrains of NO FUCKING INDEX, every chapter has some little section out of place, off in a totally unrelated chapter. Be sure to grab the downloadable index.
Physical Book: F
Seriously, heads should roll over this. If Kenzer & Co. have any sense of shame, they'll have a second run done by competent printers and offer a trade-in for these crappy pre-Origins "beta" copies.
Overall: D/B
I can't recommend buying this book until they get the print quality up to a professional standard. When/if that happens, I think with some modules and a setting book, and probably the HackMaster Advanced books, it can be a solid fantasy RPG.

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