The original HackMaster game was designed as a parody of contemporary role-playing, inspired by the games played by the characters in the popular Knights of the Dinner Table comics. Even then many gamers saw through the obligatory silliness to a sound ruleset in its own right, and with the advent of HackMaster Basic the game has grown up, to leave aside parody and present a game which is fun to play in itself. Fret not, though - if you do enjoy parody and a bit of silliness along with your fantasy, it's still here! So is the 'luck panel' for rubbing dice on (which never worked with mine, but your experience may differ!)
After some apposite opening remarks setting the context, we begin with Quickstart Rules for those straining at the leash to get playing. It is a simple and straightforward process with the options at each stage explained clearly. Although it will help if at least one person there has some idea of what they are doing, following the process through should enable players new to this game (or indeed role-playing itself) to create a basic character ready for play.
Next comes Chapter 1: Character Creation, which adds a lot more depth for those who are looking for more than a quick and basic start. The process is similar but permits for far greater customisation and choice by allowing players to allocate 'Building Points' to skills and abilities as they fine-tune the character to meet their desires. There's a lot of discussion to inform your choices here, so you will be aware of the ramifications of each decision during the character-building process. This part of the process details abilities and character race.
Chapter 2 discusses Honour. While it is initially derived mathematically from a character's ability scores, it represents how honourable he is and fluctuates during play depending on his actions - just as a real person's reputation is based on what he does and says. Within the game, a player is assessed (mostly by the GM) on how well he adheres to what is expected of his character's chosen alignment, race and class and also how well he portrays that character through role-playing. Alignment is important in HackMaster and this is reflected within the game mechanics by the Honour system. There is plenty of material here to enable you to know what is expected, and how to reflect character actions within the rules.
Part of playing in a way to earn (or at least, keep) Honour is to role-play your character's quirks and flaws, and Chapter 4 is devoted to addressing these aspects of a HackMaster character. All characters are required to roll for a quirk (mental trait such as a habit or a prejudice) and a flaw (some kind of physical defect, such as a prominent scar or an allergy). They are mostly mild in effect (although unlucky rolls against allergens can result in anaphylactic shock) and good role-players can capitalise on them to make their characters come alive - although that flatulent racist might not be the most popular character at the table!
Next, Chapter 4 takes a similarly detailed look at character classes. Choose from the basic four: fighter, thief, mage or cleric; and you'll find all the information that you need about the capabilities and limitations of your chosen class in this chapter. In like vein Chapter 5 examines the skills, talents and proficiences that characters can aquire at creation and develop during play. Using skills, including opposed checks, and the consequences of failure are also discussed. There is a wide range of skills that with careful choices can give well-rounded characters, not mere combat machines incapable of doing anything more than roam dungeons killing monsters and looting their treasure. To futher customise characters, talents - one-off special abilities - can be purchased, thus conferring the ability to blind-fight or an increased healing rate for example. Then come proficiencies, basically you know how to do a particular thing such as swing a sword or use a bow, or how to put on that suit of armour.
Chapter 6: Armour, Weapons and Equipment describes - and prices up - all the gear that the well-outfitted adventurer might require. There is also the all-important details for weapons about damage, reach and the like that you'll need when you come to use them in a brawl. This is followed by Chapter 7's comprehensive listing of mage spells, with all the details of how to cast them and what they actually do which the aspirant mage will require. Spells are listed by level and they also have a cost in Spell Points. Chapter 8 provides the same service for Cleric Spells.
Now characters are fully-created, dressed and equipped with weapons and spells, we move on to the all-important Chapter 9: Combat and learn how everything comes together in a brawl. HackMaster combat is designed to be lethal, and ought to be regarded as a last resort by any character with a desire for a long and happy life. This chapter is designed to ensure that once a brawl starts, a character who has studied it thoroughly should have a good chance of emerging upright rather than feet-first. This is when the marked adversarial nature of HackMaster, GM vs. Players, really comes to the fore: those NPCs are out to get you and the best way to survive is to get them first! It is also designed to be exciting even when you use the game mechanics, a refreshing change from games when you either fight mechanically following the ruleset or gain a cinematic effect by abstracting the rules so that they don't intrude on the action. Everything you need is here, clearly presented in a logical fashion - although it's going to work better if you learn at least the basics rather than have to refer to the book mid-brawl. As an added bonus, the customary 'combat example' comes in the form of a Knights of the Dinner Table comic strip... complete with annotations to show how the rules are applied at each moment.
Chapter 10 deals with miscellaneous rules... this is where you look if you want to fall off a cliff and find out how much damage you take, or how far your lantern light will penetrate a dark cavern. It's a motley assortment of rules for healing, the economy, and even aging effects (if your characters survive long enough to suffer them). That out of the way, Chapter 11 looks at detailed character backgrounds - given the distinct emphasis on ROLE-playing, it helps to know who your character is and where he comes from, as well as what he can do. While much of the information is drawn from die rolls on tables, if you don't care for the result you can use Build Points to amend the details.
Next comes Chapter 12: Dice. Eh? A whole chapter on dice? Well, they are important... and herein is the correct terminology, dice etiquette and a whole bunch of stuff you didn't know you needed to know until you read this! Even if like me you are a mathematician with a good understanding of probability it makes for an entertaining read.
Then you come up hard against a large warning: GAMEMASTERS ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT. Er, this is a rulebook, not an adventure. It's easy to understand why you don't want to read an adventure if you intend to play in it, or even if you might want to do so sometime in the future... but rules? Anyway, don't most people GM and play, rather than stick to one role or the other? If you ignore the dire warnings and threats, GM Chapter 1 describes HackMaster Monsters with explanatory notes showing how each monster operates within the rules especially regarding its combat capabilities. A nice, if basic, collection of fantasy opponents. This is followed by GM Chapter 2 on Magic and Treasure, which includes important details like the appropriate placement of treasure to generate the correct level of reward for your players. There are also details of magic items that may form part of that treasure, so that once characters find them the rules are to hand for their use.
GM Chapter 3: The Game Master which rather than providing the usual collection of useful advice on running games in general and this one in particular that most books present, encapsulates it all in the GameMaster Code of Conduct, which if nothing else is a good set of guidelines to the ethics of GMing. That's pretty much it, the book rounds off with a comprehensive index and a character sheet.
In summation, HackMaster has grown up, shed the more overt parody descending into silliness aspects of earlier books (well, perhaps not where dice are concerned!) and now presents a mature and balanced ruleset for those who want the best of 'old school' gaming blended with true role-playing. Even if you dismissed it out of hand before, it is well worth a look in this incarnation.
Return to HackMaster Basic page.
Reviewed: 29 January 2010