Thursday, June 25, 2009

HackMaster Basic - Quick Review

I got my HackMaster Basic pre-order in the mail yesterday, woot! These are my thoughts after a feverish read through.

If you like HackMaster this is HackMaster v2.0. If you're after a crunchy, point buy system that's less ornery rule wise (but more ornery flavor wise :) than GURPs/HERO/RoleMaster this book contains everything (cept an intro module) you need to start. Alternatively, there are several mechanics that can be straight up stolen for use elsewhere.

Pros: Price, $20 for 185 pages. Complete, quick start rules, monsters, magic, no intro module though. Effective, reader friendly layout and design.

Cons: Crunchy char build, point buy, but that's just me. Too many different mechanics; roll over, roll under, roll against, use d20 use d100. No rules on converting 4th ed (of HackMaster silly) or d20 stuffs (then again that seems like a web/free download type of thing). Wasting 10 pages on old, tired dice etiquette bit, boooooh!

The Suck

Build Points and Fractional Stats are two horrors I was really hoping they'd ditch. I like to be able to pick up a game and get playing pronto. I like to get new people to play. I like to play one-shots at game stores which means we have 4-6 hours and don't wanna spend more than 15min of that on character gen. Point buy is the plague of death to any of those. Fractional Stats are faniggly and crunchy for crunchy sakes. In other words complete waste of time. Although, I give Kenzer mad props for including "Quick Start" rules that are character gen without the point buy. Personally this is what I'd always use. Drop Build Points and that whole mess. Drop it with fire down a pit to hell!

Skills, meh, mostly skipped this part of book. Needlessly crunchy (proly mostly to support usage of build points) and using different mechanics than rest of game? d100p roll under. WTF? I don't need no skills and would use stat based system such as the one from C&C. But if I wanted skills I'd use a nice system, i.e not this one.

Weapon specialization. There are four categories you may increase per weapon attack, damage, speed, defense. But you have to increase them all to +1 before any can become +2, etc. So, what's the freakin point of having those categories if there's no possibility to rock one out (say to make a big bruiser with high damage bonus or a swishy swashbuckler that has extra defense with his rapier). The reason is to provide a Build Point sink for fighters, lame, uber lame! Throw out build points and give fighterly types one or two +1 specializations to distribute per level. Bam!

The Hacking!

Despite the authors claims to the contrary a game called HackMaster is all about the axe to the face style of roleplay. The most interesting bit here is the continuous initiative system. Initiative is "roll low" usually a d12 but other dice are possible such as d6 if character was ready and looking for trouble to charge through the door. Also, thieves being canny and such roll smaller dice. This is modified by stats (DX and INT, nice!), armor, and maybe some other stuff. But it really only matters once at the start of combat.

DM starts counting up (each count is 1 second). Characters are "surprised" (can't act/have typical "flat-footed" type penalties) until their initiative number is reached. Once that happens they can declare actions, which take a certain number of seconds. One second of movement, four seconds to aim bow, couple seconds to draw/ready huge zwei-hander. Each weapon has a "speed" This is in fact the number of seconds it takes to recover after rolling to hit with that weapon. If I rolled 10 for initiative and my mighty axe had a speed of 7 I'd roll to hit (assuming I did nothing but attack on counts 10, 17, 24, 31, etc. So, there aren't really turns, everyone is interleaving their actions back and forth. In the case of movement all players might all act every count! This along with the defensive roll seems like it would keep everyone involved and combat would play fast and tense. Even if it takes a long time it wouldn't be a drawn out bore.

I like continuous initiative systems very much. Lots of tracking though. Easy to mess up/cheat. Complex for new players? As DM I'd probably be tracking everyone's initiative + all the monsters, bleck! Still, I want to try it. Just need to come up with some awesome prop/aide to make it easy.

Dice rolling, most rolls are opposed and not vs a static number. So, instead of rolling d20 to hit and looking to get over a certain "Armor Class" number. The defender rolls defense. Highest roll "wins". Saves vs poison and spells work in similar vein. This is nice for player engagement but puts additional burdens on DM (all his cute creatures need rolling) and lengthens conflict resolution.

Interestingly not all attacks/defense rolls use d20p. For instance a d12p/d8p is called fo when defending against flank/rear attackers, when fleeing like a sissy you can't use a shield and only get a d10 for defense Range for missile weapons is also handled by reducing the die type rolled as distance increases. Although Kenzer fucked up that simple system with complexities of target size and shooting into melee. There are nice fumble (opponent gets free attack), critical hit (dbl damage), and expert defense (defender gets free attack) mechanics for rolling 1 and 20's.

Armor provides damage reduction, from 1 Thick Robes to 5 Scalemail, which directly reduces the number of damage points a successful attack causes. Armor also provides an adjustment to defense. This adjustment is in the bad direction making it easier for you to get hit! I approve of this mechanic. One I've longed for since learning it from RoleMaster. Heavier armors also increase initiative (bad), how fast you can move and really heavy armors have a speed modifier reducing how often you can swing a weapon.

Thank the elder gods! Finally a RPG has given the shield its due! +4 to +6 to defense and you roll d20p instead of d20p-4 for defense, a roughly 40-50% increase of defensitude. That's what I've been talking about yo! When using a shield opponents misses are considered to have always hit the shield. The opponent rolls reduced damage (1/2 for hack/crush, 1 point for pierce) and applies this to your shield which has 4-6pts of damage reduction, remainder hits your armor (more DR), any left over you take as damage. Simulating heavy blows to your shield doing some damage. (although, this isn't how shields are actually used but hey this is a fun game not a medieval combat simulation). Shields can also be splintered/destroyed if they fail a save after taking more than a threshold amount of damage. So, again get hit more but take less damage. All around I dig these shield rules. They are now my shield rules and will see use (possibly slightly tweaked) in other games I play.

Hackisms! Knockbacks, do a certain large amount of damage (based on targets size) defender gets knocked back 5', 10' or more. Everyone has a ToP, Threshold of Pain, based off of hit points, increasing slightly with level. Receive a wound, trauma, greater than your ToP roll d20 (thankfully no penetration) under 1/2 CON. For each point you miss by you spend 5 seconds rolling around on the ground crying for yer momma. Aw yeah, these are some sweet bits to steal if you're after this kind of flavor.

There is an excellent detailed example of combat using KoDT comic, blocks of text explaining mechanics and a top down view of a battle map. Entertaining and well done. Overall looks like fun combat system. A bit long to resolve but not slow and boring. Geared towards smaller battles (there's just way too much to track for huge 40 orcs attack you type slugfests) Although mook/minion rules would be simple enough to come up with.

The Other

Nice, clean, readable layout. Thank you. I'm tired of RPGs masquerading around as fancy coffee table art books. There freakin rules! I want to read them, not drool over your art direction. Makes good use of shaded text blocks to expand on rules. Nice tables. Effective and funny use of KoDT comic. Except for the stupid dice chapter an entertaining smackering of the "HackMaster Universe" Gary Jackson and the like. Right amount of art to inspire (sadly most of it not in the HackMaster style, lots of it looks reused, but hey $20).

Movement is interesting. Due to the continuous initiative system movement is rated on a feet per second basis. Character may move every second at one of four speeds walk, jog, run, sprint. Armor reduces top movement type not overall speed. Thus Bif the Basher decked out in heavy scale armor can only walk and jog. Another faniggly bit that adds zero to fun is this retarded rule:
From a standing position, a character can begin to walk or jog immediately but not run or sprint.
Never will enforce that, bet most people will never read or remember that. Just stupid. An example of how crunchy authors can't leave well enough alone. I might do the jog/run/sprint thing as a group of mounted knights charge just to build tension but there's no need for a freaking rule, geez.

No intro module. I don't need one but it could have nicely portrayed the HackMaster style of play and ethos. And it's a real shame cause the ten pages they wasted on the unfunny and largely identical to what has been printed before "Dice usage and Etiquette" Chapter would have been plenty of room for a rockin dungeon. That dice crap is the kind of thing that should be on their website/freebie download. But, 10 out of 185 pages is not a deal breaker

GM Section. Thankfully & strangely? no section on "What is roleplaying", or "This is how you GM". I guess they believe their main audience is existing gamers and/or people don't need baby like hand holding. I agree with that belief, tis better not to tell people how to play. Let them figure out their own style. Included here are enough monsters and magic (40pgs worth) to get started and have many sessions of hacking and looting fun. Of note is the Hydra, Aquatic Worm featured on the cover.

No index. Meh, don't rightly know if this kind of book (basic intro to game) really needs an index. There's not that many rules / options, the book is well layed out, and it's not a rules reference.

The Shindiggy

Overall, I like the game play parts and loath the character gen/build point/skills parts. It seems easy enough to drop the suck (Kenzer has even started this with the Quick Play rules) or lift the awesome into something else. There's little quirks and minor things I'd gloss over or streamline. All and all the second crunchy but fastish playing system I've seen this week, Shard being the first. Is this the most happy and glorious future of RPGs? I would not be sad if so.

If there are any questions on specifics, post'm to the comments. I'll be glad to look them up and answer them.


The majority of rolls (to hit, damage, defense, healing!) penetrate aka explode. That is if you roll (per die) the highest possible value you roll that die again, subtract 1, and add the result. Repeat until you don't roll the highest possible value. I dig that this is fun, exciting, and provides a chance for the impossible. What I'm less hot about is that a d4 is much more likely to penetrate than a d12 or d20. Btw a d6 is used for d20 penetration and a d20 for d100 penetration. But, I guess my fears are unfounded, here are the averages (and max value rolled) after 100,000 dice rolls each. Most the avgs seem to be just .5 or so more than normal non-assploding average.

d4p 2.99 28
d6p 3.99 34
d8p 4.99 35
d12p 7.02 56
d20p 10.63 47
d100p 50.53 143

And details for d4p (100,000 rolls)
1 25122 0.25
2 24740 0.25
3 25028 0.25
4 6371 0.06
5 6218 0.06
6 6318 0.06
7 1542 0.02
8 1512 0.02
9 1573 0.02
10 391 0.00
11 410 0.00
12 398 0.00
13 103 0.00
14 84 0.00
15 92 0.00
16 24 0.00
17 28 0.00
18 26 0.00
19 5 0.00
20 3 0.00
21 9 0.00
22 2 0.00
23 not rolled
24 1 0.00


  1. Thanks! Looks really good, though I agree that the continued use of build points in chargen is disappointing. The BP system is what most discouraged me from playing 4th edition HM.

  2. I don't really like contested rolls: double the work for almost no additional info. HMB addresses this a tiny bit by making crits and fumbles matter on both sides, but that's way too little to make it worthwhile, IMO. The quick fix is to just use the average die roll; this is essentially what D&D has always done with AC, except it used a 10 (or 11 depending on the edition/chart) for defense. Easy enough to generalize to PCs roll, NPCs take 10 in all situations. If the PC fumbles on the offense, that's a free attack by the NPC; on defense it's double-damage.

  3. I am all about the contested rolls, I actually wrote more about them today (being the third time this month). Its a good way to keep people occupied when its not their turn, it also adds a feeling of ownership to ones defense. Its a good thing this game wasn't out 10 years ago, I may not have started working on game design as heavily, I like alot of the mechanics (but not all) you mentioned here.

  4. Why is there a "p" after all the dice designations?

  5. @propagandroid

    The 'p' in d20p stand for penetration. And means the die "explodes". That is if you roll the max value possible with that die you get to add to your result the value of that die rolled again -1. This may repeat.


    I also thought about having fixed targets but for monsters/mooks/minions. But I also believe @zzarchov that they are good for player involvement/ownership.


    Off to (re)read your posts. I'm gonna try to get some HMB action in my local Austin game groups. But Piecemeal still fascinates me. My "campaign system" is gonna be parts of Piecemeal, HackMaster, CARCOSA, d20, and who knows what else. I wonder if I'll get anyone to play it.

  6. btw, as far as tracking continuous initiative, I once proposed using Legos, which I still think is a pretty good idea. Basically you make little lines of Legos, one for each character, plunking down a new Lego (or two) of the appropriate length for the number of seconds the action takes--the character gets to go again when the turn marker passes the end of their line. Cuisinaire rods or the like would do, but Legos have the advantage that you can stick them to a plate so that they can't get knocked around or misaligned.

    It's fiddly, but probably less so than having to keep adding and counting up forever. If you wanted to do the count-up method, then giving everybody 2d10 to track the next number they get to go on likely beats scratch paper or memory.

  7. This is a game I have very mixed feelings about. I have been looking for an "old school" D&D type game for a while. None of the previous ones did for me or my players(Having tried OSRIC, LL and C&C).HMb offers a interesting variation of OD&D, which is what it is ,if one is being honest about what it really is.

    But some of the rules do seem at bit wonky & convoluted to me. I dunno. Maybe that is part HM's charm? Or maybe once we have played it a few times it will make more sense as to why it is the way it is....

  8. Perhaps this will help with keeping track of Initative for you...

  9. @anon/andrew

    Nice work! Thanks, that's exactly what I'm talkin about. I'd use minis on there instead of markers. (don't plan on using battle mat).

    @other anon

    Wonky and convulted is what some would say is old school's charm. I though, dislike that part. I like hack & slash, dungeons, magic pools, and the rest of "old school" flavor. Some of the rules (mostly lack thereof) support that but others are just wonky for wonkies sake.

  10. Glad I could be of help!

    I've got a introductory adventure I wrote up for the 4th Edition Hackmaster a few years ago that I'm thinking about converting over to HMB. (Perhaps I'll get time during the long weekend...) If that'd be helpful, you are welcome to it as well. It's at and

  11. I really think you should actually try making up a few characters and playing a couple of sessions before you start complaining about the BPs, Fractional Abilities and other stuff. Creating characters is pretty fast, unless you are of the "Analysis Paralysis" Gamers. I can create a character in about 15 to 20 minutes. The skill system is one of the best I've seen and allows for varied characters instead of a "Basic" Game that only allows "Cookie Cutter" character stereotypes.

  12. @greylond

    I appreciate the sentiment "shut up and try it". [I might have made the post you made if our rolls were reversed.]

    But, I've been playing RPGs for a quarter of a century. I *know* I don't like build points or skill systems. [Actually I love BP systems I just hate playing with them. If that makes sense.]

    For me it matters how long a newb to HMB or newb to RPGs altogether takes to make a character. (and also how long it takes them to comprehend the pre-gen I hand them).

    I don't think skills have any place in fantasy, sci-fi/modern maybe. But for fantasy* the best skill system is the one that's not there. [and by fantasy I mean the kinds of fantasy I enjoy DMing]

    I'm fine with mechanical stereotypes. I enjoy/want players make a character "their own" via roleplay and gameplay. Not via character build. [CoP 10' vs min-maxers]

    I generally view every RPG, supplement, product not as something to be used whole but as a source to plunder mechanics, ideas, flavor from. This tends to turn my reviews into buckets of "this sucks", "this is interesting", "I'd change this", "I'd steal this for use elsewhere".

  13. I've also played games like what you say you prefer. Without a game mechanic for skills then I've found that overall most GMs pretty well suck at arbitrating it. And I've also played RPGs and Wargames for almost 30 years, if not longer. I've played with too many GMs who use a lack of a system to pretty much plot Hammer you through what he thinks should happen or to save the ass of his favorite GMPC or NPC that he doesn't want to see get bested. I've played many systems that use some sort of BP mechanic, this is more streamlined than most.

    I just get tired of people who critize a game system without fully playing it. I mean I even made a few characters and played a couple of sessions of D&D 3.x before deciding that it wasn't for me. HMB isn't perfect but AHM is gonna be dang close...

    If it's not your thing that's understandable but "reviewing" a game without playing it is kinda like reviewing a Movie or Book without watching/reading it. All it does is make me lose respect for the reviewer and ignore anything they review in the future... ;)

  14. What about healing, I have no idea how it works out to having a PC wait a year or so to heal up from an adventure. I'd rather be adventuring than playing. Nurse to my pc.

  15. Late to the party here...but a couple of things come to mind. The first is the "ticking off" of seconds method of initiative; While fairly intuitive, it seems very fiddly to me. From the example I read (No, I haven't played it yet.) it appears that the game is very tactical at that level. i.e. Orc1 moves 5' on 15, orc2 moves 5' on 16, JoeFighter moves 5' on 17 and rolls to hit, etc.

    It strikes me as a very "choppy" way in which to adjudicate a combat. Kind of like watching someone dance under a strobe light. Without it they might actually look pretty "smooth". ;-)

    It also nearly begs for minis and a battle mat for resolution.

    The second thing that strikes me is that this "basic" game seems to be a bit of a dead end. One of the appealing things about a "basic" game is that the rules are generally streamlined from the advanced game. But if all you're going to do is ADD on more rules later, well then, it's not basic anymore.

    So while this might seem like a cool game for the moment, it's pretty limited. In that it only goes to 5th level.

    Sure, you might be able to continue on in the "basic" vein once the advanced books come out. But truly, how much of the advanced book is going to be useful to someone who would like to continue playing that way? 30%? Paying full price for a book of which only a small percentage might be useful seems like highway robbery to me. I could be wrong here though. Kenzer might be coming out w/ an extended basic line as well. Which might be nice.

  16. Way back when.. sometime in the 80s, some company put out a initiative combat tracker wheel. It was on a laminated folder with other useful combat charts on it. The Wheel had a track of numbers from like 0 to 100 or so.

    One used a dry erase or china pencil to mark character and monster initiatives. Adding in weapon speeds, modifiers, etc and die rolls, you marked the initiative.

    The wheel was turned to the next dry erase mark and that person/monster's turn took place.


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