So, I actually really enjoyed Hackmaster 4th Edition. Oh, the game – which was based on the Dungeons and Dragons variant played by the characters of the Knights of the Dinner Table – was at times intentionally esoteric beyond use. It toed a weird line between old-school sensibilities and novelty/humor game. I honestly didn’t get to play it that much in part because it was easy to get caught up in character creation and take too many flaws, resulting in completely (and hilariously) unplayable characters. Still, despite all that there was something in the core of Hackmaster 4th Edition that got quite a few things right.
And yet, I somehow missed that Kenzer Co. had released Hackmaster Basic, the first through fifth levels of the newest version of Hackmaster for absolutely nothing just over a week ago (acting, basically as an intro version, letting you try out the low level game in hopes you will like it enough to buy the full game, which supports up to level 20). After giving it a read through, there were several things I really liked about Hackmaster Basic (which you can and should download, since it’s free) and I decided I’d discuss a few of them below.
Better ability modifier balance – Kenzerco have gone out of their way to ensure that there are no throw-away stats in Hackmaster Basic, or at least make a better show of it than most old school RPGs. In most RPGs I have played in the D&D lineage, the physical stats rule the day. Less so in Hackmaster Basic. Instead, Intelligence determines almost as much of your hit modifier as Dexterity and Wisdom changes both your Initiative and Defense. Charisma is largely unchanged, but it is still useful for Turning Undead, and is more important in certain styles of games. Looks is… well, it’s just how pretty your character is. So I guess there’s that, but it wouldn’t be Hackmaster without a little superfluousness. There’s also the old Honor system, which is an interesting system in-and-of itself.
Flaws and quirks list is still great – Hackmaster 4E walked a fine line between being a joke/novelty game and being the hardest of the hardcore old school dungeon crawler, which led to a very interesting dynamic where you had a game that was a bit of a parody but refused to acknowledge that it was, which was actually pretty brilliant. In any case, Hackmaster Basic has definitely taken a step towards the ‘playability’ end of the spectrum, and some of the larger excesses of the previous edition have been left behind (making characters in Hackmaster 4E was a true pleasure just to see how unplayable your character ended up by the time you finished rolling for flaws). Still, while it is my understanding that the list is not as voluminous as the one found in the Hackmaster Player’s Handbook, the Hackmaster Basic quirks and flaws list is pretty extensive, covering options like ‘prematurely gray’ to a long list of allergies to ‘asomnia’ (having no sense of smell or taste).
Time is measured in seconds – In most RPGs there is an ongoing discussion with what you can fit into a turn. Not so in Hackmaster Basic, although that may result in a discussion as to how many seconds an action would take. This results in combat that has a different flow, with characters taking a lot of smaller actions more frequently instead and actions that are really noticeably different in their speed without completely overcomplicating the whole thing. Drawing a sword is not the same as taking a long bow off your back. One takes one second and the other takes five in game terms, whereas in most other games each of those actions just takes ‘one turn’. In this case, a surprised character that uses a bow is going to be in deep trouble if an orc with an axe manages to get right next to him. In any case, from the look of it, it is surprisingly intuitive (I was skeptical at first) and quite a bit easier for me to visually exactly what is going on in the game, at least based on my read through.
Have you played Hackmaster before, or played around with it? What is your favorite old school system? Talk about it in the comments.