"HackMaster Player's Handbook," Kenzer & Co.

Pros: Hilarity; flexibility; fun; organization; cool details
Cons: Complexity; minutiae; some confusing details
Rating: 4 out of 5

First published 9/4/2002

What on earth kind of roleplaying game would be called “HackMaster?” In order to answer that, I’ll have to give you a little background. Kenzer & Co. puts out a comic book called “Knights of the Dinner Table” that lampoons roleplaying and roleplayers of all kinds. In particular, it makes fun of the ever-popular “Dungeons & Dragons” (or at least, that style of game). They called the Knights’ game of choice “HackMaster.” Eventually they announced the long-awaited release of an actual game! With the advent of “Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition,” they were able to get a license for the old “AD&D” rules set.

Many people consequently dismissed the game as “only a joke.” They declared that it was simply “AD&D” repackaged, that it was surely unplayable as an actual game, and that it was time for the joke to end. While “HackMaster” is, in fact, very funny, it is far from being only a joke – it’s a playable game in its own right. In fact, HM walked away with the “Game of the Year” award at this year’s Origins Awards!

Much of this review will be about the game of HM in general. This is because the “Player’s Handbook” could be considered to be one-half of the basic game, where the “Gamemaster’s Guide” is the other half. Thus, reviewing the game is reviewing this book. In the PHb you’ll find all the material a player needs in order to play the game, while the gamemaster (GM) will need both the PHb and the GmG. In specific, this book contains:

  • A few basics on roleplaying in general and HM in specific
  • Character statistics
  • Character races
  • Character classes
  • Character background material
  • Alignment, honor, and fame
  • Character quirks & flaws
  • Skills, talents, proficiencies
  • Information on money & treasure, goods & services
  • Magic
  • Experience and gaining levels
  • Combat
  • Info on adventures, campaigns, encounters, and NPCs
  • Spell lists & descriptions for mages and clerics
  • A spell planner
  • Quick-reference sheets for character creation and advancement
  • Character sheet
  • Glossary, index, log sheets, and combined tables/charts

Game Style

HM’s focus is “old school,” hack-and-slash, high-character-death dungeon-crawl gaming. It has similar character classes to those in D&D (based around your basic mage, fighter, thief, cleric), but it includes some interesting variations: Blood mage, Battle mage, Dark knight, Knight errant, and so on. Everything you need to play these classes is included in the book.

Races, too, are standard-plus: dwarves, elves, gnomes, gnomelings, half-elves, halflings, half-orcs, half-ogres, and pixie fairies. Elves include two evil races of elves – the usual Drow, and the rather unique Grel, or Grunge Elves. Again, everything you need is right here, from general descriptions of the races to race-specific bonuses and penalties.

In fact, “standard plus” is a good way to describe much of HM. It strives to include the expected standards, but it also goes out of its way to muck with stereotypes and add unusual and unexpected extras. For instance, while it includes many of the usual mage spells, it includes not just one fireball spell, but at least fifteen, including such gems as “Fireball, Show-No-Mercy,” and “Fireball, Skipping Betty.”

Also like D&D and its variants, HM is a level-based system. Characters improve by gaining experience (in the form of “experience points”), going up levels, and training. This means that they improve their abilities all at once at certain points, rather than throughout the game. Some of the material for leveling up requires a copy of the GmG, but as long as your GM has that, you don’t need it. The basics are all included in the PHb.

Task resolution comes in two parts: the standard d20 (twenty-sided die) for resolving things related to basic statistics (your usual strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, charisma, comeliness), and percentile dice for resolving skill checks. HM’s list of skills is long, allowing for a great deal of variety within the game. You can purchase them with building points at the beginning of the game, and you can further build up skills through training and experience. The PHb includes both a quick-reference listing and a detailed one.

A statistic called Honor reflects your character’s achievements, screw-ups, and attitudes, and it also affects almost everything he does. It’s a very strong element of the game that has many implications. Too little honor and you risk bad karma. Too much honor and the gawds themselves want to screw up your life! Just the right amount of honor and great things will happen to you.

Attitude Adjustment

In the comic, HM was created by a little company called “Hard Eight Enterprises” that had a great deal of attitude (the better to make fun of it!). “The HackMaster Player’s Handbook” is written as though it had been authored by these people. As long as you understand that this attitude is done in fun as a parody, it can be a lot of fun to read. If you think that the authors are actually being serious, you’ll in all probability find it annoying.

If you had any doubts, all you have to do is look at that aforementioned skill list. Everything from the completely serious (agriculture, appraising, military leadership), to the light-hearted (ballroom dancing, shaving/grooming, coin pile numerical approximation, mingling), to the totally over-the-top (Manu weasel dance, wuss slap, dig hasty grave, flex muscle, taunting).

Despite this attitude, there’s nothing saying that you cannot play serious games with HM. In fact, I’ve found it to work quite well. Just leave out the sillier-sounding abilities and flaws, and you’ll be just fine.

Quirks & Flaws

Speaking of flaws, I couldn’t possibly talk about attitude without mentioning HM’s system of quirks and flaws. You can pick your own, in which case you get very few extra building points for them. Or you can roll randomly on a set of tables in chapter 6 – in which case you get plenty of points, but you also risk getting some very difficult flaws!

You can spend one building point to re-roll any result you don’t like, so you won’t be stuck with, say, “double amputee” if you really don’t want it. Although getting random flaws sounds like it would run counter to a serious game, I actually find it challenging and interesting. It can be fun to try to come up with a good character with a background that explains those quirks and flaws, and it can be a great way to gently push people into creating a little depth for their characters.

In addition, there are tables in chapter 4 that have you roll dice to determine everything from your number of siblings to your social class. (Part of the shtick of HM is that of having tables for everything!)

Setting

In the style of such games as D&D, you could say that HM is built to be a generic fantasy game without an actual setting, per se. Certainly you won’t find a description of worlds, countries, cities, and religions within the pages of this PHb. However, it would have been hard for the comic to find so much material to poke fun at over the years if the game didn’t have some sort of setting associated with it. So, the default setting for HM is called Garweeze Wurld. You’ll only find little bits and hints of it in the PHb, scattered throughout such things as the descriptions of races and classes. More information on various parts of the world can be found in HM’s supplements.

Playing the Game

There are so many little rules for so many occasions that you will at times have difficulty finding the one you need. The book does possess a good, thorough index, however. Each chapter is short and every page has the chapter number in bold letters at the top, making it easy to find, for example, character races once you know they’re in chapter 2. Simple sub-headings are employed often, which makes it much easier to find individual rules.

It is only the complexity that occasionally gives us difficulty in finding a rule during play – that and the occasional confusion of remembering which rules are in the PHb and which in the GmG. Otherwise, I find it much easier to locate things in this book than in, say, D&D Third Edition.

I recommend using post-it flags to mark frequently used pages (like the honor chart, quirks & flaws, skills, and the combat section). In addition, most of the charts are collected in one appendix at the end, making it easy to find weapons, the price of a good meal, or the building points for Dark Knights at a moment’s notice.

Getting Started

It does take a while to create a character! It’ll probably take a few hours, particularly when you’re first learning the system. For this reason (and because of the complexity), this might not be a good game for an intimidated beginner new to roleplaying. Play something a little simpler first unless you enjoy games with lots of rules. (As a note, you’ll find pretty much everything you need to create a character in the PHb, but there are a few items in the GmG that the GM is supposed to determine before you play the character.)

At the bare minimum, you’ll need a copy of this “Player’s Handbook” in order to play (preferably one for each player), a copy of the “Gamemaster’s Guide” for the GM (the guy in charge), and a standard set of dice for each player (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20, and percentile dice – you can find them pre-packaged in this configuration). You’ll want to photocopy the character sheet in the back for everyone, and extra pens, pencils, and paper are always a good idea.

That’s all you need to actually play the game. Here are some of the extras you might find handy over time, though: The 8 volumes of the “Hacklopedia of Beasts” are very useful to the GM, but if your GM doesn’t mind making up his monsters on his own (or adapting ones from other games), they aren’t necessary. There are a couple of adventures already published, with more on the way. You’ll find new material monthly in the “Knights of the Dinner Table” magazine.

A Few Quick Physical Details

Unlike most modern main rulebooks, HM is soft-covered. On the other hand, also unlike most modern main rulebooks, at the time of this review the PHb is still just under $30, where most core books from other companies have recently gone up to $40 or more. The inside artwork is simple black-and-white line art. Nothing special, but definitely amusing and appropriate to the humorous fantasy game.

The “HackMaster Player’s Handbook” is larger, more comprehensive, and better-organized than many other games out there. It has its share of typos and mistakes, but they aren’t as overwhelming as in many products. The sheer complexity of the game can get a little frustrating at times, and I’ve never been fond of keeping track of minutiae in roleplaying games (like paying for every meal that the characters eat), but it isn’t all that difficult to leave out rules you don’t like; ignore the minutiae if they annoy you (it’s easy enough to just say, “sure, you have enough money for dinner; whatever”). Use your common sense to solve dilemmas. No roleplaying game is set in stone, and they all need a little tweaking to suit individuals’ tastes.

This is a flexible game, presented in a very thorough book. It’s silly, over-the-top, hack-and slash. Underneath that it can be a very playable, serious game.


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