HackMaster Player's Handbook
HackMaster Player's Handbook Capsule Review by Buzz on 11/08/01
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 1 (I Wasted My Money)
The Andy Kaufman of FRPGs.
Product: HackMaster Player's Handbook
Author: Jolly Blackburn, et al.
Company/Publisher: Kenzer & Company
Page count: 400pp
Year published: 2001
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Buzz on 11/08/01
Genre tags: Fantasy Comedy
HackMaster is the Andy Kaufman of FRPGs.
Now, this can be a bad or a good thing, depending on your opinion of Andy Kaufman. Sure, he was really funny as Latka on Taxi, but the whole women wrestling thing, while seen by many (mostly in hindsight) as pure genius, struck most people as just kind of stupid. As you'll see, in regards to HackMaster, I tend to fall in the latter camp (Kaufman I actually kind of liked, but that's beyod the scope of this review).
What is it?
HackMaster was originally a fictional FRPG played by the characters of Kenzer & Co.'s gamer-comic, Knights of the Dinner Table (KODT). As played in the comic, HackMaster is essentially everything that most enlightened gamers consider "munchkin-y" and "power gaming." It's about hacking and slashing and looting and pillaging and min-maxing and hacking and having your GM try to kill your PC and trying to out-rules-lawyer your GM and hacking and pillaging and hacking and, well, you get the point. It's the FRPG you played when you were twelve and could say things like, "I got my first Sphere of Annihilation when I killed Odin, but, man, the DM totally gypped me on the experience points," with a straight face.
Eventually, the hordes of KODT fans demanded that HackMaster be made into a real game. Kenzer & Co. capitulated (quite happily, I'm sure), and set about creating it. The question was, how should they go about designig the game so that it was true to the spirit of the comic? The answer: AD&D.
The main problem with HackMaster was thiswhenever we discussed the possibility of actually designing the game we were always taken back to the same in-yer-face dilemma: HackMaster began as a spoof of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Over the years, it went well beyond the original spoof, but the fact of the matter was STILL the sameat the heart of HackMaster lay AD&D. Starting from scratch would not only be akin to reinventing the wheel; it would also make HackMaster decidedly different from what had been presented in [KODT] for so many years.
Yup. HackMaster is liscensed 1st edition AD&D with some added rules. It's not revised, it's not updated, it's not a variant... it's AD&D1e with some added house rules to make it extra "Hack-ified." The core rules will be divided into a Player's Handbook (reviewed here) and a Game Master's Guide, and an eight-volume (yes, eight) monster collection termed the Hacklopedia of Beasts.
Now, if you're one of those AD&D1e die-hards who curses the day unified resolution mechanics were conceived, or sits in your cabin deep in the hills of Montana, shaking your fists in the air at concepts like "deep IC," you're probably going to be really happy about this. Your system of choice has returned in an only slightly-different form, fully-supported and with new products (modules, supplements) visible on the horizon. Set aside that mail bomb addressed to Wizards of the Coast and rejoice, I say!
On the other hand, if you're not one of those AD&D1e die-hards, I'm not sure that there's really much to get excited about.
The book itself
The HackMaster Player's Handbook is a hefty tome, more than twice the size of the original AD&D1e PHB. The cover is an extra-gory variant of the original AD&D1e PHB cover, and is a nice touch. The first half of the book deals with the rules essetial for HackMaster players: character creation, equipment, money, combat ("The Art of Hack"), magic, the basics of adventuring, and so on. The latter half of the book is devoled to various appendixes listing spells, skills, compiled equipment and other tables, step-by-step guides to aid character creation and level advancement, a guide to dice etiquette, a condensed set of by-laws for the HackMaster player's and GM's associations, a glossary, a character sheet, and an adventuring company record sheet. There are also some nice, Monopoly-style cardstock coupons in the back of the book, e.g., "25% Off the cost of your next resurrection."
Other than the foreword quoted above, the PHB maintains the illusion of being a real game, now in a new 4th edition, created by legendary game designer "T. Gary Jackson" and published by Hard Eight Enterprises, both staples of the KODT comic. The writing style approximates that of the AD&D1e books, with obvious attempts to mimic the overwrought, verbose, and "gender-partial" style of "T. Gary"'s real-world counterpart; there's a lengthy section of the introduction that apologizes for the "politically correct clap-trap" of the HackMaster 3rd edition's use of alternating male and female pronouns.
For a spoof, the book is remarkably dry reading. The funny bits are few and far between, and even then the jokes are pretty stale. If you've ever played AD&D or a similar game, or have read any KODT comics, you've heard all of these jokes before. I had hoped that HackMaster would have had more of a sense of humor, or at least been a more poignant commentary on power-gaming in general, but no dice (well... you know what I mean!). Really, the book isn't so much a spoof as it is a FRPG rulebook that was transported from the KODT universe. It wouldn't have been a funny read there, and it's not much of a funny read here, either.
While the HackMaster Player's Handbook isn't a verbatim copy of the AD&D1e rules, fully 90% of the rules are the same. As stated above, it's not a revision; it's AD&D1e with HackMaster bits tacked on to it. What kind of bits? Well:
It is also worth mentioning that there are a fairly good amount of typos in this book, and the list of official erratta, some of it very critical to character generation, is growing steadily. There are eight pages of erratta as of this writing, and I spotted a bunch of errors that have yet to be listed. The glossary even makes reference to a AD&D2e concept that doesn't exist in HackMaster: spheres of influence for priests (HackMaster has clerics, not priests, and no spheres). The authors also seem to be overly fond of comma-splices. In my high school, a comma-splice cost you a whole letter grade on an assignment; the PHB would be somewhere in the triple-Z-minus range. Kenzer & Co, would have been well advised to have delayed publication until another pass with the red pecil could have been made.
The Kaufman effect
HackMaster is a strange bird. It's an outgrowth of a humorous comic book, but it's also a genuine "classic era" FRPG. It's an elaborate joke, but it takes itself very seriously. Consequently, I've had quite a difficult time figuring out what to make of it. Initially, I was looking forward to its release. When I started reading it, I completely hated it. Halfway through, I was in love with it. Now that I'm done, I'm once again unimpressed.
Not to mention, HackMaster is, of course, 90% straight AD&D. I guess I knew this when I bought the PHB, but I have to admit that my heart sank a bit when I saw the return of all the "classic" AD&D mechanics: segmented combat, weapon speed factors, weapon vs. armor-type modifiers, between-levels training costs (which are back with a vengeance in this game), class/level-limits for demi-humans, a different die roll for virtualy every rule, bonuses that are sometimes minuses, and all of that. A "sanctioned" game of HackMaster requires that all of these rules be used; "T. Gary" states this explicitly. Sure, you could ignore half of these rules like most poeple did back in the day, but, well, then what's the point of playing HackMaster if you're not going to play it the way it's played in the comic?
The new rules added to the AD&D engine in HackMaster merely serve to compound the situation. Combat becomes more compicated, character creation takes longer, and adjudicating the game takes even more dice-rolling. I did like the concept of the Honor stat, as it prompts characters to act in a way that mimics the game as presented in KODT, but a lot of the other additions seem tacked-on and exist simply for the sake of complexity (the skill system and armor hit points are good exmaples of this). Sure, it was kinda fun to roll up a gnomeling illusionist/thief who was the second son of six children of living parents, hates one sister to death but is closer than twins with another, is a sadistic pyromaniac afraid of aardvarks and despises druids, but it took me forever, and, assuming that the game is run the way it's supposed to be, my gnomeling will be lucky to live more than a few sessions. It just seems an exercise in pointlessness. There's no way I'm going to give up 3rd edition D&D for this.
Now, in a sense, this is exactly what HackMaster is supposed to be. If Kenzer & Co. have succeeded at anything, they've succeeded in making HackMaster exactly like the game presented in KODT. I'm sure people could fault me for not seeing the genius of this, or chide me for having no sense of nostalgia.
They'd be wrong of course; I have plenty of nostalgia for those days. I often miss the sense of wonder and the sheer joy of hacking my way through a dungeon that I had when I first started playing. What I don't miss, however, are the byzatine rules common to games of that time, especially AD&D1e. Consequently, I would never use HackMaster in a serious, extended campaign. On the flip side, HackMaster is way too cumbersome for one-shot beer 'n pretzels gaming, and even if I did use it for that (as I was planning to), it's simply too big an investment of time and money for the kind of gaming sessions that happen maybe once or twice a year. In the end, I couldn't justify spending $60US (PHB and GMG only, since you need both) to $220US (if you also get the eight-voume HoB) on a game with such limited usefulness. It's not even a funny read! Frankly, they could have published HackMaster as a slim, Unearthed Arcana-style "supplement" and saved fans and the curious a lot of time and money. HackMaster is really a mindset, it didn't need to be an entire system.
Someday, as with Andy Kaufman, people may look back and marvel at the genius of HackMaster. They'll say it was a joke so subtle in its brilliance that it was easy to see how unenlightened folk like myself couldn't "get it."
When that day comes, hop on eBay and grab your copy for cheap. Until then, give it a pass and just break out the AD&D1e and 2e books you most likely already own.