HackMaster Player's Handbook
HackMaster Player's Handbook Capsule Review by Spencer M. Lease on 04/10/01
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
The HackMaster PHB may not be laugh-out-loud funny, but at the very least, it inspires a sense of nostalgia.
Product: HackMaster Player's Handbook
Author: Jolly R. Blackburn, et al
Company/Publisher: Kenzer & Company
Page count: 400 pp.
Year published: 2001
Comp copy?: yes
Capsule Review by Spencer M. Lease on 04/10/01
Genre tags: Fantasy Comedy
Note: I have done some work on the HackMaster line; specifically, I wrote several of the magic item descriptions featured in the Game Master's Guide, scheduled for release in October 2001. This is the extent of my present affiliation with HackMaster, and I am striving to remain unbiased while reviewing this and other books in that line.
Since more or less the first issue of the popular gaming comic book Knights of the Dinner Table, there has reportedly been a great deal of fan demand for an actual HackMaster role-playing game. Now, after a number of false starts, it's finally here.
My first impression of this book is can be summed up in two words: it's big. I mean really big. I held it up against my Star Trek Encyclopedia in an effort to get some idea of the exact size, and I'm convinced that the HackMaster PHB is slightly thicker. Quality remains more important than quantity, of course, but for thirty bucks you get 400 pages of HackMaster goodness - not a bad deal.
The layout and art are satisfactory. The general style is heavily inspired by the old AD&D 1st Edition Player's Handbook, of course, as is the cover. (Warning: The cover features a LOT of blood and gore, so you might not want to show the book to everyone.) Fortunately, most of the art is quite obviously *not* inspired by some of the pieces that made it into the old D&D books - I was quite impressed by the majority of it.
Now we move on to the rules. Before I go any further, let me clarify something: before HackMaster's release, there were some rumors flying around which claimed that combat rules would not be included in the PHB. This is only half true. A basic combat system is included; however, it relies upon a handful of combat matrices to be released as part of the forthcoming Game Master's Guide. (For those who want to get started on a HackMaster campaign straightaway, said matrices were published in issue #57 of Knights of the Dinner Table, so you don't necessarily need the GMG.)
That aside, let's get right to the heart of the matter. The HackMaster rules in general are somewhat complex, and bits and pieces are scattered throughout the book; thus, I found them a little difficult to understand at times. But frankly, I'm probably just getting soft. This is AD&D, after all - I should know it. I've spent too much time with the Storyteller and d20 systems, and while I enjoy both, the die-hard, old-school Advanced Dungeons & Dragons fan in me appreciates the challenge.
Ah, and there's the nostalgia I mentioned. This book is not a funny read. I've heard a lot of people say they were expecting a sort of fantasy version of Paranoia, and they're bound to be disappointed. But as I read through this thing, I couldn't stop smiling. This beast has the heart of the game I cut my teeth on, and there's a voice deep inside me that keeps saying, "Yes - yes, that's exactly how it was." We may have systems in this day and age that are infinitely better than the first RPGs we ever played, but many of us will always jump at the chance for some good old-fashioned AD&D.
Of course, it's not just AD&D Resurrected. A number of new rules have been added. There are new PC races (Grunge Elves, Pixie Fairies, to name a couple) and classes (including the HackMasters - HackFighter, HackMage, HackKleric and HackSassin - which are a little like 3E's prestige classes or the AD&D 1E bard in that you have to earn your way into them). There's a complete Honor system with visible game effects, including presence factors and so forth; and it's level-based - a character with, say, 10 Honor is at the top of his class at 1st level, but quite dishonorable at 20th. You can even have "too much Honor," which draws the ire of the gawds.
There's also a full skill system that I found very nice; virtually everything is covered. This does mean it becomes a bit esoteric at times - "Coin Pile Numerical Approximation," anyone? And there's a complete set of quirks and flaws that range from mildly amusing to quite entertaining.
Most readers are likely to be impressed with the spell selection - I know I was drooling over it. Strangely, I found the cantrips (the "weakest" spells in the game) particularly interesting. There are quite a number of them, divided into various categories (including Social Engagement, Person-Affecting, and Haunting-Sound), and these range from the sensible (Clean, which is self-explanatory; and Change, sort of a basic - VERY basic - polymorph spell) to the downright odd (Weak Bladder and Wet Willie, which hopefully require no explanation). Naturally, most of the traditional AD&D spells are present, accompanied by a large number of intriguing variations; one could probably build a worthwhile spellcaster using the fireball variants alone! Any player in the process of creating a spellcasting PC will have quite a time selecting his spells.
There are also a couple appendices that contain no rules-related information. Appendix L, for example, is a four-page treatise on dice: proper rolling procedure, etiqutte, rituals for purging bad luck, and so on. Sadly, I must admit that this, too, reminded me of some gamers I've met - but that made it even funnier.
Appendix O contains a full description of the HackMaster Association, including bylaws, subsidiary groups (the Game Master's Association - HMGMA, the Player's Association - HMPA, etc.), and so forth. It appears that KenzerCo is actually forming such a group, and it will be interesting to see how it develops.
My main gripe with this game is that some of the elements from the comic are missing, and quite obviously so. For example, one of the early comic books had one of the characters - Brian, I believe - using all his "luck points" to defeat a vampire. HackMaster has no luck points. This is not the only emission. Of course, we already know that HM is meant to be confusing and contradictory, and in the internal mythology of the game, this is a whole new edition. Still - the missing rules are disturbing.
In the end, is HackMaster worth it? I'd say yes, but with caution. AD&D 1st and 2nd Edition fans are likely to enjoy it; if nothing else, they can strip away the additional rules and use this and future supplements to support their favorite game. Further, this book is providing a framework for future humor - the patient will benefit. And there are a number of references and jokes that will tickle the funny bone of die-hard KODT fans.
This book isn't hilarious, and it isn't perfect. I'd be lying if I said it was. But it's not a bad start - not bad at all. If you're expecting Paranoia, don't buy this game. But if you're expecting AD&D, with all that implies, or at least a subtle satire, this book is for you. I think you'll find it's worth every penny.