This review aims covers the Hackmaster game line as a whole. I started writing it because I felt that existing reviews of Hackmaster focus on its success (or failure) as a piece of comic writing and fail to address how it plays as a game.
I also decided to try to provide an overview of the system without getting too bogged down with the pros and cons of the many core books and supplements associated with the line.
With those goals in mind I have to admit that this ended up being a very difficult review to write. Hackmaster has a dual personality and it has taken me some time to appreciate and understand it. It is only after 18 months of play and then a year’s reflection that I felt comfortable enough to put fingertip to keyboard.
The review also contains a lot more personal reflection and a lot less about the rules than it probably should. That is because it is much easier to talk about general impressions than it is to discuss rules which are deliberately obtuse and arcane.
Hackmaster arose from a parody of Dungeons and Dragons that has been present in 114 (and counting) issues of the “Knights of the Dinner Table” comic and its various spin-offs. “Knights of the Dinner Table” is a comic that focuses on a dysfunctional group of roleplayers playing a high fantasy game that is presented as horrifically complex, riddled with inconsistencies and focussed almost entirely around killing things and taking their stuff. It is then, an only slightly exaggerated form of TSR’s old Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D).
As a kid I spent many hours playing AD&D with my friends at school, trawling through plotless dungeons, killing random monsters and collecting piles and piles of imaginary loot. This is something I remember fondly and that has added a level of nostalgia to my enjoyment of the comic.
Hackmaster the real-life roleplaying game arose when Kenzer, the publishers of the comic, obtained the rights to the AD&D rules. Kenzer have taken those rules, rewritten them to fit within the universe of the comics (the foreword is credited to a comic character and the rules are listed as “fourth edition” when there are in fact no previous editions) and inflated them to turn them into something more than the original.
A couple of years ago my gaming group found itself momentarily rudderless. We had two GMs with campaigns that were “almost” ready to run, but neither were ready then and there. While those games were being fine-tuned I suggested that we play a short game of Hackmaster. I had read “Knights of the Dinner Table”, had seen the Hackmaster rulebooks in a local gaming store and felt that something light-hearted and nostalgic would be just the tonic we needed before tackling something deep and serious. The players agreed and so I went out and purchased the Player’s Handbook, the Game Master’s Guide (GMG) and – eventually – almost all of the Hacklopedias, classbooks, adventures, coupons and colouring-in books associated with the line.
First impressions are difficult to explain. For a start the core rulebooks (the Player’s Handbook and the GMG) contain so much of the original AD&D core rules that I found them a nostalgic delight. The humour you would expect of a game based on a comic parody is there, but it is like a light dusting over the genuine article. There are occasional delights (there are rules for proper dice etiquette for example and a note that the ninth level magic-user spell “Fireball – Nuclear Winter” has been rescinded), but by and large the humour just sits in the background.
I won’t spend too long explaining the AD&D rules. Suffice to say that the game’s age is showing and that the rules are full of such artefacts as alignment, levels, THAC0, savings throws, dice rolls where you are expected to roll over a target number AND dice rolls where you are expected to roll under a target number, and numerous charts and tables.
Hackmaster retains all these and adds a workable system for non-combat skills, rules for character quirks and flaws, a system to measure honour, coupons providing some slight advantage (free healing or a chance to make one reroll) and a critical hit system that relies on a d10,000 dice roll. It also fixes up some of the character classes and makes lower-level characters and monsters more than just cannon-fodder by giving most a 20 hit point boost at first-level.
On the surface then Hackmaster appears a completely functional RPG, albeit one that is clunky and rules-heavy and has a few odd twists and quirks. Put simply, it takes one of the most popular games in roleplaying history, corrects some of its flaws and adds new components which make it a more complete experience.
It is only when you actually begin to use the rules that you begin to notice the fiendish genius behind some of the twists and additions that Kenzer has made.
The word “fiendish” in that last sentence is just as important as the word “genius”.
Character creation quickly taught me that the rules have a genuine Byzantine complexity to them, but also that this complexity serves a purpose. For a start many of the rules allow loopholes a mile wide that just beg players to exploit them.
Or at least they appear to.
Often rules in the Players Handbook are “clarified” in the GMG. This usually involves giving the Gamemaster a large stick to beat the players with. And as a GM you will soon find yourself wanting to wield that stick.
Mini-maxing a Hackmaster character is hard work, but it is also the kind of fun that has deep-rooted appeal to the intelligent and slightly obsessive. As “intelligent” and “slightly obsessive” are descriptors that can be applied to many roleplayers, GMs are likely to find themselves confronted with a party of characters that have been loaded up with every flaw and quirk under the sun to squeeze every last inch of monster-slaying power out of them. And if those GMs are anything like me they will react by wanting to do everything they possibly can to stop all that power from unbalancing the game. And, handily, the GMG gives you all the tools that you need to do that.
Here is an example of how this works. In character creation players are encouraged (both mechanically and by the text) to take quirks and flaws which will give them “building points” that they can use to max out their character. “Building points” might be used to give your character a higher strength, or an extra skill, or a pixie-faerie tattoo that gives a bonus to armour class. The player ends taking the flaw “alcoholic” to earn a few more of these. That sounds okay. Character-forming even. What the player doesn’t know is that the GMG tells the GM that the player has to roll a dice every time he or she has a drink to see if he or she can resist having another. And the GM is provided with a series of tables and charts to determine exactly how drunk a character becomes after drinking all that booze and exactly what terrible effects drunkenness has on their character’s abilities and how long it lasts. The GM is encouraged to make use of these rules and most of the published adventures include bottles of alcohol stored in some very unlikely places (such as just outside the big bad’s hideout).
What you have then are players who find themselves unable to resist the desire to use rules to their advantage, and a GM who has been given other rules designed to try and wrest that advantage back again.
And this is the heart of the beast. Hackmaster is a game that very deliberately pits the GM against the players.
It doesn’t stop there. New rules add petrol to the bonfire by pitting player against player. Honour (or “Honor” to use the books’ US spelling) is a highly valuable in-game commodity. Have too little and your lickspittle character is struck with crippling penalties. So how do you gain more honour? Well, you could outshine your companions on the battle field. You could startle your foes with a blow that leaves your initial on their chest and their total hit points untouched. You could insult your companions in front of the henchmen and then refuse to apologise. In short, you need to outshine and out-insult everyone else in the party while at the same time doing very little to advance the party’s cause.
The game in play
It is the genius of Hackmaster that it achieves its aims so well. I like to think I play with a relatively balanced group of guys and we usually prefer our systems rules-lite, but in no time our Hackmaster sessions deteriorated into arguments and rules-lawyering. Bickering would start the moment a session began and would last after the session ended and into the days beyond. Between sessions email messages and telephone calls would fly back and forth debating obscure (and conflicting) rules.
But despite this (and to a degree, perhaps because of it) we still found Hackmaster a blast to play. The party took an almost hedonistic joy in marching down pit-trap dotted 10-foot-wide corridors filled with kobolds and hobgoblins. It is simple, it is fun and you don’t have to think too hard (except about the rules).
We built up and demolished every fantasy trope we could find. We took zombie movies and based an adventure around a cursed blue cheese that turned cheese-eaters into brain-hungry psychopaths. We cannibalised our own campaigns. We featured ludicrous villains and bards based on rock stars. We started adventures with old men holding maps in taverns. We, may Euripides forgive us, took a 2500 year old Greek tragedy about the cult of Dionysus and turned it into a slaughter fest called “The Whacky Bacchae” featuring herb smoking druids.
The arcane rules and focus on selfish self-advancement meant that the slightest piece of fluff could turn itself into an adventure lasting several sessions. Players didn’t need motivation to enter that dark cave. The mechanically-induced hunger for honour, experience points and money meant they had to enter the cave. All the GM needed was hex paper and the GMG’s random dungeon generator. The plots (such as they were) wrote themselves.
In addition the published adventures (particularly “Little Keep on the Borderlands”) are tremendous fun, taking bare bones AD&D adventures and piling meat onto their skinny frames.
Eventually though, our game began to fall apart. As GM I found mastering such Byzantine and contradictory rules a struggle. I would groan each time a “critical hit” was rolled in combat in dread of the host of calculations and dice rolls that would have to be made. I began to feel hunted as my players found statements in the rulebooks that somehow contradicted my rulings and pestered me about them for days. I reached a point where I began to feel like banging the players’ heads together.
So I quit. After 30 sessions as GM I handed over the GMG, the Hacklopedias and the GM’s shield to someone else and I rolled up a character. I rolled up a pixie-faerie swashbuckler that exploited every single damn loophole I could find. And, after my experience GMing a pack of rules-lawyers, I found a hell of a lot of loopholes. Then, once I had this character in front of me, I sat back and unleashed all my frustrations on the poor GM who had replaced me. And he responded with all the righteous fury and rules-manipulation that a Hackmaster GM can muster. And do you know what? We both had a bloody fantastic time and the game continued for another 40+ sessions.
As we climbed past 70 sessions and 18 months of play I again began to grow weary of the game. I was certainly sick of the arguments about the rules and I was growing tired of the endless cycles of dungeons and combats. We had lost one player earlier and I began to understand why he had left. I began to pine for something with a focus on role-playing rather than roll-playing. I wanted to play something free from the constraints of rules and tables.
So I quit the game entirely. And the campaign ended in mid-adventure.
At the time I was pleased the campaign had ended. Hackmaster felt like a strange experiment that had somehow gotten wildly out of hand. But the thing was, although Hackmaster was never intended to last 73 session - it did. Somehow this silly game with its clunky and almost unplayable rules lasted longer than any other campaign played prior or since. And it had generated characters that are probably more loved and more fondly remembered than any other.
Hackmaster achieves its aims with flair. It is a game that will turn otherwise functional gamers into characters straight from the pages of “Knights of the Dinner Table.” But while achieving this goal can only be the result of sheer genius, it also seems a fundamentally odd thing to want to do.
I have struggled to rate this game. It deserves a 5 for Substance because of how well it achieves its aims. But it also deserves a 1 for Substance because it achieves those aims too well and that can make Hackmaster almost unplayable.
It deserves a 5 for Style because the look, the structure and the art parrot and inflate the look, structure and art of the TSR classics immaculately. But it also deserves a 1 for Style because those TSR classics are relics that modern games should surpass with ease.
In the end I have been forced to rate Hackmaster as a 3/3 game. I found this a deeply unsatisfying compromise. This is a game that I have loved and hated with equal measure and that makes it impossible to mark fairly. Perhaps the best thing I can leave you with is this thought - I love it; I never want to play it again; I played through 73 sessions of the game and I do not regret a moment.
If you want to know more, the logs of our gaming sessions are available from this website.