Friday, December 18, 2015

HackMaster! - A Love Letter (for 4e, my only true love)

I owe this one, as I announced I'd write it (really sorry about the delay here, +Charles Akins) and I want it out there, at best still with 2015 on the name tag. I also want to write this bad, as I really, really love HackMaster (4e, the one and only). And I want to spread this love like ... well, I won't go into detail HOW MUCH I want to spread it ... Okay, that derailed fast. Let's talk games and dice!

Humor and AD&D (or: Who cares about 3e?)

HackMaster 4e and D&D 3e were published around the same time. Mainly because the D&D 3e wanted to get as much distance between itself and AD&D as possible, so giving the AD&D rules to a third party publisher who already was making fun of AD&D for years must have seemed like a good move to the Wizards near that Coast (whatever). Little did they know ...

But from the beginning. When AD&D had been at the peak of it's existence, already on it's way into decadent decline, the small publisher Kenzer & Co. started publishing* the infamous and genius Knights of the Dinner Table comics (that title alone is priceless ...):

A classic KotDT strip [I dare you, read the whole story here]
The Knights played a game called HackMaster, which had been nothing but a thinly veiled, and very satirical nod towards AD&D in all its voluptuous baroqueness and its players in all their weird and manic glory. Everybody knew one or more of the protagonists from his own gaming circles. I had two of them as players. I swear. It was (and still is) great fun to read those comics.

Anyway, imagine said publisher now getting a card blanche to cannibalize the complete and significantly large canon of the now left for dead AD&D 2e for that HackMaster game they had been writing about for years already. Incredible, you say? Unheard of, I'd answer! They did it, of course**.

So 2001, one year after D&D 3e had hit the shelves, HackMaster 4e made its first entrance into the real world: the first genuine retro-clone of a D&D game***. Curtain, applause:

I know, it has seen some use, but isn't it gorgeous? [pic by me]

Now, 14 years later and 7 years after the Coastwizards took their licence back, the game is almost lost in obscurity. But it made waves back then. Lots of waves: a complete revision of AD&D 1st and 2nd editions, mixing Oriental Adventures, Unearthed Arcana and Skills & Powers into one coherent system and ending up having over 40 supplements and modules, among them 8 Monster Manuals, a Spelljammer variant (aka Hackjammer) and rewrites of classic adventure modules like The Temple of Elemental Evil (aka The Temple of Existential Evil) or Ravenloft (aka Robinloft). All compatible with AD&D, of course. That's like AD&D 2.5 right there. And they had so much fun doing it, too. So. Much. Fun.

Feast your eyes, my friends! [pic by me]
It had been fantastic for those late to the party, like me. I never had that big an interest into AD&D and when I started having one, 3e had pushed it all into the dark corners of the local game stores. But HackMaster 4e was a high concentration dose of AD&D awesomeness and for once I had been at the right place at the right time.

Well, by now you already got an idea why all that could be considered as funny. I most certainly found it hilarious and it was one of the main reasons for me to get, read and play as much of that game as possible. Anyway, there is a reason being cautious to state it actually is funny, as so many people really didn't get it.

I can remember talking and reading about that game as it was still a somewhat new kid on the block. One of the most common misconceptions about HackMaster 4e had been (and maybe always will be) that it is making fun of AD&D. Mostly without reading it or just reading parts of it. And let me tell you, that's just stupid. Not only untrue, but plain stupid, because (and let me be very clear here):
You won't find a more affectionate treatment of the game and what it meant to play it than HackMaster 4e.
I mean, if you read it and don't like it because of the humor, more power to you. It's all a matter of taste, of course. The game might be brilliant under the Monty Python routine, but who cares, right? Well, the game had been a success despite the naysayers and party poopers and it really is brilliant under that Monty Python routine. That Robinloft module pictured above? A cranked up version of the original. And that means: all the content of the original with new maps, new illustrations and better writing. This is not a joke, but seriously hours of game play, just as the original.

By the way, if you were wondering how HackMaster is already in its fourth edition, it needs to be said that it really isn't. But one can see this as a nod to AD&D as the source, the fictional history HM has from the comics featuring it and the (at this point already) shamefully obvious trend to have a new edition on a regular basis for no good reason. Because that is how they roll. And really, who needs a 3rd edition when you can have the fourth, more advanced edition right away?! Windows 10, anyone?

AD&D on Steroids (The Rules)

If you think the origin story of this game is awesome and praiseworthy on its own (like I do), you just let me tell about the system a bit and blow you away for good. This is, in my humble opinion, AD&D at its best. I know, I know, many loathed the shitload of options available for AD&D, like the Unearthed Arcana, for instance. But I doubt there are many out there who took the time to find out what would happen if ALL THOSE OPTIONS actually made it into the game. And it's magnificent to behold.
Man? Woman? AD&D 2.5?! [source]
But before I dive into this like a duck into a big pile of gp, let me rephrase this for more impact: nothing in HackMaster 4e is per se new, 99 % of the rules they used already existed for AD&D****. It's just the first time anybody went as far as putting all the pieces together! I believe an AD&D aficionado could spent months just finding out what they did and where they took it from. It could be a series of posts spanning over years if you include the modules they took and how they changed them and if they did so for the better. It's that huge.

So many words and still nothing about the rules. Let's change that. We skip character generation for now and start with the game itself. Well, with the highlights, that is, like, what is the "hack" in HackMaster. It doesn't disappoint. Characters and monsters all get a 20 hit points kicker to begin with, so there is a lot of meat to hack (only very small creatures get just 10 hp more ...). One would think that it'll result in level 1 characters lasting way too long and that is true, so there are several rules in place to make it interesting and potentially deadly fast:

  • Dice can and will explode. You rolled a maximum for damage? You just earned a re-roll of the same die -1. Did it again? Same re-roll. Crossbows are even more brutal, allowing a re-roll not only with the highest, but the second highest result, too. A heavy crossbow, for example, does 3d4 damage against large creatures. That's just brutal.
  • Trauma Damage (Threshold of Pain check) is another fine rule (and somewhat connected to the exploding dice mechanic and only possible because of the kicker). If you get as much damage as half your max hp in one round, chances are you will end up being confused by the pain, fall into shock or unconscious and might finally even die because of it. A lot of "ifs", so a character's fate isn't directly sealed, but it adds some very interesting dynamics to fights, as one would imagine.
  • Fatigue is another fun aspect of the game. Combatants will have less fatigue than hp and if they are gone it's not a very good idea to keep fighting, indifferent to the amount of hp a character might have left at that point.
  • Morale Checks are still in place, so if three goblins are down in the first round, screaming and holding their entrails, the other 20 might (and probably should) reconsider their course of action ...
  • Critical hits and critical fumbles are not only very detailed (15 pages of charts and text in the GMG) and gory, but also potentially very final.
  • The honor system adds a good deal to combat, as it not only allows a character to burn honor for dice he can use in a fight, but also gives the option to avoid death entirely for one time for 90 % of the character's honor. This will a huge impact on how the character will be treated by non player characters, for xp and several other unpleasant side effects, but he will be alive. Regaining honor is hard and you'll need a certain amount to make it happen to begin with, but people did use it in my games. It has merit.

Excessive fighting will also reduce resources, of course. Weapons become dull or break, armor will get reduced to shreds and so on and so forth. It's all fine tuned and it works like a machine. A fricking huge monster truck of a machine compared to D&D, but that shouldn't come as a surprise (that's AD&D for you, baby) and it certainly is loads of fun to HACK! in HackMaster.

It doesn't stop there, of course. Spells will not only feature all the spells you'd know from your AD&D splat books, they also added all the spells you'd know from the comics (Sidewinder-Fireballs!) and some that are probably new (I'm not sure, they still might be somewhere in AD&D), like the Seventh Level spell Anger Deity, where the caster insults a gawd, his dog and his mother to get an immediate reaction out of him (a caster might have reasons to cast such a spell, I really believe he does) or the First Level spell Phantasmal Fireball, dealing 1d6 damage per caster level if those affected by the spell fail the save and really believe they burn to death just now (loved that spell as a player, allowed it as a DM, but stopped having enemies appear in large groupings because of it ...).

There is so much to love right there and that's maybe 2 % of what HackMaster 4e did with AD&D and added for the fun of it. The Player's Handbook alone runs precisely 400 pages with double column texts in font size 9 (or 8, not sure, but it's very small) for the rules, comes 150 charts and tables and only a few illustrations, as you'd expect. "350.000 words of wisdom", as they put it.

There is an appendix about how to prime and treat your dice, with cleansing rules like the "fame-rub" if lucky dice turn bad (including pictures), another appendix about the HackMaster Association (with tournaments, listed Dungeon Masters and all that jazz) and coupons for the players to earn in the game. To name but a few things. And then there is ...

... the Character Generation!

I'll really stop after this, but HackMaster excels here beyond awesome. It takes time to create a character, but it's a genuine mini-game itself, with family drama and early character death (if done right), so I want to give you all a closer look into that whole gig.

Take a close look (open in new tab for details) at the introduction of all the races you can play in the game (HM PHB, p. 26 - 27):

That's HackMaster in a nutshell, really. Glorious! [pic by me]
So much to see here: Drow, Grel, Half-Ogres, Pixie Fairies, Gnomelings and Gnome Titans, Kung Fu moves, dwarven woman with a beard, a chain mail bikini ... It's all very educational and really a fun primer.

Take your time. I'll wait here.

13 playable races, 17 classes, among them Knight Errants, Berserkers, Battle Mages, Blood Mages and Assassins, with even more options in the official Class guides, like The Griftmaster's Guide to Life's Wildest Dreams (The fast Track to Riches and Infamy):

Who wouldn't like to play a thief after
looking at that cover? [pic by me]
Upbringing, social status, siblings, career, it's all there and a point buy system to boot and make it all so much more flexible, with Quirks and Flaws for the taking to get even more points to buy skills, raise ability scores to meet class criteria or Talents to loose them again just as fast. We had a short sighted (and color blind, I think) Knight Errant in our group, that needed the group to shout directions when he charged something, we had the meanest halfling thief in the history of our games, scars and attitude all inclusive and a Nose Ring of Viscid Globs to make him even more dangerous ...

Characters never turned out to be boring. Never. And skills are worth another sentence or two, because there are not only lots of them, they also can be useful and/or funny as hell. Digging hasty graves, vandalism, sneaking around, basic and advanced looting, all with little rules and benefits to sweeten the deal. Or Groin Punches, Round House Groin Kicks, Eye Gauges and Wuss Slaps as combat procedures (for obvious reasons).

Had a player once in a con game that went all in that performed the Manu Weasel Dance (aka "showing yer ass dance") in front of a live audience to insult some samurai and gain some more bonuses (here is the whole story). Or the players dismissed to bury a henchman in a shallow grave for wild dogs to feast on and the poor soul came back to haunt them. So many possibilities, so many good times.

All good things come to an end

I could go on and on. We had such a good time with HackMaster, it's almost uncanny for such a brutally complex game. And missed out on so much more, in fact. Magic items like The Feet of Vecna or the Chain-Mail Bikini of Eye Gouging among the pearls one could discover. Or we never finished The Temple of Existential Evil campaign (but we had an epic show down in the famous Moat-house during a con game). And I still miss some books for my collection, mainly modules like Little Keep on the Borderlands. Sometimes I want to take it all out of the book shelf and start a new campaign with it ...

That's a campaign waiting to happen ... [pic by me]

... but it can be very demanding, to be honest. Our main reason to play something else in the end, was that things got really complicated and some players wanted to take it easy for once. So we did that and never came back. It can be a lot of work and it took me ages to understand the honor system, for instance. And sometimes it's just a bit too much over the top, even for my tastes:

Funny? Yes. Lots of information? Of course.
But also a pain in the ass to use ... [pic by me]
I regret it sometimes. HackMaster had a huge and lasting influence on how I game. 50 % on the optional rules here on this blog had been attempts to transfer some of the HackMaster aesthetics over to the D&D Rules Cyclopedia. It's a great game, with so much to discover and a good read above it all. And it was close to complete before they pulled the plug on it. There had been talk about a HackRight supplement right at the end and I'd loved to see that happen. But it was not to be.

Anyway, there still is a lot of game to have, if you can get it (which is seriously difficult nowadays). If you like AD&D (or liked in back in the day) and liked what you've seen here or the Knights of the Dinner Table comics, than you will love HackMaster 4e like I do. It's also as Old School as one can get. So old school, actually, that it pre-dates the OSR :)

I hope you had as much fun reading this as I had writing it. I know it is a lot of text, but I already got the feeling that I didn't do the game any justice. There is so much more ... but I'll stop here anyway and end the post with my favorite illustration in the HackMaster GameMaster's Guide:

HM GMG, p. 323 [pic by me]
Final note: this story isn't over yet. Some day I will DM this game again ...


Also on the internet: this post is part of a series of love letters across the blog-o-sphere that had been started by Charles Akins over at Dyvers and already ended some time ago. I wrote another piece back then about the Rules Cyclopedia and several other, far more talented bloggers than me, wrote about the rpgs they love and why. +Marty Walser, for instance, not only has a great post in that series about the Paranoia RPG over at the RagingOwlbear blog, but also a (as far as I'm aware) complete run down of all the other entries. Check it out, if you haven't already. It's some good stuff! 

* Okay, the publication history is a bit more complex than that and Kenzer & Co. entered for publishing with the 4th issue in 1996. But who cares, really?

** Again, it hadn't been that easy. Maybe it started that way, but it got more and more complicated for Kenzer & Co. to keep HackMaster out there. Maybe they had been to successful in keeping a game alive that D&D 3e couldn't replace. Anyway, it ended in tears, as it does so often with those things. But that's not what this post is about, so ...

*** And that's totally true!

**** A rough estimation on my side. Don't hold it against me. As far as I know, they took it all and added almost nothing.


  1. This post is a nice walk down memory lane for me. I abandoned 3rd edition D&D for Hackmaster and didn't look back until my kids were old enough to start playing D&D. I loved this game, and a buddy of mine that owns a game store once told me that, when he went to conventions, the only people obviously having fun were the ones playing Hackmaster. It's hear-say evidence, but it matches my experience with Hackmaster 4th edition. I am nearly inspired enough now to start a new Hackmaster campaign, instead of running AD&D OA this coming weekend.

    1. That's so great, William! You should do it :) It was the same with me, btw: started with 3e, played it a while and abandoned it for HM. Now, after revisiting the game in all its glory, I feel tempted to start it all over again. I got so many of the books (even two versions of the PHB and the GMG!) ... Some day. Girlfriend likes that kind of crunch, so chances are good :)

  2. Great iteration of the finest RPG ever made (IMHO)

  3. Just this morning I was reading a book where someone used the term ramada; a term I believe means some kind of shade structure but I'm really not that certain. Anyway, it immediately reminded me of the gazebo incident from Knights of the Dinner Table, which I haven't read in many years. Not an hour later, I'm procrastinating at work and--whammo--thanks to everyone's favorite disoriented ranger I'm reading that very cartoon! Thanks Jens.

    Also, you're dead on about H'Master. As a fan of AD&D, I love this game! It's the only post-1e version of D&D I think I would actually consider running.

    1. You are welcome, man :-) It's a great game. I just realized that HM is the last game I played RAW and I'd change nothing if I were to run it again. And I need to get those Knights out of storage ...

  4. I was doing a web search for other's HackMaster experiences. I also have been running it since first release all these years. However this is first time I decided to run T1-4 due to acquisition of new Players. After reading through I noticed that Tharp is a boring as Limbo. I was thinking of a small town soap opera (ala Peyton Place, and what everyone knows about each other) to increase in-town intrigue. What do you think?

    1. It never occurred to me, but looking at the module right now I see what you mean. If you do nothing with this, Tharp will end up being a dull experience. What you describe as the solution, on the other hand, is how it's supposed to be anyhow (IMO). There are evil NPCs in Tharp that will sabotage the characters research about and forays towards the temple or do their very own thing to others around them (because that's just it: if you are evil, you are evil all the time, not only towards the characters!). There are little adventures all over the place and people arrive all the time. There is some religious trouble between townsfolk to give this a little extra ... IDK, it's all there. What I remember from our campaign back then was that evil towns folk tried discrediting the group's cleric as a pedophile, some Brownies had moved into the brewery causing trouble, another character had been assassinated because she had seen too much and that gnome druid had been a hippie, running around naked all the time (but a great ally, too). Over time the players got a "feel" for the town, saw some evil (never managed to root it out, though) and used the town for it's main purpose: a (more or less) safe haven. So yeah, crank it up, but I'd start with what's already there by looking how they all already connect and how alignments could drive those NPCs.

  5. A correction to the author lovely salute to the game.

    The License was never pulled, Kenzerco Declined to renew.
    In the last few years of the license (06 to 08) WOTC began to delay approval of product. Part of the license agreement was that WOTC/Hasbro had to approve all products that were remakes of previous IP product. They had 3 months to review any submission. If they decided they wanted any changes, changes allowed by the license agreement on the details of how the content had to be presented, They could send it back for revisions, it then had to be resubmitted, and they had another 3 months to review it.
    WOTC began to recycle product for approval for minor stupid reasons, intentionally delaying product release, to the point the fandom was wondering what was going on and if K&C was in some sort of financial trouble. This of course was not the case, K&C was fine, but very annoyed at the shenanigans WOTC was pulling.

    During this time they decided to try their hand at designing a whole new game, And did it with the intention that, if it did well, it might lay the foundation for a New version of Hackmaster.

    This game was Ace & Eights, a western RPG, and it was a Resounding success. (they are currently working on a new release of this game). A&8s came out in 2008, at the same time as the License renewal was in debate. Kenzerco Declined.

    I know, I was there... I was working at the K&C booth at that Origins 08, Kenzerco was in the process of selling off all Backstock of HM 4e to resellers at Mega discounts, because otherwise it became trash once the license was expired. It was there during all of this that WOTC came to the K&C guys at the booth and tried to talk them into renewing, with promises that they could renegotiate the Approval process to keep what had be going on before from happening again.

    K&C declined, as they panned to make a NEW hackmaster With the Base system being pulled from the system they had been creating from A&8s. Hackmaster (5e as many of us call it) Was a Major awesome success.. You really should give it a go,.
    It had changes from the A&8 system improving and refining it, Now they are going to be Releasing a new version of A&8s with changes refined from Making HM 5e.

    1. Thanks for the clarification and the inside scoop! Very much appreciated. I think I remember some of the problems you describe and I assumed the Coastwizards did it on purpose to kill the project. Wouldn't have guessed that it just had been corporate bureaucracy (especially since Pathfinder didn't seem to have the same problems a little later, although they might just have another deal ... idk).

  6. Isn't Pathfinder based on 3.X's Open Gaming License? As needs no approval for anything. Not sure why WotC came up with the OGL but the way all of it's iterations are written(or were as a few years ago), any version is usable for all time anytime you want to use it. The 2nd time WotC shot themselves in the kneecap.
    Also, that unknown person is correct on all points.(At least from what I've pieced together over the years of love with KenzerCo stuff.)

    1. You are right, they are OGL ... but that's part of what baffles me. The OGL is not solely D20, it goes way back in D&D editions (OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord and Sword & Wizardry are prime examples for that) and was already an option when KenzerCo published HM 4e in 2001, but definitely an option when it folded the line years later in 2009 ... Pathfinder went the OGL route in 2008 and was a huge success. See, I always wondered why KenzerCo never went that direction, especially if the Wizards had no problem with them being around and there actually were options to make it easy. Thanks for contributing! Totally forgot about the OGL :P