This weekend I got to play Hackmaster Basic by Kenzer & Co. for the first time. Starting off, the list price of under $20 is a huge win for the game in a time where the average RPG book is twice that much. However the cost reduction does mean that the book lacks the production value and vast content offered by one of the more costly games.
The book itself is well organized, but lacks an index making searching for a specific rule a little cumbersome. This is an interesting choice by the publisher, as there’s over a dozen pages on how to choose and roll dice (which is an amusing read but unnecessary). Character creation represents the bulk of game rules, as the book contains one of the most interesting character creation systems that I’ve come across. One of the mantras of the game, leave the dice where they lie, comes into full effect as your entire character is a product of random tables and dice totals. Character creation covers everything, from character attributes, to fears, and to the number and disposition of siblings. In some ways this is liberating, especially if you are stuck in a character concept rut. Just in case things don’t turn out the way you like them, you can spend build points to re-roll a given table to add to a totaled score. However this also represents a weakness in the game, as there can be a massive imbalance in created characters that a more standardized game might cover.
The actual gameplay is functionally a satire of classic D&D. Players are rewarded for playing up stereotypes and punished for breaking those archetypes. The game design lends itself to ignoring role-playing in favor or roll-playing, where the story is just enough there to give a reason for slaying everything you encounter. Additionally, in classic D&D fashion spellcasters are pathetically weak and melee combat is overly encouraged. However unlike classic D&D, there is no long term reward for playing a crappy mage or cleric at low levels to get the benefit of the later power curve, instead you are relegated to near uselessness at almost all times as a spellcaster.
Exploding dice is a core mechanic both in character creation and in gameplay. Exploding dice is where if you roll the maximum value on a given dice, you get to roll again and add it to the original. Multiple successive high rolls can take a possible roll to exponential success. This poses a most significant play issue, as in combat you are either doing negligible damage, or outright destroying opponents in a single blow. There really is nothing in-between. However spellcasters don’t get the benefit of exploding dice in most cases and are instead subjected to an opposed saving throw roll with no effective modifiers. So your complete lack of spells is further diminished by the spells often not being successful because of a completely random roll. Exploding dice also has an effect during a few parts of character creation, particularly skill levels, which makes for wild results which can hurt balance and playability.
One aspect of roleplaying games which appeals to me is that you playing a hero in a story. However in Hackmaster, at best you are a nobody doing nobody things, at worst you’re dead from a random roll and it doesn’t matter anyways (surprisingly no one died in the first adventure I played, though that had more to do with completely random die rolls than tactics or strategy.
One part of the game which I really liked is the healing system. Since clerical magic is virtually useless, the game makes up for that with a healing skill which actually heals. While a bad roll still happens, the system allows a trained healer the ability to restore significant numbers of hit points, especially when multiple attacks dealt the damage (however you still get screwed by exploding dice damage). Almost every game system I’ve played has had a lousy healing skill mechanic, but I actually really liked that significant healing could occur without the need for magic.
Overall, I have mixed feelings because I think that Hackmaster Basic, like D&D 4th Edition, meets the design goals of the publisher—it has the intended feel and the system works for what it is supposed to, but I don’t think that it’s the style of game that I’m looking for. I’ll play the game again, and might even pick it up for a one-shot game here and then, but I expect the book to become a dust collector rather than a go-to system.
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