Tabletop Review: Hackmaster Basic

Hackmaster Basic
Publisher: Kenzer & Company
Authors: David Kenzer, Steve Johansson, et al
Page Count: 231
Release Date: 8/11/2012
Cost: FREE (PDF)
Get it here:

I think Hackmaster falls pretty firmly in the retro-clone category. Seeing as it basically began as a parody of Dungeons and Dragons and then grew from that, it’s kind of hard to classify it as anything else. If retro-clone has negative connotations for you, it shouldn’t! Hackmaster seems like a great take on classic fantasy-based roleplaying.

The Tome of Hackmaster Basic

Hackmaster is known for having a lot of material available, and sometimes that material comes in strange shapes and sizes. This particular volume is over 200 pages of free game that feels like someone ripped the important parts out of several 2nd and 1st ed. D&D books and then bound them together. Basically what the book does is give you a little introduction to the game, then it thrusts a bunch of character sheets in your face with pre-gen characters on them (which is great, I am a huge proponent of pre-gens). After multiple (and I mean multiple) pages the basic attributes are explained. If you’ve played any standard RPG, I don’t have to explain these to you at all; you’ve got your standard Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, etc. The only novel and cool addition is Honor. Honor is tied to several things, enough so that it actually has its own chapter. How you role-play your character, your bravery, adherence to your alignment, and so on is all honor.

Ok, bring on the character adornment. Pick a class, then pick your stuff. You’ve got weapons and armor, spells for every magic class, abilities for other classes, all the fun stuff that makes character creation interesting (and also makes it take up a full session, remember how I liked pre-gens?). This takes up an enormous chunk of the book. And guess how much I care to relate it all to you? Not at all really. Spell and item lists concern me very, very little.

How to Hack

Jack knew how to hack. He hacked a track back to his shack, then he whacked a plaque celebrating the birth of his nephew Mac before tripping on a crack and falling in a sack. Combat, do you speak it?

Imagine you are playing Hackmaster with your golf team, and suddenly Benjamin gets a wild hare and decides to take a swing at some Orc you’ve been sweet-talking into letting you through the gate. Does he just role-play the event out and let everyone at the table decide how he did? Heck no! He’s got to roll the dice like everybody else. But in Hackmaster, he’s also got to decide his move and then when the GM “counts up” to his initiative, take it. Yes, the GM literally counts from 1 (the first second, as the action moves in seconds) and goes on up until the initiative roll for each person in the encounter is reached. If you are attacked by someone or something before your initiative is counted to, consider yourself surprised. I expect it will hurt. But what does Benjamin roll? A d20 of course! This wouldn’t be a decent retro-clone if you didn’t roll d20s.

Once you’ve been attacked, you get a defensive roll, imagine that. If you don’t have a shield or some defensive item, you’ll be rolling at a disadvantage. Even if you do have a shield, if you fail to defend well enough, the attacker is going to get through and smack you, hard.

Ok, all irreverence aside, combat feels like a more elegant Dungeons and Dragons with one of the differences being your weapon’s speed being taken into account for how many times you can attack in a battle (i.e. on how many “counts” you get to take a shot). The second-by-second action really feels tactical. At this point the combat is explained by an awesome Knights of the Dinner Table comic. I must say, it is quite enjoyable, and it’s a nice combat example.

Included near the back of the book are two low-level adventures, which are a bit short and not terribly fleshed out, but they’ll service. You’ve got your GM advice, monsters, treasure tables, and such all crammed into the back of the book with ads and various other inserts. Which brings me to my next point…

This book has been hacked

The book is a gosh-darned mess. However, that’s not really detrimental to its usefulness. The sections are nice and self-contained, usually not too long. It has a bit of a “wall of text” feel to it most of the time and I get the feeling that if I had to look for a specific rule I would be lost reading paragraphs for a while until I found it. You’ve got full-color Hacklopedia of Beasts mixed in with the basic monsters; various color inserts, comics, and what look like the back covers of various books at the end of chapters or sections; a general tossed-about feeling; and no index! But hey, this is the free version so you get what you pay for. Real fans will pay, and who knows what you might get then? More classes, character advancement, races, heck there’s a nice spreadsheet on page 18 letting you know what cold, hard cash gets you.

Retro-what? Why do I care?

Listen, I’ve been a bit silly with this book, and it’s partly because it all seems so familiar to me (and I don’t want to exhaust you, the reader, with all of the countless details in such a large volume). I’ve played enough D&D and enough RPGs (tabletop, computer, whatever) to where this is another variation of the same ol’ thing. And that’s fine. I think there are some really cool ideas in here, and things that would be great for the person looking for a classic feel with some nice crunch that isn’t ridiculous to churn through. Have you played classic D&D? If not, and you are interested, this is pretty darn close. For the price of free, it’s definitely worth a look.

One of the reasons I’m not really interested in it is because it is another combat-centric, loot-acquiring platform. I mean, that’s pretty much what classic RPGs are about and that can make them really enjoyable, I’m just saying I’m not really interested.



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