Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday, 17 February 2013

White Box Fever VII

In coming to a review of HackMaster Basic, I begin with a terrible bias against it. As one of the book’s introductions states, “When HackMaster 4th Edition came out it earned something of a reputation among some gamers as being a ‘silly’ or ‘joke’ game.” I must count myself amongst them. After all, how could I take a game seriously that detailed its monsters in alphabetical order over the course of eight books? My cursory examination of the game along with the reviews suggested that the game was nothing more than the designer’s attempt to create his own fantasy heartbreaker based on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition. Based on that, what made it deserving of the Origins Award for Game of the Year 2001? Certainly when there were more deserving and more interesting games published in that year?

Fast forward six years and Kenzer & Co. published Aces & Eights: Shattered Frontier, an alternate history, highly detailed Western RPG that would win the Origins Award for Game of the Year 2007. And deservedly so. I was impressed by the RPG and I gave it a positive review at the time in Steve Jackson Games’ Pyramid e-zine. It also made me rethink my attitude towards HackMaster 4th Edition such that when the publisher released HackMaster Basic in 2009 I was interested enough to review it. I bought a copy and started reading it, and was pleased to note in the same introduction that as part of the game’s redesign, the designers had “…reeled in and scrubbed the game of much of the over-the-top “silly factor”.” So I set out to read the book with interest, but I got to a certain point in the book and wanted to throw it across the room. Instead I swore, put the book down, and walked away from it. HackMaster Basic had made me angry.

This is one reason why, after almost four years, I still have not reviewed HackMaster Basic. Originally, I had wanted to review it as part of the “White Box Fever” series which reviewed various introductory level fantasy RPGs in the run up to the release of Wizards of the Coast’s Red Box edition of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. The other reason as to why I did not review it as part of the “White Box Fever” series was that despite having the word “Basic” in the title, HackMaster Basic is not an introductory RPG. It is to HackMaster 5th Edition what Basic Dungeons & Dragons was to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but where Basic Dungeons & Dragons was in essence a simplified version of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, there is a complexity to HackMaster Basic that Basic Dungeons & Dragons never had. Instead, HackMaster Basic is an introduction to HackMaster 5th Edition, one that streamlines rather reduces the complexity of the full game’s rules and mechanics.

That said, HackMaster Basic echoes certain elements of Basic Dungeons & Dragons, though its complexity grants a player choice, detail, and flexibility. It is thus a fantasy RPG, one replete with Dwarves, Elves, Halfings, and Humans and Fighters, Mages, Priests, and Thieves. It has Character Classes – though these only go from first to fifth level; it has a set of character attributes that are rolled on three six-sided dice; and both attacks and Saving Throws are made on a twenty-sided die. The complexity and detail come in the form of the Honor, Quirks, Flaws, Skills, Talents, and Proficiencies that every character has. The choice, complexity, and flexibility gives a player the freedom to select his character’s race and class as he likes; to take the skills he wants; to train in whatever weaponry he wants; Mages get to cast their spells using Spell Points; and so on…

As with other Dungeons & Dragons style RPGs, the Thief is slightly different to the other three. The emphasis with this Class is mobility, reactivity, and stealth, and unsurprisingly, the Thief is also skill orientated. Thus the Thief receives an Initiative Bonus and rolls a lower die type; he can Backstab for more damage and greater weapon penetration; he knows how to avoid blows and can deliver an effective counter-blow; and he receives the base rolls for his Core Skills (Climbing/Rappelling, Disarm Trap, Hiding, Identify Trap, Listening, Lock Picking, Pick Pocket, Sneaking, and Trap Design – only the Thief gains the latter skill). In addition, the Thief begins play with a store of Luck Points, which can be spent to alter rolls ahead of the rolls, including rolls made against the Thief!

For the most part HackMaster Basic does have the feel of an “Old School” style RPG and enforces that with certain limitations on the game’s flexibility. When a player creates his character he receives Build Points (BP) with which to modify his character’s attributes and buy and improve his Skills, Talents, and Proficiencies. He receives more Build Points if he decides not to move his character’s attribute scores around, but keeps the attribute scores as rolled. Also, whilst he is free to select whatever Race he wants for his character, but he must purchase his Class. Here there is a bias that reflects certain expectations of the Dungeons & Dragons fantasy genre. Thus, it is cheaper for a Dwarf to be a Fighter at a cost of 20 BP as opposed to the 75 BP that he must pay to be a Mage. Similarly, the Elf and the Halfling has its bias towards certain Classes – the Mage and the Thief respectively – whilst the Human has no particular bias. Similarly, whilst a character is free to select and train in any weapon that he chooses, it is cheaper to train in certain weapons in some Classes than it is for others. For example, where a Fighter pays half the standard cost to improve his use weapons, the Mage pays double, except for the dagger and the staff.

A character is defined by the six standard attributes of Dungeons & Dragons, plus a seventh, Looks. Each is rolled on three six-sided dice as usual, but in addition, a percentile number is generated for each attribute. The higher the percentile figure, the closer the attribute is to be being raised to the next full number. Then a player receives his Build Points with which to create the character, the amount depending upon whether or not he swapped two or more attributes around. The Build Points are spent to increase the percentile figures attached to the attributes, and to purchase the character’s Class, Skills, Proficiencies, and Talents. Skills are handled as percentiles, whereas Proficiencies and Talents are more like the Feats of Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. Proficiencies cover weapons and armour though, and need to be purchased on a weapon-by-weapon or armour-by-armour type basis, although the ability to attack and defend, inflict damage, and the weapon’s speed can all be increased by purchasing the appropriate Talents. This being a Dungeons & Dragons style game, a character also needs to have an Alignment, this adhering to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons standard, though if a playing a Cleric, a player will also need to select a deity for his character to worship, the choices coming from the house setting for Kenzer & Co, the Kingdoms of Kalamar.

Besides rolling for a character’s Attributes, a player also rolls for a quirk and a flaw, both of which at best can be described as roleplaying features. In fact, whatever the player rolls for his character, both the rolled quirk and the rolled flaw are actually character flaws. Not a single one of the quirks can be described as a positive character feature. Essentially in HackMaster Basic, the only thing that you roll for that might have a positive aspect are a character’s attributes – and then only if a player rolls high. Everything else a player has to purchase with Build Points.

Another oddity of the character in HackMaster Basic is the way in which Hit Points are determined. Initially, they are based on a character Race and Constitution plus a die roll determined by the character’s Class. This though is just for First Level; beyond that, a character only receives another die roll to add to his Hit Points at every odd Level – Third Level, Fifth Level, and so on… At Second Level and at every other even Level after that, a player can choose to re-roll the last roll he made for his Hit Points! He can, of course, choose to keep the higher of the rolls. It should be noted that whilst a character in HackMaster Basic has more Hit Points than a character in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons of equivalent level, the weapons in HackMaster Basic do more damage and the dice rolled for the damage can “penetrate” or as other RPGs would have it, explode to increase the total of the roll.

One last aspect of a character to be determined is his Honour. Its value is equal to the average of the character’s final attribute scores. Once determined, a character can spend it to reroll combat, skill, and attribute rolls, or to increase the type of dice he would roll, such as a four-sided die to a six-sided die, and so on, usually for damage and other effect rolls. Honour is awarded by the GameMaster to his players for good roleplaying, for honourable play, for playing to their characters’ Alignments, and so forth. Honour though, is a relatively scarce resource, so a player should only use it when it really matters.

Although both the process and the end result of character generation will be at least familiar, the means is not actually easy. Two means of creating characters are provided in HackMaster Basic. The first of these is the QuickStart Rules, which by no stretch of the imagination can be described as the QuickStart Rules. The misnamed section comes right at the start of HackMaster Basic and should in fact, have been named the “QuickStart Character Creation Guide” as there is no detail of the actual rules beyond those of character generation. The result of the “QuickStart Character Creation Guide” lacks the detail of the full process, which itself takes no little time spent flipping back and forth. Of course, the lack of an index only hampers the exercise.

Our sample player character is representative of the simplest class in Hackmaster Basic – the Fighter. Eori Prayergem is a grumpy and unpopular Female Dwarf who grew up with a loving father, but a mother who saw her as a burden. Both her parents are alive, but her younger brother and sister are both dead. She is a skilled miner and labourer, but an unpleasant co-worker. She enjoys gambling, but is a poor loser.

Name: Eori Prayergem
Race: Dwarf Age: 59 Gender: Female
Height: 3’ 10” Weight: 121 lbs. Handedness: Left
Class: Fighter Level: 1
STR 16/05
[Damage Mod +3, Feat of Strength +9, Lift 291 lbs., Carry 108 lbs., Drag 728 lbs.]
INT 16/40 [Attack Mod +2]
WIS 11/19 [Initiative Mod +2, Defense Mod +0]
DEX 11/26
[Initiative Mod +2, Attack Mod +0, Defense Mod +0]
CON 18/02
LKS 09/43 [CHA Mod -1, Starting HON Mod -1]
CHA 04/11 [Starting HON Mod -3, Turning Mod -6]
HON 08

Hit Points: 35 (Roll 7) Threshold of Pain: 17
Racial Benefits: Low light vision, Magic Resistance +6, Poison Resistance +6
Proficiencies: Light, Medium, and Heavy Armour, Shield, Weapons (Longsword, Dagger, Javelin, Warhammer), Labourer, Maintenance/Upkeep, Fast Healer
Talents: Swiftblade (Warhammer); Weapon Specialisation (+1 to Attack, Defense, and Damage plus -1 to Speed with Longsword); Weapon Specialisation (+1 to Attack, Defense, and Damage plus -1 to Speed with Warhammer)

Universal Skills: Climbing/Rappelling [DEX] 22%, Fire-Building [WIS] 13%, Observation [WIS] 18%, Recruiting [CHA] 05%
Other Skills: Appraisal (Armour & Weaponry) [INT] 20%, Gambling [CHA] 16%, Geology [INT] 54%, Literacy [INT] 25%, Merchant’s Tongue [INT] 23%, Mining [INT] 41%
Quirk: Superstitious (Mother’s ring)
Flaw: Hard of Hearing

Equipment: 41sp; Clothing (Woollen trousers and tunic, leather boot, linen undershirt, wool cloak, leather belt with two small pouches), wineskin, trail rations (three days), knapsack, warhammer (damage 2d6p, speed 8), dagger (damage 2d6p, speed 7 (jab speed 5)), studded leather armour (damage reduction 3, defense adjustment -3, initiative modifier +1, speed modifier 0, movement class penalty none).

Not surprisingly given its heritage, the mechanical aspect of playing Hackmaster Basic focuses on combat, but for all that heritage, combat is radically different to that of Dungeons & Dragons. Instead of rolling against a fixed number, or Armour Class, determined by the defender’s agility and type of armour he is wearing, the attacker makes an attack roll, whilst the defender makes a defence roll equal to, or better than, the attacker’s roll. Modifiers of course, apply. Armour itself reduces the damage a defender suffers, just as it does impede his ability to move and attack – if it is bulky or heavy enough. Saving Throws work in a similar fashion, with the equivalent of opposed rolls as per attack and defence rolls.

More radical are the means of handling Initiative and time. The former is handled by a die roll as you would expect, but the die varies according to the situation, so for example, the standard roll is a twelve-sided die, but the die type lowers the more aware the protagonists are of the situation, such as a six-sided die for staging an ambush. The result, when added to the character’s Base Initiative determines when he acts. Instead of rolling Initiative and acting from one Round to the next, combat in HackMaster Basic drops the Round as a measure of time in favour of a continuing Count Up. As soon as combat begins, this begins at one and counts up, one by one. When the Count Up reaches a protagonist’s Starting Initiative, he is no longer Surprised and can declare an action, each action taking a number of counts according to the speed of the weapon being employed.

The rules for combat are complex and to an extent, quite detailed, though probably no more detailed than the later versions of Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. The Count Up is at heart an elegant means of handling the flow of combat, with an emphasis upon the “flow.” This is supported by a detailed example of combat that is drawn as an episode of Knights of the Dinner Table in which the characters are ambushed by Goblins and then an Orc, using not only the comic book characters, but also a plan of the continuing action and an explanation of the rules, the action, and the dice rolls. It is very good at showing how combat in HackMaster Basic works, yet it is ultimately flawed for three reasons. First, it only shows how a mêlée works, and completely ignores the use of missile weaponry. Second, it does not show how magic works. Not a single character casts a spell despite the fact that two of them are spellcasters – a Cleric and a Mage. Third, and even worse, is the fact that one of the players completely declines to have his character participate in the encounter. That character, the Mage in the party, could easily have thrown a weapon or cast a spell, but instead hides throughout the entire encounter until at the very end, when he steps out of hiding to deal the killing blow to the main opponent in the encounter, the Orc, and loot the body. This despite having contributed nothing to the outcome of the encounter.

So whilst the encounter presents a solid example of a mêlée in HackMaster Basic, it ultimately presents an appalling example of play. In having the Mage act so badly it sets a dreadful example, an example of how not to play. This is only exacerbated when you take into account the Mage’s Alignment which is meant to be Lawful Neutral and the fact that the GameMaster fails to levy any penalty for this poor play.

If the example of combat left a poor taste in my mouth, my reaction to the twelfth chapter left me outraged. The eleven pages of this chapter were what had made me swear, put my copy of HackMaster Basic down, and walk away from the book for three years. The title of the chapter is “On Dice…” and is devoted to the care and use of your dice – dice nomenclature, dice etiquette, choosing/purchasing your dice, dice rolling procedure, dice rolling don’ts, and so on… 

Now there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the writing of the chapter, but there is absolutely nothing right with the chapter. At its most base, it is an asinine piece of pedantry, whose subject matter is inherently immature. Arguably, after thirty-five years of the roleplaying hobby, who needs eleven pages of advice devoted to the care and use of their dice when such advice can be summed up with, to paraphrase Wil Wheaton, “Don’t be a dick with your dice”?

In coming back to write this review I read up on the book and discovered that these eleven pages had been inserted into HackMaster Basic when it was discovered that there were some blank pages. Kenzer & Co filled this blank with a piece that had previously been available to download from the publisher’s website. So it is nothing more than a space filler. What a waste of a space though, because even as a space filler, the “On Dice…” chapter does nothing except fill up what would be blank pages. It not only adds nothing to the game, but it detracts from the book. After all, once read, who is going to want, or need, to read its eleven pages ever again? They serve no purpose except to fill up space, and even if the “On Dice…” chapter is intended as a satire on the mores of Old School style roleplaying, then it ought to have an element of humour to it. Sadly it does not. It is not funny in the slightest, and whilst a page or two might have achieved some satirical point, here the eleven pages just beat both its subject and the reader into submission with its pedantry.

Ultimately, the “On Dice…” chapter was a quick fix made in the face of a publishing deadline. In hindsight, it was the wrong decision because it gives entirely the wrong impression of HackMaster Basic – just as the earlier example of combat does about the play of the game, and because it flies in the face of the statement in the game’s introduction that as part of the game’s redesign, the designers had “…reeled in and scrubbed the game of much of the over-the-top “silly factor”.” Sadly, when a sample adventure or setting, or just more advice or monsters would have both helpful and useful, the decision to include the “On Dice…” just leaves the reader with eleven unfunny pages that serve no purpose in the game and are patronising to the reader.

Much of the section written for the GameMaster’s eyes only is devoted to a useful bestiary of monsters and antagonists plus treasure to be found and looted. Actual advice for the GameMaster comes in the form of a Code of Conduct, more a series of dictates rather than real advice. If taken as advice, it is at least to the point, something that the “On Dice…” chapter fails to achieve. The fact that it reads more as a series of dictates than actual advice is one indication that HackMaster Basic is not a basic, introductory game. Indeed, it compounds the fact that the GameMaster needs to have experience and knowledge of how to run a game before coming to HackMaster Basic.

Physically, the most eye-catching element to HackMaster Basic is its cover, drawn and painted by the doyen of the Old School artists, Errol Otus. It captures the feel of the Old School Dungeons & Dragons very nicely, particularly the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, published by TSR in 1981. Though in doing do, it may well mislead the potential purchaser in that HackMaster Basic is anything other than a Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set style game as has already been mentioned. Behind the cover, HackMaster Basic evokes the feel of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons with lots and lots of charts. The illustrations vary in quality, but do much to capture the feel of HackMaster Basic. The writing is generally clear and readable, although its tone does occasionally grate, especially when the fictional personalities behind the game are let off the leash.

As much as HackMaster Basic has the feel of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, it has a feel that is very much its own, one that the seeps from the pores of the pages in HackMaster Basic. It is a combination of complexity and muscularity that makes HackMaster Basic stand out from the rest of the Old School Renaissance. This is no surprise, after all the game’s inspiration is more post Old School than actual Old School. There is even something likeable about this combination, which does give much to lift HackMaster Basic above the ill-advised missteps of the example of combat and the “On Dice…” chapter that threaten to drag the game back into the “over-the-top ‘silly factor’” territory of the game’s previous edition. As long as that element is kept restrained and the muscularity retained, then all bodes well for HackMaster 5th Edition. In the meantime, HackMaster Basic provides decently done introduction to one of the more idiosyncratic approaches to generic fantasy roleplaying.