When you hire legendary gaming artist Erol Otus to do the cover for a new RPG rulebook with the word "basic" in its title, it seems pretty clear to me that a big part of your sales pitch is nostalgia. For gamers of a certain age, the 1981 Basic Rulebook for Dungeons & Dragons will always be the definitive version of the game, the one that not only initiated them into the hobby but also shaped their notions of what an introductory roleplaying game should be. Given that, I expected Kenzer & Company's HackMaster Basic to draw heavily on D&D Basic for inspiration. Other than its title and its cover illustration, that's not the case. Whether one views this as a good thing or a bad thing depends, I imagine, on one's feelings about what constitutes a "basic" RPG, a topic to which I'll return throughout this review.
Let's talk briefly about the physical appearance of the book itself. At 198 pages, HackMaster Basic is a large book, its two-column text being dense and chart-heavy. The text reads well, lacking the grating "gamer macho" tone of HackMaster 4th Edition, but still possessing a unique -- and occasionally still grating -- voice of its own. That said, Basic isn't generic; it's very clearly its own game, with its own style, and, while that style isn't my cup of tea, I nevertheless appreciate a game that knows what it's about and makes no bones about it. The book is well illustrated throughout, with art ranging from the cartoony to the realistic. A number of pieces explicitly recall classic images from early editions of D&D, once again playing the nostalgia card. All in all, Basic is a well put together book that's easy to read and, thanks to an index, easy to navigate.
The book begins with 6 pages of "quick start rules," which, despite the name, focus more on quickly generating a character rather than teaching you how to play the game. Because of their brevity, characters generated according to the quick start rules lack many elements of the full character generation system, such as racial ability adjustments and the like. The full character generation chapter takes up 13 pages and that's not including specific treatments of important character-related topics, such as honor, quirks & flaws, skills, talents, and proficiencies, not to mention the descriptions of the game's four character classes, which alone require more page count than the character generation chapter itself.
I mention this not to damn HackMaster Basic, which, as you'll see, I think is a very well designed RPG, but to point out that it's "basic" only in the sense that it's less complex than the forthcoming Advanced HackMaster. It's certainly not basic compared to any edition of D&D, including AD&D First Edition, whose Players Handbook included three times as many class descriptions in fewer pages than HackMaster Basic manages. To put it inelegantly, this nearly 200-page book provides the rules for "Basic Advanced HackMaster" -- a cut-down version of what is sure to be lengthy and complex set of fantasy RPG rules.
HackMaster Basic characters have seven ability scores: the six traditional D&D ones plus Looks. Race options are the classic four: human, elf, dwarf, and halfling. Class options are likewise the classic four: fighter, thief, mage, and cleric. Alignment is the ninefold style of AD&D and its descendants. Basic makes regular -- some might say too much -- use of random rolls in character generation. In this respect, its old school heritage is clear. However, randomness can be mitigated through the use of "Building Points" (or BPs), usually used to purchase skills and other secondary abilities. For example, spending BPs allows a player to rearrange or swap randomly-determined ability scores, while keeping them as rolled earns one additional BPs. Likewise, while each race can take any class, choosing a class "against type" -- a halfling mage, say -- costs more BPs than choosing a class more in keeping with the race's archetype. This is an interesting design choice that I think goes part of the way toward addressing the usual whines about old school randomness without reducing HackMaster Basic to yet another bland point-buy system. At the same time, keeping track of Building Points can be somewhat tedious and I can't help but wonder if the character customization they offer is more than offset by the bookkeeping they necessitate.
And bookkeeping seems an integral part of HackMaster. There are many stats, derived scores, and calculations involved in not only creating a character but also leveling him up. A quick look at the downloadable character sheet makes the point better than I ever could. Ability scores not only include multiple columns of modifiers associated with them, but each ability also has a fractional score as well, such as Strength 15/45 or Wisdom 13/98, which shows how close they are to increasing that ability to the next whole number, much like Cavaliers in Unearthed Arcana. Characters also have an Honor score that goes up or down based on a player's adherence to his character's class, alignment, and so on. Some will no doubt find the concept of Honor a heavy-handed way to enforce "proper" roleplaying and so it is. For myself, its looseness reminds me uncomfortably of 2e's XP awards system.
As I noted earlier, HackMaster Basic includes not only quirks and flaws (minor advantages and disadvantages), but also skills, talents, and proficiencies, each of which is subtly different in concept and mechanics. Skills are much as you'd expect, while talents are similar to what D&D III called "feats." Proficiencies mostly pertain to weapons and armor use. Taken together, it's all a bit much for my tastes, but, like the random detailed character backgrounds (height, weight, handedness, family ties, etc.), these things do add a kind of goofy depth that I associate with the Silver Age of D&D. Indeed, HackMaster Basic feels very much like a product of that era and I suspect one's opinion of it will depend greatly on how much one liked late 1e.
Character classes are fairly straightforward, each with its own feel and mechanics. I appreciate the lack of homogenization here, with the fighter being the simple hit-stuff-until-it-dies class suitable for newbies, while mages require more cleverness and skill to play effectively. Arcane magic is somewhat different than in D&D, with spells costing Spell Points (SPs) to cast. Spells can still be memorized and doing so halves their cost in SPs. Clerics, on the other hand, differ much less from their D&D inspirations, although Basic presents several generic religions -- The True, The Caregiver, The Overlord, etc. -- that dictate what spells, weapons, and special abilities a cleric can wield.
All classes are much beefier than their D&D counterparts, starting with hit points equal to their Constitution + Hit Dice. New Hit Dice are gained every other level, with "dead" levels granting a re-roll of current hit points in order to improve the score. Again, I'm of multiple minds about this, but, ultimately, I find it mildly baffling that game like HackMaster, which claims to be "hard hitting old-school gaming," should care much about the supposed fragility of low-level characters. (In fairness, I should add that dice "penetrate" in HackMaster, which means you get to re-roll and add if your first roll is a maximum result. This process is open-ended, so it is possible to kill even the toughest character with a single stab from a dagger, even though it's extraordinarily unlikely)
HackMaster Basic's claims to basic-ness is sorely tested in its combat rules, which are lengthy and complex, with lots of sub-rules, special cases, and exceptions. Granted, many of these could, as in D&D, be safely ignored, but I have to wonder why an introductory game includes them at all. Wouldn't things like knockbacks and trauma, to cite but two examples, have been better saved for Advanced HackMaster? I ask, because the underlying combat system, consisting of opposed rolls between an attacker and a defender, is simple and reasonably intuitive (though the same cannot be said for its initiative system, which reminded me unhappily of Champions, though that's probably unfair). The game does include a helpful 9-page, text-heavy Knights of the Dinner Table comic strip to show how combat works. Again, pictures speak louder than words.
Rounding out the book are chapters on dice and the "proper" use of them in the game (11 pages in length), monsters, treasure, and a cursory (2 pages) presentation of the "canons" of conduct for a Game Master, such as "The GM is Always Right" and "Let the Dice Fall Where They May." It's difficult to tell whether these canons are meant seriously or as a joke, but, like most things associated with HackMaster, it's probably not an either/or proposition. The monster section is solid and includes a good stable of creatures to use, while the treasure section is a bit spottier, which I suppose is to be expected given HackMaster Basic's focus on levels 1-5. The rules heavily imply a "proper" amount of treasure and magic items based on a chart that reminds me of D&D III's encounter levels -- indeed, the term "encounter levels" is explicitly used -- so that's worrisome but easily dispensed with if one is so inclined. Unless I missed something, XP is gained solely through defeating opponents.
And that, in a nutshell, is HackMaster Basic. It's difficult to do full justice to this game in my review, however lengthy and detailed I made it and I have certainly overlooked and maybe even misrepresented some aspects of its contents. That, to me, is its great glory and its great disappointment. Its glory is that this a game you can really sink your teeth into; it's not an airy, calorie-free indie game but a super-sized bacon cheeseburger of the old school variety. Its disappointment is that it's neither a good introductory RPG in its own right nor even a particularly good introduction to HackMaster for those not already well versed in its idiosyncratic ways. The game is needlessly complex and arcane for anything calling itself "basic" and I think that's a pity, because I can see how one could really enjoy a game like this. As I said, it's meaty and flavorful and probably one of the more cleverly done D&D pastiches in a hobby filled with them.
I doubt I'd ever play, let alone run, a HackMaster Basic campaign; it's, as I said early, "too much" for me. Still, in the midst of an old school renaissance that's made "rules light" (or whatever other phrase we're using these days to describe do-it-yourself gaming) a singular virtue, HackMaster defiantly hoists the flag for the days when calculating the bone density of giants and arguing over terminal velocity in order to get your falling damage article published in Dragon was the cool thing to do. That it does this without pretension or self-seriousness and without descending into parody is a pretty remarkable thing. Again, it's not for me, but then I've already got plenty of games that are. For old schoolers who prefer their fantasy a bit more "buff," though, HackMaster Basic may be just what they're looking for.
Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10
Get This If: You're looking for an alternative to the "light" old school RPGs out there these days.
Don't Get This If: You don't like random chargen, derived statistics, complex combat systems, and fantasy that doesn't take itself too seriously.