Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Hackmaster Isn't D&D

Well, first off, I'm going to apologize for this entire article. It is being written while under the influence of about half a dozen over the counter cold and allergy medications and if, at some points, it descends into incomprehensibility more than my usual, well, that is the reason. Mainlining a Benedryl and Claratin cocktail is, upon reconsideration of the act, a bad idea.

I've been thinking a lot, recently, about Hackmaster, especially in light of their upcoming 5th edition. OK, not really a 5th edition at all, but that's what it's colloquially known as other than Hackmaster Basic (HMB), and the conclusion that I came to is that Hackmaster just isn't D&D. Now, a lot of people are going to shout at me and say, rightly, "well no shit, you idiot, of course it isn't D&D!" but I think that a lot of people seem to forget that in some ways. There are so many who, in my experience, seem to look at Hackmaster 4e (i.e., the first edition of Hackmaster to actually hit shelves and not just be a joke in the comic book) as the continuation of the grand tradition of AD&D, and in one sense it really is: hell, its skeleton practically is AD&D.

The thing is, though, that in the translation between the two, it feels like it's lost something. I'm not talking about the addition of parody leading to what can be a less than serious game from time to time. After all, some of the greatest game sessions I've ever been in have devolved into a massive case of the giggles between half a dozen people when somebody actually suggests, with a straight face, trying to trick the warren of wererats by donning fake ears and noses. D&D at its heart revels in good (and bad) humor.

No, I think that what it's lost between 4e and 1e (and especially 2e and 0e) is simplicity and clarity. Hackmaster, in attempting to replicate the High Gygaxian prose of the AD&D books and inject a little extra comedic flair (partially because of intent, and partially because of directive from the evil coastal wizards) and the somewhat arcane presentation, a level of obfuscation and overt intricacy of the rules that, in my mind, detracts from the game on a certain level. I'll single out the skill rules and doubly so the training and advancement rules. I consider myself an educated, informed, and relatively intelligent man, but trying to understand those particular rules creates the same feeling as listening to somebody try to explain the rules of cricket to me: an overwhelming urge to hit somebody with a baseball bat.

Yes, yes, I know I just too recently talked about how I was ok with the whole proficiency system in 2nd edition, a system that drives so many grognards and old schoolers to distraction, but let's get real here, yeah? The proficiency system is a coating of whitewash to gussy up a fence; the Hackmaster skill system is Escher and the training system is Escher on crack. That is, to me, the allure of 2nd edition, that it seemed to restore a lot of the open simplicity of 0ed, but kept on a lot of the additions that I loved from AD&D. It stripped out the High Gygaxian which, though very entertaining to read, was inhibiting when it came to quick comprehension (hardly a drawback some would argue).

All that said, though, I still enjoy playing Hackmaster and would love to get a game of it together at some point. However, it loses or abandons the absolute core of what D&D is in my mind: pure simplicity of rule sets that are open enough for individualization and creation. Hackmaster is just too arcane (intentionally so) and too obtuse for me to confidently screw around with to the extent that I would want. It does have a number of things in it that I'd love to import to 2nd edition (varied AC per shield size for example) but for the most part, it's a different game.

It will be very interesting, though, to see what is made of Hackmaster Basic when it comes out. For those of you who don't know this already, Kenzer has released an excellent little preview in their most recent issue of Hackjournal, specifically a preview of the Mage class and a long list of Q&A answered by none other than Dave Kenzer himself. The class looks promising, to me. Clearly worded and with less obtrusive Gary Speak, but retaining the fondness for complication of its predecessor. For $3, it's definatelly worth the price of the PDF, plus it comes with a few excellent little magic items including the Chainmail Bikini of Strangulation and the Bag of Holding: Spectral Varient.

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