Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Earthdawn Opinions?

Earthdawn has recently caught my attention, though I hesitate to shell out $100 bucks to look at the new edition just on the chance it might be interesting.

Has anybody who actually reads this blog seen this game in any of its incarnations? How does it play? Got any opinions?

There are, I see, three editions. What's the comparison across them?

Permanent and Lasting Injury

The 2nd Edition AD&D books specifically discourage players from tracking specific injuries, which I generally agree with. After all, I'm not a kid anymore and I don't get a giggle over the fact that every hit has a 1-in-6 chance of whacking some poor shmuck in the jewels, or neck, or whatever. It's just not necessary and is, in many ways, puerile. It also adds a whole lot of "all the time" complexity that the game just doesn't need.

After all, one of the biggest draws of the D&D type systems for me is the level of abstraction. Whether or not hit points represent purely physical punishment, or a mixture of luck, near misses, and minor wounds sapping a PC's will to go on or something else entirely really isn't all that important. The system is an abstraction for the sake of gameplay and, in the end, it's a completely self-referential one. It's only there to provide a numeric system to govern when your character can no longer function. It makes no real appeals to realism except in that more physical and martial classes get more HP while more "bookish" or "crafty" type classes receive fewer. It's verisimilitude, not realism.

The same goes for the 1 minute combat rounds (of which I am still a strong supporter by the by), the class and level system in general, armor class, and much of everything else in a lot of ways. Everything there sets an acceptable (to us at least) comprimise between realism and abstraction for the sake of game flow.

However, one of the alures of D&D is the loosness of its framework and the ability of the players to "hang on ornaments" so to speak. That's, I think, one of the greatest and most marvelous lessons that TSR learned during the run of AD&D 2ed: that the only thing that separated the core AD&D system from being something else was ornamentation and decoration. Dark Sun, one of the wierdest settings for the game, is little more than AD&D 2ed with a few moderate rules tweaks thrown in (i.e., retooling the attributes charts to account for the concept of Survival of the Fittest run amok, everybody's got psionics, an insanely harsh environment, and so on). That's the strength of 2nd edition, in my mind, it's chameleon like ability to change on the face to

That's a long way to go, I suppose, to get to the purpose of today's post.

Thylia, though I know I've put so little of it up here owing to life going absolutely berserk of late, is at present a bit grim, dark, and gritty. Those phrases have largely lost meaning, especially in WOTC's wake of using them to apply to their new material (one imagines purely in a humerous intent). Things in that world are going badly: monsters lurk in the wilderness, petty warlords claim control over wide expanses of land or just city states, cats and dogs living together . . . But of course, whisper me the difference between that and just about any bog-standard D&D setting?

In order to reflect the darker, somewhat grittier nature of things in Thylia, I'm employing both the modifications to the Vancian spell casting rules I talked of earlier, and a minor system for lasting and permanent injuries.

Simply put, while employing the "at death's door" rule (i.e., you have until -10 hp before you actually die for good), any character or monster/NPC that is reduced to -7 HP or less must make a system shock check or be forced to roll on the chart below to determine what, if any, lasting consequences are assessed.

1. Injury to the face/head. Suffer -1 to WIS/INT/CHA (equal chance of any of them).
2. Torso/Abdomen. Suffer -1 to CON, max HP reduced by 1d20%.
3. Fore/Upper Limb (includes arms (all if multiple), wings, and any other appendage other than a head above body midline). Determine which randomly. Limb is useless unless successfull save vs. death. To-Hit and Damage are -1 with that limb. If quadraped or limb otherwise used for mobility, see Lower/Hind Limb entry below.
4. Lower/Hind Limb (includes legs and other mobility appendages, tails, etc.). Save vs. death else limb is useless. Suffer -1d4x10% loss in movement rate. Limb is -1 to-hit and DAM if appropriate. May require crutch, cane, or other assistave device at DM's discretion.

All effects persist for 1d3 weeks at the end of which the character must make a System Shock check or the effects become permanent unless powerful healing or regenerative magics are applied successfully. At DM's option, surgical arts may be attempted to repair such damage, though they obviously carry significant risks of their own.

I think this will help to bring across the brutality of combat just a little more, and leave open my options open for when truly greivous wounds need inflicting.

Example: Hamlet the fighter is snatched up by a Roc intent on making the hapless adventurer its next meal. Through pure piss and vinneager, Hamlet is able to land a few telling kicks and bites on the bird before too much altitude is gained and the beast drops him. The fall reduces the fighter to -8 HP where he is luckily discovered by a friendly band of elves who bandage his wounds before he bleeds out. Rolling on the chart above nets him a result of 3 and the DM determines that his left arm has been severely broken when Hamlet fell on it. He has failed his saving throw and so the arm is useless for anywhere from one to three weeks. If he fails a System Shock test at the end of that time, the arm is permanently lame and of no use to him at all: a dangerous vulnerability to say the least.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Review: Death Frost Doom

There's not much for it, here, except to point you over to Grognardia's much better review and then add some of my own dithering commentary here to fill out this post.

First off, I was very pleasantly surprised by Death Frost Doom. On the whole, I've been displeased with the current slew of Old School modules on the publishing line. I'm not going to start talking specifics here because I'm not interested in starting a backdraft (with all 10 of my regular readers, yeah . . .) or engendering hard feelings through a hobby discussion portal. No doubt half a dozen folks will charge in and tell me just how wrong I am, but I will say that, in general, I feel that most of the modules I see coming out of the various publishers and the OSR fall prey to the same fault: they try too hard to imitate the Old School feel and atmosphere and fail at being good modules in their own right. This isn't to say that they're bad modules: they're not. They just, in my opinion, focus too much on imitation and not enough on innovation.

Jim Raggi's Death Frost Doom module, on the other hand, is very impressive in that respect. He certainly has respect for his inspirational material, and it shows strongly in his work, but at no significant point does the module come across as imitative of a particular thing except in spirit. In short, the module relies more on the atmosphere of the weird tale and less on the formula of the weird tale. And it certainly has an atmosphere that is unique among its fellows and makes it stand out.

I'm not going to go into details because James has already done a better job of that than I ever could: not superior only in writing skill, but in knowledge of the source material. It is notable, though, that there are a few places where the author's affection for the Evil Dead series shows through a little more clearly than in others.

One of my favorite things about this module, though I'm sure Jim will shout at me that I'm a clueless noob here, is that it is quintassentially Middle School. There is a story to the module, a strong and interesting backstory, but if the players don't learn it, it's not detrimental at all. It's also loose and vague enough that it can be comfortably bolted onto an existing campaign without too much struggle. One of the most rewarding things I can see in this module, from a player's point of view, would be learning what the hell went on at this place, what was buried there, and getting out alive to tell of it, being able to tell tales in the tavern later on that you outsmarted the pitfals and dangers of this place and came away filthy stinking rich for it. Or, if the players are incautious or just flat out stupid, this module has the capability as written to remake a significant portion of the campaign setting.

Well done, sir. I look forward to tormenting players with this one in the near future.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Evil is Petty

Following on from good men doing evil for the greater good, I'm moving towards one of my favorite, touchiest topics in terms of good and evil.

One of the commonest mainstay fantasy fiction (and sci-fi fiction for that matter)is the Evil Overlord. So common, in fact, that he has his own list that's moderately famous around the internet. Typically, the control vast armies of evil (draconians, orcs/goblins, insert evil monster of the week here) and are hell bent on conquering the world and molding it in their own image, but spend a great deal of time brooding in their tent or castle like Achiles until the heroes of the story (in our case, the PC's) are ready for the confrontation. It's a concept that's at once familiar and comforting to our inbred sensibilities, that a face can be put on evil, that there's an apparatus it has built up around it. The ability to name and identify the evil and, more specifically, to identify it as "that one over there" is empowering for most people, not only because it builds up the image of a confrontable font of darkness, but it's pseudo-exoneration of those who would oppose it, even if only in principle.

The industrial sized, world threatening, archetypal evil lord is such a common image and device that I'm sure everybody here could name at least half a dozen of them, even excluding Morgoth/Melkor, Sauron, and Hitler (as a literary device, really, and not neccessarily the real life figure).

At a game level, the concept is tremendously convenient since it allows us to build everything around a single, larger conflict. Dark Lord McScarypants is threatening Utopiaville and all kingdoms of sweetness and light in a bid to conquer the world and oppress the innocent and kick little puppies on the street. It's up to the heroes to stop him! Everything else just writes itself into that framework and there's really nothing wrong with it.

When we try to break out of the stereotypical molds of games, we tend to do away with the conspicuous Dark Lords and replace them with "the Big Bad Evil Guy" or BBEG as he's commonly referred to on the mind numbing gaming forums. This guy is a bit like a demoted evil overlord. He gives us the convenience of an identifiable source of evil, or at least of the identifiable troubles, but he's somehow less hokey than the overpowering overlord ruling from his thrown of skulls and clotted blood in the land of shadows somewhere over that direction, but could you maybe look into this strange influx of goblins we seem to be having before you run off and take care of that? More conveniently, with the redefinition of "campaign" as a 1 year start to finish story by the newer editions of D&D, it's something that gives a strong focus to the game. The players are there to investigate the machinations and doings of some evil being who is causing troubles locally or globally or whatever. Over a 1 year time period, sandbox play really isn't that great and, it seems, that D20 type D&D requires a stronger focal point than simply wandering around and looking for adventure. The big bad(s) are a narrative tool, just on a slightly less cosmic scale.

As comforting and convenient as that all is, it ignores some specific and overt realities: and how I do love reality for inspiration. The issue is that evil is petty. Evil is, for the most part, small, relatively contained, and self-interested. World spanning and archetypal evils like that are relatively rare. Far more common are small things, like wife beating, child abuse, murder of local political opponents, and so on. Open up the news today, and you'll find an example of just what I mean. For the record, I find that particular news item extraordinarily unpleasant and the punishment leveled against the girl far insufficient.

For every Morgoth, there are ten Sharky's. For every Hitler inaugurating genocidal campaigns against hated ethnicities, there are a thousand Cheyenne Cherry's throwing kittens into hot ovens just to hear the cries of pain and fear it makes before dying. And more often than not, these evils are motivated almost entirely by self-interest and not some Moorcockian esoteric concepts of law and chaos, good vs. evil. The evil priest lurking at the outskirts of civilization sacrificing innocents in the hopes that his dark master will grant him immortality in the form of undeath as a lich or vampire or specter. A man who rapes and murders a woman who, in town council, blocked one of his pet projects.* A woman who bathes in the blood of her handmaidens in order to preserve her youth and beauty. These kinds of people are memorable simply because they are realistic and believable and because their crimes are far more personal than any plotting and scheming dark lord.

Why am I talking about this? Simply because, hand in hand with "all politics are local" goes "most evil is petty, small, and local." While there might be vast, brooding evil intelligences out in the game world, plotting the overthrow of order, the downfall of light, or whatever, far more effective game villains are of the smaller sort. These kinds of opponents tend to stick in players' minds when they are encountered and, as I said within the Bernardo Gui post, force the players themselves to confront something that is challenging or difficult for them.

*I'm very clear here that such topics are not always suitable for all games, nor am I encouraging those who don't want to deal with such unsavory topics to every include them in their games, nor should such topics EVER be treated lightly.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Review: Malevolent and Benign: A First Edition Bestiary

I don't have the ability to head over to Expeditious Retreat from behind the Firewall of Doom here, but I'll link you over to Noble Knight where I first found Malevolent and Benign: A First Edition Bestiary.

Honestly, I have pretty much nothing negative to say about this book. First, the cover and internal art (not to mention a sturdy binding, which is always nice) are very impressive. It's all evocative of the Fiend Folio and the first Monster Manual, but very obviously not straight imitation of style either. At least 60% of the creatures in the book have a picture to go with them, but none of the art even comes close to being filler, or creating blank white space: the book is crammed with two column, easy to read text patterned after the format of the monster entries in the OSRIC book.

Inside, about 150 new monsters lurk. Some, yes, are reprints from some of the OSRIC modules out there, but if, like me, you have been finding the modules of spotty interest, then this book is a great find. In reading through, I didn't see any monster in there that I wouldn't be happy to use in my home game. I'm on record as saying I'm not a fan of the goofy, but even here, the goofy is understated enough that even the most jaded player will get a kick out of it all.

Right now, my favorite entry would have to be the Avatar of Famine, a semi-undead fellow with a rather unpleasant special ability that makes him more than a match for even a powerful group. Its presence and origin are just creepy enough that they'll fit well in a horror campaign as much as any other.

Another standout is the Fungal Render: a giant, semi-predatory mushroom that has a knack for, well, you can probably guess given the name.

Oak Men fill a nice niche for those of us looking for more fairie folk to throw into the mix.

Of course, there's a very healthy dose of excellent undead, my favorite type of creature in the game, including a new type of elf lich kin.

It looks to me as if the authors looked for a theme for their monsters rather than "just another 1+1HD humanoid." Almost every monster here, as far as I can tell at the moment, fills a new nich (midget creepy tree men) or expands an existing niche into a new field (ritualized self-embalming elves anyone?) and doesn't trample on the toes of older, classic monsters by creating smudged photo-copies so to speak.

Bernard Gui Was Lawful Good

James Raggi over at LotFP has put up a series of articles over the last week about alignment. Here's the latest in the series. What's interesting is that the articles are not the standard dithering over defining what Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil really mean as if the definitions in the books weren't already clear, but about larger, farther reaching ramifications, such as what a being of evil incarnate might be like when the evils perpetrated by ordinary humans (even in the name of good) are so heinous as to turn your stomach. A demon or devil, even a relatively low level example, would be evil on a level unknown to lowly humans.

I wanted to get into some of the smaller, closer to home aspects of alignment. How a normal mortal might operate within the framework of the nine-point dual axis (i.e., AD&D alignment system) alignment codification and still break from a 1970's conception of right and wrong and morality: which is not to say anything disparaging against such conceptions, merely that good and evil within the framework of D&D seem to be largely judged from the paradigm of a 1970's educated man, which makes perfect sense since it was written and largely written for 1970's educated men.

My first object lesson is Bernardo Gui, born 1261, died 1331, and arguably the most famous member of the Medieval Inquisition (as VERY distinct from the infamous Spanish Inquisition which he had absolutely nothing to do with). It's remarkable how few people know Bernardo outside of the near caricature by F. Murray Abraham and Umberto Ecco in The Name of the Rose: you see, Umberto disliked the Church in general and the Inquisition in particular and it bled into his writing (which I'm sure he'll be the first to tell you is open to the audience's interpretation) and when the movie was created, it was decided that there was a need for a stronger antagonist than an old monk who hated laughter during the climax, thus was born the enhanced antagonism of Abraham's Gui.

In reality, the man quite literally wrote the book on how the Papal Inquisition was supposed to conduct and comport itself as well as its overall purpose: Practica Inquisitionis Heretice Pravitatis or "Conduct of the Inquisition into Heretical Wickedness." The work discusses the purpose of the Inquisition, describes its "targets" (including a very good description of the Cathars and why they are designated heretical by the Church of the time), and the methodology of accusations, interrogation, indictment, and punishment by members of the Inquisition. Gui did, indeed, advise the use of torture as a method to extract information from accused persons, an act that almost anybody in the Western World would consider irredeemably evil. During his tenure in this position, Gui obtained about 900 convictions, but only turned over a mere 42 to the state for execution. He was very reticent to see the people brought before him executed arguing convincingly that such would be considered a failure of one of the most important purposes of the Inquisition: the detection and rehabilitation of those persons who had strayed from the "correct" teachings of the Church. More common and preferred forms of punishment and rehabilitative therapy included pennance, joining an aesthetic monastic order for a time, a long pilgrimage, flogging, or simply time in the stocks. Killing somebody in this situation would be effectively damning them to hell, something that was to be strenuously avoided as the Church truly believed itself to be in the business of helping to save souls, not condemning them. Thus, execution was reserved for only the most vile and unrepentant heretics.

In the end, and within the context of his historical setting, I would argue that Bernardo Gui would fit in well within the Lawful Good alignment, despite what we would view as reprehensibly evil methods, much of which could be attributed to a Medieval sense of jurisprudence really. Which brings me to my point, at last; while it's certainly great to play D&D within the moral framework of modern folk, there's a lot to be said about opening up to a different moral paradigm. To continue within our example of the Inquisition, how would the players themselves interact with such a person? Upon realizing that torture was being used as a method to seek out and identify heretics (or, perhaps, slightly easier on our modern sensibilities, hidden evil moles), what would the party's attendant Paladin do? The party may be asked to perform tasks for such an inquisition and to abide by its regulations.

Travelling this way is difficult to do without getting hokey and over simplified, but done right, it challenges more than just the technical and role playing skills of the players, it challenges the players themselves. A little narativist in a way? Sure, but even the oldest and grognardiest of games can benefit from some of the better lessons of the White Wolf and Hickman/Weiss revolutions. Dealing with good and evil on a more than just lip service level, forcing players to confront some of their own personal demons within the game, is, in my opinion of course, one of those good lessons. It's another layer of challenge beyond disarming traps, killing monsters with clever tactics, and hauling treasure out from under the nose of a sleeping dragon. How, as a player of a Lawful Good character, do you work within a game world where not only is slavery and martial interrogation (torture) are not only accepted and acceptable functions of society, but are so widespread as to be near universal?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Problem With HD and Blu-Ray

This is completely and entirely off topic, but I felt like complaining about it here.

Why the hell is it that every time I try to watch a Blu-Ray movie on my fancy new player that the sound effects and music volume is turned way up (deafening really) but the dialogue is turned down so much that I can't actually hear it at all and have to rely on captions.

It's the same, though to a slightly lesser degree on HD television channels.

Is this a common thing across all HD sources? Is there some special fix that I don't know about? Or is this an example of stupid movie studios who assume "louder is better" and "people don't really care about what's being said on screen anyway"?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Review: Hackmaster Basic

Well, I got mine about two weeks ago and have spent my spare minutes reading through it to get myself an opinion. For whatever my opinion is worth, here it is.

I'll admit right up front that I've not had the chance to play the game, and I might be entirely wrong about it, but then again, what's the internet for except for strongly held, mostly baseless opinion sharing anyway?

First impressions: The first thought I had when I pulled the book out of the mailing envelope (immediately after being annoyed with the postal worker who folded the book double in order to fit it in the mailbox despite the words "DO NOT BEND" in bold red lettering on the front, and immediately before the panicked moment of flapping my hands uselessly as I was attacked by half a dozen red ants swarming out of the thing) was "this is just too thick to be "basic."" Weighing in somewhere around 200 pages, this is well beyond what can reasonably be called an introductory book to a game. If anything, it gives the impression that the basic moniker is there simply to hearken back to D&D Basic, shamelessly so.

James was right, this isn't a particularly Old School product, at least not in the sense that Old School has come to be defined by the OSR (or whatever we're calling it nowadays).

Presentation and Physical Stuff: In terms of physical quality, this book earns high marks. The binding is sturdy,as are the cover and the pages themselves. High quality materials throughout and no obvious or glaring printing errors that can be a major drawback to any product.

Speaking of the cover, yes, it's an Erol Otus print, and a damn fine one. Evocative and just slightly comedic. That creature on the front (a variant of the hydra if anybody cares) is just weird enough to catch your attention and make you wonder, and just vicious enough (he's eating the fighter's leg for crying out loud!) to give you a hint about the tone of things within.

The art throughout is quite nice, though not entirely inspiring. It's certainly worlds better than the current "art" plastered all over more "modern" RPG's, that's for sure, but it just doesn't grab me. Don't get me wrong, I like the woodcuttings just as much as the next guy, but it's just not all there yet, and too much of it looks to be recycled from Hackmaster 4th for my tastes.

Other than issues of personal taste, there are no complaints in this department. The book, as a book in itself, is of excellent quality, and even after being folded in half for 18 hours in the mailbox, the entire thing recovered in less than 2 hours and now you'd never be able to tell. This book was obviously built for extended and hard use.

Content: If you didn't care for Hackmaster 4 as a game itself, then you probably won't like Hackmaster Basic (and presumably HMA since it's purported by the authors to be the same thing, except more-so). If you looked at Hackmaster as a source for clipping out interesting rules variations, then you probably won't like Hackmaster Basic very much as the new stuff here won't be of too much use to your AD&D type game: the differences are just too broad for easy portability.

Whereas the original Hackmaster could reasonably be called AD&D with a whole lot of house rules and attitude thrown in, HackMaster basic is a new animal. It's certainly heavily informed by the D&D Basic model: the four classes are, of course, fighter, thief, mage, and cleric and they've got the basic races down to human, elf, dwarf, and halfling, and largely they mean the same things. Mages still cast magic spells, clerics still channel the powers of their deities and often turn or command undead, fighters are really good at hitting things, etc. The rules, however, are not basic as we understood them back then.

Each race in Basic has its own little chart that helps you understand the gist of the rules governing it ranging from attribute modifiers (and there are several, not just the +1/-1 from the days of AD&D) to what talents can be purchased at discounted rates and the number of building points needed to purchase your way into each particular class. One of the greatest advantages to being a demi-human is that you can purchase your way into certain classes for a substantial discount (say, 20 points as opposed to an average 30) and if one follows on with typecasting, demi-humans will certainly excell at certain types of things. Dwarves, for example, make excellent fighters if but for a slightly lower movement rate and a reach penalty, both of which can play significant roles later on. Elves make good wizards, halfings thieves, and humans fall into their jack-of-all-trades role again. Of course, level limits are a thing of the past as, in Dave Kenzer's own words, "research shows that most gamers tend to be frickin' pussies . . ." and the increased cost to enter the class in the first place seems at first glance to help balance that out in the short and middle game. Long term, though, I guess that things would tend to even out on some level.

Attributes are rolled for by the standard 3d6 along with their percentile fractional values (typically used in the original as further gradations between attribute points and as stepping stones between advancing attributes between levels) and seemingly the same here. In terms of a basic game where attribute advancement is left out, I don't see the need for the fractional ability scores. It muddies the waters for those who don't know what's coming up. Though I can see the desire to leave as much from the eventual "final form" of HMA the same as possible rather than following TSR's model of slicing the game into two different lines.

Higher attribute scores are, as in AD&D, important to a character as they govern all sorts of things as how many hit points characters get, how hard they hit in combat, how quickly they can act, etc. Those who don't like a strong reliance on ability scores will not be overtly pleased here I think.

Up until this point, there's little difference between AD&D and HMB in concept. They both follow along the same models. But it's when we get to the nitty gritty of the rules that the paths diverge. In concept, the rules are very simple. In execution, though, I see a whole lot of individual nightmares.

Skills operate on a system very similar to the Aces & Eights model, though they start at 0% for untrained and ascend towards 100% for masters. There are some skills, known appropriately as universal skills, are things that pretty much everybody has some facility with. Things like Hide, Sneak, Climb, etc. fall into this category. Other skills, like animal handling, riding, and academic type skills fall into the category where, without training, you have no real hope of using the skill. You gain and advance skills by spending build points. Not a bad arrangement, though there are still more skills here than I think are helpful and, of course, I'm still a strong believer in the proficiency model of AD&D 2e. Overall, I think this skill system is an improvement over HM4 provided that the skills don't expand into idiocy as the original game's did and provided we don't slather on layers of complication that add little to the satisfactory feeling of the game.

Clerics deserve to be singled out since, it seems, Kenzer & Co. have finally done what so many have wanted before and created a separate class for each deity. A Cleric of the True is not the same as a Cleric of the Harvester, is not the same as a Cleric of the Riftmaster. Great! Except that they still look very similar except for a few paltry, desultory differences. Maybe I'm judging that harshly, though. It's nice to see at least some service paid to the concept.

Combat. Combat is . . . well . . . it follows hot on the heels of the successful model of Aces & Eights. Somebody made the very astute observation that, realistically speaking, combat doesn't happen in nice, orderly rounds, but in real time. So Hackmaster Basic operates on the "count up" system instead. The GM begins combat by calling out each second as it passes (i.e., "1: the orcs start their charge while you stand surprised, 2: they continue to charge . . ."). Once your initiative arrives (the point at which you realize combat has begun and aren't standing there gaping like a landed fish) you are free to act, though each particular action takes a certain amount of time. A long sword, for example, takes 12 seconds to "reset" after its first attack, so unless something happens in between, you can expect to be able to attack once every 12 seconds with your sword.

Movement operates on a separate, parallel track to hacking, so you can, each second, move a distance equal to your walking, jogging, running, or sprinting speed every second independent of what your sword arm is doing at the time. Of course, moving out of melee with a foe, assuming he stands there like an idiot, can lead to a counter "reset" for your weapon, but again, nothing in execution is simple as it is on paper. I suppose that's going to be the calling card of this game, in the end.

Trading blows is accomplished by an, in my opinion, excellent model: opposed rolls adding modifiers, high roll wins. I think that, in basic premise, that's a GREAT way of doing things and I've often pondered what the effect of turning AC into a modifier to a d20 roll would result in at the table. However, in the end, the simple makes way for a host of complications, many in the interest of realism. For example, not carrying a shield gives you a flat -4 to your defense rolls as, of course, these are very important items in medieval combat. Why, you might ask, do you suffer a penalty for not carrying a shield rather than simply get a bonus for using one? Well, that's because there's another complication later on for what happens when your oponent misses you while you're using a shield: you still can suffer damage from this as the book points out because your arm is, after all, right on the other side. There are, as well, different types of dice to roll for defense based on if you are caught unaware, or are helpless, or are being attacked from behind. Initiative dice are the same, a different one for each circumstance, though there is, as in most rules, a standard. Maybe its my pessimism, but I see the standard being excepted too often to be of much use, really. In the end, here, I'm left wondering whether I really want a realistic system as opposed to a comfortably abstracted system that blends into the background and is all but completely invisible at table.

For all that, though, combat itself is explained rather well, including via a nice little comic strip example. It makes me think that, given a little patience and practice, I could GM it successfully and make it fun, which is, in the end, the point of it all. If you're a fan of the comics, it'll make you chuckle and you'll probably appreciate it. If not, you'll probably be a little disheartened that such a bit of crucial info is dumped into a comic book format that you have to slog through.

Despite my overall negative tone above, I do think that the combat system is very interesting and worth a look through even if you don't plan on playing this particular system. It looks like it'll prove to be a gritty, violent, and brutal affair rather than the high fantasy swashbuckling that D&D can often fall prey to. Shields break with alarming regularity, wounds do not heal overnight, and those large pointy objects that were a minor annoyance to AD&D figher characters can be exceptionally dangerous with the risk of penetration and critical hits. Even when armor is absorbing damage, we're still talking big, satisfying numbers here even at first level. A three foot blade in the gullet is about as debilitating in Hackmaster Basic as it would be in real life, and that's a good thing.

Honor remains as yet another fiddly bit. Spellcasting has morphed into a strange, almost Arduinian combination of the Vancian slot system and a spell point system (I heartily encourage you to check out the book if only for that).

The monster selection is quite nice, though sparse considering what fit into the original Baisc books. Something on the order of 75 monsters including several undead like vampires, ghouls/ghasts, and wights. Dragons are conspicuous in their absence, though rumor has it that they are going to make an appearance in one of the KODT issues coming up. Undead no longer drain experience, but ability scores semi-permanently (there's a moderate chance that you can recover, but it's by no means a sure thing as it was in 3.x). Poison is a rather nasty affair, though not always of the save or die variety. All in all, an excellent selection of monsters to start the game with including a few classic Hackmaster creatures like the Sturm Wolf.

There are at least two sections of the book that I see as superfluous and as taking up more space than they are entitled to. First, there's a "Quick Start" characters section that you can download on the Kenzer & Co. website for free now to look over as a PDF. In my view, this is a basic game and it sure as hell shouldn't need a quick start setup. If anything, they should have included four or so pre-generated characters for that purpose rather than taking up half a dozen pages with marginally useful information.

The second was the dice rolling section. Yes, it's well written and very fun to read, and a lot of it needed to be said as so much "dice ettiquate" has been forgotten and ignored over the years, but really, it's too big for what it is and it should have been dropped in favor of streamlining the rest of the book, or for at least adding more monsters.

Overall: Despite my general negative tone above, I do think that Hackmaster Basic is an excellent looking game based on a read through and no practical experience with it. It garners 4 out of 5 stars from my questionable perspective, loosing points only because it's not really basic at all and the amount of fiddelyness is too much for my taste. It's apparant that Kenzer & Co's definition of Old School is significantly different than Matt Finche's.

Buy it if you enjoy reading a well written game that has a good sense of humor about itself and the entire hobby, but is much toned down since the last PHB.

Buy it if you love Hackmaster in general and would buy just about anything Kenzer published on principle.

Don't buy it if you're looking for an old school experience as it's defined currently by the Old School Revolution.

Don't buy it if you're looking for a basic, simple, and quickly grasped game.

A Note on Hackmaster and Kalamar: It should be noted that Hackmaster Basic is the first new product in the line that will specifically support the Kingdoms of Kalamar setting. As noted above, the Cleric class has been specifically subdivided into a unique class for each of Kalamar's many deities, though only a few make an appearance in Basic.

This connection is definately noticable, but hardly so overt that one couldn't adapt the game to another setting with relative ease.