Thursday, September 1, 2016

On Being Magnanimous as a Gamer

Okay, this entry is going to be a sort of fan-boy geek-out essay, so if you don't like that sort of thing, you just might want to go sit in a corner and suck on some persimmons. But one of the most valuable lessons I have been taught over the past decade in my gaming career has been from my current living gaming hero: Jolly Blackburn. He probably would be thoroughly embarrassed by the following ode, but because I think he stands as a shining example of what it means to be magnanimous in a hobby that has more than its share of grognards and grumbling grannies he deserve this nonetheless.

Now, the thing is, I count myself as one of those erstwhile grognards of the more irritatingly vocal type. Hell, my entire blog has been a tribute to critiquing the current wave of gaming as a nostalgic clarion for the preservation of the gaming past. And I have not always been magnanimous in my efforts. Thus Jolly and his character and personality have served as a good example for me to more carefully consider my words about gaming and how they might make others feel; and more importantly how they might negatively effect the hobby as a whole.

Jolly's example, however, is less about pontificating this fact than living the life of what I would consider a gamer who lives by and honors the old guard while eagerly and openly embracing the new media, movies, books, games and talent that serves the industry we love so much. In other words Jolly is old school. About as old school as it gets. But Jolly is also on the cutting edge, enjoying, celebrating and reveling in all the new talent and creativity that is serving the speculative fiction industry has to offer. So in him I have a role model that I can identify with as having come from the same old school roots as myself -- AD&D 1e and 2e, while boldly championing the evolution of gaming and its offshoots in all directions.

When I first came to KODT, and later Hackmaster--my preferred in-print game--Jolly struck a chord with me because he was so clearly steeped in an old school ethos. However, one cannot read KODT or the current iteration of Hackmaster and not appreciate how he and his fellow designers at KenzerCo also are keenly aware of and sensitive to the new wave of gaming as well. I know Jolly gets a lot of the lime-light in regards to Hackmaster and KODT, but he is quite clear that Dave Kenzer, Brian Jelke, Steve Johansen and his wife Barbara and others deserve much of the credit, power and creativity behind both products. Another sign of his magnanimity; and, I'm sure, of his much more public profile in social media circles. Jolly is immanently approachable in that sense.

In addition, having listened to numerous podcast interviews and video segments, Jolly is always self deprecating, humble, and refuses to be drawn into edition wars and criticism of other companies, other games, and especially other designers. He is just a nice guy. I have also watched as he interacts and listens to others on his Facebook page, on KCo's, now somewhat quieter, forums, and other outlets where he is willing to engage old friends and new comers alike with the same open, honest and welcoming attitude that endears him to so many. In this way, and I am not sure he has simply taken this role because he is a natural at it, if he really likes it, or he drew the short straw at KCo, Jolly has become the "face" of KCo to the public. When one thinks of Hackmaster and KODT, one cannot help but have Jolly spring to mind. Though I know the other designers are as every bit as involved as he is. And this in no way is meant to steal any of their thunder, skill or importance as I have watched interviews with them and video snippets of their play as a group as well. I also greatly admire Dave Kenzer for different reasons, but this post is meant to communicate how inspiring and important it is to be magnanimous as a gamer in today's world. I hold Jolly in that esteem.

And while we're on the subject of Jolly, if there's anyone who knows gamers, gaming culture, tropes or gaming psychology any better they are certainly not making it known like Jolly and the KODT crew. I simply can't communicate how important KODT is to me. I'm not going to say it's more important than gaming, but KODT has kept me going when there has been no gaming in my life. In a world where my gaming past seems to hold itself up as a golden age that cannot be reclaimed, KODT is there for me, like a breath of rarefied air of an age of gaming that, to me, represents the Camelot of the gaming world. It makes me laugh, smile, nod knowingly and hang on every cursed cliff-hanger each issue. I don't know how Jolly does it, but he captures something for me that is the very essence of gaming. Something rooted not altogether in the games, but the gestalt of the games, and the unique and priceless gaming community of which we are all a part. My hat goes off to him, my heart goes out to him and I pray the magic never ends.

But Jolly's magnanimity doesn't just end at gaming. I have seen him be a proud champion of movies, books, TV series and the like which sometimes get too much negative press and add a bit of positivity, humor, practicality and support. The most recent Ghostbusters re-make was a prime example. Before it was even out, fan-boy haters were griping because it wasn't the original cast, it wasn't funny enough, they were all women, and one actress in particular singled out for being "wrong" in even more ways. The fact is, many of the critical comments were misogynistic, racist and just plain bull-headed. But Jolly not only defended the film as a reaction to those prejudicial negativities, he championed the film to give it a chance. And he did. And he was in a camp of numerous distinguished critics who also found the film funny and engaging. Was it different from the original, yes. But a good film re-make or update does not have to be a copy of the original in tone or detail. I'm a fan of the new ST movies. I don't quite like it as much as TOS or TNG, but I did enjoy them. And by all critical accounts the second was worse than the first but I liked it better! I think, and this is just my take, that magnanimity requires that we extend to new efforts in speculative fiction of all types, games, and entertainment that caters to what could be called the nerd-geek-gamer culture a benefit of the doubt and a fresh open mind and perspective. The fact is we live in a world awash in superhero/heroine movies, Sci Fi, games, tabletop and video, and even comics are seeing a resurgence, or at least coming back. We should rejoice that what started long ago with Tolkien, Stan Lee, R.E. Howard, Carter, Lovecraft, and yes Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson has become the de facto entertainment industry of the world. It is a good time to be a gamer. And if we become too bitter, critical beyond reason, or just plain nasty we not only hurt people, we hurt the industry and ultimately ourselves. I think Jolly does a good job of modelling how to be a positive force in teh gaming world.

So, is my reason for posting this just to point out how awesome Jolly is? Well, maybe a little. But truthfully the reason for this post is that I'm sharing a bit of a vision for myself and my blog. What I would hope to do is be excited about all gaming, all facets of it. D&D has spawned so much of the current interest in and products of the current spec-fic craze. It is not alone of course, Comics, literature, and film all synergistically work towards the present day. I hope to do so with graciousness, with serious discussion, with humor and with magnanimity. I say we sit back and enjoy it some. As my brother said, it is a good time to be gamer. Let's all complain less and be a little more magnanimous. I'm certainly going to try.

~Important end-note: The above post in no way represents the opinion of the owners of this blog or the gamers it represents. That one "weak-kneed", mamby-pamby, pansy dice caresser can't buck up and own what real gaming is, and denounce the rest is not our problem. Sure he may deserve some kudos for being all soft and friendly with those imitators and wannabes that are gaming diceless and playing inferior systems, but we certainly know where the truth lies. And, if he really is such a devoted fan of KODT, as he claims to be, then he would realize the magazine itself makes known in no uncertain terms that anyone who is out there suffering through Pathgrinder, wasting their time behind a screen playing World of Hackcraft, or challenging other gamers to tournament sessions of DAWG the roleplaying game should cash in their dice bag and go take up shuffleboard. Respectable gamers everywhere have a duty to be the gatekeepers of quality and true old school gaming ethos in film, in literature and at the gaming table. And we all know what that means--if you don't play Hackmaster, you're not gaming. And if you aren't using officially licensed product, your not playing it right. We are sure this Jolly fellow is a nice guy in as far as that goes, but don't let yourself get all fuzzy over some guy who can't tell the difference between diceless roleplaying and superior Hard Eight products. And yeah, the new Ghostbusters wasn't all that bad, but H8's upcoming SpookHackers the RPG will give you a much closer experience to the original, classics films. 

-- The management

The Man Himself

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

D&D 5e Review

So, my kids bought me the books for 5e for Christmas! Pretty cool since they are pricey and I would have eventually bought them anyway. I had played 5e during the playtest a couple of times and was not unimpressed by it's ability to play quickly, with little to bog down in the way of mechanics. The action in a 5e game stays pretty rapidly paced. I was not overly fond of the power level difference between monsters and players but it wasn't as bad as it could have been.

Well, since the kids bought them I decided we would try and play the game in a campaign instead of our old Castles & Crusades standby. I thought, since we are now about seven or so sessions into a campaign of sorts, I would review the game in the same manner I did Hackmaster when we gave it a whirl about a year ago or so.

So without further ado, and in the same style as my last review here is my ratings for the new and re-tooled iteration of D&D.

Overall Impressions
So I use a four star system from * (1) to **** (4) Stars to rate the game where one star is the lowest rating and four stars is the highest. I broke my analysis into a total of 5 areas. My opinions for ratings were as follows:
Ease of Play: ***
Speed of Play: ****
Realism: ***
Fun: ****
Old School Sensibility: ***

It is important to know that the current age of gamers in this group is 24, never gamed before, 16, 15, 14 and 11 have all gamed several times, with myself as GM. This has undoubtedly affected my feeling of the game and general gameplay.

We have been playing a relatively straightforward homebrewed mega-dungeon set in the kingdom of ArborDale. The PCs were enlisted by a local friar to investigate some mysterious lights that had begun appearing on the top of a distant volcanic monadnock called The Broken Finger by the local populace, The rumors were that it was haunted, but those long circulated ghost tales had remained unsubstantiated for as long as anyone could recall. However, with the appearance of the strange nighttime lights the local peasantry were becoming concerned and pressing the Friar to do something to allay their growing fears. The Friar, however, upon some investigation over the past month has become increasingly troubled that there might be something even more sinister than a distant haunting afoot, though he has kept the particulars from our innocent PCs. The PCs include, a Tiefling Monk named Calei, devotee of the Goddess of Dance and practitioner of a rare dance-like martial art form. She had been raised by "dark fairies" as a child and so has a chaotic streak which causes her no end of troubles in her studies in the monastery. There is also a Silver lineaged Dragonborn Ranger from the distant ruined forests of The Broken Lands to the West. The outlands are a mystery to most as they lie beyond the border kingdoms of which Arbor Dale is one. Rhogar the Outland Ranger, has undead as a favored foe and tells of the forests of Broken Lands being rife with the remains of the living from the long ago Time of the Dead. He, now at third level, travels with a ghost-like White Wolf as a companion. The Dwarven Fighter Bones McGreedy, is a grumpy sort with an grumpy battle-axe to match often itching for an argument the two of them. Bones, due perhaps to his irascibility, has made fast companions with the party's guide obese and overly sweaty Uncle Fester the Donkey Husband. Bones has lent Fester his hand-axe, as Fester has become a less than willing companion since the party endured capture by hobgoblin/cultist slavers and he was forced into the heart of adventure. Magic power is supplied by the party's sorceress, an Elven Outcast named Adryha. She, for reasons unknown even to herself, was cast out of Elven society and raised herself in the company of wild beasts. Whether through her own resourcefulness and inner need or from birthright she began to manifest strange powers which aided her in her survival and yet also nearly spelled her doom. She was rescued in her young Elven teen years by the spirit of a Blue Dragon that resided in an ancient set of ruins deep in the wilderness that had become her home. This ancient spirit sensed in her some level of kinship with the dragonkind and thus tutored her in the ways of mastering her inner power and leading her into successful sorcerership as well as the other necessitites of culture such as her oen Elven tongue as well as draconic and common. She has grown suprirsingly close to Kiedis, the half-orc rapier wielding lute strumming bard, as she has no real prejudices against orc-bloods having been raised alone and away from her kind.
This party of adventurers have passed through a two session wilderness romp followed by an infiltration into the ancient ruins atop the Broken Finger. They have since escaped from the capture of the cultists and humanoid forces within the ruins and fled to the lower level of the finger. Having explored most of that level they finally met the visage of the First Necromancer Nividian whose, ancient spell-trapped visage has sent them to be imprisoned in a distant pocket dimension called Averoignne from which they are now questing their way back.

Ease of Play
5e runs quickly. I will admit to stumbling some as I learn the rules, and still feel as if I am acquiring facility with the rules. There are some rules I am not overly fond of, but they do not inhibit play, and the system is not at all clunky or awkward. Once grasped most rules can be adjudicated quickly and fairly to the satisfaction of all concerned. I would rate the game moderately difficult for new players, and not difficult for players with an experienced GM. Character design can be somewhat challenging the first time, but is not overly complex. I would say new players can be up and running inside of 45 minutes and perhaps as little as 30. With guidance new players can create a PC in 15 minutes, just as can experienced players who need to roll up a new PC. And using the shortcuts--if you know where and what they are for quickbuilds can ensure than 15 minute max in most cases. Oh, and by the way I am talking about the full rules, not the basic rules, which, due to less options can go a little more quickly.

Speed of Play
Actual play in 5e is as quick as any game I've played in the D&D line. I suppose there are some rules hitches that might slow down things if you're not used to how the work, but that is not the fault of the game as it is a learning curve. And even then they only slow it down due to the time it takes to look them up or learn how they work. I wouldn't put it on par with a streamlined version of basic rules such as BFRPG or LoTFP or LL, but it is awfully close. And the added rules of 5e give some flavor that those games don't possess. Most combat sessions run under 15 minutes,

Not particularly designed to be realistic, 5e does classic high fantasy rather well. It would do better if it toned down the player power levels, but then it would potentially lose some of its appeal and fun for characters who like that. But this power level, though not "realistic" in the sense of more medieval and less fantasy doesn't aim for realism per se. However, a greater equality between mosnters and players might aide the verisimilitude. The area I am perhaps most concerned about is the healing rates and ratios which are based on the assumption of abstract hit points, but to allow full healing each night is in no way realistic, especially when a PC has dropped to zero HP. I understand the lesser renewal of HD for healing kind of gets a the fact that players are "wearing down" as they go--but that represents fatigue better than it does wounds with claws, bites and weapons. This is of course where the gritty rules come in. I haven't incorporated them yet as I don't like any of them perfectly well, and we are just getting used to the game as written right now. But this is the one rule I will likely play with as we go forward. The realism in 5e is sacrificed some for player survivability and speed of play. Not necessarily a bad thing, and not too noticeable in play except for my angst over healing and power levels.

This is a fun game. I have enjoyed it more than 3.5, 4e or Pathfinder. I would rank it behind 2e for me in terms of preference, upon which I don't think it improves but certainly comes closer than recent iterations have. The game is liked by many players because players have a high survivability and a fair degree of power at lower levels. I haven't played high levels yet, as we are now level 3. We also have yet to have a player death. We've come close, but none so far.

Classic Sensibility
As mentioned above 5e does a better job than recent version at emulating a more classic style of play. I would like to see death saving throws done away with and healing made a tad more realistic. I would also like to see player power level stepped down especially at lower levels. These are not deal breakers, by any means and for what it does 5e is quite nice to play. I am currently testing a favorite old school module in 5e land and we'll see how that goes and plays compared to our play to date. That might give a nice comparison as well as insight into how old school resources play and how much "conversion" is required. Though technically not a part of my review there are opinions a plenty that support the idea that 5e has hit a sweet spot for many gamers and I applaud WoTC and the design team for achieving their goal of bringing people back into the fold and not losing many new converts in the process. Moreover, society seems more aware than ever of those two little letters Dave and Gary first touted so long ago: D&D.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Raise Blog!

Believe it or not, I've never had a character resurrected. We played pretty hard core back in my player days, and mostly at levels below ten. So, resurrection was usually way too expensive or hard to find. Your local cantrev priest was not in possession of such power. A few characters I DMed tried to find it, but always failed in some manner or other.

So here I am contemplating the attempted resurrection of my beloved gaming blog. As my last entry, almost a full year ago, shows I had come to a bit of a cross-roads in my gaming life. I had found a game I really like, HackMaster but was having a hard time making a regular game happen. HackMaster 5e is certainly old school in spirit, but certainly was its own creature as well. Taking its inspiration from AD&D, but transformed by gamers I strongly identified with into a new, modern game that preserved all the oomph I so loved, while clearly taking the game in a new direction HackMaster was a sort of philosophical schooling for me.

I tried, and failed to start several virtual HM games, mostly due to time and schedules of those concerned myself most of all. I found some guys willing to give it a go locally (when we weren't playing PathGrinder), but several moved on, and schedules still crushed me most of the time. I played with my kiddos once; and in truth this was all the gaming I was really getting done, with my own kids. But the kids loved Castles & Crusades, which they had cut their gaming teeth on, and we mostly defaulted to that for quick one-offs. It was easiest to whip up on short notice and just pull out the dice and game whenever I had some spare time. Meanwhile I wrote and puttered with several gaming projects, mostly late at night when the kids were in bed, my homework, office-work, and such were finally done.

I had left the blog, because I was no longer struggling with what old school was, and how to embrace and support it in my gaming life. And I felt somewhat disingenuous prattling on about old school vs new school. The gaming scene had seemed to come to terms with it, and in truth, I had too. The problem was I couldn't settle on what to write about. I missed interacting with the gaming world via my blog, but wanted to shift from the old world of my blog to a new focus in my gaming life. So what to write about? And was this blog the most appropriate way to interact with readers in this new way?

I tried to build a new blog on which to offer resources and gaming material I had written. But there are numerous designers out there now with offerings much better than I might be able or have the time to produce commercially--even for free. And what with so many avenues for self game-resource publishing, there was little need for another such startup. And that wasn't necessarily turned my crank anyway. I prefer to talk about games and gaming experience and theory. I also have a strong nostalgic current running through me that comes out in my gaming regardless of the game I'm playing. So, why not keep on referencing the Classic era of D&D via my current play and reflect on these experiences through a Classic lens?

Yes! I think I found the sweet spot for a second life for Classic RPG Realms. Thus, after much consideration, I journeyed to the Temple of the Digital Masters and made the offering to secure a Raise Blog Spell cast by a will, if not all too sympathetic Cleric, and the rest as they say will be history :-)

Now to see whether I survive my system shock roll or not ...

Thursday, August 6, 2015

End of an Age

The time has come for me to seriously consider retiring Classic RPG Realms. I started the blog initially as a gaming club blog and as a vehicle for OSR exploration. The bulk of my entries have been about me philosophizing about gaming, theorizing about gaming styles, and figuring out what is and is not old school and, perhaps more importantly, what my personal gaming is all about.

Now I feel as if I'm in a different era of my gaming life. I'v learned a few things about gaming, my own preferences and styles, and people in general. Allow me to summarize some of what I fell now ...

  • I am less "purist" about my gaming than I thought I was. What matters most is that you are gaming and that you are having fun.
  • Old School is relative to the person discussing it. I have come to realize that style and preferences are more relevant to what you like to play than fixed categories.
  • Gaming is the most awesome hobby in the world. Admittedly a personal view, but if I have learned anything since I started gaming back in 1981 it is that gaming in no small part has made me who I am, has shaped my life and my personality, has given me so much more than I could ever count, has lifted me up, challenged me, tore me down, made me think harder-deeper-more creatively, introduced me to thousands of incredible people, given my imagination a home, given me a place to truly be me, allowed me to live my dreams, and in short saved me from existential oblivion more than once. There are many people in the world, and they each have their hobbies, their past times, their passions, their meaning, their purpose. For me it has been gaming. 
  • I love gaming in general, and there aren't many games I would simply refuse to play.
  • That said, I have rather rarefied tastes. Luckily for me my "strange brew" intoxicates a growing minority of gamers out there. I am into the weird, the unusual, the outre', supernatural horror, the macabre and the fantastique. The growing group of gamers includes devotees of Dungeon Crawl Classics, Crypts & Things, Into the Odd, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Bloody Basic, and the like. I read HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Jules Verne, Poe, Lewis Carrol, RE Howard August Derleth, Steven Brust, Lord Dunsany, George MacDonald, Arthur Machen, Clive Barker, HG Wells, Jack Vance, M.R. James, Laird Barron, JL Borges, Frtiz Leiber, Manly Wade Wellman, Bram Stoker, Shelley, Lord Byron, Ray Bradbury, John Keats, WB Yeats, Abraham Meritt, Michael Moorcock and the list could go on, but you get some idea. But these authors are not your "typical" authors of speculative fiction. This, in turn, flavors my preferences to games as much as the games themselves. I have appreciated retro clones, variants and straight clones for their presentation of gritty "old school" style art that embodies many of the fantasy strains cultivated by the authors mentioned above. 
  • I am also incredibly nostalgic about my gaming past. There is simply something about those older editions--which for me encompasses Original, Classic & Advanced editions of Dungeons & Dragons (along with Gamma World 1st edition, Arduin Grimoire ('77-'78), Call of Cthulhu 1st to 3rd editions, Classic Traveller, et al) that evokes a powerful imaginative affinity within me. Those games and I are one, we are cut of the same cloth. I am uncertain if it is mechanics, art, tone, organization, writing style, or the gestalt, but some magic they contain will always make me preferential and deferential to them. Ask me which games are "best" and one of them will likely come to the fore. 
  • Rules lite is as much an ethos as it is a rules set. We can safely say games like GURPS and Rolemaster are not exactly Rules Lite. However, a game like AD&D, is not as light as say a bare bones d20 game or even Castles & Crusades. But games that are not so "light" can play by an ethos that encourages DM fiat, flexibility, creative rule making, and a "make it possible" mindset that seems faster and freer than some games that are "streamlined" but stricter in their ruleset. A lot of how light and fast a game is depends on the style of the GM and the social contract between GM and players.
  • I like being scared. I mean who "likes" being scared, right? The whole point of terror is that you do not like it. But fear is an element of adventure. We cannot have adventure without danger, the unknown, death and damnation. Their has to be something "at stake". When I am afraid that my character may die it lends a reality to the game unattainable by other means. I thus believe my job as a good GM is to scare you. You should feel the heart pounding, hair raising, goose fleshing fear that comes with facing nearly insurmountable odds. It may seem like this is an adversarial type of play, but ultimately it is required at the heart of good adventure (for me anyway). 
  • Friends are more important than the game. Who you play with becomes more than a partner on your adventures, or someone who enjoys your portrayal of the world. They become comrades in this life as well. You will share triumphs and defeats with them in game and out. They will come to mean more to you than the paper their character is written on, much more--and this is as important a part of gaming as gaming itself. Of course, true friends share things in common with us, and for gamers this means the game is often the most important thing. If you can understand this paradox, you "get it".
  • The current state of a gaming is an outgrowth of Gary Gygax's vision expressed in his book Role Playing Mastery.  He foresaw that there would be those who, as a part of "mastering the game" and role playing games in general, would begin to create their own gaming material and eventually their own games. Today we are inundated with games, settings, adventures and supplements of all types. The vibrant age that was initiated with the Original's versions' injunction "don't let us all do all the imagining for you" is upon us. It's a glorious age, and one we should all revel in.
  • Lastly, I have spent too much time now debating systems and editions and old school and new. I have felt for some time a need to move on to sharing some of what I create, and less to opining about what is or isn't gaming. I also see so much in the gaming world to celebrate as of late. And by "late" I mean in the past 10 years. I want to start doing just that.
Thus I come to a point where I consider whether maintaining my current blog is a help or a hindrance to my new efforts. I could keep the blog as is and simply do a retro-fit. I could shift my design and emphasis to something new. This would perhaps cause the least disruption to my readers and be the "easiest". However, it does cause me some angst to think of trying to fit new wine in old bottles as it were. Perhaps my new creative endeavors would be better served in a new platform, with a fresh start? I am not certain as of yet but would love to hear any input you have.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Hackmaster Combat A Review

Overall Impressions
So I'm using a four star system from * (1) to **** (4) Stars to rate the combat system where one star is the lowest rating and four stars is the highest. I broke my analysis into a total of 5 areas. My opinions for ratings were as follows:
Ease of Play: ***
Speed of Play: ***
Realism: ****
Fun: ****
Old School Sensibility: ****

Please keep in mind, I'm just rating my first impression of combat, not the game overall. I love Hackmaster overall and would likely have to give it five out of four stars overall.


So we playtested a short Hackmaster combat scenario tonight for game night. We used the pregens from the Hackmaster Basic, which you can download for free from their site. I had planned on a short combat with four kobolds. The party would have chased them into their lair, after which the kobolds turn and attack them straightaway, nothing fancy. However, I wasn't sure if we would have more time or not, so I tacked this encounter onto The Training Dungeon to create a more complete scenario and throw in some work for skills and such in addition to a little combat.

Summary of Play

Two Clerics, one Thief, One Mage and a Dwarven Fighter were selected from the pre-gens for play. We started as the characters rushed into the kobolds' lair and the kobolds turned to face them, cornered and slavering for a fight to the death. We rolled d12 initiative all around, except for the thief who rolled a d10. (I made a mistake here, as the thief doesn't get an improved initiative die until 2nd level and higher.)  The count up went well, but I also forgot that characters can move each round, so we had to rewind once and speed up engagement. With the per second move engagement doesn't take very long. The dual attack defense roll was cool actually. I wondered how that would feel, but it adds a dimension to combat that increases excitement, unpredictability and realism that I didn't expect. I did make a mistake with my short sword wielding kobolds as I was rolling 1d6p instead of 2d6p so I wasn't doing much damage the first few hits--thankfully the party thief reminded me--bless his soul. One spell was cast by the party mage--scorch, which TOP'ed the kobolds, but also did so to the Thief caught in the blast radius. The Mage chose to up the spell power since this was a one off encounter which increased the damage considerably. One Cleric and the Mage finished off the TOP'ed kobolds, while the Dwarf took out the third kobold with a well placed and penetrating battleaxe hit. The last Cleric had taken about seven hit points total, and was eventually rescued by the first Cleric who came to back her up and took out the last kobold with a penetrating sword blow. Thus ending the combat. Total elapsed time was roughly 48 minutes. Not bad considering we had to look up some rules and rewind once or twice.

Rules Questions

As we played several questions arose, which we tabled. We made a quick ruling, wrote them down and would look them up after the game. The questions we weren't sure about, the off the cuff rulings we made on them and the by the book answers are as follows:

1. Do shields absorb even on hits, or only on misses?

Ruling: I explained that misses within 10 were still shield hits. The question came up as to whether shields always absorb hits? We ruled they do, and went on.

Rule: I was wrong. But it worked in favor of the players with shields most of the time, as my monsters didn't have shields. Shields allow you better than d20p-4 defense roll but if the defense roll minus the attacker's roll < 10 then it is a shield hit. Shield hits take half damage dice plus modifiers, with the shield absorbing its DR value. Successful attack rolls (rolls that beat the defender's roll) bypass shields, do normal damage and do not apply shield DR, only armor et al DR (pp 224-225 PHB).

2. When entering to engage an already engaged foe, you attack immediately upon engaging--does the
defender always get an immediate counter attack, or response?

Ruling: Yes, except when from rear or rear flank.

Rule: I was wrong. Only the new attacker gets the initial attack. The previously engaged defender "forfeits his initial attack against his attacker because he's still dealing with the attacks and feints of his current enemy" (pp 223-224 PHB).

3. And if the above is the case does combat facing make a difference? In other words does a defender get an automatic attack response if they are attacked from a flank or behind?

Ruling: No response attacks were allowed when from rear flank or behind.

Rule: based on the above this was correct, but it should have applied in all cases with a previously engaged foe. Note though, as we did when I looked this up that rear flanks and behind use d12p and d8p for defense rolls (p 230 PHB).

4.  When attacking a helpless foe do you still use weapon speed?

Ruling: no weapon speed applied to attacking helpless opponents

Rule: I was close. Use half weapon speed rounded up when attacking a helpless opponent (p 236 PHB).

5. We found out that penetration can be awesome and it can be very deadly. Is there any limit to penetration?

Ruling: This was a casual question, to which I quickly replied no. However, I then questioned myself and not being sure I filed it to look up later.

Rule: There is no limit to how many times penetration dice are rolled as long as the maximum value keep coming up on the die. The record for the session was four times I believe on a 2d6p roll. We did however make the mistake of not subtracting one from the value when we added them (p 8 PHB).

Summary of Indicators

So, overall we got a good taste of the rules applicable to combat, and those we didn't know exactly we sort of rolled with; which caused very little in the way of interference and no insolvable dilemmas. As for the ratings I issued above my take is as follows:

Ease of Play: Hackmaster is not rules light, however, there are other games that are more complex and crunchy. I would rate it as challenging for newbies to GM, but moderate for players who haven;t played before. I worried myself to death over it actually, as I really wanted to run it "as written" but it turned out being quite easy and intuitive to GM. My players complimented me on keeping track of the initiative count up, which I simply did in my head fairly easily. But I made a couple of mistakes which were quickly resolved. However, I am an experienced GM, so that made it a bit more comfortable for me, and the fellow players at my table were almost all experienced players as well--that undoubtedly helped. And while it isn't as easy as Original or Classic D&D, it is certainly not any more difficult than AD&D and actually more consistent and well written. So I gave it a solid 3 stars for Ease of Play.

Speed of Play: We were about 40 minutes for our combat. And keep in mind this was our first combat in which we had to struggle through a bit of book flipping to clarify rules. We started around 4:45 or so. Game start time was 4:30, but we got there late (I forgot the address :-) and got the table set up, PC's chosen and rolled initiative around 4:50. We stopped at 5:28. Not bad really. Once we know the rules, I would imagine it runs roughly comparable to AD&D RAW combat. Now, D&D combat can go quicker at lower levels especially, but I would rate the two similar. Not lightning fast, but pretty quick. And the pace itself is lightning fast, due to the by second action and initiative count up. Seeing as I would rate 4e at around one to one and a half stars for speed of combat, and Basic D&D at a four, HM comes in at a solid three.

Realism: For realism, HM knocks it out of the park. I mean it isn't totally simulationist, but compared to what I am used to, you have a pretty gritty and scary feel of how dangerous combat is. You cringe when somebody hits you--even when you know you still like 25 HP. ToP, armor reduction, shields, active defense rolls all lend a certain level of realism without getting in the way of play much at all. It makes combat much less abstract than AD&D without slowing play to a slo-mo ballet. It is one of the most realistic combat in a fantasy game I have ever played. Granted I never played Rolemaster, but those I know who did didn't seem to like it too much. I enjoyed HM combat. Can;t but give it complete four stars on this one!

Fun: Oh heck, can I give it five stars? No, I'll stay within my own system and fill these four stars to overfilling. I have had fun combats before, but this was the first time that the rules of combat made a game fun to play. All that is happening, the suspense and intensity was not like anything I had experienced before as a GM. I've always struggled in more free form games to make sure a combat is challenging, but not too deadly and end up just sort of getting a feel for it, and winging it. Nothing wrong with this of course, But the bodies that littered my dungeon floors always carried with them the slight stink of doubt. I wondered, had I been too rough, too hard, too many, etc. etc. HM combat is engineered in such a streamlined way as to reflect , to my mind anyway, the actual danger of combat. I don't have to reach too far out of the way. The dice fall where they may in the context of the system and consequences result; and those results are not just hit or miss, they are surprising, scary, thrilling and well--just plain fun. I loved it.

Old School Sensibility: Okay, I struggled with this one. HM is old school. It takes as it's inspiration AD&D from the 80's to about '00. But the designers dug deep into what they loved about old school and write a rule set that highlighted those aspects of play. Lots of things which were introduced into the late '80s and through to today in terms of character customization, options, combat focus, high starting hit points, tweaking ability scores and all that without losing the extreme deadly feel that pervaded old school gaming. This, of course, began in HM 4 (the first version), but was done in a classic sort of "broken" style. Advanced HM is something else entirely. I mean it has enough to satisfy the most character focused players (those that have flocked to 4e, Pathfinder and now 5e) to customize, tailor and optimize your character to your heart's content. But it has done so in a way that is directly applicable to realistic game play. One of the conversations that came up after our session was by the player who had played the Mage. He had chosen to cast a scorch spell that incapacitated two of the kobolds (but also happened to traumatize the party's thief). Since both were out of commission he then was not engaged and so stepped up to the first fallen kobold to attack it while it lay there helplessly writhing in pain and desperately trying to put out it's burning loincloth. He hit it once, ineffectively, but then smashed it into lizard-dog pate' the next second with his second blow. He thought his luck seemed a little excessive, like he did too much during the fight where one or two others were locked in a back and forth melee. As we talked though, we thought that a lot of HM is understanding the reality of combat and using strategy both in weapon, armor, spell selection and the like in addition to your action choices in combat. (Of course it turned out that I had ruled incorrectly on weapon speed with helpless opponents and he should have waited like 5 seconds (his weapon speed) before attacking the fallen kobold a second time). But this very fact--that making and customizing your character with an eye not towards becoming some sort of superman, but of becoming a better more efficient more deadly fighter, a more effective and strategic mage, a more useful and sneaky thief--in short of dealing with the real world in a real way. It has an amazing appeal to me that few other games have ever captured. It in fact is what I have wanted from so many rules light games, but had to enforce simply by dint of DM fiat. "It's hard because I say it is!" Instead of a ruleset that captures the world I want to play in within it's own ruleset. For these reasons, I give Hackmaster a full four stars here as well. I didn't really expect to, truth to tell. I mean there are old school games with more crunch than say OD&D. So rules alone doesn't make or break old school. It's really int he way they play. I expected the apparent complexity of the rules to get in the way of me achieving the style of play I like. I was beginning to think that old school might only be rules light for me. I am so glad my group agreed to test HM out. It was something I always "felt" playing the game, but really wanted to experience before I judged. The experience made a convert of me. And better yet, I always wanted a game where the rules themselves enforced the feel and the tone, not just my "preferences" which could be taken by anyone who chose to as "biased". With HM it's not just "my way of playing" it's the way the game is played. Old School? Yes! Full Bore! My kind of old school in a way I never could have hoped for.


I recall reading once, in a forum online, as a HM advocate was trying to explain HM combat to an interested third party. The querent was concerned that the combat seemed bulky and too crunchy, maybe it would run too slow. After testifying that these weren't really valid concerns, because x, y and etc. The advocate finally said, you'd just have to try it to understand what I mean. I have a lot of sympathy for both of these gamers. I too had concerns of exactly the same nature. I suppose those who have a high degree of game design mindset can see how a rule will play within a game, most of the rest of us actually have to get down into it and roll some dice and playtest the thing. That's what it ultimately took for me. It even scares me that I almost bowed out of trying HM at all with my new group because I was worried about those very issues. Fortunately the gamers in my group are good people and open minded. It didn't hurt either that they had quite a bit of interest, had downloaded the free rules, read the 4e rules and really wanted to give it a go. What it took for me, a convert in every way but reality, to truly become impressed with HM completely and totally. This review was about  HM combat, but that was as much for me as for any other reason. I just hope now that I put this out there, others who might have similar concerns can read this and have some of their fears assuaged. Download the basic rules and give HM a test drive--you will not be displeased. On the contrary, you will find just about every gamer nerve in your system very well pleased.