Saturday, July 30, 2011

There is no Honor Among HackMasters

Actually there is. Lots of it. So let's examine this interesting little mechanic from the KCo design team. Gary Jackson touts Hackmaster as being ahead of its time because, for one, it was the first RPG to create a mechanic for enforcing role play. Quite a novel idea Honor was a concept that I see born out of the somewhat satirical approach to GM-Player antagonism for which Hackmaster is famous. (Actually you'll find quite a lot of useful play mechanisms born out of that very productive forge--but more on that later).

On its surface Honor may be taken strictly in the chivalric or oriental sense as something for which players must constantly be striving to maintain and raise. And it is certainly that. This is called Personal Honor in Hackmaster and can certainly create some interesting roleplay situations. But that is only a small part of the Honor pie. It goes much deeper than that.

First consider alignment. Remember those alignment tracking charts that Gary included in the 1e PHB for AD&D? Yeah, the one hardly anybody used? Well the reason that we didn't was that because there was little game effect connected to alignment beyond a coat hanger upon which we can droop our character's ethics. In truth what happened in most games, and certainly what happened in most of mine was that we enforced alignment by saying something like "Hey! You can't do that! your Neutral Good!" I think in my whole time gaming I forced one or two actual alignment shifts as a GM and even then that was only on one axis.

But with the Hackmaster Honor mechanic we get something very different. Sure, have your player do what he or she will regardless of your alignment restrictions. It is not up to the GM to act as your conscience. But there is a very real consequence for such action. Yes, good GMs are very tuned in to such actions and can play them out in game. We're all pretty good at that. But even the best of us drop the ball. I assert that it is much harder to ignore in HM because of Honor. You see it is up to the GM to award honor to PCs after every session. GMs keep track of player actions that might increase or decrease honor. And just like XP, altho' in much smaller quantity, you get Honor points at the end of a session.

And just what good are Honor Points may you ask? You may. They're darn good for lots of things. First of all they directly affect reputation in game. What people think of you and how they treat you is largely a factor of your honor. Yeah, looks and charisma have something to do with it too, but we've all known good looking arseholes and born leaders that you can't trust as far as you can spit. (No, I'm not thinking about who you're thinking about, I'm thinking about someone different.) Honor has a lot of gravitas in a well played Hackmaster game. But that's not all it's good for. Honor can be used to buy pluses on important die rolls. When the chips are down and your willing to burn a bit of your rep you can get a plus to that potentially lifesaving roll you're about to make.

Not enough yet? Well how about a Full Monty? Yep! You can buy a full re-roll if things don't go your way. It hurts. You gotta dig deep into your virtue to pull one of 'em out, but you can do it. You can even do it twice if you got the shivatza to pull it off. Not needing something that drastic? How about a die tweak up or down one by a slight honor burn? Sound good? Sure does to me.

By now you may be thinking that it sounds okay, but really do we need to be giving out free re-rolls? I mean isn't XP enough?  Well, no. It aint. And the reasons are manifold. For one allow me to quote some of the reasons from the HM Basic rulebook itself,

"Spending Honor helps bring an element of cinematic drama into the game and allows characters to do truly larger than life feats. Honor can also prevent the premature death of a character in which you've invested a lot of time." (Hackmaster Basic pg. 27)

Did you catch that? It's a mechanic that allows you to roleplay cinematic action! We don't need scripted feats to tell us what to do. We dream big, burn some honor and watch the heavens applaud! So Honor invests the game with high drama and action-movie style panache limited only by our imagination. And it does so not as a daily staple, but a once in a game explosive burst of player wondermousness. Any fool that spends too much honor trying to save the day all the time is going to look like an idiotic glory hound and lose his standing not only among his fellows, but likely even among the beasties he's trying to one-up. You can just see it ... One goblin turns to another "Heh, willya lookit that fool Harry? He's jumpin' in front of the battle agin' Yellin he'll save 'em all." Harry grins and cranks his crossbow back to cock it, "Yeah, stoopid idgit. we'll see how he like's saving 'em when he's full o poisoned bolts." The rest is a but a sad footnote in history ... Honor gone and his life. Oops.

But allow me to continue with another salient quote from the venerable Hackmaster Basic rulebook,

"Finally, the Honor rules absolutely eliminate the need for anyone, be he player or, so help me gawds, Game Master, to fudge a roll. Fudging, also known as cheating, has no place in a game that already has a mechanic designed to eliminate freak occurrences. If a player cannot succeed with the rules as-written, it is simply a matter of pressing his luck too far, biting off more than his character could chew at the time or moment, or more likely, incompetence." (ibid)

Now that's what I'm talking about. I don't know how many discussions I've had where GMs defend fudging die rolls for the sake of the story, the character, their friend, their wife, fear, inadequacy, etc. etc. ad nauseam. And more sniggling than that blatant embarrassment is how many players cheat! I mean, maybe I shouldn't judge. It's been a long time since I was a player. I'm sure I fudged a few die rolls when I was rolling up PCs in my youth. Maybe I have forgotten the pressure. But my last group of players all had at least one 18 some had three, and there were no stats below 14. And if I have to tell one more player to not pick up the dice after they roll I'm gonna ... Well, now there's no excuse. Honor allows you tweak those rolls, even buy re-rolls. So there's no need to cheat. Well, okay, where there are players there will always be a need to cheat. But as the HM rules said so well above, if they feel like they need to cheat now--they screwed up somewhere along the way. Lesson learned. Move on.

Sound good? It was music to my ears when I first read it last year. And it has such potential in game. As there are several ways to earn honor you can see why it has such potential beyond the benefit to characters themselves. You get Honor for:
  • Adherence to Alignment
  • Adherence to Class
  • Defense of Personal Honor
  • General Roleplaying
All in one easy to use and beneficial mechanic. Those are GM dreams. If we could get characters to actually roleplay, and to act as their character would act we would enjoy our games so much more. We could extend our games so much more. And now we have an easy and useful way to enforce it. And it works for everybody. It's these kinds of things that make Hackmaster excel in my mind. All of the things I've learned and wished for as a GM over the years seem to keep coming together in Hackmaster. The rules are not just rules, they're deep principles that guide play. So as you can imagine, I just can't wait to see Advanced Hackmaster.


Greylond said...

After playing HMb for a couple of years now I can tell you that in game it works great! It worked the same in HM4 and it works now. The only thing that needs to be stressed is that I've seen some players expect Honor to come back quickly. Players need to understand that these are not Fate Points or Force Points where they all come back after the end of the session or adventure. Honor awards are based on roleplay, and are given out in drips and drabs. Honor is to be used only in situations where it is needed.

Chris said...

Absolutely Greylond. You burn Honor at your precious peril. There's a price to pay for those in-game die tweaks. "Use sparingly if ever" should be plastered across the Honor stat on every character sheet. 'Cause they do so slowly come back.

Thanks again for stopping by Greylond!