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.


Randal Glyph said...

I just found your site from the links at another OSR blog. You've got some good insights into certain aspects of gaming I never got around to. It's a shame you are considering ending this blog, since I'd like to read more about Hackmaster, and other games from somebody that reads all the details about them.

Looking over your posts, it doesn't seem like many people are actively commenting. One of your older posts mentioned that you knew of a Ref who quit because his players argued all the time and he felt unappreciated. That this reaction was probably common to people struggling with social acceptance issues, and that has a strong ring of truth to it. Lots of gamers I've known have dealt with consistent main-stream social rejection, and it has its psychological wearing effects on a person.

These posts show a serious level of "fire in your bones" dedication to gaming, that I appreciate and identify with. Don't give up on this stuff, people read it and it inspires them. I was inspired to download the Hackmaster Basic online, and there's good stuff in there. It may be too much crunchiness for what I would be most comfortable with, but even so, I can maybe find ideas for my own home-brewed system. Right there, your blog is doing valuable work that enhances old school- inspired play, and expands the pool of gamers to connect with to do so. Keep up the good work. Give more insights into why these games are worthwhile, or problematic, for those that haven't tried them.


Chris Jones said...

Once again, thank you Glyph. True, my commenting readers have diminished and I'm down to about 200 hits a day. But this might be more to my dearth of posts than any abandonment on their part. I appreciate your encouragement.

Unknown said...

Great review and an excellent insight into what makes HackMaster a great system. I definitely agree that most shy away quickly at how complex the combat seems upfront. My biggest complaint with many systems that my group has used (e.g. Pathfinder) is that combat seems to both take a long time AND be relatively boring. After reading the HM combat rules, the wait time between turns where you don't have any choices to make seem to naturally disengage people from the fight. I love how this system gets around many of my concerns with engaging combat and really wish more systems would use something similar.