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The general evolution of tabletop roleplaying games in the last couple of decades has been towards streamlining and speed, abandoning a lot of the number-crunching minutiae of 1970s and 1980s games in favor of simpler and easier systems.
Hackmaster goes running in the other direction. Screaming.
This is the game played by most of the characters in Knights of the Dinner Table, which is a sort of barely-veiled parody of Dungeons and Dragons. A few years into the magazine's life, its publisher Kenzer began to branch out into making games of its own, and licensed the rights to the first two editions of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in order to make a real version of Hackmaster.
The result is a fully playable if murderously complex fantasy tabletop RPG with a healthy dose of in-jokes and meta-humor from the "Knights" comic strip. It reads exactly like the game from the strip, complete with bizarre rules, typographical errors, and lengthy digression-filled rants from Gary Jackson that read like something between a highly defensive, neurotic man speaking out on behalf of his work and the Unibomber's manifesto.
Take first edition AD&D, with its weird class balance, gender issues (e.g. the infamous "strength cap" for female characters), huge number of charts, and idiosyncratic rules, and add a "building points" system, merits/flaws, a huge critical hit table with thousands of potential results, and a ridiculous variety of monsters. It deliberately eschews streamlining and handwaving; you roll for everything, you keep track of everything, and cutting corners is not allowed. It's a bit more coherent than first edition AD&D ever was, but it jumps on any chance it has to add more charts and tables.
The first actual edition of Hackmaster was published in 2001 as the fourth edition of the game, with the "Garweeze Wurld" from the "Knights" strips as its standard setting. In 2007, Kenzer's agreement with Wizards of the Coast expired, preventing them from using any copyrighted material from AD&D in Hackmaster. The game soon switched over to Hackmaster Basic, which contains all original material, and the original rulebooks for Hackmaster are out of print.
"Hackmaster Basic" has taken a turn for "more awesomeness" and has turned fantasy roleplaying on its head by keeping the old-school feel of AD&D, while at the same time, tricking out the rules and possibilities to new levels of excitement and faster play. The biggest change might be the count-up system that replaces the old "combat round" trope that gamers have gotten so used to. Instead of a fighter in combat swinging his sword at a monster and then waiting for his next round while twiddling his thumbs and hoping not to get hit, the fighter now must not only actively attack, but also actively defend. With opposed attack and defense roles, and the second by second count that turns combat into a fast-paced, don't blink or you'll miss it, hackfest, there is no boring waiting period for anyone involved in combat.
With combat becoming more realistic, you might wonder if that is all there is to the game. But, it isn't. Not by a long shot. Magic users now have spell points that they can use in combat or in other ways, to cast spells that they've memorized to great effect, and even spells they haven't memorized at an increased cost of points.
Clerics don't all become cookie-cutter healbots whose only purpose is to patch up the fighters after combat. They worship a variety of deities who all have various agendas. So, one might be good at healing, while another might be fantastic at combat or at other things.
Player races available are awesome: From the savage Grel to the magical pixie fairy. Classes are much more varied as well, and each unique and fascinating.
Hackmaster was a parody of AD&D, but now it has emerged from that cocoon to become the monarch of RPGs, while paying homage to its roots. The brazen attitude is still there, the ones the Knights so love, but, there it is a fresher, grittier, more realistic game now set in the Kenzer created world of Kalamar, a staple of RPGs for quite some time now.
Its new, massive and beautiful tome, The Hacklopedia of Beasts, is like a rich field manual, written and illustrated with a new, fresh style and bound in dragon scales, with an appearance and detail to dominate all other monster manuals.
The knights continue to play Hackmaster as it evolves. That new game can be played now.
- Affectionate Parody: If you played first or second edition AD&D, Hackmaster is one part nostalgia trip to one part reminding you that you were crazy to play a game that was this unnecessarily complicated.
- Defictionalization: The original Hackmaster books do absolutely everything they can to indicate to a reader that they're exactly the same books that the Knights are using to play the game in the comic strip. This includes obscure rules, typographical errors, Gary Jackson's rants, and the results on the critical hit/fumble tables.
- Everything Trying to Kill You: This is the game system of choice for people who subscribe to the theory that the GM's job is to try to kill player characters. One critical hit can abruptly kill or maim a PC, everything is shockingly expensive, and there's a deliberately large number of monsters that appear to exist entirely to pop up as random encounters in taverns, towns, or latrines.
- Fan Flattering: In the introduction to the 4th Edition Player's Handbook, it said of Hackmaster players, "We're not ordinary — we're Extraordinary. The introduction to the Game Master's Guide praises the reader's "spirit, drive and determination to rise to the challenge."
- Gorn: The cover art for most volumes and modules of Hackmaster is shockingly violent if not incredibly detailed, typically featuring monsters and PCs alike getting hacked to bits. The Hacklopedia volumes, the Monster Manuals of the line, tell a story with the cover art about a luckless adventuring party getting killed to the last man, then being brought back as zombies to menace their torch-bearer.
- They're also The Monsters Win, especially in regards to the Hacked versions of classic D&D modules. For example, Little Keep on the Borderlands depicts the PCs being annihilated by the owlbear on the inside cover.
- Honor Before Reason: An "honor" system exists in Hackmaster, and it's just as easy to game as it is in the "Knights" strip.
- Minmaxers Delight: The game encourages you to tweak a character as far as you can by spending "building points," taking flaws, and doing everything possible to get even one more bit of combat potential onto that sheet.
- That One Rule: A bunch of "one rules" from Knights of the Dinner Table are in effect in Hackmaster. The most notable of them is that sewing needles appear on the weapons chart and do 0.125 damage, just as in a "Knights" strip.