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HackMaster Fans Rally to Fill the Void Left by Dungeons & Dragons

HackMaster Basic Rules PDF loaded onto my tablet (aka. my favorite gaming tool) along with essential dice and character sheet to make my first character. (Photo by Ryan Carlson / GeekDad)
Photo by Ryan Carlson, GeekDad

Learn to Hack! events are being held all over the country in order to raise awareness about the 5th edition of the HackMaster roleplaying game. As Dungeons and Dragons scrambles to re-establish a connection with their dwindling fan base, these HackMaster grass-roots events are being encouraged by the publisher of the game, Kenzer and Company. But unlike massive corporate marketing campaigns like those employed by Wizards of the Coast, publishers of Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, the events promoting HackMaster are almost entirely driven by their fans. These are fans who are passionate about telling good stories and enjoy game mechanics that make sense. These are fans that are out to spread the good word of HackMaster and expect nothing in return. Other games are gaining market share while Dungeons & Dragons fights against its greatest competitor: previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons. Games like HackMaster and their loyal evangelists have an opportunity to grab some new players into their camp.

Kenzer and Company has made the sales pitch incredibly simple for their acolytes of fantasy roleplaying by offering the entire HackMaster Basic rules set for free on their website. This 231-page PDF contains the complete rules set needed to take player-characters from 1st to 5th level. HackMaster Basic offers all four base races and classes, whereas the Advanced HackMaster Players Handbook nearly doubles the number of races and classes available to players during character generation.

The Introduction of the HackMaster rules congratulates the reader in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, thanking them for choosing the greatest game ever developed by mankind. Having recently played a demo game of HackMaster Basic with an experienced game master, as an experienced gamer I am really pleased by what I saw. I had spent several hours the other week rolling dice at a table of strangers with unfamiliar rules, the promise of blood, adventure, and a vague promise of an intangible reward of ‘bragging rights’ should I and the other strangers complete a short introductory adventure. My local friendly game store The Source Comics & Games had a flyer on their events board that exclaimed ‘Learn to Hack!’ This was to be an official introduction to the newly revised HackMaster 5th edition game system run by local HackMaster enthusiast Chris Wheatley. Chris is part of a fan-driven group of HackMaster evangelists that calls themselves the Hack Pack. When I asked Chris, a veteran RPG game-master of 20+ years why he now runs HackMaster over other games on the market he did not have to think long to come up with an answer. He said that initially there was some resistance because it would be hard to give up the Dungeons & Dragons brand. D&D had always been the simplest way to explain his gaming history, to connect himself to the community of fantasy gaming enthusiasts that he loved being part of. When pressed further about why he promotes HackMaster, Wheatley shared his conversion experience:

I knew that it was time to make a change when I tried Hackmaster Basic with my D&D (4th edition) group, and the newest player told me that this was far more exciting, far easier to understand, and far “more real” than any other game I’d run.  If I can have the superior combat mechanics of HackMaster, and even a new player can find it more real, that is the game I need to be running.

There has been a trend over the years to play incredibly heroic games, because after all who doesn’t want to roleplay a hero? Lead Designer David Kenzer writes in the foreword of the HackMaster rulebook about how heroes are very good at resolving a crisis, whether through force of arms, might of magic or otherwise. Kenzer dedicates an entire page of the book foreword to describe what makes HackMaster a unique gaming experience. He writes:

Here is where the HackMaster game sets itself apart from other fantasy roleplaying games. The HackMaster game is about more than just playing a hero that fixes troublesome predicaments. Indeed, HackMaster allows for heroic play – play long enough and you will experience such a game. But HackMaster includes another element overlooked by the other games – the journey to becoming a hero.

There are many gamers that will recognize the name HackMaster, as it is the game played by the fictional characters within the pages of Jolly Blackburn’s popular comic, The Knights of the Dinner Table. What was originally a game system built on parody and humor has proven with it’s latest edition that it’s no joking matter. Fans of the first three editions of Dungeons & Dragons will find a lot of familiar elements to the game mechanics and flavor.  The system has a number of unique twists that has me very excited to try my hand at running this game system with my friends at some point in the future. With HackMaster Basic being free, the price is right for me to give it a try.

To find a local Hack Pack demo event near you, check the Kenzer and Company forums thread for scheduled demos and meet-ups.


9 comments on “HackMaster Fans Rally to Fill the Void Left by Dungeons & Dragons

  1. David Nielson
    October 5, 2012

    HackMaster is an amazing game. It has an old-school feel but uses new, innovative mechanics. I recently discovered it after looking to get off the Wizards of the Coast treadmill.

    • GrueHunter
      October 5, 2012

      Would some kind soul highlight the innovative bits of the mechanics? A quick scroll through the PDF seemed to show a vanilla 80s-era STR / INT / DEX etc + Palladium never-ending skills list + d20 combat system – ie, the opposite of innovative. Where should I be looking?

      EDIT: Found the bit about the ‘count’ system. Interesting!

  2. Steve Smitan
    October 5, 2012

    HackMaster is definitely in a great place to capitalize on the movement of players returning to the old ways after WotC shit the bed with 4E. Games like HackMaster 5 and Dungeon Crawl Classics are making “old” new again.

  3. PeterAB
    October 5, 2012

    So if it’s not a rude question to ask, how much and in what currency did Kenzer & Co pay you to publish a story declaring Hackmaster (Amazon sales rank 300,000ish, apparently semi-out of print) to be “filling the void left by” D&D (Amazon sales rank 3000ish)?

    And did it cost extra not to mention Pathfinder (Amazon sales rank 2000ish)?

    I’m probably missing out on an awesome pun here about an article about Hackmaster having an axe to grind, but seriously, this reads like advertising copy.

    • Jolly Blackburn
      October 5, 2012

      As Steve Johannson pointed out — we had no prior knowledge/heads up on the piece. So yeah, zero dollars. And yeah I think you’ve confused HM 4e (which was an AD&D parody) with the new edition (which is a completly new system/engine from the ground up).

    • Steven Johansson
      October 5, 2012

      This article was a complete surprise to me (one of the developers). So $0. There is an older version of HackMaster (4th edition) that is out of print but the current game reviewed here is definitely available through Amazon. I personally sent a restock to them 2 days ago.

    • Ryan Carlson
      October 5, 2012

      PeterAB, it’s not a rude question- I can see how it could be construed that I was insinuating that Kenzer & Company was dominating the game publishing world. My intent with this story was to highlight the amazing fan support for a small game company like K&C.

      If you felt that it sounded like I really enjoyed the game demo put on by one of their community members and felt that the rules and gameplay were well thought out and merited a further look (especially with the rules being free), I suppose I effectively communicated my opinions into print.

      I love me some Pathfinder, it’s easily the best d20 OGL spinoff on the market. Adventures in Freeport would be my second favorite d20 OGL spinoff. The folks behind Pathfinder are also fantastic men and women – many of them were formerly in charge of the RPGA Living Greyhawk campaign that I played in across the country back when 3.5 was king.

      Yoda (who I realize is a fictional character) would say, “Amazon sales figures a great game does not make”. But sales can certainly be an indication of popularity due to it being a good game or amazing marketing budgets.

      Axe to grind… that is actually kinda funny (if I use it, do I owe you royalties?)

      My conversations with HackMaster fans sound a lot like Pathfinder fans – they moved away from Dungeons & Dragons because they felt that it was no longer the game from them.

    • James Floyd Kelly
      October 5, 2012

      Didn’t come off that way to me… I saw it as a way to advertise the community-driven Hackathon. I imagine if Pathfinder’s community did something similar, we’d cover it here as well.

  4. Mark Edward Reed
    October 5, 2012

    Hackmaster sounds like a good one to play. I go back to the 1st Edition AD&D and it seems that with 4th Ed, WotC really burned a lot of D&D players.

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