In yesterday’s article we looked at the character creation system in HackMaster, but let’s face facts, if you are interested in HackMaster, you want to know about the Combat system.  So let’s not waste any time and get right into it…

Combat Overhaul

With the new edition of HackMaster gone is THACO! The new combat system focuses around competing attack and defense rolls, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. There are a number of innovative elements that make up this system, and my biggest fear is not being able to fit all of it into this review. I am going to highlight some of the most innovative and exciting parts of the system.

Count Up Initiative

HackMaster Basic has departed from the classic initiative order and turn system, by adapting the initiative system that Kenzer & Co. first used in their Aces & Eights western game. The system abolishes turns and starts combat at the first second and moves second-by-second.

Characters move second-by-second across the battlefield until they enter into melee. Once in melee, the attacker makes his attack, and then the weapon speed of his weapon determines when they will attack next. Large weapons have high weapon speeds taking 10 or more seconds to make their next attack. Other actions also determine when you act next in the count.

The initial order of combat is set by taking your initiative modifier (larger is worst) and rolling a d12. In cases where one party has a tactical advantage over another, smaller dice are rolled for setting the order, and the thief class gets to use a lower die as a class feature.

The end result is that combat is a flowing battle that lacks the predictability of traditional turn-based combat with combatants moving and attacking around the battlefield all at the same time.

Melee Combat

Combat revolves around competing attack and defense rolls. In melee combat the attack roll is a d20 plus your attack modifier, which is made up from bonuses for your attributes, class, weapon proficiencies, etc. The defense roll is often a d20 -4 plus your defense modifier, which is made up of bonuses for your attributes, armor, etc. In some situations the Defense roll requires a smaller die, such as flat-footed opponents who only get a d8 to their defense roll.

The attacker rolls his attack, the defender his defense, and the high roll wins. I like that this puts the player’s defense in his hand and allows him to use honor to keep himself from getting hit.

Range Combat

Bows, crossbows, slings, and thrown melee weapons get a great treatment in the combat system. Rather than assigning penalties to the attack roll based on range, the designers have changed it up by assigning a smaller die for the attacker’s roll. So at optimal range, the weapon starts with a d20, and then to a d12, d8, and then a d4.


Shields, which are often the red-headed stepchildren of armor, get some great attention in the combat system. In HackMaster the shield has two functions. The first is to block incoming attacks, by adding a bonus to the defender’s defense roll. The second is to absorb damage. The shield, like armor, absorbs damage.

When using a shield, successful defense attacks that strike the shield do half damage. The remaining damage is absorbed by the shield and then by the armor. In many cases an attack will do little or no damage.

Shields can also be shattered if they take a massive attack. A crushing shot on a shield can call for a save. A failed save can turn your shield into chunks.

Penetrating Dice

HackMaster uses what they call the penetrating die roll. In other games this would be called exploding dice. Basically, if you roll the maximum value on a die, you get to roll that die again (exception: d20 rolls a d6, and d100 rolls d20). The penetrating die allows for a wider range of of numbers in different rolls. This is most notably seen in damage rolls.

What you see with penetrating damage dice is an increase in the use of the d4. Weapons that have a high potential of damage, are assigned multiple d4s rather than higher dice. At first this does not seem intuitive, but remember that a d4 penetrates 25% of the time. This is also seen with the damage dice for spells, which are often represented in multiple d4s.


In addition to hit points, HackMaster Basic uses the Threshold of Pain. This is a percentage of your hit points and increases per level (faster for fighters). An attack that does more damage than the ToP requires a trauma check. This check is a d20 rolled under 1/2 constitution , which will often be under 10. If the check fails, the character (NPC or monster) falls down in pain for a number of seconds equal to the difference between 1/2 Con and the roll x5.

Failing this check is a near combat ender. Once you are down you are vulnerable to further attacks defending with only a d8, or a Coup de Grace (taking 10 seconds). From my playtest, more characters and monsters went down by failing the ToP then from losing all their hit points.

The ToP makes combat a much scarier endeavor, and one that should not be entered into lightly. It also makes penetrating dice that much more scary. A dagger attack, with some penetration, can trigger a ToP.

Combat Example

Ending off the combat chapter is a great illustrated example of the combat system in action, done by the Knights of the Dinner Table.  The example blends, panels of the KoTD group playing out a combat, a battlemat showing the positions of the combatants, and a rules summary.

The example does a great job of walking the reader through the combat system, especially the Count Up initiative, which is likely to be the hardest part of the combat system to master. It is entertaining and highly useful.


After reading such a serious combat section and navigating all the rules, I started to forget that I was reading HackMaster, but then I reached Chapter 12…Dice.  Yes, a whole chapter dedicated to the proper use of dice, dice etiquette, and dice rolling techniques. The chapter is part funny and part insightful. It is done tongue-in-cheek, but I found myself using some of the techniques including the Two Fisted Monkey Roll. And I am here to tell you that when my character was on the line, in a recent game, that Two Fisted Monkey Roll delivered some high rolls.

There is also a section on how to save your dice when they start rolling bad. Many of these techniques have appeared in the previous version of HackMaster, but they are still important techniques.  While I wanted to treat them as tongue-in-cheek, deep down inside we all know that dice have their own will. So be mindful and read the chapter….twice.

GM Sections

The last 41 pages of the book are dedicated to the GameMaster. You will know this section by the 3/4 page illustration and the bold title “GameMasters Only Beyond This Point.” With this being the basic book, the GM section is pretty light. I would expect in the advanced HackMaster rules, there to be an expanded section. In some ways, this reminds me of my Moldvay D&D basic rules, which were also pretty light on GMing information.

There are very few rules on encounter levels, leaving the GM to determine foes and encounter difficulties for adventures he is writing. This may be difficult for less experienced GMs but seasoned GMs should be able to build encounters.

The Monster chapter contains 77 monsters of varying difficulty. Many fantasy classics are listed: Goblin, Orc, Giants, Kobolds, Skeletons, Zombies, etc. What is noticeably missing are Dragons. I suspect that the Dragon is an advanced monster and should make its appearance in the full book. The monster chapter has fewer graphics than I would have liked. The book banks off the fact that the GM that is running the game has a strong fantasy background.

The Magic and Treasure chapter offers a modest selection of items in all the common categories, grouped by level. The selection is very functional and well balanced. There are plenty of items to carry your characters to 5th level.

The GMing section finishes out with the official HackMaster guidelines for being a GameMaster. The guidelines are are delivered like the by laws of a secret society. While the presentation is funny, the rules themselves are rather functional. Future GM’s should take the time to read the chapter, for there are some gems of advice in there.


After the characters were done, I took them for a spin. Four players (Fighter, Thief, Cleric, Magic User), were ambushed by 5 wolves. The combat system worked very well. The Count Up initiative was a lot of fun to use. I did find that the bookkeeping for the overall count and the current count for all 5 combatants was a bit tricky.

In our combat, the Mage went down before he got off a single spell. He got bitten by a wolf, failed his ToP, and was down for 50 seconds; a lifetime in terms of the combat. Hindsight being 20/20, that player should have used some Honor to force a re-roll or lowered his d20 roll to make his save…live and learn.

The combat rules were easy to follow. and we all got the basics down pretty quickly. One thing became clear: our year of playing D&D 4e was showing. This was not a high octane combat system where every class shines, rather this was some back alley knife fight that was dirty and dangerous.

After my game, I got a some advice on Twitter from @RevilFox on using a line counter, the kind you click, to keep the overall count and a small white board for keeping the monster counts. Sounded like good advice to me, and something I will consider when I run this next.

On The Horizon

I talked to the guys at Kenzer & Company today, and they said that Advance Hackmaster is currently targeted for Spring/Summer 2010. They will be comprised of three hardcover books:  Hacklopedia of Beasts, the Player’s Guide and the GameMaster’s Guide.

In the meantime, keep your eye out for PDF releases, including the first level adventure: White Palette, Ivory Horns, a free PDF available now.  Then in late 2009/early 2010 will be the release of Frandor’s Keep. From the sounds of it, it will be a combination worldbook and adventuring material that will keep you busy.

Final Impressions

HackMaster Basic is a great fantasy game in a classical sense. The game has a very old school feel to it, but a very refreshing set of of rules that feel new. The book is a great on-ramp to the game, giving you just enough options, rules, monsters, and magic items to ease into the game and whet your appetite for the upcoming Advanced HackMaster rules.