Hackmaster is intended to build upon the foundations of D&D. The intention is to create a game mechanic that is accurate and realistic, that models combat in plenty of detail and allows growth and depth of characters that is not available in other game systems.
That's the desired aim. Unfortunately this game system misses.
Don't misunderstand us here, there is plenty going for this game. It does achieve its goal of being detailed and more realistic than many of its peers. And the campaign setting is well thought out and well constructed.
But there are too many niggles with the game to make it a quick and easy to play, or to keep the game sessions short enough for us to have a real life alongside our play.
There are many classes available to the player. All the D&Desque favourites are present, along with one or two others, and there are many ways to specialise your character to give it individuality. But the process of generating your character is extremely unwieldy.
When we played this game, there was a computer spreadsheet provided that made the generation easier. It added up various skill bonuses and worked out combat plusses and minuses, it did all the niggly jobs that take the players so much time. But ultimately it's hugely random.
The characters characteristics are all totally random, so there's huge scope for creating a pup before you start adding any specialisations in. Then, if you want to go down the route of a particular class, you might be disappointed because your primary statistics aren't in the right place.
Then, when you've got this lot together you're selecting skills. The game system uses skills quite a bit during play, so having enough of these at a basic level scattered through a party of four or five players is a must. The game system falls down on this front completely. Skill increases, even during character creation, are done by a dice roll, you buy 'dice rolls' with your character points. It's nice that the dice type varies with bigger dice for weaker skills (you learn quickest when it's all new) but it's entirely possible to roll '1's for every dice you buy, or at least for enough of them to hamper your characters development.
And there are a lot of special abilities. You have to buy these if you want to be a specialist in (or, indeed, use) any kind of weapon. And these are not cheap, so if you want to use more than one missile and one melee weapon at first level, you might be a bit disappointed. Unless you don't like wearing armour, of course.
The whole system of character creation is overly complex and hugely time consuming. And at the end of it you can easily end up with a character so weak that he's a liability. Some people like this (it can make a nice change and be fun to roleplay), but he won't last long.
There is a huge feeling that the magic system is underpowered. Unlike D&D your wizards don't get to select their spells, they get to roll randomly for the ones they get. That means you may well be taking a wizard with you to fight that goblin horde whose toughest spell can just about break the skin on a rice pudding. At least you don't have to 'learn' your spells like in D&D - here the spells come at a points cost. You can spend your magic points any way you like. But the points are only reset at one time of day. Other game systems that use points see them recuperate continuously, a bit like recharging the battery. So it's a bit of a 'worst of all worlds' scenario on the magic front.
On top of that, the spell list seems a little light on good spells. Everyone wants a wizard that can do a fireball or lightning bolt sometimes. Wizards don't seem to get this option in the game.
The movement rules in combat are excellent. Everyone moves part of their movement each fresh turn in a battle. This is wonderful for reality, but makes for one hell of a slow game. The DM is continually leaning over the board moving the monsters, so you never get to look at it tactically for any length of time. And the resulting battles become bogged down. They take four to five times as long to resolve as in D&D, and that just doesn't help move the game on at any kind of feature film pace.
Dice rolls in the game tend to be open ended - a maximum roll normally gives another dice roll to add on, which again is open ended in the same way (this is termed 'penetrate' - you just keep re-rolling as long as you're getting maximums). It's a really nice feature. But it's skewed by the kinds of dice. What you end up craving isn't a dirty great big battle axe for maximum damage, it's a small axe that might do 2d3p (that 2xD3's with penetration). 3's come up quite a lot - one in 3 to be honest, and if you're rolling two for the axe and, say, one for your strength, you'll penetrate quite a lot. This skews the combat in favour of smaller dice. Take the Long sword v Short sword as another example, that's 2D8p vs 2D6p. 1 in 8 of the Long swords dice penetrate, while 1 in 6 for the Short sword. 12.5% vs 16%. From a weapon that, on average does 9 vs 7 points of damage - why on earth would you want a weapon that does 2D8 when the 2D6 one is almost as good and gets much more penetration rolls? Over the long haul these are about the same in terms of overall damage, but the short sword wins because it's so much quicker - you actually get to swing it about 20% more.
And the combat involves critical fumbles every time you roll a missing 1 and every time you roll a 20. The problem here is that there is no fixed AC on defence, but a competing dice roll (D20p) which means every time your character attacks or is attacked, they have a 5% chance of being badly hurt, losing a limb or, in extreme cases, having their stats reduced or being instantly killed. That's every time someone swings something at them to hurt them.
I'm sure there's the makings of a good game in there somewhere. The combat system is fine in normal trim, but the critical damage and the slow pace of fights really bleeds the fun out of it. It's one of the aims of the game to keep goblins and kobolds as enemies that are always dangerous - and they're a nuisance at first level all the way up, you never really grow out of them, and there's always that chance they'll kill you in one blow. If you don't do it to yourself as you swing something to hurt them.
Hackmaster seems to sacrifice some of the fun and entertainment aspects of the game in the pursuit of realism. But this is fantasy - everyone wants to be a hero, and trying to use 'real' magic just doesn't cut it.