So why Hackmaster (4th edition) instead of OD&D Flavors? Or just AD&D itself? Why would someone stay away from Hackmaster? (I don't play Hackmaster Basic, which is it's own system. This post is exclusively about the Hackmaster 4th edition. If you're confused, I am in no way talking about the train wreck that is the WotC 4th edition of the Dungeons and Dragons trademark. I have no taste for poop, no matter how fancy the china. If this statement bothers you, you probably shouldn't be here. :-)
For the uninitiated, Hackmaster is certainly not a joke system. The vast majority of the text in the ruleset is simply 1st edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. It adds new classes, a skill system, an honor system, critical hit tables, a hit point kicker, and exploding dice. Why bother with a skill system at all? Why would I need those things?
Well, several reasons.
1) It is completely compatible with 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. So all those resources (including all those old issues of Dragon I have sitting in the garage) are totally usable. This is awesome.
Also, other than a few fiddly bits from 2e (initiative mainly) the rules are the same as 1st edition, making the transition from a 1e game painless.
2) The fun factor of the hit point kicker and exploding dice. One of the key tenets of my games, the reason that they are so much fun for the players involved, is that dice rolls matter. They are never fudged. In fact, I roll secret rolls out in the open (such as finding traps) and let the player decide if they want to look at the dice roll or not. I am entertained by the metagame processes at work from those interactions.
But what if I was playing 1st edition? Character creation is fast, but starting with 1 or 3 hit points would very quickly mean the end of the group. The wilderness is violent, and I wouldn't reduce the encounter size of the dog pack because everyone was first level. (within reason, mind you)
In Hackmaster all living creatures get a Hit Point kicker of (usually) 20 points. So doesn't this make combat less deadly? Well, if you were playing a lesser game system it would. But when you roll maximum damage (or healing) in Hackmaster, the dice 'penetrate' or 'explode' allowing you to roll again -1. And every time you roll maximum you roll again. On average this adds one half point to the damage totals. What this actually does in play is (combined with critical hit tables) is make every attack dangerous. So you get the increase in lethality that you'd lose from the kicker.
Speaking of that, 3) The critical hit tables are well designed, and really showcase some of the best parts of the system. Again, why not just go with 1-8 hit points and let things be lethal that way? Hit points are abstracted in Hackmaster, just like in earlier flavors of D&D. But the critical tables, hit location charts, called shots, and penetration damage offer permanent consequences to the player who is wounded. A player character who has taken a critical hit, may in fact be bleeding to death internally and not know it. It lends a certain seriousness to combat.
Don't misunderstand me, you don't need rules for these things. It is easy enough to just hand wave all the effects of combat the old way, and I'm perfectly ok with doing that.
But if I did that, I'd miss the looks when the player shoots his bow, and rolls an eight, and then rolls again and gets another eight. Or the dread, when he realizes that that zombie scored a critical and is rolling 3d4 damage, and penetrates on all three. (That player lost his arm and his life from that attack.) All the extra bookkeeping and work that comes along with the tables and the kicker and such is worth that excitement or dread in the players face when that maximum shows up. (As a side effect, the above systems neatly resolve several other problems in a concise way, such as hit locations, called shots, effects of serious damage)
4) The skill system. Hackmaster has a lot of very specific skills, and a several very complicated skill trees. As any fan of older games can tell you, you don't need a skill system to let you use a rope. You can just do whatever it's reasonable for your character to do. I rarely require rolls for skills (though they often come up). They often choose to roll anyway because of their chance to improve their skills when they use the roll. The big advantage of skills: in 'fun'; and why I use it in play; is twofold.
First, It is a huge money sink for the PC's. In addition to the taxes, fees, tariffs, excises, upkeep, henchmen, and other various and sundry ways I remove coin from their hand, this gives them something that they really look forward to spending money on.
Second, The second value to using the skill system Instead of losing all that money feeling as if they have gotten nothing, two weeks later they end up with a real feeling of accomplishment along with a bank account 2000 gold lighter. It is that feeling of acquisition and accomplishment without filling their sheet with magic items that has such value.
5) The Honor system is a very well camouflaged action point system. This modern innovation gives players great control over the destiny of their character, while at the same time giving me great control over their behavior. I can take or leave action point systems, but there is clearly something to having some meta-game control over the game. The costs of using that control in bad judgment are very serious.
When looking at a system to use, I was immediately drawn to 1st edition. But thinking it over, I'd want to add exploding dice. Then I'd need the hit point kicker, and with that, I'd need the critical hit tables. So, I ended up with Hackmaster, and my players and I are happy for it!