On Skill Deconstruction: Hackmaster Skills

This post is about Hackmaster 4e, the older version, which is a truly excellent game. It is basically 1st Edition Dungeons and Dragons with a truly excellent set of additions.

Current Analysis 

Skills in Hackmaster are percentile based where you roll under. Your skill number is modified by situational circumstance. Gem cutting may be at 47% and in a gem cutting studio with exellent tools and good lighting you'll get a +40%. You'll need to roll under 87% to succeed.

Skills are purchased with building points. They increase at different rates based on die sizes. Their initial development is equal to the relevant statistic plus a die roll. You may purchase as many die rolls as you can afford.You can also use these during character creation to raise stats and purchase other abilities. After character creation something rather excellent happens.

You can raise your skills by going to school or by use.

Granted, you can raise them at level up also, as part of training for the next level. But the ability to raise skill independently of level is great.

The other things to note is that skills are very very fiddly. Some examples of skills:

Art Appraisal: Subset: Painting
Art Appreciation: Subset: Sculpture
Cartography: Dungeon
Cartography: Hasty Mapping
Cartography: Overland
Coin Pile Numerical Estimation
First Aid: Cauterize Wound
First Aid: Sew Wound
First Aid: Sew Own Wounds

Now at first glance, this may seem like a terrible thing, until you become aware of two facts.

Skills are much like magical powers.
A successful Military: Battle Sense roll will give you +2 to hit and damage in a set-piece battle, but not in single combat and brawls.
A successful Military: Operations roll will give everyone under his command +1 to hit and damage
A successful Dirty Fighting roll gives -2 to AC, but +2 to hit and damage with criticals on 19-20.
A successful Establish Ambush Zone roll gives double chances to surprise.
A successful First Aid: Cauterize wound can stop bleeding (by doing 1d4 damage)
A successful First Aid: Sew Wounds skill allows you to double the natural healing rate.
A successful Cartography: Overland skill roll allows the character ask the GM a question about where he is or where he needs to go.
A successful Cartography: Dungeon skill roll allows the character to ask the DM where he is or how to get out, or how far he is from the exit, or how far from a level he is.

The other wonderful thing is that with such a bizarre, descriptive, and situationally useful set of skills that can be raised independently of levels is that players become very vested in raising those skills to useful values. And it is very, very, expensive to raise skills resulting in extremely . . . motivated players.

What is it we gain by having this skill?

A great method of customizing characters. A great motivator for player adventuring. Skills that don't negatively impact play or attempt to subvert role-playing or the play of the game.  Having a set value the character knows and being able to modify that target situationally is a good tool for both the player and the dungeon master because it allows the player through skillful play to seriously affect their chances. Allowing skills to develop independently of leveling is a great aid to constantly giving the players the feeling of progress and advancement without constant increases in level and absurd amounts of power.

What do we lose?

The character creation is a game in itself, done correctly sometimes taking a few hours per PC. The complexity in the skill choices requires a lot of work from players for reading and decision making. Tracking all the totals of the skills and schooling requires a fair bit of time (one session out of five was wrapped up in tracking all the ephemera of Hackmaster)

Conclusions & Suggestions:

Using this skill system was a lot of fun, but had some serious drawbacks in terms of time and paperwork required. It also requires a lot of the players and there was quite a bit of complaining when first playing Hackmaster over the many, many instances of exception based design and the general complexity of the skill system.


  1. I did love the HackMaster skill system, but the paperwork was intense. If I had an automated voice-controlled character sheet sitting on a tablet in front of me, HackMaster would be the best system in life.

    "I rally the henchmen to my flanks and stab the troll."
    "*bloink* Garg, were you aware that your skill Combat Expertise: Troll Slaying: Frontal Attacks could give you a +4 to hit in this circumstance? You have a 61% chance to succeed."
    "Thank you RPGiri. Roll that attack."
    "*bloink* A critical hit. Rolling location and damage. You have severed the left forearm of the troll; two exploding damage dice and one exploding critical severity result in 36 damage and profuse bleeding. You are aware because of his alchemical training that trolls require acid or fire damage to be finished. You now hold the record high damage hit for the session and the campaign."
    "Thank you, RPGiri. Remind me at the end of combat to harvest any organs I can think of."
    "*Bloink* As you wish."

    Maybe that's only my fantasy...

  2. I pretty much agree with Garg.

    I think the late Gary Gygax summed at up for me.

    Maybe I'm just getting too old to want to have to deal with a heap o' rules and the steaming heap o' rules lawyers who go with them."

  3. I love the idea of HackMaster and have a good amount of their 4th edition books and HM Basic, but as the other two said making up a character is a just slightly easier than figuring out Wall Street trends. There is a lot to swipe though and whittle it down to something more friendly.

  4. Thanks Garg, I think I have my first iPhone/iPad app idea - I'll be sure to list you in the credits.


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