On the Sublimity of Hackmaster 4th Edition: Cohesive Setting Design

From the name, to the parody art style, Hackmaster seems designed to drive away both the casual and serious player of RPG's.

Who then does it appeal to and why? The old school gamer looking for a chuckle, the fan of the Knights of the Dinner table comic, The person wondering at the seriousness of the title?

But when they do get past the name and the required parody text and finally pick it up and read it--they discover an amazing thing.

Hackmaster 4th edition is brilliantly designed.

Why and how is that?

It takes all the lessons of the OSR and implemented them in an official reprint of 1st edition, an exceptional game itself.

Design via Play

Hackmaster is not an abstract design. It is a codification of processes that developed throughout play. In a very literal sense, it is written by a group of people who were playing a mashup of 1st and 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons and had developed a system of rules to address many classical problems when playing those systems raw.

How do I modify rigid character creation while maintaining the integrity associated with 3d6 down the line? Flaws and Build Points.

How do I mechanically encourage players to act their role while maintaining agency and keeping experience points as an objective measure of progress? The honor system. Put simply, while in great honor, you receive a +1 bonus to every die you roll, even dice like Hit Points.

How do I address leathality without bogging down play? The hit point kicker, exploding dice and the threshold of pain. Players get bonus hit points at creation, but you don't have to lose them all to be taken out of combat. Below a certain threshold you must save to remain active in combat. This has the added advantage of making constructs and undead play very differently, making them the terrifying.

There are more: critical hit tables that can wound your character permanently, degrading armor that absorbs damage, A fatigue factor to address invulnerable fighters in plate armor.

There are 2 crucial things to note here.

These systems were designed and used in play. They weren't abstract ideas. They were what was actually happening on the table. So while reading the above and thinking "All that must be complicated" what actually happens is very straight forward and simple. Like any complex thing it takes a week or two to learn and then becomes second nature. In practice, these rules are fast.

These systems enhance the experience of play. Yes, play slows down for a moment when criticals
are being rolled, but I know from experience that those moments while waiting for the result are ripe with baited breath. The need for gold to train makes the players desperate for rumors of adventure. The training and skill rules provide real things useful things for the players to spend their fortunes on. They desperately want to stay in great honor to maximize the benefits of the money they do spend on training.

After a bit of practice with the system, I've never felt I've had to do less work to motivate the players to play or even lead the direction of the campaign. The system and its different parts are designed to motivate and sustain long-term campaign play, to the construction of castles and beyond.

When my first group started play, we basically rolled with 1st edition rules and added in one rule at a time, until after a few months, all the rules were in place.


This is the strength of traditional AD&D. Don't like weapon speed versus armor? Drop it. Running a different campaign? Add in the inheritance tables, or roll on the Hackmaster disease tables.

Setting via tables and mechanics

If you do sit down and decide to play Hackmaster RAW, there is a final surprise awaiting. The setting is delivered not via exposition, but via tables and random generation. We had several year plus campaigns and because of the cohesive interaction of all the tables, charts, and rules, we only ever had one person qualify for a monk. That made the monk special in a way other classes weren't. 

It is an functioning ecosystem of gygaxian naturalism. If you can leave your entitlement at the door ("I want to play what I want! {pout}") then you will find yourself playing a game, both as a player and a Dungeon Master, to discover a world. You uncover what happens as much as you decide what does. 

I know what the swamp looks like between the borderlands and the fortress of the witch queen, it is filled with dinosuars, some cult of shambling false undead, and hordes of murderous elves. 

If you play there is always something new to find out. 

Hopefully this makes Hackmaster 4e a little more open and clear to those who don't know what it's all about, and explains why I might be looking forward so much to giving the new Hackmaster a try.


  1. Hey C:

    I'm not on Google+ so I don't have another way to contact you. Is there any way you can hit me up with a copy of the discussion thus far about the 1PDC that Alex linked to? The URL of the discussion is this one:


    1. campbell at oook dot cz is my email, and is under my profile on the right of the blog.

      . . . a copy of the discussion?

  2. How does the honor system work with classes like magic-users and thieves?

    1. "Honor" is just the term for it - it's really about playing to alignment and class, maintaining archetypes. If you're CN, you gain honor for hiding in the back and fleeing a battle that's going poorly.

  3. I am curious what you think of the latest version of Hackmaster? It maintains several of the items you mention, but mixes in a few new ones and changes as well. If you do not like it as much as 4e, I am curious what your sticking points are.

  4. Hi! Great post! I like HackMaster 4th edition too :) Im curious what you think about Adventures Dark and Deep, another system that stays close to AD&D1st and yet expands it?

  5. I haven't seen either Adventures Dark and Deep, nor the new version of Hackmaster. When I get to them I'll be sure to talk about them.

    1. The base rules for the new Hackmaster has a free download:


      Of course, I cannot help you with finding enough time to look over yet another rpg system.

      And I made my Willpower save to avoid sharing my own thoughts, which as they were unasked for, is good for everyone.


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