At Origins 2009 I had the pleasure of playing in an Introduction to HackMaster Basic session run by Steve Johansson, one of the designers (Dave Kenzer, another designer, was running the other table). Full disclosure: I'm a staff writer for Knights of the Dinner Table but when it comes to HackMaster I'm as much newbie as anyone else.
HackMaster Basic ($19.99, Kenzer & Co.) is a new beginning for HackMaster; the first edition of the game was based on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons with a number of supplementary (and often humerous) mechanics tagged on. After losing the D&D 1E license , KenzerCo decided to reboot HackMaster with their own game engine.
The end result, featured in HackMaster Basic, is a mix of old and new. It's touted as being the very best in old school gaming, but in truth it manages to sneak in a number of innovations into the old beast. The end result is something that I think could work for a lot of folks who enjoyed the older editions of D&D, but are looking to mix up their games.
Character creation is a prime example of this. Characters are generated using the decidedly old-school "3d6" method of rolling three six-sided dice and adding up the result. It's a roll-as-you go approach; if you rolled a 8 for Strength, you're stuck with it.
Except, you're not. You can choose to rearrange some or even all of your stat values, but you're rewarded for not doing so with build points. Build points are used to buy classes, skills, and other essential character abilities. Your given some to start, but you'll have even more if you let the dice fall where they may.
Races are another example of this: each race has certain classes associated with them (dwarves are natural fighters and clerics, halflings are exemplar rogues, and humans are good at almost everything). Rather than have hard limits on what classes a race can or can't play though, Kenzer takes a more nuanced approach. You buy your class, and certain classes are naturally cheaper for certain races. Conversely, some are naturally much more expensive. This allows you to have that wizard dwarf if you really, really want such an abomination, but you'll pay dearly for it.
After you buy your class and race, you need to buy skills, which available in increases known as "tallies". Tallies are similar to ranks in D&D 3.x, with a twist: each tally you buy allies you to roll a die, and add that to your total skill rank.
Your base skill is a percentage based on your ability score, plus any tallies that you bought. Tallies let you roll a d12 and add that to the skill value. It's tiered; once you reach 26% in a skill, you roll d8s.
Exploding dice, in which you re-roll any die that gets a maximum result, are called called penetrating here. The penetrating mechanic is prevalent through out the game, as most weapon and spell damage penetrate, as do mastery skill bumps from buying tallies. This can cause lethal combat results, and I am concerned it could wildly skew skills. My wizard with high Int/Wiz got a boatload of bonus skill points. I bought a tally in interrogation as a minor skill bump; then the mastery role exploded 4 times and it ended up being my best skill. It's easy to see how these kinds of random results could frustrate players who prefer fixed point buy systems (e.g. GURPS)
My finished character was a glutonous myopic elven wizard (yes, Hackmaster has hinderances), who arrived at the Dew Drop Inn and threw himself into the buffet (getting out his own custom oversized bowl).
We had the obligatory gather information and diplomacy skill checks as we searched the inn and the town for the plot hook. Skill checks involve a d100 roll plus your score in that skill; if you bet a target number, you succeed. I could see this being a little slow for those who can't quickly add double digit numbers in their head (unless said person has a calculator handy).
Once we discovered it -- there had been a kobold raid on the outskirts of town -- we got into our first fight. The game uses an interative initative, like that found in Kenzer's western RPG Aces and Eights. When you roll initiative, you use that initial number for your first action. You then add the value to the initial roll, and that's when your character gets to go again (e.g. if you roll an 8 on initiative; you'll go again on 16, 32, etc.) This makes combat surprisingly fluid as each person takes a single action on their go. It avoids the "hurry up and do nothing" problem that plagued some D&D 3.5 games, while also avoiding the D&D 4E problem of giving someone somethign to do every ... single ... round.
Combat involves opposed d20 rolls; one by the attacker, one by the defender. The higher roll wins. Critical fumbles cause attacks of opportunity. Perfect defense - rolling a natural 20 - causes an attack of opportunity as well.
As promised shields are useful for defense, but particularly strong hacking attacks can knock them aside. This makes them good for against kobolds, not so good against hill giants.
Magic users and clerics get a handful of spells in HackMaster (at least in comparison to D&D 3.x, D&D 4E, and Pathfinder). Wizards can choose to memorize spells or cast them spontaneously; the chief difference is cost, as spontaneous spells cost twice as much as memorized ones. The mechanic is a nice alternative to D&D 3.x's traditional Vancian system, but it didn't feel quite as high-powered and frantic as what I'd expect form the KODT comic book (then agin, we were only first level, and you can only expect so much from newbs).
Overall, I think they're doing some mechanically interesting things with the game, but the crunch factor is high. In many ways HackMaster Basic is the anti-4E. D&D 4E is about maintaining a near-perfect balance between the classes, strict adherence to rolls, and maintaining it all through an exceptions-based rules engine. HackMaster is about randomness tempered by mechanics. You may go in with a particular character concept in mind, but you could walk away with something very different. This randomness, this unplanned evolution of the character, is very different from what we see in 4E. It's more in keeping with the old "let the dice fall where they may" mentality of early RPGs, and I found it to be refreshingly different (yet very familiar).
I look forward doing a proper playtest of HackMaster Basic with my gaming group after I've had a chance to digest the book. I don't know that it would fly in my gaming group as a replacement system for our Greyhawk campaign, but if nothing else it would make for a great mini-campaign and/or one shots at our local game convention.