The general evolution of tabletop roleplaying games in the last couple of decades has been towards streamlining and speed, abandoning a lot of the number-crunching minutiae of 1970s and 1980s games in favor of simpler and easier systems.
Hackmaster goes running in the other direction. Screaming.
This is the game played by most of the characters in Knights of the Dinner Table, which is a sort of barely-veiled parody of Dungeons & Dragons. A few years into the magazine's life, its publisher Kenzer began to branch out into making games of its own, and licensed the rights to the first two editions of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in order to make a real version of Hackmaster.
The result is a fully playable if murderously complex fantasy tabletop RPG with a healthy dose of in-jokes and meta-humor from the "Knights" comic strip. It reads exactly like the game from the strip, complete with bizarre rules, typographical errors, and lengthy digression-filled rants from Gary Jackson that read like something between a highly defensive, neurotic man speaking out on behalf of his work and the Unabomber's manifesto.
Take first edition AD&D, with its weird class balance, gender issues (e.g. the infamous "strength cap" for female characters), huge number of charts, and idiosyncratic rules, and add a "building points" system, merits/flaws, a huge critical hit table with thousands of potential results, and a ridiculous variety of monsters. It deliberately eschews streamlining and handwaving; you roll for everything, you keep track of everything, and cutting corners is not allowed. It's a bit more coherent than first edition AD&D ever was, but it jumps on any chance it has to add more charts and tables.
The first actual edition of Hackmaster was published in 2001 as the fourth edition of the game, with the "Garweeze Wurld" from the "Knights" strips as its standard setting. In 2007, Kenzer's agreement with Wizards of the Coast expired, preventing them from using any copyrighted material from AD&D in Hackmaster. The game soon switched over to Hackmaster Basic, which contains all original material, and the original rulebooks for Hackmaster are out of print. Now called Hackmaster 5th Edition, it features much of the same silliness as the previous edition, but is now more of a straightforward old-school RPG than a parody.
As the "fourth edition" of Hackmaster is literally a reskin of first and second edition Dungeons & Dragons, there's a lot of "trope overlap" between the games and many of the go-to, long-running D&D tropes apply just as well here. The following is for tropes that are specific to Hackmaster.
- Affectionate Parody: If you played first or second edition AD&D, Hackmaster is one part nostalgia trip to one part reminding you that you were crazy to play a game that was this unnecessarily complicated. Verges on Indecisive Parody with the newest edition, where many of the rules are streamlined.
- Always Chaotic Evil: The idea that non "demihuman" races are universally evil monsters is strictly embraced in both 4th and 5th edition; orcs in particular are such barbaric, savage monsters that even hobgoblins look down on them.
- The Bad Guy Wins: The monsters in the cover art for most volumes and modules of the game, especially in regards to the Hacked versions of classic D&D modules. For example, Little Keep on the Borderlands depicts the PCs being annihilated by the owlbear on the inside cover.
- Darker and Edgier: Both "Garweeze Wurld" for 4th edition and the 5th edition rendition of Tellene are much grittier and more focused on Black-and-Gray Morality than your standard Heroic Fantasy D&D world. The best way to describe them as if Gary Gygax thought that Greyhawk needed a doubled dosage of The Dung Ages.
- Defictionalization: The game started as a legally safe parody of Dungeons & Dragons in Knights of the Dinner Table, and was then turned into a real role-playing game.
- Dwindling Party: There was a visual version of this with the Hacklopedia of Beasts Volumes 1-8. Volume 1's cover showed an eight person adventuring group, with one of the adventurers being killed by a monster. Volume 2's cover showed the remaining seven characters, again with one of them being killed. The pattern continued until Volume 8, which showed the last living party member being killed by the zombies of the first seven adventurers.
- Everything Trying to Kill You: This is the game system of choice for people who subscribe to the theory that the GM's job is to try to kill player characters. One critical hit can abruptly kill or maim a PC, everything is shockingly expensive, and there's a deliberately large number of monsters that appear to exist entirely to pop up as random encounters in taverns, towns, or latrines.
- Fan Flattering: Hackmaster 4th Edition
- In the introduction to the Player's Handbook it says "...the fact that you've chosen to pick a copy of HackMaster speaks well of you." and says of Hackmaster players "We're not ordinary — we're Extraordinary.''
- The introduction to the Game Master's Guide praises the reader's "spirit, drive and determination to rise to the challenge."
- Gorn: The cover art for most volumes and modules of Hackmaster is shockingly violent if not incredibly detailed, typically featuring monsters and PCs alike getting hacked to bits. The Hacklopedia volumes, the Monster Manuals of the line, tell a story with the cover art about a luckless adventuring party getting killed to the last man, then being brought back as zombies to menace their torch-bearer.
- Honor Before Reason: An "honor" system exists in Hackmaster, and it's just as easy to game as it is in the "Knights" strip.
- Intimidation Demonstration: The monk class's Intimidating Display and Really Intimidating Display abilities.
- Intrinsic Vow: 4th Edition Player's Handbook. The spell Charm of Undying Devotion allows the caster to control the target's actions. If the caster gives an order that is against the target's nature, the target receives a new saving throw with a bonus of +1 to +4. If the saving throw succeeds, the spell is neutralized.
- Minmaxer's Delight: The game encourages you to tweak a character as far as you can by spending "building points," taking flaws, and doing everything possible to get even one more bit of combat potential onto that sheet.
- Red Eyes, Take Warning: 4th Edition Player's Handbook. In the description of the almost Always Chaotic Evil drow it says that their eyes glow a feral red - evidence of the hatred that burns in their hearts and minds.
- Shout-Out: The 4th edition Hacklopedia of Beasts volume 3 features the "Fairy, Carnivorous" entry, which is a reference to Kenzer & Co's cannibal fairy wargame Fairy Meat. It even uses the game's terminology of having the magic-focused "Glitter Fairy" and the standard carnivorous fairy progressing through ranks of toughness entitled "Wild, Seasoned, Hunter and Hardcore".
- That One Rule: A bunch of "one rules" from Knights of the Dinner Table are in effect in Hackmaster. The most notable of them is that sewing needles appear on the weapons chart and do 0.125 damage, just as in a "Knights" strip.
- Weakened by the Light: 4th Edition's drow (Always Chaotic Evil elves) were based on 1st and 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but there was a difference: instead of multiple specific penalties, drow get a simple -1 penalty to all rolls in bright light (bright daylight and Light/Continual Light spells).