Hackbut – Classes – Thief

What it’s all about (David A. Trampier)

So after last post’s discussion of the magic-user we’ve come to the final entry in this series on the character classes in Hackbut: the thief.

Out of the four, I’ve probably tinkered with this class the most. As is often pointed out, the skills-based nature of the thief is at least a little at odds with the spirit of early D&D. On the other hand, the sneaky dungeon-delving specialist does add a nice bit of sword & sorcery genre flavor. There was no way I wasn’t going to include them in my game.

As always, I’ll just note that all of Hackbut’s classes are based on Hungarian retroclone Kamazaták és Kompániák. And again I’ll point out that the saves are replaced with the unified save in WB:FMAG. Below are the further changes I made to this class specifically.

  • Only simple and light weapons are allowed (hand axe, club, dagger, spear, staff, short sword, short bow, light crossbow and sling). This is mainly to protect the fighter’s niche and reinforce the fact that the thief is not a front-line fighter. It was inspired by Brendan’s OD&D “rogue” class.
  • I use the term “sneak attack” (rather than, say “backstab”) and some language from OD&D (“silent attacks from behind”). This to allow for some looseness in the interpretation of what counts as such an attack.
  • The OD&D percentile-based thief skills are collected under a single “thievery” ability and operate on a d20. This was inspired by Homebrew Homunculus’s deep dive into thief skills. For disarming traps I borrow some additional language from OED (three tries allowed, traps are only triggered on a fumble). I also make explicit that this skill is only applicable to small devices (aka “treasure traps”).
  • The hear noise skill is covered by a bonus to “perception checks” (+1 every four levels). Perception checks are handled by rolling 1d6, adding your WIS mod, with success on a 5+.
  • Climbing is similarly treated as a bonus. As well as allow for attempts at climbing unequipped that would be impossible for others. (This is based off of how Delta handles it in OED.)
  • Finally I allow thieves of any level to try and use magic-user scrolls, provided they succeed at a save vs. magic. If they fail, the spell backfires in some amusing and possibly deadly fashion. This is once again taken by a blog post by Brendan on the LBB thief.

So yeah, as you can tell, this is a mix-and-match of elements from various interpretations of the thief in the glorious OSR blogosphere. I should probably add that I would have not been able to assemble this version if (a) people had not taken the trouble to blog their OD&D house rules, and (b) those blogs were not made easily searchable through the OSR search engine created by Brendan (of Necropraxis).

And with that, we’ve come to the end of this series of class write-ups for Hackbut. I hope they will be of use to fellow homebrew enthusiasts out there.


Hackbut – Classes – Magic-User

Russ does the best wizards (Russ Nicholson)

Next up in this series on Hackbut’s character classes is the magic-user. (The previous instalment was on the fighter.) Once again, the Kazamaták és Kompániák class serves as the foundation. As always, it is worth noting I replaced the classic saving throws with the unified save found in WBFMAG.

In the weapons permitted, I removed the sling and added the club. Historically, slings are actually among the hardest missile weapons to master. It doesn’t make sense to me that a wizard would have time to learn how to use one in-between all the arcane studying. Clubs, by contrast, are possibly the simplest weapon to use (a stick, basically) and furthermore, on the Hackbut equipment list they are free and do 1d4 damage. I see no reason why a magic-user wouldn’t be allowed to use them.

The rest of the things to note are all related, unsurprisingly, to spell-casting.

Starting spells, and gaining spells at level up, are basically as described in the aforementioned KéK blog post. I do, however, prescribe that such spells are determined randomly.

The spell list and spell descriptions themselves are from Delta’s excellent OED Book of Spells. The spell selection is classic but flavorful, and the description are streamlined and rationalized. This one comes highly recommended.

Finally, I tweaked the rules for memorizing and casting spells as described in White Box to be a little bit more flexible and forgiving. Taking a page from 5e, magic-users can memorize level + INT modifier spells from their spellbook. They can cast memorized spells by “expending” a spell slot, but the spell itself remains memorized for further use. Essentially, memorized spells and spell slots are decoupled. So yes, this does mean a magic-user can cast the same spell more than once, which I know is frowned upon in old-school D&D circles. However, the number of spells a magic-user can cast per day remains as per the original game, so some looseness aside, the system is no more powerful than before.

And that’s all there is to say about magic-users, really. Next time I will tackle the last of the four classes, the thief.


Hackbut – Classes – Fighter

Fighting-men doing their thing (Dave Trampier)

Continuing the series on the four classes in Hackbut, having previously covered the cleric, next up is the fighter. This is the simplest class in the game (not that the others are particularly complicated, but still). I buy into the notion that the fighter should be kept as simple as possible so that there is a clear go-to for new players, or players who just don’t feel like something too involved.

As with all the classes in the game, I have used Kazamaták és Kompániák as the base. It is worth noting the multi-attack ability. This is an adaptation of the rule in OD&D and first edition AD&D where fighters may attack creatures of 1 HD or less a number of times equal to their level. KéK tweaks this. The rule reads as follows:

They may attack multiple opponents, provided their combined HD doesn’t exceed the fighting-man’s own (e.g. a level 4 fighting-man may attack four 1 HD goblins, two 2 HD wolves, or a 3 HD crystal statue and a 1 HD cultist).

So the power level of creatures that a fighter can perform multiple attacks against scales with their level, without getting out of hand. When I saw this I was immediately taken with it, because it solves this strange break point at the 1 HD mark without unbalancing the game unduly. (I should add it is also listed as an option in the Castle Xyntillan stat blocks.)

In play, I have found one slight drawback to this ability is that players are prone to ask about enemy HD, which is an unwelcome intrusion of rules concepts into the game’s fiction. I do not expose HD to players (nor do I AC, for that matter). So I handle this by telling a fighter their options with regards to performing multiple attacks in a round. This works fine. And in any case the ability leads to fighter characters wading into melee ahead of other characters.

One other ability that I added is a +1 to open door checks and other feats of strength for every three levels the fighter has. (So it improves to +2 at level four.) Such ability checks in Hackbut are always 5+ on a d6. Everyone gets to add their STR mod, and fighters get a little boost. In play this means that fighters are typically the designated door-opener, and the first one in harm’s way. (I believe a version of this ability is also in OD&D and Moldvay Basic D&D.)

Fighters are the only class who get to use all weapons and armour. In addition it is worth pointing out I restrict the use of magic swords to fighters only. I believe the Greyhawk thief was able to use such swords, but I have dialed back the weapons they are allowed. When I first came to classic D&D I did not realise this, but magic swords are a major way for fighters to acquire special powers. And I have really come to appreciate that aspect of the game. Character advancement for a large part happens through the junk they acquire along the way, rather than marking off stuff on their character sheets in return for XP.

That’s all I have to say about fighters. Like I said, pretty simple. Next time we will cover the magic-user.


Hackbut – Classes – Cleric

The cleric gets it (Stefan Poag)

Okay, here are some design notes on the cleric class in Hackbut. This is the first of the classic four classes that are in my game. I will cover them in alphabetical order.

As previously mentioned in “the basics”, the chassis for my classes is from Hungarian retroclone KéK.

Using the cleric as described there as a base, I added and changed the following things:

  • I explicitly disallow missile weapons. Some allow slings, for example, but I don’t like the visual image it conjures up. If a cleric wants to kill something from a distance, they will have to use flaming oil flasks or holy water.
  • I replaced the classic turn undead mechanic with a d20-based approach taken from Necropraxis. The only thing I changed was that players get to add their WIS mod in stead of CHA, because I interpret turning as an expression of true faith rather than leveraging your force of personality. The main reason I went looking for an alternative to the classic mechanic was that I wanted something that does not require use of a lookup table, because I am all about speed of play at the table. This alternate mechanic does skew the odds of successful turning and destroying significantly in favour of the players. But if handled as an encounter action, it does not upset game balance too much, in my experience. Also, in Castle Xyntillan, named undead can never be destroyed, only turned. (If you want something that is mathematically equivalent of the table-based OD&D mechanic, I recommend Delta’s take.)
  • With regards to divine spell casting, I have clerics not carry a spell book. They gain access to all spells of the levels they can cast automatically at level-up. They do need to memorize spells, just like magic-users do.
  • The spell descriptions in Hackbut are adapted from an unofficial OED-style list of cleric spells created by “baquies”. These are basically exactly the spells that clerics get in OD&D, but the descriptions themselves are streamlined and harmonized. They’ve been working great so far.

And that’s basically it. As I’ve mentioned in the previous post, clerics work great in a pseudo-historical early renaissance campaign setting if you lean into their faux catholic demon hunter characterization. They’ve gone from a class that I’d rather cut from D&D, to possibly my favorite class of the classic four.

Next up: the fighter.


Hackbut – Character Classes – The Basics

It’s been a while since I last posted about Hackbut. We’ve covered core mechanics, abilities, alignment and character creation. Now it’s time to dig into the character classes.

Hackbut has the four classic classes. I did not spend a lot of time debating this. OD&D has cleric, fighter and magic-user. Greyhawk added the thief, and after that, came the rest. But those four cover the spectrum one needs in a classic medieval fantasy game.

I have a conflicted relationship with the cleric. In my homebrew setting I lean towards sword and sorcery, and so demon-hunting clergy are a bit of an ill fit. But it was clear from the get-go that I needed clerics in there for compatibility with the assumed rule set for Castle Xyntillan. And upon reflection, now that we are (at the time of writing) over 15 sessions in, the classic D&D cleric can be a lot of fun if the setting leans into its pseudo-catholic nature. So yeah, the cleric stays. Four classes it is.

As I’ve previously mentioned, the chassis for the Hackbut classes are taken from the Hungarian retroclone Kazamaták és Kompániák (KéK). Ynes Midgard translated them into English on his blog. When I saw those I felt like I had the kernel in my hands for the D&D hack that I wished for. Really the main thing about them is that the progression goes up to level six. I like a low-powered game, so seeing an example of how it could be achieved in a classic D&D framework was inspiring.

I changed a few things about the classes of course, as a home brewer is prone to do. I previously talked about saving throws, how I swapped those out for the unified save from Swords & Wizardry. One more thing I changed since posting about that is to express that unified saving throw as a “base save bonus” that gets added to a d20 roll against a fixed target number of 15. Players continuously struggled with the original save mechanic. This appears to be more intuitive for them because it resembles the target 20 attack roll mechanic we use.

Then there were a few less significant changes. I massaged the XP values on the thief a tiny bit. It bothered me those did not start at 1.250 and progressed from there. An insignificant change, but I’m just particular like that.

Another tweak I made was to the weapons allowed for the thief and the magic-user. Again, mostly just small changes because of personal preference. The thief is allowed leather armor only (no shields); hand axe, club, dagger, spear, staff, short sword, short bow, light crossbow and sling. The magic-user is allowed no armor at all; and clubs, daggers and staves.

I made further changes to the specific abilities of each class, but I will save discussing those for future posts. I’ll just close by saying that those KéK classes have served me well as a base for my game, and I recommend checking them out.

Update (May 25, 2021): the four classes have now each been covered in their own post, read on for the cleric, fighter, magic-user and thief.