HackMaster is only as much a parody of a role-playing game as everyone decides to make it.

As the producers of HackMaster themselves note, "In another time, in another world, this may have been the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons." Gamers familiar with first and/or second edition AD&D will feel almost immediately at home with the system: the three dice used to roll up attributes, the lucky twenty-sider that always rolled a critical hit when you needed it to, the 10' by 10' square rooms scattered throughout the myriad dungeons, all of that has been retained.

With regards to the actual way the game is played, the two biggest changes that differentiate HackMaster from its predecessors are the addition of the Honor total and the concept of alignment infraction points. A character's Honor is based on his words and deeds in the world, and helps to determine his place in the pecking order of the world- rewards are considered upon the player character's alignment, their class, and the actual nature of the deed. Kicking ass is one of the most sure-fire ways to get it; getting mocked by the hirelings is one of the most sure-fire ways to lose it. Characters with an optimal Honor ranking gain bonuses to their die rolls as well as the opportunity to re-roll one die roll every session; characters with below acceptable Honor suffer penalties to their die rolls.

Alignment Infraction Points, abbreviated AIPs, are a concrete method that a GM can use to track a character's moral activity. Since your average PC has a general history of burning down every other village they come across, a GameMaster can track a slow and steady descent from a pleasant alignment such as neutral good into something less good as chaotic evil, or his attempt to redeem himself and stay true to his beliefs- and, if necessary, inform the character that his behavior has crossed the line. Alignment changes carry a good deal of stigma in HackMaster- not to mention a strong penalty.

Interestingly enough, the problem that most people have with HackMaster is the way the writing is done. The style of the writing demonstrated in the HackMaster Player's Handbook and in the HackMaster GameMaster's Guide both have a notable edge to them- throughout the PHB, the tone is one of conspiracy, of the stereotypical attitude that the game is really, truly a competition between the players and the gamemaster. As a counterpoint, the attitude presented in the GMG is one of smugness- the person reading the book is urged to affect a tough-but-fair stance towards his fellows. Players aren't there to be coddled, they're there to hack and cut and slice their way to the top of the world- the sense of achievement will be more rewarding than waltzing through life with a silver spoon.

The difficulty that most players have with HackMaster, by far and large, is not the revival of level limits for demihumans or the inflexibility of character advancement- it is the attitude presented in the book that in order to "be a real HackMaster player," they have to abide by EVERY rule in the book, and above that, shell out the membership fees that come with being part of the HMPA or the HMGMA. Unfortunately, those who complain about this are often unfamiliar with the Knights of the Dinner Table and what goes on in there- KenzerCo is hardly going to mock you to your face for playing a game that doesn't abide by all the rules if you're not sanctioned. (You'll be mocked by the people on the KenzerCo.com forums for having a wuss GM if that may be the case, but that's another story =D)

If you were disappointed with the direction Wizards of the Coast began steering D&D 3rd Edition, away from the history of previous iterations of the game, you'll likely be pleased with HackMaster. If you're up for a strong fantasy role-playing game, investigate the books or check out a demo. You may find yourself surprised- or, you may not.