Tuesday, February 26, 2013

[Obscure Games]Hârnmaster

Before we get started, there's a song that has been going through my head a lot today, so I'm going to share it with you now ("What becomes a legend most? The love and lives of men. And machines."):

OK, now that you've listened to that (you have listened to it, right? It's totally worth the less than three minutes it takes) let's get on with the overview!

The Hârn setting has always been about making a fantasy world that has a resemblance to actual early medieval European society, without actually being medieval Europe. To this end, it includes very detailed information about everything from farming and herbal remedies to castles and the uncivilized tribes of the island known as Hârn. The island is about the size of Madagascar, though oriented East-West instead of North-South, and contains several sovereign nations from three main ethnic groups. Well, two main ethnic groups, and one subjugated one. Plus dwarves. And elves. And gargûn, which are the setting's version of orcs and goblins. It's not really simple, actually.

But we're not here to talk about that. We're here to discuss the roleplaying system that was developed to showcase the setting. Although the setting can be used with any fantasy system (and many of the supplements describing Hârn's world have come with stats for D20 in recent years), HârnMaster was specifically designed with the setting's assumptions in mind. For example, we find in the character creation a discussion of how the astrological science of the setting affects a character, making the actual birthdate of the character an important matter.

Character creation is pretty old-school, with dice rolls for pretty much everything (though, of course, the Referee can override anything, such as making all the characters come from the same background, deciding whether or not particular races are allowed for the PCs instead of randomly rolling for race, and so on). Roll for race (with an 8% chance of being a gargûn!), roll for sex, roll for birthdate, roll for parent occupation (which also determines starting social class), roll for sibling rank and "estrangement" (how much your relatives like you), roll for "medical" issues (which range from poxmarks and scars to being a drug addict, an epileptic, or even a lycanthrope!), roll for height, weight, complexion, hair color, eye color, comeliness, and so on. Then you get to the actual stats!

There are five physical stats, plus four senses, the quality of the character's voice, three mental stats, and "Morality", which last is a rating of the character's views on moral issues (ranging from Diabolical on the low end to Exemplary at the higher ratings). A player is allowed to choose the character's Morality, or can roll it on 3d6. All of the other stats are rolled on 3d6, then modified for race and other factors. Next comes the Psyche chart. Roll on that to find out if the character has mental problems (phobias, manias, paranoia, violent temper, hypochondria, and so on) - 40.1% of characters won't have any, but the other 59.9% are neurotic or worse. Pick a deity, then roll 5d6 for starting Piety (which is a pool of points used to ask the divine beings for miraculous interventions).

Whew! That's a lot to do. These characters aren't going to be throwaway types that you can fling at a dungeon and hope they survive the funnel. You're going to want to keep this character alive. Worse yet, we aren't even done! There's the "Pregame", where several years are played out with a few decisions, including which occupation(s) the character pursues. Occupations add skill points to the base levels. This part is a lot like RuneQuest (the Avalon Hill version, mostly, but not too different from the Chaosium edition). Oh, and roll to see if the character has any psionic talents. These are low-level wild talent magics that the character can do, like astral projection, hexing, or even minor pyrokinesis.

Skills are based on a formula that averages three stats (sometimes, the same stat is used twice, making it an average of a stat, the stat again, and another stat), then modified for astrological sign. Basically, the character's astrology modifies his talent with various skills. Pretty cool way to do it, especially after seeing the weird stat modifiers in Fantasy Wargaming. Then the character gets some money and the player chooses what to spend it on, and we're finally done. Unless the character is a Shek-Pvar (wizard) or a holy person. But we don't have all day, so just figure that you've got more to do in those cases.

Action resolution is based on rolling a d100 against the skill. If the skill or under is rolled, the action is a success. If not, it is a failure. There's always a 5% chance to fail (roll 96-00), and a 5% chance to succeed (though only with a skill that is actually possessed by the character). Any roll that ends in 0 or 5 is a critical. If the roll is a success with a 0 or 5, then it is a critical success, a failure with a 0 or 5 is a critical failure. So, if the character has a 49 chance, a roll of 45 would be a critical success, while a 60 would be a critical failure. There are a bunch of other things involving skills, such as Skill Index, but those are details that aren't necessary to know in an overview like this one (which is going to be long enough).

An important modifier to skills is the Physical Penalty. This is a combination of encumbrance, injury, and fatigue that affects most of the skills. Each of the skills is given a pretty detailed workup of normal uses. There's nearly a half page on listening for noise, for instance (on the other hand, the whole writeup for Dancing is: "A character's ability to perform various types of dance. Specialties such as folk or erotic dancing are viable if desired. Cultural background has a lot to do with repertoire.") Mostly, these stick to things that characters actually do that have an effect on the game.

At this point, it is likely that your character is illiterate, knows a few weapons, and has a few other talents. With luck, he has a psionic talent that can be used for a minor advantage at the cost of a few fatigue points (remember Physical Penalty?)

Combat is pretty straightforward, but detailed and therefore somewhat complex. Characters attack by rolling against the appropriate combat skill, and defend in the same way. There's a detachable page of charts that show what happens when a particular defense is used against a particular attack with the various success levels for each. For instance, a Melee Attack that gains normal success against a Block that has a normal fail results in "A*1". That is a result of "Attacker Strike*1". The number represents the number of d6 to roll for Impact of the hit, which is added to the weapon's Impact. Impact is modified by the armor on the hit location struck (roll for hit location, by the way), and the total Impact is compared to a chart that is broken down by hit location, type of attack (is it Blunt, Edge, or Puncture? or other, more exotic types like Squeeze, Fire, Frost, or Tear - which last covers bites and claws, mainly), and amount of Impact. Cross-indexing these gives a result that shows a color (yellow for minor, orange for serious, red for grievous) and usually a letter/number code such as "E3". The color indicates how serious the wound is, and so what dice to roll for Injury Points (Physical Penalty again). The letter/number code indicates special effects of the wound. An "E" is a Shock Roll, and the number indicates how many dice to roll against the wounded character's Endurance stat. A "B" code is for Bleeding, and the number indicates how many Injury Points worth of bleeding will happen every round of 10 seconds. The most dramatic letter codes are "A" (for Amputation) and "K" (for instant Kill). An "A" result at the neck is also an automatic "K". Those results also have an additional "E" check implied, should the character survive. So, the annoying thing is that a wound takes up a lot of table time, what with the roll to hit, the roll for Impact, the roll for location, and the various rolls for the actual wound, but this is forgivable in the sense that a wound, like in real life, is a big deal. Getting seriously wounded pretty much usually means that you are out of the fight, but it is difficult to be seriously wounded if the character is reasonably skilled and wearing decent armor.

Healing takes these wounds and (usually) rates them with an "H" code, for Healing Rate, based on the treatment that the wound receives. It is important for characters to carry first aid tools, like bandages, splints, and cold compresses, even suturing needles, or to have some way to improvise them. Although, to be fair, an untreated wound is better off (usually) than a critical failure when treating it. The killer, though, is when a wound becomes Infected. A normal wound will likely heal in a few days or weeks, but an infected wound is serious business. Just like in real life.

This isn't the only system that uses wounds as the injury metric instead of hit points, but it is one of only a few that do so. I'll be talking about a couple of the others in later installments of Obscure Games. Also, some of the games that ostensibly use hit points actually seem to use a version of wounds (like RuneQuest for instance, where each wound heals independently of the others - though there is also a total hit point value for the character).

Next come the sections on religion and magic. These are pretty straightforward. You get Piety by participating in religious rituals, and spend it to try to get divine intervention. Magic is learned, and spells cost fatigue to cast. The spells typically have very flavorful names and descriptions ("Ordeal of Frida", "Nurture of Isla"), which make it all have a vaguely Vancian feel, though it doesn't use Vancian methods.

After that are the campaign notes. Costs of various items and equipment, how to be a Mercantyler, how to run a game, monsters and creatures of Hârn, and an excellent random treasure generation system. None of this is particularly unusual, though.

I left out a lot, trying to make this not be like the Fantasy Wargaming series. There's information on how a character can craft items (and make them more valuable), the languages of Kèthîra (the world of Hârn), and a lot more. The details of the religion and magic systems are also fairly involved, so I left those out for the most part. The upshot of all this is that the game is really good for the thing it does, but I imagine that not many people really want the thing it does, which is to adjudicate a highly realistic and detailed setting in a highly realistic manner. This means that a lot of things that other systems do well, such as heroic high adventure, are not well-suited to HârnMaster. Adventures run in the system are likely to resemble Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" series rather than, say, Conan or Tolkien. That is, characters are likely to die or be permanently disfigured if they engage in fighting, which might mean that a lot more social interaction between characters and with NPCs would occur. Maybe. Players are a weird bunch. Anyway, I don't think that I'd run this at a table, myself, but I like the ideas a lot in theory, and intend to steal be influenced by a bunch of them for the Computer RPG I intend to write.

Also, the specific version I have discussed here is the 1st edition, which was published back in the ancient days of 1986. Since then, the game has split into two different development tracks: HârnMaster Gold and HârnMaster Third Edition. These have taken different paths of design decisions, with Gold continuing the high-detail, high-realism track, while Third Edition (and the previous version known as HârnMaster Core) preferred to simplify and speed up play.

As a side note, I have a few more Goth of the Week posts in the queue, but I may allow the series to end. It seems to be fairly popular, but I am spending a lot more time looking for decent pictures these days, and I'm ending up with more alt-models than everyday goths. If there's a huge outcry in its favor, I'll keep it going, but otherwise it's just got a few more weeks.


  1. Harnmaster and a diet solution program in one post. Nice.

    Rob COnley has been a huge supporter of Harn since forever. I think he has everything. While we rarely play the system itself its products are invaluable to mine for sub systems, like last night we broke out Harn Manor because our gaming group was creating a small village from slaves we liberated. I think Harn is a very cool system it is a system for ordinary folks. Heroes are not often found there. That's what makes it very cool and very difficult for others.

    1. Haha! I've been baleeting a lot of spam lately. I may have to disallow anonymous commenting (which would mean losing the occasional insight from NUNYA, but sacrifices must be made).

      The setting books for Hârn are awesome, some of the best in the industry. The game, like I said, is also very cool, but looks like it would be a lot of trouble at the table - and, as you say, it is focused on everyday Joes, rather than the heroes (even those of the zero-to- sort) that most players seem to be used to playing.

  2. Nice overview, I will say that at the table Harnmaster actually quite quickly especially when everybody has copies of the combat charts. This is because everything is front loaded on the character sheet so actual game play is just a three step process of using the charts and rolling dice.

    My experience also is that the combat system is oddly immersive due to how the blows are described. The players seems to get into it more when they learn they have a slash to the check, a major bruise on the thigh, and a minor stab wound to the upper arm, as opposed to taking 2 points, 5 points, 4 pts of damage, etc.

    You can read a detailed account of a Harnmaster oneshot at this link


    1. Thanks for that! I confess that the weakest part of this overview is that I've never had the chance to do more than make characters for this one (the same will, sadly, be true of a few others I'll be giving overviews of down the line). So, I defer to your at-the-table experience.

      I'm also very glad to learn that all three versions of the game are broadly compatible.

  3. I remember there was an online MUD of this that you could try out to see what it played like (this was 20 years ago, but may still be there).

    1. Interesting. The whole MU* deal was never really my scene, so I wasn't aware of such a thing existing. That said, a quick Google search shows that it is apparently still going strong.