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!
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. Notice that 95 and 100, of the automatic fail numbers, are critical failures, while only an 05 is a critical success on the minimum chance. Life sucks, get a helmet. 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
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.