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.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Goth of the Week

This is a gothy dress, and I like the square line of the model's hair, though I don't know if she identifies as "goth", per se. Anyway, as the picture says, it's a John Paul Ataker dress. I think she's probably cold.

Thanks to Dave Kristof for bringing the picture to my attention.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Look At That

I was going to write another Obscure Games review, but Game of Thrones Season 2 DVDs came from Netflix today. So, that's what I've been doing all day.

I do, however, want to make note of the topic du jour: WotC is releasing a reprint of the White Box edition of D&D. It will be $150, which seems like a lot, but it is not really all that much for what you get. Also, they haven't said that Chainmail will be included, which would suck. However, take a look at the picture:

Count the books in there. I see eight. That is three original books, four supplements, and one more hidden book. Could it be Chainmail? We can only hope.

Anyway, I'm pretty sure that I'm going to be getting this. Now to go back to watching Starks, Lannisters, Baratheons, and Greyjoys fighting it out for Westeros, and the Mother of Dragons getting ready to take it all back anyway.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Goth of the Week

I have no idea who this is, I found the picture in a Tumblr (actually, in several Tumblrs), but was unable to follow it back to any information about where it came from.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

[Obscure Games]Space 1889

Back in the late 1980s, advertisements appeared for an unusual game, different in some ways from anything that was on the market. Called Sky Galleons of Mars, it was supposed to be a wargame, like Battletech or Car Wars, that pitted individual vehicles against each other in combat. Anyway, it kept being pushed back, and I watched as other people's interest waned and eventually vanished. I was one of a few people who were still quite excited about the premise: these weren't just vehicles from a modern or science-fiction background, but from an alternate world where science took a quite different path than it did in this one. These days, you can talk to geeky types and just say "steampunk" to describe the premise, but back then it was a pretty difficult sale to make. The FLGS I frequented (and would later work for) ended up selling only a few copies when it finally appeared in 1988.

Shortly after that, a roleplaying game set in the same background appeared, titled Space 1889. That was a source of some amusement due to the similarity of title with the old TV series Space 1999, of course, which seems to have been the intention. I was still quite in love with the setting at the time, but no one else I knew was, so I picked up a few items, read them eagerly, and let them sit on my shelf otherwise (except for one attempt to run the game, which fell apart for several reasons, not least of which was my incipient Gamer ADD, an illness I am trying to overcome to this day).

The basic idea of the setting is that the old theory of light propagation that said that there was a "luminiferous ether" (which was the medium that the waves that make up light propagate through) proved to be true instead of relativity and quantum mechanics as in our real universe. Thomas Edison used this ether to develop a type of motor that could propel a vehicle through the void between worlds, and made an historic voyage to Mars (the Moon was difficult to reach for a number of reasons, and in fact the sample scenario in the Space 1889 rulebook is centered around the first voyage to the Moon). There, he discovered an ancient, decaying civilization of Martians whose cities lay on a network of canals. These Martians traveled between their cities in flying ships made with a special type of wood called "liftwood", lumbered from certain trees found high in the Martian hills. The Martians had developed two different ways of propelling these sky galleons, either by a complex arrangement of sails ("kites") or by an arrangement of turncranks powering an aerial screw through a flywheel system ("screw galleys").

Of course, the European powers quickly colonized Mars, the British setting up a colonial government at Syrtis Major and the Belgians at Copratia. The British colony is described in terms that make it clearly similar to India in our world, while the Belgian Coprates is similar to the Congo (and the Belgians are quite as ruthless on Mars as they were in their African colonies). As later products made clear, the colonial experience on Earth is largely similar to that in our own history. The Europeans, of course, had steam engines, which they quickly applied to their own aerial flyers, along with giving them ironclad hulls.

The Germans, unable to set up a colony on Mars for various reasons, instead colonize Venus. Venus is a jungle world, with lizard people living a primitive existence. The Venusian atmosphere has a corroding effect on liftwood, so British and Belgian sky galleons are at a disadvantage there, and German zeppelins rule the skies.

The arrangement is one of increasing age as the planets move out from the Sun. Mercury is like the Earth in the pre-dinosaur period, Venus when the dinosaurs were ascendant, Mars like a decadent Earth, and there are hints about the asteroids (though few details) that seem to indicate a final destiny. Because the ether flyers are powered by solar steam plants (since burning coal is impossible in the vacuum of space), there have been no explorers further out from the Sun.

For some reason, when people talk about running the game, they almost always follow it up with "but using [some other set of rules]". There seems to be a perception that the rules of the RPG are somehow unusable. Nothing could be further from the truth, actually. The rules are beautifully simple, but yet also broadly useful enough to satisfy most gamers. They are an early, cruder but simplified version of what would become the GDW House System (which would power a number of RPGs produced by GDW, including Twilight 2000, Traveller: The New Era, Dark Conspiracy, and Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, among others). Characters have six stats, which are similar to those from Traveller: strength, agility, endurance, intellect, charisma, and social level. Each of the stats is rated from 1 to 6, which can be generated in one of three ways. The first method is to rate each stat in order from 1 (weakest) to 6 (strongest), using that number as the rating. The second is to divide 21 points between the stats, with a minimum of 1 and a maximum of 6. The final method is to roll a single d6 for each stat in order, taking the result (but if the total of all six is less than 18, add points as desired, within the limits of 1 minimum to 6 maximum, to bring the total up to 18).

Each stat is associated with four skills. Many of these skills cascade to sub-skills (Marksmanship cascades to Pistol and Rifle, for instance). In those cases, the player must choose a single sub-skill as the specialty, though the other sub-skills are also known by the character. To gain skills, a character is given one or two careers, plus a number of general skill points. A career gives a number of skill points in certain specified skills (and also affects such things as starting money, and might give a character an "Associate", which is an NPC who is closely associated with the character - examples of the latter include the "gentleman companion" who accompanies an Adventuress and gives her a facade of legitimacy in the intensely patriarchal world of the Victorian era, the maid or manservant who accompanies a character with a social level of 6, or conversely the bumbling "master" who is influenced by a Personal Servant character, or the "henchman" who serves a Master Criminal).

To resolve most actions, there are two different methods. The more involved method involves rolling a number of dice (all dice are d6 in Space 1889) and comparing the total to a target difficulty number (lifting things is a difficulty of 1 per 10 pounds, a generic "Difficult" task is 12, and so on). For simpler checks, a single d6 is rolled and compared to the skill or stat being tested.

Inventions are the "magic system" of the game. Scientific knowledge allows a character to build his or her knowledge of several different fields. Once a die is committed to that field in general research, though, it is used up, as it were, and can't be used for another bit of knowledge. Once a character's general research in a field is high enough to attempt to develop an actual invention (each invention is defined by the necessary knowledge in one or more fields), unused dice of scientific knowledge can be spent to attempt to invent, being used up in the process. The number of dice available is equal to the skill level in the branch of science in question, plus the character's Intellect stat. Using up the dice for research or invention does not lower the character's skill or stat levels, of course.

Combat is described in a tactical boardgame that can be ignored and abstracted by the Referee. Turns are 30 seconds long, and allow a character to make one or more actions. Normally, a character can make four actions per turn, but close combat allows actions equal to the character's Close Combat skill or Agility, whichever is greater. Combat involves a third type of resolution: rolling a pool of dice based on the weapon used, skill, and other factors, and comparing each die to a target number and possibly to a defense pool rolled by the target. There are rules for NPC morale, explosions and demolition, and other aspects of adventuring in the Victorian age. The game also includes a version of the sky galleon combat rules from Sky Galleons of Mars. Animals also receive their own section in the combat rules, discussing the special considerations of large creatures, flying creatures, claws, fangs, tentacles, and so on.

There is a section discussing travel and exploration, important considerations in a Victorian game. Characters can get fever, get lost, or succumb to other hazards. There are rules for random encounters in proper old-school style, and a discussion of "invented encounters", which are those pre-designed by the Referee. Weather, oddly, is tied to the random encounter system, but it's a design decision that works well. There's extensive discussion of space travel in the setting, including the problems with trying to land on the Moon or Mars's moons. The rule book is finished off with an adventure (as I mention above) detailing the first expedition to the Moon and contacting the Selenites, detailed discussions of various aspects of Martian geography and society, and finally somewhat less detailed discussions of Venus.

I haven't really gone into the details of the Martians, because I think that's something that is best left for the players to discover in the game (and also because most of that information is fairly easily available online and off).

It's an amazing achievement, and all the more so for being one of the foundation pillars of Steampunk (along with Morlock Night and The Difference Engine). I'm going to leave you with a bit of music in a mode that we call Sepiachord.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Current State Of Goals

At the beginning of the year, I wrote an entry laying out some of the goals that I have for this year. I've been moving along with them, so here's a quick update of where I stand.

1) D&D goal: I've talked to the FLGS about the tables. I've set down elements of the entry level of the tentpole megadungeon (the main stumbling block is figuring out how the secret doors work), and thought about what to include on the first level. I've thought about which rules set to use, and am leaning toward a heavily house-ruled AD&D (1E) that drags in things that I like from other D&Ds.

2) Irish goal: I've been going to a weekly class, and am able to hold a short, extremely simple conversation that doesn't go very far. Not bad for just five weeks (week six class is tomorrow).

3) Computer Game goal: I've been working through a book on DarkBASIC, and feel that this goal is well on track. I should write what I am planning as a blog update some time.

4) Guitar goal: No progress yet.

5) Top Secret retroclone goal: No progress yet.

[Obscure Games]I Love You Guys

So, I have a poll to help me make up my mind which game I should review, and what happens? A four-way tie.

Thanks guys.

OK, there needs to be a tie-breaker. I could just roll a d4, but that is being a little silly. No, I think that I'll be a lot sillier and have a poll to illuminate the results of the poll.

Go Vote! This one will only be up for a few days, so make your voice heard quickly.