Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A 911 call from the Attic

My favorite RPG of all times is Harnmaster. For me Harnmaster has a perfect blend of playability and realism. I rarely have the chance to GM the game as the group I play with prefers GURPS. This isn't a big problem as it is my second favorite RPG. It is been nearly 20 years since I last GMed Harn.

A little background on Harnmaster. It is a RPG originally written by N Robin Crossby and the Columbia Games Crew. In the late 90s Columbia and NRC split causing Harnmaster to split into two editions Harnmaster 2nd edition and Harnmaster Gold. Finally Columbia Games put out a 3rd edition that collected errata and added esstential element for a medieval RPG the most important of which was mounted combat! All four versions of Harnmaster are compatible and GMs have freely intermixed rules between them.

Columbia Games

Harnmaster is geared towards playing in a low magic low fantasy medieval world like... Harn. However aside from the dieties it has few Harn centric details and can be used for any medieval fantasy RPG.

Harnmaster has some similarity to Runequest in how characters are presented. Skills are percentile and attributes are on a nominal 3 to 18 scale. Where Harnmaster really excels in its brutally realistic combat system. Harnmaster rules front load all the calculations before you play. Actual play is quick as it involves some rolls and chart lookup. You can see the combat cards here

Skills involves rolling low on percentile dice. Any roll ending in a zero or five is a critical. Whether is it is a success or failure depends on if you roll under your skill.

The combat basic procedure is

1) Side A rolls attack
2) Side B roll defense
3) Cross index the level of success (Critical Success, Marginal Success, Marginal Failure, Critical Failure) on the combat chart and apply the result.
4) If you hit you will get to roll a number of D6. Add the impact of the weapon aspect to the roll. Aspects can be point, edge or blunt. Typically range from 0 to 11. This givesthe total impact of the blow.
5) Roll hit location. You can aim high low or middle.
6) Subtract the Armor in that location
7) If the remaining impact is great than zero look up what type of injury you take for that hit location.

You can take a minor, serious, or grievous injury. You record each injury separately. The nominal effect is rated in injury levels. A S2 result means you have a serious injury with 2 levels of damage. Each level subtracts one from any roll with d6s against your attributes or -5 per level for skill rolls. Aside from the injury levels many wounds have special saves. Shock, fumble, stumble, amputation, and the dreaded kill roll. The type of save and the injury you substained determine how many d6s you roll against the attribute to save.

For example if you took a M1 hit to the hand requires a fumble roll if you were holding something in that hand. Normally it is a 1d6. Unless you have a crap dexterity you can't fail. However in a fight where you took a S2 wound to the chest, a pair of M1 wounds to the thigh, and a S3 gash to the upper arm you are looking at rolling that 1d6 at a +7 modifier. The more injuries you take the worse these saves get even the minor ones.

Healing well, it has a detailed resolution as well. Let's say a severely injured character isn't going to be getting up for the next couple of weeks.

I admit writing it down like this makes it seems very complicated and detailed obsessed. However in actual play it flows very fast without a lot of headaches. This is because of the design of the combat card combined with the fact that the situational modifiers are very few and well thought out.

Two weeks ago I get a call from my friend Josh who lives in Pittsburgh. He wants to try Harnmaster after reading Cow in the Attic. Between family, work, the National Guard, and college he wanted to play an RPG that was utterly brutal and Harnmaster seems to fit the bill.

I readily agreed and went down to Pittsburgh the following weekend. The two of us managed to convince another friend of mine Scott to play as well. He not a big fan of RPGs that have you roll your character but was willing to try.

Lucky for me Columbia Games released an excellent little intro adventure called Field of Daisies for Harnmaster. So I decided to use that. When I got there I offered them to use the pre-gen character in Field of Daises or roll up their own.

So we sat down and rolled up a pair of Harnmaster characters. I decided that Slot #1 was going to be a Shek-Pvar, a Harnic Mage, Slot #2 would be the mage's bodyguard, and if a third player showed up Slot #3 a cleric of one of the good dieties. Now Harnmaster Magic is useful but not overwhelming. The mage + bodyguard combo should be able to deal with Field of Daisies.

Rolling up a Harnmaster Characters involves a lot of calculation and table lookup. Part of this is due to the fact they front load everything to make actual play run smooth.

Here is where 20 years of not actively using Harnmaster hurt. I should have photocopied the tables so that the both players could have used them at the various steps. Another thing about Harnmaster is that attribute dont' gimp your characters. A lot of skills involves averaging three attribute together so low stats are not an issue. Even so there are seven key attributes for these I am generous and have the players roll 4d6 reroll ones drop the lowest and do this 8 times. This is similar to how I did it for AD&D. Josh wants to be the magic user so has a 17 Aura the prime state for mages. Scott puts some great stats into his physical abilities which he his lowest in agility. Agility represent body dexterity, while dexterity represents manual dexterity.

In Harnmaster who your parents are is important for part of the initial batch of skills you get. Odds are you will be a child of a serf. In the 80s when I ran a succession of Harn campaign there were a lot of runaway serfs in the group. Josh parents turns out to be indeed serfs. Scott however rolls a 03 what happens to be a... slave. Scott gets a sour expression on his face at that. I explain that slavery existed in the middle age however it was not prevalent. Serfdom was the order of the day. I told he will still be the bodyguard but he enslaved to the Mage's Guild assigned to protect Josh's Mage.

Character generation proceeds until when we get to the Medical Table. For every roll on the medical table you get 2 points to raise your attributes. There is a 30% that roll will come to nothing. Most results are bad but a few are benefits like left handed which gives you 1 to 2 points of dexterity. Decks of many things anybody.

Josh decides to take three rolls gets no medical traits twice and an allergy to shell fish. Now that may sound silly until you are stuck in a seaside village and all there is to eat is clams.

Scott... poor Scott. He also takes three rolls. First roll he is allergic to fowl. Considering 90% of the population of Harn lives in rural villages this is going to be an issue. Then 2nd roll, ....


His left leg was chopped off when he was young leaving him with a pegleg. Scott throws up his hands and says "I am literally a gimp character." As this was a one shot we decide to go with this. The third roll was No Medical Trait with Scott giving a sigh of relief.

Being Lame meant his final Agility was 3. His normal combat move being a 1 hex and running 3 hexes. An average character would have a combat move of 10 hexes and running of 20 hexes. He not moving fast.

Then they came to the psyche table. Which is just like the Medical Table except it is psychological disorder. You have the option of one roll for +3 to any attribute except will. Josh elects to roll and comes with a No Pysche Trait result. Scott elects to pass.

When the character are finished up Josh has a Pelahn Shek-Pvar (Pelahn= Fire) with some nice offensive spells. A interesting thing about his character was that he was a bastard of a freeman born to a serf mother. Josh's high Aura attracted a travelling mage who decided to buy out his labor with his lord and have Josh trained as a mage. An interesting part of Josh's character was he was able to max out his dodge to above 100%. (Harnmaster allows skills greater than 100%)

Scott had a lame bodyguard. However he has an outstanding calculated Endurance of 19 (on a 3 to 18 scale). In Harnmaster a lot of saving throws are made against endurance. Most initial injuries he won't be effected by as it is impossible for him to fail. And he can last a lot longer in most fights. Scott's lost his leg while young and the same mage who found Josh took pity on him and bought him to serve as a servant. Due to Scott's great strength and endurance he was given weapon training as a bodyguard.

So I thought. Understand I GMed Harn 1st Edition and for this I was using 3rd Edition for the first time. There was an important change to the combat roll that made this not as useful.

For new games I run a combat encounter before starting play so that players can tweak their character before start of play. They found a couple of bandits and it went well. One of the bandits had a sling and inflicted a nasty bruise to Josh's hip. Because Sling bullets are considered fast missile (compared to a thrown axe or javelin) you can't dodge. But you can use a shield to block them. So Josh rearranged his skill buys to boost up his shield and bought a door errr tower shield.

The back story was that Josh was just made a journeyman of the Shek-Pvar and let loose for a year and a day to bring back three interesting magic items and three pieces of lore so that he could become a master. He decided to journey north to his home village of Falkith to visit his father who was a yeoman beadle.

When they got there they first encountered the woodward (the guy who manages the local forest so that people don't strip it bare for firewood and herbs). The woodward had been illegally poaching rabbits from the woods and was cooking one up in the back. When the characters came up the road he doused the fire, rushed out front and started to act belligerent. However the character didn't really take notice and were able to get directions to the manor.

Entering the village they found most of the men of the village and the manor lord (a knight) had gathered on the green and were discussing the disappearance of two serf boys. It been two days and they haven't found any sign of them in the surrounding country side. The lord was in the middle of ordering the yeoman to go to the hundred moot (the village where local court was held) and post notice that the two were runaway serfs.

At this point everybody notices the PCs and started questioning them as to their business. Josh explained about his father and the tension immediately broke. They explained that his father passed away and the current yeoman was his cousin. Note that due to Josh's clothing and the fact he had a armed bodyguard signaled to everyone that he had done very well since leaving the village. The yeoman invited Josh to stay at his cottage. And the Lord congratulated Josh on his success. In honor of Josh's return he ordered that a hog's head and some pork hocks be sent to the yeoman so they could have a little family feast. The lord also invited Josh and Scott over for breakfast in the morning. Note that despite Josh's serf background he represented a source of outside news. So the lord had ulterior motives other than being hospitable.

The villagers concluded the meeting and Josh, his yeoman cousin, and Scott when off to the cottage. There they found a large three room hut where one room was used as the living area, the second as a bedroom, and next to the bedroom was where they kept the family livestock, including chickens to Scott discomfort. After the feast there was talk about what happened to Josh's father. At this point they learned about a local cave that was supposely haunted.

While they were turning in for bed. The eldest son offered his blanket to Josh and Scott. To my surprise the players looked embrassed at this. Apparently I was doing a good job describing the surrounding and they knew that despite being a yeoman Josh's cousin didn't have much. Looking on their character sheets the two realized that they had their own blankets and so graciously refused.

At dawn they awoke. Josh and Scott decided to check out the cave instead of escorting his cousin to the hundred moot. They walked down to the lord's manor to eat breakfast. The manor looks somewhat like a wild west stockade with only one wooden tower. Only the manor house itself was made of stone. When they walked in they saw the alewife (the female servant in charge of maintaining the lord stock of ales, and other liquors). She showed to the great hall of the manor. There they saw the cook preparing breakfast over a smoky hearth along with the lord's old uncle sitting at the table and complaining about everything.

After several minutes the lord came down and breakfast was served. The conversation revolved around news from the outside which Josh and Scott did a great job in making stuff up despite their lack of knowledge of Harn along with the two of them asking about the cave. Every so often the Uncle piped in with his bombastic comments.

Note that I do voices. I am not a professional by any means but I can do it well enough to give each of my NPCs a distinct voice. I don't try to do a true falsetto for my female NPCs I do raise my voice a pitch or two.

They learned that the local cave was considered haunted and nobody ever goes in there. So after breakfast they thanked the lord and decided to go exploring.

Now when a Harn adventure has a cave they have a cave. The floors are uneven they show sudden drops and climbs, tight spots, and passageways going every which way. Field of Daisies was no different.

The front part of the cave was relatively innocuous more of a puzzle challenge than anything truly dangerous. The only part that could serious hurt them was a patch of M'nogi or the Harnic Green Slime. Unlike D&D's slime, the M'nogi was a mushroom with a acid filled interior. If you pick one it is very easy to squirt the acid out randomly often severely burning the character. And if you fall into a patch it was a bad day for everyone.

Apparently the whole "realism" thing that I was doing in my description was really getting to the players in a good way by raising the tension. Much in the way a good GM of Call of Cthulu will do while investigators explore that creepy old house they shouldn't.

Also remember that despite Scott's one leg he has tremendous upper body strength so his climbing and other physical skill were slightly above average.

The climax of this exploration came when they reached a bottleneck. The cave narrowed to a single passageway which dipped down and up again much like a drain pipe under a sink. The effect was that nothing bulky or over 5' in length could be taken. This meant Scott's spear and Josh's tower shield. Luckily Scott had a round shield that could be taken.

So they climbed down and out again where the cave broadened again. Here it opened into a large chamber. The creepiness started to peg too high on the meter as the both of them began to think this whole cave business was a bad bad idea.

It was...

The rear of the cave system was inhabited by two Vlasta or Eaters of Eyes. They are about as big as a chicken with no feathers with claws and a wicked beak. They liked to leap high and get at the face of their target trying to peck at anything especially the eyes.

While setting up the module, I rolled the dice roll to see what type of setup the vlasta would be in. As it turned out there was only one near the PCs.

One proved to be enough.

While the players were debating I started scratching the underside of the table. They didn't seem to notice consciously that I was doing this but the conversation started to take a "Get the hell out of here turn". I then threw some dice and announced that they heard some stone clattering.

They immediately began to retreat back to the bottleneck. It was then I had the Vlasta attack.

After rolling who it will target the thing leaped onto Scott. Scott failed his dodge while I got a marginal success on the hit. I had it aim high and rolled for hit location ...

the face.

We all groaned as the Vlasta had a 70% chance of ripping Scott's eye out on a face shot. Luckily I rolled a 93 so it was a serious stab wound (S2) to the face.

Josh cast a Orb of Zetara which creates a ball of ethereal fire. Normally it is used for lighting but if you hit somebody with it using a touch attack it will burn them.

Scott stabbed at the Vlasta with his dagger. Now understand that Harnmaster has 10 second combat rounds. So it isn't like you are stabbing at your face with a dagger. Rather you have this thing trashing around pecking at you and you try to get a good blow in.

For a defense I choose a counter attack figuring the Vlasta is going all out. Well Scott missed and the Vlasta got a critical success. This time the hit location was in the neck. Scott got a serious stab wound to the neck (S3).

Here where new edition of Harnmaster got me. Harnmaster had shock rolls after every injury. If you failed to roll beneath your endurance you passed out. In 1st edition the roll was whatever injury level you took for that blow along with +1 for every two levels of injury you already had. This was perhaps too generous as it left a lot of fights where both sides unable to do anything because they were so injured.

The new rule for 2nd and 3rd edition. Is that number of d6 you roll is the TOTAL of all your injuries. So when the Vlasta nailed Scott he had to roll 5d6 (S2 in the face + a S3 in the neck) under a 19. And Scott blew the shock roll and passed out.

In the first harnmaster combat ever for these guys one of them gets laid out in two rounds. Understand this took about 2 minutes of real time. Most of that me looking up what the Orb of Zetara did. So it was BAM! and BAM! Scott is down.

Josh punches the Vlasta with the Orb and burns it. The Vlasta then turns around aims high and leaps at Josh. Josh's 100+ dodge saves him. Josh then punches the Vlasta again. The Vlasta counterattack fails and Josh succeeds and again burns the Vlasta. Now the Vlasta has only a 8 endurance so the two minor burns combined to a 2d6 shock roll which the Vlasta fails.

Stunned at this turn of events. Josh begins first aiding Scott, poorly. Then uses a healing salve that allows the wounds to be healing quicker once they get out of the cave. Scott wakes up and succeeds on his final shock roll. If he had failed he would be no condition to fight.

The two of them decide to leave. Then I started scratching the underside of the table which this time they noticed. They listen and heard clattering of more stones. The second Vlasta had heard the fight and was coming to investigate.

The players didn't know there was only one more so decided to get out. However Josh didn't want it following them. So he casted another spell called lake of fire. It doesn't do much damage but it engulf a rather large area in flames. Josh figures whatever out there would be scared off.

He successfully casted the spell and the whole rear section of the cave was brief engulfed in a fireball. They hear the scream of the Vlasta as it runs away to its lair. But they also hear two human screams.

Unbeknownst to the two the cave connects to an abandoned Khuzan (Dwarven) Mine. Off of the main mine shaft the dwarves carved out a series of rooms as a small living quarter and storeroom. In the back of one of the room was a secret room that connected the rooms to the cave. If something would happened in the mine this would be an alternate route out.

A couple of days ago a peddler was fishing in a pond with his feet in the water. While fishing his feet hit something solid in the musk. He pulled it out and turned out to be a dagger of a dark god named Morgath. It primary power was to instill a compulsion to kill in the bearer to the point where he had to take a sentient life every 13 days. The peddler was greatly disturbed by this, not being an evil man. So he fled into this cave eventually discovering the secret door. He has spent the last two weeks in here trying to resist the compulsion.

However two serf boys from the villages dared each other to go into the cave two days ago. They managed to get all the way into the rear of the cave when they were attacked by the Vlasta. One of them was killed and the other fled further in. The peddler heard this and rescued him. They wound up back in the secret chamber.

However there was enough of the dagger's compulsion on him that the peddler decided tie the body up until he decided what to do. With food running out and the dagger's hold increasing the peddler is on the verge of murdering the child. When Josh casted the Lake of Fire I ruled that the secret door wasn't a barrier and thus the body and the peddler were effected.

Attracted by the shouts, Josh and Scott began searching the chamber. They found the secret door. When they opened they heard the peddler smacking the body around telling him to shut up. The boy is crying that he wants to go home.

The two decided to rush the chamber. They charged in and announced that on the authority of the Mage's Guild the peddler is under arrest. The peddler panics and thinks they are here for him and the magical dagger. He lunges at the box where he is keeping the dagger and is able to retrieve it. Scott steps up and misses while the peddler dodges. Josh creates another Orb of Zetara. The next round the peddlers lunges at Scott.

After the fight with the first Vlasta, Josh takes Scott's shield and never gives it back. So Scott is stuck using his dagger parry or his dodge both of which sucks. He blows his dodge and the Peddler plunges the dagger into Scott's already injured neck getting a Kill result (K4). Now K4 isn't instant death you still get a save. 4d6 roll lower than Scott endurance of 19 not affected by injury. Scott saves so the K4 is converted to a grievous wound (G4). However this wound plus the other neck stab and the face stab combine into a 9d6 shock roll versus a 19 endurance. Scott fails and passes out.

Josh then punches the Peddler with the Orb and succeeds. Josh dodges the next thrust of the dagger and punches again with the orb, succeeding. The Peddler has ordinary stats and winds up failing the 2d6 shock roll (two minor burns M1 each). The Peddler passes out.

Josh then reaches down and picks up the dagger. The compulsion to kill takes hold of him after failing the will roll and Josh plunges the Dagger into the peddler.

Josh did a nice bit of role-playing while he sat in the room considering whether he would kill Scott and the boy as well. The dagger's compulsion was satisfied for 13 days so it was Josh's choice. In the end he sheathed the dagger and wraps it up.

Scott wakes up and doesn't make his final shock roll so he in a dazed condition for at least four hours. Josh goes into the dwarven mine and finds the exit to be blocked by stones. He is able to clear enough to allow the boy to escape. Then returns to the cave and hunts down the remaining Vlasta. I do mean he hunts down. Josh is determined to make the Vlasta his prey. He succeeds in killing the last Vlasta.

When Josh returns to the secret chambers he finds the villagers had cleared enough stone to allow both Josh and Scott to exit by the old mine entrance. Josh and Scott are hailed as heroes while Scott is given a room at the manor to recuperate. Josh decides that he has one of his three items and carefully bundles the dagger. Scott recovers in five weeks with no infections however suffers a loss in Stamina due to the multiple neck wounds and Comeliness due to the facial scars.

Overall the game was a success and the players had a lot of fun.

The Pluses

I had forgotten how much I really enjoyed GMing Harnmaster.

Once again the brutality and playability of combat system pulled the players into the game rather than driving them out of it. When I DMed harnmaster in the late 80s it's graphic nature never failed to make players go "Combat is serious."

I was in a groove GMing wise and managed to build tension. This is my weakest aspect as a GM and I am glad to have pulled this off as Field of Daisies depends on it.

The Minuses

Need to photocopy a lot more charts than I did for character creation. I forgotten I did this for 1st edition.

I also need to create a table of triple values so players can quickly compute the average. For example a total of 42 means the average of three values is 14 the same for 43, 44. For 45 the average becomes 15.

I am not sure about this new shock roll system. I see what they were trying to fix with 1st edition. But this is like way to brutal for even my taste. I may go with a d6 roll based on whatever injury they took that round plus +1 to the roll for each prior injury. So in the first fight Scott would have been faced with a 3d6+2 shock roll instead of 5d6. 4d6+5 for the second fight's shock roll.

Probably use my Majestic Wilderlands instead of Harn for the next game. For two reasons, first my demographics and social structure borrows a lot from Harn already. Second my Harn stuff is not organized for actual play but rather for easy reading. I just don't want to spend the time doing the reorganization when the Majestic Wilderlands is right there in my head and organized in my notebook.

I should have given Scott better Armor and equipment. Despite having one leg, if he was properly armored up he could have shined in the combat situations rather than being overshadowed by Josh. Looks like in Harnmaster proper equipment is essential as it is in real life.

Josh and Scott said that the whole village sequence really drew them in especially the bit about the hog's head and hocks along with the offering of the blanket. Character generation was a bit of
chore. Scott swore if he made another harnmaster character he would never roll on the medical or pysche table again. Both agreed that combat seemed complex but played very fast.

Provided I can avoid things like Cow in the Attic and One legged dwarves err characters I can continue to make Harnmaster a fun experience.


Norman J. Harman Jr. said...


I have a like/dislike relationship with Harn (the setting never actually owned/used rules).

On the one hand the detail gives me OCD orgasms of joy. But it's the "fantasy" equivalent of Hard Sci-Fi. And I hate Hard Sci-Fi. I want fantasy adventure! Not a simulation of European Medieval society.

Scott said...

I'm a big Harn fan, but like njharman, I've never actually been able to get a campaign going for very long, nor have any of the other folks in our group who've tried. In fact, the excellent adventure "100 Bushels of Rye" has been used as a starting point for aborted campaigns so often that it's a running joke.

After reading the Harnforum for a while, along with the recommendations of the hardcore fans there, I believe I could run a successful Harn game for n00bs.

There's an awful lot of gonzo stuff on Harn -- visitors from 20th century Earth, interdimensional gates, lake dragons, terrestrial demi-gods, insectile rape-orcs, freaky artifacts, psionics, realm-spanning magical conspiracies, etc.

If I were to run a Harn game now, for players who'd never played in the setting, I probably wouldn't start off with deep-immersion manorial wranglings and dirt farm simulation. I'd put them in as the retinue of a disguised Shek-Pvar, so that they're operating outside the constraints of the Harnic feudal system to some extent. That frees them up to "adventure" in the classic sense of an armed band of semi-independent freebooters, something that normal folk on Harn can't really do.

Harn has plenty of really weird high-magic adventurer-type stuff going on, it's just going on outside of the view of mainstream society. Many players used to other settings might find it less jarring to ease into the medievalism bit by bit, and then if they liked it, I could kick off my intrigue-heavy Kaldoric Succession Crisis or Jarin Rebellion campaign.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with njharman. I have a constant battle going with Harn, absolutely love the suppliments, but dislike playing the game. I disagree with Rob as it being a perfect blend. For me Harn severely lacks playabiliy. As Scott mentioned it is difficult to have a continuing campaign. I want it to work. I want to be in a campaign. But have yet to enjoy being in a Harn adventure. On free RPG day they released Field of Daisies and damn it Harn started pulling me back in *place Al Pancino imitation here*. And I've discussed with Rob of possibly giving Harn a try again. He nearly fainted and had three Harn source books in his hands before I finished the next sentence. He is evil. Anyway, we hope to get together soon and generate a character and go adventuring.

George said...

Hi -- enjoyed reading this. Sounds like you did an outstanding job in GMing this adventure. Mad props!

Robert Conley said...

Appreciate the compliment, it was a lot of fun although the player with gimp fighter still grumbles a bit about what he rolled all these years later.