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  • Introduction to Harn and Harnmaster

    Posted on December 8th, 2003 Rob No comments

    In our neverending quest to find you information, weve come across Hârn, a very extensive game system by Columbia Games. Ive been in contact with the company and have permission to reprint the introduction from their site. They are also working on an Interactive Atlas based on the CC2 Pro technology from Profantasy (Who were also talking to). Hopefully this is just the tip of the iceberg and well be able to bring you more Hârn info with the help of our new friends at Columbia Games

    Introduction to Harn and Harnmaster

    by N.Robin Crossby

    Fantasy Roleplaying

    Fantasy Roleplaying is essentially a process whereby gamemasters (and publications) create/define worlds in which players live alternate lives. One of my players defined it as: "you sit on that side of the screen and I sit on this side, and you hurt me". One is also tempted to paraphrase a maxim used in the field of psychiatry to refer to neurotics and psychotics, "Gamemasters build castles in the sky, players live in them…"; it is an interesting problem as to who will fill the alegorical role of the analyst and collect the rent. Of course, the roles of GM and player do tend to blur. FRP is a creative art as well as a mechanical process. Ideas are generated on both sides of the screen and combine to form amalgams whose parents are not always easy to identify. The most important and most difficult function of the GM is the maintenance of the overall picture. In the final analysis it is he, and he alone, who must take responsibility for the way things are, and the way things work in his world. No GM can abrogate this responsibility, but Harn (and the rest of the iceberg) are designed to make the his life a little easier.

    Fantasy roleplaying is a trinity of three vital elements; in order of importance, they are gamemastering, environment and rules. GMing is, obviously, the province of the gamemaster; all publications can do is offer suggestions. Rules are no more than a mechanical set of guidelines, an attempt to formulate common sense while incorporating some pretty weird stuff.

    The Harn/Kethira environmental system belongs to the second element of FRP. A good environmental framework is a painstaking endeavour; it is, by far, the hardest element to improvise since it must be fixed and stable. It is unfair to the players, to say nothing of unaesthetic, to have an environment in flux. The geography of a region cannot change between visits (unless there is an earthquake or a very long delay to the second visit).

    The Fantasy Environment

    All great works of fantasy are woven of familiar threads. While there may be outlandish beasts with strange powers, wielders of the weirding way or odd cultural phenonomae, there is still a feeling that one has been here before. Deja-vu is a natural consequence of trying to describe an entire alien world. The audience has to fill huge gaps with concepts drawn from their realworld experience. Any fantasy world must, in this sense, be familiar. There is a basic assumption that whatever is not specifically described will correspond to the real world. The test of acceptability is one of degree, a matter of how much, and in what manner, the viewer/player must suspend his disbelief. In fantasy roleplaying, most are willing to accept that magic works and that fell beasties roam the wilderness, but not that huge populations of ravenous monsters can support themselves by eating an adventurer every six months or so. The trick is in the degree and internal logic of the outlandishness.

    There is a vital element of mood, and this elusive principle lies at the heart of successful fantasy. While it is true that magic-strong, hack and slay environs can keep players and gamemasters occupied for a time, only an environment that is fundamentally rational, has a high level of internal consistency and is carefully maintained can give the feeling that one is involved in an epic. Those who limit themselves to short forays into disjointed chaos are missing something; they are swallowing warm, flat lemonade when there is champagne available.

    Realism / Authenticity

    The starting framework in designing a fantasy world is, therefore, the real world, of which everyone has their own picture. Those who think they are creating from scratch are fooling themselves. Even if their world were 100% original, unless they were somehow able to describe every single aspect of it, it would still be perceived as a variant of the real world. In some ways this makes fantasy design harder. Even though the similarities to the real world do not have to be specified, they must be considered at all times. One small addition to the overall picture, say the inclusion of dragons, may have far reaching consequences and these would have to be explained. Designing a fantasy environment is like telling a huge lie. Gossamer dreams turn easily to cobwebs. Where fantasy is to diverge from reality the onus is on the author to justify the divergence.

    And Harn/Kethira in particular

    In designing Harn, I saw no reason to modify the basic physical laws that prevail on Earth, weather and climate, for example; I am not sure if other fantasy worlds alter these laws out of design or ignorance. In any event, impossibilities that can be found in other fantasy worlds, such as prairie grassland in coastal temperate zones have been avoided.

    I opted for a medieval feudal society, because I did not think our competitors had quite grasped the implications. The cultural model for Harn was Norman England, incorporating key elements from both earlier and later periods. This is a tricky blend, but the object was to create a world ideally suited to roleplaying.

    The scale of the Harnic economy is plausible. Most transactions in a feudal economy are in kind. Even if one assumes that there are 12 silver pence in circulation for every human on Harn (a dubious notion) this would allow for a total money supply just over a million pence (or about 30,000gp). This is a little high for a medieveal setting, but is adequate for roleplaying. Obvously, finding 1000 gold coins in a cave is, at least, unlikely.

    Magic In Harn

    Harn is "magic weak", a concept that has been widely misunderstood. By this I mean that magic (as opposed to legends and rumours of magic) does not intrude too often into the lives of the inhabitants. Most Harnians go from cradle to grave with no direct experience of magic whatsoever. Vast amounts of magic may sound like a good idea, but one can get a headache trying to work out the consequnces. If the society is to work, there must be careful control of magic. This is not to say that player-characters cannot have frequent esoteric experiences, this is up to the GM, but the magical background, the overall amount of magic in society, must be carefully limited.

    The Beasts of Harn

    We provided encounter tables for Harn since they are certainly environmental factors, even though they trespass into the realm of rules. The kinds of entity one would meet are as much a part of Harn as are the weather generation procedures. At first glance, the tables may seem tame, or berift of dangerous monsters, unfit for a hack and slay campaign. Actually Gamemasters are encouraged to add more beasties, but in a thoughtful way. "Store bought" monsters do little to personalise a campaign.

    Peaks and Troughs

    The fundamental key to good FRP is very simple. Nothing should be allowed to get out of hand; no one element should be permitted to dominate the picture. Magic, money, power and monsters should be kept in their own versions of Pandoras Box and opened by the GM only a crack at a time. Excitement must contrast with normality. At least half of the players activities should be routine, but there will come that rare episode that will make the whole thing worthwhile, but which could not even be distinguished in a hack and slash world. It is, after all in the nature of human beings that they derive more enjoyment from striving towards than from attaining a goal; some players are, after all, human beings.

    In essence, the Harnic environment sets the money, beast and magic at low levels, on the theory that people who want more can add more, but those who prefer low levels cannot easily remove surpluses. Who likes the Harnic environment? Our typical customer is a 21 year old college student. This compares with the industry standard 14 year old.


    The object of the Harn environment system was to provide a well- developed fantasy universe for roleplaying. We called it Kelestia, the cosmic all. We saw a lack in the market and produced what reviewers have called a self consistent, interesting, and rational environment. Our customers and most reviewers agree that the Harn system is, by far, the best available.

    The point was to do the boring, nuts and bolts work of campaign world development. We thought GMs wanted complete data on the economics, politics, social dynamics, etc., but could not spend months and years developing the necessary data bases. We believed GMs wanted to spend their limited time developing scenarios for their players, and were not interested in being led by the noses through verbatim, over-detailed adventures.

    Since 1983 when the Harn Regional Module was released, it has turned out that many GMs agreed with us, and this enabled us to carve out a niche in an overcrowded market, in the middle of a recession, but there was a problem: Some of our customers were telling us that the rules they were using with Harn were unable to exploit its depth and richness.

    We did not like any published rules well enough to tie our products to. We did not believe any of them were of the same quality as the Harn system. So we decided to publish Harnmaster, which I had been developing for about seven years.

    Once we had made the decision to publish Harnmaster, it became our number one project for nearly a year. This very nearly led to financial disaster. In this industy no one can afford to spend that much time on any project. Unfortunately, we have always tended to spend too much time on everything, but then, if we were interested in money wed be in some other field. Right?

    So what makes Harnmaster better than any other FRP system? There is no single answer. Harnmaster is so radically different from any of the other major systems that it sometimes seems like an alien genre. Actually, this fact seems to have made some people think that Harnmaster is more complicated than it really is. I will give a few examples:

    • A Harnmaster Character generates or chooses just over thirty, carefully defined attributes, or more or less if desired. About half the generation process is concerned with social background, an area generally neglected elsewhere, but which is essential for a fully rounded character intended for more than one expedition. This takes longer, but saves time later. Even though Harnmaster was designed with Kethira/Harn in mind, it may be used, probably unmodified with any pre- gunpowder fantasy environment. Complete novices can take more than an hour to generate a player character (including skills) but experience increases efficiency, and software is on the way to speed things up.
    • There are no "character classes" or "levels" in Harnmaster. Instead there is a subtle, and very clean skills system, with over 120 skills described, including thirteen psionic talents. Affinity for each skill depends on character attributes. The system is open-ended, the GM/players may expand it at will. There is nothing to prevent a wizard from using a sword, or a warrior from learning a few spells. Everyone decides which skills he will develop and to what level. It is possible for a character to be a mercantyler, a pilot, or practice a vast array of other occupations instead of or in addition to the traditional five or six "classes".
    • Except for Harnmaster, all major systems use "hit points", an obtuse abstraction developed from miniatures wargaming. I decided instead to generate graphic injuries. What do you prefer, a "seven point hit" or a "serious cut to the left thigh"? What about infection, shock, fatigue? These considerations are neglected by every system but Harnmaster.
    • Why should armour come in complete suits of leather, mail or plate instead of discrete pieces? How on earth could wearing sixty pounds of armour reduce the chance that an opponent will land a blow? In HÂRnmaster, an armoured character must sacrifice mobility in proportion to his encumbrance and this generally makes him easier to strike. Armour does not and should not benefit its wearer until an opponent lands a blow. This allows a character to strike a personal balance between armour and mobility, to stress his speed and agility or his strength and endurance. No other system allows a personal choice of combat mode. This approach also recognizes the two basic modes of combat that have historically been practiced by Terrans: Static, such as the medieval European knight; or Mobile, such as the Japanese Samurai.
    • Harnmaster requires combatants to make tactical decisions. "Do I block, counterstrike, dodge? Shall I engage this opponent or that one? Shall I attack or wait for an opening?" While Harnmaster campaigners do not seem to fight with the same monotonous regularity as is the case in most other systems, when melee is joined, the combatants always feel as if they are in a real fight, with real options and real results. For the fainthearted or hasty, there is also a Quick Combat system.
    • Magic in Harnmaster is not a matter of rote-learning. While there are over 170 spells and spell variants, the system stresses original research. It is a matter of pride for the Shek-Pvar to develop personal spells, and the R&D system is clearly laid out for players who are interested.

    What Harnmaster does is question the basic assumptions made, I believe falaciously, by other systems. Someone out there agrees. Harnmaster seems to be even more popular than the Harn environment and is gradually stealing followers of other systems who want a somewhat more cerebral game.

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