Observations & Propositions for Growth

dmmilner's picture

These are just some observations I have, proposals for possible future development, and invitations for feedback. They'll come as spitballs first, then explanations after for anyone interested in the background.

SUMMARY: In short, this is a completely bad-ass system that makes me want to play it... strongly. But there's little-to-no foreplay, if you'll forgive my metaphor. In spite of its genius and bad-assery, it is EXTREMELY intimidating and risks turning off newcomers. There's readily-available content, and a lot of it; but the content appears to be aimed towards a reader and less so towards a player, particularly a new one -- if you follow my meaning. Also, due to lack of footprint, YOU have to SEEK HarnMaster; my impression is that it's extremely rare for someone to come across it on its own and wonder, "What's this all about?"

OBSERVATION 1: To me, this is hands-down the best system I've come across. As both a D&D and Call of Cthulhu player, I enjoy fantasy roll-playing, but have come to lament the "party of murder-hobos" into which D&D has degenerated. Call of Cthulhu has many similar aspects to HarnMaster, and it focuses players on the mystery/adventure more-so than being "murder hobos"; but it's not fantasy. The Skills-based system is a home-run.

OBSERVATION 2: This is not intended to be condescending, as I think we all agree this is the current state of affairs -- HarnMaster has a comparatively TINY player base. Hardly anyone I know has heard of it, so it's just BRUTAL to find a group of people to play with.

OBSERVATION 3: For an inexperienced GM, without an existing player base for good critique, I do NOT do justice to the system when trying to introduce players to it. There is a STEEP learning curve with character creation and combat flow.

OBSERVATION 4: Speaking of combat, once the learning curve is surpassed, this becomes a HUGE selling point of HarnMaster that I love. (1) It's graphic; it's brutal; it's visceral; it's DEADLY, and almost always has dire consequences; (2) which is how combat should be! It took players ONE combat before they stepped back and said, "Ok... how 'bout this is our last resort from now on?" Exactly, ladies and gents... exactly. This promotes an attitude more towards finding solutions and solving mysteries rather than a party of murder-hobos.

OBSERVATION 5: No levels? No problem! Again, with accolades towards the skills-based system, it's great that there's no such thing as a lvl 76 fighter that can wade through a never-ending sea of kobolds with nary a scratch. You can excel in arms but yet be completely incompetent in investigation, if that's your forte. And woe to the noble knight who gets beset by a dozen peasants with pitchforks and rope.

OBSERVATION 6: There appears to be a significant lack of adventure-modules, and those that exist -- while they are most excellent in terms of mood and background -- can be nearly impossible to play if played "properly". Dead of Winter and Staff of Fanon come to mind. For those who haven't read them, I'll keep the spoilers out. Dead of Winter has an AWESOME setup and story; but I can't for the life of me figure out how the villain CAN'T accomplish his goals without a total and complete lock-down, if he is played properly. And in the Staff of Fanon, (a) too much of the dungeon is non-populated and (b) it INVITES players to get insta-wiped in a certain room. (The exception is 100 Bushels of Rye... a most-excellent starter adventure.)

OBSERVATION 7: I have no idea how to do Magic. Keep in mind my only reference is D&D with this. I FEEL like it's awesome that the spells are vague and open-ended. However, with no experience upon which to call, expecting me and my players to develop our own spells is a daunting ask.

OBSERVATION 8: Religion and rituals are awesome, and this was probably the easiest way for new players to incorporate spellcasters into a game session. The effects were specific and straightforward.

OBSERVATION 9: New content comes pouring out, but it APPEARS it's mostly history, overland maps, and background. Now all of that is GREAT, but where's the game-playing meat to entice new players? Are we pulling in PLAYERS or READERS? I have little interest in the goings-on of the main continent when I can't even get my head around the isle of Harn itself, let alone get into it and adventure with some folks.


PROPOSITION 1: 100 Bushels of Rye -- or a new product very similar to it -- should be the tip of the spear for bringing in new players. In fact, let me revise that already and stress A NEW PRODUCT. Even 100 Bushels assumes basic familiarity with the HarnMaster system. I'm thinking a ready-made module that calls for certain rolls at certain events and that sort of thing; something to ease in both a new GM and new players. Set scenes; set events for investigation; set events for certain skills; set events for dialogue/interrogation; set combats, at least a prelude and a climactic battle; set events that require spells or rituals; and so on.

PROPOSITION 2: Due to its currently small footprint in the market, an online-available solo adventure -- again, calling for certain rolls during certain events -- can also help introduce players to this awesome system.

PROPOSITION 3: Also due to the small footprint, combined with the horrendous challenges of the COVID world, a ruleset for Fantasy Grounds would not only help facilitate online play between people all over the world, but its presence on such a platform could expand -- perhaps greatly -- the player base; and an expansion of player base = $$$$.

PROPOSITION 4: If there are any open-source, public-domain adventures from the classic era of D&D, perhaps a conversion of such a module (Keep on the Bordlerlands?) to HarnMaster can help entice those players into this FAR superior system.

PROPOSITION 5: When it comes to magic, I'm NOT proposing a more exhaustive and comprehensive spell-list, as I understand one of the major selling points of HarnMagic is player-created spells. But, as I mentioned above, I'm just not getting it. Perhaps more examples of spell creation, or nudges in some directions, could help ease players into the intimidating occupation of Shek-Pvar.

PROPOSITION 6: Maybe something I missed, but what about an officially published Harn adventuring CAMPAIGN? Something world-shaping (or island-shaping) in which players can participate using officially published adventure modules? I understand this would move the publishing timeline of adventures past the year 920 or whatever it is, but again... keeping an eye on expanding the player base...

PROPOSITION 7: And with all of the above already mentioned, the most obvious proposition is MORE OFFICIAL ADVENTURE MODULES, whether they are on Harn or the continent or wherever. This puts money in your pocket, obviously. It also entices the player base. But furthermore, as I perceive the current HarnMaster audience is an older generation, like myself... guys, I just don't have TIME anymore to create my own adventures and long-term campaigns. I need something I can buy, read in a week, and hit the ground playing with some people -- most likely online in Roll20, The Foundry, or Fantasy Grounds -- without a ton of prep and fuss.



I came across HarnMaster 2nd Edition (apologies! it's the first one I found out about!) before or after 2000. The needle entered the vein, and I've been sold on the system ever since. I then got 3rd Edition (again, apologies), found out about all the fuss between those other people and Robin, got HarnMaster Gold, and just started a collection of any adventure module or world reference material I could get my hands on.

At this time, my RP friends were heavily into D&D 3rd Edition (or 3.5 or whatever). I had grown up on AD&D, then AD&D 2nd Edition, 3rd Edition, and with that, everything started to go FLAT. D&D just became a game system of murder-hobos (as you've likely noticed I've like to refer to those kinds of players). With HarnMaster already in my veins, I continually got more and more disenchanted with the whole combat = XP, XP = levels, Levels = power, Power = invincibility. D&D just became a broken system.

But whenever I tried to pull friends into trying HarnMaster... Christ, it was just CLUMSY. We were constantly flipping through rules, checking charts, trying to figure out how magic works, and that was after the 2-hour long character generation process. So whereas I was totally enamored of this system, introducing others to it fell 95% flat. The conclusion in most cases was: (a) I don't want to make a character, (b) combat is too cumbersome, (c) there's too much paging-through-rules, and (d) I don't feel like I'm progressing with this character. Now all of those are FAIR CRITICISMS. I have dissenting or countering views on each objection, but that's not the point. That seemed to be almost universal in the feedback.

I'm a salesman by trade, and this is definitely a system I WANT to "sell", right? I WANT to get more players. I want to play, and because I want to play, I want to get a larger footprint, or at least make this easier to ease people into it, so that I can HAVE more people to play WITH.

Right now, my IMPRESSION is that this is a product that is SUPER VALUED by the CURRENT BASE. What I'm pointing out here is... what's the plan to get past the current base and bring more people in? Definitely challenging, as NO ONE wants to move PAST the current base. The goal should be... INCREASE THE BASE, yes? And so this is all just some mental diarrhea towards that end.

Thus the reason for this lengthy post!

Any tips/feedback/contrary view points are welcome. I'm all ears!

McBard's picture

Thanks for the great, detailed post, dmmilner. I come from a similar D&D3.5 and Chthulhu background as you and still enjoy playing both of those games--but prefer HM and the world of Kethira for many of the reasons you outlined. I have several reactions--in no particular order.

First off, "Murder Hobos" is a pretty funny description of what D&D can feel like. Btw, I own quite a lot of all its editions, including 5th edition--which is very good--so this is no real hate on my part, but...your term is still funny and really not inaccurate.

Call of Cthulhu has a similar strange narrative phenomenon when the number of players gets too large: groups of four to six 1920s-era investigators piling into the same taxi cab ...or squeezing into Mr. and Mrs. Smith's living room to interview them...or creeping around in droves outside strange mansions late at night...perhaps "Detective Hobos"? I've found CoC best enjoyed with only 1 or 2 PCs (which mirrors the fiction source material, right?).

As far as HM/Kethira, I appreciate your distinction between reader and player. I'm the GM like you who introduced my players to HM. I've had much better luck, but I will say my players were/are mostly in agreement about the feel of HM (skills, injuries)--so I had it easier!

I do agree about your point of not only needing more adventures but actually a focused, long-term campaign to use.

On a specific point--about magic and spells--I do realize the rules regarding HM magic suggest or imply that players *should* make their own spells...but in play from week to week, it very rarely happens. And I'm not sure it should really be the norm. I've had it happen once or twice and I do like it as a peripheral encouragement--but, from a publishing standpoint, I think the game would be better served by just clearer, more succinct rules for playing a Shek-Pvar along the lines of most other RPGs...you pick your spells and go. It's the one "non-Harniac" opinion I hold, I suppose.

My overall opinion is that--while a skill-based, rare-magic, opposed-roll combat RPG like HM is not going to be for everyone (and new players are perfectly allowed not to prefer it)--it is a shame that it might miss out on attracting new players for the reasons you enumerated.

Lastly, this was a pretty interesting (24-page!) forum discussion from about 5 or so years ago on RPG.net that might interest you: https://forum.rpg.net/index.php?threads/harn-what-would-make-it-appeal-t...

It touches on several of the points you make.

Alex Greene's picture

I'd love to write a short "how-to" on Shek-Pvar spellcasting and psionics, extracting the mechanics from HMG: Shek-Pvar but emphasising that the guide cannot be used as a standalone, but usable only in conjunction with the aforementioned book.

Balesir's picture

Hi! I actually read the original post a while back, but it has taken some time for me to post these thoughts because the subject of RPG systems is such a vast subject area with a wide range of disparate and sometimes contradictory views (and that’s just counting mine – it gets worse if you listen to other people as well!)

So, where to start? Well, I think possibly the most important question when considering roleplaying rules systems is “What is it for?” It sounds like you came to roleplaying along much the same route that I did, via AD&D and its various successor systems, interspersed with the likes of RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, Traveller and so forth – plus maybe Chivalry and Sorcery, GURPS, various homebrew concoctions and a host of other, “minor” games. These were and are all fun systems with their own particular attractions and foibles, but they all – without exception – share a common vision of what “roleplaying gaming” is supposed to look like. Approximately speaking, this consists of a set of players being exclusively concerned with ‘their characters’, a specific world setting that has been defined to a greater or lesser degree before play starts either in commercially printed volumes or by a “Games Master” or the equivalent, and a succession of situations or pre-configured plotlines being presented for those characters to interact with. This is all fine and fun, but it’s only one interpretation of what roleplaying games are – or, at least, can be.

HârnMaster sort of fits with and caters to this model of what a roleplaying game is, but, as you have noticed, there are rough spots and difficulties for many (but not all) players. I have come to the view that this is because the original driving concept and inspiration for Hârn – the world, if not the system – is slightly at odds with the ‘classical’ model of roleplaying games.

Some while back there was a vogue for discussion of the reasons people do roleplaying games. The discussions attracted all sorts of rancour for the usual, rather daft, reasons, but out of the various prognostications I identified three reasons to roleplay that struck a chord in me. The first was to face up to imaginary challenges or puzzles and (hopefully) defeat them. The second was to form a story around challenging the players’ ethical or aesthetic sensibilities via the character(s) you played, and the last was to simply explore the implications of an imaginary world that is different from our own in certain, carefully specified ways. It is my view that it was this last one that Robin was really motivated by as he developed Hârn. That would explain the Shèk-Pvâr system of individually developed spells (enabling the exploration of magick as a play group, mediated by the GM). Play envisaged as a collective exploration of HârnWorld and the implications of how it works fits really well, too, with the constitution and content of HMG, especially the GM’s material. Once the material was out “in the wild”, several folks followed what seems to have been a natural attraction to a “solving puzzles and overcoming challenges” agenda, particularly with investigative scenarios such as Dead of Winter, but also with physical challenges such as those found in 100 Bushels of Rye. Note, however, that these “adventure modules” were not written by Robin. The “adventures” Robin did write range widely across HârnWorld (including its attached multiverse) and seem to me to be aimed pretty squarely at exploring the world’s “higher realities”. Robin was a philosopher, and philosophical explorations, I think, fascinated him throughout his life. Sometimes this was facilitated and lubricated by beer. I can relate to that!

Unfortunately for us, though, I think this creates an issue with HârnMaster as regards popularity. It doesn’t comfortably mesh with the way that many roleplayers have been taught to roleplay – or perhaps with what they have grown to believe roleplaying is “all about”. At the same time, though, it doesn’t present a crystal clear and unambiguous alternative model of what roleplaying could be. The result is that it takes a particularly thoughtful, openminded or perhaps simply frustrated type of roleplayer to see the potential in HM. Many just become confused and frustrated when they try to “do roleplaying” (as they have learned it) with this system.

So, what does all this signify for you and your quest for a popular but ‘quality’ system? Well, firstly I’ll insert some qualifiers and disclaimers: I’m not you, and I really don’t know what will work for you. I have found some routes and ways that work for me, but I did so mostly by trial and error – emphasis on the “error”. Just like the colonial marine lieutenant in the movie ‘Aliens’ I would answer the question “How many times have you done this?” with “Including this time? Once.”

With that out of the way, I think the first thing to do is discuss with your prospective play group (or at least with roleplaying friends) what you envisage your desired “roleplaying game” to look like – what will the characters and the players actually be doing? Do they want challenges laid out for them to overcome via cleverness and imagination? Do they want to create provocative, flawed-but-interesting characters that will upset the world’s applecart in some way to see how it turns out? Do they want to explore what living in a fairly benign medievalesque world with six elements magick that really works and ‘familial worlds’ that sometimes bleed over and can be explored really looks and feels like? Or do they pine for something else that they have only glimpsed through roleplaying spectacles?

Secondly, I recommend trying out some really diverse alternative roleplaying systems. I’m not talking about the classic fantasy heartbreakers, here, but a few suggestions might be:
• Sagas of the Icelanders by Gregor Vuga. I have run this system set in the frontier wilds of Áltôr in northern Venârivè, and it has worked well. The system is simple and clear, so that it takes little time to learn, and the GM prep time requirement is almost nil. If you haven’t played a Powered by the Apocalypse game before, this one will hopefully give you some real food for thought while offering a setting that’s fairly easy to relate to for Hârn fans.
• Fiasco by Jason Morningstar. This is designed for single session play exclusively, so there’s no big commitment, and I suggest it for what it will show you about game story systems rather than as a long-term RPG system of choice. Alun Rees has run this with a dedicated playset, ‘Golothan Fiasco’, at IviniaCon and it’s always a blast to play and praised by all who play it.
• Blades in the Dark by John Harper. This is a bit more expensive than the other two, so you might want to try finding someone who will run a session or two for you, but it’s an interesting take on play with group goals and goal-directed exploration. Plays about as differently from D&D as you’ll get while still being about literal murder-hobos (well, thiefy-gangsters, at any rate!)
• Primetime Adventures by Matt Wilson. Roleplaying as the best TV series that never was. Some really neat ideas for story driving play rather than world or ‘scenario’. Strictly no GM prep at all.
• Burning Wheel by Luke Crane. Expensive and extensive, but if you can get to read/explore it this is a really interesting view of what it is to roleplay for character development (NOT levelling up!).
• FATE from Evil Hat publishing. FATE, and its predecessor, Fudge, have been around since forever. An exploration of how light a generic system can be.
• Trail of Cthulhu by Ken Hite and Robin Laws. How to design a game for investigative roleplaying. Specifically and intentionally for investigative play.
• 13th Age by Johnathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo. How to design D&D for improv play and theatre of the mind combat. And I do mean actually designed for that.

Most can be found on DriveThruRPG (Primetime Adventures pdf is on Payhip or IndiePressRevolution, FATE Core is on the Evil Hat website). No need to try all (or even any) of them, but the recommendations run from the top down, in order – not for quality of play, but for what they can show/teach. Oh, and, if you can find it, Universalis by Ralph Mazza and Mike Holmes (Ramshead Press) is a universal roleplaying system for GM-less play that is actually good. Really. We have generated stories in Asolade Hundred with it. It’s… extraordinary, not just for gameplay but for what it shows you about what roleplaying deconstructs as.

General lessons I have picked up? Well, I think having rules is important. Games like Sagas of the Icelanders are rules lite but they have RULES, not guidelines. That includes for the GM (PbtA games are a breath of fresh air in that they explain what you actually DO as GM). This was something I think 4th edition D&D actually got right (I ran Field of Daisies using 4E and it worked really well for the specific ethos of play 4E was designed for – I actually found it a really good system). Secondly, pick out bits of systems you like and ask yourself what’s good about them? One thing HârnMaster does that I think was actually unique until recently is the wounds system. Now, I don’t think it actually needs to be as complex and detailed as it is (that might be the “exploring what it means” agenda popping up, again), but it has a radical and in my opinion massively beneficial effect on the flow of play. Saga of the Icelanders uses a wounds system that is actually quite similar (although far, far simpler and even more brutal). The Hârnic economy and craft systems are also outstanding – not unique in RPG systems, except in that they actually work, but wonderful for exploring how craft and the economy work, if ‘stretched’ a bit. Finally, mix, match and experiment. Find what it is that really makes your gaming brain buzz and pare things down to that.

And what of HârnMaster itself? Well, the first obstacle to a revision would be that we would need to define what it’s supposed to be/do. The original was easily classified – it was what Robin envisaged Hârn as being about. Since he was taken from us prematurely, however, it’s up to us to translate what that means. I sometimes like to think that we (Hârn fans generally) might turn it into the perfect vehicle for the “exploration of a world and what it means to live there” style of play, but there is a marked dearth of mechanisms and rules systems/processes out there to really generate play to meet that agenda. It parallels quite well the problems that the human race seems to be having with getting to grips with the agenda out there in real life, I think, which might go to show just how intractable the whole issue is. In the meantime I would say explore HM and other roleplaying systems to find out what makes you and those you game with tick. If you should happen upon a system or some mechanics that really hit that ‘daydream exploration of the alien world’ vibe out of the park, please be sure to tell us all about it!

Alex Greene's picture

Again, good points, well made.
There are some really well-crafted articles available from, among other places, DrivethruRPG, which are useful resources for Games Masters to running games in whatever setting. Perhaps Harnmaster Gold Games Masters could do with that sort of resource to allow them to run exploration games, games of intrigue, trade games, "slice of life" character development stories where it's all about the character developing as a person, and so on.
Whether they are trading with Falani merchants in a backwood village in Tuvara, or attempting to negotiate the Elanas to get to Menema with a cargo of pseudostone in the hold, perhaps there could be something available to give Games Masters something to work with, and supplements to allow players to create the kinds of characters they want to be (not so much the dreadful, shallow tropes of "fighter, cleric, rogue, more like "Journeyman Shenava looking for magic in the world," "potter looking for a place to settle down and turn out beautiful masterpieces like his brother used to make," or "Night People entertainer who wants to break down the barriers and overcome bigotry in the places she visits.")

blackshoe's picture

Do it! :-)