Friday, October 25, 2013

Inspirations: Hârn

Many of us who were around back in the day recall the memorable ads for Columbia Games' Hârn that ran in Dragon magazine throughout the early to mid 80s. I took note of them at the time, and one of the local hobby stores near me carried some of the product line, which I'm certain I at least leafed through. For whatever reason, though, it didn't take — I just didn't get it. My guess is that the detailed campaign material just ran well over my early teenaged head.

Cut to many years later. In the early 90s I had just left college for the first time and was looking for a campaign. There was an ad for a Rolemaster game on the board at a local hobby shop in Lakewood, Ohio. At that point I has owned the books for Rolemaster for some time but hadn't yet played, so I made the call and set up a meeting with Dave, the GM, to talk it over. Rolemaster I didn't need to be sold on... but Dave began to show me some really amazing-looking setting material for Hârn, that campaign world that I remembered from all those years before, but had more or less ignored at the time. He kept most of the written material close to the vest, of course. But he showed me the full-color heraldry, the calendar of religious holidays, the writeups of the deities and the glorious, glorious maps.

The full-color "regional" Hârn are done in a cartographic style by the setting's creator, the late N. Robin Crossby. Both beautiful and absolutely packed with information, they are the gold standard for RPG maps, and have in my judgement never been equaled for their combination of utility and aesthetic appeal. The local and kingdom-level maps are almost as stunning and just as useful, and the written background material is both rich and engaging, at least if you like Hârn's very medieval and somewhat low-fantasy approach.

It wasn't long before I started to collect Hârn stuff of my own. Some of that product had become quite hard to find by the mid 90s. Inevitably, I wanted to run campaigns set there myself... but it would be quite a while for that to really come to fruition. The product line evolved interestingly after that original core set; over the course of a number of Kingdom Modules covering the human and nonhuman nations of Hârn in immense detail, as well as a series of Encyclopedia Hârnica volumes that expanded on various other topics, the island of Hârn became increasingly thoroughly filled-in. At this point, although Hârn proper has seen relatively little development in recent years (but see below) almost every site or topic of interest on the island has a multi-page article about it. It's a perfect example, according to the tastes of some, of too much setting material filling in every imaginable gap until the GM has little room to maneuver.

I say that's misleading. Obviously, some GMs, happy to riff off of published material, thrive in settings that are very detailed out of the box. Also, in order for this to be true you have find all the material, which in the case of Hârn could be fairly difficult to do. And you have to make the decision to care about all that supplemental stuff. I say that the HarnWorld core set  has everything you need for a splendid and very loose sandbox campaign, including Hârn-specific encounter tables, travel and weather rules. If the relatively low implied amount of magic isn't enough for your tastes, you can always add more. If you do need or want more material, It's out there in spades. And the Hârn setting materials are system-free; you can use them with any rules set you like, although there is a set of dedicated HârnMaster rules that does some interesting things.

Aside, then, from my admiration of Hârn as a setting, I think it along with the HârnMaster have some very interesting general design principles built in. From the setting side there is the idea of a "framework" setting that provides rich high-level detail but maximum creative freedom for the group and GM, done elsewhere but, I think, never so well as here. The integration of travel and weather rules adds a great deal to those wanting to run an exploration-driven sandbox. And of course many details of the setting itself, including the abundant wilderness through which stretches long and perilous trade routes, the rationale for a near-infinite array of weird monsters, the precursor race which left an array of ruins and magical (or perhaps technological) artifacts laying about, and the interplanar gates found here and there, allowing for a number of interesting things to happen.

From the HârnMaster rules, there is a very interesting and elegant cosmology underlying an equally interesting magic system that's very reliant on player-created spells and magic items... without an Ars Magica-style array of rigid rules for designing them. Instead, GM are given latitude in determining what works for their table along with instructions to use the provided examples as guidelines... and a couple of different ways to approach informing players of whether their designs will work or not, a couple of which will satisfy the most Gygaxian tastes. There are also some really cool and clever rules for psionics, and a combat system that, like Rolemaster, deals out specific injuries rather than just marking off hit points.

Which brings me to one final oddity. In its creator's final years there was a dispute over creative control and ownership of Hârn and its world, with neither party having the financial wherewithal to settle the matter in the courts. The result is that two companies are publishing HârnWorld material. Columbia Games, the original publisher, is mostly doing revisions (some of them substantial) of older material set on the island of Hârn itself, made available as individual articles. The other, Kelestia Productions, is doing mostly all-new material set outside of Hârn proper, in the wider world of Kethira upon which Hârn is set. I have no idea how much angst there is between the two companies, but from a fan's perspective there is little to complain about, especially since Columbia had largely let Hârn fall fallow before the current status quo arose.

The Inspirations series highlights RPGs having special influence on or inspiration for the design of An Age Undreamed Of, the Sundered Reach or the World of Ytherra.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Rant on Mapping

Readers may be aware that I am engaged in a project to replace Windows with some form of Linux, which I've been posting about lately. My stated goal with this project is to get two specific programs running under Linux, preferably with WINE. These are Profantasy's Fractal Terrains and Campaign Cartographer 3, world-generating and cartography software respectively. I have some money invested in them, but more importantly time and creative energy. My fantasy setting of Ytherra is mapped in these programs, representing many years of work, and the new sandbox setting for my fantasy roleplaying rules are as well. To abandon this software would require, minimally, conversion to some open-source package — Inkscape or GIMP, most probably, requiring considerable effort and placing a learning curve in front of me that I don't really have time to deal with. I have little enough time for creative work as it is.

It is with considerable distaste, therefore, that I find myself on the precipice of abandoning this crash-prone fuckholeware entirely. Because I do not need the aggravation of CC3 dumping and the file saved mere seconds ago becoming magically non-openable for seemingly the thousandth time.

I am not, fundamentally, a cartographer or interested in cartography as an end in itself. I'm just damn picky about maps. I am at the point where I feel like Profantasy's unreliable software is costing me more time and ungrayed hair than it's saving me. Maybe I should just be drawing paper maps and handing them to my friend Joseph Freistuhler, leaving this part of the work to the professional and freeing me to work on the stuff I really am engaged in.

I'll see how I feel about it tomorrow.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Inspirations: Rolemaster

Thgoughout the 90s the game I played most often, in a number of memorable campaigns, was Rolemaster. It's a game with, among other things, a very interesting history. It began as a series of plug-in modules obviously intended to replace subsystems of D&D. These began with Arms Law and Claw Law in 1980, which together completely replace (with some work) the combat system onboard the D&D of that era. Spell Law, released the following year, did the same for the magic system but was a little harder to work in because it required modifying or replacing D&D's classes, and whose rules implied that you were supposed to use it along side the earlier products. With the publication of Character Law in 1982 it was possible to play a game that was all Rolemaster without any D&D. Several editions down the line you can still see the fingerprints of this initial design impetus.

Rolemaster has a reputation for being fearsomely complex and terribly clumsy, but by the time I settled in to playing it around 1992, the edition that was extant at that time (today called the second edition) played very smoothly if the people at the table knew what they were doing and separated the responsibilities of the table intelligently. Everybody tracked their own XP for the most part, and looked up their own attack and critical results. So for a given encounter no one person needed to have more than a couple of photocopied pages of tables in front of them. It's the tables, in fact, that give Rolemaster its mystique as a monster of complexity, because there are seemingly entire books filled with only them, or so it is said. This is not really true, but any given edition of Arms Law is going to be about 80% full-page tables. This is scary.

What's hard to see until you actually play Rolemaster, though, is that there are really only four tables that the entire game runs off of. There are the static action and moving maneuver tables, which govern non-fighting actions, and there are the attack table and the critical table. That's really it... just those four charts. There are many different versions of attack tables and critical tables, which is what fills up the books, but you only use the one for the weapon or attack type you are using; the numerical results are different on each table but they otherwise work the same. And there is a separate static action table for spellcasting and different critical tables, with the one you use depending again on your attack type. The rules for using all these tables are found in just a few pages. Leave out the charts and lists and Rolemaster is really a remarkable tight game: roll open-ended percentile, add your action bonus and whatever other modifiers and look the result up on a chart. There is no separate damage roll — it's on the chart — but there is a separate critical roll that comes up a fair amount. That's the whole game, outside of character creation.

I think Rolenaster does a remarkable number of very fun things at the table. The open-ended rolls and tongue-in-cheek critical tables keep a fight unpredictable; any roll could be somebody's last. Sharing the bookeeping responsibilities helps keep everyone engaged. The magic system is rich and expansive, and for its day Gamemaster Law had some crackerjack worldbuilding advice. In the early editons the skill system was nice and loose and groups could feel free to explore their own boundaries for each skill. But I think what I like most about Rolemaster from a design point of view is its thematic cohesion. Each of the classes has a specific place in a strongly implied cosmology, and each of the many different types of magic taps into one or more corners of that cosmology. Magic items are another extension of the way the Rolemaster universe works. It's very clean and consistent without being too confining.

Later editions, starting with 1995's third edition, called Rolemaster Standard Rules, brought many previously optional systems to the core game and rigidly defined every single corner of the game. Skills became tied to individual type of actions, so for example to be an effective herbalist you needed one skill to find magical herbs, another to prepare them and a third to apply them to your patients or victims. There are some things to like about RMSS but it's also very, very bloated in comparison to the earlier game system... something it shared with the third edition of another fantasy RPG.

The Inspirations series highlights RPGs having special influence on or inspiration for the design of An Age Undreamed Of, the Sundered Reach or the World of Ytherra.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

AAUO Progress Report 10.17.13

I am working — after a couple of weeks off — on part 2 of the rules for An Age Undreamed Of. This is the game systems section of the book, and approximately the second third of the core rules. I'm having to go back and tweak Part 1 more than I expected. I even added an entirely new skill (for a total of 33 in the core rules and one more as of right now planned as a definite inclusion for later.)

Combat is mostly going to follow the d20 model, stripped down to remove cruft but with a few tidbits from elsewhere fitted in. I haven't started skills and actions yet, although I have it outlined, but what is definitely not going to be in the rules is a multipage rules section for each skill. A paragraph for most of them, and a brief one if that, with a few getting more explanation.

I've also done a little bit of sketching on the source map for the graphic in the last post, refining some placeholder names and shuffling some stuff around to make it fit better. I am not what you could call "working seriously" on this end of the project at this point.

The standard AAUO Disclaimer:
I am creating a (tabletop) fantasy role-playing game called An Age Undreamed Of, set in a mythical Forsaken Age. It is "old school" but not a a retro-clone. AAUO is built on a stripped-down d20 engine, injected with ideas from other RPGs of the late 70s and early 80. Anything you read about it here should be understood as notes on a work in progress.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Setting Implied and Otherwise

Back in the day tantalizing hints were encountered of a D&D world, present not just in the adventure modules but as little snippets of lore in places like the artifact descriptions in the Dungeon Master's Guide. The Ring of Gaxx, dread Vecna with his Hand and Eye, the Wind Dukes of Aaqa... these were things that had history, clearly. But only much, much later were these items developed in any concrete way. Until then they were mysterious rumors to spark the imagination.

From the standpoint of writing and designing An Age Undreamed Of, I'm taking the approach that there will be a strongly implied setting present in the game, and strictly that. While AAUO will be set in a mythical Forsaken Age, and while there will be names sprinkled throughout the text to suggest the history and cultures of this age, there will be no "official" version of that setting ever presented.

On the other hand, I do have a vast number of setting ideas and even a fairly fully realized world in the pipeline, which I will plan to get back to working on once the AAUO rules are done. At least one of these, the Sundered Reach, is a sandbox wilderness that I plan to develop for AAUO. The words "forsaken age" will likely appear together in the text of that work. It will be one small corner of a world with that appellation. But even if the book provides glimpses of a Forsaken Age, your Forsaken Age will be completely different.

I'm a big believer in strong setting materials; I did, after all, spend years working on exactly that. But I think an old-school RPG needs evocation and creative freedom. Even where there is a framework in place, as with the old World of Greyhawk folio, the world is never really presented to you. Instead, within some skeleton the world developed organically in play at each table. A setting defined down to the smallest parameter like the Forgotten Realms, neat and lovingly developed as it is, does lose the unique fingerprint stamped upon it by the group.

Don't get me wrong, though - I admire the Forgotten Realms as a piece of fine craftsmanship, and many fine campaigns have been set there. Too, the original FR boxed set is, I think, brilliantly evocative without being confining in the least. I'd say you could make a good case for that item being among the finest presentations of an old school setting. And even more, I admire masterpieces like Hârn and Tékumel. But what those two were, and what the Forgotten Realms became, are really a different find of framework than AAUO is going for.

(Today's graphic is a map I did a little while ago of a Forsaken Age. It may or may not see use in anything like its present form, but it is the landscape where the Sundered Reach will be set.)