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Sunday, 3 December 2017

Fantasy LAW

First published in 1980, Rolemaster was designed to plug into and replace other aspects of fantasy roleplaying games, beginning with the supplements, Arms Law, Claw Law, Spell Law, Character Law, and Campaign Law. Over the course of its four editions, it acquired the reputation of a being a relatively complex system, lots of numbers involved, with lots and lots of professions, and lots of charts and tables. In particular, critical hit tables for every type of weapon, spell damage, and almost every other type of damage! Subsequent editions of the game have streamlined and codified the mechanics, but there is an even simpler and more streamlined version of the rules and mechanics, a spiritual successor, if you will. This is High Adventure Role Playing or HARP, first published in 2003 by Iron Crown Enterprises. There are certain parallels here between the streamlining in terms of mechanics between Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. So if Rolemaster was written in the mould of the former, then HARP was written in the mould of the latter. All four are designed as a high fantasy set of rules built around a Class and Level system, but where Dungeons & Dragons only got a skills system and unified mechanic with the release of Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, there has always been a skills system and a unified mechanic in Rolemaster and so there is with HARP. The current version of HARP, first published in 2011, is called HARP Fantasy.

As much as parallels can be drawn between HARP Fantasy and Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, there are notable differences. The first major difference is that characters in HARP Fantasy are primarily designed, players having the freedom to design their characters how they want. Two other major differences are that all characters can use spells—HARP Fantasy includes a ‘Universal’ sphere of spells that anyone can learn and cast—and all characters can use all of the skills, the system including some sixty skills in total. So there is quite a bit of flexibility built into the mechanics. What makes it likely for one character to have one skill over another is cost. So the Mystical Arts category of skills are cheaper to purchase for a Mage than they are for a Fighter. The other difference of course, being that HARP Fantasy is a percentile system. In most roleplaying games, the results of an action—whether that be singing a song, climbing a wall in a hurry, swinging a sword to hit a goblin, or casting a spell—would be rolled on the percentile dice, the aim being to roll under the percentile chance. Not so in HARP Fantasy where the aim is to roll high rather than roll low. A player rolls his percentile dice and adds his character’s skill in singing, climbing, attacking with a sword, or casting a spell to the value rolled, plus or minus any modifiers derived the character’s statistics, the situation, or the difficulty of the task. The aim is to roll over one hundred. If the result is one-hundred-and-one or more, the character succeeds.

Naturally low rolls result in a fumble, whilst an option allows for natural rolls of sixty-six to lead to unusual results, good or bad depending whether or not the action succeeded. A Manoeuvre Table provides various results, including a progress percentage for lengthy tasks, a bonus to be applied to the next manoeuvre in a chain of tasks, and a resistance value. Most importantly though, rolls are open-ended—in modern gaming parlance, they explode. If a player rolls between ninety-six and one hundred on the dice, he not only gets to add his character’s skill and modifiers, he gets to roll again. This enables a character to undertake and succeed at heroic, even desperate actions.

A character in HARP Fantasy is defined by his Statistics, a Profession, Race, Culture, Skills, and Talents. A character has eight statistics—Strength, Constitution, Agility, Quickness, Self-Discipline, Reasoning, Insight, and Presence, which each has a value between one and one-hundred-and-five. There are nine possible professions—Cleric, Fighter, Harper, Mage, Monk, Ranger, Rogue, Thief, and Warrior Mage. Eight of these Profession are obvious in what they are, the ninth, the Harper, actually being a Bard-like Profession. It is possible to have multiple Professions. A Profession consists of Favoured Categories—the categories into which skills are grouped, such as Combat or Influence; Key Stats—those statistics favoured by the Profession; and one or more Professional Abilities unique to the Profession. For example, the Cleric Profession gains access to spells, some of which must come from the Cleric Sphere and can select two Favoured Categories, so one cleric might select Combat and Athletic to build a paladin-type character or Outdoor and Physical to create a druid-like character.

To its traditional fantasy Races of Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Halfling, and Human, HARP Fantasy adds the Gryx. The Gryx are Orc-like in appearance, but where Orcs are barbarous and warlike, the Gryx are peaceful and dedicate themselves to arts and crafts. This is despite their having racial abilities that will be useful in a fight—Lightning Reflexes, Dense Musculature, and Night Vision. They are designed as a semi-bestial race to replace Half-Orcs, but they do seem an odd addition given how generic a fantasy the rules of HARP Fantasy present. It is also odd given that the Orc is given in the bestiary and available as an optional player character Race should the Game Master allow it. It is obvious why the Gryx have been added though—to avoid the unpalatable origins of the Half-Orc as a racial option.

Now what each Race provides are modifiers to a character’s Statistics, bonuses to his Endurance, Power Points, Resistances, Stamina, Will, and Magic, plus special abilities unique to each Race. Beyond this it is possible to build racial hybrids, enabling a player to modify his character by purchasing Blood Talents. These come in Greater and Lesser Talents, allowing a character to be a true Half-Gnome or Half-Elf, or be of mixed parentage. HARP Fantasy includes several Cultures—Deep Warrens, Shallow Warrens, Sylvan, Underhill, Nomadic, Rural, and Rural—each of which provides a basic language plus Skill Ranks gained as an adolescent. Skills come in nine categories—Artistic, Athletic, Combat, Concentration, General, Influence, Mystic Arts, Outdoor, and Physical—and are purchased in Ranks. Lastly, a character can have Talents, such Agile Defence, Giantism, Master Burglar, or Sense Magic.

To create a character, a player generates the Statistics, either by rolling dice or purchasing them with points, and then selecting a Race and Culture. Each character receives a pool of Development Points, modified by their Statistics, with which to purchase Skills and Talents. A limited number of Development Points can be spent to improve a character’s Statistics. There are oddities in the system which require the player to spend Development Points if he is to improve certain aspects of his character. One is that despite HARP Fantasy being a Class and Level system, a player does not simply roll his character’s Hit Points, but purchases the Endurance skill and its final value is how damage a character can have. A player will also need to put Development Points into Power Point Development if he wants his character to be able to cast spells, but even odder is the fact that the character’s Resistance Rolls—Stamina, Will, and Magic—are also skills and again can be improved by a player spending Development Points on them. Both Endurance and the Resistances have base values derived from a character’s Race, so there is a minimum value built into the mechanics. What this points to though, is how little a character’s Level has on the character—primarily it places a cap on how many Ranks a character has in any one skill and when and how many Development Points a character gains—and the degree of freedom a player has to build and modify his character. 

Each time a character gains a Level—through earning Experience Points—the player acquires further Development Points with which to improve his character. He also gets the bonus Development Points as the character had at First Level and because these are derived from a character’s Statistics, it does mean that characters with better Statistics will develop faster and better in the long term.

Our sample character is Hurik, the son of a jeweller, who has little interest in following in his mother’s footsteps. He prefers to fritter away his allowance on dancing, drinking, and wooing. Unfortunately, he is not particularly good at any of those, but he more than makes up for it with good schooling, if not good learning. He has spent some time in the militia and was bored, very, very quickly. He found though that he could use a sword and a shield, and a sword and a blade—and he is fast. His mother’s money is not going to pay for his lifestyle soon, so perhaps another source of income could be found. To help him along the way, Hurik has learned the spell, Guess, for those moments when he cannot make up his mind.

Race: Human
Gender: Male Age: 18
Height: 6’ 6” Weight: 160 lbs.
Culture: Urban

Level 1 Fighter

Strength 71 (+5)
Constitution 66 (+4)
Agility 85 (+7)
Quickness 98 (+10)
Self-Discipline 50 (+0)
Reasoning 79 (+5)
Insight 84 (+7)
Presence 47 (+0)

Stamina 0 (+18), Will 0 (+10), and Magic 0 (+24), 

Endurance 54
Defence Bonus +69

Artistic: Dancing 1 (+12)
Athletic: Acrobatics 6 (+37), Climbing 6 (+42)
Combat: 1-Handed Edged (Short Blades) 6 (+42), 1-Handed Edged (Thrusting Blades) 6 (+52), Brawling 6 (+42), Combat Styles (Two Weapon Combo) 6 (+42), Polearms 2 (+22), Thrown Weapons (Polearms Thrown) 1 (+17)
General: Appraisal 2 (+22), Crafts (Jeweller) 3 (+27), Healing 1 (+12), Lore (Local Region) 2 (+20), Magic 0 (+24), Perception 3 (+22), Stamina 0 (+18), Will 0 (+10)
Influence: Charm 6 (+37), Trade 2 (+17)
Mystic Arts: Runes 2 (+22), Power Point Development 2 (+47), Spell (Guess) 6 (+35)
Outdoor: Navigation 1 (+12), Stalking & Hiding 1 (+12)
Physical: Armour 6 (+42), Endurance 1 (+54), Jumping 5 (+37), Streetwise 6 (+37), Swimming 2 (+22)

Special Abilities
Bonus Skill Ranks, Skill Specialisation (+10) (1-Handed Edged (Thrusting Blades)), Skill Flexibility (Charm), Swashbuckler (+24 DB)

Professional Abilities
Lightning Reflexes (+5% Initiative), Shield Training, Favoured Combat Skill (Thrusting Blades)

Equipment (9 Gold, 3 Silver)
Dagger (Small Slash), Main Gauche (Small Slash), Rapier (Medium Puncture), Soft Leather Armour (Soft Leather +20 DB), Buckler (Shield +0/+15 DB)

The character creation process is not easy, nor is it fast. In comparison to contemporary roleplaying games, it is actually cumbersome, especially once you figure adding spells, which everyone has access to. Now the process will produce the desired result as that is one of the benefits of HARP Fantasy—plenty of options and no little flexibility in what sort of character a player could create. This is further enhanced with the use of Training Packages, limited groups of skills that represent a profession, guild apprenticeship, and so on. So, it might be Town Militiaman, Ranger of the East, or Blue Tower Mage, for example. Such packages are available at a discount, can be taken only the once per level, and a player is free to design his own, with of course, the Game Master’s consent. Now the Game Master could also design his own and use those to help provide a place and occupation in his world for player characters and NPCs alike.

Combat in HARP Fantasy does not quite continue the degree of complexity found in character generation. It begins with Initiative, rolled on a single ten-sided die plus modifiers from Statistics, encumbrance, and the situation. Plus this is rolled at the beginning of each two-second turn during which a character will perform one action, whether that be draw a weapon, attack, stand up, or move, or a combat action.
For example, Hurik is on his first job—a caravan guard. The caravan has camped for the night and he is on duty. It is midnight. Although he does not have his weapon drawn, he is holding his buckler when a goblin comes running out the darkness and attacks him. Hurik’s player rolls a ten-sided die, then adds the modifiers +10 (Quickness), +7 (Insight), +5 (Lightning Reflexes), -5 (shield), and -10 (Weapon Not Ready). The final result is 15. The Goblin is fast though and rolls a total of 21.
To attack, a player makes a standard percentile roll and adds his character Offensive Bonus to the result. The Offensive Bonus is usually derived from a weapon skill, but it can modified by other skills like combat styles, statistics, and bonuses from special weapons or circumstances. The opponent’s Defensive Bonus, derived from his armour, Quickness statistic, shield, maneuvre, and position, are deducted from this roll. If the result is one or more, the character has hit and the weapon’s size modifier is added to this result and the total looked up on the appropriate Critical Table for that weapon type to determine the damage done.
So back to Hurik versus the Goblin. On Round One, the Goblin has the initiative and the Game Master decides that it is going to charge at Hurik as its action. Hurik has spotted the Goblin, so player decides that the only thing that Hurik can do this time is draw his rapier. Both are attacking each other. The Goblin rushes in, slashing at Hurik with his shortsword. The Game Master rolls 50, adds the Goblin’s Offensive Bonus of 55, 1 for the Goblin charging, and deducts Hurik’s Defensive Bonus of 69. This gives a result of 37, which adjusted by the small size of the Goblin’s shortsword, provides a final result of 27. Looking this up on the Slash Critical table, the effect is that Hurik suffers nine Hits to his Endurance with a “Solid blow to his back, but work on that follow through.” The Goblin has clearly run past Hurik, managing to slash at him as he does.
On Round Two, Hurik’s player rolls a ten-sided die, then adds the modifiers +10 (Quickness), +7 (Insight), +5 (Lightning Reflexes), and -5 (shield) only, as he has his weapon drawn. Hurik’s player rolls 27 versus the Goblin’s 22! Both will attack, but Hurik gets to go first. Hurik’s player rolls 100—a critical hit.! Plus he can roll again, which he does to add another 03 to the total roll. He add’s Rurik’s Offensive Bonus of 52 and deducts the Goblin’s Defensive Bonus of 49 to get 106. This is not modified by the size of Hurik’s rapier as it is a medium weapon. Looking this result up on the Puncture Critical table, the outcome is that Hurik has impaled the Goblin in the lung, which means that he will die in twelve gurgling rounds, plus he takes 29 Hits, is stunned for 12 rounds, bleeds 3 Hits per round, and he has a -20 penalty to his Offensive Bonus.
Combat in HARP Fantasy is dangerous and bloody—and tactical. A player needs to be careful in the fights he picks and the maneuvres he takes. Of course, he can get lucky—as Hurik did in the example—but the system also allows a player some options in terms of being defensive. The Defensive Bonus already figures in attempts to parry, but a player can actually choose to have the character full parry, shifting points from the character’s Offensive Bonus to his Defensive Bonus. The likelihood is that players will want to put Development Points into their characters’ Armour and Endurance skills as well as a weapon skill to improve their survival chances. Another likelihood is that the flavour of the Critical tables will pale in the long term (this in addition to the fact that they are hit tables since they combine damage from standard attacks with damage from critical attacks in the one table).

The complexity of HARP Fantasy continues with its treatment of spells and magic. There are over a hundred spells, divided in six categories, five of which are the domain of five of the roleplaying game’s Professions—Clerical, Harper, Mage, Ranger, and Warrior Mage. Of these, the Cleric has the freedom to select half of his spells from the other categories to reflect the nature of his deity. Perhaps then a Cleric might worship some eldritch lord and so knows the Past Visions spell from the Harper category and the Darkness spell from the Mage category, whilst a blacksmithing deity might grant Fire Wall from the Mage category and the Elemental Weapon from the Warrior Mage category. The sixth category is the Universal category, from which anyone who can select and learn spells. Spells are also categorised as Utility spells (Healing or Tree Skin), Attack spells (Arcane Bolt or Fear), and Elemental Attack Spells (Elemental Ball or Elemental Bolt). In addition, if a character knows the Counterspell spell, he can stop others from casting spells. It sets up a Resistance that the opposing spellcaster must overcome to successfully cast their spell.

In order to learn and cast a spell, a character needs to both have sufficient Power Points—improved by the Power Point Development skill—and have purchased the minimum number of Ranks in the skill, equal to the needed Power Points. Each spell is its own separate skill. Instead of buying ‘higher level’ spells, a character can instead buy other spells or he can instead improve the spells he already has, which requires more Power Points and Skill Ranks. In return, a spellcaster gets to scale the spell to varying effect. So for example, the Arcane Bolt spell can be scaled to increase its damage, range, and number of targets as well as add a stun effect. Spells require the expenditure of Power Points to cast as well as a skill roll, so as long as a character has Power Points, he can cast spells. All of the spells in HARP Fantasy work like this, meaning the magic system is again flexible if complex. 

For the Game Master, HARP Fantasy includes chapters on herbs and poisons, encounters and monsters, treasure, and advice. The chapter on herbs and poisons opts for breadth rather than detail, but provides enough information until the Game Master needs another supplement. Similarly, the chapters on encounters and monsters and on treasure are broader in the treatment of their subject matters. The contents of the encounters and monsters chapter is everything that you would imagine, from Ant, Giant, Ape, Giant, and Battle Demon to Wolf, Wyvern, and Zombie are all included. Classics like the Goblin, Kobold, and Orc are also included. These monsters are what you would expect for a generic collection of foes with which to populate a world and possible encounters. Racial statistics and modifiers are given if a player wants to create and roleplay options outside of the six given in the core rules.  The chapter on Game Master advice includes useful tips; advice on customising the game, cultures, clerics, magic and the magic user, and the setting; as well as awarding Experience Points and setting goals. Much of it will be familiar to experienced Game Masters, but worth reading still.

Physically, HARP Fantasy is a plain, simple, black and white hardback. The writing is clear and easy to read—for the most part. The game’s many examples of the rules are presented using a cursive script and grey rather than black. This makes the examples difficult to read. In addition, the book’s numerous tables are often also too small to read. Another issue is the organisation of those tables. They are not repeated for easy access at the back of the book, so actually running the game will involve flipping back and forth between those tables. Certainly, the Game Master will need to bookmark the tables that get referenced a great deal during play, if not purchase or create his own reference screen. The book could have been slightly better organised in that the need to purchase Endurance, Power Point Development, and the Resistances as skills could been made more obvious, if not explicit. They are essentially buried in the skills section when they needed to be highlighted as part of the character creation process.

At its core, HARP Fantasy does the pseudo-Western European fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien et al, plus a little orientalism with the inclusion of medieval oriental weapons and Professions like the Warrior Monk. This is no surprise, since its forebear, Rolemaster, was designed to replace and plug into parts of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but it does mean that HARP Fantasy is by its very nature, generic, even bland. So where the flavour in HARP Fantasy really lies is in the mechanics, the detailed nature of the system, and in the flexibility that a player has to build a character within the parameters of a selected Profession. The spellcasting Professions have even more flexibility in how they cast their spells. Although it does feel underwritten in places and may well be too complex for modern sensibilities, the core mechanics in HARP Fantasy are a solid and long-tested design that provide both detail and options where it counts—characters, combat, and spells.