GM Beginners' guide, fytte the fourth

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GM Beginners' guide, fytte the fourth

#1 Post by AndyStaples » Sat Jul 08, 2006 9:51 pm

Hârn Beginner GM Guide, fytte the fourth.

Apologies to those who like this series. I didn't expect there to be a two-year gap between instalments. I didn't expect to be writing this halfway around the world from where I wrote the last instalment either, but these things happen. One of the things 25 years of GMing has taught me is how to wing it - if that isn't a lesson for life, I don't know what is. ;)

Perhaps a mod will make this sticky, like the other parts.

Anyway, as I was saying earlier...

One of the more frequent complaints of new GMs on this forum is that their players (a) don't want to play HârnMaster or (b) don't want to play Hârn as it was intended. Usually, this latter point means that they want to kick down doors, kill the monsters and steal the treasure. They just don't want to engage with Hârn they way that you, the GM, engaged with Hârn when you saw its beauty and majesty. Don't worry. We're here to help.

The Rules Issue

If you're facing the rules problem, rest assured that Hârn is a state of mind, not a set of rules. You can play it with HârnMaster, FUDGE, d20, Rolemaster, GURPS, Hero System, RuneQuest and even Warhammer FRP. What this problem boils down to is that you've found a really cool set of rules that does exactly what you want, but your players still like the old system. Maybe you're in the infatuation phase, when you haven't found the flaws yet (all rules systems have them, even HârnMaster, otherwise Bill Gant's HârnMaster House Rules wouldn't be so popular

The first step, young padawan, is to look within. Why do you want to change rules systems? Is the new system that much cooler? Are you bored with the current one? What about it is the particular problem? Is it the system itself or the way you're using it? These are easy things to ask, but often very hard to answer. But they are worth thinking about, because it is entirely possible that the rules themselves are not your problem, or that there is a particular aspect of the rules you could remedy with a house rule. Step one is identifying the problem.

Rather than make any attempt to be generic (there are many websites and published books covering the generic issues), I'm going to use examples from the most common rules issue - from D&D to HârnMaster. Hopefully, I'll do it in such a way that it provides some insight to people facing other rules conversion or adoption issues.

Issue 1: Character background

In D&D (and many other systems), characters emerge at first level as, well, first-level characters. HârnMaster characters know their birthdays, star signs, parents' marital status, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles before they even begin to roll their own attributes or figure out their skills.

This, to my mind, isn't even an issue. If you like generating character backgrounds, simply tack the one from HârnMaster (or C&S, which is equally valid) onto your existing rules system. There are umpteen character background random generators on the web as well. Just adapt something to your own requirements, or write some rules yourself.

But also remember that even HârnMaster GMs are willing to forego the random rolls in return for a good backstory. Randomly rolling being the son of a pig farmer might be inspiring to players who see rising above humble beginnings as an adventure, but limiting to others who'd prefer characters with noble blood.

The important thing is to get players thinking about who their characters are and how they fit into society. Once you've done that, half the battle of making a game more 'Hârnic' is over. You add more detail and choose a profession or class during the pregame, which should throw up some ideas for adventures based around that character, which is the next most important thing to consider: you can't blame players for ignoring their character's Hârnic background if you, the GM, ignore it as well. That doesn't mean you should ram their inferior status down the throats of a party of peasants at all times (a gentle reminder once in a while should suffice), but that you consider bringing old friends or relatives in as occasional NPCs, and explore any adventure potential the background may have thrown up.

The next step is to give the PCs an 'out' from society. If your players are the typical FRP crew, they're used to being able to do what they want and go where they want. Hârn's feudal society doesn't really allow people to do that - there's a place for everyone and everyone is in their place. The constraints on their characters is one of the biggest reasons for player dissatisfaction with Hârn. The trick is to give them an opt-out in keeping with Hârn, rather than have them ignore society completely. We need to position them on the fringes of society.

There are a number of options. Serfs can be manumitted (made freemen) or can run away. Young knights can quest. Guildsmen travel in search of work. Clerics can be mendicant preachers. Barbarians are already outsiders. All of these people are 'masterless men', misfits in a medieval society. Most everywhere they go they will be strangers regarded by locals with some mistrust, but they do have the freedom to go where they will. Another option, more restrictive, is to find an organisation or individual who grants the characters freedom to act in its name - the party may be agents of the king, the archbishop, a guild or whatever. The party has freedom within certain limits, and are answerable to a higher authority.

In short, the character background issue should not affect the rules system you choose. You can be Hârnic with any set of rules you find.

Issue 2: Combat

Hârn has a very graphic and realistic combat system. D&D has a very abstract and unrealistic one. A sword blow in Hârn might give someone a deep, bleeding cut on their forearm; a sword blow in D&D might do 6hp damage. An experienced fighter in Hârn will always be wary of a loaded crossbow pointed straight at him; an experienced fighter in D&D can pretty much disregard it.

Again, think carefully about what attracts you to the Hârnic combat system. Is it the colourful way it describes combat, is it the realism, or is it the mechanics themselves?

Colourful descriptions are nice, it's true, but they are not a function of game system. It's just as easy for a HârnMaster GM do give boring, mechanics-based accounts of combat ("OK, you get a marginal success, he gets a marginal failure on his block - roll one impact dice, roll for location, OK, you do 3IP to his leg") as it is for a D&D DM to tell a player he does 5hp damage to the bad thing.

Graphic combat is simply a matter of thinking about what the mechanics are telling you, and describing the effects, well, descriptively. There's nothing to stop you describing 5hp damage as opening a gash in something's side. There's nothing to stop you describing a flurry of blows blocked and parried until one lands, opening a minor nick (or decapitating an opponent). Have a think about what different combat feats actually mean - Power Attack, for instance, is winding up for a powerful but fairly obvious blow. Encourage your players to be graphic in their descriptions (maybe give a little bonus for good descriptions), before telling you the mechanics of what they want to do ("I flick my shield towards his eyes to distract him from the heavy, overhand cut I try to bring down on his head - Power Attack, -5 to hit, +5 damage").

If the realism bothers you, consider some house rules. One of my biggest issues with D&D combat is that someone is at full effectiveness even when they're down to 1hp, so I've played with a rule that someone is at 3/4 their attack bonus when they're down to 3/4 of their hit points, 1/2 at 1/2 and 1/4 at 1/4. It's simple and effective, and it promotes a grittier style of play without causing too much extra book-keeping. Another popular house rule, from way back in the early days of D&D, is to consider Con to be "Hits to Kill" and HP to be "Hits to Unconsciousness"; a blow exceeding the necessary hit number by 5 goes straight through to Con damage.

If there's more at stake - you like armour to absorb damage, rather than make it harder to hit a target - consider more extensive house rules (or invest in a copy of WOTC's Unearthed Arcana, which has many such optional rules, including rules for hitpoint-less damage and disabling blows).

If it's the mechanics themselves you love, then you've got more of an argument for changing rules system. HârnMaster combat is, most of us here will agree, unique and fun. You have to convince your players of that - make some pregenerated characters and run a couple of sample combats for them outside your usual game session (or spend half an hour doing it just before your usual game session). Be transparent about how it works - show them the attack tables, run through the steps and make it as fun as you can (remember the graphic description technique). Run them through a few different cases - skilled, unskilled, armoured, unarmoured, balanced opponents, unbalanced opponents. If your players like it, great, they'll probably agree to giving the rules a go. If there's something that bugs them, have a look through the optional rules (or Bill Gant's HârnMaster House Rules) to see if there's something to fix their concern.

But if they really don't like it, don't try to force it on them. Instead, go back and see about applying house rules or optional rules to your original system. Compromise. Put HârnMaster to one side, use it as inspiration, and hope you get an opportunity to use it some other time.

Issue 3: Magic

You can guess the way this is going to go, can't you? Yes, the first step is to consider whether you can force your current rules system into more accurately reflecting Hârn's cool magic system.

Hârnic magic is grouped into six colleges (Light, Fire, Metal, Earth, Water and Spirit). Wizards learn spells, don't forget them when they're cast, but do get tired when they cast them. Hârnic spells usually have colourful names. D&D wizards tend to have open access to different kinds of spells, learn them, forget them when they're cast and don't get tired by casting.

The absolute easiest option is to consider a Sorcerer to be the basis for Hârnic wizards. Sorcerers know a limited number of spells (just like Hârnic wizards), which they don't forget and which they can cast several times without becoming tired. Change the Sorcerer's base stat from CHA to INT and it's pretty close. Now you have to groups the spells into the Hârnic colleges and let the Sorcerer choose which to specialise in.

Alternatively, you could add a rule so that casting spells causes fatigue. There's one in WOTC's Unearthed Arcana. You still need to do the graft of organising the spells into the Hârnic colleges, though.

If you really want to use HârnMaster magic, then let your players try it out. Add a pregenerated wizard to the sample combats you've been running for the fight-bunnies and let them see how it works.

Setting the mood

What is it that makes Hârn so cool? How do you get it across to your players?

One of the things most people love about Hârn is the maps. That big poster map of Eric Hotz's is more than 20 years old now, and it still sets a standard most other campaign worlds cannot equal, even with today's graphics programmes. Don't hide them away - let your players see them, even if their characters wouldn't know everything on them. In the battle for hearts and minds, you use every weapon at your disposal.

The next thing most people notice is the internal consistency of the world, and its predominantly low fantasy nature. There aren't any 6th-level Elven fighter-mages living in human cities (as far as we know), or villages of halflings in human lands. Monsters are relatively rare - only the gargun fit the roles that might commonly be played by kobolds, goblins, hobgoblins, orcs, gnolls, bugbears and all the other humanoid beasties of D&D. Elves are reclusive and jealous of their territory. Dwarves tend to stay in their mountain steadings. In the human lands, most people are concerned with scratching a living from the soil.

This is the backdrop against which adventure is set. They are not the adventures themselves. Hârn will happily muddle through its existence with or without PCs. The trick is to let this background flavour your campaign without letting it dominate. Don't lecture players on medieval mindsets and social values before they start playing - that's boring. There's nothing wrong with reminding a player during a session of something his character would know (it's not wise to insult a knight if you're a peasant, for example) but the player has forgotten or overlooked.

If your players love combat, give it to them. Gargun raid villages, and gargun settlements can be raided by PCs. The larger gargun complexes are not dissimilar to D&D's dungeons, but the smaller ones are very different - holes in the soil, egg nests, a bloated queen. That's got a pungent flavour you can exploit. If you don't fulfil expectations of combat, they're likely to tear up a tavern and commit murder just to relieve the boredom.

Build in high fantasy elements as needed. The Ivashu gives a good rationale for unique or unusual monsters (if you like umber hulks, make them a rare kind of Ivashu that the party may encounter only once). A dragon might fly overhead and raze a village without the players even getting a chance to fight it. Rumours and hearsay work well.

Look for ways to liven up the mundanity of Hârn. There are thieves' guilds in cities, sewers might be infested with who knows what, blackclad assassins in the shadows and more. And through it all, the daily life of Hârn's residents goes on, as normally as circumstances allow. Crops must be planted and harvested, it's true - but not necessarily by PCs.

It's that sense of a real community, of ordinary life going on in the background, that makes Hârn so special. It needn't be - in fact it shouldn't be - the focus of the campaign, unless your players are all medieval history majors with an interest in crop rotation.



Extreme examples

"I wanna be a wizard with a machine gun"

Believe it or not, I have actually faced this problem. Start of a new campaign, knew a couple of players, agreed to GM, and their mate came along who wanted to play a 'wizard with a machine gun'. What I did was say no. I was left with a surly player whose wizard did his best to disrupt every single session. What I should have done is said, 'Sure, where did he find it?' (That, and limiting him to at most three magazines of ammunition - maybe just even one. After all, what is a machine gun but a Wand of Magic Missiles. It even has limited charges.)

If this had happened in my first Hârn campaign (it didn't), I'd have done the same back then: just say no. Now, 20 years on, I'd have let him. Hârn has multidimensional travel. It has, in its past, had people travel from our Earth (or a very similar one) to Hârn. It even has a set of wizards who know about gunpowder but deliberately suppress the knowledge. Now, if a first level wizard who has somehow (and how is a matter for the pre-game) managed to get his hands on an MP40 SMG with a few bullets and is being hunted for it by half the wizards on Hârn isn't an adventure, I'd like to know how.

"My name is Smelly Jack"

Or, to put it another way, "Sod off, Baldric." The BBC's Blackadder series has much to answer for. Or, he says, Homer Simpson-like, does it? Yet again, this is something that's happened to me. Yet again, I didn't handle it well. Learn from my mistakes. I was, at the time, wanting to run a fairly fun but also fairly historical campaign along the lines of outlaws in a greenwood fighting authority figures. If the name 'Robin Hood' were to enter your mind, I'd say you weren't far off the mark. If the title 'Robin of Sherwood' were to enter your mind, I'd say you've won Herne's Arrow. In this particular case, I allowed the name "Smelly Jack". Not, you understand, because I saw the comedy potential and fun of such a character, but because I was wrestling with (a) persuading a group of players to try a new game system and (b) I was trying to teach the group some medieval history during the course of a game. I gave up one battle and allowed "Smelly Jack", then ignored him. He was always a bit part, the character you forget is even there. Huge mistake. Smelly Jack was not only comic relief, he was exactly the sort of impoverished, uneducated peasant the outlaws were fighting for - with the added spice that if I'd cooperated with the player, rather than pretend she didn't exist, it could have been a memorable campaign ("Is this really the kind of person we're fighting for?"). Sue, the player, had brilliant comedic timing. It wasn't the campaign I had planned, but it could have been one I remembered with pride. Instead, I clamped down on her opportunities, and the campaign ended in a shambles with me declaring, "I want to try something more serious." In other words, I still hadn't learned to GM, and I was still trying to force my view of a campaign down other people's throats.

Just for historical interest, the "something more serious" was my first Hârn campaign. If I thought the cheap comedy ended with Smelly Jack, I was wrong. But I did learn to stop trying to lecture people, I paid a lot more attention to what the players wanted and, in the words of Dr Strangelove, I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb.

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Re: GM Beginners' guide, fytte the fourth

#2 Post by Nightly Knight » Fri Jan 15, 2010 4:33 am

You have a very fun perspective; as a gm new to Harn but having enjoyed over the last year or so downloading stuff from Lythia. buying the occasional sourcebook and such I'm ready to seriously run it! I already started a solo game with my wife and the origin thing is so new to us, she's used to taking a couple of months to get used to a character and be sure it doesn't get killed too early. But in this game the first session putting her character together was a lot of fun for her. I found viewing your ideas very helpful in relaxing and just going ahead with this.

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Re: GM Beginners' guide, fytte the fourth

#3 Post by AndyStaples » Sat Jan 16, 2010 8:23 pm

I'm glad you're finding my scribblings useful.

I too really enjoy the process of putting together a Harn character. The background details one can generate with Harnmaster really act as a spur to the imagination, helping to give a character some depth.

You can do it with other systems, of course, but HarnMaster makes it a core part of character generation.

Oh, another tip if you run short of inspiration for a character (or even for designing an adventure): tarot cards. A reading based around character (or situation for an adventure) can give loads of inspiration.

You can use a set of Earthly tarot cards (or even ordinary playing cards if you know the gipsy reading methods), but several years ago Robin privately published his rules for Harnic Tarot. It's not currently available, but for those of us lucky enough to have a copy, it's great.

Edit: fixed typo.

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Re: GM Beginners' guide, fytte the fourth

#4 Post by GronkGroks » Wed Jan 20, 2010 8:06 am

ahhh, Andy...

...I know I should have a copy, but if I had happen to have misfiled the tarot information (or am just to lazy to go thru 8 very large and un-organized files); I don't suppose you might know where such a person could lay their hands (electronic or otherwise) upon it?

Again, this is why companies should have PDF files on their websites, so you can profit from our incompetence...
...and I'm not dead yet...

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Re: GM Beginners' guide, fytte the fourth

#5 Post by AndyStaples » Thu Jan 21, 2010 6:51 pm

I don't know where you can get a copy, I'm afraid.

Robin was keen to release a second edition, but wanted it to include the cards themselves (the first edition merely decribes what they look like). I don't think he was ever able to find an artist able to do 72 full colour images to the standards required for the fee available.

Maybe it's something Kelestia could consider - even a PDF of the first edition would be nice.

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Re: GM Beginners' guide, fytte the fourth

#6 Post by Jwatson19 » Wed Mar 02, 2011 9:15 am

AndyStaples wrote:I don't know where you can get a copy, I'm afraid.

Robin was keen to release a second edition, but wanted it to include the cards themselves (the first edition merely decribes what they look like). I don't think he was ever able to find an artist able to do 72 full colour images to the standards required for the fee available.

Maybe it's something Kelestia could consider - even a PDF of the first edition would be nice.
I have the first edition and could probably make a copy for my web page but if anyone is serious about Tarot cards I have a deck by Hanson-Roberts which I purchased at a local gaming store some yeras ago. You might just want to check your local gaming store. BTW my deck has 78 cards. And as second BTW if you do a search online ty typing: Tarot+deck into the search engine you will find out more about Tarot decks and their availablity they you really want to know. :)
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Re: GM Beginners' guide, fytte the fourth

#7 Post by AndyStaples » Wed Mar 02, 2011 3:50 pm

Kelestia Productions are now selling PDFs of the Harnic Tarot article, so posting a copy of it would undoubtably bring a cease & desist order (and would likely do so even if they weren't actively selling the PDF; it's still copyrighted material).

There are a number of differences between Earthly and Harnic decks.

Earthly: 78 cards.
56 cards minor arcana, arranged into 4 suits of 14 cards (one for each Platonic element).
22 cards major arcana.

Harnic: 72 cards.
36 cards minor arcana, arranged into 6 suits of six cards (one for each Pvaric element).
36 cards major arcana.

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Re: GM Beginners' guide, fytte the fourth

#8 Post by Jwatson19 » Fri Mar 04, 2011 2:31 am

Opps, but all I have is the mention of Tarot in the published rules, nothing on the deck itself. I just assumed with out careful reading of the rules in the published hard copy stuff that the deck was, well the 78 card deck, I have. :oops:
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Re: GM Beginners' guide, fytte the fourth

#9 Post by AndyStaples » Sun Mar 06, 2011 12:11 am

Jwatson19 wrote:Opps, but all I have is the mention of Tarot in the published rules, nothing on the deck itself. I just assumed with out careful reading of the rules in the published hard copy stuff that the deck was, well the 78 card deck, I have. :oops:
Until Robin published his article, I think most of us assumed a fairly standard deck.

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