HârnMaster (1986)

All good things come to an end. After several good years of publishing Harn as a system agnostic setting, they messed it all up by creating a system, called HarnMaster (1986).

“Messed up” is a bit, but you just know from Crossby’s approach to intricate, realistic world-building that he’s going to embrace intricate and “realistic” in his mechanics. It uses 18 hit locations – more than RuneQuest, but far less than Aftermath, if that gives you some gauge. A lot of folks say it is derivative of RuneQuest (and I guess the framework of abilities and a percentile skill system supports that), but I feel like spiritually, it is more in line with an Aftermath or Rolemaster style game. There are lots of fiddly bits.

I am generally not into fiddly bits, but with HarnMaster…I understand it more. A realistic, nitty gritty world deserves a realistic, nitty gritty system. Not for me, but I get it. Still, working on the system took Crossby away from working on the world, and I very much wish that hadn’t happened.

The most interesting thing for me, I think, is the skill based magic system, which consists of six elemental attunements, arranged in opposition to one another. A mage begins attuned to one element, gets bonuses for spells involving it, penalties for the opposite and diminished effects for the rest. There are also both common and neutral spells filling out the options. If a mage grows powerful enough, they can go grey, transcending the bonuses and penalties of elemental opposition. This is a clear forerunner of 2E D&D’s schools of magic.

One very nice thing about HarnMaster is Eric Hotz’s art. As much as I enjoy his faux-medieval work in the generic Harn books, and as much as that works to visually unify the world, it is a nice change of pace to see him do straight illustration work. The subjects of many of these illustrations are mundane – soldiers, farmers, craftspeople, everyday objects – and I find that to be a strangely compelling aesthetic choice.

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