Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Isn't it time you got to know....?

[I know I promised more slugmen pr0n; bear with me.]

The music magazine Q runs a regular feature in their review section entitled Isn't it time you got to know [x]? where [x] is the name of an under-rated and/or unfairly overlooked musician or band. This feature could just as well be used for books, films, alchoholic drinks, cities and, of course, role playing games.

Well, isn't it time you got to know HARP?

Now, before you start off on me, I know it has a crap website that hasn't been updated since May 2008. And I know it's easily dismissed as either Rolemaster light or a fantasy heartbreaker. But beneath the naff, cliched exterior is a little gem of a game; like the Deacon Blue of the roleplaying world, what is easily dismissed as a simplistic, well-meaning, polished but bland affair is, underneath, well worth getting to know.

Part of the strength of HARP is its very simplistic blandness. This isn't a game which wears its wacky mechanics or kewl setting like a badge of indie pride. It doesn't pretend to be about exploring conflict, or betrayal, or trust, and it doesn't masquerade under a shibboleth like "story game". It sets its stall from the outset as the High Adventure Role Playing game, without a trace of irony or self-consciousness: this is a game about good old fashioned Adventure and it wants you to know about it, and it's a role playing game and it isn't ashamed to be so.

It also manages to achieve what D&D has always struggled with and what E6 was meant to bring about: doing realistic-seeming fantasy to any degree of success. The abstractions of hit points, armour class, THAC0 (BABs, whatever) and levels means that D&D characters have absurdly steep career trajectories; if they don't die they reach heights of power and invulnerability far beyond that of mere mortals. By level 6 they are practically superheroes. HARP characters improve in much more organic and believable ways. They become increasingly competent, but remain fragile, never growing into the kind of demigod that D&D characters quickly become. Unlike D&D at level 9 and above, in HARP there is genuine risk no matter how much experience a character has. (Which is not to criticise D&D; I like D&D. But it won't let you play a game as if it's A Song of Ice and Fire.)

Another thing: it uses a simplified Rolemaster system, and what can match the sheer joy of its exploding percentile dice rolling? Of felling an orc by driving your sword through its face and out through the back of its skull, and finding out how many rounds it takes a goblin to drown in its own blood after being pierced through the lung? Not boring old d20, that's for certain. Hand me those d10s!

The best thing about it is that it is generic. Nothing bored me more about WotC D&D than its implied settings. Points of Light? Yawn. People pay money for that? What are the rules? Well, ICE have created a setting for HARP, but you won't see nary a mention of it in the core rules. This is a set of instructions for playing a fantasy adventure game, and that's that: you come up with the rest. Come up with your own setting or make it up as you go along. There are no designers trying to indirectly influence what you do. This is a game that I can get on board with.

So isn't it about time you got to know HARP? Really?


  1. I think HARP is a great distillation of the RoleMaster rules into something much more manageable. But I've never been a big RoleMaster fan -- though the combats are fun -- and HARP has many of the same "problems" for me that its ancestor does, such as too many skills. That's not a knock against it, but it doesn't scratch any itches I have.

  2. With (old-style) D&D, it's really a matter of where YOU draw the line. Likewise, it was pretty easy to turn RuneQuest into Superworld. The games are just tool kits, not anything forcing anyone to play a certain way. I'm not acquainted with HARP in particular, but I know that 1st/2nd ed. RM has the same sort of "superheroic" provisions built in that D&D has. The one big difference there, and what seems to be your point, is critical-hit rules (which as a species actually go back to Dave Arneson's original campaign).

  3. James: Rolemaster was too unwieldy for me, but I had some great times with MERP and HARP. You couldn't get much further away from OD&D than those games, though.

    Dwayanu: The games are just tool kits, not anything forcing anyone to play a certain way.

    Of course, but if we are going to talk about games in any sort of meaningful way, we have to take them at face value. It could equally be argued that you can use the Exalted rules to play a dungeon-crawl game in the mode of OD&D. Or you could use the Burning Wheel rules to play a cyberpunk game. Or the OD&D rules to play something like Traveller. Or any combination of games and styles whatsoever. But where does that lead us, except to a cul-de-sac?

    It also raises the question: why use the OD&D rules (say) if you could be using the Exalted rules instead to do the same thing? They're just toolkits after all...