Subscribe to the Roleplaying Tips Weekly Newsletter - game master tips

Review of HARP and HARP Lite

By Lev Lafayette

HARP Lite (Iron Crown, 2003/2005)

HARP (High Adventure Role Playing) uses nine professions, each of which have special abilities and favoured skill categories. (Skills in favoured categories are easier to develop.) Professions are pretty standard: Fighter, Cleric, Mage, and Rogue are the basic ones. The Harper, Monk, Ranger, Thief, and Warrior Mage professions are slightly more exotic which explains why they are not elaborated in the "lite rules". Professions are rather neatly balanced.

There are eight attributes, or "Stats," (Strength, Constitution, Agility, Quickness, Self Discipline, Insight, and Presence) which range in value from 1 to 105. These determine skill bonuses and development point bonuses from which one purchases skills on a level-by-level basis. Interestingly, a strictly "average" person will never gain any development points no matter how many levels they advance! There are six races, the standard fare with the more exotic Gryx (also not elaborated on) and a distinction between race and culture e.g., Rural Halflings and Urban Halflings. Different races have different stat bonuses, endurance bonuses, and power point multipliers for spells. The endurance bonus is quite significant at low levels - Dwarves receive 50 extra hit points! The races are likewise balanced.

Whilst different races receive bonuses on natural traits, different cultures receive bonus "adolescent" skill ranks. As an aid to learning skills, a "training package" of skills may be purchased at a discount. There are about 50 skills with additional specializations, broken up into ten categories, and there are about 30 "Master Talents" which provide additional bonuses (e.g., accelerate healing, ambidexterity, etc).

Total skill bonus is derived from stat bonus + skill bonus. Stats play a modest role in skill resolution, a character with very high stats in a couple of attributes relevant to a skill has the equivalent bonus of four skill ranks. Different types of skill resolutions (all or nothing, bonus, special) are described. In play bonuses may be gained through expending "Fate Points", which can be increased through successful gaming, not necessarily good roleplaying. Most skills attempts are resolved in the time-honoured open-ended percentile roll.1

There are fairly detailed encumbrance rules and an extensive equipment list, with the usual emphasis on weapons, armour and other stuff that adventurers do. It seems thrown in the middle of the book rather wily-nily, and I've replicated such behaviour in this review.

Spells are classified as either utility, attack, or elemental attack. The former require a manoeuvre roll, the next a resistance roll, and the latter an attack roll like a weapon. Like everything else, spells can be fumbled.

Combat is d100 + OB (offensive bonus) - DB (defensive bonus). One's OB is based on skill, stat etc, and one's DB is based on quickness, armor, shields, and parrying (transferring OB to DB). Combat rounds are two seconds long. Weapon sizes have a critical modifier and a damage cap which isn't really that high. A tiny weapon can do a maximum of 80 points of damage and a huge one, 120. Weapons cause both damage of the type appropriate for the weapon and critical hits which are combined into a single table for each damage type.

There are about 60 spells, each classified as universal (anyone can learn them), cleric, or mage. The number of spell entries was kept down by allowing spells to be be enhanced or scaled by expending more power points. This is a good idea and applied sensibly, although even more scale options wouldn't have gone astray.

There are 26 monsters which are provided combat stats and minimal descriptions and, of course, a treasure types. The treasure types are dutifully broken up into money, mundane items and, incredibly rarely, magic items.

The gamemaster guidelines chapter discusses a fairly simple goal-based experience point system, and that's about it. The rules conclude with a character sheet and several pages of colour advertising from ICE.

In a nutshell, HARP represents pretty much what MERP used to represent, i.e., a scaled-down version of Rolemaster. There are some conceptual improvements in this simplification, for example combining hits and critical hits in combat and making spells more adaptable. However, it also replicates some of its fundamental design problems. It's fairly well-written, albeit with the a rather tired old setting of generic fantasy. It would probably appeal to an audience younger than the average D&D player, which is where ICE should be pitching it. The artwork is nothing special, but general design and layout is clear.

It's also easy to set-up, easy to play and inexpensive, making it an ideal "beer-n-pretzels" evening or "pull out the old MERP modules for some hobbit-like fun."

Overall however, it's a good fifteen to twenty years behind contemporary design and setting ideas. One can almost get nostalgic remembering what it was like being in one's early teens and actually being really impressed with games like this. Instead it comes across as a consistent, solid set of rules (albeit unexciting) with a few nice ideas.

Rating: 6.0/10

[editor note: HARP Lite is available as a free PDF download from ICE's HARP web site.]

HARP (Iron Crown 2003/2004)

OK, this is the more elaborate version of HARP Lite. It's about twice as long and a quick look at the table of contents tells you what additional material is covered. It includes additional professions, multiple professions, the race of Gryx, more on skill resolution and adventuring situations, custom armour, additional spells, herbs and poisons, creature statistics, and a lot more gamemaster information, especially for language, lore and religion.

The additional professions are instantly recognizable to anyone who's played an RPG, monk, ranger, thief, and warrior monk. There is no real need to elaborate on these. The multiple profession system merely requires taking up the new profession and the purchase of a talent allowing such easy transitions. This is easy to implement and becoming a standard in game design. Finally, a number of "non-adventuring" professions are added with sparse descriptions (e.g., artisan, outdoor craftsman, scholar, trader etc).

The Gryx are described in this version of HARP and are a disappointment. In terms of racial stats, they're at an disadvantage. They're also ugly. They're a semi-bestial race that replicates the half-orc. One wonders then, why they simply weren't called half-orcs.

Hybrid races are also allowed in the expanded edition. Basically, you pick a standard race and purchase partial "blood talents", whether "lesser" (e.g., Dwarven heritage) or "greater" (e.g., parental Dwarf). This is another nice touch to the game system and saves one the time of averaging racial characteristics.

Skills are slightly elaborated but not to any great extent. The basics remain the same: categories, skill plus stat for total bonus, and differing resolution methods. Some of the differentiation is quite unnecessary, such as between Herbcraft and Horticulture, given the general simplicity of the game.

Spells have been significantly expanded with the Harper, Ranger and Warrior Mage receiving about half the spell options of the Cleric and Mage. There's about 120 or so spells in the expanded edition. However, the general mechanics are the same.

The Talent list has been expanded to about 45. There are special starting items, including nobility and law enforcement rights. The equipment list has doubled, although a lot of that is due to sectional armour. The sectional armour rules are unsurprising. Each piece is provided it's own DB etc.

The expanded adventuring and resolution rules include attacking an object, grenade-like missiles, special combat conditions, some rather unimaginative traps, and some quick notes on the dangers of the natural world, such as starvation, drowning, quick sand, and extreme heat and cold.

There is a combat option for "Life Points" for those who find the time-honoured ICE critical system too scary, and a hit location/called shots option as well. The combat tables are expanded to include poisons and martial arts strikes, sweeps, and grapples.

The herbs and poisons chart are a nice addition in this version. As in Rolemaster of many years ago, the method of application and climate location was always an interesting item in itself.

The monsters section is expanded to include encounter tables, no great surprises there. It's a fairly sensible table, broken down into location, condition and type of encounter. The monster chart has significantly more creatures and with stronger ties to the type of terrain. Creature descriptions are very limited, however full statistics are provided. It was surprising to discover that none of the listed monsters have a negative Reasoning bonus except the Werewolf. (Even a giant ant is smarter than a werewolf and that's not a creature I expected to be in centres of higher learning.)

Magic items finally make a serious appearance in this elaborated edition. It's a modest collection of items, reminiscent of a scaled-down version of that in the Dungeon Master's Guide for first edition AD&D.

The gamemaster section starts with pretty straightforward advice that every beginning GM should have drilled into their brain ("have fun", "know the rules". "be consistent", "keep the game moving", "don't be too generous"). The cleric/religious system is very simple, basically choosing aspects and related spells. Games like Runequest managed the same thing almost thirty years ago and made it feel a lot more impressive and interesting. Still, it's sensible advice.

There's a new language table, which is straight out of Rolemaster first edition, which was quite advanced then and is still better than most language systems on the roleplaying game market. This is expanded to include the Lore Table which is a very nice move.

The game concludes with a character sheet, and a pretty comprehensive index.

Overall, this is a modest improvement and elaboration on HARP Lite which fleshes it out to be a more-or-less complete game. However, the same comments made concerning HARP LIte still apply here.

Rating: 6.5/10

Lev Lafayette

1 Open-Ended Roll: If the result of the percentile roll is at or above a specified threshold, the dice are rolled again and the result is added to the first roll. If the second roll is at or above the threshold, then a third roll is made and added, and so on until the dice roll is not falls below the threshold. The sum of these rolls is the result of the high open-ended roll. Open-ended high rolls allow the chance of success for particularly spectacular feats!

The same holds true for very low rolls except that succeeding rolls are subtracted from the original results. This can result in large negative numbers with very negative outcomes.