For whom the setting tolls

One topic that we keep coming back to is RM’s setting. There is nothing inherently wrong with a generic fantasy set of rules but it does set any single game at a disadvantage in the gaming market place.

The reasons why generic is a disadvantage is twofold. Firstly, settings get people excited. Middle Earth = exciting and evocative, Game of Thrones = exciting and evocative, Generic = bland and boring.

Generic also equals work. If you have a setting you know and love, Middle Earth, Shadow World or the Forgotten Realms as examples you have to immediately do work to make the game rules fit the setting. I must have spent months recreating significant NPCs from D&D to RMC before starting my game. That is easy for me as I know RMC inside out but for a GM that has just bought a new game then it is a lot to ask.

Something that Terry does well is use vignettes at the head of a chapter to bring his setting material to life. Game mechanics on their own are actually pretty boring. The setting on the other hand can be compelling and surprising. In separating the rules from the setting you are not really helping anyone.

The counter argument is that RM is an advanced system that experienced GMs upgrade to and these are most likely to have their own home brew setting. So why spend all that time and effort creating a setting that no one is going to use?

I can sort of see the logic. Most of us are in our 40s and 50s and came to RM by upgrading from D&D. So if we all upgraded to RM then others are likely to as well.

The problem with that is, in my opinion, that the gaming world has changed a lot since the 1980s. You are no longer restricted to the games that your FLGS stocks. Sites like RPGnow and Drivethru have so many games that no one can every hope to play them all. The result of all that choice is that there is a game or set of rules out there that model whatever it is that you want to play almost perfectly, off the shelf and without the burden of bending a generic set of rules to fit.

Also, over the past 40 years all those traditional systems that we upgraded from have themselves updated and evolved. AD&D 1st edition was far from perfect, as Hurin said recently ‘Once you have seen 1d8 damage you have seen them all.’ but now critical systems are plentiful if you like your damage covered in blood.

Those systems we upgraded from have also mostly flourished and grown over the years and as a result every possible taste is catered for. Just look at the number of genre books available for GURPs as an example. GURPS is an example of a generic system that really identified the lack of setting as a weakness. To address that weakness they put the time and effort into fitting GURPS to each and every genre so the GM didn’t have to.

I am lucky enough to have been given some of the core Harn World books by the publisher. It is my task in the coming weeks to read through them. I will be blogging about them as well. Here we have a setting ready for any system. I know that Shadow World can be an acquired taste, the mix of fantasy and tech are not to everyone’s taste.

As we are not allowed to publish for Shadow World (thinking about our 50in50 adventure hooks) we could easily publish these and add in Harnic locations. These could be ‘box outs’ so the GM can use it or not at their discretion.

So how many of you have played RM or HARP in Harn? What did you think of the setting?

20 Replies to “For whom the setting tolls”

  1. It’s been so long since I played HARN that I honestly just can’t remember anything about the setting, unfortunately. I think I liked it — but it has been so long. Maybe you could jog our memories with a paragraph or two about the basics?

  2. I collected all the old Harn stuff–they came in smaller size pamphlets IIRC? Good detail but I never actually read any of them and ultimately sold them as a huge bundle on eBay. It was a magic lite setting?

  3. Heya. I started GMing RM in the 80s and most of my cities were those of Harn transplanted to my world. For purposes of reuse, the Columbia Games’ content was easily usable with its generic ratings for establishments and low-magic plot hooks. I’d hazard that SW and Harn are two ends of a spectrum magic-wise.

    My brother-in-law then went a step further and plopped Harn onto my world (on the other hemisphere) and ran an Arthurian inspired campaign arc. It worked pretty well.

    In summary, am a big fan of the setting, owning most of the older books, but use it piecemeal (towns, cities, castles, an adventure or two such as Staff of Fanon) rather than run a game in Kethira.

    Am surprised ICE isn’t interested in your 3rd party content. Can you elaborate?

    1. Regarding our publications ICE has a very constrained attitude to third party publications and going directly through ICE can be an extremely slow and torturous process.

  4. I’ve picked up a few Harn supplements recently from RPGNow, with the Master Module and Harn Manor being the largest. I haven’t read them yet; I’ve gone a bit crazy with supplement purchases and if I managed to read one a day I have enough for the next few years. Given that more than a few are multi-hundred page supplements, one a day is unlikely.

    If you want the Harn stuff from RPGNow but don’t like the price, buy absolutely anything from Columbia Games and agree to receive mailings. They send out discounts at least weekly, sometimes with a lot off.

  5. To me the biggest issue with RM’s setting is that there IS one, but it’s unstated. Originally it was framed around Middle Earth, and many of those assumptions remained until RMU (High Men anyone?). RM was always the ‘generic’ rules set that wasn’t really generic at all, and that caused all sorts of conversion headaches.

    I have some of the Harn stuff and really enjoy the premise behind it. Fixing a setting date and stating they won’t publish materials that push beyond that so as not to interfere with ongoing campaigns is a solid move in my view. It’s solid middle age in terms of technology and social models and can very easily be used piecemeal.

    1. I kind of like the idea of not changing the start date. It gets rid of what Wizards/TSR did to Greyhawk. And Mystara. And the Forgotten Realms. It’s a bit hard to run a campaign when the publisher keeps changing the ground under you and has their own canon interpretation of events.

      Of course, you can end up covering the entire world and having nothing new to publish, but Harn looks like it gets round that by lots of small supplements with very fine detail.

  6. Hi,

    Even GURPS came up with a few non-generic settings for their system.

    The lack of a setting is a great weakness. The lack of a good setting is a weakness.

    Of course, GURPS mocks this idea too: Possibly the most successful GURPS products are the Dungeon Fantasy line, whose ‘setting’ is “You are adventurers who go into dungeons to kill monsters and take their stuff, so that you become strong enough to go into deeper dungeons to kill stronger monsters to take their better stuff, so…”

    Like a few other game settings I can think of (RM, Burning Wheel, Chivalry and Sorcery…), Harn is a strange mix of Tolkien and some idea of ‘real’ medieval Europe, which usually means Britain, because of course Dacia and Brittania were the same. I suspect it was also influenced by Runequest. It’s a serviceable setting, with some avid fans who have done some interesting things with it. The Harn deities are distinctive.

    I suspect a good deal of work would be needed to make RM fit well into Harn. RM classes are generic, but a certain kind of generic, whereas most things Harn are specific, and the wrong kind of specific. For example, we’d need 6 new spellcasting classes to represent the Shek Pvar, and these would replace existing casting classes. I suppose it could be made to work, since anything can be made to work.

    I suppose it is a matter of intent: Do you want a setting in which all or most of the Rolemaster classes and features make sense, so you can feature them? Or do you want to tailor RM to represent a specific setting?

    Anyway,

    Ken

    Anyway,

    Ken

  7. I have to admit I never played HARN. We started with MERP and quickly migrated to RM2. We also never played Shadow World since we created our own setting with an evolving map, a pantheon and even an own language with grammar and tenses and so on. Now we have a vocabulary of 1000 words. However since then I tried many other systems as Gurps, Star Wars, Vampire, The Black Eye, and do on. I am still stuck with RM2 due to its flexibility and adaptability. For us RM is like a good teacher: when we needed it it provided security and showed us how the world works. When you grow up it gives you the freedom to challenge the rules and make your own experiences. Finally it allows you to find your own way and adapt as much as you like.

  8. I’ve always liked that fact that RM didn’t have an established setting. Sure, it mirrors Middle Earth, but we are not playing Middle Earth. I don’t want to play in that “world” with all the known tropes and characters. I don’t want to run into Bilbo, I don’t want comparisons and stories of Gandalf. I don’t want to play RM in Middle Earth, I want to play RM not in Middle Earth. I always loved that RM was not established in a specific setting.

    The way we played was in a world of our own creation and imagination and there are never any issue with it. When I played D&D, there were breaks in the game while people needed to confer in the real world about which god was the god of this and that, which player read which book because that history changed. How far in the timeline was that last book you read? Because Alpha-Bad-Guy was slain by Beta-Other-Baddie so you can’t say Alpha-Dude did that. The whole political structure changed after that…. You get the point. The D&D world was so set in stone, there was NO room at all for any freedom or changing of the established timeline. We were told as a party, we can’t do that because the guy was going to establish this later on so we can’t interfere with that portion.

    Maybe that was poor GM-ing on the GM’s part… but when the entire party (except me since I don’t read D&D anything) says “Oh yeah that’s right. So we know that he’ll do that later on. OK, we’ll head off this way and battle the troll kingdom instead.” In game decisions were made based on events that are set in stone in the D&D canon. What I suggested the party do was as sacrilegious as me suggesting Boba Fett blew up the Death Star.

    WTH???? We can’t fight that guy because if we win it will break a fictional timeline? (one more reason I don’t like D&D) This was the only time in my brief D&D career that I ran into that and it wasn’t even with the same group of players. Four different groups of players over the past 20+ years and all too often, I felt like I was an actor in a movie that had been seen million times over. I am Captain Antilles, I am going to be choked to death. I am Conan and I am going to punch the camel in the mouth. I have this script I have to follow and if I deviate, the other players get mad at me.

    I’ll agree with anyone who says that GM could have done this or that and allowed it. And I’ll also agree with anyone who says “Well, if they are staying in the timeline to keep the gods aligned and the local politics coherent, he had to disallow it.” Both are correct. I simply view D&D as being this completely established world and gods forbid anyone who wants to deviate from that. If you want to play D&D, you are playing in the D&D world just as much as if I were to say if you want to play in Middle Earth, there will be tales of the little Hobbit who had a little ring. That is the world you choose to play in.

    With Shadow World, I have that Option. That’s “Option” with a big “O”. I don’t have to put my group into Kulthea, into Shadow World to have fun. What I have done is take different Shadow World Companions and add them to my world. I love the Worshippers of Hrassk. I have that temple set in with Gryphonburg (Just bought that book last summer), all taking place south of Trolls and I have used the Vulgar Language Generator to create a 2000 word dictionary and full grammar system for Seoltang. ****

    After the weekender session we had last fall, one of the players was intrigued. He asked where I was pulling the information from, where was I getting the setting. He wanted to know if I was pulling it from books and an established story line and setting. I showed him Quellbourne Companion because that was all I had introduced them to at that point was a bit from Quellbourne He loved it. He was impressed. Everything else to that point had been this fictional world we made up back in college in 1989.

    My love of RM is that the setting was not established anywhere and nothing was written in stone. Is it boring? I don’t think so. My friends have been having a blast playing. Do they care that there is no hard literature they can refer to regarding the world, creatures, political structure? Nope. Does having something I can pull from (Shadow World) to inject some really nice color into my system help out? Heck yes! But I don’t use all of it and I don’t hold the players to those hard fast rules as written in those companions because they aren’t written that way. There is great background and colorful stories that have very honestly, inspired me to write whole stories and sessions from. There is a thread about the cover art on the Red Border RM2 core books. People admitted to writing stories based off of those pictures. I did it. I’ve done it several times. Something about those pictures and the ambiguity of them sparks creativity!

    Now with the 50 in 50 modules, I’ve been injecting those into the sessions too and the players are loving them!!! The Cabin in the Woods is “non-setting specific” but man, did we have 5 sessions of a great time playing at that cabin. It burned to the ground, but it’s going to be rebuilt by a benevolent group or maybe even a less-than-upstanding group of NPCs because the cabin is a great place to meet. It’s going to be one of those tropes in my world. The Cabin must be rebuilt. Just like the Flying Dutchman must have a Captain.

    *** – According to the creator of Vulgar, I am allowed to share the dictionary, however, I do not know what the rules are from ICE regarding the sharing of the Seoltang Language. Their creation only had approx. 40 words and no grammatical rules at all.

    1. I wrecked the official timelines of both Mystara and Greyhawk. In both cases using Spelljammers during the boxed set wars – it turns out that Spelljammers have excellent strategic value for shipping troops around. To a lesser extent, the Forgotten Realms was damaged too, although only in the Damara region.

      1. No one wrecks the forgotten realms as much as WotC do. They trash it and restart almost at will. It sells more books though. I am firmly stuck in the 2nd edition I think but I know avid fans who will willingly end their campaigns just to be able to restart with the next iteration.

    2. Settings should not be prescriptive and as far as I am concerned from the second play starts each GMs version of that setting is unique. If the publisher prints material further into the future then that is up to the GM to decide if they integrate it or not and if so, how.

      When I started playing Greyhawk was the world of choice but we soon started to homebrew our own settings. The thing is that every setting we created was not that different to Greyhawk as the rules we were playing tended to have an impact on the shape of the game.

      Although RM is allegedly setting neutral it also starts to impose its will on the game. I like my worlds to be low magic but that is almost impossible with RM as spell casters have myriads of spells and buckets of power points.

      So RM settings are almost never low magic.

      Another aspect of RM and settings is that great settings draw in new players. Sure once they know the rules they can homebrew their own settings or take the RM rules and play in any world they like. I do exactly that with my forgotten realms game. The point is that a great setting is another road by which new players can discover RM. With no setting that road is closed.

      1. My world is very much low magic and it can be done and players still have a lot of fun. As many readers here and in the forum know, I only allow Elemental Companion and Alchemy Companion for magic and I explain those away as the new science of that era. People are enlightened now and there is no such thing as magic. Even the undead have been “explained” somewhat through “science.” What alchemy was to our real world during the renaissance, so too is elementalism in our gaming world and there, alchemy is very real. It’s “low magic” not “no magic.” The spell lists in Alchemy Companion can pass for scientific workings with a good degree of believability. We did this not so much to have a low magic setting, but to make the 100,000+ spells available to all the players a heck of a lot more manageable.

        The magic items from the Olde Time and the Ancient Ways still exist and the players uncover them and get to use them. They were created during a bygone era. Humans are the “infant race” in the world and still have very much to learn.

  9. I have been thinking about settings and fiction, from a publisher’s point of view. You can publish for an established, well known fictional setting, but this has disadvantages (MERP). Or you could create your own setting and then add fiction. Which is in some ways better – if the fiction site decent. The problem that both methods have is that there is an official published canon. The only real way I can see around that is to have the fiction set in the setting’s past, or perhaps not have it be world-shattering in nature.

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