HârnMaster (sometimes written Hârn Master) is a comprehensive system of role-playing rules created (and owned) by N. Robin Crossby and compatible with any pre-gunpower role-playing environment.
HârnMaster was written in the mid 1970s. In creating HârnMaster Robin got plenty of help and inspiration from his players, especially from his friends Rob Duff, Ed King, Sharon MacLeod and the late Brad Carter. It was Brad, for example, who used to say things like "I want to breed and train dogs" or "I want to breed and train heirs" who inspired Robin to create hundreds of pages of quite obscure rules on dogs, heredity, ageing, and other things that hardly anyone ever reads.
HârnMaster was always meant to handle a comprehensive range of possibilities (like breeding dogs, entertaining gentleman callers, cutting purses, or throwing eggs at street mimes) and is dedicated to the proposition that the actions of characters in the game may be governed by the laws of physics, the laws of magic or logic or even by Murphy's Law, but should never be limited by arbitrary rules. A GM should manage her/his game using or not using rules as s/he desires. In other words, HârnMaster is intended to help the GM when help would be helpful, never to overrule the GM or dictate the course of play.
So what makes HârnMaster better than any other role-playing rules? There is no single answer. HârnMaster is so radically different from any other major system that it sometimes seems like an alien genre. This seems to have made some people think that HârnMaster is more complicated than it really is.
- A HârnMaster character generates or chooses just over thirty, carefully defined attributes, or more or less if desired. About half the generation process is about social background, an area generally neglected elsewhere, but which is essential for a fully-rounded character intended for more than one expedition. This takes a bit longer, but saves a lot of time later. Most players seem to very much enjoy the HârnMaster character generation routine.
- There are no character classes, experience points or levels in HârnMaster. Instead there is a subtle, and very clean skills system, with more than 120 skills, including psionic talents. (This does not include the thousands of spells and spell effects included in the Shèk-Pvâr book of magic). Affinity for each skill depends on character attributes. The system is open-ended; the GM may expand it at will. There is nothing to prevent a wizard from using a sword, or a warrior from learning a few spells. Everyone decides which skills he will develop and to what level. It is possible for a character to be a mercantyler, a pilot, or practice a vast array of other occupations instead of or in addition to a handful of "classes".
- Except for HârnMaster, all major systems use "hit points", an obtuse abstraction borrowed from miniatures wargaming. Robin decided to generate graphic injuries instead. What do you prefer, a "seven point hit" or a "serious cut to the left thigh"? What about infection, shock, fatigue? These considerations are neglected by every system but HârnMaster.
- Why should armour come in complete suits of leather, mail or plate instead of discrete pieces? How on earth could wearing sixty pounds of armour reduce the chance that an opponent will land a blow? In HârnMaster, an armoured character must sacrifice mobility in proportion to his encumbrance and this generally makes him easier to strike. Armour does not and should not benefit its wearer until an opponent lands a blow. This allows each character to strike a personal balance between armour and mobility, to stress his speed and agility or his strength and endurance.
- HârnMaster offers combatants a wide range of tactical options: "Do I block, counterstrike, grapple, press, or dodge? Shall I engage this opponent or that one? Shall I attack or wait for an opening?" While HârnMaster campaigners do not seem to fight with the same monotonous regularity as is the case in most other systems, when melee is joined, the combatants always feel as if they are in a real fight, with real options and real results. For the fainthearted or hasty, there is also a Quick Combat system.
- Magic in HârnMaster is not a matter of rote-learning. While there are thousands of spells and variants, the system stresses original research. It is a matter of pride for the Shék-Pvâr to develop personal spells, and the research and development system is clearly laid out for players who are interested.
What HârnMaster does is question the falacies in other systems. People who want a somewhat more cerebral game continue to migrate to the latest, 'easiest', and most comprehensive version HârnMaster Gold, which is now the most popular HârnMaster ever.
Important note: While being designed as a rules system to match the great attention to detail of the HârnWorld modules, HârnMaster can actually be used 'out of the box' for play in any pre-gunpower setting. Furthermore, the HârnMaster system can be easily adapted for use in any fantastic, historical, modern or even futuristic environment you might want to game in.
Another important consideration is that HârnMaster is modular. This means that individual modules can be inserted into other systems to replace problem sections. In this sense, HârnMaster can be used as a rules-repair-kit.