H.A.R.P. High Adventure Role-Playing…

…is overrated.

HARP is the scion of ICE, the publishers of the venerable Rolemaster system, which I primarily experienced through Middle-Earth Role-Playing, or MERP. If you’ve played Rolemaster, you doubtless have vivid memories of massive critical tables and a great deal of page-turning during combat.

HARP uses a percentile system where d100 is rolled and a character’s Attribute (rated from 1-110) and skill modifier is added to the roll. If the roll totals more than 100, you succeed. More difficult tasks have penalties from -10 and worse, and very simple tasks will have a bonus to them.

There are the standard fantasy races (Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Halvings and Gnomes) with a new race called the Gryx. HARP still has the critical tables we remember from Rolemaster, somewhat modified but still quite recognizeable. In a lot of ways, HARP is an improved version of Rolemaster. It has a lot of problems, though.

HARP won best non-d20 game at GenCon 2004, so there are plenty of people who disagre with me. I’m also sure that a good GM and a good group of players can make any game fun, including HARP. The problem is HARP’s complexity. Its a game that involves a lot of rolls and tables and arithmetic. For example, to cast a spell which can be resisted, you make your spellcasting skill roll, then compare the result to your target’s resistance attribute, then you look up both of those numbers and cross-reference them on a Resistance Table in order to find the modifier to the defender’s roll to resist the spell. Then if the spell strikes home, you roll a damage roll and look up that roll on a critical table. Based on this table, you find out how many Health Points the target has lost, or what the affect is otherwise (if it is a non-damaging spell for example), as well as other effects that might result from the damage.

(If you don’t want to handle everything quite this way, there is an optional Life Points system that is even more complicated, because you first have to calculate the normal Health Point damage and then translate it into Life Points.)

I also have to mention the production values of the game. The inerior artwork is all greyscale, which is fine, but it is possible to see pixellation in much of the interior art. This is pretty much unacceptable. Use some vector art, people! If Luke Crane can afford it for the revised edition of Burning Wheel, which is self-published, I think that ICE can as well.

The thing is – most of the time, when reading through a game, I can think of ways I’d improve it. That’s where all my house rules come from. There really isn’t a game that I play directly out of the book. But reading Harp, I found so much I would have changed. I think there is potential there, even in a d100 system where there is a little more arithmetic than is normal. Even involving the infamous critical tables.

Here’s what would have to happen:
1. Get rid of Life Points, Health Points, and so on. They’re derivative and not interesting nor fun. Track wounds individually, since you’ve already listed the effects and description in the critical tables.
2. Get rid of the Gryx. Instead, add rules for designing players’ own races, because anyone can come up with an Orc-Klingon looking guy and stat him up.
3. Unify the tables into a couple tables with multiple columns. Too much page flipping makes me not have fun anymore.
4. Get rid of classes. Just have experience lead to Development Points, which are already in use, and give everything a Development Point cost.
4.1 If you’re not going to get rid of classes, differentiate them from D&D more clearly. Since D20 is also an additive dice system, and it simpler, you need to stand out to get people to play the game.
5. Look at the art in a self-published indie game. Then put in art that is twice as good, because you have more money at your disposal than some guy in his garage with desktop publishing software. There’s no excuse for a publisher’s offering having visible pixels in the illustrations and artwork.
6. Simplify combat. I didn’t want to get into the rules in this brief review, but there’s a lot of rules you could toss out, simplify and unify to make it a more streamlined system – especially if you also expect players to be flipping to critical tables every time they throw down.

Give that, some positives:
1. I like how they handle half-races. Essentially, you take a bloodline trait that gives some bonuses and can be a lesser or a greater bloodline depending on how far removed you are from the second race.
2. I actually like the idea of tables for descriptive wounds and effects. They just need to be much-better-implemented.

The main positive of HARP is a nostalgia factor for Rolemaster players. I’ve got to give it 2 out of 5 stars – there’s just so much they could have done better.

4 thoughts on “H.A.R.P. High Adventure Role-Playing…

  1. Bummer. I hadn't read through it or anything, but was interested in playing mainly because I'd heard positive things from other players (many of whom themselves hadn't played it, but had heard from other people who… funny how things work that way). It's really a shame, because the cover boasts a fast-paced combat system that will leave you breathless. Tables don't leave me breathless. Ever.

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  2. Interesting… I would have to argue that it's not HARP your really dragging on, but Rolemaster and MERP. Because HARP really did a lot of cleaning up and simplifying. If you think HARP is too complex, man almighty then the original Rolemaster was a beast! But in the end HARP is like the Hero System or GURPS, it's for the rules junkies. The people who like crunchy systems. Which I used to be into, but now have gotten much more into the narrative/collaborative games. But HARP/Rolemaster/MERP still holds a place in my heart. It's nostalgia more than anything.

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  3. I guess you've got a point there – it is an improvement over Rolemaster/MERP in some ways…but they also added complexity in other ways that detracts from the overall idea of simplification. I just think that, when you have to be aware of better design ideas, its behooves you to make use of them. Maybe the comparison to GURPS is germane, though, since GURPS 4 was just GURPS 3 cleaned up a little and better balanced.

    Though I've got a lot more nostalgia for GURPS than I do even for MERP

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