Rpg Scene: Harbinger Games’ Far Realms

Monday , 23, November 2015 7 Comments

For as long as I can remember, I have assumed that AD&D was practically unplayable. TSR just never really demonstrated to me that they had a grasp of either editing or blind testing– or any kind of playtesting, really. And while companies like Steve Jackson Games would painstakingly maintain errata and carefully fold in developments from supplements into new editions of a game, I never really figured out how TSR did things.

But hey, the fact is… AD&D was so good, Lewis Pulsipher never felt the need to replace it with anything else or even to design an rpg of his own. And Rick Stump‘s AD&D campaign never really stopped. In fact, it’s gone on so long, he’s taking the time to put his own developments and accretions into AD&D gaming supplements.

Oh, er… I mean OSRIC gaming supplements. That’s totally different. And exactly the same thing. (Depends on the context.) And you know, I never got over those rules arguments we had back when I was a teenager. The Unearthed Arcana supplement and its precise level of canonicity with regards with the rest of AD&D line is serious business even to this day. (A lot of people seemed to ignore the rules changes and instead happily looted it for spells and magic-items, but that’s not me.)

If you’re that sort of person, you may be interested in Rick’s take on the much argued weapon mastery rules, how he deals with multiple attacks versus low hit dice creatures, and how he implements barbarians, bards, and his take on the cavalier. Being a devote of Alexander Macris’s ACKS retroclone, I tend to prefer the cleave rule, the class design system and the proficiency rules of that game. However, looking at how Rick interprets the AD&D combat, I see that we are not too far apart from each other in how we handle segments and initiative. (Note: I never had the nerve to actually try to figure out “real” AD&D combat. I trust that Rick has sorted this out sufficiently that I won’t have to ever bother looking at it.)

The real surprise here is that this tome includes advice on handling disease and parasites. That is just about the least heroic aspect of the game– something people discount as being an artifact of Gygax’s background in dealing with actuarial tables. Looking at them in this context, however, it really seems to amp up the medieval undertones of the game. Granted, AD&D has elements of sword & sorcery, science fantasy, and even science fiction incorporated into the default milieu. Most people tend to tone down the medieval elements of the game. But with Rick Stump at the helm, it’s clear that it doesn’t have to be that way.

This comes through most clearly with his addition of the NPC classes: the Religious Brother, the Man-at-Arms, the Hedge Wizard, and the Scoundrel. While it’s amusing to see the no-spell-at-first-level cleric and the d4 hit die thief back-ported into the AD&D system, the incorporation of these classes into the followers tables is inspired. But there’s much more to the Hedge Wizard and the Religious Brother than a variant class description. The extensive spells lists for each one give them a very different flavor from the mainline classes. And in the Religious Brother’s cane, that flavor is very, very Catholic.

A range of cantrips here would allow for any would-be Gandalfs to spoil an Inkeeper’s ale. In addition to many that would be of use to sorcerers’ apprentices tasked with mundane chores, there are several that would be of use to practical jokers. (Some of them cause sufficiently dire initiative penalties that they could have some tactical use.) The counterpart of cantrips for the cleric classes are called orisons, something I don’t think I’ve seen done before. While some of the bonuses to saving throws and to-hit rolls given for these might come in handy, the Cure Minor Wounds orison which heals 1d4 hit points of damage is bound to be a popular choice. (Religious Brothers get two orisons at first level and more as they level. Clerics and Druids always get four orisons in addition to their usual spells.)

It’s the smaller touches that make this supplement so attractive. The Hedge Wizard begins level one with just a few cantrips in his spell book; he doesn’t auomatically gain new spells when he levels up, either. The Hege Wizard scrapes by selling charms that give bonuses to reaction rolls and saving throws. Clerics and Religious Brothers will use the ward orison to keep extra-planar entities away. And the Religious Brothers have access to all manner of ceremony spells that make the church of the game’s implied setting seem like an integral part of society.

While a part of me has this urge to rework all of these rules here to be something in precisely the same style as the ACKS rule set I depend on most, that’s not really a prerequisite for me to get play out of this. There’s no reason I couldn’t drop these colorful NPC classes into my campaign and let them just function precisely the way that Rick lays out here. In fact… given that first level ACKS characters can normally only hire zero level “normal men” as henchmen, giving them the chance to take on some of Rick’s NPC classes could provide smaller groups with just the edge they need to tackle a challenging dungeon. So even if AD&D is not your preferred choice of old school game, that doesn’t mean appropriating elements of Rick’s campaign has to be off the table for you…! Even if you are a purist like me.

7 Comments
  • Jack Amok says:

    I thought the inclusion of disease in Twilight 2000 did a lot to reinforce the setting – things are different in important ways. It also added a certain logistics element that’s often lacking in campaigns. There were certain not-always-easy-to-come-by supplies you needed. Sometimes the adventure really should be about getting ready.

    • Jeffro says:

      It wouldn’t be Twilight 2000 if you didn’t count rads. Or track how long it’d take to distill fuel for you humvee.

      • Jack Amok says:

        Was GDW the best of the bunch at getting the setting right? It sure seems like it looking back. The mechanics weren’t always great, but the settings were.

        Those stops to distill fuel – great opportunities for adventures. Wandering mosters, er, I mean bandits, could be by at any moment.

        I think those little things, needing to think about fuel, or rations, or camp gear, I always liked that. Any brave fool can fight a bugbear, but it takes a resourceful man to voyage far enough into the wilderness without starving or freezing to run into one.

        • Jeffro says:

          In my opinion, the Third Imperium was exactly the wrong way to do an rpg setting, especially for a game like Traveller. (Not that I haven’t dutifully sought out every scrap of information I could find about the darned place!)

          Just in general, rpg players love love LOVE planning. If you look at the cover of the AD&D Players Handbook, those players are looking at the map and discussing their next move. I think they are in a MegaDungeon like Dwimmermount… and thus have a lot of options.

          Bonus rant against new school rpg: If D&D is reduced to a series of set piece battles… the “planning” aspect of the game is transferred entirely to coordinating tactics in a miniatures game. Adventure design is typically linear, so there is practically no reason to plan. Rules are generally set up with so many do-overs and safeguards, there’s rarely any consequences for bad planning. People immersed in this have no idea what classic rpg’s were like! That’s why it’s best to have them roll up characters in the first hour… and then have them massacred by kobolds during the second… as typically happens when new school players play B2 for the first time. Death is the only thing that can motivate them to starting making serious plans and trying to coordinate them together.

          I think setting is the least important aspect of rpg design. Rules can be godawful and people can play anyway. What’s essential is that situations that require planning are presented… and that consequences for choices are brutally clear. That’s the key to the “magic in a bottle” that made D&D a sensation. There are other ways to roleplay… but this is the one that works most consistently even with people with mediocre gming talents.

          • Jack Amok says:

            I think Traveller just grew too big for any sensible comparison to any other major publisher’s setting. But I loved it as a GM since it gave so many possibilities.

            But I was really thinking of settings like Twilight2000 and 2300AD. I especially liked the 2300AD settings – the ones out in space anyway. The cyberpunk stuff felt tacked on (grafted, so to speak?). Did you ever come by the odd-ball Energy Curve adventure?

        • Jeffro says:

          I never saw 2300AD.

          If you still have copies of the GDW material around… check the credits and let me know if your favorite stuff has William H. Keith, Jr. or J. Andrew Keith’s names on them.

          The main GDW staff each had their respective fortes from a game design standpoint, but the brothers Keith really seemed to be the ones that brought some of these settings to life.

          • Jack Amok says:

            Oh yeah, William H. Keith was the main guy for the entire Kaefer (one of the more interesting alien races I’ve seen in RPGs) part of the game.

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