Words from the Wise (Guys)

Copyright Nicholas HM Caldwell © 2007

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion


To the 104th issue of The Guild Companion.

It's a subskill thing

If you've been paying any attention to these editorials or the ICE forums, you'll know that HARP SF has been in public beta playtest for a few months. As feedback has come in, I've tweaked and/or rewritten rules to make them (hopefully) better.

For a significant chunk of the last month, I've been working on reworking the vehicle tables in line with a stricter vehicle creation system, partly to remove overly large weapons being fitted to vehicles that simply can't support them, partly to prune down the subsystem bonuses (Shield Ratings, EW Ratings, etc.) that were getting a little too large in the original manuscript, partly to ensure that when the vehicle creation system is published in its polished form in SysOp's Guide the craft in the HARP SF core rulebook will actually be reasonably consistent. So I'm happily minding my own business plugging my way through rebuilding several dozen vehicles when the alpha playtesters decide that the similar skills system is too clunky for HARP.

Let's back up a bit. In HARP, there are a number of skills such as Foraging/Survival and Riding that are actually collections of specialised skills. Riding a horse is a Riding skill, riding a camel is a different Riding skill. Likewise HARP SF introduces new skills with these same characteristics, e.g, Machine Operation, Driving, Space Pilot, etc., and these also have the separate specialities. The reality is that having one of these speciality skills will help in using another speciality. If you can survive in a desert, much of your survival knowledge will help you survive in a forest. In fantasy games, unless the campaign involves a globe-trotting epic, a character can easily make do with a single Riding skill and one or maybe two Survival skills. In science-fiction, there's a whole universe out there and characters will need to tune their skills to different environments, different vehicles, different equipment, etc. in order to survive. That makes life much more complex and makes it much harder for players to decide what skills their character must have so as not to be caught out.

In previous iterations of the HARP SF beta, this led to a proposed similar skill mechanism for a number of these skills where having one of the specialities entitled the character to claim one-quarter of their skill bonus from that speciality in the other specialities. On reflection, the alpha playtesters of my own gaming group still thought that the similar skills were pushing HARP SF closer to the rules-heavy end of the spectrum and still required too much guessing of which skill to buy. Much internal discussion resulted, emails were sent to ICE to discern official direction, and a new rules paradigm evolved.

The similar skills mechanism has been consigned to a defunct iteration. Instead, we now have a mandatory subskill system for some of these collective skills. Thus when a character first buy skill ranks in say Foraging/Survival, the character chooses one of the environment subskills (Arctic, Desert, Jungle, etc.) to be the primary speciality. The character has full skill bonus when making maneuvers on this subskill; all other subskills impose a penalty on the subskill bonus. As it is quite possible that characters will want to be fully expert in more than one subskill, the latest version of the rules provides a new talent, Multiple Subskill Proficiency, that allows characters to incrementally buy off those subskill penalties. This new regime has been applied to Air Pilot, Animal Handling, Beastmastery, Driving, Foraging/Survival, Machine Operation, Marine Pilot, Riding, Signaling, and Space Pilot skills.

The new regime also makes it easier to create new specialities without exploding skill bloat. For instance a SysOp might believe that instead of just having pods, starfighters and starships as Space Pilot subskills, extra subskills should be added for shuttles and starships should be broken down into size categories. Likewise a SysOp could decide that HARP SF treats the science skills with too broad a brush. Instead of Planetology being a single skill, the SysOp could easily partition into three subskills of geology, meteorology and oceanography and require characters to specialise.

I'm much happier now with the new rules in place, anyway

Zero-G Maneuvering and Zero-G Combat

During the subskill discussions, concerns were raised about the need to have a distinct Zero-G Combat skill in addition to Zero-G Maneuvering. It was deemed that if you could maneuver in zero-g with reasonable proficiency, you already had the necessary ability for most combat actions, so Zero-G Combat was a duplicate skill by this rationale.

The ancestry for this split was the division of the Flying and Aerial Combat skills from Martial Law, themselves doubtless inspired by the Riding and Mounted Combat split from HARP and indeed Rolemaster. There was much discussion but Zero-G Combat has been spaced. The revised Zero-G Maneuvering skill is now in the Physical (not Athletic) category and allows character to buy off the -75 penalty for all non-combat maneuvers and non-melee, non-projectile attacks made in zero-gravity. Melee combat, archaic missiles and any attack with recoil has a stiffer -100 penalty.

It's an open question as to what should be done with Flying / Aerial Combat. Mounted Combat involves a character trying to control his mount (a separate entity) while trying to fight - it's conceptually different from the zero-g maneuvering/combat situation. Flying and Aerial Combat are direct analogues of the zero-g issue as Aerial Combat is only for characters who use the Flying skill and the Flying skill allows the character to buy off penalties but is never rolled itself as a maneuver. It's very tempting to "fix" the Flying / Aerial Combat situation in HARP SF - the downside is that it would be a point of difference with HARP Fantasy.

High-G Maneuvering

In my own campaign, my group have been on El Dorado recently trying to track down the suppliers of advanced starships to space pirates. In their preparations to arrest a megacorp boss suspected of being the mastermind, I had to remind them that gravity on El Dorado was nearly 1.2g, which meant high-gravity penalties would be imposed on all but one of the party if it came to a fight. In the end, it didn't (or perhaps I should say it hasn't yet because it's not over) but we did have the amusing scenes of a "horribly beweaponed and incredibly tough starship" chasing and being unable to do very much against a small seacar hugging the sea bottom. Yes, they could blow up the seacar easily, but that would leave them without a live criminal mastermind to interrogate ...

The suggestion has been made that there ought to be a way of buying off penalties from high-gravity environments (and of course simply being better at affected skills will do just that.) The proposal was that a High-G Maneuvering skill that neutralised the penalties would be more apt. This is still under discussion but I have a suspicion that players would prefer to expend character's DPs to buy off penalties so they don't have to worry about the high-gravity penalties when they would otherwise take effect.

What will the playtesters think of next?

We found a need for a Psi Discipline for mental suggestion, so this was brought out of storage from the original notes version of the Psionic rules and spruced up for the current rules set. This will also help SysOps wishing to use HARP SF as the rules engine for Star Wars and "These are not the droids you are looking for" moments.

Clarifications have been requested on the ICE forums for handling range and barrier issues with scanners and sensors. Taking into account a suggestion to use a cascading success regimen for resolving what information is gained by a scanner, the entire scanners and sensors section was revised to cope with all these issues, and again, I think, it is better for the change.

To be fair, I've taken advantage of the playtesting process to make my own tweaks to the system as I've seen issues from my side of the SysOp's virtual screen where the rules could be a bit better. For instance, robots used to gain their "hits" by buying them by an Extra Endurance Talent. The new iteration allows them to buy them via the normal Endurance skill (with an exemption from the normal max skill ranks per level as they can only buy them at their construction level), making the robot character creation rules that much more consistent with biological character creation. Similarly biological characters and robot characters had access to cyberware and "software" talents that allowed them to boost their stats, improve their skills, etc., but pure AIs and virtual characters not in a robot body did not. There was no good reason for this restriction, so I eliminated it.

Eventually, ICE will be ready to take on the editing phase of HARP SF and the time for tweaking will be over. And I can move onto the next project.

Farewell for now ...

Enough of my ramblings. We'll be back with Issue 105 in November, but until then …

Keep gaming and have fun,
Nicholas HM Caldwell
General Editor for The Guild Companion