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Review: Venârivè: Northwestern Lýthia

venarive_cover_2By Jeremy Baker and N. Robin Crossby

Kelestia Productions 2007
PDF 35$ (250 pages, large scale map, etc)

Venârivè is the larger region Harn is situated in. Previously the setting description of HarnWorld focussed mostly on the island Harn itself, and a few areas in the general vicinity. This publication changes that and pushes the known world up to the borders of the cultural region Venârivè. Some of these places were already mentioned in the Lythia article in HarnWorld, a lot of others are mentioned here for the first time.
That includes the name of the publication. The copy of HarnWorld I own just mentions the continent of Lythia, and doesn’t have a specific name for the subcontinent.

But at least Venârivè sounds like a real name.

Venârivè is the region between and around the Ivinian and the Venarian seas, and defined more by cultural coherence than geographically*. This region has been settled for a few thousands of years, and there are traces of older, most likely alien civilizations (the Earthmasters).

The predominant race in this area of the world are humans (oh, really?), splintered in thousands of smaller tribes and nations. There are some other, older races (Elves and Dwarves) that have been in decline for a long time. They used to influence human civilization, but now only a few scattered realms in remote locations remain. There also are a few other non-human races, often scatted and marginalized. The largest group here are the Gargun of Harn (the Harnic orcs), which are an economical and ecological disaster just waiting to happen.
Most of Venârivè is wilderness, with few pockets of civilization huddled around larger villages and towns, and sometimes even actual cities. Many states only effectively control the immediate area around their towns, and maybe a few strategic highways (read: wilderness trails) to other civilized areas.
The religion of the region is diverse, but the region is locked in the protracted struggle between the cults of two different war gods: the protective Larani/Varani (a goddess of chivalry), and the aggressive Agrik (with a might-is-right philosophy). The conflict between these two philosophies informs a large part of the religious and political conflicts in the setting, although other religions have their own issues.
The technology of the setting is somewhere between 10th and 15th century (so basically standard fantasy fare), with some areas more developed than others. Most of civilized Venarive is very much in the feudal, manorial mode of living. So there is not too much change for seasoned Harniacs.

Nations and states, tribes and cultural regions are described in loving detail, even if most likely no-one ever will play in these parts. There are lists of rulers, historical personages, ports, and so on.

As always with Harn products this book describes this setting at one specific point in time (the year 720 of the Tuzyn calendar), so there is no metaplot to go against, besides what is described in the book itself.

The setting veers away from the usual RPG everything-but-the-kitchen-sink setting that has become the standard over time; the setting does not go out of its way to fit one genre or another into it; the authors clearly went for internal coherence rather than actual playability. I do not really see many people wanting to play a power struggle in Quarphor (Scythia?), or courtly intrigues in Dalkesh (quasi-medieval Egypt?). Some people, yes, but not many.

This book is both one of the best RPG supplements I have come across so far, as well as one of the most frustrating. I absolutely love looking at this book. I enjoy the worldbuilding, the additional detail, the insane amount of information I can get out of it, but the setting doesn’t make it easy to put it into a game.

But maybe I should just come to grips with the fact that I did not buy this book to use it. I bought it because I enjoy reading about a well-crafted world.


  • Venarive is a highly detailed and coherent RPG setting intended for simulationist low-magic campaigns
  • It is an extension of the classic HarnWorld setting
  • The book is rules-agnostic (a few non-essential references link it to HarnMaster Gold)
  • it might be way over the top for anyone who prefers settings to be more readily accessible


* if Venarive was Europe it would include not only mainland Europe but also large parts of the middle East and the parts of North Africa directly influenced by it, as well as large swathes of Asia


[Circûmflex] HP dynamics

Sometimes it is quite interesting what comes out when I just change something small, and then think it through again.

I added one version of the Death and Dismemberment table to the game as an alternative to the original rules. Neither “Death at 0hp” nor “At Death’s Door” really seemed to work for me.

My players naturally gravitate to At Death’s Door. Most of them have played Baldur’s Gate before. They would feel cheated if I told them they died at 0hp. But I think it is cumbersome.

Of course then I replaced it with a whole table and a roll instead of a simple bleeding out rule. Go me.

But adding this table gives an interesting dynamic to the game.

So lets have a look at it. With the rules as I currently have them:

  • hp indicate how much fight a character has in him/her; a character is fine as long as he has positive hp, damage at this point does not cause wounds.
  • if a character falls to 0 hp or below a roll on the Death and Dismemberment table is in order. The character then suffers the consequences according to the table. This can be instant death. Or a very serious injury/lost limb. [I still need to rewrite the table for my own game]
  • A character can use his/her shield to soak up all damage from one combat turn at the cost of the shield (the Shields shall be splintered! rule)
  • A character can use his/her helmet or sturdy hat to turn a fatal blow into an injury instead, at the cost of the headgear and being taken out of the fight by unconsciousness (the Helmets shall be shattered! rule)

There was another idea I found, in that one could use the damage dealt under 0 as a modifier for the roll on the table. Meaning that a good roll from an opponent might make a fatality much more likely.

Here’s the thing though: this idea basically turns hp into stamina; and it provides some interesting player agency (sure you can soak that hit with your shield, but the next one might be worse…). Death on the other hand, only comes when either a roll says so, or when abilities are so degraded that life becomes impossible.

Still working on this one.

[Circûmflex] Going Berserk

olav_trygvasons_saga_-_uvaeret_hjoerungavaag_-_g-_muntheWell. At first berserkers were just a fighter variant in the draft.

I decided to cut down the classes to the four core classes, but I wanted some variety. After all clerics in Venarive have 10 or more choices that should play differently, wizards have at least 6 convocations, and the specialist… well, that class is basically built to be modified. Yes, I made the thief into the specialist. I think it fits better in a setting that actually takes care to note how many clothiers are in a city.

And of course the fighter is kind of boring otherwise. Oh, sure, a fighter can be basically every fighting hero ever, but it might help to point out what can be done with them.

So varieties it is. There is a more tribal Barbarian Warrior (if you know Harn you might know that this might be necessary), there is a Gladiator (because Agrikans dig their spectacles), and I was thinking about making knights and rangers into further sub-varieties. And then there is the berserker.

It really needs to be there.

Harn, like many fantasy worlds, has fjords. And fjords, for some reason I do not quite understand, contract vikings with alarming regularity.

Of course it is better explained than in other places, after all CGI published Ivinia, their version of fantasy Scandinavia soon after the first edition of HarnWorld, although it is quite odd that all the place names in Kethira seem to made up from fantasy languages, but Ivinian names show Germanic elements…

But anyway. Low fantasy middle age style game. I so totally need berserkers.

After getting some inspiration from various places I came up with this:

Berserker: can enter berserker rage at will during combat. If dealt damage in combat and not in berserker rage, must save against spell or enter rage.

Well, ok, this was longer originally.

But that comes from my realisation that berserker rage might be useful for other effects as well. Some of the invocations for different gods I am converting from Harnmaster cause berserker rage. So right now it is under the heading “Adventuring”.

Berserker Rage: Berserkers can enter this state at will. Some potions, spells and invocations can also cause people to enter this state.
While in this state the berserker has +2 to hit and damage with melee weapons or unarmed, but also -2 to AC. The berserker ignores all non-fatal injuries until after rage subsides or the injury turns fatal, whatever comes first. Berserker rage only ends when no further attack is possible within 1 combat round, or if Save vs. Spell is successful. Afterwards, the character is exhausted, taking a -2 penalty to all actions until rested for at least 1 hour, in addition to the effect of all wounds.

That is… a bit more complicated as a rule than what I was going for. On the other hand this is one of those situations that might come up.

Still, I hope that it will actually be a nice effect in game. It should give this choice for players: yes, you can enter that super state that makes you better at fighting, but people also can hurt you better, and you can’t necessarily stop fighting when you want to.

Note that the rules does not specify what attack is not supposed to be possible, just that none need to be possible.

The injury that is mentioned in the rules is a variation on the Death and Dismemberment chart that was popular a while ago. But I should get to that at a later point.

[Circûmflex] Slaughtering Holy Cows

A person with no fighting skill has a 50/50 chance of hurting someone with no armor at all.

A person with one level of fighting skill has a 50/50 chance of hitting someone with minimal armor.

A person with ten levels of fighting skill has a 100% chance of hitting someone with no armor, and a 90% chance of hitting someone with minimal armor.

Scale up and down as needed.

You know, one of the things I loved about 3rd edition D&D, when I made the switch from AD&D 2nd edition, was how easy refereeing fights became. I never liked THAC0, and I found it a bothersome quirk of an otherwise easy to understand system.

In hindsight the problem was that I was introduced to RPGs through DSA, and there combat is done via attack rolls and defense rolls. It had problems of its own which made combats last way too long (a fight between people with low attack and high defense could take hours), but at least everyone intuitively grasped the concept.

And then 3rd edition came along and it all became easier. +1 AB vs. AC 1 was exactly 50%, what could be easier?

When I look at older editions of D&D this always has been the case. It has been hidden away under weird formulations and strangely formatted tables, but if one actually bothers to do the math you can reduce the whole combat section of D&D to 3rd edition’s formula of

d20 + Attack Bonus > 10 + Armor Class

The differences were in the details. And a lot of those details were brought over from other games.

Why exactly has early D&D armor class that gets better the lower it gets?

Well, it was like that in a Civil War naval game Dave Arneson played, and he brought it over into D&D.

Why did it start at 9, and not at 10?

Because all the characters the rules cared about were at least level 1, and had as much fighting prowess.

Speaking about fighting prowess: why did it take until 3rd edition to straighten out that?

Pre-3rd edition rules had weird quirks in there that might have been intentionally designed like that, but which ultimately didn’t matter.

In AD&D the fighter stays at +1 attack for two levels, then gains +1 at every further level.

In 3rd edition each level of fighter gains +1 on the character’s attack bonus.

In my opinion this makes the whole process more streamlined, because now the fighter becomes the baseline for combat progression. I actually am thinking of going even further and making the first level of clerics, wizards, and specialists into +0, to show that no, they really aren’t specialized in fighting. (which might be better, because I already increased their chance for multiple spells a day)

So here we go, the homebrew I am building will use attack bonuses and ascending armor.

Fighters now gain +1 per level, the others are slightly more useless in a fight.

[Circûmflex] Messing around with spellpoints in an OSR-style system


This last week I have been sick. With lots of time on my hands I have been working on a version of Labyrinth Lord that is more suited for playing on HârnWorld. By now the whole thing does not look much like Labyrinth Lord anymore. Although it still is pretty close to the mathematical values, and more of a homebrew than an actual new system. I call it Circûmflex, because if you know Hârn, which is like calling something D&D-connected Ampersand.

These posts will be basically meditations on why I decide to do certain things one way or another. Please feel free to comment, especially if you know more about the maths of games than I do (which is not hard).

In any case, one of the things I decided to overhaul was the magic system. I adore the Vancian magic system, I really do. But it just is not a good fit for the setting I intended this to be played in.

So I started to fiddle around with spell points a bit.

One idea that was floating around in various places was that one could just use the number of spells wizards gained per level, and give them a value of points per level, connected to the Fibonacci sequence. I liked that. It made lower level spells cheaper, while making more powerful spells more difficult to cast.

Piety and Mana

To use spells and invocations wizards and clerics use a pool of points each. For clerics this is called Piety, for wizards this is called Mana. Both are determined by the level of the character, modified by the modificator for Wisdom for Clerics, and the one for Intelligence for Shek-P’var.
Mechanically they work almost the same. A spell or invocation of a specific level has a cost in piety or mana. When it is invoked or cast it reduces the amount of points by the set amount. When the pool of points reaches 0 no further invocations or spells are possible until they are replenished.
If the last spell cast would bring the pool of points under 0 the cleric or shek-p’var has to Save against Spell. If this roll fails he/she might incur the displeasure of their deity (cleric), or the spell might misfire (according to GM’s fiat). In any case the cleric/shek-p’var will feel burned out and not be able to invoke/cast again until at least half the pool is replenished.
Piety and Mana points replenish at a rate of 1d8 per night of rest spent in prayer or meditation.

The cost of spells and invocations is determined by the level it has. At level 1 it costs 1 point, at level 2 it costs two points, at level 3 three points, at level 4 five points, etc.

Some notes on that:

  • I renamed spells for clerics to invocations. This is in line with the terminology in HarnMaster, even though in this case it does not make any difference ruleswise. Likewise I used the word Piety, which has an actual value in HM, to denote something completely different. The word Mana does not even appear in HM I think, but I am trying to dress Labyrinth Lord in the right guise, I don’t try to emulate the rules of HM.
  • Wizards are of course Shek-P’var in HârnWorld. Technically Shek’P’var are just the most common and widespread of wizards, and there are quite a few hints towards other traditions, but I will go with that right now.
  • The spellpoint management is actually inspired by older editions of Das Schwarze Auge (The Dark Eye). I don’t know if newer editions still have it (5th edition just came out and I haven’t even seen a book of it yet…), but I felt it might fit the setting well if spells cannot be easily regained from day to day. Mana and Piety in this system replenish at about double the rate as hit points. Which means that spellcasters start pretty strong, but have to keep their resources in mind better.

Ah yes, about that last part…

This is the point when I decided to have a look at the amount of spell points available to my spellcasters. Now, I have to add here that in the previous version of my houserules I decided at one point that all the levels I really needed to think about was the ones up to level 12. In the last few years barely any of my players managed to reach even these lofty heights, and I mean the years since I started playing AD&D 2nd edition back in the 90s.

Funnily enough I noticed something interesting when I calculated the spellpoint equivalents to the usual Labyrinth Lord spell slots: if I calculate according to the Fibonacci sequence I mentioned earlier, with one 1st level spell as 1 point, and 1 6th level spell as 9 points, at level 12 I reached exactly 66.

If I would let that go on further the Quadratic Wizard effect would of course be in full effect. That was one of the things I found was easier to avoid with a soft level limit of 12. But even like that, this is pretty strong, isn’t it? Especially considering that I was already thinking of getting rid of spell books and memorization. Kind of strong for the nominally low-magic world Kethira.

On the other hand I was toying with another idea: why not give spellcasters a roll for their spell pool that is equivalent to their hp pool?

Well, ok, because people might hate not having a clear level progression, and because bad rolls happen (although I do have an idea to mitigate that) and because it would benefit some people but not others. But other than that?

I actually did see something similar in Das Schwarze Auge. True, there the system actually started with 25 or so “astral points” and leveling added to that, but DSA always was a bit of a slugfest with all those points. So lets say we start with a mana pool of 1d8 for shek-p’var, and 1d6 for clerics. This still might be too much actually. This would give an average of 4.5 points, plus Int-mod. At the top of the range this might mean a wizard could have 11 spells a day on first level. Hmm. Nope, not good.

Ok, lets go with 1d6 for both. this would give an average of 42 points, a minimum of 12, and a maximum of 108 spell points on level 12.

I gave the Shek-P’var a requirement of Int 9, so no negative modifiers should be possible. After all one needs to be at least able to read to study old musty tomes of arcane secrets. No Int 3 wizards in this system. Sorry.

Ok, a super-genius wizard who can spam 12 level 6 spells on level 12. A bit over the top, but doable. On the other hand even someone with the worst possible kind of luck and no modifiers should be able to blast off at least 12 spells at once.

In this case it actually might help that either of these wizards only get back a maximum of 8 points per day.

Luckily, there are some limitations for both clerics and wizards in this setting. Clerics only have access to a limited pool of spells. Some of the spells, sorry, invocations, might be downright useless from an dungeoneering point of view (which is okay, there aren’t that many straightforward dungeons in the setting anyway). There is not really a reason to invoke “Marriage” for example, except to replenish piety points. And where do you find a willing couple in the middle of the dungeon anyway?

Ah yes, that latter one is an actual invocation from HarnMaster Religion. There it of course makes a lot of sense. The clerics in HarnMaster are not only walking hp-fountains. In fact a lot of the gods don’t even have healing invocations. But doing some good work like baptising new adherents, and performing weddings for others, actually increases the piety for the priest. This would not actually have much sense with the usual Vancian magic, it does make more sense if clerics have to replenish their piety somehow.

Wizards actually have it a bit better, at least in higher levels. The Pvaristic system the setting has actually keeps wizards from having access to all the cool spells at once. A shek-p’var starts as a specialist in one of six convocations. This means he for example only has access to water-aspected spells. But shek-p’var can attune themselves to the other convocations the more experience they have. So over time they can gain access to all convocations. Or they just stay a specialist in their field. Whatever floats their boat.



[HarnWorld] Visitors (Session 1)

Screenshot at 2016-05-03 21:00:37So, I had my first session on Hârn two days ago.
We played my unholy mess of an OD&D/AD&D hack, and I decided to make character generation part of the game (the players were remembering who they were after waking up with amnesia). There was a mishap with interdimensional travel involved, which lead to a motley collection of characters waking up in a forest.
This was intentional. I wanted the characters to explore the world on their own, and I wanted test out how well I can run this rather sophisticated world.

Also all of us work, and I am the only one who enjoys reading all that background material.

The characters woke up at the edge of the Shâva Forest, just south of Trobridge, scattered together with some other interdimensional trash around something which might turn out to be an Earthmaster artifact (or might be completely unrelated).
I had a rather free-wheeling approach for character generation, and they were supposed to be from various other worlds, so I ended up with
* a ditzy apprentice wizard
* a soccer-playing Shaolin monk
* a rude ranger from “the woods, but not these woods”
* a sith from Tatooine (I used some Star Wars house rules I had for that)
* a stab-happy pirate with a fixation on swords

Hardly the characters you might think about when exploring Hârn, but well, it was supposed to be an introduction to the setting. (and we play OD&D, I would be surprised if more than half survived the next session)
The characters soon armed each other with the trash that was around (the ranger decided that a STOP-sign must be some kind of pole axe, the rest went with some more traditional things they found; two shields they found became important as barter material soon enough).

A short survey of the surrounding lands from the hillside they were on showed Lake Herâs and Trobridge to the north, but the pirate decided to go straight to the lake (because pirate needs water), while the others decided to look at the settlement first. The Tatooine native at this point was freaking out because flowers grew on what she was told was grass.
They already came to blows at this point, which made them ignore my remarks about the random encounter that approached them, until the bear was already behind them, hungry and ready to attack.

This was quite the disaster. The swordsman rolled nothing but failures, the magic-user put herself to sleep with a really bad roll, and the others managed to get a few tame hits in. The most successful was the monk who managed to stun the bear with a good blow long enough for everyone to run away downhill.

Soon enough they met a Chelni (horse-people) encampment, and decided against trying to pillage it. The Chelni were friendly, especially after the PCs offered to trade one of the shields they found for a very small amount of food.
During the subsequent celebration of the trade they encountered a deep rift in their cosmology, while most of the characters were convinced that the world was flat, two and their host knew that it was spherical. One can get a lot of roleplaying out of the fact that the primitive tribesman one encounters is better at astronomy than most PCs.

The arrival in Trobridge came soon afterwards. The innkeeper pointed them towards the Physician and the Apothecary to receive exposition (the physician turned out to be a Shek-Pvar journeyman) and a quest (Bring me… garlic! But watch out for that rabid bear!). They soon decided to go back to the place where they woke up, I think they might have thought I had this adventure planned out in that direction. The fools!

Before they couldleave again a bunch of local ruffians (Kurson’s guys) tried to extort some money out of what they thought were easy marks. This ended with three of the ruffians unconscious (a more successful use of the Sleep spell) but their leader still awake and alarmed (because “Witch! Witch!”).
Before reinforcements could arrive, but after he sounded the alarm, they tried to fast talk their way out of it by claiming they were all affected by the Sleeping Plague. This valorous attempt to save the situation was cut short when the ruffian was stabbed to death by the swordsman (“what the hell are you doing?”). Then they withdrew to the inn, whose owner was not happy about the fact that they made a mess out of a delicate situation. Luckily for them local wannabe-lord Kurson decided to be an ass about it all, and the innkeeper kept them inside, unwilling to have Kurson have any authority over his inn.
The next morning they overcame the guards Kurson had posted outside and went back to the woods.

– during Kurson’s brief siege of the inn the person who murdered the ruffian decided to offer to murder everyone in the inn for Kurson. This caused the force-sensitive Tatooinian to embrace the dark side

– Chelni horses are basically thin banthas, bears are rabid ewoks.

-fast talking someone works better if you don’t stab them in the stomach first

Lessons Learned:
I should have given some more limitationsof what characters to create. Maybe only Terrans would be better for a game like this. This would have given it a feeling closer to the John Carter novels, or maybe the beginning of Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series. On the other hand this would most likely have hampered the fun they had with the characters they created. I received various messages about further character development the next day. So it seems like I got them interested. But now that they are going back to where they came from I guess I should at least provide them with a small dungeon. I noticed that some of my players were itching for more fights.

The unfortunate name of Hârn

I normally take pride in going against first impressions and looking at the core of things to see what these things actually are worth. A while ago I looked into Hârn as a system and saw a game world that might be a bit too detailed and low key for my tastes, but which had a lot of interesting ideas in it. I still wouldn’t play it. And considering that the only thing I ever heard about it in German RPG media were the reviews in some magazines I don’t think many other Germans would pick it up either. And that despite the fact that the only foreign language translations of the game were into German. The game world would fit quite nicely in that German style of low magic, quasi-historical worlddesign that seems to be so common in the German RPG mainstream.
It’s unfortunate, but hardly surprising with a name like that. The word Harn in German is a formal way to say “Urine”.
I guess not too many people would proudly admit to playing with Hârn products…