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Author Topic: In Harm's way  (Read 1290 times)

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In Harm's way
« on: October 07, 2006, 03:38:50 pm »


In Harm's Way is listed as "A Napoleonic Naval RPG", written by "Clash Bowley".Its by Flying Mice Games, and the copy I'm reviewing is the print copy, which was very kindly donated to me by the author.

It may sound a little mercenary of me to say it, but I think it does make a difference to receive a print copy to review as opposed to a PDF.  At least, it does when the print copy is this lovely.  The book is perfect bound softcover from Lulu, with a great cover of a number of photos that seem to be of re-enactments of napoleonic-era ships and ship life, and the book looks very sturdy.  Also, I think that receiving a print copy is something that has motivated me to consider that this is the ONLY game I have received a review copy of thus far that I'm ABSOLUTELY SURE I'll be doing a playtest of. The coolness of the game and the convenience of having it in book format makes that a certainty.

Now, I'm not promising any publishers out there that I'll do a playtest of any and every print book I receive, but it is quite clear that the odds are way higher I will do a playtest with a print book than with a PDF.  Likewise, I do promise that IF I do a playtest with a game I received as a review copy, as well as writing the review itself I will also write up a report/critique of the playtest.  So consider that, publishers!

Anyways, enough whoring of myself, let's get on with the book.

First, what is the game basically about?  Well, according to the book itself, "In Harm's Way is a roleplaying game about being a naval officer and a gentleman during the napoleonic (era)".  Its designed, essentially, to emulate the Horatio Hornblower series, or Master and Commander.
And to give my summary of how it does this: awesomely.  What a contrast between this, a game that is clearly an RPG with traditional foundations, and Forge-style narrowfocus games.  Reading In Harms Way not only convinced me that you can do a game that is focused and yet leaves options open to players, but that you can do this while making an RPG that actually plays like an RPG and not some kind of bizzare art-school black&white film or pansy-assed interpretive dance.

But let's start out with one criticism:  this game could have used someone to edit the layout, and someone to give the author a "sober second thought" as to how he structured and wrote the rules. The interior layout of the book is a little amateurish; not particularly pretty, though some attention is given to "flavour": there are a few more re-enactor photos (in black and white, unlike the colour cover), and there's a number of very interesting excerpts (mostly at the start of chapters) detailing little anecdotes about the naval wars of that time. That does help with the atmosphere.

Too bad there wasn't similar help with the tables. I found a few of the tables to be clunky and confusing, but one in particular was pretty unforgiveable and it ties into character creation. You see, in character creation there is one phase where you divide a certain number of points between three attributes: social standing, IQ, and "Luck". On page 9 there is a table that shows you what social class you will have (separated into the options of whether you are running a British, French, or American campaign), depending on how many points from that pool you assign to social class. So far so good.
But on page 8, there is a table for IQ AND Luck, and it is utterly unclear whether spending 50 points will give you an IQ of 109 AND a Luck of "1", or whether you must spend 50 points for the 109 IQ and then another 50 points for the Luck of 1.  Going back and reading the text on character creation does nothing to clear this up, as the text is written in a fairly byzantine way that often leaves things somewhat unclear.  There'll be more examples of this later, but I finally had to conclude that you do indeed have to spend points for each attribute (and not IQ and Luck together), but I figured this out through a process of deduction; namely that if the two attributes were linked you could spend the max on social class (upper nobility) and there's still no way you would be less than IQ 117 and Luck 1, which just seems absurd on the face of it.  I could still be wrong though, there's really no way to tell either from the table or the text.

But let's go back now, and talk about the system itself: essentially, the system for IHW is a point-buy system, where you have a series of physical attributes (Strength, Coordination, Agility, and charisma) that you buy together dividing 40 points between them, and then a series of non-physical attributes (IQ, Luck and social class) that you buy together by dividing 165 points between those and referencing them in the aforementioned table.
Sound Byzantine? Yup. It is. The game has a certain clunkiness to it, having failed to realize apparently that D20 has more or less upped the bar for straightforward mechanics and resolutions. Hell, this would have been kind of clunky for way back in 1990.
But while its clunky, its not really complicated, and the author does manage to put in a few things that make character creation a breeze after you get past the attribute-buying hump.

The game is such that it allows various options of play.  While its focus is relatively directed, its not a "narrow" game in the Forgeite sense that you can only focus on a tiny sliver of the selected genre, or that you must play the game from a certain very specific perspective.  Instead, this game is meant to cover every facet of the whole "Hornblower" genre.  So before a campaign begins its up to the GM to figure out how he wants to focus his game, as it should be.
To begin with, you can run a British, American, or French campaign as you see fit. Second, while all games are focused on the concept that its "naval napoleonic", you have a number of different approaches that you can take as a GM.  The two most basic appear to be the "midshipman's campaign"; where the PCs all start as 12 year old mishipmen in their first assignment, learning the ropes and trying to win their superior's favours; or you can run the "Lieutenant's Campaign", where the PCs are all already 18 year old Lieutenants, competing with each other in vying for glory and promotion.
The obvious third choice is to play the "hierarchical" campaign, where one PC already starts out as a captain, and the others as lieutenants and midshipmen, and the player group in that way covers all angles of a ship's officer complement.  All three of these structures are supported, but the important ones to consider as far as character creation goes is whether you are starting your PC as a midshipman or a lieutenant.

In either case, the first set of skills you receive are your "mother's milk" skills.  These are the skills that represent your character's background and childhood before taking to sea.  You could in theory pick and choose them in general, but for ease of character creation the author has included a number of archetypal skill sets divided by social class or environment, and nationality.  So, for example, you have the "upper class american" background. Or the "scientific british background", or the "rural french background".  You just pick the one that best fits your character concept, all the skills listed start at +1, and that stage is done.

If you're playing a 12 year old midshipmen, that's all you need to do to finish your character.  But if you're playing a lieutenant, you have to advance the character through his first 6 years of career.
This is a good moment to explain how character advancement works in this game, since it works the same whether you are in character creation or playing in the actual campaign.
In the game, characters advance by simple progression of years.  A midshipman, for example, will gain one new skill at +1 for each game year that goes by (or, I think, raising an existing skill by +1; here's another case where the author's rather obtuse writing style makes it difficult to understand; but judging by some of the sample npcs, I have to assume this is the case; you can also apparently choose to gain attribute bonuses instead, even though it NEVER explicitly says this; I infer it because its included in the list of advancements itself; i can only assume you can choose to take any one attribute advancement in place of a skill... again, badly, badly written). Also, ever 2 years, he gets to double a single skill's value.

At each rank (lieutenant, commander, captain, etc), the progress rate at which you gain new skills or double existing skills varies, but its basically the same.  The game assumes that a GM will only run one or a few adventures in the course of one game year, so that the campaign as a whole can track the character's entire career in the navy.

Thus, if your character is starting as a Liuetenant, you have to advance his skills through the 6 years of his naval career.  You can do this the "hard way" (which isn't very hard) of picking and choosing appropriate skills (or attribute bonuses), or you can do it the easy way of picking  one of 16 possible "lieutenant templates" that already include all the advancements. The templates are pretty varied, and are each meant to cover one possible personality type (ie. "the intellectual", "the brute", "the socialite").

Either way, after that you're virtually done your character. Well, THAT character. Because you see, while its not strictly mandatory, it is highly recommended that IHW be played with "troupe style" play, and each player actually construct THREE characters: an officer, a warrant officer (NCO, basically), and a sailor. This way, if a player doesn't have anything to do with his officer in a certain scene, he can jump in with one of these "support" characters instead.  Fortunately, these two support characters are even easier to create than the main character.
The attributes are divided in the same way but with less points to go around (officers being a superior race, after all), and then you pick a template from one of three possible "sailor" templates, and one of 17 different Warrant Officer templates! The latter includes everything from "ship's purser" to "surgeon" to "gunner", to "carpenter's mate", plus ship's marines.

There is one final rule for your main character's creation, which is oddly placed (again, bad bad layout) after the rules for your troupe creation, leading me to suspect it might be optional up to the GM's preference whether to use it or not, but I like it.  This is the "Avocation" rule, wherein to further add to your character's uniqueness you pick a particular hobby for your officer to be an afficionado of, which grants him a couple of extra skills and a special list of additional skills he can choose from when time comes for his advancement. Sample avocations include such things as "naturalists"; "gamblers"; or "sportsman".

By now you might be wondering how the skills actually work; and herein we get to the biggest fucking mystery of the game system, and the most annoying issue with the writing/layout.  First, the mystery: the mystery is why the fuck the skill system is set up as a "+1, +2, +3 etc" kind of system, when in fact the entire game mechanic is based on a percentile?!

Here's what I mean: let's say you have a "Firearms +1" skill. That means that your character actually has a firearms skill of 45%. If he ends up with "Firearms +2", it raises his ability to 50%. If he has "Firearms +3", his ability in firearms becomes a 55%. And as far as I can see, in NO fucking occasion in the entire game do you actually roll anything and add, say +3 from having firearms +3.  So the mystery is why the fuck not just make it "Firearms +5%, Firearms +10%, Firearms +15%, etc"?!

Apart from that, once you get used to the wierd mechanic with one free extra grade of abstraction for no good reason, the basic mechanic is straightforward, and there's a huge selection of skills.  But just after that we run into another massive layout problem: you see, when you're doing a skill check, you always roll percentiles and need to get UNDER your skill to succeed (so 55% skill, aka skill+3 for some reason, means without modifiers you succeed if you roll 01-55). But after that, there's something called "quality of success", which states that the higher your actual roll was, the better you succeeded at that skill.  This took me a second to process, but then I figured it was just like in Unkown armies, where if you have a 55% skill you succeed on a 04 or on  54, but a 54 is actually a "better" success; the challenge is to roll as high as possible without rolling over your skill.
Ok, fine, no problem.
...except, later on in the combat section and due to a couple of hints in other places in the book, it appears that in fact, "quality of success" is NOT how well your skill roll went. It is, in fact, a SECOND d% roll you make after you succeed with the first roll. Nowhere in the "quality of success" section does it actually explain that, and the whole thing seems unbelievably needlessly byzantine.  Again, I might still be wrong about this, and maybe I was right in my first interpreation. Bad, bad layout.

You'd think, at this point, that all the badness of the writing and the layout would lead me to say this is a bad game.  But I can't say that. In fact, the game is SO good that it overcomes all of the headache of actually figuring out the layout and those moments where you really have no fucking clue what a rule means, and ends up being a great game anyways. Oh, definitely DEFINITELY a game that is in desperate need of an errata or a new edition with better editing/layout consultants, but its still a game I would strongly recommend to anyone to buy in this edition, warts and all.

Why? A couple of reasons: first, the system itself isn't bad. Its hard to figure what's being said, but once you do it works, and would play relatively quick and easy. I don't know of many games where you could make not one but a TROUPE of characters (basically your PC and 2 npc "retainers") and the whole process could take under 15 minutes, and you still get the feel that the PC is a fully fleshed-out character with a very individual personality that is reflected in the stats.  Its that sort of thing that makes me think that Mr. Bowley is a very brilliant and promising game designer indeed.

Second, its all the options and attention to details that the author gives, that make the whole game a perfect toolkit for running napoleonic naval historical campaigns.  His chapter on NPCs is brilliant, allowing you to quickly create an NPC that also has a personality and an adventure hook.  His sample NPCs ("ruffians and runagates" being the name of that chapter) provides all the classic archetypes you might need to jump right in with a given NPC in the game.  All of this sort of thing helps make the gameplay flow like a well-oiled machine, and more than compensates for the clunkiness of the book's layout and some of the quirkiness in a couple of the rules.

The section on combat is pretty straightforward and easy to get a grasp of, and the section on ship-to-ship combat creates an effective combat system that is focused directly on the players and their actions, instead of suddenly transforming into a wargame.  A ship battle in IHW is focused on what the character troupe needs to do, and how the battle affects them and the ship as a whole, as it should be. The rules for healing and surgery are quite clever, including a rule where the player is basically allowed to choose to willingly take a critical that will leave one of his body parts disabled in exchange for a reduction of immediate damage, basically to pull a "Roy Fokker" and keep fighting even while critically wounded.

There is tremendous attention to detail, on things like prize money for captured enemy ships, ships of the times (including cool deckplans), rules on weather and windspeed, all of which somehow manage to be put in such a way that they maximize usefulness and minimize the cramping of gameplay. Its not attention to minutae for its own sake, crippling the play; rather, its attention to detail always keeping in mind the mission of the design: to make the game more playable, easier, and better able to emulate the feel of the genre.

And talking about that, there are two mechanics that essentially complete the argument for why I think this game is brilliant: practicality/honour and notice.
Practicality/honour are two stats that are inversely related. Whenever you do anything that is practical, easier, but not gentlemanly, you gain practicality but lose honour. Likewise, when you do something that is more difficult for you but the gentlemanly thing to do (ie. giving an opponent who dropped his sword in combat the chance to pick it up again, instead of just gutting him), you gain honour but lose practicality.  Your practicality acts as a bonus to dealing with the underworld, or intimidating people, or generally anything seedy.  Meanwhile, your honour acts as a bonus to dealing with the upper crust of society, diplomacy, and leadership.  So the system is set up that you have a kind of "alignment", but neither of the two actually have negative consequences, they just give you a different bonus depending on which side of the spectrum you fall under.

Finally, there's Notice. I was saving this for last.  Notice are the "experience points" of the game.
You see, the point of IHW is for your character to advance in rank.  To do this, you must accumulate a certain number of points between "interest" and "notice".  The former are points you get depending on your social class, people in the upper classes have a natural advantage for advancement prospects (though in the system they compensate for that by having you choose between being high social  class or high intelligence, you can't do both; something I understand for game balance purposes, but don't buy the author's claim that this is "true to genre").
But the latter, "notice" is what makes the real difference.  Notice are basically points you gain any time your commanding officer takes note of your actions and approves. Acts of courage or great efficiency.
The first lieutenant to accumulate 400 points between notice and interest gets promoted to Commander; and later there are other point requirements for reaching captain, and so on. But since any given ship will only have a limited number of positions of a given rank, your players are basically competeing with each other to be the first to be noticed, just like the cutthroat politics of the naval officer's career in real history.

I could go on and on about this game, and there's a lot of stuff I didn't cover, such as the various optional rules that allow you to customize the game in various different ways, but my basic conclusion is that despite a couple of very serious hassles with some aspects of the system's writeup, the game is WELL worth having.  I loved it, and I intend to play it, and I recommend it to anyone who has an interest in this time period or genre. If you ever wanted to DM Master and Commander, this is the game to do it with, hands down.

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