There I was, confidently announcing the end of the Domain Rulership series, when one of my readers reminded me that not only were there products I had agreed to examine in this series, but I had a copy sitting around gathering e-dust. Then I said, “But my second child is about to be born, so it probably won’t be soon.” But, funny story, if you’re not specifically inducing labor, it might be today or a week from today, so I’m seizing this opportunity to go through HârnManor and Household, two supplements for Columbia Games’ Hârn setting. My deepest thanks go to the generous reader who provided these texts.

Image: Highclere Castle, better known now as Downton Abbey. Picture by zen whisk, used through Creative Commons.

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight | Part NinePart Ten | Part Eleven | Part Twelve | Part Thirteen

 

Hârn

The first thing to understand about Hârn is that it’s setting out to push its realism as far as it goes. I don’t know anything about the core system of Hârnmaster, and that’s a modest hindrance to this article, but Wikipedia is kind enough to inform me that its several editions represent the GNS Theory Wars in detail, but with only gamism and simulationism really represented. It’s a low-fantasy setting based primarily on Norman England, it has dwarves, elves, and gârgún, which is to say orcs. Here ends my knowledge of the setting, and this ignorance will not be a significant hindrance to the rest of the article.

On a personal note, in principle, I am a big fan of deep historical study and accuracy. Bernard Cornwell is one of my favorite authors, and his Warlord Chronicles left a permanent imprint on my imagination. This isn’t the flavor I want for all situations, but I am pleased to know that it is so faithfully represented here, as well as in King Arthur Pendragon (which HârnManor strikingly resembles in tone, if not mechanics).

 

HârnManor

This book sets out to detail the day-to-day life on a manor in the Norman English feudal system, with some random-generation tables along the way. One of the most interesting things here is that it succeeds in presenting multiple contrasting perspectives – various ranks of serfs, freeholders, local nobility, and possibly some protagonist travelers. Much of the game here shows up in the marginalia or single-page rules blocks, while the rest of the text is a mediumweight historical study. Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe springs strongly to mind here.

Much as D&D has long had curious acronyms (AC, THAC0, ECL) to aid the initiated and confound the uninitiated, so too does Hârn. Setting aside the acronyms of the core rules, this text introduces VCF and MBF, which are actually just record sheets for the census and the budget, respectively. There’s also LQ, FI, and TI, for which are multipliers in the vicinity of .5 to 1.5 (somewhat narrower for LQ and FI). LQ is Land Quality, for general land fertility, and I think it says everything about Hârn’s approach to detail that “LQ is given in all Atlas Hârnica entries.” LQ stays steady year by year, though the GM is free to make it fluctuate if there aren’t enough fiddly numbers in this system for their tastes. FI is Fief Index, and generally relates to the state of infrastructure on the fief. I’ll dig into the FI rules in more detail below, but for now let’s leave it at “this is a deeply math-y piece of rules architecture.” TI is the Trade Index, and represents the manor’s accessibility by river and road. It’s a good reminder that the frontier settlements that PCs so often receive in other domain rulership systems are dangerous and difficult for merchants to reach, and their profitability takes a hit for it. Anyway, the TI can fluctuate pretty widely by circumstance.

As Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe did, HârnManor’s focus is on acreage as the most important measure of wealth and productivity. It’s a reminder that the economic structures of most fantasy literature are, at best, more like early-modern structures than feudal Europe. The number of cleared acres determines the manor’s number of tenant families (if you’re not getting that information from a setting book, which the book assumes you mostly will), with higher LQ allowing families to support themselves on smaller plots.

Now we come to another element that literally no other system I’ve reviewed would even consider, but HârnManor uses casually: There are rules to work out the household skill scores and number of individuals in each household of the manor – and a note on where to go if you need deeper detail. The standing (from slave up through craftsman) of each household is randomly determined, which determines how many acres their holdings take up. This looks circular to me: acres determine households, households determine acres – but maybe I’m missing part of the intent here.

Anyway, this generates your pool of renters (craftsmen and farmers – forming the lord’s revenue stream), your military force (yeomen), and your labor pool (villeins, half-villeins, cottars, and slaves – the lord’s labor pool). The manor’s worker-days of labor and the costs in kind (materials, that is) are broken down in detail. I respect the work that went into this, but personally, I would like to get on with the game at this point and stop calculating things. I mean, I thought MMS:WE and ACKS showed their math in detail, but whoa.

There’s a page on the specialties of village craftsmen, with a sidebar on the fees they pay to the lord and some brief mentions of the pressure that trade guilds bring to bear. It sounds like a good social dynamic for tense interactions, anyway. The next page details the yeomen – fighting farmers. It retroactively changes the acreage calculations, which is a regrettable bit of workflow in something that is already very involved.

The next significant area of rules is the maintenance costs on each member of the manorial household – the fiefholder, the family, hearth-knights, squires, skilled craftsmen (including clergy, performers, and so on), and staff. These are yearly costs, but it puts things into perspective – the lord has a lot of income in cash or in kind from the tenants, but these are some big cost numbers (worse when you factor in the required number of horses and hunting animals), because society puts pressure on the nobles to engage in conspicuous consumption. Reading this section reminds me, in a positive way, of things like Downton Abbey and the SIFRP campaign I played in. The sidebar rules for the Loyalty of the household deepens that sense. I’m kind of surprised there’s no reference to wards in the house.

There’s a summary section that presents everything in the book up to this point as a process. It looks a lot more manageable in this form. It’s still a bit… Form 1040-ish. Oh, and there’s another index to use as a multiplier: the WI, or Weather Index. This is one tiny, nitpicky piece of rules that drives me nuts: there’s an optional rule for “weather averaging.” Okay, so you generate your WI with a 3d6 roll, which as every student of D&D will tell you gravitates pretty strongly toward 10.5, because that’s how bell curves work. With the optional rule, you roll five times and average the results. At that level of enforcing average outcomes, outcomes deviating from the average are going to be so rare that it’s quicker to just treat the WI as always being 1.00.

At the end of all of this calculation, there’s a rule for maintenance costs and your Fief Index – which, again, is overall infrastructure. Your current FI determines maintenance costs – good infrastructure makes more money, but costs more as well. Okay, fair. The interesting part is that paying anything less degrades your FI substantially, while increasing your FI is horrifyingly expensive. If that’s not entropy in action, I don’t know what is, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a rule like it.

But we’re only about two-thirds of the way through the book. There are also rules for abbeys and the chapter houses of fighting orders. And of course there are detailed rules for calculating the hardiness of crops.

This is my personal breaking point, at which I would be thrilled to play this as a video game, but no longer have the least interest in handling it as a tabletop game. I seriously could never make myself care about the hardiness, labor cost, and yield in kind of oats. I am not that GM. This is not just in the weeds, it is literally about the weeds.

There’s a similar page of optional rules for livestock, and that’s no bull. (It’s an ox, now, because they removed its bits.) Then for topography, so that you too can make a mountain out of a molehill. I don’t have a lot to say about these because they are both optional and low-impact.

The book ends with four pages of random event tables: Manor Events, Manor Raids, Weather Events, Hallmoots (that is, manorial justice events, and thus phenomenal adventure hooks), and Tenant Fate. This feels personal and real, and I love it. Well, I don’t love the rules for Weather Events, but I like the presentation of the challenges of life on a manor. I’ve heard a lot of players express interest in low-town, slice-of-life kind of stories, and I haven’t seen many things that would help the GM develop those kinds of stories (either directly, or through randomized emergent narrative) as this does.

 

Household

The second book I’m covering today is a ten-page supplement called Household, which isn’t so much about domain management as it is about why your mother wants to you clean your room so damn much. It clearly comes out of the GM having an argument with the players, because the argument is quoted in the text. It’s also clear that they are not really playing Hârn, but are instead playing a bizarre hack of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, because they are “unskilled, part-time ratters.” I think their core issue is the lack of a small but vicious dog.

To put that another way, this is ten pages of showing the math on lifestyle expenses, which the 5e Player’s Handbook covers in what we’ll generously call one-and-a-quarter pages (p. 157-158), all to provide N. Robin Crossby with a legal framework to tell his players where to stuff it.

Before I continue, I need to make one thing exceedingly clear: I am not making any of this up.

In another sense, it’s domain management for the medieval urban poor. Including the part where an unimportant clerk writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK on a pink official form. Man, this is brutal on the tedium and the acronym multipliers:

  • MRF: Market Relationship Factor, one per budget sector, representing your relationship with the general population of vendors of those goods
  • PEF: Personal Effectiveness Factor, one per category of contribution you make to your household, representing how good you are at your job
    • PEF is derived from your relevant skills, and there’s a secondary table of modifiers based on working conditions, such as hours worked per month.
  • LDF: Labor Demand Factor, or the number of hours of each kind of household task that is needed
  • LF: Labor Factor, or the ratio of Total Effective Hours to LDF.
    • Total Effective Hours (curiously not abbreviated to TEH) are the sum of each household resident’s Effective Hours. Effective Hours are the product of the resident’s Hours and PEF.
    • I hate that I have to say this, but it only gets more bizarre and dizzying from here.
  • TSF: Total Square Feet, the area of the house.
  • FDI: Food and Drink Index, the quantity and quality of food and drink in the house. Low FDIs are harshly punished (“Physical attributes and skills are effectively reduced 10-50%”), while high FDIs are not rewarded.
    • The designer also wanted to twist his players’ arms for not investing in their Cooking skills: “Effective food value can be increased by up to 30% by skillful cooking.” As a slightly-better-than-novice cook, it’s not my experience that the cook can conjure calories from nowhere. I have a new plan to solve world hunger. (I wouldn’t bother making this joke if the document weren’t so needlessly precise in other matters.)
  • CLI: Clothing Index, because people are super judgy about your grubbies. There’s a chart to convert Clothing Value per Resident to CLI, and a table describing the general appearance for each range of CLI values.
    • “Ambitious GMs or players may wish to experiment with calculating a discrete CLI for each resident.” Riiiight.
  • HKI: Housekeeping Index, which takes me back to the horrors of my fraternity house. Using the same chart as converting Clothing Value per Resident to CLI, you now convert Housekeeping Value per Resident to HKI. Low HKIs increase susceptibility to disease, in a way that is not mechanically specified.
    • Spotless, however, is “a level usually achieved only with lots of daily cleaning in households where servants outnumber family.” I will be using this as expert testimony the next time my mother wants to rehash how bad I was at keeping my room straight. Sure, that was seventeen years ago, but letting things go is not what we do best.
  • LXI: Luxury Index, which is a measure of how much not-strictly-necessary stuff you have that makes life more pleasant. Unlike other indices, LXI only includes family members – any servants you’ve hired don’t partake in luxuries.
  • LSI: Living Space Index, which makes sure everyone has some square footage of their own. It equals TSF divided by Num/R (number of residents) divided by 20. The resulting value is hard-capped at 20.
  • SLI: Standard of Living Index, the sum of FDI, CLI, HKI, LSI, and LXI (and CIA, and XKCD, and MJQ, and oh no I’ve gone crosseyed). This results in a table lookup with five value ranges.

Okay, look. This was written in 1992, so up to 18 months before I got my first AD&D 2e Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide. (I wish I had understood that I would also need a Monster Manual.) I don’t know for sure what roleplaying was like across all gaming communities at the time. I would hazard a guess, though, that GMs did not “occasionally wish to audit household accounts,” and were not in the habit of “need[ing] for PCs to actually go out and purchase basic items and [let] them concentrate on less mundane affairs.” I would guess, if some sort of survey could be taken, that better than 90% of all gaming groups were fine glossing over their characters’ bowel movements, minutes or hours of personal grooming, fingernail growth indices, and the like. But by God, if not, here you go. This book is for you like nothing before or since.

The funny thing about this, of course, is that one of the most successful video game franchises of all time is a less-depressing and higher-fantasy version of this book. I’m speaking, of course, of The Sims. But there are a lot of games out there that are laborious in analog and fantastic in digital format – if you want to micromanage the production queues and population distribution of cities, I’ll recommend Civilization (any version, I’ve loved them all) or Fallen Enchantress (particularly the Legendary Heroes version, but they’re all solid) or the venerable but phenomenal Master of Magic.

We want a similar experience from tabletop play, so that we can share it with our friends. Ease of use is a real consideration for tabletop games, though, and one that far too many designers have casually overlooked, especially in domain play. UX – that’s User Experience, for those of you who haven’t worked in software – is a real and important branch of development. There are a zillion different games out there so that every user can find their own best experience, but I think a lot of designers go along without enough thought given to the matter. (Not all of them – I hope it’s abundantly clear that I have the deepest respect for many of the systems I’ve covered.) I hope to address that issue in my own version.

Taking all of these works together, I don’t care to rank them, because they are pursuing different goals in valid ways. I would summarize, though, that:

  • Mentzer’s Companion rules hold up very well against later works.
  • I can’t be objective about Birthright, but if you can internalize its symbolic language of “holdings,” it is possibly the best for inter-realm political dramas, challenged only by SIFRP.
  • An Echo, Resounding and Adventurer Conqueror King System are potentially the best all-around works, and the most readily adaptable to other systems. ACKS’s expanded content blows the doors off of it and covers territory that no one else touches. (I could run a tabletop game of The History of Rome podcast with ACKS and “Senatus Consultum Ultimum.”)
  • Dungeon World loses points only for the fact that it isn’t trying to be about domain management – it is a great content generation engine, but provides too little of the feel of rulership to entirely qualify. (PBTA hacks to fully internalize rulership are not uncommon.) That said, the deeper purpose of all domain rulership systems should be content generation.
  • 13th Age gets top marks for brevity, clarity, and content generation potential.
  • Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe is probably the best historical take; pick up a copy and loot it with keenness and speed for useful material when running other systems.
  • Fields of Blood is the best for what it’s doing – bringing domain rulership into 3.x D&D – but if you’re already adapting something, there are better options.

If you’re thinking, “what about the rest of the list?” my answer is “unless you’re really sure, look elsewhere.” There are currently no further domain rulership systems lined up for review, but that may change. Again.

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  • Interesting read. I was dimly aware of Hârn, but never owned any of it or knew what it was about. It does seem a bit fiddly for my preference, though I am fascinated at the fine-grained simulation gameplay of heroes and villeins.

    • Well, if you want to dive into it, it’s all available here: http://www.kelestia.com/catalog/52

    • Shane

      Actually, it’s not available there.

      There’s a big story behind it (you can find it under the “Controversy” header on the Wikipedia page linked to near the start of this article), but the long and short of it is that Kelestia Productions and Columbia Games are two different companies that are both producing Hârn material independently. The two products in this article are sold by Columbia Games.

      (I tried to post a link to Columbia Games’ page with the PDFs of these titles for sale, but it was eaten as spam.)

  • Shane

    I have to say, reading your take on these supplements was every bit as hilarious as I thought it would be! Thank you so much for reviewing them!

    I should mention, for anyone interested, that HârnManor also includes four example manors, so that you can see how all of those stats look when put to practical use (don’t blame Brandes for not mentioning that; I didn’t include those when I scanned my copy due to file-size issues). As a more general note, most Hârn products aren’t quite as stat-heavy as these, though they do still go into exacting amounts of detail on various aspects of life (e.g. hunting, fishing, heraldry, etc.).

    • Thanks for your help – and patience! – in making this article possible. I am very glad that you enjoyed the result!

  • Syd Andrews

    So…. wow. I’m sure there are people who like to have a game that breaks down the granularity of simulation into as small of chunks as possible. But from your description of this system, it seems that the people who would use this system are accountants who don’t deal with enough number crunching at work and want to apply it to hobby gaming as well!

    It seems (as you mentioned) that this sort of thing would do well with a software application (or maybe even a spreadsheet) to handle the heavy lifting when it comes to the calculations, or what I call “fiddly bits”. Perhaps the writers had originally been working on a digital implementation of this system, but that wasn’t working, so they just exported all of their spreadsheet formulae and printed a book around them!

    In any case, despite my desire to run away from that system in horror (despite the fact that I am a number-crunching math nerd at times), it was still a very interesting and entertaining article. Thanks again for all of these that you’ve done!

    • HârnManor’s copyrights are ’84 and ’99, while Household was published in ’92. I would be genuinely surprised if digital implementation was what Crossby had in mind, though it’s not impossible that he was that forward-thinking. Closer to the time of his passing in 2008, sure, that seems a lot more probable.

      It would be fairly doable to build all of this into Excel or Google Spreadsheets – it’s like 5% beyond my journeyman knowledge to implement, and I could probably work it out in a day or two (and learn some useful things in the process). The system’s data outputs just aren’t compelling enough to make that exciting to me, other than the random event tables in HârnManor (which are the part that LEAST need spreadsheeting).

      I’m glad that you have enjoyed the series so much!

    • Syd Andrews

      You said something in your reply that I think is a good word for me to remember. You said that the data outputs just aren’t *compelling enough*…

      I think that’s the thing about the domain rulership systems for me. They are interesting and have some neat looking tables and systems. They cover some interesting ground and touch on themes and concepts that D&D at the core (DMG, PHB, MM) don’t always include in detail.

      But in the end, the things presented, no matter how interesting, just aren’t *compelling enough* to me to pursue them. In my D&D system of choice (4E), things like the Power Source concepts are compelling. The class roles and how they interact with the power sources are compelling. The ideas of balancing power levels of parties with enemies via the encounter structure is compelling. And so I use those things.

      Thematically, the history of the world of Eberron (where my current campaign is set) is compelling. How the previous empires rose and fell, and what that means to people in the world today; the identities of the residents of the various nations and how they feel about others after the Last War; the motivations of the Dragonmarked Houses and other power groups; all of these things are compelling to me.

      But the output of a domain rulership system just doesn’t quite catch my “compelling” gene!

      But I said it before and I’ll say it again, the information in these articles, along with the way you presented it made for some wonderful reading. And it also has put that nugget in my mind that if some day I wanted to have more socio-political intrigue and less “save the world from certain doom” in a campaign, I know where to look for information of how to do that.

  • Sporelord0179

    I loved this series but please call it here. You’ve covered anywhere from 15-26 systems. I want to see some classes, please Mr Stoddard, it hurts.

    Seriously though, we’ve got a lot of (very nice) milage out of domain rulership,
    I’m currently running a game where the players have inherited a keep with a few small villages surrounding it and have to clean the area. Considering the abject horrors around it this will be a long campaign.
    Which system would you recommend for running a small settlement? I’d much prefer a rules light story generator system over a granular, stat-focused one.

    • For a small settlement with minimal stat-tracking, Dungeon World (available online legally through its SRD) is tops. You’ll have to do some minimal conversion of “coin” to a more definite gp value, if you’re running any form of D&D/PF.

      If you look into that and it doesn’t suit, Mentzer’s Companion/Rules Cyclopedia are more stat-using, but still light. I’m not an OSR loyalist, but Mentzer’s work stands up incredibly well through 34 years of other systems getting developed.

  • MTi

    Well, guess what, this series of articles will get really meaningful to me as my players want to invest on Phandalin (from the LMoP module) and -effectively- have a domain of their own. Well, sort of, but yeah.

    So, I’m starting with the 13 Age rules, as they are free to find plus they are the most comprehensive as I came to understand.

    Brandes, if you are anywhere near in preparing something of your own and you want somebody to playtest it, my table is at your disposal.

    • Uh, wow. Tall order! I… don’t know that I can have anything ready in the next few weeks, as right now all I have is an approach I want to try, and it is only useful to you as an approach if you’re interested in the PCs expanding their domain to a second settlement and beyond.

      I didn’t specifically review this system, but Walrock’s Fortresses, Temples, and Strongholds homebrew is on point for 5e’s style. Check it out! http://walrock-homebrew.blogspot.com/2015/11/worldbuilding-option-fortresses-temples.html

    • MTi

      Hey, no need to rush things. We are at least a month of real time before they finish the main module and it’ll take at least as much again for them to have some resources to start building/repairing stuff. So I guess it’ll take some time before I can worry about suitable rulesets to run that part of the game.

      And all of this presumes that they survive the adventure or we keep playing of course.

      Thanks for the Warlock’s Homebrew stuff!!! I’ll have a read to that as well and post a quick review here.

    • MTi

      So, I had a quick flip through Warlock’s Fortresses, Temples and Strongholds.

      For starters, this is exactly as it says on the title, a quick set of rules to build and run establishments in D&D 5e, it is NOT a guide for running anything else beyond that (say, a small kingdom or a village).

      What we do get is a nifty table with kinds of establishments that can be built and run using this document. We get basically a table with example buildings and to be honest it is a pretty thorough list; to expand it one can either “reskin” any of them or use any of them as an example.

      What we do not get is a same list for land. The author(s) leave that to DM’s discretion (or an other set of rules maybe) to determine price for land. We also do not get the how much labor each building needs in order to be finished. We do get a construction time, but it is not specified the number of workers that are needed to meet that time.

      A hefty nice mechanic that is used is that each building has the “Expansion Units” (EUs) value. This is basically the number of available “improvement slots” each establishment has. So it is logical to see a mansion having 4 EUs while a simple house has only 1. But if we examine each structure separately, we’ll see that each structure provides special bonuses (for example, expansions built in a house are built half the price or a fort has already an armory expansion in place).

      Logically, there is a nice list of expansions available. Each expansion has three values: Cost in EUs, cost in GP and cost in time (days). Also, each expansion has some special abilities of its own (for example, you can use the Alchemist’s Lab to cast certain spells better).

      Furthermore, there are rules and options to modify/expand your Expansions so as to provide more abilities. Basically, this section provides the tools to make dungeons, as you have the construction options for pocket dimensions, traps, etc.

      The next section is about the staff that operates in your structure. Staff can be broken into three major groups: Hirelings, Soldiers and Spellcasters. Hirelings come in three qualities: Unskilled Hirelings, Skilled and Slaves. It goes without saying that Skilled Hirelings are better but cost more and Slaves cost nothing apart from initial purchase (well, at least if you do not inherit them). One minor note here: apparently the author(s) have Forgotten Realms in mind or other similar setting by stating that only Evil characters can own slaves. This of course is up to each setting.
      Soldiers and Spellcasters are further broken down categories of their own, but the author(s) use the MM NPCs, so you may easily use those.

      Finally, we get a couple of new spells to create establishments, plus a note for basic PHB spells that can help in the construction/maintenance process, one can be really creative after all.

      Closing, there are some fine ideas to finance your establishment. Some are already covered in the PHB or the DMG, but a couple of more never hurt anybody.

      So, I like that and thanks Brandes for pointing it to me. It is as thorough as it should and it is almost tailored made for my purpose. To be honest, I haven’t got through the price lists in the document, but I believe they got that right.

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