Exploring RPG Engines - Harmony Drive! Part 1

As I had alluded to in a recent post, I was going to look into creating games for both the sooner Fire Powers Jam, but also for CatlingGun’s Harmony Jam! The Harmony Jam is based around creations related to their new SRD, Harmony Drive.


It is difficult to talk about Harmony Drive without spilling all the beans, but I will try to keep it limited and encourage you to look at the actual document. After all, it is not very long!


Driven by Harmony Imprint Logo
The Driven by Harmony logo for derived products is © Cat McDonald and used with permission.


Introduction to Harmony Drive


Harmony Drive is the driving engine behind the game, Heroic Chord. According to Cat, the Harmony Drive has three main pillars behind its game design. I will explore each of these in a bit more depth by exploring some elements from the game that tie into each of these three following design pillars.


  • Self-Expression - Players are encouraged to “engage with problems in their own style“ without worrying about holding the rest of the group back. Customization and flexibility are built into the mechanics and character design.

  • Teamwork - Success and failure is largely build around team achievement by encouraging ensemble work in their use of skills or combos of skills and spells. Character advancement also work in an ensemble fashion with each character taking a turn with their desires for advancement or improvement in the forefront, but everyone benefiting at the end of each Arc of the storyline.

  • Difficult Choices - Sometimes to achieve success, you have to pay the cost. In Encounters, the players can choose to take hits in hopes of greater gains in the future.


Self-Expression

Facets


If anyone reading this has checked out my materials on the LUMEN SRD or any of the games I have created using that system, the Facets will be strikingly familiar to Approaches except that there are 5 instead of 3. In the standard Harmony Drive game these are Daring, Understanding, Sensitivity, Subtlety, and Adaptability.



For those of you who have not encountered Approaches or the like before, Facets are mechanically similar to Ability Scores or Attributes in how they are used in combination with skills to decide a bonus or how many dice are rolled when the character is trying to achieve something.


However, from a narrative or descriptive perspective Facets & Approaches do not describe the character’s physical and mental capabilities like you might expect in D&D. Instead, they describe the character's preferences and tendencies to solve problems using certain methods. 




For example, If my character is seeking to solve a problem using Understanding, then they would be trying to use their knowledge or the observations noted by others to find the best means of reaching their goal. Using Adaptability would be testing my character’s situational flexibility, finding the right moment to act and willingness to wait for it to come instead of forcing it.


Keys & Lessons

Several other character-related mechanical elements in Harmony drive also demonstrate Self-Expression.



Keys are motivations that drive your character. The term “key” is used to match the lore behind Heroic Chord. Each character has 5 of these, usually single word like “competition,” “greed,” “protection,” “selflessness,” “impulsiveness,” etc.


When a character does an action following one of their keys, the player can call on it to help their character once an Arc. The player crosses out the word and adds 2 bonus dice to the skill roll to complete that action.


If all 5 of the keys are used, then the character refreshes their limited magical resources and gains access to their Signature Spell Pieces (more on these later). This is an interesting way to reward a player for having their character act in character while still providing a limited resources you don’t want to use up or access too soon.


At the end of a story Arc, the players reset all of their characters’ keys, refresh their magic again and loose access to the Signature Spell Pieces if they had unlocked them.



Meanwhile, the Lesson is the basis to the advancement system in Harmony Drive, but it also acts as an indicator for the GM where the player would like their character to go. This is usually a sentence or a phrase demonstrating some what that the player would like their character to grow or change, or a goal they would like their character to accomplish.



Teamwork

Advancement

Harmony Drive is designed to mimic the flow of an ensemble cast TV show or a JRPG when played in a long-term campaign. Each character gets a chance of being in the spotlight for a couple of sessions or an Arc with the Lesson that the player chose for their character being a major driving factor behind the plot.


However, this does not mean that only that character gains at the cost of everyone else. The main focus character does gets what I refer to as a ‘feature milestone’ at the end of the Arc, but all the other characters also get smaller ‘arc milestones’ and get the option of changing their character’s Lesson. When every character has gotten their arc, the new “season” marks where all the characters gain a level and a special ability associated with their class and the chance to change any or all of their Keys, marking extended character growth.


Assist Pools

The system encourages the use of Assist Pools for the characters. These are envisioned as being a special source of power outside of the player that they can draw on. These could be spirits, objects, or beings that can be tasked to do things for the character or work with their inherent powers. In any case, the important part is that ties into “Difficult Choices” is that there is also a suggested consequence to the character’s use of this item or being’s powers. Over-reliance on it is likely dangerous or can have negative costs.



Difficult Choices

Resolving Situations

This game, like some others I have looked at, work with a dice pool system as the RNG. The player gets to roll a dice for each point they have invested in a relevant Facet, 1 die for each character level if they have an applicable skill, and 2 dice if they utilize their Key. So for example, if I am a Guard with combat skills and a Daring of 2 engaged in combat to defend my home, I might roll 4 (1+1+2) dice. If I had a Key like “Protection” I could add an extra 2 dice to the roll as well. A normal skill roll requires that you get between 1-3 successes on your roll.


Each dice is checked for successes according to the following spread:


  • 5s & 6s are successes

  • 2s, 3s, & 4s are null.

  • 1s are Edge Successes.

Edge Successes are essentially success at cost. The cost could be mechanical, but it could also be narrative like making a task take longer than normal or losing support from an ally. These could be the difference between success and defeat in a pinch, but taking them too often could literally end you or destroy your chances of future success.


Elric and Alophanse from Fullmetal Alchemist
I could definitely see Harmony Drive fitting Fullmetal Alchemist, along with many other anime!

So is that all Harmony Drive has to offer? Certainly not! It is hard not to gush about everything to do with Harmony Drive, so I am going to split it here and discuss the unique Encounter and Magic systems that embrace all of the design pillars in Part 2. If you would like to check out Harmony Drive for your self, it can be found on itch.io here and the game that inspired it, Heroic Chord!



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