Like Skyrealms of Jorune, Hârn is a product that any reader of Dragon during the early to mid-1980s should remember well, as it was regularly advertised in those hallowed pages. Also like Jorune, it was a product that was, in my limited experience anyway, more admired than actually used in play. The brainchild of N. Robin Crossby, who died a year and a half ago, Hârn has long been associated with the tagline "A Real Fantasy World," by which one is meant to understand that it is a highly detailed setting whose creator has given much thought to matters of history, culture, and social dynamics in order to produce, in his words, "an environment that is fundamentally rational."
First released in 1983, Hârn describes a single large island about three times the size of Britain. And, like Britain, the island, which gives its name to the product, is located to the northwest of a larger continent, with which it shares history and culture. Hârn is home to nine civilized kingdoms, as well as many barbaric tribes. The setting is reminiscent of Norman England, in terms of society and technology, but it's not a one-for-one correspondence. The real genius of Hârn is the way that it manages to blend real world influences with a wide variety of fantastical ones, including perhaps the strangest "orcs" ever to appear in any fantasy game (the gargûn, as they are called, have a hive-based social structure akin to ants or bees).
At the same time, Hârn suffers, I think, from being a little too detailed, particularly nowadays, after more than 25 years of development. Like Tékumel and Glorantha, newcomers might rightly fear that it's impossible to get into Hârn without investing untold hours in absorbing its minutiae. That's not true, of course; Hârn is probably no less accessible than most well-developed fantasy settings, but it gives the impression that this isn't the case. The original release and its supplements have a dry, even academic tone to them that can be off-putting to those expecting writing with more zest. Likewise, the smallness of the island of Hârn itself means that, almost literally, every square mile of the place has been fleshed out in some way, often with pages of supplementary material and maps. Little wonder that Hârn has the reputation it does among those who know of it.
I mentioned maps above and no retrospective about Hârn would be complete without discussing its maps. In its day, the poster map of Hârn was probably the most impressive piece of cartography to come out of the gaming world, being attractive and at a scale to be very useful in play. I'd argue that the map (and the others that followed) remain solid competitors for the best gaming maps ever made. Indeed, the maps alone have tempted me on more than one occasion to try and run a campaign set on Hârn.
But I never have. For some reason, I've never managed to take the plunge and use Hârn in any way, despite owning several Hârnic products. Part of it, I guess, is that, for all my admiration of Hârn's "realism" and attention to detail, I generally crave more fantastical worlds for my roleplaying. I suspect too that the accumulation of little things I dislike about Hârn, particularly its direct importation of Middle-earth's elves and dwarves, rubs me the wrong way enough that I can't bring myself to use it. That's not a knock against Hârn so much as an acknowledgment of my respect for its imaginative unity. Like many of the best fantasy settings, Hârn benefits from the powerful vision of its creator and I worry that pulling at any of the loose threads I see dangling might unravel the whole beautiful tapestry. Oddly I don't feel that way about many other equally intricate settings that others view as I do Hârn, so perhaps it says something about me that I don't yet fathom.
Regardless, Hârn is a classic product and one that has regularly inspired me even though I have never actually used it. How many other gaming creations can say that?