Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Retrospectve: Hârn

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.

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?


  1. The very first Runequest game I ever played in was set in Harn (it's also the same game where I first met a member of the SCA so it's a big deal).

    You point out the Harn uses highly Tolkien elves and dwarves but neglect just how unique its orcs are. In fact, there was a very worthwhile D20 supplement for Harn centering on them. If there is one piece of Harn ready to be taken by other campaigns, especially traditional swords and sorcery ones, this is it.

    The biggest competitor for the most usable outside of Harn and that is its religion supplement. While not readily adapted to swords and sorcery for a high fantasy world the Gods of Harn supplement is fantastic. It was pretty much the starting point for my pantheons throughout the 90s. Even now, if I ran generic D&D it would be my go to book. Most of it actually makes sense.

    As you've gotten through most of the classic D&D and similar products you're going further and further afield. I've enjoyed the recent retrospectives very much.

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  3. I've been thinking of getting into Harn for a while now, thanks for the review. Would you recommend Harnmaster?

  4. Crossby's unique approach to monsters, including the Gargun (orcs) and Ilme (dragons), is a huge influence on my own setting. It's a shame that his elves and dwarves weren't equally unique.

    I have thought about stealing the Harnic religions wholesale on more than one occasion, too.

  5. I love Harn.

    It is exactly the kind of setting I like to play in... it has verisimilitude that I can't quite get out of more fantastic settings. And that seems to shape the style of play - where it's about doing all kinds of things (buying goods, having conversations, exploring, etc.), not just cracking skulls.

    After sampling the core material, I've become a collecting junkie. There is no RPG item I hunt with as much determination as a newly discovered Harn book.

    I'm a little cooler on the Harnmaster rule set. I'm comparing it to BRP at the moment, trying to decide which might work better for an upcoming game.

    One important thing to consider about Harn is that while there is a lot of material, a tremendous amount of it is free and of high-quality. Go to and start downloading...

  6. I have a dozen binder filled with all the Harn stuff I collected since the mid 80's

    I recommend Field of Daisies as a good intro into Harn and Harnmaster.

    As for approachability the basic Harnworld is systemless and does a fairly good job of laying out the setting. It is laid out in several articles at varying level of details. The most detailed is the Harndex which is an alphabetical listing of setting's locales.

    Harn can be played in a lot of different ways. It detail can be used for a campaign emphasizing roleplaying. Or Harn can be used as a pure dungeon crawl campaign exploring the various ruins and sites scattered around the Islands. There are several dozen of these.

    As for the pulling the thread apart. Northern and Eastern Harn have realtively isolated kingdom that can be easily played around with. Orbaal (Viking), Kaldor (large), Chybisa (very small), and Melderyn (magical and powerful) are all separated by miles of wilderness.

    In western Harn the kingdom histories are more interwoven with a "good" kingdom Kanday facing off an "evil" kingdom Rethem, which the Thardic Republic looking to expand it's interests.

  7. @Steve, if you are comparing Harnmaster to BRP I would pick Harnmaster any day. It is more straight forward and you can use the Harnmaster Magic and Religion directly.

    The trick is to have plenty of copies of the combat charts. They are easy to use and as a result the combat flows faster than any game of equal complexity.

    While it is a bit involved to make a character actual play is fast.

    You can read a session report here

  8. Yea verily, the Harn freebies are excellent material. Lots of good maps, regions and scenarios and more if you don't mind paying a bit of money. There was a really nice Free RPG Day booklet a few years ago, I think Columbia Games (?) has it still on their site.

    As for the setting, never got into into it 'cos I'd rather just use an alt.historical real world medieval bit. Similar for the rules, got the freebie onetime when Columbia was doing a promo but it seemed like Runequest meets Rolemaster and either one of those alone is enough for me. Neat charts tho and I do like the character details in the writeups.

  9. While other worlds are always interesting, I'm glad I started my own world setting as a kid and stuck with it up until this day. Richly detailed, and I don't have to absorb nuthin'.

  10. I ran a reasonably successful campaign in Harn. It was the setting I used for my first Cold Iron campaign (Cold Iron is a system a college friend developed).

    One of the features of the campaign was that the PCs ended up for the most part following the "evil" gods rather than the "good" gods. As a group, they did disavow undead though. When one player tried to bring in a PC who followed the undead god (sorry, forgot most of the gods names), complete with a pet ghoul, the rest of the PCs rendered the PC and his ghoul into little bits.

    Unfortunately, as more material came out, I realized that Harn's setting was really not compatible with a high magic game (and Cold Iron isn't as high magic as D&D!). There were also issues relating to the "evil but not really" nature of the PCs. Also lots of problems with lots of fudging on my part.

    There is a lot to like about the map style. The Harn map was the first map I saw that I considered at least as good if not better than the Judges Guild maps. On the other hand, I'm not sure how much I actually care about the level of detail it was able to convey, do I really care what kind of vegetation is in the mountains?


  11. As per the original article, I'd known of Harn for ages from its ads in Dragon, but didn't actually get to play in a game of it until a few years ago. I somewhat liked the Harnmaster rules, but on balance the experience was more tedious than fun. For every measure of actual play, there were two measures of discussion/debate about setting details. Such as, what's the accurate name of the mountain clan, what baron is most likely to be involved with the next succession struggle, where the dwarf's great-uncle lives, how the religious rite will proceed in church, etc. Not often play-relevent details either, but just random digressions that caught the rest of the group's attention. I assume for the hardcore Harn-fans I was gaming with, that's part of the fun, but for me it was pointless and pace-killing.

  12. I used Harn recently in a Burning Wheel game. Apparently a few people have done this now. In any event, we just picked at large elements in the materials here and there. If we were stuck for themes, we'd open a supplement and pull something out. It wasn't too limiting and there was a good sense of depth to the world.

    Still, it's nuts to discover a campaign world where the names and salaries of every notable person in nearly every town are set forth in the materials.

  13. I, too, was always impressed with Harn's attention to detail and have somewhere a pile of notes on using the setting as the basis for a Traveller game--the map and the nations of the isle transform into "The Harnic Reaches." Major settlements become, well, major planets; roads, some coastlines, and some rivers become jump route mains; mountain ranges become voids; etc. All of the population, economic, and other data on each settlement underlay the UPPs. Dwarves and Elves are varieties of Humaniti, Gargun are an alien race, magic becomes psionics, etc.

  14. Like you, I genuinely admire Harn, but never used it. It wasn't "too filled in," though it is very detailed. I always felt I could add more if I needed to.

    For me the sticking point was the early medieval setting, itself, and the small "cities." Not the low-fantasy quotient (I prefer low fantasy to high), but my preferred periods to emulate in my FRPGs are either high medieval or Renaissance. So Harn was never at the top of my list to play, though I collected most of the products.

    Two aspects of the setting I do appreciate, aside from the gorgeous maps, is the decision to a) stop the setting chronology at a certain year (730?) and go no further, thus not undercutting a GM's campaign; and b) keeping the magic in published products low-powered and infrequent, in the idea that it's easier to adapt a product to a home campaign by adding magic than by taking it out.

    I just wish they had published Trierzon.

    Security word: "catroci." A clan of feline assassins.

  15. @Steve:

    Thank you for the link. I had no idea that was there - and they have Trierzon material. :D

  16. I think Hârn’s own sales spiel was what kept me from ever buying it. And rightly so, probably. It claimed to have done the “hard work” for the GM, but which work is hard (or even desired) varies from GM to GM. I was impressed, though, even if it wasn’t for me.

    Hârnmaster, on the other hand, was exactly what I was looking for at one time. It felt more like “historical fantasy” than just about any system I’ve tried.

  17. Heh, I have the Ivinia supplement (small nordic land with warring clans, dragonships and runes), but none of the other Harn stuff. A copy somehow ended up here in distant Hungary around 1991, and I scooped it up right away from an acquaintance of mine.

    I guess it was the map, or the intricate latticework of all of the little hexes complete with local legends and a hard-to-define feeling of a hoary, mythic past. Wonder if I ever get a chance to run a game in it.

  18. I think a case can indeed be made for Hârn being overdetailed, but I know probably dozens of people who have used it at one point or another, incluidng myself.

  19. Would you recommend Harnmaster?

    I've never seen it, let alone played it, so I couldn't comment.

  20. I just wish they had published Trierzon.

    You and me both. I'd still buy that if it ever appeared, but I'm not holding my breath.

  21. "For every measure of actual play, there were two measures of discussion/debate about setting details. Such as, what's the accurate name of the mountain clan, what baron is most likely to be involved with the next succession struggle, where the dwarf's great-uncle lives, how the religious rite will proceed in church, etc. Not often play-relevent details either, but just random digressions that caught the rest of the group's attention. I assume for the hardcore Harn-fans I was gaming with, that's part of the fun, but for me it was pointless and pace-killing."

    Ditto here. I was in seven month's worth of a Harn + Harnmaster campaign a couple of years ago, and the glacial pace of the game was unbearable. Three of the six people involved (GM + two players) had been playing in this world for 20+ years, and the degree to which they debated and discussed every move and step the party took was soul-draining. Of the other three players aside from myself, two of them had never played another RPG before, so had no other frame of reference, and the third was a pretty low key guy who, I think, was just glad to have found a gaming group.

    I won't blame either the setting or the system for my experience, but I do think they enabled it. The extreme setting detail led to endless discussions of said detail, and the combat system was so deadly and very specific that large or prolonged engagements were just not worth the effort or danger. Any "fight" that took place was usually a one-on-one battle that was over in two or three passes, and happened so infrequently that my character never actually had a chance to strike a blow in anger.

    Eventually I just stopped showing up, and I don't regret it. One of the other players is now in my C&C campaign, and although still involved in the Harn game, makes no bones about which is more entertaining.

  22. I have played Harn using D&D, Hero System, Gurps and Harnmaster (V1, HMC, HM3). Every style of game from low fantasy to high fantasy. I never had a problem with adapting it to the style of game. I get the impression reading gaming blogs and forums that many people seem adverse to actually changing anything in a game setting they don't like. Harn can fit any gaming style. It is a small island but ther eis a whole world attached to it.

    Brian Smaller

  23. Wow, I didn't know that Robin had died. I used to game with him back in the day, heck, back when we were trying to come up with what would eventually become the Harnmaster rules. We spent endless hours debating magic and combat systems.
    I was always fascinated with the level of detail in Harn, but I agree that it was that very same level of detail that made me not want to actually use it very much - although we did run a hilarious Striker scenario where we used howitzers to fire cluster bomblets at a Thardic legion. Good times.
    Harnmaster was a pretty good system, but it did encourage games that ran at a glacial pace. On the other hand, how many other RPG systems out there made it a valid PC career choice to be a tradesman?
    Robin definitely had a unique vision, and not one for everyone. But even if the setting is not for you, the maps (especially the city and castle maps) are pure gold.

  24. I've used Harn as the setting for a very successful Ars Magica game. Harnmaster remains one of my favorite RPG combat systems ever. A fight between two well-armored opponents is more likely to end in both combatants staggering around exhausted than in death, which is what happened in reality.

    Sorry for the late reply, I've been offline for the better part of a week.