Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Retrospective: Cities of Hârn

The issue of White Dwarf I discussed this week included a review of 1983's Cities of Hârn, the first major supplement for the Hârn fantasy setting published by Columbia Games. Written by Hârn's creator, the late N. Robin Crossby, Cities of Hârn is one of only a handful of Hârn materials I owned until relatively recently. I did so at least in part because of the ads I saw in the pages of Dragon, which highlighted its wonderful maps. I also did so because I find the mere idea of cities in a fantasy setting absolutely captivating. I blame Lankhmar.

Cities of Hârn begins with an overview of cities in general before offering up specific information on each of the seven cities of the setting. The overview focuses on the kinds of "realistic" details that are the hallmarks of Hârn's Anglo-Norman-inspired fantasy. There are discussions of guilds, markets, governments, and of course taxes and fees – lots of taxes and fees. I probably make this sound less appealing than it is, because most of these discussions are brief and add to the verisimilitude of the setting rather than getting bogged down in minutiae. 

The real meat of Cities of Hârn lies in the sections that treat each of the seven major cities of the island of Hârn: Aleath, Cherafir, Coranan, Golotha, Shiran, Tashal, and Thay. Though there is some variation between the write-ups, each section follows the same pattern. There's information presented on each city's history, government, and economy, followed by two keyed maps of the entire city, one in color and one in black and white. In addition, each city includes a keyed map for a single important location within it. For example, the section on Aleath includes a map of The Sword & Sceptre, a three-story tavern, while the one on Shiran includes the Pamesani Arena. These location maps are quite useful, both because they provide the referee with a potential setting for a scenario or an encounter and because they offer some insight into the city in question. The aforementioned Arena highlights Shiran's role as "the pleasure capital of Hârn," where all manner of entertainment is available to those with the money to afford them.

The keyed maps are the main draw of Cities of Hârn. Though perhaps not as lovely as the large-scale maps included with the original Hârn, those in this product are still quite attractive, especially in their colored versions. More than that, they are useful, showing the locations of all the important places within a given city, as well as the area in the immediate vicinity of the city itself, such as rivers, roads, fortifications, and the like. Sometimes, extra detail is provided, like the sites of the underground tunnels beneath Tashal. 

The map keys are of the same spare and utilitarian style that is typical of Hârn. The individual entries usually consist of only a line or two, with only the most important details given much space. The entries all include information on the number of typical inhabitants in a given building, the quality of the goods available there (if applicable), and their prices (again, if applicable). This is all presented in a system-neutral way, since the Hârn line was originally presented as a series of "generic" supplements for use with any fantasy roleplaying game system. Consequently, Cities of Hârn does require some work on the part of the referee to use effectively. Even leaving aside the matter of rules, there are many buildings and other locales in each city that are not keyed. Mind you, this leaves plenty of space for the referee to personalize the cities, which I consider a boon.

In the end, Cities of Hârn is, I think, pretty typical of the early Hârn products in being more like a "sketch" the referee is expected to fill in according to the needs of his own campaign rather than a fully fleshed out product ready to be used "out of the box." At the same time, its lovely maps and their keys are precisely what I wanted out of a product like this and more than justified the cost and relative difficulty it took to obtain a copy. Even though I never succeeded in running a Hârn-based campaign, I made good use of some of the maps in my own setting, which is about as high praise as I could have given a RPG product in those days.


  1. I really liked Harn, and used it to run a Cold Iron campaign in college, but I think Cities of Harn started me on the path of realizing that Cold Iron was not actually a good fit for Harn due to the power levels of magic and having "magic shops" where PCs could purchase lots of magic items and sell treasure items they weren't going to use. Cold Iron just assumes magic is much more common than Harn does.

    Eventually I sold all my lovely Harn materials... Sometimes I regret that, but the reality is I'm not likely to ever use Harn.

  2. So folks are aware that there are updated version version of these cities at They are updated in a good way in that the extra details pretty focus on fleshing out the lives and personalities of the city's inhabitants. And while it not as terse as the original, they keep short and straightforward and thus able to pack a lot into a 40 to 60 page product for each city.

    Still the original cities was impressed at how much they were able to pack in to it's 48 pages. Like James, I used several them as standin for various locations within the Majestic Wilderlands.

  3. I love Harn material. Yes, for the maps, but especially for the plot hooks they just leave laying around everywhere. There is something that you can turn into an adventure in almost every corner of those wonderful maps. If I drop something from Harn into one of my games, it generates play opportunities by itself in a way that pages of elf history never will.

  4. They had a follow-up product called Son of Cities that included more details on each city. I think that two products were merged in modern versions. I still wish they'd done a Grandson of Cities as I'd like the towns fairly well developed instead of sketches.

    1. If you buy one of the Harn Cities now that exactly what the current versions are.

  5. Nice to see your post today on the Cities of Harn! The Harn product line (old and new) strikes me as decidedly "classic RPG" in design approach. Much is provided, but also much is expected of the referee/Gamemaster who will use the material. Lending itself to whatever use each referee wishes to make of it, the setting is rich in detail which suggests rather than dictates how it can be used in a campaign or adventure setting.