Friday, October 25, 2013

Inspirations: Hârn

Many of us who were around back in the day recall the memorable ads for Columbia Games' Hârn that ran in Dragon magazine throughout the early to mid 80s. I took note of them at the time, and one of the local hobby stores near me carried some of the product line, which I'm certain I at least leafed through. For whatever reason, though, it didn't take — I just didn't get it. My guess is that the detailed campaign material just ran well over my early teenaged head.

Cut to many years later. In the early 90s I had just left college for the first time and was looking for a campaign. There was an ad for a Rolemaster game on the board at a local hobby shop in Lakewood, Ohio. At that point I has owned the books for Rolemaster for some time but hadn't yet played, so I made the call and set up a meeting with Dave, the GM, to talk it over. Rolemaster I didn't need to be sold on... but Dave began to show me some really amazing-looking setting material for Hârn, that campaign world that I remembered from all those years before, but had more or less ignored at the time. He kept most of the written material close to the vest, of course. But he showed me the full-color heraldry, the calendar of religious holidays, the writeups of the deities and the glorious, glorious maps.

The full-color "regional" Hârn are done in a cartographic style by the setting's creator, the late N. Robin Crossby. Both beautiful and absolutely packed with information, they are the gold standard for RPG maps, and have in my judgement never been equaled for their combination of utility and aesthetic appeal. The local and kingdom-level maps are almost as stunning and just as useful, and the written background material is both rich and engaging, at least if you like Hârn's very medieval and somewhat low-fantasy approach.

It wasn't long before I started to collect Hârn stuff of my own. Some of that product had become quite hard to find by the mid 90s. Inevitably, I wanted to run campaigns set there myself... but it would be quite a while for that to really come to fruition. The product line evolved interestingly after that original core set; over the course of a number of Kingdom Modules covering the human and nonhuman nations of Hârn in immense detail, as well as a series of Encyclopedia Hârnica volumes that expanded on various other topics, the island of Hârn became increasingly thoroughly filled-in. At this point, although Hârn proper has seen relatively little development in recent years (but see below) almost every site or topic of interest on the island has a multi-page article about it. It's a perfect example, according to the tastes of some, of too much setting material filling in every imaginable gap until the GM has little room to maneuver.

I say that's misleading. Obviously, some GMs, happy to riff off of published material, thrive in settings that are very detailed out of the box. Also, in order for this to be true you have find all the material, which in the case of Hârn could be fairly difficult to do. And you have to make the decision to care about all that supplemental stuff. I say that the HarnWorld core set  has everything you need for a splendid and very loose sandbox campaign, including Hârn-specific encounter tables, travel and weather rules. If the relatively low implied amount of magic isn't enough for your tastes, you can always add more. If you do need or want more material, It's out there in spades. And the Hârn setting materials are system-free; you can use them with any rules set you like, although there is a set of dedicated HârnMaster rules that does some interesting things.

Aside, then, from my admiration of Hârn as a setting, I think it along with the HârnMaster have some very interesting general design principles built in. From the setting side there is the idea of a "framework" setting that provides rich high-level detail but maximum creative freedom for the group and GM, done elsewhere but, I think, never so well as here. The integration of travel and weather rules adds a great deal to those wanting to run an exploration-driven sandbox. And of course many details of the setting itself, including the abundant wilderness through which stretches long and perilous trade routes, the rationale for a near-infinite array of weird monsters, the precursor race which left an array of ruins and magical (or perhaps technological) artifacts laying about, and the interplanar gates found here and there, allowing for a number of interesting things to happen.

From the HârnMaster rules, there is a very interesting and elegant cosmology underlying an equally interesting magic system that's very reliant on player-created spells and magic items... without an Ars Magica-style array of rigid rules for designing them. Instead, GM are given latitude in determining what works for their table along with instructions to use the provided examples as guidelines... and a couple of different ways to approach informing players of whether their designs will work or not, a couple of which will satisfy the most Gygaxian tastes. There are also some really cool and clever rules for psionics, and a combat system that, like Rolemaster, deals out specific injuries rather than just marking off hit points.

Which brings me to one final oddity. In its creator's final years there was a dispute over creative control and ownership of Hârn and its world, with neither party having the financial wherewithal to settle the matter in the courts. The result is that two companies are publishing HârnWorld material. Columbia Games, the original publisher, is mostly doing revisions (some of them substantial) of older material set on the island of Hârn itself, made available as individual articles. The other, Kelestia Productions, is doing mostly all-new material set outside of Hârn proper, in the wider world of Kethira upon which Hârn is set. I have no idea how much angst there is between the two companies, but from a fan's perspective there is little to complain about, especially since Columbia had largely let Hârn fall fallow before the current status quo arose.

The Inspirations series highlights RPGs having special influence on or inspiration for the design of An Age Undreamed Of, the Sundered Reach or the World of Ytherra.