The Hârnic Sandbox

Old issues of Dragon magazine used to have ads for a product called Hârn, by the obscure Columbia Games, on the inside front cover. Even though I saw those ads back in the days of my gaming youth and even recall products on the shelves of the local hobby store, it wasn’t until about 1991 that I took notice, when I joined a new group that was using it as a platform for Rolemaster.

The setting is the island of Hârn, just off the coast of the Lythian continent, much like pre-Norman Britain, only partly civilized, with several small kingdoms but also some powerful barbarian tribes and a couple of non-human states as well. The feel of the place is very medieval, with guilds, feudal lords, filthy peasants, powerful and fanatical clergies and technology right out the same period.

Hârn is often called “low fantasy,” and in many respects it is, at least compared to the typical D&D setting with a magic shop run by a 30th-level Wizard on seemingly every streetcorner. You’re not going to find enchanted items sold in the town’s shops. But it does have an order of Magi with chapter-houses sprinkled throughout the island, mysterious events and ruins, lots of weird critters that have an actual in-setting justification, a deity that actually lives there, some scattered demigods here and there, and Dwarven and Elven kingdoms. Plus the place sits atop an interdimensional nexus, with portals to other planes and places laying about. So perhaps not as low a fantasy as all that.

There is no metaplot in Hârn; every product is set in 720 TR, and none advance it beyond that. There are a lot of adventure hooks, big and little, scattered throughout the various products, but no over-arching storyline. That’s for each group to decide on and tell for themselves, amid squabbling kingdoms, rampaging barbarian and orc tribes, lost Dwarven cities and pre-human artifacts.

One standout aspect of Hârn are the maps, of which a small excerpt is in this post. They are gorgeous, which cannot be fully evident from so small a sample, but more importantly they are packed with information. The hex size is fairly small — only 12.5 miles per hex — but every settlement larger than a podunk village is on them, along with every road larger than a rough track through the undergrowth. Also on the map are adventure sites aplenty: Dwarven ruins, mist-shrouded Sindarin and Earthmaster sites, major orc warrens and places of arcane interest. The texturing of the land gives you a sense of the terrain, while the color tells you the vegetation. It is the ultimate masterpiece of fantasy cartography, as attractive as it is useful.

The island itself, over the course of the whole product line, is relentlessly detailed down to the level of individual settlements and sites; almost every location of note on the island is described and mapped in detail somewhere, with the main box containing the top-level details of the setting and the overall framework of the place. Really, you can run it straight out of that main set, and in some respects it’s better to ignore all the supplements, lest one get lost in the details and bogged down in trying to make a campaign totally authentic. But the kingdom books, for example, do provide a great starting place if a GM is willing to do some extrapolation from the staring point they provide. And they also contain maps, that do map everything down to individual villages and tracks through the wilderness.

When Hârn hit the market back in 1983 there was no sense of “sandbox,” only that some tables ran their games in a very freeform way, with GMs presenting an open world and players themselves deciding where to go and what to do. Our own Hârn, whether run using Rolemaster or the dedicated HârnMaster rules (released later and entirely optional; Hârn was and remain system-agnostic) campaigns were largely like this. One aspect we ignored until much later, though, was the concept of the “pre-game,” whereby GM and player would sit down with a character that was partially or fully complete and briefly roleplay through some broad elements of a character’s background, perhaps ending with the GM granting the character an extra in-game boon or two. I found this mechanic (detailed in the Hârn basic set,) absolutely magical for developing players’ sense of their characters and for allowing me, as the GM, to create tailored plot hooks based on that background. I sort of combined it with some elements of The Riddle of Steel and had players fill out an index card at the end describing what their characters’ goals and motivations were.

Hârn, too, has a complicated history; it’s an IP that’s now published, due to a squabble over who owns the rights to the IP, by two companies: Columbia Games and Kelestia Productions, with a sort of unofficial détente declared by which Columbia publishes mostly reprints of old stuff set on Hârn proper, while Kelestia produces new materials set mostly on the nearby mainland. Neither really has what we could call a thunderous production schedule, but new stuff does continue to roll out, and virtually all of it is top quality material.

5 responses to “The Hârnic Sandbox

  1. Not to derail your train of thought here but is Dragon magazine still being published? That thing really stoked my imagination as a teenager. Makes me wonder if anyone will ever make the connection between what makes pen and paper gaming so great and a PC RPG. Its nice to see PC RPG gaming trying to get back to minimalistic roots (, but nothing beats a great setting like you mention here.

  2. I strongly prefer low-fantasy settings, which is probably the main reason I’m much happier in the starting areas of MMOs than I am at the top end. Once items more powerful than a +2 sword start to appear I get itchy and the first sight of any creature more fantastic than a hill giant makes me think “I’ll get my cloak”.

  3. There was, funnily enough, talk of a Hârn video game at one point. Alas, that was from Auran, which ended up doing Fury instead, and we know how that turned out.

  4. As a setting, Harn is, I think, one of the best, particularly the ‘expanded’ setting (Venarive), which avoids many of the ‘legacy’ problems of the original island setting.

    I remember that computer game project as well. I would say that, right now, Harn would be an excellent franchise for a series of sandbox RPG’s or hybrid sandbox / narrative RPG’s, with its combination of low-fantasy (gritty and realistic) and high fantasy (interplanar travel, weird creatures) elements and highly detailed, lore-rich setting.

    Too bad it’s so little known…:-(