This page offers a description of the HârnMaster roleplaying game system, the Hârn game universe, and the BattleLust miniatures game.
HârnWorld is the name given to the Hârn roleplaying game universe. It is not to be confused with Kethira (the planet where Hârn is located) or HârnMaster (the roleplaying rules specifically designed for roleplaying on Hârn).
Hârn is a large island off the west coast of the continent of Lythia, on the planet Kethira. Kethira exists within the universe known as Kelestia. Kelestia is a magically weak universe. While magic works there, it's not as strong as the magic in, say, Tolkien's Middle Earth or AD&D's Forgotten Realms.
Hârn provided a "realistic" context for fantasy roleplaying games. The economy and monetary system is similar to medieval Britain's, except that Hârn has more coins in circulation. Most Hârnians live in rural communities and work the land. Most who work the land live as serfs. The social structure of most Hârnic kingdoms is based on similar structures found in Britain in the 13th century. The barbarians on the island are very similar to the various tribes in Dark Ages Britain. The Ivinian kingdom in northern Hârn seems to be loosely based on the Viking kingdoms in northern Scotland.
There are more differences between medieval Britain and Hârn than similarities. Hârn is bigger than Britain. There are more trees on Hârn than in medieval Britain. Britain, of course, did not have dragons, monsters, or orcs. Elven and Dwarven kingdoms did not exist in Britain. By the 13th century, most of Britain was Roman Catholic, while the people of Hârn believe in a pantheon of gods. There is constant tension between the followers of the good gods, like Peoni and Larani, and the evil gods, such as Agrik and Morgath.
There are six human kingdoms and a republic on the island. These "nations" are often at odds with each other. Barbarian tribes roam the wilderness, making long distance travel perilous. Ancient creatures known as the Earthmasters left behind artifacts, structures, and the strange teleportation devices known as Godstones. As if that wasn't enough, strange creatures dwell in the forests, the most dangerous being the Gargun, or Hârnic Orc. Tolkienesque Elves and Dwarves live on Hârn. Magic works, and sometimes the gods answer the prayers of the pious. In spite of the fantasy tropes, the game has a unique and authentic flavor. Hârn doesn't feel like a fantasy land. It feels like a real place. This, more than anything, explains why Hârn has survived as an RPG universe for over 20 years.
Hârn started life as a generic adventuring location for use with any fantasy roleplaying game, such as Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, RuneQuest, Tunnels and Trolls, and The Fantasy Trip. This explains the polyglot nature of the island. In the vast expanse of Kethira, Hârn has six human kingdoms, a republic, an Elven kingdom, a Dwarf kingdom, and many barbarian tribes. It is the birthplace of the orc, the home of the god Ilvir, and once was the home of the god Siem. Much of the land is untouched, wild, and full of adventuring possibilities. It seemed a little bit incredible that so much could have happened on what was essentially a backwater island, but players soon accepted it. Hârn was different from other fantasy lands. Magic wasn't all powerful. The island's economy was based on a realistic model. Production values in the game supplements were high.
The universe was created by N. Robin Crossby and published by Columbia Games, Inc. (CGI). Columbia Games first existed in Vancouver, British Columbia, then expanded — and later moved — to Blaine, Washington. Hârn was first published in 1983 in a series of booklets titled Encyclopedia Hârnica. I first came across Encyclopedia Hârnica in 1984. Encyclopedia Hârnica contained articles about Hârn in general and places of interest throughout the island. Players were encouraged to cut them out and put them in a binder. The paper was tan-colored, the ink sepia toned and of pretty good quality. A typical location module would include a two-sided map of unprecedented detail. The gamemaster's side was in full color and the players' side was in black-and-white, suitable for photocopying. The players', or common, map lacked the reference numbers of the GM's map, preserving secrets and allowing for gamemaster development.
Later, Columbia Games started to re-release the Encyclopedia Hârnica articles in "kingdom modules". They lumped together all of the articles for a single kingdom, sometimes including articles of a general nature and sometimes adding new material. These modules were published in individual booklets. Additional modules were released that fleshed out the older articles. Gods of Hârn, for instance, included more in depth information on Hârnic religions, while Cities of Hârn detailed several of Hârn's biggest cities.
About the same time Encyclopedia Hârnica was released, Columbia Games put out a boxed Hârn information set known as the Hârn Regional Module. This consisted of two books and a large, full-color map. The first book was called Hârnview. It gave an overview of Hârn's history, politics, economics, and cultures. It included tables for generating weather, and some rudimentary tables for augmenting the character creation process. The second book was the Hârndex. It was a true Hârn encyclopedia. The entries, listed in alphabetical order, described Hârn's history, culture, people, and places. The map was gorgeous, and huge. This set alone was enough for many players to begin their own fantasy campaigns on Hârn. The Hârn Regional Module was later re-released as HârnWorld.
The Kingdom of Orbaal in northern Hârn was settled by vikings from the land of Ivinia, found in the northwestern corner of Lythia. In 1985 Columbia Games produced the Ivinia Regional Module to support players who wanted to adventure in this part of Kethira. The Ivinia Regional Module was very similar to the Hârn Regional Module. The Ivinia Overview was the equivalent of Hârnview, and the Ivinia Index was the Ivinian version of Hârndex.
Ivinia was never as well supported as Hârn. The Mengalana Kingdom Module was the only one released for Ivinia. Columbia Games became famous for long periods between Hârn publications, a fact of life when a game is produced by a small publisher for a niche audience (Chaosium has the same problem with its Call of Cthulhu line).
Hârn and Ivinia weren't for everyone. The realistic, magic poor and money poor nature of the universe turned off many gamers who were used to a Middle Earth-like game. The adventure sites in Encyclopedia Hârnica seemed bare and barren. Part of this was the background: Hârn's sites had been mostly picked clean in the centuries since the Earthmasters departed. Part of this was deliberate: the adventure sites were frameworks for gamemasters to modify for their own purposes. Either way, it was not what players were used to seeing in fantasy RPGs. For some players, this was a good thing. For others, it was an empty shell that required a lot of work to flesh out. Hârn developed a small but loyal following.
I ran my first Hârn campaign in 1986 using RuneQuest III. Since there was no supporting roleplaying game system to go with the setting, I modified the setting to fit RuneQuest's mechanics. The result was a high fantasy romp through the island that everyone enjoyed. Still, I wished for rule mechanics that would fit better with Hârn's "realistic" background. Having run a fantasy campaign using a "realistic" rule system, I've decided that I prefer to run fantasy games with more "fantasy" in them. Hârn does have the flexibility to allow this, even if it is anathema to Hârn stalwarts.
Although originally a generic fantasy setting, Hârn wasn't well suited to the roleplaying games available at the time. AD&D ruled the fantasy RPG genre. Central to AD&D was strong magic and an experience system that encouraged treasure seeking. This didn't fit the Hârn universe. It was quite possible for GMs to modify their rule set to fit the Hârn background, but what was really needed was a companion rule system that capitalized on the game universe.
In 1986, Columbia Games released HârnMaster. HârnMaster was familiar in some respects, but quite a leap forward in RPG design in other respects. The basic skill system used percentile dice, much like Chaosium's RuneQuest. Character creation was based on random dice rolls. The game was pretty familiar until you got to the combat system.
Instead of rolling against a skill to hit a target and then rolling for damage, the attacker and the defender rolled on a combat matrix, depending on what kind of defensive option the defender chose. A defender could block, counterstrike, or ignore his opponent. What the defender chose, and how well each character rolled, determined the outcome. If one of the characters hit the other, the HârnMaster damage system took over.
HârnMaster did away with hit points. The player rolled on a table representing a character's hit locations. The weapon's ability to go through armour, the way the weapon was used (a slash or a thrust), and the actual damage inflicted was cross-indexed with the location that was struck. The result indicated the chance the character would fall unconscious, go into shock, bleed to death, or die outright. Surviving combat wasn't enough. It was entirely possible for a character to succumb days or weeks later to an infection. HârnMaster is one of the few games to try and model infection.
Now that Columbia Games had a roleplaying game to go with their background modules, they were able to write their own adventures. Columbia Games only released a handful of modules, including 100 Bushels of Rye, the three part Panaga saga, the Dead of Winter murder mystery, and Pepper and Spice (which was included in the re-release of the the Trobridge module).
The magic system in HârnMaster was fairly rudimentary, with a handful of sample spells. After the game's publication, CGI followed up with a series of books with spells for each convocation. They also added to the magic system with the release of the Shek-Pvar supplement, which included many interesting optional rules for spell casting. The Pilot's Almanac was published in 1988. This was a departure from other Hârn publications in that it gave rules for characters as shipwrights, pilots, and sailors, rather than focusing on a single kingdom or region. Although it was fairly generic in nature, it was written to accompany HârnMaster.
HârnMaster was as detailed as the Hârn background itself. Like the Hârn universe, it wasn't for everyone, but the game system complemented the background quite nicely.
In 1991, Columbia Games released another regional module, this one for Shorkyne, a kingdom on the Lythian mainland. This book was supposed to follow on the heels of the Ivinia module, but it was delayed. Instead of the index and overview included as two books, they were rolled into a single volume, with the bulk of the book containing more index information than overview information.
This was an excellent product, but it suffered from CGI's slow production schedule. No kingdom modules were ever produced for the Shorkyne Regional Module. Shorkyne's major foe is Tierzon, a region along Shorkyne's southern boundary. The promised Tierzon Regional Module, which is needed to fully support Shorkyne, has yet to see the light of day.
Columbia Games published BattleLust in 1992. BattleLust was their "mass combat" miniatures game using the HârnMaster system. The game could handle battles up to about 100 figures per side. The combat system was a faster paced, stripped down version of HârnMaster.
Although BattleLust was a game in its own right, integrating BattleLust with HârnMaster was fairly easy. You could even use both combat systems at the same time. Roleplaying characters could take part in BattleLust battles, while some gamemasters used BattleLust to speed up combat against minor non-player characters. BattleLust included some important information about the number of soldiers available in a kingdom, so it doubled as a HârnWorld supplement.
After BattleLust hit store shelves, CGI went through a period where all they produced were kingdom modules. The tan coloured paper and sepia-toned ink had long since given way to white paper and black ink in order to control costs.
In 1996 CGI came out with the second edition of the HârnMaster game system. Called HârnMaster Core (it is informally known as HârnMaster II), the game system was controversial in a number of ways.
The game was printed on thick paper — essentially a thin card stock — in full color. The book was three-hole punched and came in a binder. Due to the color and the paper, the book retailed for about US$50, not a cheap sum by today's standards and almost unheard of back in 1996. The intention was to have a visually stunning book where the colored pages made it easier to use as a reference. The binder allowed the rules to expand as new supplements were released.
There was very little in the way of magic in HârnMaster Core. That was supplied at first through the use of the old Shek-Pvar module, and later with that module's upgrade, HârnMaster Magic. HârnMaster Religion integrated the Gods of Hârn with HârnMaster. Another interesting supplement was Hârn Manor, which details the running of a manor. It includes articles on manorial economics.
In 2000, CGI published HârnMaster Barbarians and Short, Nasty and Brutish. The former took the various barbarian articles, wrapped them together and published them as a supplement for HârnMaster Core. The latter was the long awaited supplement on Gargun, or Hârnic orcs.
By this time Columbia Games was including D20 statistics in its modules. This was controversial in its own right. Hardcore HârnMaster players resented buying a game with text space wasted on a system they wouldn't use. CGI argued that it brought a new generation of players to Hârn.
The biggest controversy with HarnMaster began internally within Columbia Games, but eventually exploded in public in 2003. HârnMaster Core simplified a number of things found in HârnMaster I. For example, damage results were tied into the hit location roll in HârnMaster Core instead of requiring an additional table roll as found in HârnMaster I. N. Robin Crossby was unhappy with the direction CGI took with HârnMaster Core. In response, he created his own version called HârnMaster Gold.
HârnMaster Gold is supported by Crossby's own company, Kelestia Productions. Instead of simplifying HârnMaster I, it takes HârnMaster I as its base and adds to it. The intention is to make HârnMaster Gold one of the most realistic roleplaying games on the market.
HârnMaster Gold is available only in Adobe Acrobat format. The products are fairly expensive. In order to get the HârnMaster Gold equivalent of HârnMaster Core you need the HârnMaster Gold Player Edition and the HârnMaster Gold Gamemaster Edition, both of which sell for around US$28.50. In comparison, CGI sells HârnMaster III for US$30. It should be noted, however, that the HârnMaster Gold Gamemaster Edition is more than just an addition to HârnMaster. It is also a guide to playing in the Hârn universe with any game system.
Published in 2003, HârnMaster III is an extension and refinement of HârnMaster Core. Columbia Games made the Acrobat file version available as a free download for a short time in the winter of 2004.
The dispute between Crossby and CGI came to a head in 2003. Crossby sought to dissolve the contract between him and CGI with regard to the publication of Hârn products. Crossby claimed that the contract he had with CGI allowed him to terminate their working relationship, requiring CGI to cease selling Hârn material within 6 months of the contract's termination. Columbia Games counter-argued that Crossby owed them money and can not terminate the contract until that is dealt with. They also argued that in any event they and Crossby had joint copyright, and so they can not lose their rights to Hârn under international copyright law.
This dispute is ongoing, and could take some time before it is settled. Meanwhile, both CGI and Crossby's Kelestia Productions continue to produce Hârn material, although at the same slow pace that has always plagued Hârn. CGI plans to release updates to the kingdom modules with new material added. At the same time, they sell a subscription to HârnLore, a magazine of Hârn articles. These articles are also available individually. Kelestia Productions released the HârnMaster Gold version of the Shek-Pvar book, and the HârnMaster Gold Bestiary. HârnMaster Gold is now up to version 2.1.
Kelestia Productions have plans to release HârnWorld supplements. Due to the ongoing dispute, Kelestia refuses to accept the CGI Hârn modules as canonical. The fact that the fans don't necessarily make this distinction is not lost on them, and it's likely that these supplements will not conflict with those published by CGI. In the meantime, Kelestia Productions has been focusing on Chelemby, a group of islands to the east of Hârn. While Columbia Games' web site makes no mention of Kelestia Productions, Kelestia.com references another company's involvement with Hârn but actively avoids mentioning CGI by name.
Regardless of how the dispute is settled, there is a lot of high quality fan-written material available for the game universe, in the form of adventures, interesting locations, supporting articles, and house rules. This fan-created canonical work, named "fanon", is developed on both companies' products. Both Kelestia Productions and CGI have different fanon guides, but this doesn't seem to hamper the fans. What's more, the material from both companies and the fanon are all compatible.
On July 23, 2008, Robin Crossby died of cancer at the age of 54. Hârn fandom mourned the loss of the talented creator of their beloved game universe.
In spite of the dispute and Crossby's death, Hârn continues to be one of the most vibrant fantasy roleplaying backgrounds in print.