Thursday, December 1, 2011

Thoughts on Harn and Medieval Campaigns

Harn is a setting I have wanted to like for a very long time.  Longtime readers of this blog should know that I love medieval history, indeed I study it for a living, and I in fact came to gaming through medieval history rather than the other way around.  My early high school campaigns were clumsy attempts to more or less recreate the fall of the Roman Empire and the establishment of the various Gothic kingdoms in Western Europe.

I'm far more interested in early and -- especially -- high medieval settings than I am the late aesthetic that seems to hang over AD&D and its settings.  Perhaps it's the fact that I first became acquainted with medieval history when I saw Simon Schama's the History of Britain when I was twelve, and the episode that fascinated me the most was "Conquest!" which, if the title isn't enough of a give away, was about the Norman invasion of England.*  Whatever the reason, I've always been more attracted to hauberks than Gothic plate, and the feuds of petty castellans strike me as better game fodder than the maneuverings of great Houses.

The Dark Country is more an exercise in medievalism than the properly medieval.  It is constructed from a great morass of popular perceptions of the Middle Ages, Gothic literature, as well as actual medieval history.  Still, sometimes I want something with more grounding.  I mentioned in my discussion of the Albigensian Crusade as a setting that merely the idea that the campaign takes place in a more historical milieu allows me to picture it better.  Jeff Rients' melting chairs, cowardly rust monsters, and talking dogs are placed on top of a setting which at its heart feels real to me.  If one was to stand in Nightwick Village and look towards the menacing abbey it would appear as a matte painting on a Corman set:  Moody, terrifying, and beautifully twisted but clearly artificial.

For the most part, this does not bother me.  However, from time to time I want to set something in a world more like the period I study, but perhaps with some embellishments.  Certainly one need not look far for action and adventure in twelfth-century Europe.   Violence and more importantly violent men are common enough that the players should have no trouble finding someone to cross blades with, and the scheming of seneschals provide ample amounts of intrigue for those less interested in combat.

So on the surface, Harn looks perfect for my desires.  The world has often be touted as being one of the most, if not the most, medieval of medieval fantasy settings.  It even takes as its model twelfth-century England which, though it my preferences have now shifted across the channel to France, still appeals to that twelve-year-old boy who heard for the first time how the crown of England was seized, defended, and lost all within one fateful year.  In Harn, Norman helmets and hauberks are the order of the day, and that's just the way I like it.

Harn even has things going for it the actual middle ages lacks, for gaming purposes anyway.  First, the vastness of Harn is mostly a sprawling wilderness.  The Kingdoms of Kaldor and its fellow states are merely islands in the sea of forests, mountains and heaths.  Second, the fact that it is a fantasy setting allows it to be a bit fuzzier with time.  While Kaldor might have Norman-style knights and subinfeudate like William the Conqueror's kingdom, Orbaal is more in the vain of the Danelaw of over a hundred years prior.  Still, it does this without breaking believe ability, which brings me to my third point.

While a historical setting can never truly be accurate due to the limited knowledge we possess, Harn can at least be accurate within its own milieu.  While I'm not one to agonize over crop rotation, I may be more comfortable presenting Harn's towns and cities than I would be those of the Languedoc.  Why?  Because Harn is more definite. I understand that one should place issues of accuracy aside when dealing with D&D, but my historian's brain finds that very difficult in a historical milieu.  Harn somewhat circumvents this problem.

However, I have some problems with Harn.  Bet you didn't see that coming.  First, a quibble: the fantasy naming conventions irritate me to no end.  It both distances the setting from the medieval Europe I so love and  makes comprehension of the setting more difficult as one must work through a series of foreign words -- even though in many cases these words have equivalents that would make their meaning more readily apparent to the reader.  Second, and much more damning, Harn lacks the Church.  A medieval setting with no bishops isn't medieval.  Harn may say it has bishops, which it calls by some bizarre term that I can't be bothered to look up, they are really just D&D pagans with miters on their heads.  Without an organization to give power to their actions, a unified Church, these religions are given far less power than their Earthly equivalents had.

To me the Church is one of the more interesting things about the Middle Ages, and there are ways to include it without including Christianity itself.  One way to do this is the way I took with the Dark Country.  The Church of Law is a kind of crypto-fascist Catholicism with a theology which is similar too Christianity but distinct enough from it that I have wiggle room to make them the bad guys.  Granted, one could also make the organization that started the Crusades and the Inquisition the bad guys, but they are not here to defend themselves.

The other way still allows for elements of paganism.  The fourth Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion, had a more or less medieval Church.*  It had monasteries, abbeys, and cathedrals.  Its monks were tonsured and were benedictine habits.  However, it was still pagan.  All of the good gods had been brought under one Church, and each cathedral was dedicated to one or another in the same way a real world cathedral might be dedicated to the veneration of a saint.

So I'm left with mixed feelings about Harn.  On the one hand it seems better suited for fantasy roleplaying than the Middle Ages.  On the other it lacks one of the core elements that make the Middle Ages interesting and the name recognition places like Northumbria or Gascony have.  I haven't abandoned my Occitania project, but it is already showing some holes that will need to be patched or that ship will have to be abandoned.  While a setting with a silver standard, petty barons, and robber knights might not be up everyone's alley, there are days when its exactly what I want.  Those days have been coming more frequently and consistently in the past few months.


  1. Harn remains my favorite fantasy setting to this day: for each and every reason you mentioned, including, in my case, the fact it doesn't have a single unified church.

    However, it would not be too hard to change that. the two most christian-like religions, Peoni and Larani, already have a relationship akin to that of the Catholic Church and it's Knightly Orders. If you make the Church of Peoni akin to the mainstream Catholic church then you can incorporate the faiths of Larani, Halea, Save-K'nor and Siem as seperate priestly orders within that single, unifying church.

    The dwarves and elves would have their own church devoted to Seim (similarly to smaller independent Christian sects such as the coptics and Armenian Christians).

    Sarajin could remains outside the main Church as the diety of the Ivinians.

    Ilvir and his rather disunited faith takes on the role of the surviving European Pagan communities.

    The Evil Gods continue to exist outside the Church. Their worshippers viewed in much the same light as "devil-worshipppers" would have been in Europe.

    Best of all, this gives you plenty of fodder for such things as Crusades (whether to bring the churches of other dieties into the CHURCH or to eradicate them entirely).

    Meldryn could even take on the role of the Byzantine Empire, by becoming a place with a related -but seperate- church dominated by the faith of Save-K'nor or Siem rather than by Larani and Peoni.

  2. Peoni Larani Halea Save-K'nor Siem Ivinian

    Man I hate fantasy names...

  3. Man I hate fantasy names...

    I'm right there with you. It's even more disconcerting because Harn is more or less medieval Britain with the serial numbers filed off. A Richard or an Edwaerd or even an Aella would have been nice.

  4. @ Dangerous Brian

    I understand the attraction, and I am thinking about making some notes on how I would treat religion in my Harn, but I'm not sure yet if I'd rater use Harn or just set the game in twelfth-century Europe.

  5. What holes is the Occitania project showing?

  6. What holes is the Occitania project showing?

    That might get its own post soon, or it may get mentioned in the posts where I flesh out Occitania more. We'll see.

  7. I like fantasy names, but not for the place the majority of the PCs hail from. I want their 'home' to be far more familiar. It's great if they end up adventuring somewhere more fantastic, even very early in the campaign, but I prefer their starting point to be something that feels more like something from our own history.

    A big advantage in this, I feel, is that it reinforces the strangeness of the adventuring locale. If everything is weird, nothing will feel weird.