Welcome to History Check. This will be an ongoing series of blogs where I’ll introduce you to some of the real life adventurers throughout history, and discuss how their story can serve as inspiration for your RPG as a character or NPC background, or even inspiration for an adventure or campaign. In each article, I’ll take a look at a new figure or event from history, then discuss how I might use it in a campaign. Finally, I’ll wrap up each article by presenting an idea for a character build based on the topic of the article. I’ve always loved history and found inspiration in it for fiction. Since I started playing tabletop RPGs I’ve frequently used historical events to inspire characters and adventures. My intention is to find figures from many time periods, cultures, and social classes to inspire you, though I will obviously be limited by available source material. I’ll also try to provide you with information about my sources in case you want to explore more. Now, without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to our first historical adventurer: Harald Hardrada.
Harald in History
The wind sighs across the rolling hills. In the distance you hear the crashing of waves in the fjord beyond the dark forest surrounding the tiny village of Stiklestad. A young man is bleeding and weeping over the body of his half-brother, Olaf. Only fifteen, Harald came here to make a king today, but it is not to be. Their outnumbered forces have been scattered by the loyalists to the tyrant Canute who sits on a throne that should rightly have been Olaf’s, and now – as Harald slowly realizes – rightfully belongs to him.
One of his thanes puts a hand on his shoulder, pulling urgently. Soldiers of the enemy are near, and if Harald is to survive, they must make for the ships. Weeping bitter tears, the young man allows himself to be pulled away and rushed to the ship. As he watches the dark shore recede into the mists, he swears to the old gods and the new that he will return to take what is his, and then turns his eyes to the east as the ship knifes through the choppy waters, to the far away lands where he will make his name.
Most kings do not make great RPG character inspiration – unless you happen to be playing a kingdom management game. Kings usually have armies of servants and minions to execute their bidding. Harald’s life is an exception to that rule. Exiled young, Harald literally became a wandering adventurer for hire, working as a mercenary and travelling throughout Russia and the Byzantine Empire before returning to take his throne. As King of Norway, Harald’s life would end on the battlefield during his failed invasion of England. His own failed invasion paved the way for the more successful and famous one by William of Normandy. For our purposes though, we will focus on Harald’s years in exile to find inspiration.
Our main source for Harald life is the Saga of King Harald by Snorri Sturlusson, an Icelandic poet and historian – and himself a worthy figure for a later article – who compiled many of the works and oral traditions of earlier Scandinavian artists, and to whom we owe much of what we know about the Viking Age and Norse myth. In the saga, Snorri even claims one of Harald’s followers as an ancestor.
A King in Exile
Harald was born around 1015 to a petty king in upland Norway. When he was 15, he joined the army of his half-brother Olaf in an attempt to seize back the throne of Norway from the Danish king Cnut the Great. Olaf was killed in the battle, and Harald was forced to flee into exile.
He fled to the court of Yaroslav the Wise, Grand Prince of the Kievan Rus. While serving as a mercenary, Harald seems to have fallen for Yaroslav’s daughter Elisiv. In chapter 15 of Harald’s saga, Sturlusson even preserves a few stanzas of Harald’s pining love poetry about Elisiv and her refusal to accept his love suit.
“Past Sicily’s wide plains we flew,
A dauntless, never-wearied crew;
Our viking steed rushed through the sea,
As viking-like fast, fast sailed we.
Never, I think, along this shore
Did Norsemen ever sail before;
Yet to the Russian queen, I fear,
My gold-adorned, I am not dear.”
After a few years in Russia, Harald and his followers traveled south to Constantinople. There, Harald apparently hid his royal identity and entered the service of the Byzantine Empress Zoe, rising to become a commander in the elite Varangian Guard. As a mercenary, Harald battled Arab pirates in the Aegean and Mediterranean and on Sicily, and led men against the Buyid dynasty in modern day Iraq and Iran.
During the course of his military career, Harald showed a knack for deception in warfare. On one occasion when he became severely ill during a siege, Harald ordered his men to claim he had died, and to get permission from the city to bury him in the churchyard. When the well-meaning priests agreened, Harald’s men processed into the city bearing an empty coffin. Once they were inside, they dropped the coffin and seized the gates and pillaged the castle. On another, when lots were being drawn to see which mercenary company got first pick of campsites, Harald used sleight of hand to cheat the process and ensure his lot was drawn.
Harald finally fell afoul of Byzantine politics, though how exactly is not agreed on by the sources. Luckily for him, he had become fabulously wealthy in the course of pillaging towns for the Byzantine Empress. So he decided to quit while he was ahead and go home. He returned to the Rus lands and married Elisiv, who seems to have softened to his suit now that he had made a name for himself. With his vast wealth, he bought enough support to reclaim the throne of Norway, and in 1066 he launched his fateful invasion of England and ended his adventures at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.
Harald on the Tabletop
So how does Harald fit into your campaign. Well if you’re building a character, the King in Exile archetype is rife with historical and fictional precedent. It also provides a long term goal for your character off the bat. If your GM is willing, the reclaiming of your throne might become a vital part of the campaign. If the GM has other plans, then perhaps these adventures are stepping stones to raise enough money for your return. The return to your kingdom might occur after your character has ‘retired’ from adventuring.
As an NPC Harald is quite versatile as well. You might design a campaign around your players being a mercenary company, with one of the players acting in Harald’s role and the goal of the entire team being a triumphant return to their homeland. He could also serve as an adversary, attacking the players home in search for treasure.
There are several approaches to Harald, so let’s consider what we know about him. For this, I’ll be using 5th Edition D&D terminology, but these concepts are universal enough that translation to other systems should not be too hard.
- Harald is a Scandinavian warrior king from the end of the Viking Age. That means we’re going to need some martial proficiencies.
- He has a dishonest streak and is not above cheating to win.
- He’s a definite glory-hound.
- Some parts of the saga present him as a lovestruck poet.
- He’s a talented commander.
So how do we build this? I’ll present you a few options.
Obviously Harald was a human, but we’re playing an RPG so what kind of RPG species fits Harald best? One option would be to make Herald a Half-elf. Harald is the half-brother of King Olaf. Olaf could be an elf king seeking to reclaim his lands from invaders, but his mother had once taken a human lover, the union of which produced Harald.
Another approach would be to make Harald a Dragonborn, playing into the martial spirit of that people. Like the half-elves, their bonus to charisma makes a great deal of sense with our warrior king.
What class is Harald? Well, he’s a tactical warrior, so a Fighter with the Battlemaster or Purple Dragon Knight archetype makes sense. A Paladin with the Oath of Glory would also work well. Harald was definitely a front line leader, so the Paladin’s auras serve to represent his inspiring presence. You could even make an argument for building him as a Mastermind Rogue to play up his preference for stratagem over the direct approach.
My pick for class, however, is bard. If we take the College of Valor we get all the martial proficiencies a Norse warrior of the time would have. We can represent Bardic Inspiration as battlefield commands, and use the Bard’s roguish side to play with Harald’s oblique approach to conflict. Harald was forced to be self-reliant, and the Bard is a skill monkey without compare. And of course what other class is better suited for writing poetry to thaw the heart of a Russian princess? Spells like Heroism will further reinforce Harald’s bolstering effect on his allies.
So if I’m building Harald I’m making him a dragonborn Bard of the College of Valor, focusing his skill proficiencies into Charisma-based ones and working with a shield and a longsword, axe, or spear. For a background I’d used “Far Traveler” from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide as the flavor and the “All Eyes On You” feature play well into my exiled king seeking to earn enough fame, glory, and gold to return home and claim what is his! Useful feats for this build would be Inspiring Leader for that pre-battle speech that is a classic of all epic tales, and Diplomat and Silver-tongued to play up Harald’s ability to charm and deceive his way through the bad starting hand he was dealt in life.
Harald in Eberron
Considering our love of Eberron here, I cannot leave Harald without proposing a place for him in my favorite setting. Happily, this is not at all hard. We don’t even need to change the names. Harald and Olaf are the sons of Sigurd, the Prince of the Ice Dragon fleet in the Lhazaar Principalities . When the boys were young, Sigurd was killed in battle with a rival captain, perhaps the sinister Bloodsails. A few years ago, Harald and Olaf made a bid to reclaim their father’s Principality, but were ambushed by the Bloodsails before ever making landfall. Harald watched horror as Olaf’s ship went beneath the waves. A few months later he found himself disembarking in Stormreach, having evaded Bloodsail corsairs on the long voyage around Khorvaire. He’ll be hunted by the Bloodsails because they know as long as he lives, there is a claim to the Ice Dragon fleet. Harald will need allies, money, and fame before he can return to take what is his.
Until next time…
I hope you enjoyed this initial foray into history’s many famed adventures and that you’ll find this and future write-up’s useful. I’ll see you next week when I’ll bring you another History Check.