This week, I’m going to focus on the Harpers, an organization that has been around since the original Forgotten Realms boxed set. The Harpers have also been the subject of a series of D&D novels and have been featured in many sourcebooks over the years.
Harper History in Faerun
The original entry had this to say about the Harpers:
The Harpers are a mysterious organization of high-level adventurers, in particular bards and rangers, which operates in the North. The exact aims of this group are unknown, as are their numbers and full identities, though there are several noted members.
The aims and activities of the Harpers remain mysterious, but they are known to work for the causes of good, and to oppose the Zhentarim and the more aggressive trading kingdoms (such as Amn) who cut trade-routes into wilderland areas, and fell trees and mine precious things with little regard for local nonhuman inhabitants. They also work to maintain peace between human kingdoms…and to thwart at every turn the burgeoning goblinkin races in the North.
The Harpers were originally founded as The Harpers at Twilight in 324 DR deep in the Elven Court woods, and the members included human, elf, and half-elf warriors, rangers, druids, thieves and mages. The Harpers founded the Heralds of Faerun in 992 DR to maintain records of lineages and rolls of blazonry as part of their goals of anchoring civilization by maintaining clear communication and having accurate record keeping. In 1116 DR, the Heralds break away from the Harpers and become their own organization.
For various reasons, the Harpers came into conflict with the Nation of Thay and so their operations expand from just focusing on the northern Sword Coast region, to encompass working in opposition to Thay’s many and varied nefarious plots.
During their history, the Harpers focused on working against those who wish to destroy or take control over the population of the northern Sword Coast. They found themselves working to eliminate the threat from Hellgate Keep, to stop the Cult of the Dragon from succeeding in their plans to create dracoliches, and regularly ran up against the Zhentarim.
For much of their history, members of the Harpers acted autonomously and with great leeway in their methods. In 1321 DR, the Harpers were reorganized and the organization became more regimented and hierarchical in nature.
During the Spellplague years, the Harpers essentially disbanded as their individual members were too caught up in facing down local threats and difficulties. Many Harpers died or disappeared during this time.
After the Spellplague, the Harpers of Luruar were founded to counter the threat of the reborn Netheril. This led to many other Harper cells becoming active, each having its own name (e.g. Harpers of Waterdeep, Harpers of Cormyr and the Dales, etc.).
With the return of Mystra, Storm Silverhand worked to revitalize the Harper organization in Cormyr. In 1487 DR, the Harpers once again worked against the Cult of the Dragon when that villainous group tried to bring the goddess Tiamat to the Material Plane. This led to the Harpers becoming an active organization across Faerun once more.
The Harpers in Published Sources
As mentioned, the Harpers appeared in the original Forgotten Realms boxed set. They have been a part of the Realms ever since. More information appeared in the sourcebooks FR1 – Waterdeep & The North, FR5 – The Savage Frontier, FR6 – Dreams of the Red Wizards, FR7 – Hall of Heroes, and FR13 – Anauroch.
The D&D 2nd edition sourcebook The Code of the Harpers by Ed Greenwood explored the organization in great detail. While many elements of the Forgotten Realms have changed over the years, and there are few of the individuals detailed in this book still alive during the 5E era, there is still much of value to found in this sourcebook.
If you want to run a game set near the 1368-1370 DR timeframe, then the sourcebook Cloak and Dagger is an amazing resource. This book details the situation during the Harper Schism, the resignation of Khelben Blackstaff from the Harpers, and other major events in the secret societies that are scattered across the Realms.
The Harpers were also the subject of their own series of novels set in the Forgotten Realms. The series includes 17 novels, beginning with The Parched Sea by Troy Denning and ending with Thornhold by Elaine Cunningham, with the 17th novel unpublished due to TSR being bought by Wizards of the Coast and the Harpers series being cancelled.
Using the Harpers in Your Campaign
The Harpers have the following main beliefs:
- One can never have too much information.
- Too much power leads to corruption.
- No one should be powerless.
Their goals are to “gather information throughout Faerun, discern the political dynamics within each region or realm, and promote fairness and equality by covert means. Act openly as a last resort. Thwart tyrants and any leader, government, or group that grows too powerful, and aid the weak, the poor, and the oppressed.”
The Harpers can be a great source of assistance for player characters who are of good alignment or who work towards similar goals as those of the organization. If the characters make contact with the Harpers and are on friendly terms (though not actual members), they may be able to trade information about local rulers or groups, or even gain more tangible help if the PCs are planning to do something that aligns with the goals of the Harpers.
Example Adventure: The PCs run afoul of the ruler of large town who bribes a group of bandits in the nearby forest to raid caravans and act as muscle for him so that he can oppress the citizens. Everyone is afraid of him, and the bandits prevent any of the townspeople (who are noncombatants) from leaving. As the PCs approach the town—on their travels to somewhere else—they are ambushed by the bandits (and either have all their money and equipment stolen, or they kill/drive off the bandits). Either way, when they reach the town, a local Harper agent identifies them as potential allies against the ruler and his thugs. The agent contacts the PCs and helps them with information that will let them recover their stolen equipment, or eliminate the bandit threat.
It’s possible that the PCs may find themselves on an opposing side against the Harpers in certain situations. The most likely is that the players are playing evil—or at least very selfish—characters. In this case, once they begin to make a name for themselves and perform some acts that go against the beliefs or goals of the Harpers, they may be targeted to be taken down a peg or two. Perhaps the Harpers see the PCs gaining temporal or magical power too quickly and decide to relieve them of some of that power. Or maybe the PCs have made alliance with an oppressive ruler or group (such as the Zhentarim), and the Harpers attempt to use the PCs to get to their ally.
Characters as Members
Of course, one or more of the PCs may want to join the Harper organization. In this case, the DM may want to implement the rules for factions from the Adventurer’s League program. The Harpers will occasionally give the PCs missions to complete, and their success on these missions will earn them renown within the organization, granting them benefits as they advance in rank. You can use the specific rewards from the AL program, or you can make your own list of benefits that are tailored to the Harpers and your specific PCs and their adventures.
This is the easiest option to use if you want the Harpers to be a source of adventures. However, it does constrain the PCs a bit, as they will need to operate within the bounds of what the Harpers find acceptable behavior, and may face sanctions (including being kicked out of the faction) if they continually cross the line.
The All-Harper Campaign
One option is to have all the player characters be Harpers from the very beginning. An easy way is to give all the PCs the Faction Agent background for free (thus giving each character two backgrounds). Alternately, the DM may just decide that the PCs gain the Safe Haven feature and the faction-specific equipment and not any of the other benefits of an extra background.
The Harpers are a great organization to use if you want your campaign to be focused on covert adventures, like spying and investigating. The Harpers don’t usually work out in the open, and they don’t march in and engaged in pitched battles with their enemies. Rather, they gather information, identify allies, and set up situations so that their preferred outcome is realized.
Running an espionage campaign set in the Forgotten Realms is a great way to freshen up a D&D game and give the players a chance to do something different than exploring another dungeon. Between Waterdeep and Calimport alone, there is enough going on to provide a nearly endless amount of adventure within an urban environment. As I mentioned last week, a James Bond—or more likely, a Mission:Impossible—game would be perfect with the PCs as members of the Harpers.
Using the Harpers in a Forgotten Realms D&D campaign provides a number of fresh options to keep the game interesting and different. Whether the Harpers are allies, opponents, or the “bosses” of the PCs, a DM can use the Harpers to provide opportunities to engage with espionage-style adventure possibilities.
Have you used the Harpers in your home campaigns? What role did the organization play and how did they interact with the PCs? Tell us about it in the comments.