How To Be: Harrowhark Nonagesimus (In 4e D&D)

In How To Be we’re going to look at a variety of characters from Not D&D and conceptualise how you might go about making a version of that character in the form of D&D that matters on this blog, D&D 4th Edition. Our guidelines are as follows:

  • This is going to be a brief rundown of ways to make a character that ‘feels’ like the source character
  • This isn’t meant to be comprehensive or authoritative but as a creative exercise
  • While not every character can work immediately out of the box, the aim is to make sure they have a character ‘feel’ as soon as possible
  • The character has to have the ‘feeling’ of the character by at least midway through Heroic

When building characters in 4th Edition it’s worth remembering that there are a lot of different ways to do the same basic thing. This isn’t going to be comprehensive, or even particularly fleshed out, and instead give you some places to start when you want to make something.

Another thing to remember is that 4e characters tend to be more about collected interactions of groups of things – it’s not that you get a build with specific rules about what you have to take, and when, and why, like you’re lockpicking your way through a design in the hopes of getting an overlap eventually. Character building is about packages, not programs, and we’ll talk about some packages and reference them going forwards.

I’ve had this one in the drawer since like April, I didn’t realise just how much I was going to enjoy digging into it two books later.

Oh and hey, sorta-but-not-really spoiler warning? I don’t mean to spoil the books to examine the character, but there is some inextricable hairs that come off with this particular bandaid. Particularly, if you know nothing about the books, there’s a vision of ‘proper’ fandom that says I shouldn’t do anything that gives you any impression of anything in the story, that I should somehow make a hermetically sealable piece of media because someone hypothetically should know nothing about the book when they first engage with it. This is silly. Telling you that, for example, in Harrow The Ninth we get to see that Harrow is a really good necromancer, that shouldn’t be considered as a violence against engagement with the books.

I liked the books, by the way, I think you should check ’em out.

First thing we do for these articles is to consider the character we’re trying to replicate, and to look at them in terms of what they can or can’t do, how they do things, and how we can capture that feeling. In the game system I’m using here – 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons – there’s a few things that can make Harrow a little challenging to interpret.

You’re Not The Nonagesimus

Harrow’s level of power is going to be hard to replicate in any team story game. The character’s powerful, in a way that holds a whole front of a battlefield on her own. Basically, where 4e D&D wants players to work together in a reasonably small space to engage with combat challenges and more widely apart for non-combat challenges, it’s not the same thing as ‘I’m going to this opposite end of the fortress to you.’

Instead I want to talk about significance and communication.

First up, significance! You don’t need to make a character whose apparent, tangible power, is unfairly overbalanced compared to anyone else. You don’t need some excuse that makes your character ‘more powerful’ and does things out of type to everyone else in the group. Don’t approach things where the story and the cinema in your head has to match a sense of prestige in the actual play experience. So set aside ‘Harrow can do big things, so I should be able to do big things.’ Big is relative. Harrow’s conflicts are on the scale of an empire, and she fights truly dreadful things that are big and scary when she fights them, even if they only ever seem to usually get to be ‘the size of a dude’ or a big monster.

Next up, communication! In the context of her own story, Harrow has two major narrative threads and in each one, despite being around people who can help her, she doesn’t talk to very well and therefore, spends a lot of time on her own rather than working with friends. This is because in the context of her story, she is dealing with matters of life and death and the movements of gods through eternity, and she doesn’t know who to trust. Do not take this vibe as a demand to be an annoying player. Talk to the other players. You don’t even need to talk in character, talk to them out of character about how to cajole or direct or get information out of you, work out the best ways for the narrative to work that feels right. Is your Harrow a super smart one? Is she a bumbling goofaloopus who thinks she’s super smart? In the former case, she might insightfully deploy information to the party, working out the best way to do it. If she’s a dummy, you can have her slip up or let information out that she’s not realising they notice, because why would she notice that they’re not stupid. Basically, work with other players.

Basically, you’re not going to be bringing Harrowhark. You’re going to be bringing your version of a Harrowhark. You’re going to be doing a reimagine, a spin, a different vibe. In a D&D style game, that might mean this grumpy little rat baby wandering around behind the group, scrutinising things then at the last minute producing a deeply insightful message that everyone else is waiting for. It might mean you’re a smug necromancer who’s so goth she shits bats and when the time comes for battle to start you make bone spines appear out of the ground and impale a dozen enemies in one shot. The game has a different demand, and the important thing is not perfectly replicating the greatest necromancer in history, but rather, capturing the vibe.

Okay, what is the vibe then?

Considering Harrow

Harrow’s a necromancer, that’s a given. We don’t see her do a lot of what you might think of as autonomous necromancy. No summoning a skeleton and sending it to do a thing, like a programmed entity. It’s not that we have proof she can’t do it, but we know she can turn little bits of bone into big bits of bone, but don’t put much stock in bones as a construct versus bones as a tool.

We know she’s not strong. Not totally lacking in strength, but not strong. Generally there’s implication that necromancers like her are wussbags, so there’s a certain measure of expected sickliness going on. Still, despite this, we know that she makes herself armour of bone, and even a sort of powered armour regimen that lets her use bone supports to carry heavy objects! Bone shields come up too.

While she’s definitely a good necromancer, the stuff that makes you a good necromancer can be compared to the stuff that makes you a good theoretical physicist. She’s capable of engaging with high level theoretical applications of necromantic theory, ways to bind and attach souls and wards, all sorts of things that you don’t need to understand unless you’re also a necromancer trying to un-necromance the stuff she’s necromancing.

We know that Harrowhark can carry and use a sword — she does, in fact! Not well most of the time, but it’s an option.


Alright, so how do we construct someone who has the makings of all these parts? Well, this is actually pleasantly open compared to some other versions we’ve looked at for exploration in 4th ed D&D.

First of all, we can rule out that she’s probably not martial, primal or psionic as her power source. Martial characters are nonmagical and tend to be about exerting very material forces on people. Primal is usually nature magic, and, without going into spoilers, while you can make a long reach that that’s applicable it kinda isn’t, given the who and what is involved. There’s a definite mental magicality to her; she cares about concentrating, devising formulas, plans and projections – basically, it’s very easy to imagine that Harrow’s power needs to be intelligent. Force of will, maybe? But she’s definitely smart as much as we can measure that.

She’s definitely going to need or want that standby of Ritual Caster that lets any given character pick up magical rituals and rites to do things like create keys out of bone. It’s even got a currency for its execution, ‘ritual components,’ which uh, in her case? They’re probably all bones.

Armour is wide open, and Harrow is vague enough that we could have her as a lilting dress-wearing robey wizard, or as a crunchy tank with the right excuses, though I bet she whines about it a lot.

Build Basics

Now, if there’s anything that’s going to matter to every possible ways to build this character, this is where we get it out. In this case, Ritual Caster is our first place to start. No matter how you spoon this soup, Harrowhark needs access to a wide variety of magical abilities across a host of different disciplines that don’t matter for combat. Rituals are a great way to get those — and you want to dedicate some money as you level to pick up some rituals that are very her.

Some rituals to grab that I think match what people would expect a Harrow-like being able to do:

  • Gentle Repose
  • Hold Portal
  • Silence
  • Tenser’s Floating Disk (MAKE IT OUT OF BONE)
  • Undead Ward
  • Speak With Dead

There’s others – but really, just look at the rituals for anything you like and pick up the ones that make sense ‘made out of chunks of bone.’ Play with it, and I recommend being as unsettling as possible. If I ever do this in my own games, I am absolutely playing someone whose phantom steed is a horse made out of human bones and the hooves are enormous molars pressed flat-down onto the earth.

Anyway, where was I, oh yes!

The Artificer: A Heart Is A Pump

The Artificer starts with Ritual Caster, good. The Artificer gets to summon things, which you can theme as constructs made out of bone, good. The Artificer can use an implement instead of a weapon, even better! The Artificer is intelligence-based, but also can wear heavier armour, perfect!

The Artificer has a problem in that it’s single best power they get at level 1 and it never stops being good. It’s called Magic Weapon and you need to face it that as an Artificer, you’re always going to have to treat your powers in terms of ‘what can I weave around a Magic Weapon?’

The Cleric: Faith In Jod

Another armoured class, the Cleric has access to a lot of necrotic powers. They’re even implement based, so you don’t have to spend time lugging around a big sword you can’t use, you wimp. But the other thing is, these implement powers are touch range, which is very in keeping with Harrow being able to throw fingernails at people to turn them into spires of bone, or having to touch someone to make the bones in their body do extremely hecked up stuff.

You can also heal people, which is weird, but you know, whatever hobby you’ve got. Putting a body together can’t be that much harder than taking it apart. Also, starts with Ritual Caster.

The Wizard: Perhaps Most Obviously

Almost any given piece of Wizard nonsense can be done here. The Wizard is one of the weird 4e class options in that because you don’t have a very specific purpose beyond ‘being wizardy’ they let the Wizard do a lot of stuff. My particular fave here is the starting power rotting doom which turns off enemy healing, and is great for regenerators, restless dead which is a pile of bones grabbing at people who get close, and dread presence which also is not only a big area blast of nasty bone spear junk, it also ignores necrotic resistance.

Oh, and Wizards get access to the level 9 power Animate Dead which lets you resurrect one of the defeated foes and use their body like a puppeteer, which y’know. Not inappropriate for Harrowhark!

Junk Drawer

The Swordmage sits in the junk drawer. Not because it’s inherently worse than the others but because it flies in the face of the idea of a low-strength build. Similarly, the Paladin could be a great option if you want to be a center-stage defender type Harrow, using your implement, and maybe even picking up the Blackguard powers that let you throw Necrotic damage at people. Both of these builds need to pick up Ritual Caster, though so it’s a little less free than just starting with it.

Harrowhark is a character who we have seen – literally – do hilariously little in her story compared to what a typical D&D character would do. This is just another way to add her into another AU, to find your own version of the character and give her a chance to have adventures and fun and maybe be a bit less abused by literally every part of reality.

And isn’t that fun?

1 Comment

  1. @updates and now, we cheat cracks open Mutants & Masterminds oof, Summon is gonna get pricy.

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