Friday, 29 June 2012

Knights of the North - Adventure One

The Blade of Lathander
 A 1st-Level Adventure for the Knights of the North Campaign





Location: Valhingen Graveyard

After arriving in Phlan, the PCs seek out information on the location of their parents' remains. This leads to Valhingen Graveyard where the party frees the doomguide of Kelemvor they need to speak to from the clutches of a mad Cyricist and his graverobber followers.

Location: Ruins of Twilight Keep

They follow the doomguide's advice to the Twilight Marsh where they find an abandoned fort once belonging to the Zhents and the site of their parents' last stand. It is now the lair of a Cult of the Dragon cell with their two black dragon wyrmlings.

After defeating the Cultists, the party find their parents' burial site only to be confronted by a vindictive Zhentarim spirit. Its defeat allows one or more of the parents' ghosts to speak to the PCs. It seems there is a new quest: to find and recover the legendary Blade of Lathander from deeper in the swamp.

Location: Lost Temple of Bhaal

The PCs ultimately find a black dragon's lair - the mother of the two wyrmling they presumably slew - which is a cave-like opening in a large mound. The Blade of Lathander is part of the dragon's hoard. Beneath the mound is an ancient temple - more than 1,000 years old - devoted to the dead power, Bhaal.

The temple is now seeing some activity. There are lizardfolk guards and a presiding cleric - a fallen doomguide of Kelemvor who now thinks he is a cleric of Bhaal but is actually a cleric of Cyric. His name is Varak Redshield. Perhaps even more dangerous is the hezrou that the cleric commands - its name is Toadface and the lizardfolk and bullywugs of the Twilight Marsh see it as some sort of avatar of the powers that they respectively reverence. Zhent emissaries are also present.

While lizardfolk are guarding the temple and serving the cleric (and Toadface), there are also lizardfolk prisoners. If rescued they open up an optional expansion of this adventure.

Location: The Tomb of the Lizard King

The lizardfolk prisoners solicit the party's aid in freeing their fellows from their task of uncovering the lost Tomb of the Lizard King. It seems that if the tomb is uncovered and the lizard king freed a great evil will be unleashed within the Twilight Marsh. If the PCs act with haste they can ensure that the tomb is not opened otherwise they will need to enter and put an end to the threat posed by the lizard king, Sakatha, who is now a lizard king vampire.

(Toadface wants the lizard king to be awakened.)


Third level has been reached (possibly 4th but I will play with the XP awards and try and restrict it to 3rd) and the party has completed the major quest to recover the Blade of Lathander.

They have clashed with the Cult of the Dragon and with Zhents and are aware that the Zhents are becoming more active again in the Moonsea. A cleric of Kelemvor may have been slain as a cleric of Bhaal/Cyric or rescued from evil. Lizardfolk have been freed from a very evil influence (they may also wish for a new treaty with Phlan which the Lord Protector will welcome).

And the party has slain their first dragon (the two wyrmlings don't count).

All in all, I think if that is the way the adventure works out then it's a pretty good start to the new campaign.

Monster List

Named NPCs and Monsters
  • Dalmanu: solo controller 1 (male human wizard)
  • Graverobber 1: lurker 1
  • Graverobber 2: skirmisher 1
  • Thelzar, Zhentarim spirit: solo controller 2 (former male human wizard)
  • Toadface: elite or solo brute 4 (hezrou fiend of blasphemy)
  • Varak Redshield: elite soldier 3 (male human cleric of Cyric)
  • Zzygarn: solo lurker 3 (female young black dragon) - can return as a dracolich

Generic NPCs and Monsters

  • black dragon wyrmling
  • Black Watch city guard, minion soldier 3
  • Black Watch guard captain, soldier [leader] 3
  • bullywug
  • Cult of the Dragon sellsword, minion soldier 2
  • Cult of the Dragon wizard's apprentice, minion artillery 2
  • darktentacles, elite controller 4 (check Neverwinter Campaign Setting)
  • lizardfolk, lurker 2
  • lizard king, brute 8 = elite brute 3 or 4
  • lizard king vampire, elite brute 8 = solo brute 3 or 4
  • Zhent sword fodder (minion soldier 1)
Brainstorming the Adventure

While this is written up like a railroad, the PCs will be free to make other choices. Just as a line is the shortest distance between two points, I want to keep this synopsis as brief as possible.

This is also a first cut. Right now it really doesn't have enough encounters. It also needs a few more encounters that are actually interesting.

I should also include a conflict between the unaligned lizardfolk and the chaotic evil bullywugs. A conflict like this - with the potential for the party to take sides - also offers the opportunity to gain allies, something I am normally hopeless at including in my games.

  • The PCs arrive in Phlan and are surprised by the paranoia and heightened alertness of the Black Watch.
  • Need information on the site of their parents' last stand. Parents were never given a proper burial.
  • Library is a smouldering ruin. Librarians helpfully point them in the direction of the doomguide of Kelemvor in Valhingen Graveyard.
  • Doomguide is not there. Kidnapped by grave robbers working for a strifeleader of Cyric who is also a Zhent agent (some freelance stirring up of strife). Report to Black Watch - hired to find him. Black Watch is busy watching for Zhents.
  • Explore graveyard. Find graverobbers (skirmisher or lurker 1; level >1 encounter). Use Eye on the Realms article for names and picture.
  • Evil tomb complex - the tomb of a traitor? Cadorna? Maybe use ideas from the low-level delve in Open Grave. Doomguide to be sacrificed to Cyric. This is a three-encounter Delve: skeleton guards (minion soldier 1; level 1 encounter), zombies (brute 1; level 1 encounter), strifeleader or eye of fear and flame/flameharrow (solo controller 1; level 1 encounter). Recover some old, rare books that can be given to Mantor's Library for when they rebuild (worth a minor quest reward => add to graverobber encounter to give level 1 encounter XP).
  • Doomguide is able to use Kelemvorite magic to locate the remains of the PCs' parents.
  • Doomguide provides some consumable items.
From Phlan to the Twilight Marsh

The route is the along the Phlan path across the Trank River before turning south into the Twilight Marsh.
  • (Phlan Path) Red Claw goblin bandits (skirmisher 1 and minion skirmisher 1) with a hobgoblin commander (soldier [leader] 2).
  • (Phlan Path) Knight of the Black Gauntlet patrol (all soldiers).
  • (Bridge across the Trank River) Lizardfolk (lurker 2).
  • (Twilight Marsh) Darktentacles (elite controller [?] 4).
  • (Twilight Marsh) Cult of the Dragon mercenaries led by a mage.

The Twilight Keep

This uses the map of the Moathouse from Village of Hommlet, either the 1E or 4E version.
  • Giant frogs. It wouldn't be the moathouse without giant frogs.
  • Zhent patrol spying on the Cultists in Twilight Keep. At least one will attempt to escape.
  • Basic encounters: Cultist mercenary (soldier 1; sellsword - minion soldier 1), Cultist mage (artillery 1; apprentice mage - minion artillery 1), Cultist scout (skirmisher 1). NPCs: cleric of Beshaba (elite soldier or controller 2), swordcaptain (elite soldier 2), wizard wearer of the purple (elite controller 2; wears ring of dragons and has a lesser tome of the dragon). Combine into two level 1 encounters, one level 2 encounter and one level 3 encounter.
  • Two wyrmling black dragons (elite lurker 2 or 3).
  • The PCs should be 2nd-level before they enter the dungeon level.
  • Ghast NPC (elite something 4) - use the named ghast from Dungeon 53 - Steelheart for inspiration.
  • Zhentarim spirit (solo controller 2).
  • Major quest: bury their parents. Actually, they are buried but there are stones there that can be used for a more appropriate memorial.
  • A ghost of one of their parents directs them to find Zzygarn's lair in order to recover the Blade of Lathander.
Zzygarn's Mound

A skill challenge might be in order at this point.
  • Lizardfolk can be parleyed with so that they will point the way to the dragon's lair (are there any low-level divination rituals the PCs could use?);
  • Zzygarn (solo lurker 3) has her lair in a great mound (use 1E's Tomb of the Lizard King for inspiration) that may be the tomb of an ancient lizardfolk, orc or human king from before the fall of Northkeep (treat as a three-encounter delve and include at least one trap as part of the three encounters). The encounter with the dragon will provide the PCs with enough XP to reach 3rd-level.
Return to Phlan
  • Zhent ambush (level 3 encounter) with a demand for the ring of dragons. This encounter should involve a lot of minions (including archers that are minion artillery so that they are launching a cavalcade of ranged attacks) so that the PCs when they first see the map and the miniatures feel like it's a serious ambush. Of course, at this point they're 3rd-level so it's time for them to show what badasses they've become!
The next adventure begins when they reach Phlan and deals with Zhent infiltration of the city via a portal beneath a haunted former tavern (the Red Spyglass) and leads to Zhent pirates and slavers  (although the party may first deal with a Tyranthraxus-possessed cleric of Bane who is planning to betray his city). The Blade of Lathander will be a key BBEG magnet. Maybe I will call it Yellow Sword & Yellow Sails or just Yellow Sails. It will be followed by Bane's Eye then The Stonecrown(ed?) King and concluding with Ruins of the Raven.

Further Adventures in the Twilight Marsh

I've been rather enamoured with the idea of running an adventure in a swamp since I first read the Mere of Dead Men series in Dungeon magazine the late 1990s. However, to the best of my knowledge, I have never actually run swamp or marsh adventures but I would like to change that.

Source Material

These ideas draw inspiration from Dungeon 71's Dreadful Vestiges - this is from the Mere of Dead Men series, arguably the first adventure path to appear in Dungeon magazine - as well as  1E's U2 Danger at Dunwater and I1 Tomb of the Lizard King, Swamp Stomp from Dungeon 93 and Fiend's Embrace from Dungeon 121. I may also use elements from The Muster of Morach Tor from Dungeon 144.

Introduction & Background
The old saying is that a picture says a thousand words. This picture from the Dreadful Vestiges adventure - of a fallen Helmite cleric, Varak Redshield, summoning a hezrou - really illustrates the root of the problem in the Twilight Marsh.

Varak Redshield is an adventuring cleric, or doomguide, of Kelemvor. After travelling to Phlan he learnt more of the history of humanity in the Moonsea North including the rise of the Dark Three - Bane, Bhaal and Myrkul - and the existence of an early temple "of death" in the area now covered by the Twilight Marsh.

Believing that this was a temple of Myrkul, Kelemvor's predecessor (forgetting Cyric's interregnum), Redshield travelled into the Twilight Marsh to try and learn more about the foundations of his own beliefs.

While it was indeed a temple "of death", this was a temple of Bhaal rather than Myrkul. A most unholy place, it has attracted the attention of one or more revilers, incorporeal undead creatures (cf the Dreadful Vestiges adventure) that are now under Cyric's sway. One of the revilers corrupted Redshield and now he thinks he is a cleric of Bhaal although, in fact, it is Cyric whom he serves. (Besides the revilers, in something inspired both by a Fourthcore adventure and also the original Caverns of Thracia, a dying character that revives attracts the attention of a minor aspect of Bhaal. I am thinking of the flying skull I once statted up in 3.5E which wept tears of blood that caused what would now be ongoing damage. However, I am also thinking it needs to be a minion and insubtantial [being a minion this basically means that, if it takes damage and thus would be destroyed, it is instead able to remain on 1 hit point with a successful saving throw].)

The revilers have been whispering to him about the need to find an awaken the lizard king to unite the lizardfolk tribes of the Twilight Marsh so that they can bring death to the surrounding lands in Bhaal's name. The Tomb of the Lizard King is located at the bottom of a swampy lake. Redshield uses magic whispered to him by the revilers to summon a hezrou to cow the lizardfolk into obeying him and forces them build a dam around the tomb. Once the dam walls are finished, the water will be pumped out allowing easy access to the tomb.

(The lizardfolk of the Twilight Marsh typically live in large lodges similar to those built by beavers so this is something they possess the expertise to accomplish.)

If Redshield succeeds, the lizard king will be awakened and all the lizardfolk of the Twilight Marsh will be brought under his sway... with Redshield and his revilers controlling the lizard king. (At this stage, the lizard king will be a vampire in a shameless rip-off - or flattering homage - to the original I1 Tomb of the Lizard King.)

Complicating matters further, the temple of death that is now Redshield's lair is also the home of Zzygarn, the black dragon that the PCs will be seeking in order to recover the Blade of Lathander. (In a sense, this idea is also stolen from I1 Tomb of the Lizard King where the tomb had a guardian black dragon.) Added to that, Redshield is now receiving overtures from Zhent emissaries whose Cyricist leader was guided here by whispers from same mad deity - the same whispers that Redshield is hearing. For the Zhents, control of the lizardfolk provides them with a ready-made and expendable army. For the Cyricists, an unleashed army of bestial lizardfolk led by a lizard king vampire is the perfect way to bring chaos and strife to Phlan.

For the PCs, there is an opportunity to free Redshield from the evil influence of the revilers and Cyric. Essentially, Redshield is possessed by a reviler and the Blade of Lathander has the power to end that possession and destroy the possessing reviler even while Redshield remains possessed. This is also foreshadowing the power of the Blade of Lathander to drive out and harm Tyranthraxus should that possessing spirit make an appearance later in the campaign.

The Unopenable Doors

Drawing inspiration from 1E's WG5 Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure, there will be a party of Zhent mercenaries in the Twilight Marsh looking for the Unopenable Doors. They've found them but they are truly unopenable.

I want to make sure that the campaign has a few mysteries and this will be one of them. Of course, if I'm ever stuck with a need for a dungeon adventure later, I can make it this - the party will simply have to find the key.

The Fane of Kerzit has a nice ring to it....

Key Monsters & NPCs

Toadface the Hezrou

While most hezrous are utterly bereft of anything resembling subtlety, Toadface has learnt from its true master - Graz'zt - how to suppress its more bestial urges from time to time in order to accomplish greater evil.

Due to an alliance between the Dark Prince and the Prince of Lies, Toadface finds itself aiding Cyric and compelled to obey a cleric of Cyric, Varak Redshield, whom he originally corrupted.

Design Considerations

The name is a placeholder but I rather like it. It seems like a nickname that the Zhents would bestow on a summoned demon.

The 4E version of the hezrou is a 22nd-level brute. That's too high for this campaign - obviously - but, more importantly, my monster level philosophy is now very much about reducing them to the level equal to the number of hit dice the monster had in 1E, more or less.

In the case of the hezrou, or the type II demon as it was then, it should be a 9th-level brute to match its 9 hit dice in the 1E Monster Manual. The 1E version is quite boring: it's got cause fear, darkness 15' radius, detect invisible objects (a spell that never actually existed), a chance to gate another hezrou (but only a 20% chance) and telekinesis. None of those are signature abilities.

The 3.5E and Pathfinder versions include the fairly potent blasphemy as well as, inter alia,  chaos hammer and unholy blight. The Pathfinder version also has a stench aura which seems to be its signature ability (I think 3.5E also had this but I have the Pathfinder Bestiary open on my laptop right now). The 4E version is really boring: all it has is a noxious stench aura which now inflicts poison damage in an aura 2 (albeit only to enemies and only if they attack). Another 4E version from one of the HPE series adventures inflicts an attack roll penalty of -2 unless the hezrou is bloodied in which case an enemy is weakened while in the aura.

I particularly like the Pathfinder flavour text:

... The hezrou dwells in the vast Abyssal swamps, mires, and waterways, equally at home on land and in the water. The presence of a hezrou has an obvious effect on the nearby flora and water, causing plant life to twist and knurl and infusing water with a foul odour and brackish taste — signs much easier to spot on the Material Plane than the Abyss. Long exposure to this corruption can cause vile transformations and hideous deformities. Often, entire backwater communities of deformed mutants owe their twisted countenances not as much to ... poor breeding as they do to a hezrou’s proximity....
Putting this all together, I think these are the points to include in my version of the hezrou:
  • it will be a 9th-level brute;
  • a 9th-level brute is worth 400 XP which means I can also stat this up as a 4th-level elite brute which is also worth 400 XP;
  • the noxious stench aura is retained and it causes poison damage;
  • the hezrou is immune to poison and disease, possesses necrotic resistance but is vulnerable to radiant damage;
  • as per the 4E version, its normal attack will be via its claws while it will have high damage  recharge attack via its bite; and
  • it possesses an encounter power that produces something akin to a blasphemy spell from 3.5E, only effects non-evil creatures and probably inflicts poison damage (possibly in combation with either psychic or necrotic - the former because I am thinking of the phrase, "psychic miasma"). 
As for Toadface, I will start with a 4th-level elite brute and then:
  • possibly make it a solo brute to reflect a new template I need to create based on the 3.5E prestige class, fiend of blasphemy, from that edition's Fiend Folio;
  • if Toadface is a fiend of blasphemy then perhaps I will not need the revilers - at the very least, they will not be responsible for Redshield's fall - because it will be Toadface's doing (the revilers will be 4th-level controllers or lurkers);
  • with a name like Toadface, I think of this hezrou as something of a cane toad in appearance so that also means poison sacs on its back (immediate interrupt of melee attacks particularly involving flanking - poison spray in retaliation that may even have a blinding effect);
  • Toadface is a thrall of Graz'zt and also an agent of Cyric so I may include some powers to reflect an unusual ability to deceive and manipulate (the themes for Graz'zt in Demonimicon are a good place to start); and
  • of course, I may also go with Toadface as the simple brute that the current version of the stat block I have created would indicate.

Questions I need to answer:
  • Is there a link between Toadface and Dagon or Umberlee? (And, if so, what does this mean for the possibility of 1. sahuagin appearing in the Twilight Marsh and 2. a redoing of the plot of 1E's Saltmarsh series?)
  • What do the bullywugs of the Twilight Marsh think of the appearance of Toadface in this place?
  • Does Toadface have any goals?
  • How was Toadface summoned and how is he controlled? A statue or idol? (I rather like the idea of an animated idol as a monster - call it the idol of blasphemy. What if this idol can also summon a stream of minions? I am thinking of swarms of Tiny hezrous....)
The Blade of Lathander

The Blade of Lathander is a flametongue sword (the type of sword will be determined once we determine which PC is going to be the heir of the last wielder). Despite doing fire damage, it is able to harm Tyranthraxus even while he is possessing a creature and notwithstanding his immunity to fire.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Fimbulwinter, The Return of Manshoon & The Knights of the North - More Brainstorming

Choosing a Name for the Campaign

I keep vacillating between two main ideas for my campaign set in the Moonsea North. The first idea is Fimbulwinter and involves, inter alia, the Warlock Knights of Vaasa as the principal protagonists. The second idea is The Return of Manshoon and involves, inter alia, a clone of Zhentarim, a beholder mage disguise as a Zhent wizard and the Zhents themselves as the primary protagonists.

Both campaigns are set in Phlan and both campaigns involve exploring the Moonsea North.

The other thing that the campaigns have in common is, of course, the backstory of the PCs: most, if not all, of the PCs are descendants of the last of the Knights of the North. For me, this is a really important point because it answers a lot the basic questions for a character in terms of why they are adventuring and why they are in Phlan.

In this case, they've essentially just become adults and have gathered in Phlan to pay their respects to their parents and (possibly) recover some of their parents' items. At least one of the parents will have a fairly significant treasure - the Blade of Lathander - that the PCs may wish to recover (and which rests in the hoard of black dragon in the Twilight Marsh) but, more importantly, their arrival in Phlan coincides with the return of Zhent activity in Phlan and the Moonsea North. Will they take up their parents' mantles to defend the Moonsea North or will they simply take the normal path of adventurers and seek power, glory and treasure.

Of course, I am hoping my players will choose the more "noble" path but I will also be prepared to run something more akin to a sandbox than an adventure path should they choose this style of adventure instead.

And I think that's why I keep switching between the ideas behind both Fimbulwinter and The Return of Manshoon: the reality is that I want to run both and interleave some sandbox elements as well. Strangely enough, while 4E is superb for actually allowing a DM to spend less time on stat blocks and more time on story, its rate of advancement is also a bit too fast so including two or three arcs potentially could have the PCs levelling faster than I would prefer (particularly as I want the campaign to cover the Heroic Tier only or maybe to extend to mid-Paragon Tier).

Back to the issue of choosing a name for the campaign. Both names I have been using so far - Fimbulwinter and The Return of Manshoon - seem better suited for use by the DM only. Especially in the case of The Return of Manshoon: the name itself gives away the identity of the one stirring up the Zhents from the very beginning of the campaign. So I am now thinking that it is better to simply call this campaign The Knights of the North. It reminds the players about the background of their characters, it doesn't disclose the full story of the campaign in the title and it means I can go with the plot ideas from Fimbulwinter, The Return of Manshoon, the even earlier War in the North (which has its own blog) or the unnamed sandbox that I keep thinking about.

Notwithstanding the direction that the campaign goes, I really want to include the following elements in approximate order of priority:
  • Zhents;
  • a clone of Manshoon (and his two bone devil bodyguard/assassins);
  • the Cult of the Dragon;
  • orcs;
  • ogres;
  • hill giants;
  • frost giants;
  • black, red and white dragons; and
  • Warlock Knights of Vaasa.
I do like the Warlock Knights a lot but I still have a lot of things I want to do with the Zhents before I am bored with them (ditto for the Cult of the Dragon). That said, the Warlock Knights make for a good background element and may very well become the principal threat in the Paragon Tier should the campaign go that far.

So, Knights of the North it is. 


For the Players

As this is a brainstorming post I will just outline what I need to prepare for the document that will ultimately become the Player's Guide:

  • all of the information about the Knights of the North in Champions of Valour, including the identities of the original Knights of the North, will be known to the players and their characters (this is the most comprehensive source of information about the Knights so I will probably copy it wholesale and simply update the phrasing to account for the passing of the last 100 or so years); and
  • the head of the Zhentarim is the mage, Manshoon, and he has recently been slain in spell-battle with the legendary sage, Elminster, and, as a result, the Zhentarim is reportedly in disarray, particularly in Westgate which is the site of its new headquarters, Stormkeep... except that Stormkeep itself has also been destroyed by the arcane conflagration unleashed by the battle between Manshoon and Elminster (and right there I have removed two Epic characters from my Realms!).
I will also include basic information about Phlan, the Moonsea North, the Great Grey Land of Thar and its orc and ogre tribes, and the current state of the Zhents, at least as much as is publicly known (they're little better than mercenaries now, weakened by the Netherese who destroyed both Zhentil Keep and the Citadel of the Raven, and with the destruction of Stormkeep their sole known remaining fortress is Darkhold in the Sunset Mountains west of Cormyr).

For the DM

- Manshoon & Citadel of the Raven -

The Zhents of Darkhold believe that they are ruled by a council of the most senior Black Cloaks, another name for their more powerful wizards, with the council, in turn, answering directly to Manshoon in Stormkeep via the head of the council, also known the Tolak, Lady Avrezt. But Avrezt and the senior Black Cloaks on the Darkhold are not what they seem: each is a beholder mage of some power.
Avrezt's real name is Ixathinon and it was the first of the beholder mages that comprise the council to learn how to assume human (or humanoid) form. Ixathinon was part of a beholder hive from the Desertmouth Mountains that was decimated by Netherese attacks. It led a small contingent through ancient drow portals it had learned to activate and ultimately found itself in the Gauth Grottoes outside of Sshamath.

The gauth they encountered were no match for true beholders and Ixathinon and the other beholders that accompanied it from the Desertmouth Mountains soon became the rulers of the Gauth Grottoes. In due course, the gauth and their beholder overlords entered into a truce with the drow of Sshamath ending centuries of emnity between the two Underdark powers but also allowing Ixathinon access to arcane magic and drow wizards willing to teach it how to master the Art.

Ixathinon and the others also learnt about the Zhents of Darkhold and how that organisation had clashed with the Netherese but also how the original Zhentarim from before the Spellplague gained much of its power from its alliances with beholders, an arrangement which also benefited the beholders greatly.

Disguised as a female human wizard using a polymorph ritual learnt from a drow wizard, Ixathinon assumed the identity of Avrezt and joined the Zhents of Darkhold rising rapidly through the ranks of the Black Cloaks. Ultimately, after an audience with Manshoon where the Lord of the Zhentarim immediately discerned its true identity, Ixathinon was appointed Tolak of Darkhold with a free hand (or eyestalk) to run the Zhents in the west as it saw fit. It seemed that Manshoon was ready for a new alliance with beholders as that was one of his original masterstrokes when he created the Black Network.

While Ixathinon, like all beholders, considers humans and other humanoids as merely cattle, there is an underlying respect for Manshoon due to the enormous power that he wields and the fact that he has a history of working with beholders. So, the fall of Manshoon in battle with Elminster created a problem for Ixathinon and the other beholders. While they could take advantage of this situation by stepping into the void caused by Manshoon's destruction to take over the entire Zhent organisation, they believe that it is better than it remains in the hands of a human as beholders cannot grasp all (or any!) of the subtleties of human culture and society. Furthermore, various wards in place in Darkhold can only be penetrated by Manshoon and there is still much arcana that the beholders wish to study.

One of the benefits of being Tolak of Darkhold is that Ixathinon has had access to some of the journals of Sememmon, the first lord of Darkhold. In there, Ixathinon learned that Manshoon had perfected the art of cloning himself and others and that he had clones "in reserve" for when he fell in battle. Of course, the difficult part was finding those clones as it was further rumoured that the most recent Manshoon had spent decades destroying all of the slumbering clones he could find.

The answer to this question, of course, lay with Lady Saharel of Spellgard. Fortunately, Zhent agents were already in place in the Fallen Lands and so they were directed to travel to Spellgard and ask Lady Saharel for the location of a clone of Manshoon. When the agent returned to Darkhold with the answer, she was naturally devoured by a hungry beholder as this was too important a secret for others to uncover. 

And the answer that Lady Saharel gave was that there was a clone within an extradimensional space accessible from the ruins of the Citadel of the Raven.

Coincidentally,  in its guise as Lady Avrezt, Ixathinon had despatched 100 or so Zhents to the ruined citadel a year or so ago. As the citadel had met its end at the hands of the Netherese much like Ixathinon's original hive, the beholder was interested in what the ruins might reveal about Netheril. Was the strike against the Citadel of the Raven simply about eliminating the Zhentarim as a threat or was there more to it?

It seems that the Citadel of the Raven was built over a series of earth nodes and the strange shape of the Citadel followed a series of ley lines. What this meant was that the entire site could be charged with arcane power if the right rituals were performed to make it virtually impregnable. Furthermore, if the power of the earth nodes could be tapped, rebuilding the ruined citadel could be accomplished simply using magic. 

For nearly a year now, Ixathinon has been dividing its time between Darkhold and the Ruins of the Raven, as they are sometimes called, as it studied the earth nodes and ley lines. Travel between the two locations was faciliated by a portal network that linked Darkhold to a chamber beneath the Ruins of Zhentil Keep and, from that chamber which hosts the master portal originally called Bane's Eye, then to the Ruins of the Raven.

A month or so ago, after extensive exploration and a further visit to Lady Saharel, Ixathinon was able to locate and access the extradimensional space holding the clone of Manshoon. It seemed that this clone was significantly less powerful than the Manshoon that had just been destroyed - it was created in 1355 DR, just after the Zhent "conquest" of the Citadel of the Raven (the event which led to the creation of the Knights of the North) - but that suited Ixathinon perfectly as it meant that the beholder had time to manipulate the clone until it grew powerful enough to fully assert its independence and its rule over the organisation one of its predecessors founded.

The new Manshoon was quite disoriented after its awakening. Not only did the time shift cause it great surprise but it - he - awakened expecting to find himself the uncontested master of the Citadel of the Raven only to find that it was nothing more than a series of ruins. And the Black Network itself seemed to have shrunk, something the true Lord of Zhentarim was determined to address as soon as possible.

The first thing that Manshoon needed upon awakening was knowledge. "Lady Avrezt" was able to teach him how magic had changed and it was only a matter of days before Manshoon was able to use the Art as he once had. But history was another matter. A beholder's perspective of events is different to a human's and so Zhents were despatched to Phlan to raid Mantor's Library. The entire contents were placed within a portable hole and the building itself destroyed.

The second thing that Manshoon needed was access to one or more of his caches of magic items. While he had some sequestered in the extradimensional space where he had been hidden, he soon travelled by wyvern to the Great Grey Land of Thar where he knew of a cache of magic created by the Masked Wizards of Citadel Ankhalus before they were destroyed by the newly formed Zhentarim.

(Third, but something that he keeps more or less to himself, Manshoon wants a black dragon as a mount. The flight to Thar on wyvern-back did not seem "appropriate" for the Lord of the Zhentarim. Perhaps a Cult of the Dragon cell could be found so that they might be "convinced" to part with their ring of dragons so that he might call a more appropriate mount to his side?)

Armed with both knowledge and power, Manshoon has begun to force the Zhents to refortify the ruins. That requires labourers. Dwarves are perfect for such a task but they also need the strength of ogres and giants for some of the heavier work. The Bane's Eye portal network means that Zhent slavers can operate in a variety of locations but return relatively quickly to the Citadel with those that the capture. Dwarves are being captured by the score while Lady Avrezt, in beholder form, has simply dominated ogre chieftains and forced them to part with ogre labourers as part of a "new alliance" with the Zhentarim... and to save the ogre tribe from being utterly destroyed by a wrathful beholder.

While this is happening, Manshoon has been active with his arcane research into the earth nodes and ley lines in the area. At all times he is accompanied by an elite bodyguard of Zhent soldiers supported by strifeleaders of Cyric and a quartet of absolutely loyal gauth.

Zhent emissaries have been despatched to the orcs and ogres of Thar with a view to forming alliances; similarly other agents of Manshoon range the Dragonspine Mountains seeking audiences with hill giant chieftains and frost giant jarls. Spies are in place in Phlan and Castle Vathar: Manshoon believes that Phlan has the potential to become the new Zhentil Keep - the centre of Zhent trade - while the Citadel of the Raven will return to its status of primary fortress with Castle Vathar playing an important supporting role (not least because it provides a base from which to strike at the dwarves of the Dragonspine Mountains).

All of this activity has not gone unnoticed by the other powers active in the Moonsea North. While the return of Manshoon is not yet rumoured (quite the opposite: his destruction is frequently mentioned and celebrated!), the destruction of Mantor's Library in Phlan and the disappearance of numerous dwarves have caused the cities of Phlan and Melvaunt to suspect that the Zhents are back in the Moonsea North.
- Preparations in Phlan -

The destruction of Stormkeep and Manshoon has been celebrated in Phlan for many weeks. It's not unusual for at least one loud toast a night to be offered in any of Phlan's inns and taverns to end of the Lord of the Zhentarim as the Zhents caused many problems for Phlan in its past. Of course, the connection of the ruling Caoran family to Zhentil Keep is not mentioned or even hinted at; after all, the Black Watch has spies in many places to root out disloyalty to the Lord Protector.

Black Watch patrols within the city have been doubled since the destruction of Mantor's Library. One of the Zhents was killed during the raid by the fire the Zhents started to cover-up their theft of all of the library's books and, while he carried nothing to identify him as a Zhent, a subsequent post-mortem interrogation by a Banite from the Lyceum of the Black Lord using a speak with dead ritual revealed that this was a Zhent plot. 

The Knights of the Gauntlet have also increased their patrols in the vicinity of Phlan and Castle Vathar has also brought its soldiers into a state of heightened vigilance. The Lord Protector has become more paranoid and has begun thinking that every meal or drink placed before him is poisoned. 

This is the Phlan that the PCs have arrived in. A trade city that is starting to close up and become more insular because it feels threatened by the return of the Zhents, something the city thought was simply part of its past.

Important Locations
The Ruins of the Raven

I will begin the list of important locations with the very last site that will be explored. The end of the campaign - or, at the very least, the end of the Heroic Tier - involves the party fighting Manshoon and his bodyguard/assassin bone devils in the ruined Citadel of the Raven. That is, of course, after fighting their way through various Zhent mooks as well as the beholder mage, Ixathinon.

(I am thinking that Ixathinon will start the battle as a human wizard - its "Lady Avrezt" guise - and will only assume beholder form when bloodied. Of course, that could change as I really want to use a beholder in 4E, especially since it was updated in the excellent Monster Vault.)

Ideally, I would like to include the earth nodes and the ley lines in the battle but I will need to think this through some more. Of course, it will take months - if not a year or more - to reach this point in real life so I have plenty of time to prepare.

The Moathouse & The Twilight Marsh

In some ways, this is the most important location which is why it is being mentioned immediately after the Ruins of the Raven.

The reason for its importance is that this is the site of the first adventure. I need this adventure to really set the scene for the rest of the campaign by hooking the PCs into the overall story. That means I need this adventure to make the PCs - and the players! - absolutely hate the Zhents so that they will willingly take up the mantle of the Knights of the North and commit themselves to driving them out of the Moonsea North, just as their parents did a generation ago.

It also needs to include an encounter with a dragon - a black dragon, to be specific - so that it provides the quintissential D&D experience. And to make that the quintissential Forgotten Realms experience, it's going to include Zhents and the Cult of the Dragon as well.

And the Cult of the Dragon mage should have a ring of dragons, the same ring of dragons that Manshoon wants. That might also explain the Zhent presence in the Twilight Marsh: they're on the trail of the Cult of the Dragon so that they can obtain a ring of dragons for Manshoon.

The Giant's Cairn

The Giant's Cairn is between Phlan and Zhentil Keep. In a valley between some low hills is the well-hidden tomb of a stone giant sorcerer who was an expert in rune magic and primordials. The stone giant ultimately became a lich before his phylactery was captured and he was imprisoned in a rune-warded tomb. Much of his power resided in a crown of stone - the Stonecrown - which allowed him to dominate creatures with the earth keyword, including hill giants and stone giants. 

Manshoon would love to recover the Stonecrown as it would allow him to easily marshal an army of hill giants from the Dragonspine Mountains to serve as the vanguard of the army he wishes to raise to allow the new Zhentarim to dominate the Moonsea North. Orcs and ogres have their place but an army of hill giants would be truly formidable.

The resulting adventure could be approached either of two ways. The PCs could become unwitting pawns of Manshoon as he uses them to open the tomb and neutralise its wards and traps or the PCs could discover that the Zhents are exploring the tomb and race them to recover the Stonecrown.

If I run with this adventure, I can see it becoming something like a cross between Tomb of Horrors and Orcs of Stonefang Pass. The final encounter should be with the awakened stone giant sorcerer lich - the Dodkong. 

(Alternatively, the Dodkong's prison-tomb was constructed by a coalition of dwarf, goliath and stone giant runepriests. I could then have three separate themes for the dungeon and - perhaps in a more logical fashion - include more things from Orcs of Stonefang Pass. I also like the idea of having the Lone Tower that is very close by as the former demesne of a goliath sorcerer tasked with watching the Giant's Cairn. Perhaps this sorcerer delved too much into forbidden elemental magic and became the Mud Lich....)

As I also want to use a de-levelled version of Steading of the Hill Giant Chieftain in this campaign (my hill giants and other humanoids and giants have the same level in my campaign as they had hit dice in 1E - meaning that, for example, hill giants are now 8th-level brutes), it may be that these general notes on the Giant's Cairn actually become part of the backstory for the Steading adventure: the Dodkong is wearing the Stonecrown, is fully awakened and is Manshoon's pawn to bring the hill giants under Zhent control. (This, of course, would also mean that Manshoon has a method of controlling the Dodkong. Is this a power he has unleashed from the earth nodes he is studying?)

Monday, 25 June 2012

The Return of Manshoon - Brainstorming

I've had a few ideas - following my Fimbulwinter - The Return of Manshoon post - for making the return of a clone of Manshoon to lead the Zhentarim as the basis for a campaign set in the Moonsea North.

While it means I will have less use for the other factions I like - the Banites of Mulmaster, the Cult of the Dragon and the Warlock Knights of Vaasa - it has the advantage of a much tighter focus both in terms of story and even in the geographic area involved.

Once this Heroic Tier campaign plays out, I could easily use my Fimbulwinter ideas to take this into the Paragon Tier. In the meantime, I rather like the way this Heroic Tier campaign arc looks:

The Return of Manshoon

Tyranny & Strife in the Moonsea North


Manshoon is Dead! Long Live Manshoon!

The Night King of the Zhentarim is dead, slain in battle with his long-time nemesis, Elminster. The Zhentarim is in chaos as the Cyricists seek to assert primacy over the other factions but they haven’t reckoned on the sheer power of one of the major Black Cloak factions, for these Black Cloaks are not simply human wizards as they generally appear but beholder mages.

It is the beholder mages who have held the Zhentarim together since the destruction of Zhentil Keep. Their goal: to use the Zhentarim as something akin to farmers, subjugating various populations so that the beholders may feed at leisure. And for the beholder mages the network of the Zhentarim allows them access to greater magical power.

The beholder mages do not wish to be unmasked and they trust only one human - Manshoon - and now he is dead. However, the beholders know of Manshoon’s predilection for creating clones - indeed the Night King was one such clone - so all they need to do is find another Manshoon clone and awaken him (it?).

Unfortunately, Manshoon entrusted the location of his clones to no-one and normally they were hidden by powerful magic. However, the ghostly Lady Saharel of the Sceptre Tower of Spellgard has divinatory abilities able to pierce the most powerful wards and she could locate one or more of Manshoon’s clones.

While a campaign set in Loudwater and the Fallen Lands might involve stopping a Zhentarim invasion of Spellgard to seek such information, this campaign will be set in the Moonsea North and the Zhentarim operation in Spellgard is taking place “off-screen”, as it were. (However, it would be interesting to run two more-or-less concurrent campaigns in the Fallen Lands and the Moonsea North where the Fallen Lands group fails to stop the Zhentarim getting the information that they want.)

Lady Saharel reveals that there is a clone located in an extra-dimensional space within the ruins of the Citadel of the Raven in Manshoon’s former private tower and now the beholder mages manipulate the Zhent organisation to find him....


The Moonsea North is about to become a battleground between two groups: the combined forces of the Banites of Mulmaster and the Banite faction of the Warlock Knights of Vaasa against the the Zhentarim and their allies. It’s tyranny versus strife, another chapter in the more than a century old clash between Bane and Cyric through the various pawns they move across the lanceboard which is Faerûn.

The consequences of the fall of Manshoon reverberate around the Realms. The Dread Imperceptor of Bane in Mulmaster - the highest ranking cleric in the church of Bane in Faerûn - sees this as an opportunity to bring the Zhentarim under Banite control - more specifically, Mulmaster Banite control - as it should have been more than a century ago but for the heresies of the traitorous Fzoul Chembryl (an opinion that the Dread Imperceptor must be careful in disclosing due to Chembryl’s recent ascension to the status of exarch).

Banite agents within the Zhentarim report to Mulmaster that the Zhentarim is not as headless as it appears. A particularly strong faction of Black Cloaks has stepped into the void caused by the loss of Manshoon and seem to be making plans to replace him. The Dread Imperceptor knows that Manshoon was renowned for having perfected cloning spells and rituals and suspects that there is at least one clone secreted away that these Black Cloaks are seeking to awaken. 

The renewed presence of Zhentarim agents in the Moonsea North - particularly in Phlan and combing the ruins of the Citadel of the Raven - cannot be a coincidence. Furthermore, their presence in the Moonsea North potentially threatens the Banite plans for conquest. The Dread Imperceptor has forged an alliance with the Banite faction of the Warlock Knights of Vaasa to bring the city-states of the Moonsea North under the dominion of the Black Lord. What threat does the presence of the Zhentarim pose to these plans? This is a question both the Dread Imperceptor and the Banite fellthanes of the Warlock Knights are asking, and which their respective spies and agents are tasked with answering.

Organisations & Factions

The Banites of Mulmaster

The Banites of Mulmaster have natural allies in the Moonsea: the Red Claw goblins of Thar and also a certain faction within the otherwise heretical Lyceum of the Black Lord in Phlan. While the Warlock Knights focus on their plan to bring the frost giants of the Great Glacier into an alliance with the Banite forces, the Mulmaster Banites will focus on organising the Red Claw goblins - supported by a fifth column of loyal Banites from the Lyceum of the Black Lord - to attack Phlan. The Banites believe Phlan should be a possession of Mulmaster and the Black Lord particularly considering its history but also because it could be a stronghold of opposition to Zhent influence in the Moonsea North. 

The Dread Imperceptor is very keen to formalise an alliance with the Warlock Knights as he sees the Vaasans eventually becoming a natural extension of the Mulmaster church of Bane. The Voice of Telos will personally ensure that the Dread Imperceptor never realises this particular ambition.

The Cult of the Dragon

The ways of the Cult of the Dragon are mysterious: their seeming worship of undead dragons means that their goals are difficult to fathom, beyond their need to find and “convert” dragons. However, they are a powerful force both because of the magic they control and because any dragon - living or undead - is an engine of destruction.

Encounters with the Cult in the Moonsea region are relatively common as the Moonsea is also known as the Sea of Dragons. Dragons range across the Moonsea North; various chromatic breeds - black, green, red and white being the most common - and so Dragon Cultists can be found seeking them out and doing the other things that the Cult of the Dragon does.

In addition, several cells of the Cult of Dragon in the Moonsea North include clerics of Shar and/or shadar-kai and some of these are actually agents of the Netherese. While Netheril doesn’t have any current plans for the Moonsea North, they do like to keep a close eye on the activities of other power groups such as the Banites of Mulmaster, the Warlock Knights of Vaasa and the Zhentarim, all of which are now active in the Moonsea North.

The Warlock Knights of Vaasa

The Banite faction within the Warlock Knights is growing increasingly more powerful and influential but it needs allies if it is going to bring the other Warlock Knights under its control. Thus the alliance with the Banites of Mulmaster has been formed. However, the alliance is a temporary thing; each party needs to demonstrate its worth to the other before jockeying for supremacy can begin. 

So far they have agreed to combine forces to bring the cities of the Moonsea North under the Black Lord’s banner. The Warlock Knights are happy to let the Banites focus on the goblins of Thar - vile creatures that they consider beneath themselves - while they focus on an alliance with the frost giants of the Great Glacier.

At least that is what the Warlock Knights want the Banites to think. In actuality, the Vaasans are searching for an artefact of the Zhengyi, the legendary witch-king of Vaasa. It seems that this shard of eternal ice - just the thing to bind the frost giants into an alliance - is a most puissant relic of Evil. By claiming to be doing whatever is necessary to bring the frost giants into the fold, the Mulmaster Banites are distracted from seeking out this legendary item for themselves.

The Zhentarim

Much of what is driving the Zhentarim in the Moonsea North has already been covered in the Introduction. 

While locating the ruins of the Citadel of the Raven is quite simple, finding the specific portal that links to the extra-dimensional space storing the clone of Manshoon is no mean feat, and then there is the need for a portal key to activate the portal.

While some Zhentarim remain based in the ruins, small teams have been despatched to the ruins of Zhentil Keep, Phlan and even Mulmaster to try and uncover clues buried in various tomes that might aid the uncovering of the specific location of the portal and the nature of the portal key required to open same.

This particular clone of Manshoon was one of the first that Manshoon created. It was created using the clone ritual rather than the more powerful stasis clone ritual. As such, this clone is lesser in power than most of those awakened during the Manshoon Wars that began in 1369 DR; he also is missing over 100 years of history!

Nevertheless, the beholder mages simply want Manshoon to rule the Zhentarim again, not least because even a weak clone is able to bypass certain wards that Manshoon put in place to protect certain locations and/or items. They also see a weaker version as perfect for their needs - they can train and manipulate him before he becomes too powerful for them to control. 

The information that the Zhentarim need is indeed located with Phlan, specifically hidden within an otherwise unremarkable tome within Mantol’s Library. Dalmanu is the Zhent mage tasked with recovering the information in Phlan.

Adventure Synopses

Right now (1:01am, Mon 25Jun12), I feel that this campaign outline is better off being focussed on a smaller geographic area and with a conclusion to the Heroic Tier that involves a grand melee against the Zhentarim with the final “boss” fight being against the awakened clone of Manshoon.

If I keep the focus tighter - it doesn’t prevent me from using the Banites of Mulmaster, the Cult of the Dragon or the Warlock Knights of Vaasa - I think I can include more sandbox elements while also driving the party toward the final confrontation with Manshoon and the Zhent forces. It also lets me use this wonderful piece of art for the final adventure:

Furthermore, by making the Zhentarim the ultimate enemy, the sense that the party is comprised of the true heirs of the Knights of the North is heightened.

Adventure One: The Knights of the North
Levels 1-3


The Graveyard

The Moathouse

The Lyceum of Lies?

What if the information the Zhents need is hidden beneath the Lyceum?

Adventure Two: The Sons of Gruumsh
Levels 3-5

This is basically the adventure as written, except for the part about starting in Melvaunt. It’s the first mission for the new Knights of the North in their efforts to rid the Moonsea North of the Zhentarim once again.

Adventure Three: The Siege of Castle Vathar
Levels 5-7

The Hammer of Vorbyx can be used to force the orcs and ogres to leave the field of battle but it may require combat against an orc or ogre champion.

No matter what, there will be combat against some hill giant mercenaries (I can change them from brute 8 to elite brute 4).

Adventure Four: The Steading of the Hill Giant Chieftain
Levels 7-9

The party must end the Zhent alliance with the hill giants of the Dragonspine Mountains before it becomes something too large and dangerous to stop.

Adventure Five: The Ruins of the Citadel of the Raven
Levels 9-11

The conclusion of the Heroic Tier involves a grand melee against the Zhentarim, including an awakened clone of Manshoon after an encounter involving beholders.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Fimbulwinter (?) - The Return of Manshoon

The Last Clone

I'm back!

Deep in the ruins of the Citadel of the Raven is the last remaining stasis clone of Manshoon, the founder of the Zhentarim and former First Lord of Zhentil Keep.

This clone has remain untouched by the Spellplague - and was immune to the massive awakening that preceded the Clone Wars - as its magic was tied to the portal leading to the extra-dimensional space where it was secreted.

There is a faction within the Zhentarim that believes that if the Zhents are to return to greatness, Manshoon must be the one to lead them. They feel that there is something --wrong-- with the current Manshoon and so they have been researching the locations of his other clones for years hoping to find another Manshoon to lead them.

From the journal of a noted Zhent mage loyal to Manshoon recovered from the ruins of Zhentil Keep, they finally have the clues they need to locate the last remaining clone from an extra-dimensional space within the ruins of the Citadel of the Raven. Now all they need is the portal key....

(I could also use this same general background for a clone of Manshoon secreted in the dungeons beneath Darkhold. Perhaps I could use this for my Dark Weavings campaign instead?)

Manshoon is Dead; Long Live Manshoon!

Another option is to have Manshoon the Night King slain by adventurers off-screen, as it were. Zhents encountered in the campaign could actually be looking for one of his clones in order to replace him. A weaker clone might be seen as a way for an ambitious Zhent black cloak to increase his or her own influence in the organisation with the black cloak believing that the weaker Manshoon can be their pawn.

More food for thought....

(I also rather like the idea of a campaign set in Loudwater and the Fallen Lands where the Zhents have gone to the Sceptre Tower of Spellgarde to ask Lady Spellgarde just where they can find one of Manshoon's clones!)

General Comments

Manshoon is one of those characters who has been harshly dealt with by various RPG and novel authors, largely because of the old TSR policy that evil could never be seen to be successful.

If you read Ed Greenwood's comments about Manshoon over at Candlekeep, it is clear that Ed saw him as a true master villain. That's the Manshoon I want to include in one or more of my games at some point.

I don't like the idea of Manshoon as a vampire. Actually, it's not so much that I don't like it as I prefer the idea of more than one clone still running around. And Manshoon the Night King is both too high in level for my preferred campaign levels and I don't like the whole notion of Stormkeep. It's too high magic for the sort of game I want to run. (Yes, there is a certain irony in rejecting high magic when my preferred campaign setting is Forgotten Realms.)

Suffice to say, I want to bring Manshoon back but as a lower-level protagonist and as someone who has the potential to make the Zhentarim a force in the Moonsea again. Manshoon the Night King can have Darkhold and the Western Heartlands; "my" Manshoon wants the Moonsea....