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?)

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