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!
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.
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.
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
The Lyceum of Lies?
What if the information the Zhents need is hidden beneath the Lyceum?
Adventure Two: The Sons of Gruumsh
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
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
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
The conclusion of the Heroic Tier involves a grand melee against the Zhentarim, including an awakened clone of Manshoon after an encounter involving beholders.