Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Knights of the North - The Skondarr

The wonderful map of the Moonsea North that accompanies the Monument of the Ancients adventure includes numerous places about which there seems to be no canon information. I thought the Skondarr was one of those places but tonight I discovered that it is actually from an Ed Greenwood article in Dragon 291. And here it is.

The Skondarr
by Ed Greenwood, illustrated by David Day (Dragon #291)

Not far from Zhentil Keep is the Skondarr, a cavern network popular for decades with smugglers, brigands, lurking monsters, and adventurers seeking shelter from howling winter storms. Named for Elgarth Skondarr, a long-dead brigand lord of the Moonsea North, this natural series of caverns lies inside the southwestern slopes of Mount Tesh, north of Teshwave and northwest of Zhentil Keep.

Skondarr ruled a large territory, roaming with his band of hardened warriors from stronghold to stronghold, and the caverns that now bear his surname composed one of his larger holds. Just who or what is inhabiting the Skondarr varies over time, as do particular traps and treasures, but a tour of its salient features follows.

As one descends from its mountainside entrance, the Skondarr begins with Dead Bear Cave, a cavern usually choked with fallen trees, boulders, and other debris brought in or washed in by snowslides, heavy rainfalls, and the occasional avalanche. The cave was named for a bear of gigantic size slain years ago by adventurers who blundered right into its sleeping form, and bears have often used this outermost cavern as a lair, when not displaced by more fearsome beasts.

Several adventuring bands that explored the Skondarr recently have reported finding runes or symbols scratched in the sand of particular ledges on the walls of Dead Bear Cave. These are simple markings made with fingers, sticks, or blades, and they change from time to time, seeming to be an active, ongoing means of communication.

The next cavern in from Dead Bear is Durgath's Death, so-called because a garrulous, wild-bearded prospector and adventurer by the name of Durgath met his doom therein over half a century ago when he triggered an unknown trap. Durgath's Death is a limestone cavern studded with stalactites and stalagmites. Although these continue to form as time passes, they have been energetically cut into by various visitors to form many small storage niches for flasks, coffers, daggers, and the like. These storage hollows are obvious to anyone entering the cave, and from time to time some of them have born cryptic labels, such as "Berith" and "Hooks" and "The Best." The containers in Durgath's Death have been found to contain kindling, nails, coils of fine wire from Calimshan, rings, keys, and scrolls.

Beyond Durgath's Death lies another, larger limestone cavern known as The Altar. So far as is commonly known, no formal consecration to any faith has ever been made in this cave, although the reason for its name is clear enough. A huge, flat-topped boulder (suitable for use as an altar or feasting table) lies in the center of the cavern. It is a dark rock, not limestone, and its presence is a mystery.

A cramped but readily climbable, rough-walled fissure in the ceiling of The Altar leads up into the Hidehole. The Hidehole has been used by many as a defensible sleeping and storage area, and it often contains both guards and treasure; it's easy for someone waiting up here to inflict slaughter on climbers with stones or cross-bow bolts. This small, rough-walled cavern contains two features of interest: a water seep that drips drinkable (but horribly mineral-tainted) water into a hollow that can serve as a drinking bowl or washbasin and a ledge high up on the wall, where a man of average height (or any smaller being) who lies flat can rest unseen by persons entering the Hidehole. This ledge has often been used to launch deadly attacks on intruders, and it bears two curious symbols scratched in the rock at one end.

Less agile intruders typically pass on from The Altar to another cavern, reached through a gap in one wall. This third limestone cavern is Coronal's Doom - a curious name because (so far as is known) no Coronal has ever been slain by any creature having anything to do with the Skondarr. Perhaps "Coronal's Doom" was the name of a renegade elf band from Cormanthor that opposed the rule of the Coronals and left messages or items for each other in this cavern.

The walls of Coronal's Doom are lined with many narrow cracks and fissures, most far too small to hide anything but insects and creeping worms. A few have, however, held scrolls and maps from time to time. The floor of Coronal's Doom holds its most prominent feature: the shaft known as Horthal's Neck that leads on to the lower caverns of the Skondarr.

Horthal's Neck earned its name because the once-notorious adventurer Horthal died here some eighty summers ago, breaking his neck in a fall from a rope partway down the shaft. Some say he was the victim of treachery, but others say he fell victim to a trap. The walls of the Neck are studded with scores of storage holes and niches - but many hold deadly traps that await the unwary.

From the floor of Coronal's Doom, the Neck descends over eighty feet before it opens out into the ceiling of Wyvernbone Pit.

The Wyvernbone Pit might once have contained the bones of a wyvern, but humans provided the bones that it's strewn with now. (Some tales insist these remains sometimes whirl up to form flying skeletons that attack intruders.) A long, low-ceilinged cavern rather than a pit, Wyvernbone descends to the short, aptly-named passage of Dunsral's Stair (whose floor consists of a series of step-like ledges, and which is often home to clouds of small, harmless black bats), which in turn leads down into The Vault of the Crown.

The Vault is a tall, upright-egg-shaped cavern bristling with stalactites and stalagmites, with a floor of wet sand. It's named for a curious apparition that appears in it from time to time: a glowing crown of white light - a radiance that takes the shape of a circlet topped with many slender upswept spires of irregular lengths. This phantom crown is intangible, and it moves about the Vault as if someone of about six feet in height is wearing it and taking an interest in intruders and their deeds. The crown or its unseen wearer seem to have no hostile or malicious intent. On rare occasions, many small, star-like motes of twinkling white light emerge from the spires of the crown and drift around the Vault, only to fade away again. These pinpoints of light never leave the Vault and have no effect on magic or creatures they touch (they pass through solid objects, and living creatures feel no sensation from such contacts).

The Vault opens - via a short, nameless chute - into Darkpool Delve. This half-flooded cavern was thought by many to be a flooded dwarven mine, with riches waiting for those who dared to venture beneath the inky waters into water-filled passages below, but in truth it has never been more than a natural sump, and no dwarven hammers have ever touched its bottom or the surrounding stone.

The water is cold and a menacing inky black in hue - thanks to a harmless algae that grows there - but quite drinkable.

Even in its shallowest spots, the water is deep enough to hide an upright human. Although creatures are seldom encountered in these lightless depths, all manner of items - from treasure and useful items to drowned corpses and refuse - are often found here. It most often serves as a dumping-ground for items folk desire to remain hidden.

Elminster's Notes

Dead Bear Cave

The sand-scratched symbols are signals from one thief to another. Although the code is constantly changing, I know five of them, thus:

- A triangle with a single dot in its center means "mission accomplished; meet at the usual place."
- A triangle with two dots in its midst means "complication with mission; use fallback plan."
- A circle with a triangle in it means "we have been found out; use full passwords."
- A circle with a dot in it means "we have been found out; break off mission."
- A circle with two dots in it means "great peril or opportunity; meet at the agreed-upon place as swiftly as possible."

If these symbols are accompanied by a second symbol, it usually identifies a meeting-plazce or rendezvous, often by a dimple pictograph like a single tree, a cave mouth, a well, a candle to denote a articular building, a horse to denote a stable, or a wavy line topped by a straight horizontal line to denote a bridge.

Durgath's Deat
Among the treasures lying in the hollows of this cavern are a complete set of keys to the Royal Palace in Suzail. Last time I looked, there were also scrolls for the arcane spells spectral hand, charm monster and eyebite, but these things seem to disappear swiftly when adventurers happen by.

The Altar

This cavern was often used for the worship of Malar, but these blood-sacrifice rituals ceased when the wizard Tharaundarr of Calaunt, enraged by the loss of his favorite hunting cat, slew all the cult members. There's seldom anything of interest to be found here today, but individual Malarites occasionally slaughter beasts here in the name of their god, a practice that attracts carrion crawlers and worse monsters.
The Hidehole

The symbols scratched on the ledge are the sigils of long-ago mages: two trangles touching points within a circle belonged to Thamburkh of Athkatla, and the staring eye trailing three tears was the mark of Dathlarra of Iriabor. Once, they were sigils of power that allowed those who touched them properly to teleport to the home of the wizard who taught both mages, but now the magic has faded.

Coronal's Doom

The name of this cavern was indeed born of its use by a cabal plotting the death of someone - but their intended victim was the head of a Zhent human family known as "Coronal" (a human surname borrowed, with the arrogance typical of the human species, from the elf rulers of Cormanthor). The cabal succeeded not only in slaughtering their quarry, but his entire family, looting his cache of wealth before burning his grand mansion in Zhentil Keep. The cache was all gems, which they brought to the Skondarr - and then slew each other in squabbles over; it's thought that many of the stones still lie hidden elsewhere on the Tesh mountains, not far ffrom these caverns.

Horthal's Neck

The holes in this shaft contain many traps, which are constantly changed ove time as various individuals and groups use the Skondarr as a hideout. Many contain poison needle traps for searching hands,but traps of poison gas and even spells striggered by intrusion have been encountered.

Typical items stored in the Neck's holes include wands, potions, stolen purses full of coins, and rarer things, such as maps, spell scrolls, and deeds to valuable properties in Suzail, Selgaunt, and Yhaunn.

Wyvernbone Pit
The bones won't animate without the usual sort of spells being cast on them, but skeletons have been animated here in the past. There's seldom anything of interest in the Pit except whatever items a corpse might be wearing or carrying; this tends to be the part of the Skondarr where refuse of all sorts ends up. There are rumours - which I believe - of a portal to the Underdark that opens here at random times.

Dunsail's Stair
Named for a gnome adventurer who was famous in his day, this passage once contained a stair crafted by Dunsral himself. Nowadays, all traces of Dunsral's construction are gone and rought, crumbling steps have been hewn here and there out of the rock. The bats are harmless (bitter-tasting if fried on skewers, by the way), but on more than one occassion, powerful magic-using creatures have hidden among them by taking bat shape - so beware any bat that is larger than the rest, no matter how much care they take to stay hidden.
The Vault of the Crown
The crown apparition is very old and, I believe, divinely powered. It defied my attempts to probe its origin and properties. It seldom appears on more than four occasions during a month, never for more than two hours as a time. Casting or unleashing powerful magic in the Vault seems to be the only trigger that causes the crown to appear, and it remains less than reliable. The appearance of the stars seems to herald the appearance of a magic item or spontaneous magical manifestation in the cavern (from what source, and for what reasons, remain mysterious). In the presence of the crown, spells seem to be boosted in damage or efficacy. treasures are often buried in the wet sand floor. Unless someone very persistent has spent hours digging, I know of at least three stolen chests full of Sembian coins that lie there.
Darkpool Delve

The waters of the Delve can hold just about anything - and usually do, from small, lurking monsters to rich treasures. Among these, unless someone's found it and carried it off, is a throne that can be commanded to fly by anyone sitting on it.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

The Black Age of Bane - Some Quick Thoughts

Here are some ideas I have had in the past couple of days that I am too tired to compile into a proper post:
  • The Thayan Banites have "stolen" Szass Tam's Dread Ring ritual. Rather than building towers, they will carve out temples of Bane from solid stone - like the real world church buildings at Lalibela in Ethopia - which will be in the shape of Bane's new unholy symbol. Indeed, the layout of this symbol if it could somehow be viewed from space. (Beholders - or, at least, death tyrants - are doing the work of carving out the stone with their disintigrate eye rays.)
  • There has been a new schism in the Zhent ranks within Darkhold. The Banites have allied with Thayan Banites and purged Darkhold of the Cyricists with the aid of beholders.
  • Now there are renegade Cyricist Zhents all over the Western Heartlands - including Elturgard- seeking a living as mercenaries or bandits, anything to survive. 
  • Certain Cyricist strifeleaders have taken up residence in the Reaching Wood where they plan to help the gnolls summon an aspect of Yeenoghu which the Cyricists will secretly control. The ritual to do this was taken from Darkhold.
I'll tidy these up at some other time.

A Zulkir's Revenge
At the end of the War of the Zulkirs - as written by Richard Lee Byers in Unholy, the third book of The Haunted Lands trilogy - Szass Tam transformed Nevron, the Zulkir of Conjuration, into a mane and banished him to the Abyss.

This is an idea inspired by the Rise (or Death?) of a Demon Lord series of posts (and later eBooks) on ENWorld by Blackdirge where his protagonist was a former wizard from the Forgotten Realms (I'm not sure if he was a Red Wizard - I do not recall) that died, rose in the Abyss as a mane but rather than having lost his memory and former powers, found that he still commanded magic as he did before his demise.

What if the same thing happened to Nevron?

Nevron now exists in the small, bloated body of a mane but he still commands formidable magic. He is weaker than he once was but still represents a significant threat. Made even more evil (and chaotic) by his rebirth in his abyssal form, he possesses only two drives: survival and revenge. And, of course, the target of his desire for revenge is Szass Tam.

I am thinking that Nevron has a fundamental understanding of how Dread Rings work. Perhaps he has provided that information to the Banites in Thay to allow them to construct their own version in Elturgard.

Alternatively, perhaps he has also provided that information to the durthans of Rashemen. Rather than building their own Dread Ring, perhaps they seek to corrupt the Dread Ring that Szass Tam plans to build there (the basis for my planned Dread Rings of Thay campaign) so that, rather than unmaking reality, it brings the Wychlaran and other forces of Rashemen under durthan control.

Another alternative relates to my plans for the Knights of the North campaign. What if Nevron provided the same information to the returned - and weaker - clone of Manshoon? Would creating a Dread Ring - even if only a weaker version - allow Manshoon to increase his power?

Like the idea of the return of Manshoon, I can see this idea of A Zulkir's Revenge - with Nevron the mane as the antagonist - providing a sub-plot to a number of campaigns. I will definitely play with this idea some more.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Black Age of Bane - Skull Gorge

Why Skull Gorge?

A couple of years ago I noticed a reply given by Ed Greenwood on the Candlekeep forums in relation to some questions involving Skull Gorge which is an area bisected by the Chionthar River near to Darkhold and the Well of Dragons on the 4E map (Of course, despite being a significant - and interesting - feature, it is omitted from the [inadequate] 4E map.)  Ed's reply is reproduced below as Appendix One to this post and a separate Appendix Two is included with Eric L Boyd's notes on the area which were part of his FR conversion notes for the Age of Worms adventure path.

The area really seemed like a great place to an adventure site similar to or inspired by the Caves of Chaos in B2 Keep on the Borderlands. One of my players has been asking for this for a while so beginning the Black Age of Bane campaign with an adventure in Skull Gorge might be my best chance of giving him what he has been asking for.

The Crypt of the Arisen Army - a temple complex of the now-dead Velsharoon - is noted as being present in Skull Gorge and this ties perfectly into my latest idea of using Dread Rings from Thay in this campaign. Besides the obvious connection with undead, Velsharoon and Szass Tam had previously been noted as rivals some decades before the Spellplague (I'm pretty sure that this rivalry dates back to early 2E).

Also, after reading Ed's Candlekeep reply, I have been thinking about having the campaign begin some months after Darkhold has fallen to the Thayans. This would mean that it is no longer a Zhent stronghold and the Zhents are now effectively without a home in this area - they're almost refugees! I need to think about this some more but this could make the Zhent presence that much more interesting. Also, perhaps the Zhents were betrayed to the Thayans by beholder mages who had infiltrated the ranks of the Black Cloaks.

(I'm also thinking of making this concurrent with the deaths of Manshoon and Elminster in spell-battle in Stormkeep outside of Westgate to give the sense of the Zhents being an organisation in decline - and also because I want that event to frame my campaign set in the Moonsea North - currently entitled The Knights of the North - so that I can use a recently awakened clone of Manshoon as the BBEG. Frankly, this is going to be the big event to kick off the Year of the Ageless One in My Realms.)

I need to combine sandbox elements with a few key encounters that will set the party on the course of the rest of the Black Age of Bane campaign. Frankly, with a bit of effort I could turn Skull Gorge into a megadungeon/sandbox quite easily and just run that for the entire Heroic Tier. I can also imagine my players enjoying the sandbox elements so much that they just keep exploring the gorge.

From a campaign perspective, I need to include the following:
  • Undead must be present, not just because they practically define Skull Gorge but also because they are the link with the Thayan necromancers and the Dread Rings which will soon threaten Elturgard.
  • I like the idea of Zhents that escaped the Thayan siege of Darkhold are also present. Perhaps they're trying to organise the goblins (which also includes hobgoblins and bugbears and potentially gnolls from the Reaching Woods) and also trying to marshal some of the undead.
  • Skull Gorge is probably a good staging post for the transfer of slaves from Elturel (see my earlier blog posts about how certain heretics of the Eye of Justice are selling prisoners from the Dungeon of the Inquisitor beneath Elturel) to Darkhold. They're moved from Elturel by barge up the Chionthar River. Any dead ones are animated as undead in the Crypt of the Arisen Army which possesses some necromantic energy that makes undead creation a lot easier there. Investigating the slaving operation is the next adventure in the campaign arc so this is really important.
These are the sandbox elements I think I should include:
  • I want lots of small dungeons inhabited by goblin tribes a la the previously mentioned Caves of Chaos. (As I explore this further, I wouldn't be surprised if I end up with a Banite-flavoured Red Hand of Doom. After all, undead cannot march on Elturel until the Companion is corrupted - living troops are needed for this.)
  • A ruined giant fortress inhabited by ogres and maybe a young behir (I really want a behir).
  • In place of the Temple of Evil Chaos from B2 Keep on the Borderlands, an ancient stone giant shrine of Ogremoch might work well. (I'm also thinking of the Thayans tapping into ancient primordial magic - possibly including awakening an earth or stone titan a la the central concept of Orcs of Stonefang Pass - in order to build the physical structures of their Dread Rings that much faster.)
  • Due to Skull Gorge's links with ancient Netheril - as noted in the appendices - it would be appropriate to include encounters with Shadovar patrols. Some would be looking for ancient artefacts while others would be spying on the Thayans and the Zhents.
Some other ideas might include:
  • What about a hobgoblin king's tomb a la the Lost Tomb of Kruk'ma'Kali?
  • For some reason, the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth wouldn't feel too out-of-place and I love the visual of the hill giant with his pet giant beetle (I might include this in the sandbox elements anyway).
  • What about serpentfolk from Najara? How could I include them - or even run the 3.5E Dungeon adventure Racing the Snake?
  • I could include the angler fish encounter from Orcs of Stonefang Pass.
  • There could be drow emissaries of Sshamath seeking out their allies, the Zhents, wondering why they are no longer in Darkhold. I may still be able to put Crenshinibon in Zhentarim hands....
 Appendix One: Ed Greenwood's reply on Candlekeep about Skull Gorge

First off, I apologize greatly for the delay. There were plans to set key battle scenes in a one-shot FR novel in the Class series in Skull Gorge, later superseded by plans to have a hidden citadel located in the gorge in ANOTHER FR novel, so I had to just keep quiet and wait (until first one and then the other notions were set aside by others, in favour of other ideas).

Skull Gorge is indeed a large gorge through which the River Reaching runs, and the Misty Stair is a series of cascades or waterfalls (surrounded by an ever-present mist of spray created by water rebounding up from its rocks) upstream of it.

The river is icy-cold (shocks breath from creatures falling in, carries them away swiftly throughout its run from the Stair to below the Gorge, which are the spawning areas for dreel (short, fat, green-black river eels that live on algae and carrion, and keep the river waters clean and clear; they taste like mucous, but are quite nourishing, and if fried with the right herbs or spices, can be nice; due to their appearance, they are sometimes called “trollfingers”), dartflash (small-human-palm-sized, bony silver fish that swim in short, very fast “darting” straight-ahead ruhes, and are usually netted or scooped; edible and usually steamed until the bones are soft enough to crunch and eat, though a human adult needs a helm-full pile to make a meal) and mursk (fat, slow-moving green-brown fish that are unpleasantly oily in taste, but can be fried to skim off oil that will burn in lamps “as is”). These three creatures range all the way down the River, though overfishing has made mursk almost unknown in its lower reaches.

The weather table I created for SILVER MARCHES (it got modified and improved greatly by Wizards, probably by Rich Baker) is usable for this area, but in summer months is a tad too cold; winds blowing across the desert create cold extremes in winter and brief hot spells in summer, so in summer roll two dice, the second being a d6, upon which any odd number means use that table, but “even” means substitute a much warmer weather result of your choice.

In a word, weather in this region is: windy (down to gentle breezes at night), so there are frequent weather changes.

Right: on to Skull Gorge. Yes, it was the site of a legendary “last stand,” and for years haunted by undead as a result, which kept it empty of most other life. Hobgoblins eventually moved in, led by shamans who managed to deal with the undead, but disputes arose among the hobgoblins and they warred amongst themselves.

For a long period of time after that, a succession of various wandering goblin, orc, hobgoblin, and even bugbear bands took up residence in the Gorge, fought with and drove out whoever was already living there, and were in turn supplanted by the “next wave” of opportunistic invaders. The fish were plentiful, and so were huge numbers of birds nesting on ledges, who could be driven off with sticks or flung debris and their eggs taken; the krawthant and smokewings in particular simply go on laying eggs until they manage to hatch a chick or die trying, so their eggs can be taken again and again.

From time to time wandering monsters happened along and decided the Gorge would make an ideal home for THEM (being as it has food, water, and shelter in the form of almost a dozen shallow “fissure” caves in the gorge walls). On most occasions the resident goblinoids slew the monsters, but sometimes the monster or monsters prevailed - until the NEXT goblinoid band or more powerful monsters happened along. Wyverns nesting nearby regularly raided, devouring anything they could catch sufficiently “in the open,” and their depredations took care of some of the more formidable monsters.

In this manner, the Gorge changed hands repeatedly over the years, until the Zhentarim started to scout the area, and started basing a succession of “magelings” (low-level wizards of Zhentil Keep desiring to “prove their worth” and rise in the ranks of the Zhentarim) in the Gorge who were given magic items with which to control bands of monsters (often hobgoblins or orcs) to patrol the lands around, keeping predatory roaming monsters away and running off or slaying anyone who wasn’t a Zhent, or part of their caravan operations. Aside from defending the Gorge itself from intrusion, their patrols were confined to the area between the Gorge and Anauroch, avoiding the Well of Dragons.

Many of the Zhent magelings were cruel, overambitious fools, and either attracted attention by “sideline” activities in Corm Orp or Hill’s Edge designed to enrich themselves personally (slaving, drug-running, kidnappings for ransom, protection rackets), and so were eliminated by senior Zhentarim, or tried to eliminate the warring giants to the north (that upper-rank Zhentarim wanted to remain as deterrent to humans or others seeking to prospect or establish trade routes or try to settle in the area) or take on other perils in the area (dragons, wyverns, etc.) and paid the price.

So they died, frequently, often with most of the patrols they were commanding (and in a few cases, at the hands of those same patrols).

The Long Road caravans didn’t traverse the Gorge (aside from a rare handful of experiments in barging goods down the River Reaching; rare because Scornubel proved to be a den of far too many powerful rivals for the Zhents to take on, and defeat, all at once); they passed it by to the east, skirting the western Desertsedge; the Gorge was part of the “wall of deterrents” the Zhents wanted to keep between their trade-route and prying eyes (and swords) of rivals.

Skull Gorge was re-conquered by the Zhents on many occasions, though their grip on it weakened as divisions developed within the Brotherhood; the skull (of Tashara’s seven) took up residence, with spell-controlled monsters of its own and its magical “giant flying skull” image, during one interlude between periods of Zhent control, slaughtered several Zhent magelings sent to retake the Gorge, and retreated (present whereabouts unknown) when the Zhents sent a small group of accomplished wizards with a few spell-controlled death tyrants.

More recently, the Zhent grip on the Gorge weakened still more (again due to strife within the Zhentarim), fiends were summoned by some Zhent wizards seeking to rule the Gorge (wizards who perished, leaving the fiends lurking there), and with effective Zhent control gone, a temple to Velsharoon (The Crypt of the Arisen Army) was established in the Gorge.

The ultimate Zhent aim involving Skull Gorge was, however, achieved: the area has a firm reputation as “dangerous, haunted, and crawling” with all manner of monsters (just pick your wild story), and nearby settlements such as Hill’s Edge and Corm Orp wouldn’t dream of trying to found ranches or prospect for metals anywhere near the Gorge, or the wilderlands to its east.

Of course, in the meantime, the Black Road route across Anauroch was established, shortening the Zhent “faster, privately-controlled” caravan route between the Moonsea and the Sword Coast.

The Long Road, that skirts Anauroch, was established purely because the Zhents of the day were too weak to magically exterminate or control the Bedine AND the natural perils of the desert (the city of Shade is, of course, a recent complication in all of this). Yes, its route is long and torturous, but preferable to the longer and far more expensive “public” routes through Cormyr, Iriaebor, et al because the Zhents could move weapons, armour, battle-ready mercenaries, drugs, slaves, and other items that rulers of places long the public route might stop, seize, or make war on the Zhents because of.

The Zhentarim DO have magic enough to make both tribes of giants simply shun their passing caravans (allowing them through where others, not specifically magically equipped for such a passage, cannot). Yes, many Zhent goods DO just appear on the Trade Way through Soubar and other stops, or are dispersed through Scornubel, but again, the illicit nature of the majority of the most profitable shipping makes bringing such goods through places the Zhents came to control or dominate (Llorkh, Loudwater), and then via barge past most scrutiny until they can leave Zhent hands, preferable to the Trade Way or other “public” caravan routes.

The establishment of the Black Road, and changing priorities within the Zhentarim (the “make us all rich” overland trade project was a chief goal of the Zhentarim WIZARDS, not the later Fzoul-dominated priest/beholder cabal; the beholders formerly sided with Manshoon, but turned against him when they saw this project and others becoming seeming obsessions, and turning the Brotherhood away from THEIR goals, which remain largely mysterious [and heavily under NDA protection].

CorranH, you are quite correct in saying that Darkhold “split from the ‘Eastern’ Zhents in all but name.”

The 3rd edition books weren’t quite clear on the specifics of this, for as long as possible, in order to give DMs maximum freedom in handling this as they wanted to in their own campaigns.

Here are some of the things an “isolated” Darkhold can do: act as a gathering place (and breeding pens) for slaves, and the magical alteration of slaves, and then ship them out for sale (perhaps primarily down into the Underdark). Act as a defended transfer point for goods from the Underdark being shipped into the World Above, and vice versa. Become a drug, poison, perfume, and drinkables (fortified wines, zzar “with something extra,” and other exotic, expensive “doctored” drinks) manufacturing center and shipping source. Train wizards and send them forth on covert missions to coerce or slay wealthy individuals in Amn and Tethyr, and successful “shady” traders in Scornubel, and gain access to their businesses and property.

All of which, of course, would make Darkhold a prime target for Red Wizard infiltration and takeover.

And who’s to say the beholders of the Brotherhood, or the Underdark interests, would let the Red Wizards get away with that? What if Zhents who had to flee Darkhold for their lives decide it would be wise to stay in hiding, wherever else they are, and hire or compel adventurers to “go in” and try to wrest Darkhold back from the Thayans?

Moreover, there are ancient and fell magics hidden in Darkhold that neither the Zhents nor the Red Wizards control. What if they awaken, and take a hand in the conflict in some way?

Appendix Two: Eric L Boyd's notes on Skull Gorge in the Age of Worms Conversion

Skull Gorge is narrow canyon cut by the upper reaches of the River Reaching as it drains the northern Sunset Mountains. It lies in the unclaimed reaches of the Backlands south and west of the Great Desert of Anauroch.
In ages past, the caverns that lined the gorge’s walls were claimed by tribes of stone giants. The stone giants were citizens of the ancient giant empire of Grunfesting, and their lord ruled the gorge from the ramparts of the city of Kongen-Thulnir. As the power of the giant empires waned, the stone giants
permitted small tribes of primitive humans to settle in the smaller caverns along the gorge.
In -1,145 DR, Netherese explorers established the town of Holloway in one of the caverns as a base for their explorations of the ancient ruins. They hoped to recover ancient magics of power similar to that of the Nether Scrolls, but failed. In their wake, Holloway continued as a lonely outpost of Netheril.
Over time, the church of Jergal came to dominate the town, and a series of crypts were built into the caverns of the gorge. After the fall of Netheril in the Year of Sundered Webs (-339 DR) and the subsequent Netherese diaspora, Holloway began to dwindle and was finally abandoned in the Year of the Winter Wolf (-270 DR).
In the Year of Slaughter (1090 DR), a horde of goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs out of the Stonelands met an army of humans, elves, and dwarves north of the Sunset Mountains. Although the humanoids were defeated, the Battle of Bones scarred the land, leaving behind the horrid undead hunting rougnds that retain the battle’s name. The orc and goblinoid shamans who survived the six-day conflict fled south into the Skull Gorge, pursued by their enemies. The shamans summoned demons and devils in great numbers to defend their newfound redoubt, but the fiends quickly decimated the survivors of both armies.
In the Year of the Gauntlet (1369 DR), clerics of the newly arisen god of necromancy, Velsharoon, established a temple amidst the crypts of Holloway. The Forgotten Crypt, one of Velsharoon’s abodes when he was a mortal, was transformed into the Crypt of the Arisen Army, and Velsharoon’s necrophants laid claim to the length and breadth of the gorge 

(NB: Some Age of Worms-specific information was omitted.)

Friday, 20 July 2012

Current Campaign Arcs

These are the campaign arcs I am currently working on/blogging about:
  • The Black Age of Bane (this is one option for a campaign set in Elturgard: the other option is Dark Weavings and another possible option is Rise of a Dark Sun); 
  • Dark Weavings (despite the same location as The Black Age of Bane and some similar adventure ideas, it really is a different campaign);
  • The Dread Rings of Thay;
  • The Knights of the North (possible new name: The Ageless One; former name: Fimbulwinter); and
  • Neverwinter: Vie for Glory!
Here's a brief synopsis of each of these campaign arcs. It seems that I am only capable of writing a campaign arc that includes either Dread Rings and/or the darkening of the Companion. No wonder my current "favourite" is the Black Age of Bane as it involves both ideas....

The Black Age of Bane

The paladins of Elturgard are distracted by increasingly militant Cyricist Zhents from Darkhold with rumours of a new alliance with the gnolls of the Reaching Wood and even the drow under the Far Hills.

While this is happening Thayan necromancers and Banite runepriests are constructing Dread Ring fortresses around the borders of Elturgard - Elturel and the Companion are in the precise centre - in preparation for a new Dread Ring ritual. 

This time, however, the ritual will not be performed by Szass Tam - rather, a banelich is going to unleash the Dread Ring's magic so that Bane will absorb the power of the Companion and strike against both Torm and Amaunator with one foul blow.

If successful, the Companion will turn into a thing of darkness and the lands of Elturgard will become a haven for undead and those who love the night... particularly as the Dread Ring ritual will also suck all life from the land.

Thus will the Black Age of Bane begin....

(As I think further about this, if I use the drow from Undrek'thoz in this campaign arc, I may also be able to use the Crystal Shard idea as I originally wrote for the Dark Weavings campaign. Hmmm....)

Dark Weavings

The drow of Sshamath are not noted worshippers of Lolth with the exception of one house - House Zauvirr. At the command of the Queen of Spiders, they will try and take the sunlit lands of Elturgard for themselves. To do this, they must extinguish the light of the Companion and tranform it into a think of darkness instead.

House Zauvirr is in possession of the Crystal Shard (I don't care what R A Salvatore's atrocious books say... House Zauvirr has it) and offer it to the Zhents as a sign of good faith in the new alliance. The Zhents use it to mobilise across Elturgard and begin posing a major threat to the paladins.

In due course, the drow use primordial magic stolen from aboleth to assault Elturel from below. In the midst of the chaos caused by earthquakes and sinkholes, a foul ritual is performed that blots out the Companion and causes it to become a thing of darkness... if the PCs fail to stop the drow.

Of course, if that happens, it will only lead to something I have wanted to do for 30 years and that is run D1 Descent into the Depths of the Earth, D2 Shrine of the Kuo-toa, D3 Vault of the Drow and Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits (although the last will be heavily influenced by the 3E's The Harrowing from Dungeon 88 and will not contain a giant metal spider ship with a marilith secretary).
The Dread Rings of Thay

This is quite simple in concept : Szass Tam is building a network of Dread Ring fortresses around Rashemen and must be stopped before he steals all life and power from that land. This basic idea was more or less the inspiration for this blog a few years ago which is why Szass Tam and berserkers and wychlaran from Rashemen appear as the banner.

There is supposed to be a DDi Backdrop article on Rashemen in the next couple of months so I am actually waiting for that - largely because I want a map better than the baby's butt-wipe which is the 4E map - before I do much more than finally get around to reading The Haunted Lands trilogy - Unclean, Undead and Unholy - by Richard L Byers.

I have been reading a lot on the internet about Dread Rings in the past week or so and I rather like some of the ideas that have been posted about linking the Dread Rings with the Eminence of Araunt from Returned Abeir. It may be that there will be an additional complication in this campaign involving the corruption of the Dread Rings by agents of the Eminence of Araunt. (The same complication could also apply in the Neverwinter: Vie for Glory campaign arc where I really want to make the Thayans the principal villains.)

The Knights of the North
aka The Ageless One

This campaign started out of a desire to use the excellent map of the Moonsea North - and, to a lesser extent, the city of Phlan - by Sean MacDonald in the Monument of the Ancients adventure from Dungeon 170. The sheer excellence of that map really highlighted how the wiping of a baby's defecations across a sheet of paper by Rob Lazzaretti was a complete devaluing of the cartographer's art and an insult to the Forgotten Realms and its fans.

The really annoying thing is that there is no hyperbole in that statement.

The basic theme is this: a weaker clone of Manshoon from 1355 DR has been awakened in the ruins of the Citadel of the Raven and decides to recover what he and the Zhentarim have lost. Concurrent with this, the PCs have taken up the mantles of their fallen parents and are the new Knights of the North, sworn to oppose the Zhentarim.

Manshoon the Night King, the vampire ruler of the Zhents, is now dead, slain in spell battle with Elminster. Beholder mages that infiltrated the Black Cloak ranks of the Zhents have decided to awaken a weaker Manshoon clone - one from 1355 DR - so that they can control him better but still have the Zhentarim led by the sole human that they respect. 

The Citadel of the Raven is now being rebuilt and Manshoon is seeking out ancient spellweaver magic in the Glacier of the Silver Blades to try and regain his mastery of cloning and also to arm himself with the spells and items that he will need in this post-Spellplague era of the Realms that he finds himself in.

The Zhents are gathering resources and allies and the PCs start interfering with their plans before finally facing off with Manshoon in the spellweaver ruins in the Glacier of the Silver Blades.

Neverwinter: Vie for Glory!

I'm not sure if I really like the Neverwinter Campaign Guide or if I really want to like it.

Nevertheless, preparing for the Knights of the North campaign resulted in me reading a couple of campaign journals set in the pre-Spellplague ruins of Phlan and made me realise how much fun it could be to run something like the old Ruins of Adventure module - which involved the retaking of Phlan - albeit one with decent maps and no stupid names.

Neverwinter seems like a possible substitute. It's well detailed, has a great city map and a great regional map, and it allows me to indulge my Dread Ring fetish.

The basic theme of the campaign needs to be driven by the players' choices of themes for their characters but I am really hoping that one player will choose to be the true heir of the Crown of Neverwinter (the original title for the campaign) and aim to rule a rebuilt and recovered city.

As it stands, the biggest threat is going to be posed by the Thayans and their Dread Rings (and this may also include some of the ideas from The Black Age of Bane in that this could all be to Bane's benefit - after all, the Black Lord is a tyrant and having the city of Neverwinter ruled by a Banite dreadmaster would suit him greatly) but the Shadovar with a reactivated flying city might pose an equally dangerous threat depending on how the campaign plays out.

But I am not using the Ashmadai. The last good idea that R A Salvatore had was the Crystal Shard and I am happy to make that the centrepiece of the Dark Weavings campaign.

In Summary

Yes, I like the Dread Rings. Yes, I like the darkening of the Companion. 

It's clear I haven't really come up with anything really original in these campaign arcs. That's no surprise because some of the ideas grew out of a desire of mine to run several classic adventures - including the original drow series that I have wanted to run for 30 years.

These campaign arcs are all basically meant to cover the Heroic Tier. I am hoping that by running them I can use up all the D&D ideas I have ever had - or ever stolen! - and then wear myself out on D&D so I can finally retire from this obsession of mine that I have had since 1981.

If I can use the drow, Graz'zt, Manshoon, the Zhents, some giants and cause the Companion to go dark I think I will have done what I set out to do.

Anyway, there is more to come on this blog. This post was really about summarising the main ideas I am playing with.

Other Campaign Arcs

A brief summary of other campaign arcs I may return to at some point:

All That Glitters/Heretics of the Harlot's Coin: This is about removing the Amnites from Snowdown. The Amnites are actually serving Graz'zt and creating corrupted gold that they are circulating on the mainland as part of the continued corruption by Graz'zt of the church of Waukeen and part of his plan to add three more layers to his Triple Realm. The surprising thing about this campaign is that it is largely an original idea.

Baron of the Stonelands: This is a cross between Paizo's Kingmaker adventure path and the original Keep on the Borderlands with some flavour from the original Haunted Halls of Eveningstar. Essentially the PCs are trying to have one of their own named Baron of the Stonelands and this requires that they clear and hold part of the Stonelands. I'll return to this one when I feel more confident that I can run it well. Really, it's a combination of a sandbox and a hexcrawl.

Doom of Daggerdale: Another Kingmaker clone but one flavoured by the 2E adventure Doom of Daggerdale and 2E's Randal Morn trilogy with a little bit of Keep on the Borderlands thrown in and it involves lots of Zhents and drow. It's not as much of a sandbox as Baron of the Stonelands but it is definitely a hexcrawl.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Dread Rings of Thay - Darkenbeasts & Other Thayan Magic

I have been a fan of darkenbeasts since I first discovered them in 2E (I think from reading the novel Red Magic which was one of the books in the Harpers series) but I have never used them. Of course, if I am going to run a campaign involving Thayans I need to fix that oversight so I thought I should make some notes here. 

Right now I am thinking of them in the context of my plans for what was Dark Weavings but now is The Black Age of Bane again. Before explaining why, I should note exactly what a darkenbeast is (and, for one thing, it is a lot darker than the picture above - from 3E's Monsters of Faerun - would indicate). A darkenbeast is simply a normal animal transformed by a Thayan spell (pre-4E) or ritual (4E) into a flying beast that resembles a cross between a wyvern and pterodactyl. They can only stay in darkenbeast form in areas of darkness. Sunlight causes them to revert to their natural form. 

Right now I am imagining an encounter which begins with the PCs discovering a pair of horses that have died apparently from falling from a great height. A little further along the PCs discover the remains of a merchant caravan that was apparently torn apart by wild beasts. Of course, the two scenes are linked. The horses were drawing one of the wagons before being transformed by Thayan wizards and let loose on the merchants. When the sun arose the next morning, the horse-darkenbeasts were still in the air when they were transformed back into obviously non-flying horses. When the Companion is corrupted in the final adventure of the Heroic Tier, perhaps every normal animal that its darkness touches is transformed into a darkenbeast... but what would be, in 3.xE terms, a darkenbeast beast of Bane. Something like this:

I also imagine that they will be fairly common encounters through the various Dread Ring fortresses/dungeons. Mechanically, I want to stick with the 5 hit dice they had in 2E and make them 5th-level skirmishers and essentially fairly boring. The most interesting thing about them is their link to the wizard that created them (that and their reversion to their normal form in sunlight).

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Dark Weavings - Expanding on the Crystal Shard Idea

Two nights ago I wrote a post about importing, as it were, the Dread Rings of Thay idea to Elturgard (and what I have been referring to as the Dark Weavings campaign) and having the Dread Ring be the means that Bane - rather than Szass Tam - is able to syphon off the power of the Companion and thus turn it into a thing of darkness.

Of course, this idea has nothing to do with the drow and thus nothing to do with the title Dark Weavings. As a result, a few hours after my Dread Ring post - which would result in the campaign being renamed The Black Age of Bane - I added the following to the same post:
In the three or so hours since I typed the above I have been thinking about how the same sort of outline might work if I still wanted to use drow as the principal antagonists. Obviously, there would be no Dread Ring nor do ghouls - true ghouls or otherwise - feel appropriate.

What could work is something like what happened to Sulasspryn as noted in the 2E supplement, The Moonsea. The drow are beneath Elturel and cause great sinkholes to open to swallow parts of the city. And in the midst of this unnatural disaster, a great spider-like temple rises up through the stone from the Underdark and, instead of an aspect of Bane syphoning off the power of the Companion, it is an aspect of Lolth.

If I go with this option, maybe I can also use the Crystal Shard. Instead of Dread Ring towers, I can have a series of Cryshal-Tirith towers created by Crenshinibon. And maybe the drow tricked the Zhents into thinking that they found the Crystal Shard when the reality is the drow want the Zhents to wield it. The drow knows its strengths and weaknesses but a Zhent Black Cloak soon discovers he is merely a pawn of the 'Shard.

If I run with this, I rather like the LFR-inspired idea that Crenshinibon is a splinter from the Shard of Evil at the heart of the Abyss. That also means that, if used to pierce the a vital place in the Demonweb Pits, it can cause the Lolth's astral realm to unravel as it seeks to reunite with its former abyssal home. That also makes for an interesting Paragon Tier adventure.

Perhaps it is a cleric of Waukeen (actually a thrall of Graz'zt) who suggests such a course of action to the PCs after Lolth's defeat at their hands. If so, that lets me run D1 Descent into the Depths of the Earth, D2 Shrine of the Kuo-toa, D3 Vault of the Drow and Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits - with a smattering of the 3E Dungeon adventure The Harrowing - just like I have wanted to do for close to three decades now.

And, in a perfect world, that would then segue into For Duty & Deity allowing the PCs to free Waukeen from Graz'zt's grasp. However, I have no idea how I would make that work for a low- mid-Paragon Tier party. (While I have already weakened the basic tanar'ri to a level matching their 1E hit dice, it still doesn't solve the problem of how to deal with the Dark Prince who is very much an Epic Tier entity. Unless, of course, he is distracted by the unravelling of the Demonweb Pits....)
One of the drawbacks of not knowing when I will start my new campaign - the Philippines is a rather long way from Australia! - is that I have lots of time to keep playing with ideas rather than settling down and actually running with them. I still really like the Dread Ring idea - after all, I just finished another post earlier tonight t organise my thoughts on making the Dread Ring the virtual centrepiece of a Neverwinter campaign - but I also want to make sure that when we do get around to choosing which campaign is going to be run that there is an option that focusses very much on the drow. And, as the quoted section shows, my idea for the Dark Weavings campaign is very drow-centric. 

The Caves of Chaos

There is a great post on Candlekeep by Ed Greenwood about Skull Gorge that makes it feel like the logical location for the Caves of Chaos from the classic adventure, B2 Keep on the Borderlands.

Skull Gorge is on the outskirts of Elturgard and may make for a logical staging ground for the gathering and training of humanoid troops. 

While I need to think this through some more to make sure I am getting the threat levels right, I rather like the idea of a location akin to the Caves of Chaos set in the Skull Gorge with a Zhent Black Cloak wielding Crenshinibon so that the Crystal Shard is attracting various evil humanoid races to itself. The first the folk of Elturgard know of this is when a crystal tower, a Cryshal-Tirith, appears on the horizon and disgorges orcs, ogres, goblins and hobgoblins under Zhent command. And before a retaliatory strike can be mounted, the crystal tower disappears taking the Zhent reavers with it. (I should also note that both the real sun and the Companion are slightly dimmed when Crenshinibon uses its power to create a duplicate tower. This is an important visual for the PCs.)

The PCs could be sent to Skull Gorge to see if this is the source of the raids or they may even follow the raiders back through the Crystal Shard. Suffice to say that it would be easy to fill two or more levels of advancement (taking the party from 1st-level to 3rd-level) with such an adventure.

Another option would be to save the appearance of the crystal towers for later and simply run a modified Raiders of Galath's Roost with the orc et al raiders appearing via a portal in a set of ruins on a hill.

Whichever way I go, I rather like the idea of the first adventure being a blend of the Caves of Chaos from B2 Keep on the Borderlands and Raiders of Galath's Roost. Note to self: make sure you include some drow allies of the Zhents as foreshadowing for later in the campaign. A shrine of Lolth infested with spiders would also be a nice touch.

The Carrion King

OK, so my basic motivation for this adventure idea is that I have a miniature of Yeenoghu and I want to use it. Of course, that's one of the basic motivations for The Black Age of Bane idea - except that involves an aspect of Bane miniature - so at least I'm being consistent....

I think I have posted this basic idea at least three times on this blog. It all comes down to this: using a combination of carrion - dead bodies - and the abyssal power of Crenshinibon, the Zhents summon (and bind) a minor aspect of Yeenoghu to lead the various gnoll tribes of the Reaching Woods as a single bestial horde that they will unleashed on Elturgard's paladins and other defenders.

Of course, my plan is for the party to slay the aspect of Yeenoghu and stop this horde from forming.

(Right now I definitely feel like I am going over old ground which was not really the point of this post.)

The Sinister Spire

One of the last adventures published for 3.5E was the rather good, The Sinister Spire. It was the second adventure of a trilogy than began with Barrow of the Forgotten King and finished with Fortress of the Yuan-ti. I can also see that the latter adventure could inspire a rather lengthy sidetrek to Najara but that would need to be the subject of another post. (And, note to self again, the BBEG would be the Myrkul-infused Crown of Horns and not the elder evil, Sertrous. It would probably fit quite well with what I have outlined for The Black Age of Bane especially if Bane is also seeking the reunite Jergal's power that was split between the Black Lord, Myrkul and Bhaal - noting that Bhaal's essence can be found near the Boaresky Bridge.)

The Underdark city in The Sinister Spire is a ruined centre for trade dominated dominated by the titular spire except that the spire belonged to a group of drow necromancers (hmmm, ideas also for The Black Age of Bane...). What if the spire is actually a temple of Lolth and it is located directly beneath Elturel and the Companion? The drow could use ancient primordial magic - perhaps rune magic stolen from the aboleth or the awakening of an earth titan (the latter idea is, of course, stolen almost wholesale from Orcs of Stonefang Pass) - to cause the spire to rise and pierce the Companion and turn it from a great shining light into an orb of eternal night. Perhaps Crenshinibon is also joined with/to the spire and it could even be stolen from the party as it becomes powerless when the Companion sheds darkness rather than light. (And it may very well be a cleric of Waukeen [actually a thrall of Graz'zt] who suddenly appears and suggests to the party that they recover the Crystal Shard and take it underground where it is powerless... before suggesting other things...).

It is the same primordial magic that is allowing the drow to cause tremors and sinkholes in Elturel. Perhaps the PCs gain access to the city of the Spire via one of the sinkholes? All this earth magic should see norkers make an appearance: can I combine them with Lolthbound goblins to create a Lolthbound norker monster?

Anyway, this is meant to be the final adventure of the Heroic Tier. It's tempting to let the PCs fail so that the Companion is corrupted in order to set the scene for a series of adventures culminating in the unravelling of the Demonweb Pits but that would be a horrible piece of railroading.

In this post, I haven't mentioned the presence of an aspect of Lolth. I'm just not seeing it at the moment but it does make sense because I cannot imagine her allowing one of her priestesses to win such a victory.

Of course, that raises another issue. Obviously a priestess of Lolth is present when the spire pierces the Companion but, until this point, I am assuming that a Zhent Black Cloak is the one wielding Crenshinibon. The simplest solution that springs to mind is that the drow take back the Crystal Shard by simply surrounding it and its wielder with magical darkness. This renders the 'Shard powerless so that the Zhent is easily slain and the 'Shard can taken into the unremitting darkness of the Underdark.

Summing up the Heroic Tier

I basically want to combine the Caves of Chaos from B2 Keep on the Borderlands with Raiders of Galath's Roost, throw in an adventure that resembles parts of the 1E Slave Lords A1-4 series and then conclude in an adventure that begins in the Underdark before moving to the surface and the darkened light of the corrupted Companion.

In between I want lots of action involving Zhents and drow, plus some gnolls and heretical paladins. I could throw in some werewolves for good measure (remembering that the Maiden of the Moon in the Feywild is also Eilistraee in disguise - and she may also want to see the Demonweb Pits unravelled) but otherwise I have a fairly small monster roster.

There are some very obvious gaps in the outline above - and it still doesn't feel as coherent as the Dread Ring-inspired The Black Age of Bane write-up from a couple of nights ago, but I do like the mix of Zhents, drow and the Crystal Shard.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Dark Weavings - What about a Dread Ring?

Further Ideas for Dark Weavings

Dread Ring

Dungeon 70 contained one of D&D's truly landmark adventures - Kingdom of the Ghouls - by Wolfgang Baur. It was so popular that it was also updated and expanded for 4E (the original was 2E) by Open Design, Wolfgang's company.

I mention this because for about 15 years now I have wanted to run something inspired by Kingdom of the Ghouls. Elturgard would be an interesting setting for such an adventure because, of course, it is protected from undead by the Companion, the second sun raised by Daelegoth Orndeir to the glory of Amaunator.

What if the Thayans determined that Elturgard was the perfect site for their next attempt at a Dread Ring? What if the Dread Ring ritual can be modified - and improved! - by using the Companion as a power source? Of course, that ritual would then leave the Companion as a thing of darkness hanging in the sky... and that is when the ghouls would appear from below ground.

The other thing about the Thayans is that the church of Bane has a special place in Thay as a result of the bargain struck by Szass Tam with the Black Lord. I have been wanting to have a clash between Bane and Cyric for a long time - tyranny versus strife - and Elturgard makes an interesting setting for this because of the presence of the Cyricist Zhentarim in Darkhold.

Furthermore, it may be that Bane is behind the Eye of Justice Heresy that has corrupted many of the Tormite paladins in Elturgard. Perhaps this is also part of Bane's plan for revenge against Torm for slaying his avatar in Tantras during the Time of Troubles?


One of the other things that attracted me to Elturgard as a potential setting for a campaign is the presence of gnolls in the Reaching Wood. 

Gnolls are (IMO) underused - although I used them a lot in 2E - but they are also really mechanically interesting in 4E.

The Thayans use a lot of gnolls in their armies. What if the Thayans promise their gnoll legions dominion over the Reaching Woods and the gnolls that dwell there in exchange for their support for the latest Dread Ring project? What if the Thayans also provide the gnolls with the means to summon a (minor) aspect of Yeenoghu in order to demonstrate their supremacy and right to rule over the gnolls of the Reaching Wood?

There is also a connection between gnolls and ghouls. In 1E, Yeenoghu was owed fealty by a tanar'ri lord, later named Doresain, who was the lord of ghouls. Doresain's loyalties changed over the editions - I forget the details - but Yeenoghu might be persuaded by the Thayans to lend his support for this endeavour in exchange for Doresain's renewed pledge of loyalty.

Obviously, the idea is not exactly developed as of now but I think it would be easy to build a link between the gnolls and the White Kingdom, as the kingdom of the ghouls is known.

Lord of the White Field & Bark at the Moon

4E's adventures have been pretty ordinary but one of the highlights has been Lord of the White Field from Dungeon 184. It was designed for 6th- to 8th-level characters and involves ghouls. If I run with the ideas in this post, I will have a logical reason to use this adventure.

There is also the two-part adventure Bark at the Moon from Dungeon 185 for 5th- to 7th-level characters. This involves werewolves and the werewolf infested Werewoods, formerly known as the Wood of Sharp Teeth, make up part of the western border of Elturgard. While no link with the ghouls or gnolls currently springs to mind, it would be an interesting adventure to run. Perhaps it is the Thayans building one of the Dread Ring towers that has disturbed the werewolves?

What about the Drow?

Of course, the problem with these new ideas - the Thayans and the ghouls - is how also fitting the drow into the story without it feeling too cramped. My original plan was to have the drow antagonists come from the sole Lolthite drow house - House Zauvirr - in Sshamath, the City of Dark Weavings, but perhaps I should have them come from Undrek'Thoz, the segmented drow city that is under Thay?

There have been alliances between the drow of Undrek'Thoz and Thay and this could simply be an extension of one of those alliances. One of the segment-cities of Undrek'Thoz is dominated by House Vrasl who are noted as being expert necromancers. Perhaps House Vrasl now owes fealty to Szass Tam and have sent some of their necromancers with the Thayans to Elturgard to assist with the construction of the Dread Ring? Perhaps they also have some experience with magic involving darkness? (And considering their racial powers, this makes sense.)

How Does This Look?

If I include the Thayans I will have the following power groups/organisations involved in this campaign:
  • the Darkhold Zhentarim;
  • the beholders of the Gauth Grottoes;
  • the drow of Sshamath (?);
  • the drow of Undrek'Thoz;
  • the Eye of Justice heretical paladins; and
  • the gnolls of the Reaching Woods.
Will this feel too crowded?

One big advantage, though: the nature of the Dread Ring - a series of fortresses - provides me with easy inspiration for adventure sites. It would be interesting if one of these fortresses was actually being built by Eye of Justice heretics. The PCs think they're in the stronghold of paladins of Torm only to discover that it is a site of great and monstrous evil! (I am also thinking one of the Dread Ring towers is located underground, directly beneath the companion, and is being built by Banite ghouls.)

(I should also add that I think that Banite runepriests - as opposed to cleric or warpriests - make a lot of sense when it comes to creating the Dread Ring. Rune magic should be a key component in the creation of a Dread Ring.)

Also, the presence of the Thayans adds another reason for opening the campaign with an adventure inspired by the original Slave Lords series. Rather than having the Zhents behind it - although there is nothing stopping their involvement - it could be a Thayan undertaking.

The more I type, the more I think this idea could work....

The Aspect of Bane

At several points during the brainstorming process, I had planned for the corruption of the Companion to be the catalyst for the summoning of an aspect of Bane. (After all, I have the miniature and it cost be quite a bit!)

The purpose of the Dread Ring is to suck the power out of a region and channel it to Szass Tam, ruler of Thay. Tam wants this power to fuel his apotheosis not simply out of a lust for power but because it's the only way to escape the bargain he made with the Black Lord.

What if, at the moment that the Dread Ring starts to drain the power from the Companion, an aspect of Bane is summoned? Rather than the unleashed power being diverted to Szass Tam, it is instead absorbed by Bane via his aspect. This is the reason for the presence of the Banite runepriests during the construction of the Dread Ring. It's also the primary reason that the centre of the Dread Ring is underground beneath the Companion because the ghouls of the White Kingdom are actually servants of Bane.

When this happens, the Black Age of Bane begins. The sun loses some of its brightness - after all, a massive blow has been struck against Amaunator now that the Companion has been not only extinguished but turned into a thing of unnatural darkness - and across Toril, temperatures fall. The Black Lord is truly ascendant.

If I go with this option, Dark Weavings is no longer an appropriate title. This campaign is truly better named:

Possible Adventure Synopses

The Carrion Caves
Levels 1-3
This is remarkably simple but it may actually work as the entire idea is based on the Caves of Chaos in the much-loved B2 Keep on the Borderlands.

There is a defile in the Reaching Woods surrounded by numerous caves. These caves may be the remnants of Netherese-era mines or even dwarven delves (there are dwarves in the Sunset Mountains and Far Hills).

Representatives of the gnoll tribes are gathering after receiving gnoll dread legionnaire emissaries from Thay (these have the dread warrior template from the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide - cf the section on Thay - and may also be half-vampires).

It boils down to this. The Thayans plan to have their gnolls summon an aspect of Yeenoghu (albeit a minor one). This will unite the gnolls of the Reaching Woods and the Thayans will be able to use them, more or less, at will.

The way I picture this adventure concluding is for the aspect of Yeenoghu to be successfully summoned in the middle of the defile so that all of the gnolls present can witness this. This happens while the PCs are also in the middle of the defile - possibly fighting a veritable horde of gnoll minions trying to prevent the summoning from happening - and then they have to face the Beast of Butchery himself.

If the PCs win, all of the gnolls present turn on each other making it easy for the PCs to fight their way to freedom. If the PCs lose, then any subsequent campaign set in this region will involve wandering gnoll packs led by undead Thayan gnolls.

The summoning of even a minor aspect of Yeenoghu requires a lot of fresh carrion. The Slave Lords - this may be a placeholder term - have been supplying the Thayan gnolls with slaves and they are currently manacled to a series of sacrificial rocks in the defile. The PCs are fighting for the lives of these slaves. Not all will live but it will make for an interesting gaming story later.

The Slave Lords of Scornubel
Levels 3-5

The rescue of the slaves from the Carrion Caves should put the PCs on the trail of the Slave Lords. Going with an earlier idea, these should be traceable to the Dungeon of the Inquisitor in Elturel.

Frankly, I will just use my earlier notes for this.

The Dread Ring Forts
Levels 5-7

I think I can get two Dread Ring fortresses into one adventure.

The first one is actually a Zhent fortress, or so the Zhents think. The Cyricist Zhents don’t realise there are Banite Zhents in their midst who have allied themselves with the Thayan Banites. The first adventure is a simple “clear the dungeon (fortress)” exercise and the primary enemy is the Zhentarim.

The second one is in the Werewoods so I can use werewolves in conjunction with the Thayan Banites. They are linked by portal and the portal key is an unholy symbol of Bane or the words of Bane’s dogma.

This second tower may also include drow necromancers of House Vrasl plus their House soldiers.

Of course, the PCs may at this point be wondering what is going on. I don’t want them to really uncover the Dread Ring plot yet and I am thinking that they aren’t able to undo the Dread Ring network. That leaves following the clues I need to include to lead them underground into....

The White Kingdom
Levels 7-9

This should basically rip-off Wolfgang Baur’s masterpiece from Dungeon 70... except that it ends in the middle of the ghoul’s capital city where there is a tower very similar in form to the two towers or fortresses of the previous adventure but which is also clearly a temple of Bane.

Anyway, the bulk of this adventure is set in the Underdark. Now I have a good story-based reason for including Uzaglu, the myconid vampire, from one of the 2E Dungeon magazines.

(I would like to include an event involving the PCs acquiring dire bat mounts so they can fly through the White Kingdom. Something about this visual appeals to me.)

The Dread Temple
Levels 9-11

I need to think some more about how this adventure will work but this is how I see it concluding.

Two Thayan liches with various undead minions appear on the top of the temple to fight the PCs. (Alternatively, this battle could be against a lich vestige of Szass Tam - created as a level-appropriate elite or solo rather than a 26th-level minion.) While this is happening, the Dread Ring temple rises up through the earth directly into the centre of Elturel, appearing beneath the Companion the light of which is strangely muted due to the dark energies being shed by the Dread Ring temple.

With the defeat of the Thayans, the light of the Companion flares briefly once more and the PCs receive the benefit of an extended rest plus one or more boons. As this happens, an aspect of Bane appears and starts to devour the Companion.

The PCs must now fight the aspect of Bane. It is a fairly potent solo. It may be possible with powers or appropriate skill checks to weaken the aspect by “disconnecting” it from the Companion. Followers of Amaunator, in particular, are going to have a better chance of this and also an intuitive understanding that this is possible; ditto for followers of Torm.

An army of true ghouls from the White Kingdom begins to rampage through Elturel while the party fights the aspect of the Black Lord. If the aspect is still standing after a certain number of rounds then the Companion is lost. The aspect roars in triumph and disappears while the Companion hangs overhead shedding an unholy darkness. All the PCs can do now is escape... but there is still the Paragon Tier if they wish to fix what they failed to stop.

If the PCs successfully defeat the aspect of Bane in the time allowed, the Companion returns to its former glory and the true ghoul army bursts into flames as the Companion’s light removes their undead flesh from existence. This is a tremendous achievement for the PCs and they will receive numerous rewards from the High Observer and Elturgard. After all, the PCs have stopped the Black Age of Bane from happening.

This would make a more than satisfying conclusion to the Heroic Tier and I would be happy to end the campaign there.

Reskinning the Outline to be more Drow-centric

In the three or so hours since I typed the above I have been thinking about how the same sort of outline might work if I still wanted to use drow as the principal antagonists. 

Obviously, there would be no Dread Ring nor do ghouls - true ghouls or otherwise - feel appropriate. 

What could work is something like what happened to Sulasspryn as noted in the 2E supplement, The Moonsea. The drow are beneath Elturel and cause great sinkholes to open to swallow parts of the city. And in the midst of this unnatural disaster, a great spider-like temple rises up through the stone from the Underdark and, instead of an aspect of Bane syphoning off the power of the Companion, it is an aspect of Lolth.

If I go with this option, maybe I can also use the Crystal Shard. Instead of Dread Ring towers, I can have a series of Cryshal-Tirith towers created by Crenshinibon. And maybe the drow tricked the Zhents into thinking that they found the Crystal Shard when the reality is the drow want the Zhents to wield it. The drow knows its strengths and weaknesses but a Zhent Black Cloak soon discovers he is merely a pawn of the 'Shard.

If I run with this, I rather like the LFR-inspired idea that Crenshinibon is a splinter from the Shard of Evil at the heart of the Abyss. That also means that, if used to pierce the a vital place in the Demonweb Pits, it can cause the Lolth's astral realm to unravel as it seeks to reunite with its former abyssal home.

That also makes for an interesting Paragon Tier adventure. Perhaps it is a cleric of Waukeen (actually a thrall of Graz'zt) who suggests such a course of action to the PCs after Lolth's defeat at their hands. If so, that lets me run D1 Descent into the Depths of the Earth, D2 Shrine of the Kuo-toa, D3 Vault of the Drow and Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits - with a smattering of the 3E Dungeon adventure The Harrowing - just like I have wanted to do for close to three decades now.

And, in a perfect world, that would then segue into For Duty & Deity allowing the PCs to free Waukeen from Graz'zt's grasp. However, I have no idea how I would make that work for a low- mid-Paragon Tier party. (While I have already weakened the basic tanar'ri to a level matching their 1E hit dice, it still doesn't solve the problem of how to deal with the Dark Prince who is very much an Epic Tier entity. Unless, of course, he is distracted by the unravelling of the Demonweb Pits....)