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.)

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