Sunday, 15 September 2013

Stat Blocks - Zhents, Part Two

This is the second in an irregular series of posts containing stat blocks for Zhents in my campaign. The first post is here.

I will again state that these are lower level than the Zhents in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide but that's the result of a conscious decision on my part to lower the level of monsters to make them better suited to a Heroic Tier campaign (and also to better match their 1E hit dice, if appropriate).

Zhent Battlelord
The Zhent battlelord is a legacy of the Banite training of many in the Zhent ranks before the Spellplague. According to FRE1 Shadowdale, battlelords were 4th-level clerics of Bane that are implied to function something like a high-ranked NCO or low-ranked officer.

The battletide aura, in particular, ensures that they do a good job of locking down their area of the battlefield. Battletide is a spell include under Iyachtu Xvim in 2E's Faiths & Avatars but it has been noted in other books that it is a Banite spell. And now it would appear in my campaign that the Cyricists have duplicated it.

Zhent Cutthroat
Zhent cutthroats are the basic Zhent assassin. They cut throats, it's as simple as that, but they're also quite effective at moving around the battlefield due to tumble.

Zhent Groundling
Groundlings are a creation of the Zhents of Darkhold involving the perverse magical blending of badger and dwarven stock. Nevertheless, for generations they have been a particularly useful Zhent assassin noted for their obedience as much as their ability to sneak into almost any fortress, building or settlement. 

Zhent Guard
Zhent guards are your basic polearm-wielding sentries, designed to stop Zhent enemies from passing through doors, gates or even portals. They have good battlefield control but at the expense of an absence of ranged attacks.

Zhent Messenger Snake
The Zhent messenger snake is more of a story device than a monster to fight and yet it could possibly make an effective assassin. It is also a conversion of a 2E monster.

As my plans are purely to use it as a story device, it is basically designed to be able to escape... and woe to the brawler fighter PC that tries to grab it! 

Monday, 9 September 2013

Land Under Shadow - A New Campaign

The Headless Zhent
If I kept a formal D&D/Forgotten Realms bucket list, one of the things on that list would be to run a traditional Ed Greenwood-like campaign set in the Dalelands - specifically Shadowdale - involving the Zhentarim, the drow and the PCs acting as foils against both.

Shadowdale featured quite heavily in the first two boxed sets for the Forgotten Realms: the legendary Old Grey Box included, inter alia, a census of Shadowdale's inhabitants while the revised campaign setting gave Shadowdale its own separate booklet that also included an adventure involving drow beneath the Twisted Tower.

It's the latter adventure, and Shadowdale: The Scouring of the Land - the updated and heavily revised version published for 3.5E, that I particularly want to draw upon for my Land Under Shadow campaign. (By the way, Land Under Shadow was a former name for Shadowdale when it was under drow rule.)


The year is 1479 DR, the Year of the Ageless One, the first year of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide for 4E. This is a post-Spellplague campaign.

The year before the campaign starts, Elminster and Manshoon destroy each other in spell-battle. This battle spills over and also destroys Elminster's tower which is now a ruin... but a high magic ruin. Picture the stones of the tower whirling around each other like some strange, vaguely tower-shaped asteroid field with flashes of silver runes and blue flames intermittently bursting forth.

This sets the scene for what happens next. Shadowdale is now without powerful protectors - Elminster is now dead and the Knights of Myth Drannor are either long dead or long gone - and that makes room for the PCs to play the role the Knights of Myth Drannor once did, assuming that they want to do so.

Manshoon's death has created a leadership vacuum in the Zhentarim... which is filled by Manshoon. A much weaker clone of Manshoon has been awakened by a beholder mage and is quietly rebuilding his personal power even as he manipulates the Zhentarim to become the Black Network it once was and not just loosely affiliated bands of petty mercenaries under the "leadership" of Cyric-worshippers.... 

Old families of Zhentil Keep who took refuge across the Moonsea region after its destruction by the Netherese are now back in the 'Keep and rebuilding the city that was once the home of their families. They do not know that the Zhentarim are being rebuilt concurrently... and using the trade being driven by the 'Keep's rebuilding to rebuild the Black Network as an economic force.

Zhents have infiltrated Shadowdale once again - Daggerdale is already under their control - and plan to conquer the dale directly or indirectly so as to control all of the trade routes leading to Zhentil Keep. And the indirect path to conquest is to let their new-found drow allies do the dirty work for them....

House Xorlarrin drow from Menzoberranzan have made the long journey by portal to the tunnels beneath the Twisted Tower of Ashaba at the behest of Lolth. It seems the key to Lolth's plan to create a Demon Weave lies within three altars once used by House Dhuurniv drow during the Sharran plot to tear the Weave in the decade before the Spellplague. Those altars need to be reclaimed and reactivated to birth the Demon Weave....

And the PCs stumble into all of this. There are Zhents on one side of Shadowdale and drow on the other, more or less. An alliance between the two - there is an existing alliance but it is fairly limited in scope - could be devastating for Shadowdale and it will be up to the PCs to stop this and the nascent Demon Weave. Or not.

13th Age

My plans for the Land Under Shadow campaign include a Caves of Chaos-like area - as in, the caves from B2 Keep on the Borderlands - that would allow the PCs to make repeated forays without having to, necessarily give too much thought to the larger plot. In other words, the area is set up to provide a series of scaling dungeon delves that would probably suit a group of new players as much as I hope to make it work for my veteran players.

Over the past few days I've been looking at the wonderful new d20-ish game 13th Age by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet and thinking about how to adapt it to the Forgotten Realms simply because it looks to be incredibly suitable for new players. 

The combination of the one unique thing, player-created backgrounds in place of skills and icon relationships - not to mention a character generation that is elegant in its combination of customisation, crunch and simplicity - makes it look like it's actually a game I could use to introduce new players to fantasy RPGs... but still have a game they could still keep playing once they became RPG veterans. (4E is still my favourite fantasy RPG but that doesn't certainly doesn't blind me to the merits of 13th Age - or how much 13th Age demonstrates what a dud Wizards of the Coast has D&D Next aka Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition).

I just want to make a few comments about these three things - one unique thing, player-created backgrounds in place of skills and icon relationships - in the context of the Land Under Shadow campaign and an idea I had for one of the PCs.

In 4E terms, I was thinking of a human (race) paladin of Torm, fighter or warlord (class) who was a (former) Purple Dragon knight (character theme) who had been personally disgraced because his uncle or older cousin, the commander of his unit, had turned traitor betraying his unit and the nation of Cormyr to the Zhents and then fleeing from Cormyrean justice into the Dalelands  (my plan at the moment is for this renegade to now be the new lord of Daggerdale which is where I plan to set a possible continuation of the Land Under Shadow). The PC would have resigned his commission in the Purple Dragons to come to the Dalelands and bring his relative to justice thus restoring his personal and family honour.

How could I make this work in 13th Age?
One Unique Thing
I am a noble of knightly rank of House Cormaeril but am in disgrace as a result of the treachery of my uncle/older cousin and now seek to bring him to justice.
  • Purple Dragon knight +5 (military tactics, horses, etiquette, diplomacy, history of Cormyr)
  • disgraced noble +3 (sense lies/motives, penetrate disguise, disguise, dissemble for the greater good)
  • House Cormaeril, positive relationship, 1 point
  • The King of Cormyr, conflicted relationship, 1 point (the PC's goal is to turn this into a positive relationship)
  • The Zhentarim, negative relationship, 1 point
It's a really interesting way to put a character together and, I think, something that a new player can readily grasp. It's also interesting looking at the 13th Age version of the character and then using that to further information the 4E version of the PC. (I might do that for the existing 4E characters in my Neverwinter: Year of the Ageless Ones campaign and see what insights it provides me as the DM in terms of what other story options to offer the characters.)

Friday, 6 September 2013

More Names by Ed Greenwood - now there are 3,364...

Here's the latest of my irregularly updated lists of names invented by Ed. (This is the link.)

After all, why settle for a master villain named Bartholomew?

Stat Blocks - Derro

I've really liked the derro since 1E's S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth where they made an appearance in the mini-monster manual that accompanied the adventure. Funnily enough, I don't think I have ever actually seen them in play, either with me as the DM or on those very few occasions in the past 32+ years that I have actually been a player.

Scratch that thought: I used them once in a 3.5E campaign and their leader was a half-illithid derro bard who played a small bonethriven (this is an illithid instrument described in 2E's The Illithiad) as his bardic instrument.

They have made an appearance in 4E in Monster Manual 3 but, like practically all the other Underdark monsters in 4E, they're now low- to mid-Paragon Tier creatures. Oh well, not in my Realms. They started with 3 hit dice in 1E so they're going to be level 3 monsters in my games...:

This is the basic derro, a nasty little skirmisher. I haven't thought of a basic racial trait/attack/utility power yet other than them being harmed by sunlight (a 3E innovation, IIRC). It's actually based off the derro miniature I have.

Derro Mad Bolter
I'm rather interested to see what blinding barrage looks like in operation. This could be a rather nasty creature to fight.

Derro Hookguard
For those of us who remember the earlier 1E art for the derro, the crouched derro with the hooked polearm is probably the picture we would remember seeing. Despite it using a polearm, I couldn't justify giving a Small creature reach hence the range being melee 1. It should be an effective soldier with its combination of grab then prone.

Derro Savant
One of the random spells that a derro savant could have in 1E was wall of force so I wanted to keep that... even though it seems that it is an Epic-level power in 4E. I kept it anyway. The other powers are based off the 4E version of the savant. In reality, this stat block is very much a work-in-progress that I will review over the next month or so. Of course, by then I may have had a chance to actually playtest it with my group. I'm particularly interested to see if wall of force is game-breaking....

Stat Blocks - Zhents, Part One

I have mentioned before that I am trying to reduce the level of 4E monsters to match the hit dice that they had in 1E, more or less. This also has a knock-on effect with other published 4E stat blocks, such as the Zhents that appeared in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide, because they're probably too powerful as rank-and-file members of that organisation.

As a result, I've prepared a number of my own Zhent stat blocks to better match the power level of my campaigns.

Zhent Recruit
The Zhent recruit is likely to be the weakest Zhent that the party fights. The combination of the Unaligned alignment and the flee peril power, not to mention the fact that they are minions, is meant to suggest that they are not yet fully committed to the Zhent cause.

Zhent Mercenary
The Zhent mercenary is meant to represent a common Zhent soldier. It is based off the Zhent soldier that appears in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide but I have reduced its level and added a couple of powers that came from the Mercenary character theme.

Unlike the Zhent recruit, the Zhent mercenary is Evil. This is a hardened sellsword who will do whatever it takes under the Zhent banner.

Zhent Reaver
The Zhent reaver was actually inspired by the Zhent Champion miniature. I had always thought of Zhents are being sword-and-shield soldiers but that miniature has a Zhent wielding what is probably a bastard sword and no shield. Rather than creating a champion I decided to make it into something more akin to a barbarian. I also drew some inspiration - if not one or two of the powers - from the Reaver character theme.

The reaver's rampage power comes from the tanarukk entry in Monster Manual 3, and it is something that I also incorporated in my own version of the tanarukk posted on this blog.

Zhent Outrider
Like the Zhent reaver, this stat block was inspired by a miniature, in this case the Zhent Cavalry figure. Rather than statting up the rider and mount separately, I decided to combine them into a single elite creature. I haven't playtested it yet to see if it works but it looks like it does.

Zhent Jack
The LFR adventure, QUES1-1 Black Cloaks & Bitter Rivalries, mentions that what I assume is the equivalent of a Zhent sergeant is actually called a jack. 

(Power of Faerûn provided a detailed list of Zhentilar ranks for the 3.5E era which are not used in the post-Spellplague era. For the purpose of my campaign, I treat the modern Zhents as a shadow of the former Zhentarim with less precise organisation due to the strong Cyricist influence... but when the Banite influence returns, the structure of the Zhentarim including the old ranks will also be returning.)

I see the Zhent jack as a battle-hardened veteran who is both ruthless with the troops under his command (unabashed treachery) but also capable of seeing them through hard fighting (cf hold your guts in!). Again, the stat block has not yet been playtested but I think it will work well with a dozen or so Zhent recruits in particular.

Zhent War Dog
My final Zhent stat block for this post is for a Zhent war dog. This was also inspired by a miniature. What I thought was a War Dog miniature is actually a Hyena miniature: I would never have guessed!

Again, this stat block is unplaytested but it looks like it will do its job as a soldier and protect Zhent magelings etc....