|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.
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.)