This is the final part of my look at the factions in the Forgotten Realms for D&D 5E, and I’ve saved what I believe is the best for last. This week I look at the Zhentarim.
Zhentarim History in Faerun
The Zhentarim have been a major element in the Forgotten Realms for hundreds of years, and have been at odds with the heroes of the Realms for a great deal of that history.
Zhentil Keep itself grew out of a small trading camp, expanded with fortifications in 747 DR and then purchased by a group of 12 Sembian merchants. In 751 DR, a powerful merchant named Elephstron invited the wizard Zhentar to come live in the city that had grown up around the keep. As part of their agreement, the merchants created a governing council and gave Zhentar a seat with equal status.
Zhentar soon took over the council, killing the merchants and replacing them with wizards and a merchant-priest named Brest who raised a shrine to Bane. Elephstron and Zhentar fought and killed each other, and the remaining council came to an agreement on how the keep would be governed going forward. They concocted a story that made Zhentar into a hero of the city, and renamed the hold Zhentil Keep.
Zhentil Keep continued to expand both militarily and economically. The council pursued their ambition to become the largest power on the Moonsea and control trade in the region.
1260 DR saw the ascension of Manshoon and Chess to the council, and they supported their friend Fzoul Chembryl’s rise through the ranks of Bane’s priesthood. By the following year, they had created the Zhentarim, or Black Network. Within three years, Fzoul Chembryl had declared his Black Altar in Zhentil Keep as the new head of the Banite church, and many priests of Bane became members of the Zhentarim.
Manshoon eventually made an alliance with the beholder Xantriph who lived in a floating rock near Teshendale. Manshoon convinced the Banite priests that the rock was a conduit to the gods, and the Banites flocked to the rock to speak with “Bane” and confess their sins. Xantriph provided the “voice” of Bane and learned of many plots from the priests’ confessions, which he reported back to Manshoon.
The Citadel of the Raven was rebuilt in 1276 DR and garrisoned by a force comprised of soldiers from each of the major cities on the Moonsea, including Zhentil Keep.
In 1312 DR, the Zhentarim took control of Darkhold after Manshoon defeated the lich-queen Varella and it became the third major base of operations for the organization. 25 years later, Manshoon declared himself to be the High Lord of Zhentil Keep.
Eventually, in 1355 DR, the Zhentarim betrayed the alliance of the Moonsea and their forces seized control of the Citadel of the Raven. However, three years later Bane was slain during the Time of Troubles. Cyric became the main god of the former Banites, and Fzoul assumed the position as Cyric’s high priest. Manshoon sheltered some Banites who refused to convert at Darkhold and the Citadel.
Manshoon continued to move the Zhentarim into the Citadel of the Raven, and by 1361 DR it was their main base of operations.
In 1370 DR, Fzoul Chembryl and Lord Orgauth (a pit fiend) combined forces and slew Manshoon. Fzoul consolidated his power and took control of the Zhentarim.
In 1372 DR, Bane re-emerged and Fzoul switched his worship back to his original god. Sememmon, the leader of Darkhold, fled from the Zhentarim as Fzoul established full control over the Zhentarim with the power of his god at his back. A clone of Manshoon returned to the Zhentarim and submitted fully to the rule of Fzoul Chembryl.
Fzoul continued to try to expand the influence of the Zhentarim, allying with the drow to invade Shadowdale, and eventually attempting to ally with the phaerimm. When the Netherese returned to Faerun, this second alliance led them to destroy both Zhentil Keep and the Citadel of the Raven, slaying Fzoul and shattering the Zhentarim organization.
In 1434 DR, the last remaining Manshoon clone (and a vampire lord) raised an army of undead and took over the citadel of Stormwatch. He gathered the remaining remnants of the Zhentarim to himself and again took control of the organization. Over the following years, he used Stormwatch and Darkhold as the main bases for the Zhentarim.
By 1489 DR, the Zhentarim have mostly become a mercenary organization, taking contracts for pay as Manshoon attempts to rebuild the Zhents into a major force once again.
The Zhentarim in Published Sources
The Zhentarim have been around since the very first Forgotten Realms Campaign Set (grey box) in 1987. As the organization was used as a villainous enemy for player characters to run up against in the Realms, they appeared in many adventures and sourcebooks over the following years. Some of the products featuring a fair amount of Zhentarim information include:
- Castles (boxed set) has information on Darkhold (1993)
- Ruins of Zhentil Keep is one of the best sources of information on the Zhentarim and incorporates some of the article material published by Ed Greenwood in Polyhedron magazine (1995)
- Cloak & Dagger is a great sourcebook for Realms games, and features an update on the organization after the fall of Manshoon (2000)
- Lords of Darkness updates the Zhentarim for the 3rd edition of D&D (2001)
- Mysteries of the Moonsea contains further information on the Zhents (2006)
- Grand History of the Realms is a great source for anyone running a Realms game who wants to incorporate some history into their campaign (2007)
- During the 4th edition era, WotC published both a Forgotten Realms Players Guide and Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide (2008). Both books contain information on the Zhentarim.
- The Zhentarim have also been featured in many Forgotten Realms novels, though mostly as antagonists arrayed against the heroes.
Using the Zhentarim in Your Campaign
The Zhentarim have the following main beliefs:
- The Zhentarim is your family. You watch out for it, and it watches out for you.
- You are the master of your own destiny. Never be less than what you deserve to be.
- Everything—and everyone—has a price.
Their goals are “to amass wealth, power, and influence.”
Each of the published adventures for the 5th edition have opportunities for the player characters to make friendly contact with the Zhentarim. In earlier eras, this is less likely unless the PCs are playing characters who lean more towards the evil side of the spectrum. However, regardless of what era in which your game is set, the Zhents can make temporary allies of convenience depending on the situation. The Realms is full of threats, and the PCs can easily find themselves fighting a threat that the Zhents agree needs to be destroyed.
Example Adventure: The PCs are in the Moonsea region and discover that the Cult of the Dragon is searching for an ancient magical artifact that will cause another Flight of Dragons to scour the region. Having lost much during the previous flight, the Zhentarim will certainly want to prevent his from happening again. The PCs find that no other force is near enough to lend them aid when they take on the Cult, and so they must make a temporary alliance with the Zhents for assistance. Needless to say, the Zhentarim are likely to betray the PCs once the threat is passed, attempting to take the artifact for themselves.
The Zhentarim really come into their own as a force the PCs can fight against. During most of the eras of the game, they work as an organization that has its hand in pretty much anything nefarious the PCs might come across. Some examples include:
- A rival group of explorers trying to find a magical treasure in an area
- Oppressors of a small town or village
- Assassinations of prominent enemies
- Raiders of rival merchant houses
- Spies in cities across the Moonsea region
- Riling up evil humanoids (e.g. orc hordes) to sweep through an area to “soften it up” for Zhent occupation
- Pursuing a target for capture (such as their pursuit of Shandril Shessair in Ed Greenwood’s novels Spellfire, Crown of Fire, and Hand of Fire)
During the current Realms timeline, the Zhentarim are a shadow of their former selves. However, their goals are still to gain economic control over the Realms and they are willing to perform evil acts to accomplish those goals. Therefore, most of the above suggestions still work, though the nature of the forces arrayed against the PCs will be different.
Characters as Members
In the current edition of the game, the Zhentarim are a faction that player characters may choose to join. One does not necessarily have to be evil to be a member of the organization, though a certain flexibility of morals will help. This is definitely not a faction for paladins or clerics of good gods.
If one or more PCs do wish to join the Zhentarim, you may want to implement the rules for Factions from the Adventurers League program. The PCs will be able to earn renown and gain ranks in the organization, which will give them rewards—either those from the program or more specific rewards of your own devising.
The Zhentarim Campaign
It’s certainly possible for the DM to run a campaign where the player characters are members of the Zhentarim from the very beginning. The DM may choose to give all the PCs the Faction Agent background for free (thus giving each character two backgrounds), or perhaps may simply give each PC the Safe Haven feature and the faction-specific equipment and not any of the other benefits of an extra background.
Obviously, a Zhentarim-based campaign is easiest when the PCs are not good-aligned characters. The kinds of missions the Zhentarim will give their members can include simple guard-and-escort jobs or exploration of new trade routes, but the more common missions for PC parties will usually involve objectives like spying on rivals, sabotaging the equipment, goods, or plans of other merchants and mercenary companies, intimidating people into cooperating with the organization, stealing, assassinations, and other typical evil acts.
However, another option is to have the PCs be members of the organization with the goal of guiding it into the light. Perhaps there is a small cabal within the organization who feel that there is a better way to be successful, and they want to save the Zhentarim from Manshoon and the other vampire lords who control it. The PCs are recruited into this secretive group and tasked with finding ways to have the Zhentarim become a positive force for good in the Realms by subtly altering the outcomes of their missions.
Such a campaign could provide a great deal of tension and the feel of a thriller spy story as the PCs work from within an organization that would probably kill them if their true mission was discovered. But it also provides a nearly endless supply of adventure ideas, such as providing assistance to those who do not engage in evil acts so that they can be promoted up the chain of command, sabotaging efforts to oppress or control innocent settlements, making secret alliances with other good groups (like the Harpers), eliminating the most evil of the members in a quiet manner (assassinations for the good of the Realms), and ultimately going up against Manshoon and the remaining vampire lords at the top of the organization.
I’ve used the Zhentarim as a source of opposition for PCs in my home campaigns for decades. While they don’t have the immense presence and power that they had in earlier eras, they can still provide a fun antagonist that the PCs will enjoy defeating time after time. The fact that not all members are necessarily evil means the DM can set up moral dilemmas for the characters, and explore the ramifications of an organization led by evil vampires that is willing to do good when it is profitable.
How have you used the Zhentarim in your campaign? Are they solely enemies for the PCs or do you have them be occasional allies when the situation warrants it? Tell us about your game in the comments.