Factions in D&D 5E – The Zhentarim

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:

  1. The Zhentarim is your family. You watch out for it, and it watches out for you.
  2. You are the master of your own destiny. Never be less than what you deserve to be.
  3. Everything—and everyone—has a price.

Their goals are “to amass wealth, power, and influence.”

As Allies

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.

As Enemies

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.



Factions in D&D 5E – The Lords’ Alliance

I’ve been writing about how to use the Forgotten Realms factions in your D&D 5E home campaigns recently, and this week I’m going to focus on the Lords’ Alliance.

The Lords’ Alliance History

The Lord’s Alliance was founded in 1325 DR as a partnership among many cities along the Sword Coast, in the north, and in the western heartlands. The first leader was Lord Piergeiron of Waterdeep, and their goal was the unified defense of northern cities and the promotion of their economic interests.

The Alliance was allied with the Harpers, and were often at odds with the Zhentarim, Luskan, Amn, and Calimshan.

In 1358 DR, the Lords’ Alliance was instrumental in expelling Luskan’s forces from Ruathym through both diplomatic and military pressure. Further threats of war were needed again against Luskan in 1361 DR for the same reason.

By 1372 DR, when the Thayan Guild of Foreign Trade started selling magic items across Faerun, the Lords’ Alliance kept individual members under surveillance in order to learn more about their goals and ensure that they were not engaging in evil or illegal activities.

During that era, the Lords’ Alliance regularly found themselves working against the Zhentarim, usually through the efforts of adventurers that they would hire to raid Zhentarim strongholds.

From 1467-1488 DR, the leader of the Lords’ Alliance was Lord Protector Dagult Neverember, who was replaced by Laeral Silverhand.

In the modern era, the Lords’ Alliance continues to operate much as it has in the past, with a notable exception. Instead of just hiring adventurers on a case-by-case basis to deal with rising threats, the Lords’ Alliance maintains permanent members who work on Lords’ Alliance matters regularly. Adventurers who perform a task for the Lords’ Alliance successfully may be asked to formally join the organization.

The Lords’ Alliance in Published Sources

Like the Harpers, the Lords’ Alliance appeared in the very first Forgotten Realms boxed set for first edition AD&D. More information was presented in the first edition Forgotten Realms sourcebook FR5 The Savage Frontier in 1988. Much material was repeated in the 2nd edition sourcebooks Volo’s Guide to the North and The North: Guide to the Savage Frontier.

During 3rd edition, mention was made of the Lords’ Alliance in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting book, Lords of Darkness, and Lost Empires of Faerun.

There are a few mentions of the Lords’ Alliance in the Grand History of the Realms.

While the organization is not mentioned directly in 4th edition’s Neverwinter Campaign Setting book, there is information about the Alliance’s leader, Lord Protector Dagult Neverember.

Using the Lords’ Alliance in Your Campaign

The members of the Lords’ Alliance have the following main beliefs:

  1. If civilization is to survive, all must unite against the dark forces that threaten it.
  2. Glory comes from protecting one’s home and honoring its leaders.
  3. The best defense is a strong offense.

Their goals are “to ensure the safety and prosperity of the cities and other settlements of Faerûn by forming a strong coalition against the forces that threaten all, eliminate such threats by any means necessary whenever and wherever they arise, and be champions of the people.”

As Allies

Player characters who spend a good deal of time in the Sword Coast region or the North will likely find themselves involved in adventures that touch on Lords’ Alliance interests. Those who make contact with the Alliance will find that it can be a good source of information and support as long as the PCs continue to work to stabilize the region.

Example Adventure: Rumors are that the Zhentarim have established a new base of operations in the North. Coincidentally, orc tribes have been attacking and raiding caravans travelling through the region, though they only seem to target merchants who do not use Zhent guards. The Lords’ Alliance hires the PCs to investigate the situation and determine if there is a connection between the Zhents and the increased attacks by the orcs.

As Enemies

Should the PCs ally themselves with the Zhentarim, they will by definition become enemies of the Lords’ Alliance. Those characters who attempt to establish their own settlements in the region may find themselves at odds with the Lords’ Alliance depending on how they choose to manage their towns or villages.

Characters as Members

Once the PCs have been hired once or twice by the Lords’ Alliance and successfully completed missions for the organization, they may be offered membership. In this case, the DM may want to implement the rules for factions from the Adventurer’s League program. The Lords’ Alliance will occasionally give the PCs missions to complete, and their success on these missions will earn them renown within the organization, granting them benefits as they advance in rank. You can use the specific rewards from the AL program, or you can make your own list of benefits that are tailored to the Lords’ Alliance and your specific PCs and their adventures.

The Lords’ Alliance is one of the better organizations for those players who want to maintain their freedom. If they are adventuring in the region, they will likely find themselves running up against threats to the settlements in the area, which provides them with an opportunity to do the work of the Lords’ Alliance as part of their regular adventuring activities. This gives the DM flexibility to nudge the characters in certain directions on occasion, but allow them great freedom in where they choose to travel.

The Lords’ Alliance Campaign

Like any of the other factions, the characters could be created as members of the Lords’ Alliance from the very beginning of the campaign. An easy way is to give all the PCs the Faction Agent background for free (thus giving each character two backgrounds). Alternately, the DM may just decide that the PCs gain the Safe Haven feature and the faction-specific equipment and not any of the other benefits of an extra background.

A campaign focused on Lords’ Alliance business can provide a wide variety of opportunities for adventure, and accommodates the widest range of character classes in the party. As the goals of the organization are fairly open-ended, adventures can involve exploring, dungeon delving, spying, tracking down and catching criminals, diplomatic encounters with local rulers, or pretty much anything that touches on the goals of the organization.


The Lords’ Alliance has been around a long time, and its goals are fairly open-ended. This provides some great opportunities for the DM to use the Alliance as a source of potential adventure hooks for nearly any kind of adventure in any location around the Sword Coast and the North.

How have you used the Lords’ Alliance in your own home campaign? Were they allies or enemies of the PCs? Tell us about your game in the comments.

Factions in D&D 5E – The Emerald Enclave

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been discussing the Factions that appear in the Forgotten Realms for D&D 5E.

This week, I’m going to take a look at the Emerald Enclave.

Emerald Enclave History in Faerun

The Emerald Enclave was founded in the Year of the Thoughtful Man (374 DR) in the Vilhon Reach—on the island of Ilighon—by a group of druids prior to 717 DR. They were established as a powerful force when they defeated the Turmish forces sent to engage them by a conclave of wizards known as the Windlass.

In 1150 DR, the Emerald Enclave comes to the aid of the cities of the Vilhon Reach when the mohrg Borran Klosk raises undead armies to attack those cities. The druids of the Enclave cause the Alaeorum River to rise at the Battle of Morningstar Hollows, flooding the invading armies.

In 1358 DR, Silvanus provided his special blessing to the island of Ilighon.

The mohrg Borran Klosk rose again in 1370 DR and summoned an army of drowned ones to sack Alaghon. Haarn Brightoak and the Emerald Enclave came to Alaghon’s aid.

By 1372 DR, the Emerald Enclave had begun to establish splinter cells in other major forests across Faerun—the High Forest ,Cormanthor, Wealdath, and the Forests of the Great Dale. A series of portals were established to link Ilighon to each of the other locations, though the portal in Cormanthor was soon lost (disguised by misdirection and permanency spells to prevent it from being used by drow in the region).

Shadowmoon Crystalembers was the elven representative on the Elder Circle of the Emerald Enclave when the Spellplague hit in 1385 DR. She succumbed to a Shar-induced madness and changed her name to Cindermoon and slowly descended into insanity.

After the Spellplague, most of the order died or left. The remaining druids—those less experienced—harbored a deep hatred of the spellscarred, and the Enclave made efforts to stop the scar pilgrimages that passed through to the plaguelands south of Turmish.

In 1486 DR, the Chosen of Lathander, Stedd Whitehorn, cured Cindermoon of her madness. She changed her name back to Shadowmoon and reorganized and revitalized the Emerald Enclave.

Lost Mine of Phandelver

Reidoth was a druid and member of the Emerald Enclave who would visit the ruins of Thundertree to keep tabs on the situation there.

Rise of Tiamat

When the Cult of the Dragon attempted to bring Tiamat the Prime Material Plane, Delaan Winterhound, a half-elf ranger, came to the Council of Waterdeep as the lone representative of the Emerald Enclave. While he understood the need to stop the Cult, he was also focused on preserving the natural order. The Enclave also investigated the aftermath of cult raids led by a green dragon in the Misty Forest. Finally, druids and rangers answered the call to arms in the final battle, bringing their treant and griffon allies with them.

Princes of the Apocalypse

Haeleeya Hanadroum was the owner of the bathhouse in Red Larch and was an Emerald Enclave contact.

The Enclave had a stronghold in the form of a huge walled temple-farm dedicated to Chauntea, located in the Dessarin Valley. The stronghold was called Goldenfields.

Shadowtop Cathedral was a stand of towering shadowtop trees in the northwestern High Forest that was also an important meeting place for the Emerald Enclave in the area.

Members of the Emerald Enclave were among the delegation from Mirabar that went missing. They were going to meet the elves of the High Forest. The delegation included Dreena, a human druid, and Flameran Verminbane, a lightfoot Halfling scout.

Out of the Abyss

The Emerald Enclave tracked the corruption spreading through the flora and fauna of the Underdark back to Zuggtmoy and Jubilex. Morista Malkin was a shield dwarf scout in Gauntlegrym who trained scouts to reconnoiter the Underdark passages near the city. Her scouts were the wood elf Sladis Vadir—who disappeared while on a mission in the Underdark—and the shield dwarves Brim Coppervein, Thargus Forkbeard, and Griswalla Stonehammer.

Amarith Coppervein is a shield dwarf veteran who has built a zoo in the Underdark between Mantol-Derith and Gravenhollow.

Storm King’s Thunder

Dasharra Keldabar was a shield dwarf veteran who was retired from Waterdeep’s Griffon Cavalry. She lived north of the town of Fireshear in a mostly underground hovel, where she raised griffons, trained them as mounts, and taught people how to ride them.

The head of the council of the village of Jalanthar was a member of the Emerald Enclave named Quinn Nardrosz, a retired ranger.

The half-elf scout Ghalvin Dragonmoor was held prisoner by the hill giants in their den.

Tomb of Annihilation

The Emerald Enclave maintained a presence in Chult, focused on protecting the people from the undead menace. The Enclave maintained several well-camouflaged outposts in the jungle as hidden observation posts.

The druid Qawasha lived in Fort Beluarian and hired himself out as a guide to adventurers and explorers.

The Emerald Enclave in Published Sources

The Emerald Enclave first appeared in the D&D 2nd edition Vilhon Reach sourcebook for the Forgotten Realms. They made additional appearances in the Forgotten Realms setting books for both 3rd edition and 4th edition.

Using the Emerald Enclave in Your Campaign

The members of the Emerald Enclave have the following main beliefs:

  • The natural order must be respected and preserved.
  • Forces that seek to upset the natural balance must be destroyed.
  • The wilderness can be harsh. Not everyone can survive in it without assistance.

Their goals are “to restore and preserve the natural order, keep the elemental forces of the world in check, keep civilization and the wilderness from destroying one another, and help others survive the perils of the wilderness.”

As Allies

The Emerald Enclave works well as a source of assistance for characters who spend time in the wilderness far from civilization, as long as they are not involved in upsetting the natural order. Those characters who work to keep the balance and protect nature make perfect allies for members of the Enclave.

Example Adventure: A necromancer has found the location of an ancient battle in the savage north of the Sword Coast region. She has been raising the undead and building an army that she intends to use to attack Neverwinter with the ultimate goal of establishing an undead empire with herself as the Empress. The characters stumble onto the increasing numbers of undead while traveling through the region and are able to track their creation back to the stronghold of the necromancer. However, getting past the undead horde and into the castle will need a diversion, and the Emerald Enclave may be willing to help create that diversion to assist the PCs in their mission to bring down the necromancer.

As Enemies

The Emerald Enclave will work against any group that, through their actions, unbalances the natural order. PCs might be hired by loggers from a local village that have been attacked by wild animals or monsters in a forest in which they are working, to protect the loggers while they cut down trees for their village. The Emerald Enclave may see this intrusion into the forest as a negative and unnecessary disruption of the natural order, and work against the PCs.

Characters as Members

Members of the Enclave generally work alone or in small numbers. A player character group that is focused on wilderness exploration (rangers, druids, etc.) may find that their goals align with those of this faction.

If one or more of the PCs wish to join the Emerald Enclave, the DM may choose to implement the rules for factions from the Adventurer’s League program.

The Emerald Enclave Campaign

Like the other factions, a campaign that revolves around all the PCs being members of the Emerald Enclave is a good option. If this option is chosen, the DM may wish to give all the PCs the Faction Agent background for free (thus giving each character two backgrounds). Alternately, the DM may just decide that the PCs gain the Safe Haven feature and the faction-specific equipment and not any of the other benefits of an extra background.

The Enclave is a good organization to use if the focus of the campaign is the untamed wilderness away from civilization. The Sword Coast region, especially in the north, provides great opportunities for adventure in the vast spaces between the cities.

Further, the independent nature of this faction works well with a party of adventurers, as they tend to prefer a certain amount of freedom in their choices of where to go and what to do. As long as they work towards maintaining a natural balance, they can travel and explore where they want, and help out those in need or protect nature when they stumble across something that is going wrong in a particular location.


The Emerald Enclave can be used in a Forgotten Realms campaign to spice up wilderness adventures and exploration. It is easy to use them as either allies or opposition, depending on what the PCs are doing in their current adventure.

Have you used the Emerald Enclave in your own campaign? Did they work with or against the PCs? Tell us about it in the comments.

Factions in D&D 5E – The Order of the Gauntlet

I’ve been writing a bit about factions in Dungeons & Dragons 5E and how they might be used in home campaigns separate from the Adventurer’s League organized Play program. Last week, I explored the Harpers, an organization that has been part of the Forgotten Realms since the original first-edition boxed set.

This week, I’m going to talk about an organization that is only as old as the current edition of the game, the Order of the Gauntlet.

Order of the Gauntlet History

While the Order of the Gauntlet has appeared in multiple published adventures as a potential faction for the PCs to join or work alongside, almost no history has been released at this point.

Here are the key points that have appeared in adventures so far:

Lost Mind of Phandelver

  • Daran Edermath is a non-active member of the Order living in Phandalin.

Hoard of the Dragon Queen

  • Ontharr Frume is a member of the Order of the Gauntlet who helped organize the alliance between the Order, the Harpers, and the Emerald Enclave against the Cult of the Dragon when they tried to summon Tiamat to the Prime Material Plane. He operated out of the headquarters of the Order in Elturel, a tavern called A Pair of Black Antlers.

Rise of Tiamat

  • During the final battle at the Well of Dragons, the Order mustered clerics and paladins to help heal the wounded and combat Severin’s devil allies directly.

Princes of the Apocalypse

  • A group from the Order of the Gauntlet was transporting the body of a slain knight to Summit Hall, a chapter house of an order called the Knights of Samular, when the entire delegation from Mirabar went missing.
  • The senior knight at Summit Hall is Ushien Stormbanner, a woman of sixty years and ally of the Order of the Gauntlet.
  • Erned Stoutblade is a human knight from Tethyr and a member of the Order of the Gauntlet. He traveled to Red Larch with the intention of battling the Iceshield tribe, a group of orcs who have taken to raiding the farmlands in the area.
  • The Order is attempting to establish alliances with local leaders in the western Sumber Hills area, such as the Waterbaron of Yartar.

Out of the Abyss

  • Sir Lanniver Strayl is a knight of the Order of the Gauntlet, based in Gauntlgrym. He commands five human veterans of the Order: Thora Nabal, Sylrien Havennor, Olaf Renghyi, Elias Drako, and Tamryn Tharke. His squire is Rhiele Vannis.
  • A knight of the Order, Aljanor Keenblade, was captured by drow during a surface raid, and has spent months as a prisoner in Menzoberranzan.

Storm King’s Thunder

  • Lady Harriana Hawkwinter is a Waterdhavian noble and a champion of Helm. She and her squire rescued a couple of children trapped under the wreckage of a barn that had been demolished by stone giants.
  • Sir Jordeth Tavilson and his squire fought a pair of frost giants, and the squire was killed. Sir Jordeth managed to kill one giant, but the other got away. Sir Jordeth took up a quest to kill the second giant.
  • The Order of the Gauntlet runs and protects Hawk’s Nest, a fortified settlement that overlooks Silverymoon Pass. Arthus Cavilos is a human knight of Tyr, a member of the Order, and the Lord of Hawk’s Rest. Cavilos raises hippogriffs, which the knights of Hawk’s Nest train as mounts and use to patrol the trade road between Silverymoon and Sundabar.
  • A splinter sect of the Order of the Gauntlet, the Order of the Gilded Eye, holds a fortified monastery named Helm’s Hold a short distance southeast of Neverwinter.
  • The Order of the Gauntlet has a strong presence in Neverwinter.

Tomb of Annihilation

  • Undril Silvertusk is a half-orc priest of Torm and a representative of the Order of the Gauntlet in Port Nyanzaru (and Camp Vengeance).
  • The Order committed considerable resources toward quelling the undead menace in Chult. Its forward base, Camp Righteous, was overrun by undead. Their second camp, Camp Vengeance, was built shortly after even deeper in the jungle, but fell on hard times under the inept leadership of the noble Niles Breakbone.
  • Ord Firebeard is a gold dwarf veteran and Perne Salhana is a human veteran, both captains under Commander Breakbone.
  • Sister Cyas is a human priest of Helm, also stationed in Camp Vengeance.
  • Lorsa Bilwatal is a human scout, and Wulf Rygor is a half-elf scout and longtime friend of Breakbone.
  • There are eight veterans, twenty-four guards, six acolytes, and fifteen tribal warriors stationed at Camp Vengeance.

The Order in Published Sources

The Order of the Gauntlet is a new organization created for D&D 5E, and therefore has not appeared in any sourcebooks for previous editions. It has also not appeared in any novels.

The Order has appeared in all of the published adventures for D&D 5E, except Tales from the Yawning Portal (a compilation of previous-edition adventures converted to 5E stats).

Using the Order in Your Campaign

The Order of the Gauntlet has the following main beliefs:

  1. Faith is the greatest weapon against evil—faith in one’s god, one’s friends, and one’s self.
  2. Battling evil is an extraordinary task that requires extraordinary strength and bravery.
  3. Punishing an evil act is just. Punishing an evil thought is not.

Their goals are “to be armed, vigilant, and ready to smite evil, enforce justice, and enact retribution. This means identifying evil threats such as secretive power groups and inherently evil creatures, watching over them, and being ready to attack the moment they misbehave. (These are always retributive strikes, never preemptive.)”

As Allies

Each of the published adventures explains ways in which the Order can act as allies and support to the player characters within those adventures. In your home campaign, the Order is always ready to provide support—in the form of warriors or healing or both—to PC parties who are on a mission against a direct threat against the people of the Realms.

Example Adventure: The PCs have discovered an orc horde is poised to sweep down out of the mountains to attack Silverymoon and surrounding area. The PCs have learned that a small group of evil wizards are behind the orc attack, and they know that if they can infiltrate the mountains and reach the tower where the wizards are gathered, they can take out the impetus for the horde. However, the PCs also need a way to slow the horde so that it doesn’t overrun the local small towns and villages before they can reach their goal. The Order of the Gauntlet, once made aware of the threat, is more than willing to assemble a force to block the passes and delay the horde until the PCs can take out cause of the invasion.

As Enemies

Like with the Harpers, if the players are running evil characters, they may find themselves at odds with this organization. Normally, however, it will be less likely to end up on the wrong side of the Order. There are still possibilities, though. For example, in the Tomb of Annihilation adventure, the PCs may end up getting “conscripted” by the Commander Breakbone, who will order the PCs arrested if they don’t agree to help out Camp Vengeance. This should not be a usual situation, however—Commander Breakbone is noted as being inept, and this should be rare among the Order. Some righteous paladins of the Order may be overzealous in demanding assistance to right the wrongs facing the organization, though, and PCs may find themselves at odds with the Order over their demands.

Characters as Members

Similar to what I wrote about the Harpers last week, appropriate PCs may want to join the Order of the Gauntlet. As DM, you might want to use the renown system from the Adventurer’s League program to track the PCs’ advancement within the Order.

The Order Campaign

You may decide to run an entire campaign focused on the Order of the Gauntlet, with players creating characters that start the game as members of the Order.

As mentioned last week, you could give all the PCs a second background for free—the Faction Agent background, or just give each PC the Safe Haven feature and the faction-specific equipment and leave it at that.

An Order of the Gauntlet campaign will generally be more combat-heavy than some of the other factions. The Order gets involved when it’s time to take the fight directly to an enemy, so characters with good combat skills (fighters, paladins) are most appropriate. In addition, the Order has many cleric members. Rangers can also be appropriate—the Order needs scouts and outriders for their armed forces, for example.

Some classes are less appropriate for a campaigned based solely around the Order of the Gauntlet, however. Bards, rogues, sorcerers, warlocks and wizards will find themselves a bit out of their element. The Order doesn’t tend to utilize the skill sets of these classes, and will likely look askance at characters of these classes trying to join. It’s always possible, however, that a player will come up with a good reason for their character to be a part of the order regardless of class, though the ultimate decision is of course up to the DM.


If you’re interested in knights in shining armor and warriors for good, then the Order of the Gauntlet provides many options, whether they are allies or enemies. This is a great tool to use when you’ve got players who just want to go out and slay monsters, which can be a fun and satisfying way to play D&D.

How have you used the Order of the Gauntlet in your campaign? Tell us about it in the comments.

Factions in D&D 5E – The Harpers

Last week, I talked about the factions in Dungeons & Dragons 5E, their purpose, and how they might also be used in home campaigns that don’t involve the Adventurer’s League organized play program.

This week, I’m going to focus on the Harpers, an organization that has been around since the original Forgotten Realms boxed set. The Harpers have also been the subject of a series of D&D novels and have been featured in many sourcebooks over the years.

Harper History in Faerun

The original entry had this to say about the Harpers:

The Harpers are a mysterious organization of high-level adventurers, in particular bards and rangers, which operates in the North. The exact aims of this group are unknown, as are their numbers and full identities, though there are several noted members.

The aims and activities of the Harpers remain mysterious, but they are known to work for the causes of good, and to oppose the Zhentarim and the more aggressive trading kingdoms (such as Amn) who cut trade-routes into wilderland areas, and fell trees and mine precious things with little regard for local nonhuman inhabitants. They also work to maintain peace between human kingdoms…and to thwart at every turn the burgeoning goblinkin races in the North.

The Harpers were originally founded as The Harpers at Twilight in 324 DR deep in the Elven Court woods, and the members included human, elf, and half-elf warriors, rangers, druids, thieves and mages. The Harpers founded the Heralds of Faerun in 992 DR to maintain records of lineages and rolls of blazonry as part of their goals of anchoring civilization by maintaining clear communication and having accurate record keeping. In 1116 DR, the Heralds break away from the Harpers and become their own organization.

For various reasons, the Harpers came into conflict with the Nation of Thay and so their operations expand from just focusing on the northern Sword Coast region, to encompass working in opposition to Thay’s many and varied nefarious plots.

During their history, the Harpers focused on working against those who wish to destroy or take control over the population of the northern Sword Coast. They found themselves working to eliminate the threat from Hellgate Keep, to stop the Cult of the Dragon from succeeding in their plans to create dracoliches, and regularly ran up against the Zhentarim.

For much of their history, members of the Harpers acted autonomously and with great leeway in their methods. In 1321 DR, the Harpers were reorganized and the organization became more regimented and hierarchical in nature.

During the Spellplague years, the Harpers essentially disbanded as their individual members were too caught up in facing down local threats and difficulties. Many Harpers died or disappeared during this time.

After the Spellplague, the Harpers of Luruar were founded to counter the threat of the reborn Netheril. This led to many other Harper cells becoming active, each having its own name (e.g. Harpers of Waterdeep, Harpers of Cormyr and the Dales, etc.).

With the return of Mystra, Storm Silverhand worked to revitalize the Harper organization in Cormyr. In 1487 DR, the Harpers once again worked against the Cult of the Dragon when that villainous group tried to bring the goddess Tiamat to the Material Plane. This led to the Harpers becoming an active organization across Faerun once more.

The Harpers in Published Sources

As mentioned, the Harpers appeared in the original Forgotten Realms boxed set. They have been a part of the Realms ever since. More information appeared in the sourcebooks FR1 – Waterdeep & The North, FR5 – The Savage Frontier, FR6 – Dreams of the Red Wizards, FR7 – Hall of Heroes, and FR13 – Anauroch.

The D&D 2nd edition sourcebook The Code of the Harpers by Ed Greenwood explored the organization in great detail. While many elements of the Forgotten Realms have changed over the years, and there are few of the individuals detailed in this book still alive during the 5E era, there is still much of value to found in this sourcebook.

If you want to run a game set near the 1368-1370 DR timeframe, then the sourcebook Cloak and Dagger is an amazing resource. This book details the situation during the Harper Schism, the resignation of Khelben Blackstaff from the Harpers, and other major events in the secret societies that are scattered across the Realms.

The Harpers were also the subject of their own series of novels set in the Forgotten Realms. The series includes 17 novels, beginning with The Parched Sea by Troy Denning and ending with Thornhold by Elaine Cunningham, with the 17th novel unpublished due to TSR being bought by Wizards of the Coast and the Harpers series being cancelled.

Using the Harpers in Your Campaign

The Harpers have the following main beliefs:

  1. One can never have too much information.
  2. Too much power leads to corruption.
  3. No one should be powerless.

Their goals are to “gather information throughout Faerun, discern the political dynamics within each region or realm, and promote fairness and equality by covert means. Act openly as a last resort. Thwart tyrants and any leader, government, or group that grows too powerful, and aid the weak, the poor, and the oppressed.”

As Allies

The Harpers can be a great source of assistance for player characters who are of good alignment or who work towards similar goals as those of the organization. If the characters make contact with the Harpers and are on friendly terms (though not actual members), they may be able to trade information about local rulers or groups, or even gain more tangible help if the PCs are planning to do something that aligns with the goals of the Harpers.

Example Adventure: The PCs run afoul of the ruler of large town who bribes a group of bandits in the nearby forest to raid caravans and act as muscle for him so that he can oppress the citizens. Everyone is afraid of him, and the bandits prevent any of the townspeople (who are noncombatants) from leaving. As the PCs approach the town—on their travels to somewhere else—they are ambushed by the bandits (and either have all their money and equipment stolen, or they kill/drive off the bandits). Either way, when they reach the town, a local Harper agent identifies them as potential allies against the ruler and his thugs. The agent contacts the PCs and helps them with information that will let them recover their stolen equipment, or eliminate the bandit threat.

As Enemies

It’s possible that the PCs may find themselves on an opposing side against the Harpers in certain situations. The most likely is that the players are playing evil—or at least very selfish—characters. In this case, once they begin to make a name for themselves and perform some acts that go against the beliefs or goals of the Harpers, they may be targeted to be taken down a peg or two. Perhaps the Harpers see the PCs gaining temporal or magical power too quickly and decide to relieve them of some of that power. Or maybe the PCs have made alliance with an oppressive ruler or group (such as the Zhentarim), and the Harpers attempt to use the PCs to get to their ally.

Characters as Members

Of course, one or more of the PCs may want to join the Harper organization. In this case, the DM may want to implement the rules for factions from the Adventurer’s League program. The Harpers will occasionally give the PCs missions to complete, and their success on these missions will earn them renown within the organization, granting them benefits as they advance in rank. You can use the specific rewards from the AL program, or you can make your own list of benefits that are tailored to the Harpers and your specific PCs and their adventures.

This is the easiest option to use if you want the Harpers to be a source of adventures. However, it does constrain the PCs a bit, as they will need to operate within the bounds of what the Harpers find acceptable behavior, and may face sanctions (including being kicked out of the faction) if they continually cross the line.

The All-Harper Campaign

One option is to have all the player characters be Harpers from the very beginning. An easy way is to give all the PCs the Faction Agent background for free (thus giving each character two backgrounds). Alternately, the DM may just decide that the PCs gain the Safe Haven feature and the faction-specific equipment and not any of the other benefits of an extra background.

The Harpers are a great organization to use if you want your campaign to be focused on covert adventures, like spying and investigating. The Harpers don’t usually work out in the open, and they don’t march in and engaged in pitched battles with their enemies. Rather, they gather information, identify allies, and set up situations so that their preferred outcome is realized.

Running an espionage campaign set in the Forgotten Realms is a great way to freshen up a D&D game and give the players a chance to do something different than exploring another dungeon. Between Waterdeep and Calimport alone, there is enough going on to provide a nearly endless amount of adventure within an urban environment. As I mentioned last week, a James Bond—or more likely, a Mission:Impossible—game would be perfect with the PCs as members of the Harpers.


Using the Harpers in a Forgotten Realms D&D campaign provides a number of fresh options to keep the game interesting and different. Whether the Harpers are allies, opponents, or the “bosses” of the PCs, a DM can use the Harpers to provide opportunities to engage with espionage-style adventure possibilities.

Have you used the Harpers in your home campaigns? What role did the organization play and how did they interact with the PCs? Tell us about it in the comments.

Factions in D&D 5E Campaigns

One interesting element in the Dungeons & Dragons 5E game that has actually gotten fairly limited attention is the group of factions that are available for player characters to join.

Factions were primarily created for use in the Adventurer’s League, the D&D organized play program run by Wizards of the Coast. But the factions can also play an interesting role in your home campaigns, both as organizations which the PCs can join, and as adversaries to thwart.

In the article “Faction Talk, Part 1,” they explain the factions as follows:

In the Forgotten Realms, five factions have risen to prominence. Seeking to further their respective agendas while opposing destructive forces that threaten the folk of Faerun, each faction has its own motivations, goals, and philosophy. While some are more heroic than others, all band together in times of trouble to thwart major threats.

Here are the five factions (the links take you to a more detailed description on the official D&D website:

  • The Harpers—The Harpers is a scattered network of spellcasters and spies who advocate equality and covertly oppose the abuse of power. The organization is benevolent, knowledgeable, and secretive. Bards and wizards of good alignments are commonly drawn to the Harpers.
  • The Order of the Gauntlet—The Order of the Gauntlet is composed of faithful and vigilant seekers of justice who protect others from the depredations of evildoers. The organization is honorable, vigilant, and zealous. Clerics, monks, and paladins of good (and often lawful good) alignments are commonly drawn to the Order of the Gauntlet.
  • The Emerald Enclave—The Emerald Enclave is a widespread group of wilderness survivalists who preserve the natural order while rooting out unnatural threats. The organization is decentralized, hardy, and reclusive. Barbarians, druids, and rangers of good or neutral alignments are commonly drawn to the Emerald Enclave.
  • The Lords’ Alliance—The Lords’ Alliance is a loose coalition of established political powers concerned with mutual security and prosperity. The organization is aggressive, militant, and political. Fighters and sorcerers of lawful or neutral alignments are commonly drawn to the Lords’ Alliance.
  • The Zhentarim—The Zhentarim is an unscrupulous shadow network that seeks to expand its influence and power throughout Faerûn. The organization is ambitious, opportunistic, and meritocratic. Rogues and warlocks of neutral and/or evil alignments are commonly drawn to the Zhentarim.

Their Purpose

Within the Adventurer’s League program, a character may join a faction in order to earn special in-game benefits. Each adventurer gains renown for playing through an adventure (either a single award at the end of the adventure, or a certain amount per 4 hours of play for hardcover adventures). As the character gains more renown, they increase in rank in their faction. Many adventures include special secret missions for characters who are part of a faction (a different secret mission for each faction).

As a character gains higher ranks in a faction, they can take advantage of special rules during downtime, such as lower costs for training, access to magic items, access to raise dead and resurrection spells, and the granting of inspiration at the beginning of a game session.

Joining a faction is an interesting option in the organized play program, and provides another layer when playing through adventures that provide tangible rewards to the player character.

What About Home Games?

Of course, if you’re not participating in the Adventurer’s League program, then factions have no use, right?

Actually, the factions as such are interesting parts of the Forgotten Realms setting, and provide great opportunities for adventure separate from the AL program. In fact, any of the factions can be a starting point and/or focus for a campaign.

For example, the Harpers can be used as an espionage organization. Imagine James Bond in the Forgotten Realms, investigating and eliminating threats to the people of Faerun. A Harper-focused game wouldn’t be about exploring dungeons and killing monsters. Rather, it could be focused on major urban centers, interacting with NPCs, uncovering dastardly plots, and so forth.

A game using the Order of the Gauntlet, on the other hand, could be focused on roving knights who travel the land bringing order and peace to areas under the threat of marauding goblinoids, or invasions from the underdark, or an evil dragon.

But assuming you’re running a more typical D&D game, with a range of races and classes in the party, the factions can also play a large part in the game. These organizations are all trying to have an impact on the world of Faerun, and it’s likely that they will eventually work at cross-purposes as their goals conflict. Player characters who go exploring an old dungeon based on rumors of fabulous treasure might find themselves at odds with one group or another who know more about the dungeon and what lies in the deepest reaches, and who might want to prevent the PCs from disturbing some ancient creature, or bringing back some powerful cursed item.

Alternately, one of the factions may hire the PCs—or manipulate them with rumors or suggestions—to achieve their goals. The Harpers, the Lords’ Alliance, and the Zhentarim are the most likely to do something like this, and the characters may not even know that they’re working toward a faction’s goals until later in the adventure (or at all).

And then there is the Zhentarim, a faction that should be considered a villainous organization. Certainly, the PCs may find themselves in situations where they can put a stop to Zhent operations to the benefit of local towns or villages. And once they are on the wrong side of this faction, they can expect retaliation to come in some form or another.


What’s Next?

Over the next weeks, I’m going to explore the five factions. I’ll delve into their history in the Forgotten Realms, look at their main objectives, discuss their methods, and present ways to use these factions in your game outside of the Adventurer’s League program, including a number of adventure hooks for each.

Hope to see you then!

Developing an Old School Sandbox for 5E – Part 3

I’ve posted a couple of times about developing a sandbox setting for D&D 5E (Part 1, Part 2), and this week I’m going to expand on the climates, terrain, and monster selection.


As my sandbox is an island, and it’s not so large as to be a full continent, there is a limit to the different climates that I can realistically include. I’ve decided that this island sits in the northern waters of the world, and so climate reflects this.

The island itself is slightly larger than the Northwest Territories in Canada—the surface area is approximately 916,249 square miles (1,474,560 square kilometers). So this gives me some room to work with.

Using the Köppen climate classification types to describe the island, the southern and middle portions of the island are subarctic climate, the northern portion of the island is polar tundra, and the higher elevations are dry-summer subarctic.



This has a direct influence on both the terrain types I will use and the monsters I plan to include.

Terrain Types

As mentioned previously, the 5E DMG provides lists of the monsters divided by terrain type. The terrain types listed in the DMG are Arctic, Coastal, Desert, Forest, Grassland, Hills, Mountains, Swamp, Underdark, Underwater, and Urban.

So applying these terrain types to the island based on the climate I’ve chosen, I get the following:

  • Arctic—The mountains in the northeast of the island use the arctic terrain type. This is due to their elevation in addition to their latitude, increasing the sub-arctic climate to arctic as you climb higher into the range.
  • Coastal—As this is an island, the coastal terrain type is definitely applicable.
  • Desert—Even though the mountains provide a rain shadow for the interior of the island, I don’t want it to be too dry. A sandy desert is out, and I don’t feel the island is far enough north to get a dry snow desert. So I’m not going to use this terrain type on the island.
  • Forest—Most of the middle and southern portions of the island are subarctic and therefore forests are very appropriate. The forests are almost exclusively conifers (needles instead of broad leaves) which remain green throughout the cold months. It’s not unknown for the occasional broadleaf forest to be found within a subarctic zone, and so I’ll probably include one in the southern area of the island.
  • Grassland—The northern tundra can be considered a grassland for the purposes of monster selection by terrain type, though the vegetation is very short and is composed mostly of shrubs, mosses, and lichens. The central area of the island is also covered by a grassland.
  • Hills—Each of the three sets of mountain peaks are surrounded by foothills. In addition, one of the sets of hills extends out into the central part of the island (near the grassland noted above).
  • Mountains—As mentioned, there are three distinct sets of mountain peaks. The mountains in the northeast are fairly low and very cold. The mountains in the southeast are essentially a continuation of that same chain, though the ground between them is low enough that they seem as if they are a separate set of peaks. The mountains on the west side are much larger (cover more area) and have a higher elevation.
  • Swamp—The tundra in the north transforms into swampland during the short summers when the temperatures rise enough to thaw the ground frost. The ice melts and creates many bogs and marshes (as well as lakes and streams).
  • Underdark—This is less a “terrain” type than it is a location that can underlie almost any of the other terrains. On this island, the underdark will be mostly found underneath the hills and mountains. As I plan to have this campaign be mostly about exploration of the island itself, I’m not going to make the underdark too extensive.
  • Underwater—Like the underdark, I don’t want to run an extensive underwater campaign. Therefore, I plan to have a large lake with underwater ruins that can be explored if the PCs are interested, but it won’t be a major part of the campaign.
  • Urban—The point of this campaign is a wilderness hexcrawl focused on exploration. So I’m placing a small town that is the PCs starting point, though I don’t plan to put any adventure hooks that lead to purely urban adventures there. I also have ideas for two other small settlements on the island, but they won’t be sizable urban environments. The one possible exception to this is that there are the ruins of a small city on the island that is entirely abandoned by people after some kind of disaster, and only monsters can be found there (as well as some interesting mysteries and cool set pieces).


So I have my climate, and this affects the terrain types to include on the island. And now I have to select my monsters.

  • Humanoids—The first choice I need to make is about how many humanoid races I want to include. D&D contains many different options here, such as the goblin races, orcs, drow, bullywugs, derro, duergar, firenewts, gnolls, grimlocks, grungs, kenku, kobolds, kuo-toa, lizardfolk, merfolk, sahuagin, tabaxi, troglodytes, and yuan-ti.

    Obviously, including all of these would be far too much. Some I can eliminate simply by climate and terrain type (such as yuan-ti), and others just don’t really fit into the setting (grungs).

    Still, that leaves me with many options.

    For now, I expect that I’ll include some form of goblinoid race (probably straight goblins and perhaps bugbears, but likely not hobgoblins). I may also include orcs as a tribal race that inhabits the tundra in the north. As far as the bits that take place in the underdark, I will likely include duergar and one other—most likely either grimlocks or troglodytes, whichever I can make the most interesting.

Of the other monster types, these will be selected on a case-by-case basis:

  • Aberrations—I will definitely include a few aberrations with each as the core monster for a larger encounter area. My plan is to create a few new aberrations to provide something new for the PCs to discover.
  • Beasts—Natural animals will certainly populate most of the wilderness areas, and I will also include some of the giant versions and a few of the larger beasts. Dinosaurs will not be found on the island.
  • Celestials—As celestials are native to the Upper Planes, and generally are of the same (or similar) alignments to the PCs, I don’t have plans to include these creatures (unless as a one-off for a particular encounter area).
  • Constructs—I will certainly include a few constructs on the island, mostly as remnants created by those who lived in the ruined city on the island.
  • Dragons—I do have plans to include at least one dragon, as I have a new race of creatures related to dragons that will play a part in the setting.
  • Elementals—These creatures will appear as appropriate to specific encounter locations only.
  • Fey—Some types of fey will certainly inhabit some of the wild places on the island, though they certainly won’t be common.
  • Fiends—Like elementals, these creatures will appear as appropriate to specific encounter locations only. I do have a couple of ideas already, so there will definitely be a few included.
  • Giants—I do plan for there to be a couple of types of giants on the island. I do not intend to use the Ordning or anything similar to constrain the giants into a hierarchy.
  • Monstrosities—I will certainly include some monstrosities in my list of monsters on the island. They will most often be part of specific encounter locations, but some can be found in the random tables.
  • Oozes—These will be included as appropriate to the climate and terrain type.
  • Plants—I do plan for there to be some plant creatures on the island, and I intend to create a few new ones for PCs to discover.
  • Undead—There will certainly be undead on the island, though they will not be a focus of the campaign.

Island Regions

Now I’m in the process of creating specific regions on the island. A region can be as small as one hex, or as large as I need it to be. A particular forest will usually be a single region, and a region could include an entire mountain range or just a single mountain, depending on its relationship to the surrounding terrain.

From the moment the PCs leave the main town, they will move from one region to another as they explore the island. Each region will usually have a noticeable boundary (such as the edge of a forest into a grassland, or crossing a river into a new area), though some may have large transition areas as regions overlap for some miles.

In some cases, the regions may be defined by the monsters themselves. For example, if I choose to include a colony of ettercaps, they may take over part of a larger forest. While the forest itself could be a single region, it would generally make more sense for the spider-infested area to be a single region, with the regular portion of the forest a neighboring region.

For this reason, the development of regions and the placing of monsters basically goes hand-in-hand.

Random Encounters and Set Pieces

And, of course, once the regions are developed, each one will get its own set of random encounter tables, reflecting the creatures that could be found in that particular region.

Each region will also have at one set piece encounter, and probably a few. These are locations that do not change and are not random. For example, a goblin lair where a particular goblin tribe lives would be a set piece encounter, with a map of the lair and description of the tribe and its members.

Not all set piece encounters will necessarily include monsters, of course. When exploring a hex, there will be interesting things to find that won’t always lead to a fight, or even interaction with living (or undead) creatures.

But this the final, and longest, step in developing the sandbox and will take some time to do.


I’ve been picking away at this setting here and there as I work on other projects, so it’s not moving terribly quickly. I hope, though, that my thoughts here provide some insight into the development of such a sandbox setting.

I’ve already started planning out the regions and marking them on the island map, and I’ve created a couple of the hexes in the first region. The next time I update this project here I will include some of the developed regions and a couple of completed hexes so you can see how I will present the information for use when running the game.

7th Sea Villains from Movies

I really like the way villains are created in the second edition of the 7th Sea roleplaying game. The addition of villainous schemes in the Heroes & Villains book adds a great way to present the villain as a dynamic force instead of a passive obstacle waiting for the heroes to arrive.

There are some interesting villains in the aforementioned Heroes & Villains book, but I was thinking about how one might create villains by using other media as inspirations. And the villains don’t even have to be from a swashbuckling genre!

Here are three villains that I’ve created using famous movie villains as inspiration.

Peter Baelish (aka Littlefinger)

Played by Aiden Gillen, Littlefinger is a great villain who manipulates his way through the Game of Thrones show on HBO. As much as he is a terrible person, he’s also compelling, and I’ve looked forward to every scene in which he appears. And his “chaos is a ladder” speech (Warning! Spoilers at that link!) is masterful.

If we were to transplant Littlefinger into Theah, he could probably cause the most trouble in Montaigne. Imagine if Littlefinger were to decide that he wanted the throne of the Sun King for himself! At the beginning of a campaign, Littlefinger would be a member of the petite noblesse due to his wealth and connections. And his first step would be to elevate himself to a Marquis as quickly as possible (though such a thing would be difficult to do in the rigid caste system of Montaigne).

Littlefinger would make an excellent villain in a campaign where the player characters were musketeers, courtiers, or members of the nobility. His scheming and ability to manipulate others would present a threat to those whose lives depended on the stability of the Montaigne throne.


(1) Gather three favors from three Dukes.
Littlefinger knows it is nearly impossible to be elevated to the true nobility of Montaigne without the backing of multiple Dukes. And while l’Empereur could do so with a simple declaration, such a thing is nearly impossible to arrange from a distance. So Littlefinger is gathering every bit of information he can find on three Dukes—their passions, their dark secrets, their friends, their enemies, and their goals. Once he has done that, he can gain a favor from each, by bribe, blackmail, or gratitude. He will turn those favors into a petition to l’Empereur to elevate him to a Marquis.

(3) Become an advisor to the throne.
Littlefinger is a master at insinuating himself into the inner circles of those in power by making himself indispensable at some task or area of knowledge. Money is Littlefinger’s area of expertise, and so he will attempt to parlay his Marquis status into an opportunity to “help” l’Empereur with some issue or another regarding the treasury of Montaigne.

(5) Set the Dukes against each other.
Once he is advising l’Empereur directly as part of his inner circle, Littlefinger will begin manipulating the nobility to set his enemies against each other while helping out those who prove to be his allies. He will also attempt to restart the invasion of Castille, as he recognizes that in the chaos of war, anything becomes possible. After all, “chaos is a ladder.”

Strength 3; Influence 10; Rank 13

Advantages: Connection (Montaigne underworld (149), Disarming Smile (149), Indomitable Will (149), Streetwise (150), Rich (152)

Virtue: The Moonless Night
Subtle. Activate your Virtue when you act behind the scenes, from the shadows, or through a proxy. For the next Risk, when you determine Raises, every die counts as a Raise.

Hubris: The Magician
Ambitious. You receive a Danger Point when you chase after power and the deal you’re after is dangerous or causes trouble.

Servants and Underlings
Littlefinger has many servants as well as a host of underlings from the criminal underworld of Montaigne (jennys, beggars, corrupt city watch members, smugglers, etc.). Once he joins the nobility, he will have bannermen and soldiers under his command.

Littlefinger could not have the woman he loved, and she would have been his only redemption. But since she never loved him (and may not even be alive anymore in your campaign), there is nothing to redeem him. He will trade lives, manipulate others, and betray anyone to gain power, and will not stop as long as he can draw breath.

Anton Chigurh

Javier Bardem was unbelievably creepy in his portrayal of the cartel hitman Anton Chigurh in the Coen Brothers’ film No Country for Old Men. His unrelenting pursuit, his choice of weapons, and his palpable menace brought a power to that movie that elevated it beyond the fairly simple story.

Adding Anton to your 7th Sea campaign can bring a sense of dread to the player characters as they realize that this man is hunting them, and like the original Terminator, he will not stop until they are dead. And he’s not afraid to leave a trail of bodies in his wake while he chases them. Nor will he hesitate to murder their loved ones just to make a point, even after he has what he wants.

In most campaigns, Anton is going to be working for some criminal element as a hitman, and something the PCs do gets him on their trail. In No Country for Old Men, he is trying to recover a bag full of money. In Theah, it would more likely be something special, like papers that identify a bunch of conspirators against the Sun King, or a ring that identifies the wearer as the heir to some family legacy, or even a Syrnrth artifact (though in my opinion, this tends to get overused as a macguffin in 7th Sea adventures).


(1) Identify the holder of the [item]
When the item (or money) goes missing from its “proper” possessor (and it falls into the PCs hands), the main villain(s) send Anton to recover it. His first step is to track it back to the PCs. He won’t have something as convenient as a transponder to track the item, so he’ll do it the old-fashioned way—by questioning people who have come into the item’s orbit, and then likely killing them. Once he identifies the PCs as the current possessors, he’ll have this target.

(3) Put the PCs in an untenable situation
Anton will simply attempt to murder the PCs and retrieve the item. This is an opportunity for the GM to inflict collateral damage on nearby NPCs to give the PCs some time to escape their first encounter with Anton. But the hitman won’t just follow them. He’ll cut them off from their allies and isolate them, perhaps by planting evidence that they’ve betrayed their friends, or simply by driving them outside of the places where they can call upon aid.

(5) Execute the PCs one by one
Even if the PCs hand over the item, Anton will need to see them die. He will bring all his skills to bear to take them down, one by one. This should be a dramatic fight, with the PCs very worried about this man who will not stop hunting them, and whether they have a chance to beat him.

Strength 12; Influence 2; Power 14

Advantages: Got It! (149), Handy (149), Indomitable Will (149), Staredown (150), Deadeye (151), Sniper (152), Duelist Academy: Boucher (154), I’m Taking You With Me (154)

Virtue: The Fool
Wily. Activate your Virtue to escape danger from the current Scene. You cannot rescue anyone but yourself.

Hubris: Coins
Relentless. You receive a Danger Point when you refuse to leave well enough alone or quit while you’re ahead, and it gets you into trouble.

Servants and Underlings
Anton does not play well with others, and is just as likely to murder another of the main villains’ “helpers” as he is to kill a witness. He works alone, and nothing will change that.

Anton is insane and follows his own code. He is incapable of seeing how what he does is wrong, and cannot be redeemed.

Hannibal Lector

Anthony Hopkins is the iconic actor to play the murderous psychopath Hannibal Lector (starting with the amazing movie The Silence of the Lambs). A brilliant and charismatic doctor, Hannibal lusts for murder, and not only eats choice parts of his victims, but feeds human flesh to his “friends” without their knowledge by disguising it in meals during his dinner parties.

Hannibal Lector is a villain with a narrow focus, and will not be usable in all campaigns. He works best if the PCs are members of some kind of law enforcement or military occupation (such as musketeers), so that they can ask for his help in solving unusual murders that are taking place in the a local area or city.

It is important for the GM to present him as a helpful resource early on, so that the PCs come to trust him and consider him a friend. This will make the revelation of his monstrous deeds have more impact when the PCs eventually figure out he is behind the killings.

If set in Avalon, the depredations of Hannibal Lector might at first resemble those of Jack the Ripper. This can be a red herring for the players, who might use out of character knowledge to try to hunt the killer. Only later, when the victims start becoming more affluent and important, will the tenor of the investigation change.


(1) Satiate his cannibalistic urges
Hannibal will kidnap and murder people, and then eat them (or at least the choice parts of them). Then he will dump their remains somewhere in the city to be found by the authorities. He will continue to murder one person per week (or thereabouts) in order to keep himself fed.

(3) Get others to consume human flesh
Once Hannibal has his routine down, he will start feeding human flesh to those guests he hosts at his dinner parties. As a brilliant physician, he will get to know some moderately wealthy and influential people, and he finds it wonderful to watch them engage in cannibalism, even if unknowingly.

(5) Convince those hunting him to willingly join him
Even after he is discovered, he will likely use his incredible intellect to escape and run rings around those hunting him. But once he has established a relationship with the PCs, he will continue to consider them his friends—even if they are hunting him—and will leave them letters or even speak to them directly in situations where they cannot act against him in order to try to convince them to join him in his deranged activities.

Strength 3; Influence 8; Power 11

Advantages: Cast Iron Stomach (148), Linguist (148), Disarming Smile (149), Fascinate (149), Psst, Over Here (150), Lyceum (153), University (154), Spark of Genius (154)

Virtue: The Devil
Astute. Activate your Virtue after a Hero spends Raises for an Action. That Action fails. The Hero still loses the Raises she spent.

Hubris: The Tower
Arrogant. You receive a Danger Point when your Villain shows disdain, contempt, or otherwise looks down on a Hero, or someone who could cause harm to friends.

Servants and Underlings
Hannibal does employ a few servants to help run his manor home, but he keeps the staff small so as to reduce the number of potential witnesses to his dark deeds. He treats his staff kindly and with respect, and they are loyal to him and see him as a very nice man for whom they are lucky to work.

Hannibal is beyond redemption, as he is a complete psychopath who does not really understand the difference between right and wrong.


There are countless great villains that one could take from movies and books and adapt them for 7th Sea, and these are just three examples. Changing a few elements here and there will keep them fresh and prevent players from immediately realizing where you found the inspiration.

What other movie or book villains would make good additions to a 7th Sea campaign? Have you adapted any inspirations like the above and used them in your campaign? Tell us about it in the comments.

The 7th Sea 2E Risk System

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about how the use of dice in an RPG don’t always cooperate. In some games, this is a feature, not a bug—a D&D campaign where the story emerges through play is one example where each roll of the dice may send the adventure (or the entire) campaign off in a new direction. The dice rolls determine success or failure, and it’s up to the players to determine how they react to those outcomes.

In other games, straight success or failure may not be an appropriate way to determine what happens. If a group is trying to emulate a high-action setting (like Star Wars, for example), then it’s not generally about success or failure. It’s about choices, and position, and advantage.

That’s not to say that characters in Star Wars never fail. Much of Han Solo’s activities in The Empire Strikes Back are his reactions to one failure after another. But those failures are not generally the result of his own attempts at actions. Rather, the failures are baked into the situations, and the story is about how he deals with those failures.

Some Examples

Okay, I know some people will disagree with me on this, so I’m going to unpack it a bit. I’m going to use The Empire Strikes Back—the best Star Wars movie of them all—to demonstrate what I mean.

In an RPG, dice rolls are always decision points of some sort. At its simplest, a decision point could just be “do I hit the goblin with my sword or not?” It’s a straight success/failure determination.

Let’s assume there is a party of D&D characters and they’ve encountered a roving patrol of goblins in a dungeon, and the goblins ambush the characters. During the first surprise round, the goblins have an advantage (they have an opportunity to hurt—or kill—one or more characters, while the characters don’t get to hit back yet). If the dice rolls determine that some goblins do succeed with their attacks, then the advantage swings even more toward their side.

But then, in the next round, dice are rolled to determine Initiative—what someone on RPG.net cleverly called “rolling the dice to see in what order we roll the dice.” Let’s say that the goblins manage to beat the initiative rolls of all the characters. This swings that advantage even further in the goblins’ favor.

However, the goblins don’t have good odds to hit the armored characters at the front of the party, and this time they fail at their attack rolls. The advantage swings a bit back toward the characters.

And as the characters start taking their actions, the fighter succeeds on his attack roll, and inflicts some damage with his damage roll. The wizard makes her ranged attack roll and takes out a goblin entirely with one flaming bolt. The cleric successfully bashes a third goblin over the head, inflicting further damage.

By the end of the round, the advantage has swung right back into the characters’ favor. So the players decide to continue the fight, and soon they are wiping goblin blood off their weapons and ransacking the bodies for copper pieces.

But what if the dice buck the odds and send the battle off in a different direction?

Let’s say that the goblin attacks are all successful, and the character attacks are failures. After the first round, all the characters have taken some real damage, and the players now see that if they continue the fight, they might actually all be killed. With the advantage currently so heavily in the goblins’ court, the players decide to run away, or parlay, or something else.

The success and failure of the dice rolls moves the situation toward one result or another, and the players then make their decisions based on those successes or failures.

As I said, this is a simple example, but it’s a common one and illustrates how such die rolls impact future decisions and thus, the direction of the campaign. Ultimately, the players may decide to have their characters retreat from the dungeon entirely. Perhaps that results in them exploring in a different direction, or grabbing different adventure hook. And that might mean that none of the characters end up with a certain magic item that was sitting in the goblin chief’s treasure hoard.

All of this is how the D&D game is supposed to work. It’s a game about interaction, exploration, and combat (the “three pillars of adventure” as described in the 5E Player’s Handbook). In many campaigns, it’s about “playing to find out what happens” (to use a phrase from many Powered by the Apocalypse games) rather than about authoring a story.

But other games are often about other things. Sometimes, a game is about situations that require more than just a simple pass/fail determination. It might be just adding gradations of success or failure (e.g. partial success or partial failure), or including some kind of metacurrency (e.g. Hero Points) to allow the player to have some influence over the dice to encourage success or failure when it is more dramatically appropriate.

The Fate Core rules, for example, are still concerned mostly with pass/fail. You make a roll to overcome a resistance, to establish an advantage, to inflict harm (stress), or to defend yourself from harm. But the player can also spend fate points to turn a failed roll into a success. On the other hand, to earn fate points, the player must either take penalties on some rolls (thus making failure more likely) or put herself into situations that are not in her favor.

Some games combine pass/fail with additional elements that tell the players what happens. For example, the system used in Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars RPGs use custom dice that include three types of symbols: success/failure, advantage/disadvantage, and triumph/doom. So a roll to shoot a stormtrooper with a blaster could result in a miss (failure), but an advantage (the blaster bolt hits a control panel, locking a door to prevent more Stormtroopers from joining the fight). Some players love this system, as it provides prompts for the group to come up with interesting elements to add to any conflict. Others find it artificial and difficult to always make up new elements on the spot.

And then there are other games that are not really concerned with pass/fail at all. The best example of this is the second edition of the 7th Sea RPG, by John Wick Presents.

The Risk System

The 7th Sea setting assumes that characters are highly competent right from the beginning. They are the types of characters one sees in movies such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Wars. In these movies, things are always happening, often too fast for the characters to fully process them, and so they must act and react, but always take some kind of action to change the situation.

In 7th Sea, a character faced with a situation that presents risks and opportunities assembles a die pool based on their Traits and Skills. This pool of d10s is rolled and the player makes sets of 10 (called Raises). The player then spends these Raises to accomplish things in the scene.

The example used in the rulebook posits the character trapped in a burning building. The GM tells the player that it will take 1 Raise to escape the room though the window. However, avoiding taking any wounds from the flames will cost 3 Raises. Furthermore, the character has spotted what looks like it might be an important paper on a table, and grabbing that paper before the flames consume it will cost 1 additional Raise.

If the player manages to accumulate 5 Raises on his roll, then he can accomplish everything—grab the paper (1), avoid the flames (3), and escape the room (1).

But what if the player only rolled 3 Raises? Grabbing the paper and getting out of the room will take 2 of those Raises, meaning that he only has 1 Raise left to avoid the flames, therefore receiving 2 wounds. Or perhaps he really feels he needs to avoid taking damage. He could spend all 3 Raises avoiding the flames, in the hopes of rolling more Raises on his next turn so that he can escape. Maybe he ignores the paper and gets out of the room, only taking a single wound in the process.

This approach majorly mitigates the success/fail question. If the player spends a single Raise on getting out of the room, then he gets out successfully. He doesn’t need to check if he “succeeds” on crossing the room—it’s assumed that if he spends his attention (Raises) on doing so, he’ll manage to do it.

The same goes for combat. It’s not about whether he hits his opponent with his sword or not. If he’s a swashbuckling hero, then of course he hits his opponent with his sword when he makes the effort (spends a Raise) to do so. However, his opponent will also spend Raises to parry with his own sword, or leap backward up onto a table, or knock a standing candelabra into the sword’s way. But doing so requires effort (Raises), and eventually one of them is going to run out of Raises first.

So What about Han Solo?

To bring this back to The Empire Strikes Back…Han Solo doesn’t generally fail directly. Rather, events happen around him at a breakneck pace, and there are only so many things he can do at once.

Let’s look at a specific example to illustrate what I mean…

The Asteroid Scene

Han is piloting the Millennium Falcon away from Hoth, with a Star Destroyer (and TIE fighters) in hot pursuit. The GM has determined that the hyperdrive is not working, but the player doesn’t know that yet. The failure of the hyperdrive is part of the scene, and is not the result of a failed roll by the player/character. For now, the GM tells the player that it will take 5 Raises to plot the hyperspace course, and that he has to spend 3 Raises each turn to avoid the TIE fighters and Star Destroyer batteries. Assuming the player is managing to roll 4-5 Raises each turn (based on a dice pool of 8-10 dice), it’s going to take at least 3 turns to get ready for the jump to hyperspace.

During this time, two more Star Destroyers arrive, and the GM spends Raises to put them into a position to trap the Falcon. But Han’s player ignores the hyperdrive for a moment and spends enough Raises to get out of the trap. And then he gets that 5th Raise and has his hyperspace route.

“Oh yeah, watch this,” he says.

But the hyperdrive engine doesn’t work. C-3PO (NPC) chimes in with “If I may say so sir, I noticed earlier the hyperdrive motivator has been damaged. It’s impossible to go to lightspeed!”

So now the GM determines how many Raises it will take to determine that the hyperdrive cannot be repaired, as the Falcon doesn’t have the necessary parts. But the end result isn’t known by the player—just that something is wrong with the hyperdrive and that spending Raises will determine what they can do about it.

It’s important to note, though, that the damaged hyperdrive motivator was not an explanation for a failed Pilot roll. Han is a hotshot pilot, and the vagaries of the dice shouldn’t make him look incompetent when he’s at the helm of his ship. Rather, an external event has caused the problem, and now he’s got to deal with it.

(This is, I believe, the core of a great deal of what happens to characters other than Luke in the original Star Wars trilogy.)

The reason I say this is because if the damaged hyperdrive was a result of their attempt to escape, then one must also imagine what would happen if the roll was a success. Boom—they get away cleanly. But we’ve already seen this scene play out in the first movie. It adds nothing for them do it again, and repeating such a scene becomes anticlimactic. If they need to get away again later on, there won’t be much tension—because they always get away once they activate the hyperdrive.

So this situation isn’t just the result of a Pilot check or something similar. It doesn’t just come out of a simple pass/fail roll. This is a set piece that the GM set up—a challenge that forces the players not just to react, but act if they want to get out of this.

(I know some people will say that the GM is being a jerk here by simply declaring the hyperdrive doesn’t work. I would expect that, if this were a real game, the ongoing maintenance issues with the Falcon is a key part of the game and doesn’t come as a terrible surprise. While the characters would hate this situation, I think the players would find it fun to play though, and that’s pretty much my take on quality GMing. You want to set up situations that the character hate, but the players love. It’s a balancing act, but if you can do it, you’ll never lack for people wanting to play in your games.)

But back to the characters. Those TIE fighters and Star Destroyers are still chasing them, and Han goes to take a look at the hyperdrive. The GM has determined that it will take 10 Raises to figure out the problem with the hyperdrive, and they still have to spend 3 Raises each round to avoid damage. Leia’s character takes over the piloting for now, and she’s able to get those 3 Raises while Han and Chewie try to diagnose the hyperdrive.

And then the GM tosses in the final complication…asteroids!

Once the characters are all gathered in the cockpit again, GM says that the players no longer need to spend 3 Raises a round to avoid the TIE fighters, as they are too busy avoiding the asteroids themselves to shoot at the Falcon. But the players do have to spend 3 Raises per round to avoid taking damage from the spinning rocks. And any extra Raises can be spent on inflicting damage on the chasing TIE fighters (represented by putting them in situations where they get hit by asteroids themselves).

After a couple of rounds, Han’s player comes up with the idea of getting closer one of the big asteroids, which move much more slowly. The GM likes this idea, but once they are out of the general mess above, the last two TIE fighters start shooting again. Han’s player manages to roll more than enough Raises, however, to destroy the last two TIEs (by having them follow him into a trench and then crash into the narrow walls).

Deciding that it’s time to let the characters regroup a bit, the GM tells them they spot a cave in the big asteroid, and they fly into it to hide from the Empire’s forces. They no longer have to roll to accumulate enough Raises to figure out exactly what’s wrong with the Falcon’s hyperdrive (and that they don’t have the parts to repair it). Instead, they just spend a bit of time while the Empire searches for them, and then they receive the bad news.

After a bit of downtime, in which a couple of players do some roleplaying of the budding romance between their characters, the GM decides it’s time to turn the heat up again, and introduces the mynocks…


Failure can certainly be interesting, and 7th Sea doesn’t shy away from it by any means. But not all games are the same, and not all settings are appropriate for the random success and failure that one finds in D&D. Personally, I love D&D and it provides one kind of game I really enjoy. The dice determinations in D&D are absolutely appropriate for that game.

However, sometimes I’m looking for a different experience. Just because I love pizza, I don’t want to eat it for dinner every single day. Systems like the one used in 7th See 2E provide a very different take on success and failure, and can be used to play games in which situations are resolved not by straight success or failure, but by seeing how the characters spend their limited resources to choose their course toward success.

It’s a different method, but it’s still about the journey more than the destination. The characters (and players) still make decisions, but those decisions come from a different place than in a traditional pass/fail system like D&D.

I hope looking at The Empire Strikes Back helped to explain what I mean by this. Competent characters can still be challenged, and still look competent, while putting them in situations that take them to their limits. And that’s where the fun truly begins in roleplaying games.

A Great Time for SF Fans

If you’re a fan of science fiction (or speculative fiction, or whatever you want SF to mean), then things are pretty decent right now.

If you’re a SF fan and a gamer, then things really couldn’t be much better.

So I thought I’d touch on some of the things happening in RPGs right now, specifically focused on science fiction.

Dune is Back!

I read Dune many, many years ago—I was thirteen at the time—and it became one of my favorite SF books of all time. I ended up reading the entire series, by which I mean all the books written by Frank Herbert. (The less said about the painfully terrible books by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, the better.)

I was not one of those lucky people to get my hands on a copy of the one and only Dune RPG, Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium by Last Unicorn Games. With only 3000 copies ever printed, it has become a collectors’ item that fetches some rather high prices on the rare event that one actually becomes available.

But just ten days ago, Gale Force 9 announced that they had acquired a license to produce official Dune tabletop games. And within that announcement was the amazing news that late 2019 will see an official RPG from Modiphius, the same company that has published the Conan RPG, Star Trek RPG, Tales from the Loop RPG, Mindjammer RPG, Coriolis RPG, and Infinity RPG.

Modiphius Games

Which brings me to some of those SF properties I’ve just mentioned. If you’re a SF gamer, then Modiphius pretty much has you covered, with a bunch of great games (not all developed in-house, but all published by them).

  • Star Trek—while I have not personally played this yet, by all accounts this is a fantastic game that totally captures the feel of the ST universe. Modiphius’ house engine, the 2d20 System, has been heavily modified once again in order to ensure that the rules fully support the kind of games that would be expected by fans of Star Trek.
  • Tales from the Loop—the setting for Tales comes from the very cool narrative art books by Simon Stalenhag, and the RPG expertly captures the same vibe of young people living in a world that has been affected by the construction of a massive particle accelerator that has resulted in some strange events. Consider this a SF version of Stranger Things and you won’t be far off the mark.
  • Infinity—this RPG takes place in the setting developed for the tabletop miniatures wargame, and provides an amazing take on digital and social conflict in addition to the standard guns and powered armor one would expect. Unfortunately, this game is coming out very slowly, as by all accounts getting approvals from the license holder is a painstaking and time-eating process. However, the core book is amazing and one could run any number of great campaigns using just one part of the rich universe developed for the wargame.
  • Mindjammer—written by the very talented Sarah Newton, this game uses the Fate Core engine and takes a very interesting approach in how cultures are affected by one another when people interact. Another very deep setting that provides nearly limitless campaign options, this game is very obviously a labor of love for Ms. Newton.
  • Coriolis—described by the authors as “Arabian Nights in space,” this game drips with flavor and interesting mysteries.

Warhammer 40K

Ulisses Spiele just released their new Wrath & Glory RPG, based in the Warhammer 40,000 setting from Games Workshop. This game is only one week old, but already the book has garnered some great reviews.

This edition of the game breaks with the past system developed by the Black Library and continued by Fantasy Flight Games through their Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, Only War, and Black Crusade games. The new edition uses a d6 pool system, and provides a great deal of flexibility for characters of different types to all band together.

Yes, that means you can have an Inquisitor, a Space Marine, an Eldar, and Rogue Trader in the same “party,” though of course you’ll have to come up with your own explanation as to why they’re together.

The other major break from tradition is that this game takes a slightly lighter approach to the Empire, reflecting GW’s relaxing of the relentless grimdarkness that smothered their properties for so long. Hope is an actual thing in the WH40K universe now. It may not be easy, but at least it’s possible to hope for a better future.

I haven’t picked this one up yet, but I can pretty much guarantee I’ll end up buying the PDF fairly soon just to give it a more in-depth look.

Eclipse Phase

The second edition Eclipse Phase, the transhuman horror game—though it can be so much more than just that—has experienced significant delays, but Kickstarter backers have had access to the playtest documents for some time. At last update, this one is going to be released within the calendar year, but there’s no definitive date just yet.

Regardless, Eclipse Phase is an amazing setting, and the sourcebooks are fantastic. This, like Infinity, is a game where one could run multiple, entirely different campaigns within the setting and still not touch on all of the elements that could be used.

I know a great many people are waiting for the second edition to drop, and while I didn’t back the Kickstarter, I will likely pick this up shortly after it’s released.

On a related note, I posted a series of articles on how use the HeroQuest 2E rules with the Eclipse Phase setting (1, 2, 3, 4).


The Cyberpunk 2020 game from R. Talsorian Games was one of my favorites back in the early 90’s. I ended up picking up the vast majority of sourcebooks for it, and I always preferred it over FASA’s Shadowrun.

With CD Projekt soon releasing their video game Cyberpunk 2077—and it looks freaking amazing—word is that the RPG will be getting an update as well. Unfortunately, R. Talsorian is not the company it once was, and many of us fans are worried that we’ll get another terrible game like Cyberpunk V3.

If the new Witcher RPG is any indication of what they’re capable of, I’m going to suppress my enthusiasm and excitement in order to avoid the likely disappointment when the product actually comes out.

Then again, as silly as it is to use their Interlock system for The Witcher, at least it was a good enough system for Cyberpunk back in the day, so there’s a chance that they’ll just update the tech and timeline and put out a new version that is at least playable.

The Expanse

I was so excited at first to hear that The Expanse is getting an official RPG. But then it was announced that Green Ronin got the license, and that pretty much ended it for me. They’ve already put out a quickstart, because they’ll just be porting over their AGE system used in the Dragon Age RPG.

This one is a real shame, as the AGE system is a terrible choice to use for running a game like The Expanse. Like R. Talsorian, Green Ronin isn’t the company it once was when it was putting out Mutants & Masterminds first and second edition, and the great Freeport setting materials. For various reasons that I won’t get into here, they are also not a company that I want to support in any way.

But for those who want sourcebooks for The Expanse, this is going to be your chance. Even if the system is totally inappropriate, there will likely be a lot of material consolidated in one place to let you run a game in The Expanse setting even if you use a totally different system.

Other Great Options

Without going into a lot of detail on these other games, I want to mention some standouts that SF gamers might want to check out:

  • Stars Without Number 2E—a great game based on the OSR, Sine Nomine always delivers amazing tools for developing and running campaigns, even if you don’t use an OSR-adjacent set of rules.
  • SIGMATA: This Signal Kills Fascists—this game has been getting a lot of attention lately, and it’s easy to see why. An interesting premise married to what is, from all accounts, a decent system.
  • Alternity—another very recent release, this is a new version of the game published by TSR in 1998. I don’t know much about this one, as I wasn’t a fan of the original Alternity system, but it does have a following and if you have fond memories of the original, it might be worth checking out.
  • Esper Genesis—an alternate Player’s Handbook for D&D 5E, this book provides SF character classes and associated abilities using the 5E rules. A Esper Genesis Dungeon Master’s Guide (to be called the Master Technician’s Guide) is coming.
  • Torg Eternity—some might not consider this SF, but I’m including it here because Torg was a pretty popular and innovative game back in the day. Unfortunately, this edition is marred by some sloppy editing and some truly broken rule bits. Reviews from customers have been uneven, so if you’re a Torg fan, take a look but definitely read up on it before you drop your cash.


Fantasy has dominated the roleplaying game industry throughout its history. But these days there are so many good SF games out there, that a group of players should be able to find something that meets their preferences without a whole lot of difficulty.

Now, I didn’t mention a bunch of other SF games (like Mongoose’s Traveller, for example) because I wanted to highlight some new games or games that do something different. But any game that I left off this list shouldn’t be taken as any kind of sleight—I just need to keep this post to a manageable size.

What is your favorite SF RPG? What do you like most about it and what does it do really well? Tell us about it in the comments.