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!

What’s Wrong with Drizzt, Anyway?

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of the Forgotten Realms as a setting for fantasy roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons.

I discovered the Realms with the original grey box and a handful of the early 1987 and 1988 sourcebooks, such as Waterdeep and the North, Moonshae, The Savage Frontier, and Dreams of the Red Wizards.

A guy I used to game with had all of this stuff, but he didn’t really enjoy running games. I had been talking about starting a new D&D campaign, and he offered to sell me his FR materials if I promised to set my campaign there.

So I bought those books from him and dove in, and it wasn’t very long before I had fallen in love with the setting. No, it wasn’t perfect, and there were lots of little things that didn’t really make sense, but it had a sense of history and grandeur that I could find in few other published settings.

Plus, the Forgotten Realms was just so gameable. This was a setting that had been used in actual play since Ed Greenwood started his AD&D campaign in 1978, and there was a nearly infinite amount of adventure that could be found there.

I ended up owning about 90% of all published adventures, sourcebooks, and boxed sets for the Forgotten Realms up to the end of AD&D 2nd Edition.

The Realms are also known by many people who have never played an actual tabletop game of D&D. The computer games introduced the setting to a large audience, and the novels—the most notable being R.A. Salvatore’s series about the drow ranger Drizzt Do’Urden—brought in even more people who were unfamiliar with the actual game.

Oh, the Hate

But the Forgotten Realms can be controversial at times. For every person who loves the Realms, there is another who hates it with a great passion. In participating in online discussions over the years, I’ve come to see a few common reasons people give for hating the Realms:

  1. It’s precedence over Greyhawk: For those who started gaming in the world of Greyhawk—the original D&D setting from TSR—the Realms is seen as a competitive setting. Over the years, TSR shifted resources away from producing more Greyhawk materials and focused more and more on the Realms. The current 5th edition of D&D is the first to make the Forgotten Realms the “default” setting of the game. I can certainly understand why people hold this opinion and I have sympathy for it, even though I don’t actually share it.
  2. That it is “unrealistic”: Yes, the countries/kingdoms, economic models, and so forth might not be realistic. Yes, there are many other elements that, if considered in a purely logical way, do not fully “make sense.” For people who want to play D&D with a gritty and serious tone, FR will not provide the experience they desire. It was designed as a background to stories that Ed Greenwood wrote starting when he was a child, and perfect realism wasn’t something he needed in his setting. I can’t really argue with this complaint, as if the setting doesn’t have the right level of realism for someone, then it’s not the right setting for that person’s game.
  3. There is too much to know: With all the material that has been published for the Realms by first TSR and then Wizards of the Coast, the setting can certainly seem overwhelming to new people. When you add in all the novels that have been published over the years, it seems like every part of the Realms has a special history and important people that the DM is supposed to remember in order to portray it properly. While I understand the sentiment, this one makes less sense to me (as I will explain below).
  4. Too many powerful NPCs: Characters like Elminster or Drizzt represent the most powerful of heroes that walk the Realms. The protagonists of the more than 300 novels that have been published in the setting comprise a group of legendary figures, many of whom have been given D&D stats in the various sourcebooks over the years. And many people don’t see the point in adventuring in a setting already filled with powerful heroes. This is one argument that doesn’t make the slightest sense to me (and I will expand on this one below as well).


Certainly, the Forgotten Realms can be challenge for a new DM. With such a large setting, it isn’t easy to immediately grasp what you need in order to run a game successfully. There is always a worry that you’re going to accidentally contradict something that is published somewhere, and that will cause a problem for your players.

Certainly, if your players are very familiar with the Realms through the novels and/or videogames, then that is a potential issue. But it speaks to something that I’ve never understood when running games in a setting that I didn’t create myself. And this applies whether it’s a setting developed specifically for a roleplaying game, or if it’s a setting from a movie (like Star Wars, for example).

What I don’t get is the perceived need to slavishly adhere to canon.

This is something that I see quite often in online discussions. That people are unwilling to take the reins and run the game the way they feel is best for their campaign. Certainly, if you make sweeping changes to a setting you run the risk of alienating the players who joined the game specifically to play in that setting they know and love.

But the fact is, it’s impossible to run a game that adheres 100% to an existing setting the moment your players create their characters and you toss them into the world. At that instant, you have changed the setting. And every adventure your players engage in after that point will change the setting even more.

That’s the whole point of playing a roleplaying game instead of reading a book or watching a movie.

If you decide that one of the peaks in the Nether Mountains is actually a dormant volcano, and that it’s beginning to show signs of an impending eruption that will threaten the survival of the city of Silverymoon, it doesn’t matter that such an event has never occurred in the novels, video games, or sourcebooks.

At the moment you start running the game, the setting becomes yours to do with as you will.

If you have players that expect everything in the campaign to reflect everything that happened in published sources, then they should spend their time reading, not playing. The very act of playing the game is a creative process, and the players have to be open to the changes that result.

When I’m running a game in a published setting, I make it a point to tell my players the following:

This game will take place in the setting that is recognizably the Forgotten Realms (or the Star Wars setting, or Middle Earth, or whatever). However, I reserve the right to change whatever elements I need in order to present you with the best opportunity for adventures. I won’t unilaterally change core elements of the setting, but any particular detail may be changed at my discretion. So if I tell you that Mithral Hall has not yet been found, even though the year is 1365 DR, then it means that Bruenor didn’t succeed on his quest and the handful of events related to Mithral Hall that would have taken place between 1356 and 1365 never happened. I have no obligation to incorporate every novel into the history of my campaign.

The NPC Problem

The other major problem often quoted by people who dislike the Forgotten Realms often involves some variation of “there are too many powerful NPCs.” Certainly, if you go by the setting as presented in the novels, there are a great number of powerful heroes who go around fighting the forces of darkness.

However, I feel this is a silly complaint to make about the setting. Most of the sourcebooks present high-level overviews of regions within the Realms. When it comes to the setting materials as presented in the roleplaying products, the statistics of most of the NPCs are irrelevant.

Does the removal of Elminster, for example, have a major impact on the Realms? Well, his removal would have an impact on the plots of a number of novels, of course, but that’s not the same as the setting as used in a D&D campaign. I’ve run D&D games set in the Realms for literally decades, and I’ve used Elminster once in all that time. He was a sage, and the characters came to him for help in translating some ancient writing they had found. And the fact that, in my campaign, he was just a very knowledgeable sage had absolutely no impact on the game setting.

The fact is, most of those NPCs can be used or ignored at will without making any real changes to the Realms, because the characters only need to know about those people who affect the adventures the characters are having. Does it matter that there is a high-level drow ranger wandering around in the northern Sword Coast area? Only if the DM decides the ranger is going to play a part in whatever the player characters are doing does it make a difference.

In many D&D campaigns, the reality is that the adventurers usually find themselves in the right place at the right time (or perhaps that should be wrong place at the wrong time). The adventure is right there and so are the characters. That presents an opportunity that no one else has. If Drizzt is somewhere up near Icewind Dale or at Mithral Hall, or out sailing on the Sea Sprite, then he can’t rush in to save the PCs or get involved in their adventures in the Vilhon Reach, no matter how epic they end up becoming.


Settings for roleplaying games are designed to be a background in which player characters have grand adventures. The dogmatic clutching at canon does the game a disservice and relegates the player characters to observers. The first lesson a DM or GM needs to learn is to let the characters interact with the setting, and in so doing, initiate changes to that setting.

The published books should not be static things, and no game requires that you remember and use every element exactly as it is written. Gaming should be a creative endeavor, and we should embrace the chaos that PCs generate in a setting and make the most of it.

I’m a fan of the Forgotten Realms (among other settings), and I can also accept its flaws and inconsistencies. For any setting, the key is to take what you and your players like best, highlight those elements, and ignore those elements that add nothing to your game.

What is your favorite setting that gets a lot of hate? How do you feel about adhering to canon? Tell us your opinions in the comments.

The First Few Levels

As mentioned in a previous post, I’m running a first-edition AD&D game for my son a few other kids in the 10-12 age range.

My primary goal is to give them a great experience so that they enjoy the game and look fondly at the RPG hobby in the future. I’m not trying to indoctrinate them into one true way of gaming, and I intend to go with the flow and adjust things as necessary to suit the interests they develop as they play.

This, of course, impacts the selection of adventures that I intend to run for them. I want to demonstrate the range of various activities that a character can get up to in the game. This is a game of Dungeons & Dragons, so some elements are a certainty, such as exploring a dungeon, fighting monsters, gathering treasure, finding magic items, encountering traps, exploring the wilderness, fighting a “big bad” at the end of an adventure, interacting non-violently with non-player characters (regular people, other adventurers, and opponents), spending time in towns or other civilized areas, learning a bit about the history of things that have gone before, and a few other basic staples of typical D&D campaigns.

But there are two things that hold no interest for me, which I think are just stupid, and which will play no part in this game.

  • Edition-warring: There are hundreds of adventures that have been published for the game throughout its lifespan. Obviously, as the game has changed with editions, the specifics of the published adventures have changed in response. But a good adventure can be made to work with AD&D, no matter what edition it was originally written for. There are great adventures from Classic D&D, 1E, 2E, 3E, 4E and 5E, and nothing is off the table. In fact, I’m starting the campaign with a 4E adventure, because it works really well for a group of new players, regardless of edition.
  • “Earning” greatness: I’m not interested in running a game where a single wrong move can end up with multiple dead characters. And random death is boring as hell and has killed more D&D campaigns than anything other cause. The kids are playing characters who are the stars of their story. And while a heroic death is possible, randomly killing characters will easily kill the interest in this game. And the characters, even at first level, are capable of succeeding with reasonable odds.

The First Adventure

I wanted to mix a bit of tradition with something more modern. So I started the game in a tavern…which was immediately attacked by goblins and hobgoblins in a surprise raid on the town. I’m kicking things off with a Dungeon Magazine adventure for D&D 4th Edition called Rescue at Rivenroar (Dungeon #156). This is a great little adventure that involves a bunch of villagers being kidnapped off-screen during the opening fights, and the players are hired to follow the surviving goblin raiders back to their lair to rescue the villagers and recover a bunch of historical artifacts that were stolen by the goblins.

One of the great things about D&D 4th edition was that characters started as heroes right from the first level and took on fights that would have been too tough in previous editions of the game. So, of course, I need to modify the actual encounters to make them reasonable for a first-level AD&D adventure.

But other than playing with monster numbers and changing out a few creatures, the adventure stands pretty well on its own.

The kids have played through the opening fight in the bar (with some creative use of abilities already), and then encountered the ogre that was chained to a wagon and throwing incendiary bombs at the buildings. They pretty handily beat both of those encounters with only minor damage to a couple of characters, which filled them with a healthy dose of confidence and made them want to come back for more.

Rescue at Rivenroar is the first adventure in the Scales of War adventure path, and I have no intention of running the whole path. I’m not actually a fan of the “adventure path” idea, as it requires the players to have no plans of their own for their characters, and the payoff takes a very long time to come.

Besides, I’m running AD&D – the speed at which characters level slows down the more powerful they become, rather than the consistent levelling system in 3rd and 4th editions. Which means adventure paths get too difficult too quickly for these characters.

I mentioned before that I’m planning to use The Temple of Elemental Evil adventure in this campaign, which is a fairly large, single adventure. I plan to make a bunch of minor changes to the TOEE adventure so that it doesn’t become a dungeon crawl that bogs down partway through. Those changes include plans for the various factions within the temple, providing opportunities for the characters to approach the temple in various ways (full-on assault, sneaky infiltration, cutting deals with factions against other factions, etc.) and allow opportunities for these different approaches to work.

So the goblins that raided Loudwater and which will be the first opponents of the characters in this game have a link to the temple. It won’t be so blatant that the kids will immediately find out about the temple, but it will give them a couple of clues that they can choose to follow when they are back in Loudwater.

As I’m running this game for completely inexperienced players who are also children, I want them to have a level or two under their belts before they discover the location of the moathouse in TOEE and head in that direction. This means providing them with a bunch of other adventure options they can choose to explore before they learn about the moathouse itself.

In this case, there are some great adventures that I can insert into the campaign:

Module N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God – I intend to use the town of Secomber, just down the road from Loudwater, to replace the town of Orlane in the module. The characters will hear the rumours about the town and can decide for themselves if they want to investigate.

The Sunless Citadel – This was a 3E adventure for first-level characters. In the adventure, the characters have a chance to ally themselves with kobolds against a more powerful goblin force. Again, they will have a chance to discover some force behind the goblins, foreshadowing the rise of the temple.

Menace of the Icy Spire – This is a 4E adventure from Dungeon issue #159. This short adventure gives the chance for the characters to encounter an elemental-themed location well before they discover anything about the temple itself. I will use this as a great opportunity to drop in some history about the area and the temple.

The Fountain of Health – This is an AD&D adventure from Dungeon Magazine issue #39. It’s a pretty standard dungeon-crawl in which the characters are searching for a well that provides a healing potion. I intend to replace that with rumours of some kind of magic item that was lost here a long time ago, prompting the players to try to acquire the item.

While running these adventures, I intend to start foreshadowing the rise of the temple by having minor earthquakes, freak rainstorms, sudden heatwaves or perhaps a fire, and a tornado or two hit the region. The players won’t have the information to link them to the temple right away, but once they discover the temple, they’ll see the effect its presence has already had on the area and will understand the threat it presents.

I figure these adventures will easily get all the characters to second level. Once they hit level two, I will drop the location of the moathouse to them via rumours or NPC interactions. It’ll be up to them to explore the moathouse (I figure they might hit all four of the above adventures first before they head in that direction).

Other than a couple of minor adjustments, I intend to run the moathouse as it is in the adventure.

Actual Play

Unfortunately, as mentioned, we’ve only managed two sessions so far as there have been some life-related things that have gotten in the way. But I expect that we’ll be able to pick up a more regular schedule in January.

I’m considering writing the game up as an actual play, which I would post here on my blog. But I’m going to wait until we have a few more sessions under our belt first, just in case this game doesn’t end up having legs. I hate reading an actual play thread that just ends up fizzling out shortly after it begins.

Who else has run the Temple of Elemental Evil adventure? Did you add a couple of early adventures for the characters to get them some experience before they tackled the moathouse or did you send them out there right away? Did your players actually complete the entire TOEE adventure? Tell us about it in the comments.