What Do I Know About Reviews? Darkhold: Secrets of the Zhentarim (Dungeon Masters Guild Product)

Darkhold Body CoverWhen finishing up my read through of Elminster’s Candlekeep Compendium, I just happened to see another product that piqued my interest almost as much. That product has many of the same contributors, this one being Darkhold: Secrets of the Zhentarim.

Going way back to some of my earliest Forgotten Realms memories, I’ve loved Manshoon as a villain. I’m not sure exactly what appealed to me, but the idea of the masked wizard, directing a combination terrorist organization/mega-crime syndicate really captured my imagination. Maybe it was seeing shades of Cobra, given the age I was when I was reading the Old Grey Boxed Set.

There have been a number of times when I’ve been disappointed with the fortunes of the Zhentarim in the setting. I wasn’t a fan of the organization shifting to having Cyric as a divine guide, primarily because of exactly what Cyric did . . . essentially sacrificing the organization when he allowed Zhentil Keep to be smashed.

I also wasn’t a huge fan of Fzoul Chembryl becoming the main leader of the organization. I always liked Fzoul more as a grasping opportunist, and I didn’t like the idea of the organization essentially being an extension of a single god’s will.

While I was initially happy to see the Zhentarim as one of the big movers and shakers in the revitalized 5e Realms, they really seemed to have lost a lot of their more sinister feel, being mainly a pretty legitimate mercenary organization, and an efficient, but not particularly scary, franchised thieves guild.

With all of this in mind, I was really interested to see how the Zhentarim came across in this book.

Into the Ledgers

This product is 112 pages long. There are red and black chapter headers, with parchment colored pages, as well as headers and tables similar in format to official WOTC offerings. There are several full color art pieces in the book, including a wonderful map of the Sunset Vale.

The book contains a credits page, an internal title page, a foreword, and a table of contents. Beyond this, the rest of the book is all content related to the individual chapter topics.

Introduction

The introduction is only two pages, but I wanted to specifically call it out, because not only does it summarize what the individual chapters contain, but it also contains “five things you should now” about the Zhentarim, similar to the list included in the Candlekeep Compendium. This is a strong addition as a quick recap of what the organization is for newcomers, and what the organization is NOW for long timers.

Character Options

Character options start with a section detailing what your criminal contact might be specialized in providing if you have the criminal background. I like that this serves as a hint that the Zhentarim isn’t a “nice” criminal organization, since you have options for contacts that can clean a crime scene, rough up recalcitrant outsiders, or even facilitate assassinations. This continues into a discussion of favors, relationships with contacts, and methods of contact.

Subclasses in this section include the following:

  • Cleric (Strife Domain)
  • Rogue (Spellthief)
  • Sorcerer (Beguiler)

The strife domain allows you to inflict psychic damage on attackers, use channel divinity to summon a draining shadow, the ability to pass through shadows, and the ability to summon a Black Sun to cause a number of creatures that gaze upon it to suffer multiple conditions.

The Spellthief learns how to reduce the number of hit dice damage on a sneak attack to drain spell slots from a victim. The literal spell that the Spellthief gains access to is random, unless the Spellthief knows that their target has a specific spell prepared. Other abilities include detecting magic, spotting spellcasters, absorbing spells, and magic resistance as a capstone ability.

Beguilers pick up the ability to cast spells in light armor, spend sorcery points to gain advantage by surprising an opponent with a spell, save sorcery points when casting against a surprised opponent, get free access to Subtle Spell, and create a mantle of deception that grants you advantage and your opponent’s disadvantage as a capstone ability.

I am generally a fan of seeing some of the 3.5 classes modeled with 5e subclasses. I think the Spellthief is an effective recreation, although I’m not sure I get the “feel” of the Beguiler from this subclass, in part because part of the Beguiler’s niche was a customized illusion/charm spell list. I do wonder how often players are going to sacrifice way more hit dice than they get back with their spell thief ability, because the target doesn’t have anything more substantial available. I also wonder how critical hits interact with hit dice sacrifice (i.e. do you subtract the dice for thieving spells before or after the crit is applied).

Strife, as a concept, feels to me as if it would be about making life harder on your opponents. There is some element of that in the cleric domain, but there is also a lot of subterfuge, backstabbing, and draining an opponent. With the Black Sun capstone ability, this is less a general domain, and more a specific Cyric domain. I’m not sure I want my domains quite that specialized.

This section wraps up with a nice Skymage feat. Skymages have been a staple of the Zhentarim ranks in the past, and this one grants the Skymage better ability to handle a mount, the ability to use feather fall, and the ability to avoid provoking attacks on a flyby. Very appropriate for the archetype.

LeadershipThe Zhentarim

This chapter starts with a history of the organization, from its founding in Zhentil Keep, expansions to multiple locations, changes in leadership due to the Time of Troubles, the Spellplague, and the Sundering, to the organization’s current state.

This section also reiterates the ranks, renown, and level prerequisites for the organization that you may have seen if you have looked at Adventurers Guild material about the factions. What I wasn’t expecting is an expanded set of downtime jobs for using renown in non-AL games.

These jobs work in a similar manner to some of the downtime activities like Pit Fighting, Gambling, or Crime in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. The benefit to completing these missions is to gain renown, and this section also has alternate perks for Zhentarim ranks, which are detailed in this chapter.

After this section, we get the current upper leadership of the Zhentarim. While the Pereghost is now the person in the number one position, Fzoul, Manshoon (or at least one version of him), and Ashemmi are still around. They are joined by Riviar Darkwind, a new martial commander for the organization.

We learn some secrets about each of the leaders. In some cases, like Ashemmi, this involves a few tweaks from previous origin stories. It provides an origin for the Pereghost and Riviar, and sheds some light on long term plans by Fzoul and Manshoon, as well as why both of them are content to step back from the main leadership position of the organization.

After the section on leadership, there are several charts detailing the cost of services provided by the Zhentarim, from spellcasting services, hiring spies, and the going rate for different mercenaries.

The chapter wraps up with some examples of the Zhentarim’s flavor of thieves cant, which revolves around greetings, situations, urgency, and meals. This section even constructs a few conversations using these examples to show how this version of the cant works.

Sunset Vale

This section details the environs nearest to Darkhold itself, including what other factions are active in the area. For example, Darkhold isn’t too far from Elturgard’s borders, is near the Harper stronghold of Berdusk, and sits close to the Cult of the Dragon’s sacred site, the Well of Dragons.

Most of the locations in the Vale include at least two adventure hooks for that location. Some of these adventure hooks revolve around the nastiness that the Zhentarim is up to on their own doorstep, while other hooks involve rallying local power groups to keep interlopers like the Red Wizards from getting a foothold in the area.

I love this section. It gives enough information on the settlements to give the areas their own personalities, they have built in adventure hooks, and the proximity of the settlements gives you a reason to have the Zhentarim as a looming threat, or potential ally. It’s a great starting point for a campaign.

Darkhold

Darkhold explores the environs directly surrounding the fortress, as well as its long history. This explains the founding of the fortress, giants and liches that have laired in the fortress in the past, and the era of the Zhentarim’s control of the fortress.

The layout of the fortress is explored, including the Zhentarim’s vault for holding magic items and the section where the Zhentarim keeps dossiers on important adventurers that agents have encountered across Faerun.

Darkhold’s various sections also have different headquarters for its subgroups, including the Sable Accord (the factions non-Skymage wizards), the Skymages, the Lair of Manxam (filled with allied beholders), and the Chantry of the Black Hand (Bane’s clerics). There are some fun magical effects that are in place in many sections of Darkhold, giving different sections of the fortress their own feel. In addition to the fun story hooks and magical effects in Darkhold, there is also a nice looming threat that the Zhentarim doesn’t realize is lurking under their own fortress.

Evil Characters and Campaigns

Alignment isn’t my favorite thing to play with these days. I won’t go into the whole spiel, but I like to view it more as an ideal than an absolute when it comes to characters. That said, this section is all about giving guidelines for playing people that fall along the evil side of the spectrum.

One thing that all of the “how to play evil campaign” discussions of my youth were missing is a discussion of safety tools. Thankfully, this section spends about a page discussing safety, lines and veils, and available pre-game and active safety tools to use for a campaign. I am thrilled with this inclusion, and the only thing I would point out is that the reference to the TTRPG Safety Toolkit mention that it was created by Kienna Shaw and Lauren Bryant-Monk, but I feel like that wording misses that they compiled the toolkit (and did great work in doing so), but the individual tools included in the toolkit have been created by a wide range of RPG industry creators.

There are discussions about why a character would be evil, and various evil archetypes that appear in fantasy stories, as well as if your evil character is one of many, or the only morally questionable character in the party. My favorite part of this section, however, is the Redeeming Characteristics table.

There are 20 different examples of Redeeming Characteristics for evil characters. I love this, because I think what is often missed when people discuss evil characters is the fact that even the evil characters that we feel compelled to follow in fantasy stories have some sympathetic, humanizing aspect to them.

Magic Items and Spells

There is some grim humor operating in this section, and I love it. For example, the Body Bag of Holding, for disposing of messy remains. There is a magic item that grants access to extraplanar bankers. There are also some old favorites like the Banesword, and a return of a long time singular sword from Realmslore, Namara, “The Sword that Never Sleeps.”

The section on spells include a mix of older edition spells, like Drown, and some customized spells from Manshoon and Varalla.

Seeing Namara show up in this section makes me miss some of those singular, named swords from the AD&D The Magister sourcebook, and I wish we would see more of those singularly famous weapons that might have come to light in the interim.

Rogue’s Gallery

Rogue’s Gallery is a mix between the stats for named characters that are part of the Zhentarim, and NPC stat blocks for some common character types related to the Zhentarim. I like how different “add on” mechanics from 5e have been used for various effects in this section. For example, Manshoon gets legendary actions, which isn’t a surprise, but Fzoul Chembryl, a character that is effectively a demigod in service to a more powerful god, gets mythic actions as well (introduced in Mythic Odysseys of Theros, but summarized here as well).

As far as the creature types that don’t represent named NPCs, we get alleyblades, foulwings (aberrations often used by the Skymages), Ghost Giants (the spirits of some of the giants that once inhabited Darkhold), Lichwood Witches, Shadow Knights, Umberwatch Wardens, and Zhentarim Skymages. These represent the “troops” that serve different subgroups within the Zhentarim, as well as creatures bound to the service of Darkhold.

If you have wanted the Zhentarim to feel like more of an active, sinister organization in D&D 5e, you’ll find some very good content in this product.

Turning a Profit

Without reversing what 5e materials have already established about the Zhentarim, it feels like we learn enough seething below the surface to return the Zhentarim as a long term adversarial organization in this product. Not only is this evident when talking about the organization and the leaders of this faction, but also in all the adventure hooks built into the Sunset Vale location. I love the “redeeming characteristics” chart in the chapter on playing evil characters, and I really appreciate the contextual campaign framing to show not what “general” evil characters would do, but what Zhentarim affiliated campaigns might look like.

Risky Business

This isn’t so much a criticism, as a general idea, but the Spellthief, Beguiler, and many of the spells and magic items in the book aren’t necessarily Zhentarim specific, so they might get overlooked when viewed through the book’s “theme.” I like the confirmation that Manshoon and Fzoul are still playing their games, but I’d almost like to see a few more of those concrete, rather than general, plans. It would be nice to see a few places that have fallen to the Pereghost’s aggressive capitalism strategy as well.

Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

I’m extremely happy with this product. If you have wanted the Zhentarim to feel like more of an active, sinister organization in D&D 5e, you’ll find some very good content in this product. I like the subtle shift from “the Zhentarim is semi-reformed” to “the Zhentarim is more subtle and willing to enact long term plans.”

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