What Do I Know About Reviews? Thay: Land of the Red Wizards (Dungeon Masters Guild Product)
On my way to watch Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves for the first time, I remembered that I hadn’t finished reading through Thay: Land of the Red Wizards. The product is a DM’s Guild product written by Alex Kammer, Alan Patrick, and the creator of the Forgotten Realms, Ed Greenwood. One of my favorite AD&D 2e products was the boxed set Spellbound, which detailed Thay, Rashemen, and Aglarond.
There have been a lot of developments in Thay since that boxed set. Szass Tam, the Zulkir of Necromancy, seized control of the entire nation, replaced a lot of rivals with liches and vampires loyal to him, and raised Thaymount as a massive plateau where Szass Tam rules from. In the novels that came out leading up to D&D 5e, we find out that there are Red Wizards in exile, trying to return Thay to its previous state, with a council of Zulkirs that are all equal in power.
Red Wizards pop up on several transitional products leading to D&D 5e, like Ghost of Dragonspear and Dead in Thay, and a renegade Red Wizard is working with the Cult of the Dragon in the Tyranny of Dragons adventures. So, what might Thay look like right now?
I have not had the opportunity to use any of the material in this book in my games, but I am familiar with the Forgotten Realms and D&D 5e, both as a player and as a dungeon master. I was not provided a review copy of this product.
Thay: Land of the Red Wizards
Writers: Ed Greenwood, Alex Kammer, and Alan Patrick
Editor: Alex Kammer
Art Direction: Casey Christofferson
Graphic Designer and Layout Artist: Gordon McAlpin
Cover Illustrator: Britt Martin
Cartographers: Dyson Logos, Ian McGarty, Mike Schley
Interior Illustrators: Brett Barkley, Adrian Landeros, Britt Martin, Thuan Pham, Hector Rodriguez, Artem Shukaev, Quentin Soubrouillard, Victor Tan Design (artstation.com/victortandesign)
Layout and Format
This PDF is 109 pages long. This includes the following:
- Title Page
- Credits Page
- Table of Contents
- Player Maps and Handouts for the included adventure (4 pages)
Given the people who worked on this product, there is a lot of original artwork in the product that is extremely polished and attractive. The layout has some subtle touches that enhance the same general appearance of many D&D products, like the footers and page numbers and chapter headers. The book is laid out in a two-column format. There are nice, attractive sidebars that provide additional context on the topics being addressed in the chapter. There is also an amazing original map of Thay at the opening of this product.
The Summoned Maelephant In The Room
One thing that should be kept in mind is that despite some of the specifics that I’ll call out, this product isn’t likely to end up being canon. I say this because when Chris Perkins did a video about “Lore You Should Know” about the Red Wizards of Thay, he indicated that “we haven’t heard from the Red Wizards in a while,” and “we don’t know what they are up to.”
The reason this indicates that the details in this aren’t likely to make it into the Red Wizard adventure that Perkins recently mentioned in the D&D Direct presentation from earlier this year is that Perkins doesn’t seem to consider Adventurer’s League content as “canon” to the products that are produced. If they were canon, the Red Wizards would have been very busy, since there have been Adventurer’s League storylines detailing the Red Wizards’ attempt to take over parts of the Moonsea region and battling a coalition of other factions from the Realms.
I mainly want to manage expectations going into this review, especially considering the creator of the Forgotten Realms and a director of the Adventurers League both worked on this product. This product is, effectively, an interpretation that may have some bearing on how Thay appears in the future, but by no way is assured to be adopted.
Secrets of the Book
The book is divided into the following sections:
- Part I: The Red Land
- Chapter 1: The People of Thay
- Chapter 2: Ruling Thay
- Chapter 3: Points of Interest
- Chapter 4: Heroes from Thay
- Chapter 5: Creatures of the Plateau
- Part II: Intrigue in Eltabbar
That means that we have general information about the setting, mechanics and rules, and an adventure for low-level characters set in Thay.
The setting information starts with life in Thay, reinforcing the idea that the Red Wizards are extremely evil, as are most of the rulers in Thay, but the common people are just like common folk around the Realms. We get what daily life looks like, fashion, and cuisine. In fact, we even get recipes.
This section brings forward one of the most distasteful traits of the aristocracy of Thay, and that is the racism that they hold about the Mulani as being greater than other cultures around them. Since slavery has been a recurring aspect of Thayan culture in the past, this section brings up that even the wealthy in Thay have moved away from slavery, and that only the worst of the worst (including the Red Wizards) engage in the practice, and the practice is unequivocally evil.
We move into other aspects of Thayan culture, like how those with magical potential are identified and trained. We also hear about the hierarchy of power in the setting, starting with the Szass Tam and the Zulkirs. This includes all the current Zulkirs that are in office, and my favorite aspect, the Separatists and their alternate Zulkirs who are working to overthrow Szass Tam. A notable aspect of this section is that many of the events being referenced regarding the Separatists have been detailed in various Adventurers League adventures.
Each major region of Thay gets its own section in the book, detailing population, leaders, military details, commerce, and predominant religions. The leaders of each of these regions are detailed with Bonds, Flaws, Ideals, and personal quotes.
Wrapping up our tour of Thay, we get first-hand impressions of the various regions in the form of an account written by Shelmazra Hornwyntur. Shelmazra is a merchant whose section shows what it’s like to enter cities, stay in various inns, visit the local sites, and conduct business.
Brace yourself for heresy, from me, a fan of the Forgotten Realms since 1987. While I know there are two additional authors listed, I’m viewing this product from the perspective of a sourcebook written by Ed Greenwood. Some of my favorite sourcebooks for The Realms have had Ed as an author, but Ed’s writing doesn’t always work for me.
For example, I think the original Forgotten Realms box set was brilliant, in that we got what people generally know about a topic, then immediately got whatever secrets Elminster wanted to share. I also loved most of the Volo’s Guides, because Volo was breaking down lots of subtopics about a location, and we, again, get footnotes from Elminster, providing more context. On the other hand, there have been many other sourcebooks that aren’t designed to subdivide their topics into bite-sized segments, and don’t have as many opportunities to break the presentation into commentary. When Greenwood works on this style of sourcebook, he still piles lots of details that make the setting fascinating with all its texture, but so many details just start to run together that it’s hard to remember where those low-key details are attached.
This is my impression of the Border Kingdoms sourcebook that came out a few years ago, which has tons of ideas about that wild region of the Realms, but it all kind of blended together for me like a smoothie instead of a stew. It was hard to pick out specifics.
The setting detail here splits the difference. There are a few places where the topics go on long enough that specific details sometimes get lost, but most of the individual regions have very distinct characters and very distinct adventuring opportunities. Elements like the roleplaying sections for the various leaders help to break up the narrative by adding expressly table-ready information.
Shelmazra’s section is a missed opportunity because we get all the “facts” in one section, then we get a whirlwind tour of the same locations, again, with Shelmazra’s impressions of those locations. Since this section expressly mentions that Volo is unwelcome in Thay, and presents Shelmazra as his “replacement,” I would have loved to have had a more personal impression-based tour with Elminster contextual notes, all together, with clearly delineated sections.
Player Facing Mechanics
This section gives us several player-facing options. Well, maybe player-facing. We’ll get to that. Here they are:
- Weavebound Paladins
- Circle Magic
- Circle of Duplication
- Circle of Hunger
- Thayan Circle Caster
- Thayan Backgrounds
- Blank Slate
- Expatriate Mage
- Thayan Deserter
- Thayan Equipment
- Thayan Trinkets
The Weavebound Paladin does have the traditional tenets section, additional spells, and the standard subclass level abilities. But it’s not framed like an Oath, and it has a whole bunch of additional requirements that no subclass anywhere in 5e has, like needing levels of wizard and having a minimum Intelligence score. While these paladins are normally bound to a specific Zulkir as their champion, it is mentioned that maybe some powerful wizards outside of Thay may start producing them. This reminds me of some of the least useful prestige classes from the 3rd edition days, where the requirements are extremely specific, and it’s hard to picture why a player character would want to jump through those special hoops.
Circle Magic has appeared in the past, in other editions of D&D, used by a variety of other arcanists in addition to the Red Wizards. This version is mentioned as being expressly a version of Circle Magic controlled by Szass Tam, and it’s mentioned as being unlikely to be useful to player characters since Szass Tam has his claws in you if you use it. This reminds me, again, of some of the least useful mechanics introduced in D&D 3rd edition, where everything an NPC could do had to be detailed in a manner that could be used by PCs, and honestly, if I want Thayans to have Circle Magic, I’d much rather see it as something in their stat block rather than a series of feats that PCs are never going to touch.
Moving on to our Thayan backgrounds, the Expatriate Mage and Thayan Deserter are solid player options to let a PC who wants to engage with the story of Thay, but still have characters that aren’t actively working for Red Wizards. The Blank Slate is strange, because it’s basically a non-background. You don’t know anything about yourself, and you have mysterious scars. Sometimes, when you run into starspawn creatures, you may know about them, because somehow you had something to do with an event involving them. While I understand why the backgrounds may have been designed with the 2014 background paradigm in mind, I do wonder what these would look like with a few free feats attached to them.
There are some specifically Thayan creatures that have appeared in the past, like Black Unicorns, Darkenbeasts, or the Demon Lord Eltab. We don’t get those this time around, but I was amused at some of the creatures we did get.
- Bogmaw is a weird, escaped experiment that is, well, a hydra with goat heads
- Speaking of goats, we have my favorite creature in this section, the Many-Hued Goat, goats that can change color based on what color the owner wants
- The Protodracolich is the result of Thayan experiments trying to reproduce the rituals of the Cult of the Dragon
- Wrapping up our trinity of goat monsters, we have the Poltergoat, invisible goats with telekinetic powers
Apparently, Red Wizards do a lot of their experimentation on goats, before they move on to other creatures. I’m kind of surprised at the number of goat variants we got, but I didn’t have a burning desire for any other creatures, since there are other monsters that can be pretty easily reskinned to match some of those Thayan monsters of the past.
I was happy to see an adventure in this, because I like the idea of seeing what an adventure set in Thay, with Thayan characters, would look like. This adventure takes PCs from 1st to 3rd level. A stranger recruits the PCs to deliver a package. The PCs need to navigate Eltabbar which gives them a chance to see the severe differences between the lower class and the rich in the city.
The package delivery is a job interview for the PCs to work for a local gambling house owner as potential employees. The woman gives them several increasingly more difficult jobs to prove themselves. These include gathering information at a party, clearing a tunnel that her organization uses for stealthy transport of a monster, and rescuing an agent of hers that has been captured.
All of this is has been leading up to the ultimate task, helping their new employer assassinate the local ruler of Eltabbar, hoping to install a less tyrannical leader. Unfortunately, the assassination plot involves setting off a bomb in one of two locations that will both cause lots of collateral damage and harm lots of bystanders.
While the PCs can attempt the assassination, the fact that the agent they save shames them for going along with the plan shows us that the “heroic” option is to refuse to participate and try to defuse the bomb before it can hurt anyone. Reinforcing this concept is the fact that we’re told the Tharchion, the leader of Eltabbar, has all kinds of protections that boil down to there is no way the PCs can kill him, and he will always get away.
Honestly, I’m kind of disappointed in this ending. It reminds me a lot of some of the criticism of the Falcon and the Winter Soldier, where the otherwise completely sympathetic organization trying to push for real change must be hard framed as bad by having Karli knowingly blow-up innocents in one of their raids. Given that Thay is presented as being ruled by some of the most oppressive and evil people in the Realms, it would have been nice to let the PCs make some kind of headway in striking back. Even if there had been an option to attempt the attack without the bomb, or to find another location that their employer hasn’t discerned that would allow them to minimize the damage to just the Tharchion’s immediate circle, which would have felt less like the PCs are being forced to reinforce the status quo.
There are lots of details that are very helpful for playing a Thay-centric campaign. The roleplaying tips for leaders are great, especially if they are being used as campaign villains. There are many colorful locations that will make Thay a lively location to explore, especially when playing into the themes of the various regions, like the monster-haunted wilderness in Surthay or the carved-out caverns along the walls of the plateau of Thaymount. The political maneuvering between the expatriate Thayan council of Zulkirs and the current rulers alone is a strong campaign to play.
The text, especially at the beginning, is a little unfocused. Much of what would normally be player options are just mechanical explanations for what NPCs can do. That space might have been better used by presenting Thayan paladins with a stat block, or presenting some spellcaster stat blocks that can bolster one another’s casting ability. The adventure frames the most heroic option as maintaining the current situation in Thay.
Tenuous Recommendation–The product has positive aspects, but buyers may want to make sure the positive aspects align with their tastes before moving this up their list of what to purchase next.
I am very happy that this product incorporated developments from the Adventurers League adventures, as it feels like it adds some weight to the developments in the setting. I just wish there had been a little more emphasis placed on how to let PCs be heroes and make a difference in the setting.
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