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Ruins of Zhentil Keep (2e)

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Visit the Heart of the Black Network

Known throughout the Realms as the headquarters of the Zhentarim, Zhentil Keep has long been a trade hub, a seat of power, and a nest of corruption at the edge of the Moonsea. This set details Zhentil Keep in the days of Band the Black Lord, before the Time of Troubles. It also presents the new Zhentil Keep, a city nearly destroyed by the insane Cyric, Prince of Lies.

This campaign expansion contains:

  • A 128-page sourcebook detailing the old and new Zhentil Keep, the history of the city, the sinister Black Network, and important villains.
  • A 64-page adventure book with three new perilous adventures that take heroes into Zhentil Keep, under it, and to nearby communities.
  • A Monstrous Compendium Appendix containing 16 new creatures.
  • Three maps depicting the old Zhentil Keep, the new Zhentil Keep, and the activities of the malevolent Zhentarim.
  • Eight cards describing areas containing some of the most nefarious NPCs and monsters ever to be associated with Zhentil Keep.

Enter and beware!

Product History

Ruins of Zhentil Keep (1995), by Kevin Melka and John Terra, with David "Zeb" Cook and Ed Greenwood, is a boxed supplement detailing Zhentil Keep. It was published in March 1995.

About the Cover. The cover shows three northern adventurers confronting a burnbones — an undead cleric of Cyric who suffered a minor mishap in Cyric's early days as a deity. Author Kevin Melka still has a framed photograph of this cover over his desk at home.

Origins (I): A Classic Foe. The Zhentarim of Zhentil Keep were a constant presence in Ed Greenwood's original Forgotten Realms campaign. The Knights of Myth Drannor fought Zhentilar troops, Priests of Bane, and Zhentarim magelings and wizards. They rooted out secret Zhent agents. They faced magically-animated foes such as the Zhents' helmed horrors and their allies such as dark naga and banelar. The Knights defended Shadowdale from Zhent invasion many times, for the Zhentarim were determined "to reduce Shadowdale to helplessness through attrition". They even assaulted Zhentil Keep and killed high-ranking Zhentarim "to show Manshoon we could take the battle to him whenever we felt like it".

The Knights knew well the Zhentarim's primary goal, which was "to enrich themselves by establishing and controlling the shortest, and therefore most economical, overland trade route between Zhentil Keep (and the mineral resources of north-of-the-Moonsea) and the Sword Coast". It seems so innocent, but combine that with evil worship of Bane (and later Cyric) and things go rapidly wrong.

Origins (II): A History of the Zhentarim. D&D players first heard of Zhentil Keep in Ed Greenwood's "Seven Swords" article, in Dragon #74 (June 1983). As with most early Realmslore, it's just an offhand reference, here to a locale visited by a mercenary general. The Zhentarim appear more notably in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Set (1987). They in fact infiltrate the book, appearing in references throughout the cyclopedia. The Zhentarim are described as "an organization of evil and lawful individuals". Their goals are laid out, as are their plans to assume political control of the area to support their trade route. Zhentil Keep is also highlighted as "the base of the Zhentarim".

Fans learned even more of the Zhentarim in Ed Greenwood's early Forgotten Realms novels. Spellfire (1987) introduced them, including named characters like Fzoul and Manshoon, and also revealed their connections to many nefarious groups. Years later, Crown of Fire (1994) detailed the increasing rift between the leaders of the Zhentarim, something that would grow in the late '90s.

Meanwhile, in the roleplaying line, Forgotten Realms Adventures (1990) offered a few more pages on the Zhentarim and its leaders. Surprisingly, it was the generic Castles (1990) boxed set that first detailed one of the Zhentarim's strongholds, the Darkhold. However, fans would have to wait for a few more years to get an in-depth view of Zhentil Keep itself, in five "Everwinking Eye" articles written by Ed Greenwood for Polyhedron #82 (April 1993) through Polyhedron #86 (August 1993). Some of that material would reappear here, in Ruins of Zhentil Keep (1995).

Origins (III): A Lying Prince. Zhentil Keep suffered massive changes in James Lowder's Prince of Lies (1993). Cyric had become the god of Zhentil Keep following the Time of Troubles, but now he was threatening the Keep with an army of monsters as part of a machination. A siege followed, resulting in the destruction of much of the city!

Origins (IV): A New Sourcebook. Which at last brings us to Ruins of Zhentil Keep. It was part of the series of original supplements that followed the release of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting (1993), but more notably it was the Realms' newest big, ruined locale, after The Ruins of Undermountain (1991), The Ruins of Myth Drannor (1993), and The Ruins of Undermountain II: The Deep Levels (1994).

Origins (V): A Changing Author. Ruins of Zhentil Keep was begun by David "Zeb" Cook, who wrote the first 10,000 words or so. However, he then gave his notice to go work at Magnet Interactive (and shortly thereafter, Interplay). Kevin Melka and John Terra were thus brought in to finish the project. Melka wrote the historic background and the first two adventures, while Terra wrote the modern-day material and the third adventure. They were able to work well together because they'd known each other as RPGA authors before moving on to TSR freelance projects.

As for Ed Greenwood: he remained involved as one of the authors' main resources. Melka remembers hour-long phone calls to Ed Greenwood, which was expensive in those days. Add that to calls with Terra on the east coast, and you end up with a very large phone bill!

Adventure Styles: Encounters & Locales. The adventures are a mix of styles. "Felled Hopes" is largely episodic encounters, while "Buying Time" starts out that way. Meanwhile, "Sinister Conviction" and the latter part of "Buying Time" are pure locale-based dungeon crawls, set in the passages, sewers, and caverns beneath Zhentil Keep.

Eras of the Realms: 1357 DR / 1369 DR. The non-ruined Zhentil Keep is detailed in 1357 DR, just before Bane's fall in the 1358 DR Time of Troubles. The ruined Zhentil Keep is detailed in 1369 DR, just after Cyric's fall in the 1368 DR events of Prince of Lies.

Exploring the Realms: Zhentil Keep. The main focus of Ruins of Zhentil Keep is of course on Zhentil Keep and the Zhentarim, in the two different eras noted. The sewers of Zhentil Keep appear in multiple adventures.

There's also lesser details on the Darkhold and the Citadel of the Raven.

Exploring the Realms: The Dalelands. The Dalelands get a little bit of attention in "Felled Hopes", including details on the otherwise unknown village of Snowmantle, in the Border Forest north of Daggerdale.

Monsters of Note. Zhentil Keep features several new monsters, including the nature elemental and variants of gargoyles and golems. However, the most thematic monsters for the Realms are probably the banelich and the burnbones, related to Bane and Cyric, respectively.

NPCs of Note. Ruins of Zhentil Keep is full of interesting NPCs, obviously starting with leaders of the Zhentarim such as Manshoon and Fzoul Chembryl. The two would get even more attention in Cloak & Dagger, following the 1370 DR start of the Manshoon Wars.

There's also a lot of detail on the gods, highlighting the changes resulting from Prince of Lies. Cyric is now mad while Kelemvor has risen up as the newest lord of the dead. Iyachtu Xvim, the alleged son of Bane, also gets some attention, including in the third adventure, "Buying Time". Finally, the fate of Mask is finally revealed: he's lost most of his powers and is fleeing across the Gray Wastes. Prince of Lies author James Lowder says this wasn't what he originally intended: "As for Mask, TSR and I have different thoughts on that. I wrote an article for Dragon magazine about the gods post-Prince, but it was killed before publication." So it goes in shared settings.

About the Creators. Melka is best-known as the lead for the second iteration of the Dark Sun campaign; he'd later coauthor one other Realms book, Cormanthyr: Empire of the Elves (1998). Terra is a freelancer for wrote for many publishers; that same year he also authored The Moonsea (1995).

About the Product Historian

The history of this product was researched and written by Shannon Appelcline, the editor-in-chief of RPGnet and the author of Designers & Dragons - a history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time. Please feel free to mail corrections, comments, and additions to shannon.appelcline@gmail.com.

 
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Discussions (1)
Customer avatar
William G October 29, 2017 2:46 am UTC
PURCHASER
The "Maps.pdf" file in the download for this product contains incorrect maps; the included file contains maps from "TSR World Chronicles: A Birthright Conspectus," instead of the poster maps that came in the Zhentil Keep boxed set. I've submitted a support request to that effect.
Customer avatar
William G October 31, 2017 4:49 am UTC
PURCHASER
Corrected map file as of 10/30/2017. Thanks DM's Guild support!
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This title was added to our catalog on July 18, 2017.