This month, we asked the Forgotten Realms design team, "What's different and what's familiar about some of the more well-known secret organizations in the new campaign setting?" Their answer: "Among other things, we've tied them in regionally with some of the new rules."
Not to draw up a topic from a previous month, but because many of these groups are strongly tied to a particular region, you'll find that a lot of the members have the appropriate regional feats. For example, most Zhentarim originated from the Moonsea area, and so you'll find that a lot of them have the Thug feat (which gives a bonus to initiative and Intimidate checks), so they're going to be able to get the drop on you a little more often than your average goon. The People of the Black Blood are primarily in the High Forest, and people from there can get the Treetopper feat (which gives a bonus to Climb checks and negates the penalties for fighting while climbing), so expect a lot of ambushes from the trees.
The Red Wizards are a great example, too. I've heard talk on the net that the fans are worried that the Red Wizards have lost their evil and become potion-peddlers. Hardly. They now have enclaves in every major city -- entire city blocks filled with Thayan citizens and wizards of various levels. Sure, they spend much of their time supporting the buying and selling of magic items, but the rest of the time they're making contacts and investigating their surroundings. While their image is changing to something more peaceful, the members of the enclave can be whipped into full combat readiness in a day, and anyone that gets in their way or opposes their plans should look out. All of that money being made on selling potions and scrolls is being funneled into magical research and the war machine back home.
The really cool thing about the new Red Wizards is just what Sean said -- they have enclaves in every city. They're no longer this distant threat, far off to the east where they're never going to impact most campaigns. They're your neighbors. They can have a major impact on a campaign set in the Dales or the North, because they're there.
I'm also rather fond of the Cult of the Dragon. They're completely nuts and their entire philosophy is based upon a mistranslated text, but they're incredibly zealous, have powerful allies, and are hard to stamp out. With dragons being viable opponents at all age levels, you might find a cell of Cult members assisted by a fierce but small dragon ally, or even a young dracolich.
One of the things we wanted to address in the new edition was the "villains are stupid" problem. If you read some of the novels, the only thing you'll notice about our bad guys is that they have grandiose plans that wind up not working out, and that they frequently end up dead as a result. Well, we want to change that in the new edition. We're making the villains smarter, stronger, and more dangerous. The Zhentarim, for example, have been kicked around for years -- well, not any longer. They're better organized than they've been in decades, they've resolved a number of their internal divisions, and they've got a great new captain in Scyllua Darkhope. We think you'll be happy with 'em.
Are we going to see any new organizations, and if so, are they recently formed or are they old ones we've just never heard of before now?
We do have a couple of new organizations, since a new edition is the perfect place to introduce anything like that. The Order of the Dark Moon is a secret sect of monk-sorcerers devoted to the evil goddess Shar. The People of the Black Blood are shapechangers devoted to Malar, the god of the hunt. As we see it, both of these groups have been around for a while, they just haven't been called out in product before.
Rich already pointed out the People of the Black Blood (which Rob and I invented) and the Order of the Dark Moon (which I think was all Rob's baby). Two of our "new iconic" characters are representatives of these groups, and they're neat and freaky.
I also like how the new game rules allow us to make villains out of existing classes. Nature in the Realms used to be a very positive and benign entity -- most of the nature deities were good-aligned. But now we can have evil druids and rangers, and so if you come across a group of folks casting plant spells in the forest, you no longer know if they're likely to help you or sacrifice you as part of some dark hunt. And while they're not truly an organization, we added new flavor to some of our northern orc hordes by giving them a charismatic and powerful leader with several levels of barbarian -- yet another way the new rules can make a serious threat out of a normally ho-hum sort of creature.
Oh, and there's a new mysterious group in Anauroch, but we're not talking about them just yet. :)
Go to the March Realmswatch main page for more of information about secret societies in the new Forgotten RealmsCampaign Setting or the Forgotten Realms main news page for more articles and news about the Forgotten Realms game setting.
James Wyatt wrote articles for Dragon Magazine and Dungeon Magazine before joining the Wizards of the Coast staff in January 2000. Game design is career No. Five, after stints as a childcare worker, ordained minister, technical writer, and web designer. He currently resides in Washington state.