he Menzoberranzan: City of Intrigue sourcebook that went on sale in August is, in many ways, a glimpse at the future—or at least at the ways we’re thinking about the future right now. With this book, we’re trying out some new approaches to setting material, exploring new ways of making these books more useful and more interesting than ever before.
Rules? What Rules?
One thing you’ll notice as you flip through the pages of Menzoberranzan is an almost complete lack of rules elements. You’ll find none of the usual 4th Edition statistics blocks for powers, monsters, or traps. A few standalone rules modules let you track characters’ standing in relation to the factions presented in the book, or measure a character’s standing in drow society overall, but even those are light on rules, independent of any particular game system or edition, and heavy on flavor.
Heavy on flavor describes the approach we tried to take throughout the book. We tried very hard to convey what it feels like to be a drow in the twisted and treacherous society of Menzoberranzan, to walk the shadowed paths of the Underdark, and to scheme your way to success under the Way of Lolth. That sense of immersion in the world is far more important than telling you how many hit points a drow guard at the city gates has—and that’s information you can easily enough glean from the monster book of your choice.
That approach of emphasizing flavor extends to our advice for constructing a campaign set in or around Menzoberranzan, as well. In fact, the very first section of Chapter 1 is called “Campaign Flavor,” and encourages you to think about what particular approach to life in the City of Intrigue you will pursue in your drow-centered campaign. Do you want to focus on political intrigue? Ideological scheming? Raids on the surface or wars against other Underdark dwellers? Each of those broad categories includes many possibilities, and we spend a couple of pages right at the start helping you think about those options.
We took the same attitude toward the player material at the back of the book. Rather than provide a half-dozen drow themes or paragon paths (which we’ve covered in other places), we focus on helping you understand what it’s like to be a drow. What motivates a drow? What secrets might you be hiding from your companions? What if you can’t trust your adventuring companions? What if you all belong to different houses? What’s your stature in drow society? Thinking about these questions (with guidance from this chapter of the book) will help you get into the spirit of playing a drow far more than rules options.
Spellplague? What Spellplague?
In the same spirit of helping you create the drow campaign you most want to run, we tried to present the city of Menzoberranzan as the near-timeless entity it is, rather than limiting the content of the book to any particular point in the city’s history. Right after the “Campaign Flavor” section at the start of the book is a “Campaign Era” section, which introduces the history of the city and offers suggestions for playing in each era. Do you want to run a campaign in the city but not feel bound to the extensive details of houses and events detailed in novels and game sourcebooks over the years? A campaign set in the Founding era (a huge swath of time covering over 5,000 years between the founding of the city and the events of R.A. Salvatore’s Dark Elf Trilogy) should meet your needs perfectly, since details about that era are sparse indeed. The War of the Spider Queen, the Time of Troubles, the Spellplague, and the recent efforts of Lolth to seize the mantle of goddess of magic (the Demon Weave) are all covered here, and we refer to them throughout the rest of the book, so you know what information applies to which eras.
So, for example, as you examine the glorious map of the city—created by Mike Schley—and check the map key at the end of the book, you’ll find that one particular building in the Narbondellyn district is the residence of House Barrison Del’Armgo—except in the Spellplague era, when it’s the house barracks. And in reading about the Battered Beholder, an arms and hardware merchant in Eastmyr, you’ll learn that the proprietor came to the city shortly after the War of the Spider Queen and remains there through the Spellplague era.
When we discuss the major drow houses, we present the general facts about each one, the things that are true about the house in every era. Then we go on to discuss the fate of that house in one or two specific eras, using that space to talk about the specific drow in positions of power in the house, the house’s rank during that era, and the house’s goals and challenges. House Xorlarrin, for example, is a fascinating family that includes prominent and mysterious wizards in every era, but in the Spellplague era—and in particular during the events surrounding the creation of the Demon Weave—it takes on a special place of importance.
Of course, the header of this section notwithstanding, we didn’t ignore the Spellplague or the time that passed between the War of the Spider Queen and the present year of the Forgotten Realms novels and game products. But in Menzoberranzan, less has changed than one might think, so it was relatively easy to focus on things that remained unchanging.
This isn’t a new approach to setting material; it’s one that you’ve already seen in the Neverwinter Campaign Guide. One of the goals of Menzoberranzan was to provide you with material you can assemble in different ways to build the campaign you want to run. In addition to helping you choose a flavor and era for your campaign, the book helps you to capture the flavor of intrigue and machinations in the city by choosing a handful of factions from among the seventeen factions discussed in detail in the book (or other factions you create). If you focus on, say, three factions, you’ll communicate to your players what’s important in your campaign, help focus their attention on their standing relative to these three houses, and highlight the shifting alliances and rivalries among those three factions. The rest of the city can lurk in the background, only coming to the fore when you decide it’s time to shake things up a bit.
These factions are the most important building blocks for a campaign set in the city of spiders, largely because they help reinforce the mood of treachery and intrigue that defines drow society. But the approach is very similar to what we did in Neverwinter, highlighting the major players and their relationships with each other. As you select factions and explore their interactions, you’ll find that adventure ideas spring readily to mind.
Naturally, these aren’t the only building blocks you’ll find in the book. Important locations, both inside the city and in the surrounding Underdark, can serve as key locations in your campaign, whether as safe meeting places or sites for deadly adventures. At the most individual level, a list of secrets can help your players define their characters by developing the hidden shames and crimes that lurk in their past.
These three approaches are pointers to how we hope to present setting material in the future. Menzoberranzan: City of Intrigue (along with the Neverwinter Campaign Guide) is a first step in that direction, pointing the way to the future, but we’ll be refining our style in future products, and we hope you’ll help steer us on the course that works best for your games.
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.