I often find baddies in the Forgotten Realms be portrayed as rather cartoonish or unbelievable. If you were conclusively shown your are working for evil, would you continue? I mean, why would anyone join the Zhentarim? Imagine an EU if it were run by evil wizards… then mixed with a CIA where every conspiracy theory were true and a good dose of religious zealotry. That’s the Zhentarim. Your leaders are the Pope of Tyranny and Strife and an evil wizard lord who makes clones for fun. And you don’t even have a nametag! So what kind of possible motivation can you, a Zhent (someone born in Zhentil Keep), have for following these cartoon serial villains?
Manshoon and one of his clone during their time at the Citadel of the Raven
The first thing that jumps out at me, is that nobody in the region likes the Zhentarim. The Moonsea is a collection of city states that fight proxy wars or outright wars with each other, while they constantly try economic warfare against each other. There’s also religion – Mulmaster is the site of the heretical orthodox banite worship in the Realms! Everyone knows the real head of the religion is High Priest Fzoul Chembryl, not the High Imperceptor!
From the Zhents’ perspective, most of the other people in the area are decidedly untrustworthy when compared to the Zhents! When the brave Zhentilar (military branch of Zhentil Keep) were fending off the uncivilised, loutish ogres of Thar, Melvaunt abandoned their Zhentilar allies in Phlan, leading to the death of lots of Zhentilars and the destruction of Phlan. When most of Zhentil Keep was destroyed by one of Cyric’s hare-brained schemes, nobody came to their aid. The “heroes” messed up Cyric’s plans, then left Zhentil Keep at the mercy of frost elementals, gnolls, and white dragons.
In the Moonsea Wars, Zhentil Keep supported Sembia, Hillsfar, Phlan and Melvaunt against the imperialistic Mulmaster, only to have Sembia stab them in the back and send vagrants and sell-swords to support Hillsfar when Yûlash requested the aid of the Keep against said city’s aggression! Then you have Cormyr, supporting separatist forces that keep throwing the Dales into chaos and anarchy. Their lies and slander about upstanding Zhents has even made it necessary for the Zhents to hide their origin when our peaceful Zhent caravans bring much needed goods to the peoples of Faerûn, as many nations and cities enforce embargoes against the people of Zhentil Keep!
And who else than the Zhentarim could seize Darkhold from the lich-queen Varalla and made the area safe from brigands and bandits, like the Harpers? Harpers are vile, unpatriotic murders funded by the likes Cormyr and Waterdeep to kill innocent Zhents and destroy their peaceful trade. No, my friend – it is the Zhentarim, Zhents, and Zhentilar that are the true friends of order and trade!
Pretty damn cool symbol though!
The overt worship of evil gods is different in the Realms. You would pray to Umberlee to avoid a bad storm when out sailing, or for an old, ailing family member, you might pray to Myrkul. You might pray to Bane both to have the city’s authorities overlook you, or that they won’t overlook these tax-dodging merchants storing their cash on some island in the Moonsea. However, truly devoting yourself to Bane or Cyric requires more than just a small prayer. The following excerpt is from page 48 of Mysteries of the Moonsea:
“With the return of Bane, the Zhents are more organized and rational, and probably could overwhelm Hillsfar with one big push if they chose to (at significant cost); fortunately for Maalthiir, the Banites have other factors keeping them from such an attack, and he has toned down his aggression while he works on a new plan of conquest.”
For the Zhentarim, Bane (and Cyric, to a lesser degree and depending on time point), has been tied to Zhentil Keep’s fate. When Bane’s power wanes, so does the power of Zhentil Keep. Bane keeps Zhentil Keep safe from foreign powers, which is imperative.
This is touched upon in the Ruins of Zhentil Keep – people blame Cyric and Bane for the city’s woes. Cyric for obvious reasons, and Bane (or Xvim) for not coming to their aid in their time of need.
Zorro they ain’t.
Others might criticise the Zhents for the tyranny of whatever dictator that rules Zhentil Keep, but what if said tyrant keeps your belly full and your head prideful? Doesn’t that system work, as far as you’re concerned? And how does that differ in principle from the absolute monarchy of Azoun IV in Cormyr? For all his benevolence, he couldn’t save Tilverton. Maybe, sometimes, a strong leader is better than a benevolent leader.
This alternate take on what the world would look like from the Zhents’ viewpoint. I hope it fleshes them out, gives them depth, and makes them seem more reasonable, and shows how it is possible to imagine how a rational, kind person would fall in the with Zhentarim or Zhentilar.