The Grey Realms – The Zhentarim

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?

mike-myers-austin-powers-the-spy-who-shagged-me-2Manshoon 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!

New_Zhentarim_SymbolPretty 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.

ZhentarimSymbolZorro 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.


The Clutch of Evil

I decided to start posting my the adventures I’ve planned and run for my players so others can use them in their adventures! I’ve left them quite open so they can be converted quite easily! I’ll possibly update these later with any unique monsters or NPCs I choose to use!

The Clutch of Evil

A clutch of Abyssal dragon eggs, summoned by the Cult of the Dragon, crash into the High Forest.

Adventure synopsis

The Fey’ri, in an attempt to cause wanton destruction in the High Forest, have tricked the Cult of the Dragon into summoning three dragon eggs from the Abyss against the mother’s will. However, even more chaos ensues, as Vha’ekar, a fire genasi priest of Talos, receives a vision of the three eggs and mobilises his followers to retrieve the eggs. However, the eggs also plummet into orc territory, leading the orcs to attempt to seize it as well.


The adventurers spot the plummeting three eggs during the night. Presumably, three meteors crashing to the ground is something they would bother investigating.


Character concept: Fanatical fire-worshipping fire genasi
Classes: Druid/Elemental Druid/Dracolyte
Player goal: NPC
Character motivation: Destruction, revenge on people
Character personality: Impulsive, quick to anger, intelligent.
Campaign tags:
Plot hooks:

Vha’ekar was driven out of his village for supposedly being demonspawn. He was taken in by a Talosian druid, who raised him. Later, the Talosian priest was killed by a local noble’s armsmen for worshipping Talos, which was illegal. The young Vha’ekar then fled to the High Forest, where he later received a vision…

Stage One

The adventurers come across the battlefield in the forest, where the three eggs fell. The different factions are fighting over the three, and each faction will recover one each.

Stage Two

The adventurers go about recovering the eggs, choosing to break or keep them. Each egg is jet black, but seems to be glowing red from the inside.

Stage Three

Mummy turns up and starts tearing up the High Forest, but who can stop her?

Mummy turns up.

BBEG design and their motivations

First of all, it took me a while to figure out what BBEG was an abbreviation for. Big, Bad, Evil Guy. Aka the Boss. So, when I was gathering tips on how to make memorable villains I used my google-fu extensively, finding mostly unhelpful, but a few helpful, tips on how to design villains and decided to compile a few of the ones I found and add my some from my own experience as a DM, but the best advice came from my old history teacher who would ask “why?” after every answer.

Teacher – Why did the Roman Empire collapse?

Me – Barbarian invasions.

Teacher – Why did they occur and why were they successful?

Me – Because the barbarians were being driven west by other barbarians and Rome’s military was overextended.

Teacher – Why was Rome’s military overextended?

Me – Because of problems with the Marian Reforms leading to loyalty to the generals and not Rome and the unsustainability of multiple wars.

Teacher – Why did the Marian Reforms occur and why were the Romans involved in unsustainable wars? Etc. etc.

My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North. 

When first designing villains (not just BBEGs, it can also be done for evil PCs), it is important to figure out what they want, why they want it, how they plan to achieve this, and what in the Nine Hells is wrong with the guy. The Players will invest more emotionally if the BBEG seems more human and has a personality deeper than the character sheet he is written on. The person who wrote out the most concise way of doing this is Rhynn from the Giantitp forums:

1. Pick something for the character to want (money, power, love, respect, control). 1b. Decide why. 1c. Make both short- and long-term goals. 2. Give the character personality flaws serious enough that his pursuit of this will involve doing evil acts.


​The orc warlord wants to slaughter all the halflings in the vicinity. Okay, he’s got a goal. What’s his motivation? He’s out for revenge; his parents were killed by vicious halfling pirates. He is going to scout the region, then attack. He is consumed by hatred and thus ruthless; he does not care about the consequences, whether for innocents or his own men.

A vengeful, hateful, ruthless orc with an actual reason behind is actions? Well, I never!  Essentially, when designing a villain, ask yourself why. A lot.

There are of course loads of motivations and goals, most of which overlap with each other, but I’ve tried to find a few key motivations that illustrate the particular aspect of either motivation or goal.

Here is a list of some BBEG motivations with illustrative villains and hopefully some inspiration! Some of these motivations overlap somewhat, but I’ve tried to do as well as I can! I have also tried to avoid real world examples to avoid controversy.

Common motivations

Greater Good

Do it? Dan, I’m not a Republic Serial villain. Do you seriously think I’d explain my master-stroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome? I did it thirty-five minutes ago. – Ozymandias.

An extremely common goal, the “for the greater good” personifies how many people is world peace worth? From Ozymandias of Watchmen to Darth Sidious (whose goals are multifaceted), these guys, similar to villains who once had good intentions, are great ways of exploring the grey shades of morality. These villains realise their methods are evil, but they simple believe it is worth it.

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair


Greed, for the lack of a better word, is good. – Gordon Gekko.

Hans and Simon Gruber, from the Die Hard franchise, are two of the most iconic villains out there. From Hans Gruber’s “Who said we were terrorists?” to Simon’s cold chuckle and “I didn’t say ‘Simon says'” in reference to why a bomb didn’t blow up. Out of all the great villains, these two personify, along with Gordon Gekko, personify greed. They are all willing to go to extraordinary lengths to get rich.

I didn’t say “Simon says.”

Good intentions

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. – Proverb.

Many villains have lofty and noble intentions, which is illustrated well with Arthas Menethil of Warcraft fame. Arthas originally sets out to save Azeroth, but to prevent the spread of the plague turning into zombies, he has to cull an entire town. To defeat the original source of that plague, he searches for the evil runeblade Frostmourne, hellbent on killing Mal’Ganis, the demon responsible. Hell, even Sauron only turned to Morgoth’s darkness to make the world, what he believed, a better place.


Hatred is gained as much by good works as by evil. – Niccolo Machiavelli.

Hatred is actually a rarer “pure” motivation; hatred is more commonly brought on by something else. Revenge, Ideology and Fear are much more common in bringing about Hatred than what for example tanar’ri feel for baatezu and vice versa. An example of it in literature is found in the works of Roald Dahl and the pathological hatred the Witches feel for children. To D&D this is most used by demons, baatezu etc.


To send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary. These procedures are an archaic bourgeois detail. This is a revolution! And a revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate. – Che Guevara.

Humans are capable of truly despicable acts when you get the us vs. them mentality. From peasants vs. nobility to orcs vs. elves, if someone is made to believe that “those guys are different,” anybody can do pretty nasty things to each other. Remove somebody’s humanity through an Ideology and humans will do pretty much anything to them


Jealousy is both reasonable and belongs to reasonable men, while envy is base and belongs to the base, for the one makes himself get good things by jealousy, while the other does not allow his neighbour to have them through envy. – Artistotle

The villains that need to go to jelly school. A great example of Jealousy is the Queen from Snow White. She is a vindictive queen obsessed with being “fairest in the land,” and is willing to kill to maintain this. Most people harbour some form of jealousy, be it love, fame or material wealth.

She’s one step from giving children poisoned apples. 


Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends. – Gandalf.

Many villains turn to evil only because they have been victims of a grave injustice. A fantastic example is General Francis X. Hummel (the Rock), who threatens to destroy San Francisco unless his men, who were left to die in Iraq, are given compensation. In the end, he’s an honourable man who was bluffing about destroying the city; he was never going to fire the rockets. These guys make great complicated characters that can even be turned back to the light.

Patriotism and loyalty

You know, it’s an ugly business doing one’s duty… but just occasionally it’s a real pleasure. – Col. Tavington. 

Blind loyalty and patriotism doesn’t make anyone a bad person on their own, but loyal and patriotic people can easily be manipulated into a doing a lot of very bad things and is one of the things most people can truly relate to. William Tavington from the Patriot is a great patriot in his own way, though he derives a sadistic pleasure from killing the enemies of the Crown.

#swag #yolo #teatime #crumpets

Pragmatists and the easy way out. 

Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven. – John Milton.

Sometimes, the path of least resistance is just that much easier. You are not a believer in the cause, but it is easier to play along. The bonus is you’ll be on the winning side. Hans Landa from Inglorious Basterds is a fantastic character. He is equally part evil, ruthless, intelligent, egotistical and ambitious, yet doesn’t hold any hatred for the Jews, nor does he believe in the Nazi cause, and readily switches sides if the situation changes. Saren from Mass Effect just wanted to live. Another great example is Saruman. A wizard aligned with good for thousands of years finally switches, as he sees no hope for Middle Earth and his sense of self-preservation kicks in.


Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. – Yoda.

Anakin Skywalker, the one destined to bring balance to the force, fears his love will die in childbirth, and thus turns to the Dark Side to save her. From Ravenloft’s Strahd to the Forgotten Realms’ Sammaster, Love is a commonly used motivation. Love can make the most noble hero commit horrible deeds. Use Potions of Love with care.


Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. – Lord Acton.

Power is not only a great motivating force for villains, such as the cases of Darth Sidious, Scar, Jafar, but it can also be a corrupting influence on even the noblest man. Al Pacino’s portrayal of Michael Corleone shows how a war hero can become a ruthless mob boss when granted power. Power is a great way to have heroes fall to new depths. It can also be used as a plot tool to explore the shades of PCs.

Recognition of your peers

It looks like your Pokemon aren’t dead. I can at least make them faint! – Gary Oak.

Some people simply want to be the best. From Gary Oak to Predator, they want to prove themselves the best, or at least worthy, be it “being the very best,” or passing your adulthood test. This can easily be used for a rival party or a wizard attempting to summon demons because “that’ll show all those people who laughed at me!” Obviously a certain level of lack conscience or lack of regard for others is required.


We’re both orphans, James. But while your parents had the luxury of dying in a climbing accident, mine survived the British betrayal and Stalin’s execution squads. My father couldn’t let himself or my mother live with the shame. MI6 figured I was too young to remember. – Alec Trevelyan.

In what may be his best on-screen performance, Sean Bean plays the vengeful agent 006 Alec Trevelyan, aka Janus. Seeking revenge on the British, he decides to crash the world’s financial system and get rich in the process.


Everyone is mine to torment! You’d do well to remember that, you little monster. – Joffrey Baratheon.

Some people are just in it to inflict pain and suffering. Staff Sergeant Bob Barnes (Platoon) may have become a soldier because he was a mean son of a bitch, or his sadistic streak might have developed later. Either way, he simply enjoyed killing and murdering. Joffrey Baratheon’s (Game of Thrones) motivation behind much of what he does is a mix of fear, cowardice and sadistic glee. This motivation is best as a side trait rather than a driving force behind a character, though it lends itself well to why certain villains joined the BBEG.

Uncommon motivations

Alien and incomprehensible
Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn – The Call of Cthulhu

A truly terrifying villain may have absolutely incomprehensible goals. Similar to mindless or singleminded villains, they can’t be reasoned with. Their plans are on a completely different level. These do not always make good enemies, especially for newbie DMs, and should be used sparingly to spice up a campaign!

Some men just want to watch the world burn. – Alfred Pennyworth

The Joker. Patrick Bateman (arguably not). These are two very well-known villains who are simply in it for the Hell of it. They know what they’re doing is bad, but they don’t really care. This motivation is best used sparingly as to not lose the novelty or make it commonplace.


Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead. – Kyle Reese

This is a theme that works best for villains and not BBEGs (though exceptions exist, such as the Reapers of Mass Effect), these creatures, as Kyle Reese puts it, can’t be bargained or reasoned with. One of you will die. In D&D this works well for cursts and other spirits seeking vengeance, or a la the Terminator, a golem.

Drizzt had no chance.

Or even several of these motivations!

I could have done it, Father! I could have done it! For you! For all of us! – Loki

Most villains will of course harbour a mixture of all these motivations as many of them are overlapping. Loki of Marvel fame is a great example of a BBEG with several motivations. He is jealous of Thor and wants to be his equal, he (correctly) believes Thor to be unsuited to rule (Greater Good), wants to rule himself (Power), then when defeated, wants revenge, before eventually siding with Thor in Thor II (with a few plot twists along the way).

In conclusion, I hope these pointers will help you in your future BBEG design. This list is in no way fully comprehensive or complete, but I think it is a great starting point with a few easy steps outlined to make it easier for both new and old DMs to create more three-dimensional BBEGs. You obviously do not need to use any of the specific motivations, but I think most other motivations would be synonymous to the ones I have listed.

Character Creation in an RPG part 1 – The Basics

To start the off the roleplaying section of my blog, Character Creation seems a good a place to start as I will get! I will use Dungeons and Dragons 3.5rd edition and the Forgotten Realms for this blog, but this can be applied to any RPG system or setting!

So let’s get started!

The last thing Frank the orc ever saw

Character creation is way more than rolling picking a race, choosing a deity, and rolling a few dice to for your starting abilities and gold to buy equipment with! So it is no surprise many DMs want a brief synopsis of your character, but it is not always that easy for players to know where to start.

Players often have an idea of what they want to play, but not much beyond that, e.g. a valiant knight or a pyromaniac wizard. Coming up with a solid backstory takes time, and if you might not be entirely sure in what direction you want to take your knight, you are going to be apprehensive of penning his childhood memoirs at this point. Not describing all of your PC’s previous relationships and stories grants you and your DM much more leeway in adding in new characters from your past which can lead to fun storylines – especially when what you currently want to do is start the game and bring the flames of genocide crashing down upon the local kobold population in the name of Larethian!

Then one day, the kobolds fought back.

So to this end I tried figuring out a happy medium – Something that can be done quickly, but still gives you a solid idea of who the character is. You can work out what his favourite colour is and who his fave boyband was when growing up later!
Character concept:
Classes (or equivalent):
Player goal:
Character motivation:
Character personality:
Campaign tags:
Plot hooks:
The character concept is the character summed up in one or two sentences. Classes is what starting class he has and which ones you think you want him to take later. In other RPGs, like Fantasy Flight Games’ Dark Heresy, this can easily be changed to career. In nWoD this can be changed to what you feel would best describe the character’s skill-set.

Player goal is what you, the player, want to get out of the campaign. Character motivation is also self-explanatory, but it really helps GMs with giving your character a plausible reason for doing whatever he will be doing. If your character’s motivation is patriotism, maybe the GM will create a situation where you can choose between doing the “right” thing or aiding your town!

Character personality is important for being able to reference this will remind you how your character is supposed to be played so you can have a certain consistency in how you play him. Campaign tags is something I have included to show what campaign theme the character would be best suited for, like Evil campaigns, ECL adjusted, Nature, Fey, Exalted etc. Plot hooks are a way for the Player to give the GM ideas for potential adventures. Below is one I did for a Sun Elf Wizard in the Forgotten Realms.

Character concept: Sun Elf wizard dedicated to redeeming Auril.
Classes: Wizard/Arcane Devotee/Archmage/High Mage
Player goal: Excessively powerful mage, create a demiplane, redeem Auril.
Character motivation: Redeem Auril, spreading the heresy, arcane knowledge, destroying evil in all its forms.
Character personality: Kind, generous, serene, tranquil.
Campaign tags: Good, Fey, Elf, Exalted.
Plot hooks: Retrieve the Codicil of White, Encounters with Fey, Ally with Aurilians against lycanthropes/People of the Black Blood
Just a wee note on some of the things here, Auril is an evil fey goddess who was turned to evil by Lolth, the Codicil of White is one of her holy scriptures, and the People of the Black Blood are vicious were-creatures who worship the evil beast-god Malar.

Ends N’ Means on personality

So now you know how to make a three-dimensional character with a personality and goals, and the character is now ready to play! In my next blog post on character creation I’ll write about characters not to play!

Thought of the day: Blue really wasn’t Guilliman’s colour.