The Zhentarim, also known as the "Black Network", began as a group of merchants but has grown to include assassins, spies, an army, and the backing of the church of Bane. Now in control of half of the area around the Moonsea, the Zhentarim has increased its influence across the continent and achieved footholds in the western and southern regions of Faerûn as well. Well armed and supplied, the Zhentarim is supported by powerful wizards and clerics and led by an arch-mage and the Chosen of Bane himself.
Feared by the common folk, and bearing an evil reputation, the Zhentarim is not a foe that one should challenge without serious intent. As the organization and the church of Bane grow together, its influence is likely to spread even faster, for both groups seek complete domination of northern Faerûn. Now even a group of common merchants bearing the symbol of the Black Network is treated respectfully and kept at arm’s length, for the merchants might be under the protection of a powerful wizard or carry magic far beyond the means of ordinary folk.
The Black Network was created by the archmage Manshoon, who rose through the ranks of Zhentil Keep by eliminating his rivals (including members of his own family). After becoming a lord of Zhentil Keep, he worked to gain control over his fellow lords. Once that was established, he created a secret society, the Zhentarim, which would act independently of Zhentil Keep and provide him more power than simple lordship could. Over time he shared the leadership with apprentices and colleagues, increasing the power of the Black Network greatly. One of these converts was Fzoul Chembryl, who at the time was the leader of a splinter cult of Bane.
Over the years, the Zhentarim expanded to include Darkhold and the Citadel of the Raven. In recent decades, the organization encountered a number of setbacks, often through its pursuit of spellfire and conflicts with powerful mages such as Elminster. One major setback occurred during the Time of Troubles, with the destruction of the Zhentarim’s primary deity, Bane. Later, Cyric’s involvement in the destruction of Zhentil Keep shattered the main base of power of the Zhentarim and led to unfocused and ill-planned efforts of conquest in the following years. Since that time, Fzoul has changed allegiance from Cyric to Xvim and then to Bane again, Zhentil Keep has been rebuilt, and Fzoul has become the Zhentarim’s official leader. Manshoon now acts as a nearly independent operative. With fewer distractions and the rise of Bane, the Zhentarim has solidified its power in the Moonsea area, is preparing to take complete control of that region, and then advance its plans in other parts of the world.
While the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting gives information on the cities controlled by the Zhentarim, the data given here applies to the actual members of the Zhentarim within those cities and elsewhere.
The Black Network is finally becoming the well-organized group that Manshoon envisioned. Functioning very much like a secular arm of the church of Bane, the Zhentarim is organized along a rigid hierarchy of command.
The Zhentarim hierarchy follows a linear branching structure, with Fzoul Chembryl at the head of the organization. Several powerful lords report directly to him, with each lord having subordinates who pass on reports and requests. The Zhentarim discourage skipping ranks in the chain when giving orders, so only in times of emergency does Fzoul give orders directly to one of his generals’ officers without that general’s knowledge. The exception is Manshoon, who has Fzoul’s permission to command agents as he pleases in pursuit of furthering the goals of the Zhentarim.
(Long list of NPCs here has been cut. For reference, see page 96 of Lords of Darkness)
Motivation and Goals
The Zhentarim used to be an organization that focused mainly on the control of trade through northern Faerûn. With the expansion of its activities into murder, espionage, extortion, arson, and all-out warfare, the Zhentarim has become a political and military organization with as much power as a small country and the desire to see the leaders of rival cities and countries fall into line under the banner of the Black Network. Much as they control most of the Moonsea, Manshoon and Fzoul would like to see the Zhentarim eventually rule lands that stretch all the way westward to the Sword Coast. To achieve these goals, Zhentarim operatives use several key tactics. First, they have extensive merchant contacts in their own lands and nearby territories, and they can move large amounts of goods safely and quickly through dangerous lands. In particular, the Black Road through Anauroch cuts weeks from their travel time to the western cities of Faerûn. Often their goods consist of contraband or restricted items (such as poison, slaves, drugs, or smokepowder weapons).
Second, they raid enemy caravans, using human soldiers or recruited gangs of humanoids to drive their competitors into poverty. Often these caravans are simply captured and then brought to their intended destination under the flag of the Black Network, providing both a profit from the goods and an implicit understanding from the buyer that the Zhentarim succeed in trade where others fail. Since the Zhents charge essentially the same prices as their competitors, even honest folk tend to buy from them, despite and misgivings over the source.
Third, they use tactics such as extortion, arson, and murder to deter their rivals and opponents in mercantile trade and political activity. Zhentarim agents commonly attack local farmers and warehouses to delay their trips to market, allowing the Zhents to sell their goods first. Sometimes an entire village is held hostage by a group of Zhentarim warriors, preventing the import of export of needed supplies until the Zhentarim’s demands are met.
The Black Network also takes advantage of its access to many spellcasters by secretly agitating local monster populations, causing unexpected attacks upon smaller settlements that a squadron of Zhentarim soldiers (led by the spellcaster responsible for the disturbance) can scare off. Once these soldiers have established a base camp in or near the settlement, they are remarkably difficult to dislodge, especially because they have standing orders to ally with local greedy merchants to justify their presence as caravan guards and assume the veneer of invited guests. If local monsters are not available, Zhentarim spellcasters have been known to conjure hideous creatures, with the same net effect of rampaging native terror.
While the Zhentarim has eagerly sought recruits in the past, the recent upheavals have slowed down its recruiting drives so it can consolidate existing resources in preparation for future expansion.
It is still interested in enlisting like-minded wizards to its cause, as well as clerics of Bane, but most other individuals are turned away or simply not offered positions within the organization.
Once the Zhentarim is prepared to expand again, it will look for people to fill out all levels of the organization, with a large percentage of the recruits coming from the church of Bane.
The greatest ally of the Zhentarim is the church of Bane. Since the Chosen of Bane leads the Black Network, any worshiper of the Black Hand is inclined to aid any Zhentarim who asks him or her for help. As the Zhentarim and the church of Bane become more entwined each day, the Black Network can count on support from northern Banites. Some caravans that include a cleric of Bane sometimes have undead skeletons lashed to the undersides of wagons, which can be released with a few quick tugs if the caravan is attacked. Groups with a high-level cleric or wizard are sometimes accompanied by a banedead, and a beast of Xvim (technically now a beast of Bane) might accompany privileged groups. At least one skymage, Glouris Mristifos, has a hippogriff touched by the power of the Black Hand in this manner.
Another powerful ally is a group of beholders loyal to Manshoon, Fzoul and the church. Wise and experienced beholders such as Xulla, Manxam, and Xavlal can eliminate enemy spellcasters, charm an unlimited number of reticent contacts, and carve out secret hideouts in the hardest rock. Additionally, the Zhentarim has made alliances with the drow in the past, and is moving toward formal arrangements with the Auzkovyn clan and House Jaelre, exchanging magic and goods unique to each group.
Unknown to nearly everyone, Fzoul arranged a tenuous peace with Khelben Blackstaff of Waterdeep. In exchange for information provided by the Blackstaff, Fzoul agreed to limit Zhentarim expansion to east of the Thunder Peaks for nearly thirty years. This doesn’t prevent the Zhents from defending their western territories, but in all likelihood if those territories were lost (for example, if Darkhold were to be taken over by Cyricists), they would have to accept the loss until the agreement expired. This agreement caused the schism between Khelben’s faction and the other Harpers and led to the independence of Khelben’s organization, the Moonstars. Khelben’s group is almost unknown outside its membership, and its purpose (and Khelben’s reasons for bargaining with the Zhentarim) is also secret.
The Zhentarim opposes anyone who presents a threat to its two primary interests: controlling trade and world domination. This attitude puts the Zhents at odds with the Iron Throne, the Cult of the Dragon, the Rundeen, and any evil group of a more chaotic or independent inclination. They also have a strong rivalry with the church of Cyric because of the Black Network’s ties to the church of Bane. They are traditionally enemies of the Red Wizards as well, but since the success of the enclaves, the Zhents have begun to see the advantage of a large group of neutral—or at least not hostile—mages producing cheap magic items they can use for their own purposes.
The Zhentarim also opposes (and is opposed by) groups that promote good and freedom. It offers a standing bounty for the heads of powerful Harpers allies who have fought the Zhentarim in the past, such as Elminster and several of the Seven Sisters. The Harpers draw many agents from the foes of the Zhentarim, and are rumored to be starting another Harper Hall in Ravens Bluff to combat eastward expansion by the Black Network. This so-called “Ravens Hall” has been spoken of by at least one cowled bard, with hints that those clever enough to find it may be asked to join. The Zhentarim are trying to find this secret hall before it grows to become a true problem.
Because of its dependence on the trade route through Anauroch, the Zhentarim will almost certainly come into conflict with the shades at some point in the near future. Since the shades consider Anauroch to be a part of their nation, they are unlikely to accept armed caravans guarded by spellcasters traveling through their land. Such a conflict would certainly be troublesome for the Zhents, for while they may be powerful, it is doubtful that they could effectively combat those who wield the magic of lost Netheril. Losing the Anauroch trade route may force the Zhentarim to consider other, southern routes.
On a smaller scale, the enemies of the Zhentarim are the people whose lives they ruin or disrupt; reputable merchants, villagers in frontier areas, or local law enforcement officials who try to stop shipments of contraband. In or near places where the Zhents are in power, they are treated coolly by nonmembers, for while they bring shipments of grain, tools, and weapons, those same caravan guards might return someday as a part of an attacking army. The Zhents also remain alert for agents of the Harpers or organizations such as the Iron Throne who would love to learn more about their plans and representatives in the area.