The Black Network
The Zhentarim, also known as the Black Network, are a mercenary organisation that operate in Faerun with a particularly strong presence along the Sword Coast. In fact, it’s difficult to find a major city or trade route along the Sword Coast without some kind of Zhentarim presence. They were originally organised by the evil wizard, Manshoon who had ambitions to take over the entirety of the Moonsea. The Zhentarim were first organised as an army for this very deed.
The Black Network was later taken over by Fzoul Chembryl, a worshipper of Bane. Fzoul changed the Zhentarim into the more subtle organisation they are now. They became mercenaries for hire with an outward appearance that seemed almost benign, selling their services to protect merchants along dangerous trade routes or help city lords protect their streets. Beneath this though, are the much more sinister operations of the Zhentarim. Not only do they extort and manipulate those they work for, sometimes creating the very problems they’re paid to protect, but they also engage profoundly in smuggling, slavery, assassinations and many other foul businesses.
Not only do they have their hand in all sorts of dirty deeds, but the Zhentarim also have a terrifyingly large network of agents numbering about 25,000. They also have hosts of more deadly creatures like gnolls, dragons and a large retinue of spellcasters at their disposal. If these troops were all gathered into a single army, it would represent one of the largest armies in all of Faerun. This makes them a very difficult organisation to stand against, though the Harpers have certainly had a decent go of it over the years. On the one hand, the Zhentarim are greatly feared and yet, without their protection, many merchants would lose wares and cities would be unable to enforce the laws of their nation adequately making the Zhentarim almost a necessary evil in certain places.
The Zhentarim Organisation
To maintain order over such a large network of agents, the Zhentarim are organised into a rigid leadership structure to ensure that contracts are performed and money is able to pour into their ample coffers.
Stalwarts are the rank and file members of the Zhentarim. They are often newer recruits and usually lack experience or the capabilities for leadership in the group. They are never trusted to simply perform their duties, instead, they will always be accompanied by a Sternhelm who can ensure their mission is carried out effectively.
To ensure the Stalwarts do their job, an experienced mercenary will accompany them. This leader is known as a Sternhelm. The Sternhelm is a low level leader within the Zhentarim organisation and usually leads a squad of about 15 Stalwarts.
Sternhelms report into a Swordhar who usually leads 2 squads in a group known as a platoon.
Swordcaptains are the strategists of the Zhentarim. They rarely involve themselves directly in missions. Instead, they order the units towards the optimal strategy that can be employed.
The lance leads up to 5 platoons, forming a company. Lances are used to lead small scale skirmishes such as protecting towns or taking on roaming bands of creatures.
Battle Captains rule over up to 3 companies known as a battalion. These leaders are used to lead troops in small scale conflicts between nations. Unlike most reasons the Zhentarim are hired, when a battalion is employed, the contract is not one of gold but of proportions of loot and land taken.
An Ardragon can command a division of up to 10 battalions. This means commanding up to 5,000 troops meaning they must be individuals of great trust, usually vouched for by nobles.
Unlike the other leaders in the Zhentarim, the Dark Hand do not command the usual troops of the group but instead the more savage elements that they use for larger skirmishes such as gnolls, orcs, frost giants and even the occasional dragon. Such commanders must be toughened veterans to command the respect of such groups and will engage in dark deals to proffer the services of some of these creatures. In particular, they often have ties to the worshippers of Cyric and Bane.
At the same level as the Dark Hands are the Banefists. Similarly, these commanders do not lead normal troops, but instead lead spellcasters and clerics. The Zhentarim are keen to hire and utilise as many spellcasters as they can as such skilled magic users give them a great advantage in combat and their other endeavours.
At the top of the Zhentarim hierarchy is the Highlord, a position currently held by Fzoul Chembryl after he slew the creator of the Zhentarim, the wizard Manshoon (though Manshoon is known to have at least 3 surviving clones). Fzoul leads from Zhentil Keep in the Moonsea region.
History of the Zhentarim
The Zhentarim were first organised in 1261 DR by Manshoon, a powerful and ambitious wizard who was Lord of Zhentil Keep. He had ambitions of taking over the Moonsea region and soon enlisted Fzoul Chembryl, a prominent cleric of Bane to his cause. Fzoul brought with him a contingent of clerics of Bane to help build Manshoon’s armies.
Despite their allegiance, Manshoon recognised the ambition in Fzoul’s own temperament and prepared safeguards against a possible betrayal. Working with the a beholder known as Xantriph, Manshoon had the clerics of Bane swear loyalty to Manshoon alone, ensuring greater loyalty from this contingent of his army.
While the Zhentarim armies were small in the early period of its inception, Manshoon had big ambitions and wanted to capture the Citadel of the Raven, but senior figures in the organisation feared they’d lose their investment in such a risky move. They did eventually move against the city-state of Mulmaster as well as participating in the Moonsea War of 1306 DR which greatly enhanced their coffers.
Over the following years, the Zhentarim grew from strength to strength They took over numerous parts of the Moonsea including Darkhold, Teshendale, Hillsfar, Daggerdale and the Citadel of the Raven. Manshoon’s neighbours of the Moonsea became very wary of the influence of the Zhentarim and wanted to restrict this, however, Manshoon cunningly demonstrated perceived acts of altruism to further his own agenda and to continue to operate unchecked in the region. He even offered his armies to protect against a roaming warband of orcs, only to use these agents planted in other cities later, to assassinate those that might oppose them.
During the Time of Troubles, when gods walked Toril as mortals, Bane no longer imbued his clerics with power and many turned to Cyric, though Fzoul remained faithful. This included large contingents of he Zhentarim. This period ulminated in the execution of all those that remained faithful to Bane, including those of Zhentil Keep. All these were killed by the clerics of Cyric apart from Fzoul who was spared.
Later, the clerics of Cyric were driven out by Fzoul and Manshoon was also killed, though he lived on through the numerous clones he kept. One of these returned to Zhentil Keep to concede power to Fzoul and continued to work as an agent of the Zhentarim.
With Fzoul’s takeover of the Zhentarim, they became less of a nation with a powerful army, and more of an organisation with its network of spies, mercenaries and slavers infiltrating all nations throughout the lands. They now own one of the largest armies in Faerun, though all the Zhentarim forces are never brought together in one army.