Rogues' Gallery: Manshoon
The dark mage Manshoon has filled the annals of history with deeds dark and terrible, but most folk in Faerûn thought he was killed over a century ago. Manshoon’s evil has been felt throughout many Forgotten Realms novels, either directly or through the shadowy hand of the Zhentarim—a faction of villains that should now be familiar to any D&D veteran. The real question is: why is Manshoon in Waterdeep? Moreover, why is he searching for the cache of hidden gold when he is one of the most powerful magi in the Realms?
Todd Kenreck interviewed Chris Perkins about Manshoon and his role in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist before the Stream of Many Eyes, and was rewarded with a quick and dirty look at the history and powers of this most famous of dark wizards. However, there is much to know about Manshoon of Many Faces, and a great deal of information that can be incorporated into your adventures in Waterdeep. Read on to uncover a tale of greed, ambition, and an arcane disaster that involved gods and mortals alike.
Manshoon at a Glance
Enemy of Elminster, Lord of the Zhentarim, and mage of infinite guises, Manshoon is one of the most feared men in all of Faerûn. Even fellow dark mages, such as the infamous Halaster Blackcloak of Undermountain, despised Manshoon as a rival and sought to eliminate him. Unlike the roguish anti-hero Jarlaxle, Manshoon is a villain through and through, and in many ways, Manshoon appears as the ur-evil sorcerer; dressed all in black, his face hidden by a mask, and is obsessed with domination. For many years, he commanded the criminal organization known as the Zhentarim, much like (as Chris Perkins describes it) as Ernst Stavro Blofeld controlled SPECTRE in the James Bond films.
However, something happened to Manshoon during his time as lord of Zhentil Keep. He died. Or, maybe he vanished or went into hiding. No one quite knows for sure. Regardless, immediately after Manshoon died or disappeared, the world learned that he had used the clone spell to create dozens or even hundreds of clones, so that he could live on forever. The problem? All of these clones awakened from stasis at once, and they all instantly turned on one another in a devastating Realms-shaking conflict.
The Manshoon Wars
Many powerful figures in the Forgotten Realms found themselves caught in the midst of the so-called Manshoon Wars as Manshoon’s many clones sought to annihilate one another and become the one true Manshoon. Among these figures was Laeral Silverhand, then one of the Seven Sisters, now the Open Lord of Waterdeep. Should the player characters bring to her news of Manshoon’s presence in Waterdeep, she would surely oppose him with all her might.
Though the Manshoon Wars caused untold destruction over the period of a few terrible years—described in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting for third edition Dungeons & Dragons—the conflict cooled into a tense, centuries-long cold war, as the few remaining Manshoon clones retreated from the public eye to consolidate their power. These clones were beset by enemies on all sides; not only were they hated by one another, but they were constantly being hunted by the heroes of the Realms, including great mages such as Elminster of Shadowdale and Laeral Silverhand. For over one hundred years, it seemed that the threat of Manshoon had been quelled.
(The above image of Manshoon was illustrated by Brian Despain for the Epic Level Handbook .)
Those Who Remained
In the grand scheme of things, the simultaneous animation of all of Manshoon’s clones was only a setback for the dark wizard. It may have set him back hundreds, even thousands of years in his quest for domination, but a being of Manshoon’s power has time to spare.
In his 2014 mini-essay Manshoon the Manyfaced, Realms creator Ed Greenwood described the actions of the surviving Manshoons as of 1489 DR—that is, the year in which the Tyranny of Dragons storyline takes place. We know that, no matter what, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist must take place after the year 1490, as that was when Laeral Silverhand ousted Dagult Neverember became Open Lord of Waterdeep amidst the war against Tiamat and the Cult of the Dragon. While Greenwood suggests that only one Manshoon survived the until the present day, it seems unlikely that he is being completely honest.
Those Who Perished. One Manshoon became lieutenant of the Zhentarim in Zhentil Keep, and was strangely content playing second fiddle to his former rival: Fzoul Chembryl. This Manshoon was slain by Netherese assassins during the Spellplague. Another found himself in Undermountain, and was slain during the Spellplague by unknown forces.
He Who Became a Vampire. The only known Manshoon clone to have survived up until the modern era was actually a vampire. He was bitten and turned by the Night King Orlak—who the vampire Manshoon promptly tracked down and killed—and came to secretly rule over the city of Westgate on the Dragon Coast. This Manshoon is currently plotting to take over all of Cormyr. He couldn’t be the Manshoon plotting to steal Waterdhavian gold, could he?
As it turns out, no! Even this "final" Manshoon was slain by Elminster in the Sage of Shadowdale trilogy, but Elminster augured that yet more Manshoon clones existed, and would awaken in the wake of this vampire's destruction. The dark power of Manshoon seemed unconquerable, a plague that could never be eradicated from this world. Fortunately, the heroes of Dragon Heist are not in the business of slaying dark wizards. As Chris Perkins noted in his overview of the Dragon Heist adventure, the player characters aren't expected to slay their antagonists, simply to foil their scheme to acquire the lost gold.
The Present Day
Thus we reach the end of Manshoon’s history. This mighty mage has done battle with some of the greatest warriors of the Realms and still survived time after time in some way, shape, or form. Do the player characters of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist even stand a chance against him? Will they even learn this iteration of Manshoon’s true identity over the course of the adventure? Even Chris Perkins is coy about the origin of this version of Manshoon, simply stating that “one of the surviving clones has gone into hiding in Waterdeep,” suggesting that there may have been more Manshoons out there than we first anticipated.
Also… what’s with that golden gauntlet on Manshoon’s hand on the cover of the book? Past Manshoons have tended to wear intimidating masks, but this glove—which many have likened to Thanos’s Infinity Gauntlet in the Marvel comic series of the same name—is all new.
Manshoon is but one of the four modular antagonists of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. Who are you most excited to see enact their schemes within the City of Splendors?
Disclosure: James Haeck is a co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, and is also a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and two dark magic familiars Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.