In our third edition of Designer Diaries, co-designer Nicholas Yu walks us through the design and strategic elements of the infamous Zhentarim faction in Dungeons & Dragons: Onslaught.

The Zhentarim are almost as well-known across the Forgotten Realms as the Harpers. Known informally as The Black Network, they’re made up of mercenaries, thieves, and assassins. Originally founded by the wizard Manshoon, they’re also servants of Bane and Cyric. Generally known to be unsavory characters, but they do prize loyalty above any other trait and regard their fellow Zhentarim as family. The result is an extremely powerful and well-armed mercenary organization who are often at odds with The Harpers.

We wanted The Zhentarim to be mobile and hard-hitting, specializing in spikes of burst damage rather than sustained damage over time. As a result, you won’t find a speedier or trickier faction in all of Faerun.

The Zhentarim’s iconic character in the core set is the Drow Rogue, Lasaelle Du’Arathmierre. Her name is a bit of a mouthful and she’s also got the most card text in the core set due to all of her abilities. Like all good Rogues, she has Sneak Attack, and can deal extra damage in the right situation. She has a high base Speed and the ability to zip around the battlefield, or just slip into the shadows until trouble blows over. Her Cunning Action is an incredibly powerful ability, useful for loot grabbing, objective nabbing, or targeted melee assassination from a great distance away. She’s the Melee Damage character of the faction, which seems a little strange until you realize she can regularly deal 3 damage with her melee attacks as long as she has a friend along to cover for her.

When it comes to triggering Lasaelle’s Sneak Attack and making sure she stays alive to use them, there’s no better friend than Barachiel. With the highest base armor class in the core set, this Vanguard is great at tanking blows and occupying the enemy’s attention. That said, Barachiel doesn’t hesitate to bring the pain as well! This is the kind of Paladin who burns all of their spell slots on Smites and doesn’t want to hear another word about it from anyone else at the table.

Rokpyratrix the Clanless picked up the nickname “Roxy” at GenCon and it appears to have stuck with our testing crew. She’s the kind of Sorcerer who picked nothing but damage spells at character creation. Her solution to everything is to apply more firepower. She’s got area-of-effect spells aplenty, and opponents will have to engage her carefully, as attacking her lets her use Burning Hands and Fireball more frequently! That said, she’s a squishy character who’s vulnerable to being focused down in a hurry, with limited HP and AC. The key to playing Rokpyratrix successfully is balancing aggression with careful positioning or clutch healing so that she doesn’t get overwhelmed too quickly. Or, her Ranged Damage potential is so high when the enemy is grouped up that sometimes it’s worth a sacrifice play if the setup is right.

Mistral is one of our favorite miniature designs because this was the first time we wrote an art and sculpting brief from top to bottom. Although we had done some brief art requests for everything in the core set, we had less specific input than we did for later sets. Alex walked Travis and me through their art process, and we all thought long and hard about what kind of characters didn’t exist in the WizKids miniature line yet. There are many Clerics in the lineup, but how many Trickster Clerics are there? And an Air Genasi to boot? The sculpting team ended up nailing the look, and she has one of the most unique sculpts I’ve seen. Mistral is great at dealing with spike damage with a big heal, but it takes her a standard action and has a long cooldown to do so, providing a nice contrast with Chloe of the Harpers who has a smaller Bonus action heal that cools down quickly. She’s also hard to take down, as she can reduce incoming damage and teleport out of hairy situations—or onto crucial objectives! She’s an absolute star support piece and a tough puzzle for any opponent to solve.

Bedlam is a Hexblade Warlock with balanced melee and ranged damage capabilities. She’s not particularly hardy, but the threat of her Hellish Rebuke means that she’s going to try and take someone with her on the way down. Focusing on her can be a bit of a poison pill, as any large attack is subject to instant reprisal, and if Mistral is nearby to Cure Wounds the attacker can be left bruised and bleeding with Bedlam still at full HP. That said, leaving her alive too long or peppering her with little attacks gives her the opportunity to heal back up by defeating the targets of her Curse. Overall, Bedlam is the embodiment of a “glass cannon” but can absolutely shine in a Party full of brutal damage dealers. Bedlam is a Hybrid role with much higher than usual damage for that position, which leaves both the Ranged Damage and Melee Damage slots wide open. With Lasaelle, Rokpyratrix, Barachiel, and Bedlam all in the same party, the Zhentarim can focus down an enemy character faster than any other faction.

Jeevika the Flowing Maple shares the highest base speed in the core set with Lasaelle and Chloe, and her passive ability allows her to run around the battlefield with impunity. No need to worry about Opportunity Attacks over here, folks! Her ranged attack is not great if you judge it by the hit bonus and its low damage, but it’s a bonus action, so you can chip a little damage turn after turn—or remove a pesky Kobold without using a standard attack! She also has the ability to inflict an incredibly demoralizing Stun token on a critical enemy, but since it costs both a Standard and Move Action, it requires some careful setup to utilize properly.

Overall, the Zhentarim are the fastest, slipperiest, and most lethal faction in Dungeons & Dragons: Onslaught, equally at home playing the objectives or going for the throat. Do you like quick and tricky characters with a dubious moral code and a host of lethal skills? If so, The Zhentarim might be for you! Sign up today!

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See what Game Informer’s Matt Miller has to say about D&D: Onslaught here!