Once upon a time, there was the empire Netheril.
Imagine a realm where mages have boundless power; where tops of mountains are hewn from their foundations--FREED from their earthly bounds--and lifted up to the skies; where radiant cities sprawl on heavenly terrain; where citizens use magic as naturally as breathing.
Imagine being bound only by the limits of your creativity and will. Imagine a paradise of peak civilization and luxury: a carefree life of power and pleasure.
Now, imagine that beneath the floating cities, beneath the verdant ground of glistening, blue lakes and fertile farm lands, there unfolds an insidious threat. A nefarious spell that leeches all life and energy from the surface, until crops fail, animals die, and the weave -- the very fabric of magic… begins to waver.
Imagine that one of the mages, an arrogant prodigy named Karsus, decides the solution resides in his ambitions of godhood. He KILLS my precursor Mystryl, goddess of magic, realizes -- too late! -- that he can’t handle the burden of her inherited mantle, then accomplishes the very thing he sought to prevent: he UNmakes the weave. He UNmakes... magic.
In the absence of magic, the airborne cities plummet, crashing to the ground in a horrific massacre of all who lived there-on. What remains of the once-lush landscape bleeds out into waste and becomes the desert, Anauroch.
And the glorious Netheril is no more.
Y'all. Karsus messed up. He messed up BAD.
So bad that the event is called “Karsus’ Folly” -- and let's be real: they shouldn't call it that. They should call it Karsus’ *bleep* up.
This, of course, is only a very shortened, very one-sided account of what happened. Probably what a low knowledge roll on Netheril would get you. There's a lot more to the rise and fall of Netheril than just a power-hungry mage-turned-lich going against a goddess. It's a fascinating and complex "weaving" of societal hubris and existential threats: an empire of greed and waste hurtling towards its own demise…
The aftermath is rich with juicy secrets, political ambitions, powerful artifacts, truly EVIL monsters, and LOTS of memorable surprises for adventurers as they explore ruins of what was once the greatest empire known to humankind.
Hi, I’m Katie, and in today's reading of The Tome of Dungeoneering, let's explore how you and your players can benefit from the lore of Netheril.
As one of the most notable events in Forgotten Realms lore, the Fall of Netheril boasts a dragon’s wealth of reference materials. A trove of era-by-era descriptions and stories are "spelled" out for us in the 1996 book, Netheril: Empire of Magic, there’s a companion adventure module from the same year, How the Mighty are Fallen, the empire gets a section in the later 2005 work, Lost Empires of Faerûn, AND there’s an entire guidebook to the ruined desert from 1991: Anauroch. Without spoiling too much, there’s even been new content released for Netheril adventures in the last couple of years.
So, if you’re looking for a pre-built, fully-fleshed out adventure, with a ton of details, maps, and adventure hooks this is it.
But, since we are reading the Tome of Dungeoneering, where homebrews are best brews, let’s also see how we can make this adventure our own.
Since there’s so much information about Netheril out there, and it can get overwhelming pretty quickly, today’s episode will stick to facts a low or average knowledge roll would get your players about Netheril, and we’ll explore 2 popular ways of using the empire’s fall for fantastic plot and flavor.
One of the most obvious adventures for a Fall of Netheril campaign is having players explore the ruins of a fallen city. At first glance, you might be tempted to go immediately to the desert Anauroch for your setting--and that’s an awesome adventure, to be sure!--BUT when you are homebrewing, remember that the ruins of a Netheril city can be anywhere you want.
The cities FLOATED. Mages could and FLY from city to city. They 100% had the capability to steer these mountaintops through the skies and go almost anywhere they wanted.
Maybe one of these enclaves of mages decided: “Hey! Let’s take the Netherese version of a cruise!” and navigated the entire city to another part of the world for purely tourism purposes. What would those ruins be like? What kind of artifacts would they hold?
Maybe one of the enclaves was dedicated to research, before the era of sloth and decadence settled upon the empire, and a team of mages took their city to a jungle with the intention to study the wildlife there. What stranded the city there? What were the mages working on before their demise? What did they find in the jungle? Did they have anything particularly dangerous and … “persistent” held captive in their labs? What lives in the ruins now?
Maybe a group of mages had the foresight to pick up and move before the Fall of Netheril. Maybe they parked their city somewhere safe, so instead of a shattered ruin, your players get to see all the marvels of a yet-glorious Netheril city. Actually, in the lore, there are some cities that survive the Fall through divine intervention. They are still impacted by the restructuring of magic, but that’s a lot of folks now without the daily amenities magic once provided. What do they do? Are there descendants still living in the landed city? Did they abandon it?
The ruins of Netheril offer great potential for players to unfold the story of the fallen city, discover powerful artifacts from a time soaked in magic, and fight whatever terrifying aberrations have been drawn to the city or taken up nearby residence.
Another common plot is for players to visit Netheril during the age of decline: The Shadowed Age. The adventure module How the Mighty are Fallen explores this set-up, and it is truly a great resource: players can find spell components for the level 12 spell Karsus uses to kill the goddess Mystryl, end up squaring off with a golden dragon, find themselves up against an army of the undead… it’s fantastic. And it gives some plausible ways for players to get to the city, if they aren’t living during that age already. Whether it's an entire party tripping out from poisoned arrows, or a time gate set up by the goddess Mystryl herself, there’s lots of fun paths to take.
This is a great set-up for parties who might want a break from constant combat, giving them an opportunity to explore the culture and politics of the region. What would it be like to visit a city where magic is absolutely ubiquitous? Where spells are cast without a thought? Where most every task, from buttoning up your trousers to sweeping the floor is done with a snap of the fingers? Would your party be successful in disguising themselves and exploring? Or would they immediately stick out as outsiders and get booted out of the city?
And as fun as it might be to imagine all the wonders of a still-functioning city, we would be remiss to leave out what was happening below, on the ground.
In the Shadowed Age of Netheril, and probably before, there was a distinct separation of classes between the denizens of the floating cities “High Netheril”, and the residents stuck on the ground, or ‘Low Netheril’. Remember that nefarious spell we mentioned before, that was draining all the life out of the land? That hit the people on the ground hard. They were sick and starving, but the mages in their flying enclaves couldn’t be bothered with it until the lack of food production started eating into their revenue.
OH nooooo! I have to spend money importing food from other areas! How will I afford my rare snowy owlbear fur coat and matching accessories now?! Blech.
Maybe your party can help try to search for the source of the life-draining spell. Maybe they can try to convince the mages of High Netheril to see humanity, or at least some gods-damn reason. Maybe they can try evacuating the citizens of Lower Netheril before the impending fall.
Those are two big ways to fold the Fall into your plot, but there’s so much more to explore and incorporate into an adventure. How will you use the fall of Netheril in your campaign?