The Mistmaster And Other Quiet Kingpins
Thanks to a mysterious “Citadel of the Mists” map notation on some Realms maps that show The High Forest (for those unfamiliar, that’s a big wood that fills the heart of the northerly Sword Coast lands; if the Citadel is shown, you’ll find it near the forest’s upper or northern edge, east of center), many have heard of the Mistmaster, but few know more about him than the name. Oh, there have been hints and a mention or two (in Cloak & Dagger, the Silver Marches, and the novel Blackstaff, if you’re counting), but the published Realms has been largely silent about this individual.
Which is just the way he likes it.
The Mistmaster is one of a type of very useful-to-the-DM Non-Player Characters: a kingpin, or boss who coerces, manipulates, and cows others, and is quiet about it. A low-public profile, power-behind-the-throne type. Player Characters may cross swords with brutes, and eventually confront the moustache-twirling megalomaniacs who lord it over those brutes . . . but quiet kingpins are the wiser baddies who are more powerful than the moustache twirlers, and apt to last much longer, too, because they avoid the spotlight. And in the Realms as in many other settings, real and fictional, seizing the spotlit ground generally also means painting a target on yourself.
“The Mistmaster” is obviously either a formal title or a nickname, not the holder’s real name. The wider Realms knows almost nothing about him, because he wants it that way and works through intermediaries (layers of agents and spies) and message drops and with much misdirection—so someone trying to find out more about him can’t be sure even where he dwells or most often operates, let alone his race, gender, appearance, and everyday name.
The moniker suggests some sort of magical power that controls mists, hinting that our mystery guy—if said individual is a male—is some sort of spellcaster, but that’s no more than an impression; if we’re the average inquisitive cartographer or explorer of the Realms, we really know this much about The Mistmaster: nothing at all. Oh, there are rumors that he was mighty enough to destroy Hellgate Keep or have a major hand in doing so, but facts we can trust, whereas rumors…
That map notation denotes where this particular quiet kingpin most often hangs out, yes, but he spends a lot more time unnoticed, just one more man trudging the streets, in Waterdeep or Silverymoon; his “realm” consists of a simple, rude cavern “hideout,” some hidden treasure caches located in smaller caves, and a grand abandoned castle he came upon, refurbished a few rooms of, filled with traps, and then left again, as a lure to kill those who came looking for him. He visits when he wants to host guests, or play the lord, but the great bulk of his time is spent elsewhere. He doesn’t need throne rooms or fawning courtiers.
Rather, he prefers to avoid attention, whenever possible. In this, he is typical of careful, calculating, and paranoid quiet kingpins; they begin by thinking the world is out to get them, and prepare accordingly, remaining ever-vigilant for surprise attacks on them and unfriendly spying foes waiting to pounce on their weaknesses. They always have escape routes and pre-prepared distractions to delay foes so they can get away—but they vastly prefer never to get found in the first place.
If the brute enemy is the modern-day real-world armed bank robber, the quiet kingpin is the mild-mannered executive who steals vastly more from his or her desk by manipulations on a computer, without ever doing anything violent, strenuous, or that seems out of the ordinary to a casual observer. And in the process, disguises the theft as other sorts of money flows, often routing the funds through several intermediaries and “losing” amounts here and there in the process so “the same” money doesn’t at a glance seem to be moving around—and arranging matters so that if fish or a rat begin to smell, someone else will take the blame.
Sometimes quiet kingpins hide in plain sight by blending in, and sometimes they use aliases and layers of go-betweens and frame others to be the persona they’re adopting (so adventurers who come seeking The Mistmaster will grab the wrong person; someone entirely innocent whom The Mistmaster has linked to their own activities, often by means of false messages and directions [“My tower is the tallest, and has a purple slate roof” when the only tower matching that description belongs to this unwitting third party]).
It follows that this sort of quiet kingpin is clever, sees and plans ahead, and is alert and aware of not only world events unfolding around them, but of “how the world works” and changing laws and customs. Quiet kingpins may be physical weaklings and cowards, or may merely see tangling with adventurers or anyone else as risks that bring no financial reward and hence are best avoided.
Computer games have taught a generation of gamers to fight a succession of increasingly powerful foes with a “boss” at the end of the line; in part this is due to everpresent computer memory limitations and a need to clearly and quickly show increasing avatar/character achievement. Quiet kingpins don’t fit into this model well (and don’t want to), which is one of the reasons they make great longterm villains. The PCs, pressing on from fight to fight, may not even know the kingpin exists. Which means they not only never confront or challenge the kingpin, they are ripe for manipulation by the kingpin, who can exploit their very formidability in battle against foes and obstacles the kingpin wants eliminated, weakened, or just distracted and “occupied” for a time (which the kingpin will use to do other things, like the burglar who sets fire to one wing of the sprawling country house so they can pilfer valuables at the far other end of the mansion).
In the case of The Mistmaster, he’s not even really a villain, though some rulers in the region may see him as one. His view would be that they are as much villains as he is; he does what he wants and takes what he wants to build the life for himself he desires—and they do the same thing, but justify what they do as “being in the interests of Silverymoon” or “acting on behalf of all the people of Waterdeep” or “bettering Neverwinter.” He rules himself, his employees, and those he can co-opt or coerce, just as they rule the courtiers, soldiers, and to some degree the citizens of their cities—and he feels he has just as much right to do as they do. He is more selfish than evil, more amoral than immoral, but “human nature” being what it is (and as I tried to make very clear in Elminster In Myth Drannor, I see so-called “human nature” in the Realms as really being “the universal nature/tendencies of every sentient race”), most quiet kingpins do and plan evil acts, justifying what benefits them as being “right” by definition, and holding to the-ends-justify-the-means thinking. So it’s probably fairer to say that The Mistmaster is a potential PC opponent, not a villain.
And that’s a better mental shorthand, because instead of assuming “The Mistmaster will do this and that evil thing, because he’s a bad guy,” we instead think “The Mistmaster is doing this specific thing for what he sees as a very good reason of his own; what is it?” Which is inherently far more interesting than moustache-twirling, any day of the week.
You may just perhaps have noticed by now that I’ve really told you almost nothing more about The Mistmaster than the darned near nothing you already know. Indeed. This is by no means an oversight or failing on my part. (I drawl, whilst twirling my own moustache.)
For the more mysterious he remains, the more useful and potentially powerful he also remains. After all, The Mistmaster could be an entire family of dragons, a clan of deadly monsters that float about menacing the world by means of their many magical eyes and are coldly evil geniuses, a lost dwarf king employing a human dupe—or the alter ego of Alustriel of the Seven…or even Larloch!
Wait, what? Hasn’t the published Realms told us The Mistmaster is a powerful illusionist and cleric of Leira dwelling in the illusion- and air-elemental-guarded castle called the Citadel of the Mists, who was a senior member of the Moonstars in 1370 DR, working for Khelben “the Blackstaff” Arunsun, and working with the treant Turlang?
Well, yes, but what do we know, really? Leira? Illusions? Two bright banners that stridently warn us: “Untrustworthy Information.” That there’s a persona adopted by a mysterious someone whom we know as The Mistmaster, yes…but behind this mask is who? Or what? And what does this being want out of life, and to happen in the world around?
The answers await only the most persistent of adventurers . . . but as has been said a time or two before, those who disturb hives should beware stings.