Archives of Candlekeep: Thay is not your color
This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Seventy Five on 28 July 2021.
Lennon: Ryu, do you like travel?
Ryu: Oh yeah, trips are cool! Where are we going?
Ryu: No! Wrong! I told you; stop trying to go weird places and find a new patron! You signed a contract! Deal with the consequences. Besides, Thay’s on the no port list.
Lennon: So it’s landlocked?
Ryu: No!…wait, is it?
Ryu: Good to know, but “no port” as in no teleporting!
Lennon: Aww, why can’t we go there?
Ryu: Do you want a list? Here, we’ve got a list.
Thay is becoming a more prominent part of 5th edition lore as time goes on, but it has been around since 1st edition.
A 1st edition adventure module called “Dreams of the Red Wizards” (which the more modern Adventurer’s League adventure is loosely based on) was published by TSR in 1988. While it was placed firmly in the Forgotten Realms, the initial entry was written by one Steve Perrin, who is nowadays more known for working on the RuneQuest game by Chaosium. It established most of the major information about Thay that still holds true up through the 4th edition incarnation, although in 1st edition Thay’s history hadn’t progressed as far. It remained a known part of the Forgotten Realms through 2nd edition.
When Wizards of the Coast took over the D&D property from the defunct TSR, they made an effort to reduce the number of active settings for D&D up to that point because between multiple authors and properties things were getting to be a mess. They kept the Forgotten Realms because it was by far one of the most popular, thanks in part to a certain emotional Drow. They asked Ed Greenwood and a few others well versed in the setting to create a campaign setting guide for the Forgotten Realms.
And when they said “The Forgotten Realms” they meant all of it. If you look online you can sometimes see a map that has the sword coast as this little sliver of land in an enormous map with markings and names and territory lines all over it. There’s also that snarky meme that has the same map pointing out that 5th edition doesn’t talk about any of it except the sword coast and Chult. In 3rd edition when there was a campaign guide generated, it was done for the entire world it applied to, not a single country or city. Thay was included in that guide.
Despite not working with Mr. Perrin for the 3rd edition reference, they retained most of the information he’d created for the original module, only adding more information because the “current year” of the Forgotten Realms had progressed forward and events that were previously part of modules characters could play through had become canon history.
Between Perrin and Greenwood and company, they established the land of Thay as a uniquely different territory in the Forgotten Realms: first, it was run by mages; second, the mages did a lot of experiments that did not have the approval of anyone with common sense; and third, slavery was not only okay but was a key part of the economy. It was also one of the darker territories in the Forgotten Realms, which in general had a lighter and more heroic feel than the sister realm Greyhawk did. It is possible the inclusion of Thay as an area where magic items flowed out into the larger world was done to have an excuse for why so many shops were always flush with magic items but none of the authors have officially gone on record saying that was done on purpose.
Thay underwent a literal seismic upheval during 4th edition thanks to the Spellplague. We’ll get to that in a minute but it’s worth noting Thay holds the distinction of actually retaining most of the changes that were made to it for fourth edition, rather than having most of them magically retconned, which is what literally happened in so many other places.
As for in-universe history, you have to go way back and start with the Imaskar Empire in the very far east. For reference going forward, the current year in the Forgotten Realms is 1492 DR. Imaskar had their heyday from about -9000 to -2500 or so. Two highlights of that empire; they were so into magic and their own command of it they didn’t believe in or acknowledge gods, and a huge plague decimated their population, so they captured and imported about 100,000 people from another dimension. Those other people are the Mulani.
The Mulani very much did believe in gods and eventually their belief, combined with all the magic in Imaskar, caused the gods to manifest and start general inquiries about why the Mulani were being treated so bad. The result was the fall of the Imaskar empire and the rise of the Mulhorand one. Mulhorand was governed by the god-kings; after manifesting and chasing out the old tenants the gods decided they kind of liked it and decided to stay. And be in charge, obviously. Mulhorand is actually still around in the Forgotten Realms, though a touch smaller than it used to be, partly because of what happened next.
A sect of wizards in Mulhorand calling themselves the Red Wizards eventually decided they didn’t like the god-kings anymore and wanted out, and they had enough magic and people to make a fight of it. They also had a territorial advantage; the land that would become Thay was a low plateau surrounded by mountains. In a world without a reliable air force (and begging a dragon to help you is not reliable) lots of mountains and a plateau are very very hard to attack. After all, there’s a reason Switzerland was able to remain neutral in Europe for approximately always.
However, Thay was not interested in becoming a neutral country in any sense. Once they established themselves as a separate entity from Mulhorand, they decided that the old Imaskar idea of having everyone with magic be in charge was the way things should work and set up a sort of dystopian Harry Potter situation. The Red Wizards established themselves as the major body in charge of basically everything. Every person born in Thay who displays any amount of magical aptitude is snatched up by the Red Wizards and taken for training as early as possible and basically becomes a Red Wizard from then on, regardless of previous family ties. Country-wide, a quazi-feudal system was set up based on magical ability. The better you are at magic, the higher rank that you hold and the more people and jobs you are responsible for, all the way up to what are called the eight Zulkirs, who are considered the most accomplished wizards in each of the eight schools of magic.
But there isn’t some sort of magical review board assessing how much magic you know and how well you are able to wield it. No, instead they have what political scientists call a kratocracy; if you are strong or sneaky enough to kill your boss, you get their job, but you have to be sure you did a really thorough job. See, all of that magical aptitude Red Wizards have could include necromancy, and the Red Wizards in general don’t care if you are a living person, a vampire, or even a lich; if you’re sapient, capable of doing your job, and can use magic, you’re in. By the way, the “if you can use magic” is conditional too; warlocks need not apply, and if you’re a sorcerer you’d better fake like you’re doing a lot of studying because they don’t like them either.
Also, you should really be human. Thay is very human-centric, the Red Wizards doubly so, to the point where they actually prefer that members be part of their Mulani ethnicity. Those people are usually easy to pick out of a crowd because other than a topknot that they grow into a fairly long tail, Mulani people are known for removing all body hair, including eyebrows and even eyelashes.
Other races aren’t hated so much as dismissed. Gnomes and Dwarves are treated as annoying people that should go somewhere else, Elves are ignored as much as possible, and most of the other sapient races they don’t engage with very much unless they’re captured in wars. Orcs, Goblins, and some of the bulkier races can apply for specific jobs though, which we’ll get to in a moment.
If you’re a human in Thay who can’t do magic, there is a non-magical nobility in Thay and a bit of a middle class, but their effect on Thay society is minimal; they essentially emulate the behavior of the Red Wizards and hope to gain some level of their power and wealth. However, you need someone other than the wizards to own all of the rest of the people in Thay. Slavery is an integral part of Thay’s economy, partially to get lots of people to work the farmlands, of which Thay had quite a lot, but also because the Red Wizards like experimenting. And no, not in the “fun” way.
While the Red Wizards don’t try to ignore gods the way their predecessors did, they firmly believe that “the art”, which is what they call magic, is the key to ultimate knowledge, power, and anything else that anyone could want, and all wizards are encouraged to do research and experimentation to increase their knowledge and command of it. So while general and casual abuse or killing of slaves is frowned upon because that’s ruining the merchandise, it’s slightly more acceptable if they die as part of a tragic accident during magical research.
All of the magical research is also the reason Thay is known as a powerhouse of magical artifacts. Some people are probably familiar with how this works in general; if you’ve ever lived with or been related to someone who makes cooking their hobby, you know that every now and then you get to sample random extra food you otherwise wouldn’t ever see or make yourself because “well the recipe serves eight and I didn’t want to mess with it my first try.” Similar with Thay; they have so many wizards fiddling around with magic at such high levels that even their rejects and leftovers can be useful to other people with less ability.
That’s only some of their magic rejects though, usually ones that are smuggled out or sold in back alley deals by Red Mages who are brave or crafty enough to manage it. Otherwise all of the magical stuff gets dumped into their military and that, along with their terrain, is one of the reasons nobody likes to mess with Thay. In addition to regularly hiring orcs, hobgoblins, and ogres to fight in their infantry ranks, they will have entire battalions of magical constructs and mutated creatures either intentionally or accidentally bred for maximum carnage. And if that’s not enough, the wizards have no qualms about summoning reinforcements from places like the Nine Hells or the Abyss. They’re considered to have the strongest military in the eastern part of Toril by default, and many people think that if the Red Wizards ever stopped killing each other for promotions Thay would become a force that could threaten most of the main continent.
Enter Szass Tam. Tam is a lich, and has been for quite a while. He’s also been one of the Zulkirs for several hundred years, and he eventually decided he knew how to run things better than everyone else. He wasn’t able to do anything about that for a long time because the other Zulkirs were roughly equal to him in power and influence. However, then the Salamander Wars happened. Two Zulkirs had the brilliant idea of conquering a neighboring nation by recruiting not only demons, but also salamanders from the plane of fire. Working with elemental creatures was a new thing at the time, and the Zulkirs in charge and their forces realized they had a problem when they went to banish their extraplanar allies and the demons disappeared, but the Salamanders stayed. And then they tried to make a home for themselves in Thay.
Cleaning up that mess put a lot of the Zulkirs at a disadvantage in both martial power and political respect. Szass, on the other hand, hadn’t been involved with the salamander mess and his military forces were mostly made up of undead, which are a lot easier to replace. He suggested to the Zulkir council that given the recent mess they’d made of things, maybe he should be in charge instead.
The Zulkirs very politely disagreed. Thus began the Thay civil war. Szass and the rest of the council mustered their forces, all the Red Wizards chose sides and they threw down for a couple of decades.
Then the Spellplague hit. Obviously that seriously affected a place like Thay where so much stuff is tied to magic, but the other thing that happened was the plateau Thay sat on suddenly shifted several thousand feet higher than it had been thanks to a lot of unexpected volcanic activity. Apart from killing a lot of people, this caused a crisis because a lot of the farmlands that had kept Thay self-sufficient for millennia were now fields of rock, chasms, and dried lava. Szass’ forces had the upper hand, but continued fighting would have eliminated whatever remained of Thay, so Szass offered the surviving members of the council the option to flee Thay if they let him take over. They accepted the deal. At that point Szass began talking to the rest of the Red Wizards and basically told them, “look, we don’t have to worry about all this food nonsense if all of us just become undead. And if you don’t want the full lich package, which, granted, is a bit much, you can just go vampirism! I mean, we’ve got thousands of slaves full of blood anyway.”
For one reason or another, most of the Red Wizards got on board with this. So in addition to magical experimentation and control of otherworldly creatures and nightmarish mutated magical creatures, if you run into a Red Wizard from modern Thay there’s a good chance they’re also undead. It is known at this point that the entire Zulkir council is made up of undead. Also Szass Tam is still the one in charge.
A massive empire with an army of magical creatures, demons, devils, and lots of magic items seems like it should be more of a thing but it basically doesn’t come up in relation to the Sword Coast areas very often just because Thay is so far away. As the dragon flies, Thay is 2,500 miles from Waterdeep, or close to the straight-line distance from Los Angeles, California to Washington, D.C., and there are a lot of forests, rivers, and mountains in the way. Still, with all of those magic users around teleportation is definitely possible. Again, it’s theorized that most of the issue comes down to all the infighting that goes on between the Red Wizards. If you find two different groups of Red Wizards or people working for them anywhere in the Sword Coast, it’s possible they are not working for the same person and may actually have conflicting goals. Between the pressure to either be enslaved or undead if you live there, the backstabbing and infighting if you’re in the leadership, and the army Thay sends out if you’re not a friend of theirs, almost nobody wants to deal with them in any way.
5th edition modules have already provided options for how Red Wizards and Thay might fit into a campaign; agents of Red Wizards or Red Wizards themselves might show up in Faerun on some sort of mission, either for Thay as a whole or for themselves; remember the wizards are constantly trying to gain the upper hand on their superiors. However they’re unlikely to be trying to destabilize a government or go on a slave raid; they have enough individuals around Thay they can gather if they really need to and, as mentioned, they’re two and a half thousand miles from Waterdeep so they’ve got a lot of land to conquer before they’ll worry about setting up shop at the Sword Coast. However, if there’s an artifact of extreme power or rumors of a powerful magical ritual around, you can bet the Red Wizards would take an interest.
Ryu: And then there’s this guy.
Lennon: It was just an idea! I mean, I heard they had a lot of experience dealing with supernatural creatures, so I figured maybe they could give me some pointers.
Ostron: I’m going to ignore the obvious joke and just reiterate that no teleportation will be happening to Thay now or in the future. What will be happening is a trip to the Scrying pool to review what the listeners have been saying.