“As we sat in the tavern the discordant melody came sweeping in. You could not place it: it was a bird gone mad, swooping low and riding high in equal measure. It seeped into the skin, brushed along your bones, and pecked at your sanity…”
What is a Zulkoon?
A Zulkoon is a mix of an accordion, bagpipe, and organ. It’s a trapezoid wooden box with a bellows of hide that rests on the floor. Connected to the bellows is a foot pump for airflow. Topside are several long pipe organs of various lengths and materials. The pipes have holes overlaid with metal strings or keys of bone.
A Zulkoon was a wind musical instrument that functioned like a portable pump organ. The Zulkoon originated from the Zulkirs of Thay, which they used in spellcasting.
How do you play a Zulkoon?
As the Zulkoon player pumps air into the bellows with their foot, the flow moves through the wooden box and into the pipe organs where the player can pluck, press, or cover holes to produce the sound they desire. As the airflow moves over the notes, a sinister and dramatic droning sound is produced that remains unbroken, climbs and dips in register unpredictably, and fills the room.
The Zulkoon takes several arms to be played properly, or several creatures. It’s often played by two or three at one time. Organs are rare in the Realms, so Zulkoons are often the closest some denizens will come to such a prestigious instrument.
Zulkoons were created by Zulkirs, which was a title of power for rulers of a mysterious and powerful nation called Thay where only those with magic could wield power. There were eight Zulkirs for each school of magic, which formed the Council of Zulkirs that ruled the land.
Zulkirs were slavers, demonologists, arcane experimenters — and often undead. They ruled over Thay for life and undeath, until they resigned and a bloody power vacuum ensued. Zulkirs eventually turned all of Thay into a nation of undeath, and became known as the Red Wizards of Thay, or colloquially as the Cult of Red Magic, due to their terrifying nature.
The Zulkoon was often used by Zulkirs in spells to boost magical power or grant effects. Slaves would carry Zulkoons in wagons in order to provide the proper music for their master’s spells and were often forced to play under duress or by force of magic. The ominous tone also worked to unnerve enemy subjects and make them more suggestible.
The Zulkoon was also used by religious cults such as the Church of Talona whose followers were scarred and tattooed and went seeking diseases, monastic organizations like the Followers of Plague who experienced pain as pleasure and believed death was more powerful than life, and criminal gangs like the Plague-Mother’s Children who were a gang of racketeers and extortionists.
As you can tell from its history, the Zulkoon is not a very nice-sounding instrument! But it remains a fan favorite nonetheless and is a lot of fun to lug around.
GameCows Tip: If you have proficiency with Zulkoons, and proficiency in Intimidation, try to convince your DM to let you use it for a Charisma (Intimidation) check!
Before starting GameCows with his wife Kendra, he used to teach English Language Arts in the US. He combined his love of gaming with education to create fun game-based learning lessons until he eventually decided to run GameCows with Kendra full-time. He’s known for pouring over rulebooks in his spare time, being the rule master during game night, and as the perma DM in his DnD group. Bryan loves board games, writing, traveling, and above all his wife and partner in crime, Kendra.