This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Twenty on 27th May 2020.
Killer DM: Lennon
Lennon: I didn’t do it! You can’t make me! I’ll never talk!
Killer DM: Well all of that is patently false but at the moment I’m more interested in why you think a cape and a mask are necessary to visit Baldur’s Gate?
Lennon: I…Think I read somewhere it was the latest fashion in certain circles.
Ostron: Lennon did I see this right? HR says you wanted two weeks off? What for?
Killer DM: Oh look what’s this?
Lennon: Hey! That was in my pocket!
Killer DM: And Ryu’s a rogue, so now it’s in my hand. “The Gloomstalker’s guide to rooftops and alleyways.” Hmmm. Lennon I’m going to ask you a question and there is a correct answer to it, so think carefully: Were you going to go to Baldur’s Gate and try to be Batman?
Lennon: Um…I think you American’s say “I plead the Fifth”?
Killer DM: As you like to remind everyone, you’re British, that won’t work for you. I mean, I don’t recognize it anyway but-
Ostron: Wait, wait, what does Batman have to do with Baldur’s Gate? And why are you here, anyway? Is there some conference of-
Killer DM: Careful now.
Ostron: Forward thinking opportunists happening in the city?
Killer DM: Oh there’s just so much for me in that city. Come now, what do you know about it.
While in lore the city of Waterdeep is the most well known city in the Forgotten Realms, players who aren’t steeped in the lore of modern D&D are probably more likely to recognize Baldur’s Gate. Now the city is usually cited as the second most important city on the Sword Coast, and it was briefly given the top spot during the lore overhaul of 4th edition, but most player recognition is likely due to it being featured in several successful video games in the late 90s and early 2000s.
It’s very likely that’s where the city’s popularity with Dungeons and Dragons as a whole originated as well. While Baldur’s Gate was present as a city in-lore since the creation of the Forgotten Realms, it wasn’t really a significant location until it was made the setting for the wildly popular video games.
But really it should have had more attention because its a great place. First of all, it was started by pirates. The city borrows its weather from Lennon’s neighborhood, so when it isn’t rainy and windy everything’s covered in fog. So to start with, the most appropriate word to describe the city is “moist” which is just wonderful. But back to the pirates; they would set up essentially a fake lighthouse on the shore to guide ships through the fog…and straight into the rocks, after which they steal whatever was on board. Then the big daddy pirate comes back, tells a bunch of people to build a wall around his house, and hides the apparently huge piles of treasure he found.
Ostron: Um, if you’re talking about Balduran, he was an adventurer, not a pirate.
Killer DM: I’m sorry, he sails up with a ship full of treasure and the first thing he does is bury it in the ground so other people can’t find it. When adventurers get piles of treasure the first thing they do is start buying up magic items and groupies. You know who buries their loot in the ground so no one can find it? Pirates. QED.
Lennon: I don’t think the Baldurians are going to like that interpretation.
Killer DM: Well it’ll be a lively panel discussion then.
Lennon: Ohhh boy.
Anyway, that big wall attracted a lot of attention and people who sort of shooed the pirates away, and then a city started forming some miles to the south for unrelated reasons. The cove where the wall got built was the closest convenient harbor, so that started getting people and infrastructure really quick. Fast forward a few centuries, and the physically largest metropolis in the Sword Coast forms a crescent around the harbor.
There are multiple ways the city gets divided up depending on population, wealth, guilds, and otherwise but the main division everyone cares about is based on the walls. First you have Balduran’s original wall, which separates the Upper City from the Lower City. Then you have the second wall they built when the city started overflowing its borders. Between the two walls is the lower city. And because that wasn’t enough, outside the city is basically a sprawling shantytown called the Outer City that follows the path of the Chionthar River.
The upper city is home to the Baldurian Patriars, or nobles. Fifty of them form a legislative council that advises and elects the members of the Council of Four, who are officially in charge of the city, but since they are basically beholden to the Patriars for their jobs, the nobles run the city. In earlier interpretations of the lore this was a minor sticking point but as time has gone on the Upper city has basically been reimagined as a D&D version of Renaissance Venice; everyone dresses nice and smiles in public and acts proper looking down on the riffraff, while behind closed doors all of them are scheming with and against each other. Then at night all the hired agents and secret assassins start prowling around.
The people officially keeping order in the upper city are the Watch, but they’re paid and supplied directly by the Patriars. Again, in earlier versions of Baldur’s gate this meant they were the best trained and strictest police force in the city, if a bit haughty, but in more modern interpretations it’s suggested they’re basically an unofficial bodyguard force for the Patriars and care more about keeping riffraff out of the Upper City than they do about enforcing any laws.
I’m telling you, the lower city is where it’s at. First of all, it’s where all the docks and the shops are, so you have that wonderful mix of customers in retail stores and dock workers to provide a baseline for proper behavior. Add in the fog and the fact that there was no law enforcement for ages and the whole area was basically a case study in survival of the fittest.
Then this genius Eltan looked at this and said “I know. I’ll get a bunch of adventurers together and put them in charge of keeping order.”
Consider, for a moment, the average party of adventurers and their primary methods of problem solving, assuming they have any beyond the default. Now imagine how well that would work as a policing strategy. Congratulations, you just figured out how the Flaming Fist works. They’re nominally paid by the city, but they also still contract out for mercenary work beyond the city, so on top of their wonderful operational standards you also have issues of scheduling and manpower. So you’re less likely to get murdered in the middle of the street in the lower city, but don’t go into an alleyway, abandoned building, dark corner, or even a really shady awning.
Speaking of shady areas, the lower city has another unofficial section of the city. Underneath the main streets is a network of tunnels that all connect to each other and feed into a central location known as the Undercellar, which was a literal underground bar and eating establishment. Then if anyone is brave enough to go deeper, they can stumble into a series of literal caves and tunnels. Some of these lead to a ruined city, where some Bhaal worshippers liked to hang out once upon a time, but eventually some of them lead to the Underdark. So if you need a reason for Drow to invade, there’s your opening. Literally.
Back on the surface, the last major part of the city is called the Outer City and it sits outside the newer defensive wall. It originally formed because of a city ordnance forbidding any animals from being housed within the walls, meaning all the breeders and herders had to set up outside the walls. Because the city never bothered to enforce laws even within the first walls for a while, there was no chance of anyone observing property claims outside, so the massive expanse of lean-tos, shantys, huts, and decrepit barns and stables eventually formed up to become the Outer city. Officially enforcement of laws in this second is still the purview of the Flaming Fists, but in practice they rarely venture out or patrol in the area, so local gangs are more likely to dictate behavior than any code of laws.
There’s actually a lot of history to Baldur’s Gate, but it can pretty much be summed up by one word: Don’t. Just leave the city to do it’s thing. Don’t start a religious crusade, don’t try to create an imitation of the Xanathar guild, and whatever you do don’t start worshiping Bhaal. Alchemy and opening up your own iron mine are also off the table. I mean, there’s reason they have four Dukes running the place is because the city decided to actually collect taxes to pay for things and started a civil war where four pirate captains ended up being the voices of reason. And then when everyone put them in charge, they set up the same taxes everyone went to war about in the first place. I love this town.
As we alluded to earlier, outside of the base lore Baldur’s Gate seems to be undergoing a bit of a retcon. While it was always full of conflict and definitely less egalitarian than Waterdeep, in more recent portrayals the city’s problems seem to have been enhanced. The outer city has become a complete slum, the Lower city is barely lawful, and the upper city is full of D&D’s version of callous 1 percenters. Still, even before the changes, the differences were clear; Waterdeep has clearly marked areas where you have to be on your guard a bit more. In Baldur’s Gate, be on guard all the time or things won’t end well.
Killer DM: And all of this you have going on here does not count as being on guard. Now go change.
Lennon: But capes are actually very effective as outerwear-
Killer DM: Lennon? What did I just say was the main rule for Baldur’s Gate?
Killer DM: Good boy. Now run along and change into something sensible.
Ostron: Um…speaking of running along-
Killer DM: I know what time it is and I know all about the pool and…You know what?
(rocks fall, Ostron dies)
Killer DM (very relieved sigh): Ohhhh It’s been a while since I did that. I forgot how enjoyable it is. Now where were we? Oh yes, Ryu has to get to the scrying pool. I’ll leave a note for Lennon so he knows where to go after he changes. Oh and I suppose I’ll call Gath. Someone might have a math question or something.