Archives of Candlekeep: History of the Sword Coast — Waterdeep
This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Eighteen on 13th May 2020.
Lennon: I really think I have enough-
Lennon: Over here!
Lennon: Behind the huge stack of-
Ryu: Wow, that’s a huge pile of-
Ryu: Yes, thanks Libby.
Ostron: What did you do?
Lennon (sighing): I know we’re planning that trip for when everything opens back up so I wanted to learn everything I could about Waterdeep.
Ostron: Oh no
Ryu: What, did he break Libby?
Ostron: No, it’s just…there’s a lot of information about Waterdeep.
Lennon: Well, before I get an acute case of beholder-induced biblioruptus do you maybe have a summary I could get?
Ostron: Yeah, here, have a look.
Lennon: Oh good.
While the Forgotten Realms in D&D is a vast setting with multiple locations and developed areas (even though some areas are getting less attention now than in the past), a central location has been prominent throughout its existence: the city of Waterdeep.
Also called “The City of Splendours,” Waterdeep currently stands in the lore as the Forgotten realms’ largest city and its most populous, with over 2 million inhabitants.
Waterdeep may have also been the first Forgotten Realms location created, as Ed Greenwood’s original home campaign that grew into the Realms started in Waterdeep. Greenwood published various modules that took place in the Forgotten Realms during the early days of D&D and several of them mentioned or involved Waterdeep, so it’s difficult to pinpoint when Waterdeep first appeared for use in D&D. However, most people trace Waterdeep’s offical beginnings to the so-called “Grey Box”, a campaign setting guide released for 1st edition in 1987.
Since then, Waterdeep has been a staple of the Forgotten Realms in D&D and mostly retained its mantle as the largest and most important city in the Sword Coast region, if not in the whole of Faerun. Officially it was overshadowed by Baldur’s Gate during the spellplague in 4th edition, but then all that was officially retconned away afterward. End result; calling Waterdeep the most important city in Faerun fits with the lore.
Ryu: Speaking of lore-
Yes, exactly. Since Waterdeep has featured in so many novels, modules, games, stories, and campaigns there is a ton of information available from a variety of sources, and most of them are or were official. We’ll briefly cover the highlights here and if you think we missed something…well, yes, obviously we did.
Waterdeep sits on the site of an ancient elven capital city, Aelinthaldaar [ay-LIN-thawl-dar] and it’s modern sprawl means it also runs up against the mountain where the dwarven Melairkyn tribe used to mine mithral. Over time, as other groups moved in and out, the area was also known as Bloodhand Hold and Nimor’s Hold, until the year 1010 Dale Reckoning (the current year in-lore is 1492) when a nice girl named Laroun [la-ROON], who already had a castle there, declared the area to be a city. Skip forward four hundred years and now you’ve got a big city. Yes, I know, but remember about the piles and piles of lore?
One of the things that helped get the city both it’s size and its name is the deep water harbor it sits on. For those of you not into shipping, deep water harbors mean the big boats can dock there and not rip their hulls open, so ships can move literal tons of good without worrying about how to get it onto land. That, plus the Mithral mines, and a good amount of farmland nearby gives Waterdeep most of its wealth.
Politically, Waterdeep has a split government, though not in the sense of having two legislatures or anything. There is a council of Lords that essentially runs the city, but one individual functions as the Open Lord of Waterdeep, and their position and identity is known to everyone. In D&D terms, the Open lord is the “face character” for the Lords of Waterdeep. All the other Lords are known *of*, as in everyone knows how many there are, but their actual identities are secret, and any proclamations or opinions they have are relayed through the Open Lord. The laws of the city are enforced by the City watch for mundane issues, the City Guard for military issues, and the Watchful Order of Magists and Protectors for magical things. And if things really go south, the Blackstaff can have the giant statues on the edges of the city start moving and dishing out pain to whatever happens to be ruining Waterdeep’s day.
Those are the groups affiliated with the city’s government. Commercially there are an interminable number of guilds that monitor and restrict all aspects of building, farming, painting, cleaning, and waste disposal, but none of them generally come up with interesting names; the Mason’s guild is in charge of stonework, the tailor’s guild does clothing, etc. etc.
There are also a large number of unofficial or dubiously useful groups hanging around and operating in the city. In modern times the ones most adventures are concerned with are Bregan D’aerthe aka mercenaries that get to meet Jarlaxle, The Emerald Enclave of druids and general tree hugging, Force Grey or Waterdeep’s unofficial version of SWAT, The Harpers who welcome all good aligned characters and only good aligned characters please, and the Xanathar guild who are basically the unstable mafia of Waterdeep.
A quick metagaming note here: Almost every D&D player knows that Xanathar is a beholder. In contrast, almost no characters ever know that Xanathar is a beholder. In-lore, Xanathar’s actual nature actually is a well-kept secret. Try to keep that in mind when roleplaying in or about Waterdeep.
Like many large cities, Waterdeep is divided into sections, called wards. Quickly and without much detail, these are the Sea, North, Castle, Trades, Southern, and Dock wards, as well as the City of the Dead, which is one of the most elaborate and well maintained cemeteries ever.
Waterdeep is also home to the most famous bar in the Forgotten Realms; the Yawning Portal. That establishment’s name comes from the open hole in the middle of it that leads to an unofficial part of the city: Undermountain. Undermountain was created by the evil wizard Halastar Blackcloak…just because. He was insane, just go with it. It also provides access to Skullport, another unofficial part of the city where the Xanathar guild is mostly based from. Apart from that, in current lore it has 22 other levels to wander around and die in due to extraplanar beings, undead beings, horrible monstrosities, and insane wizards. You can also end up ejected into deep space.
By the way, if anyone is wondering how you have a city of two million people with gigantic statues sitting above both an old dwarven mine and a whole bunch of catacombs carved out by an evil wizard, there’s actually an official answer to that; the Elves put some magic in place a long time ago that prevents the area from collapsing. Theoretically you could totally remove all the bedrock beneath the city and it would still just sit there.
Now, because of how gamers are, a certain percentage of them hear “most important and popular city in the forgotten realms” and have already made a solemn vow to never go there or have anything to do with the place. But if you’re in the Forgotten Realms at all it doesn’t make sense to totally ignore it, and it’s unavoidable if you run official modules. Obviously it’s a big part of the ones with “Waterdeep” in the title, but it also plays a part in both Tyranny of Dragons modules, and Storm King’s Thunder, and it’s at least mentioned or referenced in nearly every other Forgotten Realms module put out by Wizards. Knowing all the lore doesn’t make sense; I’ve heard of New York, and I know it’s a big deal but being a Brit living in Britain I couldn’t tell you how many boroughs the city has, never mind their names. Still, with the amount of time Wizards’ focuses on the Forgotten Realms and the likelihood of running into it in other modules, it makes sense to at least have a passing familiarity with what it is and why it’s important.
Ryu: Speaking of passing
(book flies through the air)
Lennon: Gah! I thought Libby took care of the books!
Ostron: That’s Volo’s Enchiridion, there are so many copies available it’s not even worth it. I think I’ve seen Libby use them for target practice on occasion. Oh it’s time for the scrying pool!
Lennon: Um, great, but I’m still stuck behind these books.
Ryu: Right, letters and messages to get to.
Lennon: Guys? I’m still here behind all these books! I think they’ll fall and kill me if I move…guys?