The North is a land of wilderness, towering mountains and hills separated by rivers winding their way to the sea. Ancient ruins from the elven kingdom of Illefarn and the dwarven empire of Delzoun, both long fallen, dot the landscape. Towns and settlements are rare, points of light in a landscape where roving orc bands, tribes of giants and even the occasional dragon threaten the unwary.
But on the coast stands an immense beacon of civilisation, the largest city in Faerûn north of Calimshan and west of the Sea of Fallen Stars. Some call it the City of Splendours, the shining jewel of the Sword Coast North. It is better known as Waterdeep.
Note: Waterdeep’s fortunes differ significantly at different points in the history of the Forgotten Realms. This description explores the city during the “classic” era of Forgotten Realms history, just prior to the highly ill-conceived event known as the Spellplague, regarded as non-fanon by many fans and players in the setting.
Location and Foreign Relations
Waterdeep is located on the north-western coast of Faerûn, approximately at 45°N. It lies in a coastal temperate zone, with cold winters and pleasant summers. The city lies on a coastal plateau in the shadow of Mount Waterdeep, which rises sharply from the sea. The city’s great harbour stands clear of the towering peak to the south, whilst it sprawls over the mountain’s flanks and extends to the ends of the plateau to the north. The River Dessarin, one of the great rivers of the North, empties into the Sea of Swords in a mighty torrent several miles south-east of the city (the river mouth is not suitable for settlement, hence the location of the city).
Waterdeep is formally regarded as a city-state, although the area it directly controls is large and the area it indirectly influences is huge. The surrounding countryside out to around 50 miles in all directions is heavily patrolled by Waterdhavian guards and militia and the city frequently employs mercenaries and adventurers to further secure its borders out three times as far. Very large farmlands are required to feed the city and these farms in turn need protection from the hostile tribes (human and non-human) that can be found further north. Waterdeep’s influence is generally held to run out around 150 miles south of the city, at the River Delimbiyr and the town of Daggerford and roughly the same distance north, at the immense swamp known as the Mere of Dead Men. Nearby settlements, such as Red Larch, Triboar, Yartar, Daggerford and the huge, fortified monastery of Chauntea at Goldenfields, are all allied to Waterdeep, as are the more distant powers of Neverwinter and Silverymoon. Neverwinter, Silverymoon and Waterdeep are regarded as the three primary “civilised” city-states of the North, standing in opposition to the pirate haven of Luskan and the orcish kingdom of Many-Arrows (which some hold instead as a potential ally, given its unusually diplomatic and open nature).
Waterdeep’s great rival to the south is Baldur’s Gate. More centrally located on the Sword Coast closer to the rich southern kingdoms of Amn, Tethyr and Erlkazar and located in less hostile countryside, Baldur’s Gate is starting to threaten Waterdeep’s dominance of Sword Coast trade. Relations between the two cities are cooler than they used to be, increased by their rival colonies in distant Maztica, but both cities remain unified against mutual threats.
Waterdeep also enjoys positive and friendly relations with the more distant nation of Cormyr and the Moonshae Isles to the south-west. The city has more complex relations with the organisation for “good” known as the Harpers. Although Waterdeep broadly welcomes them and has benefitted from their alliance (such as during the Time of Troubles, also known as the Avatar Wars), it is less keen on the chaos and unpredictable events that tend to follow Harper agents around.
Waterdeep’s greatest enemies are the Black Network of the Zhentarim, the pirate lords of Luskan (although Luskan is too remote to threaten the city’s economy and too small to threaten it militarily) and the great southern nation of Calimshan and its much larger capital, Calimport. However, Calimport is located over two thousand miles away, limiting the prospects of a direct confrontation between the two nations.
Waterdeep is quite large, spreading for almost two miles between Mount Waterdeep and the eastern edge of the plateau on which the city sits, and roughly four miles from north to south. Its most notable feature, after the mountain, is its harbour. The harbour, arguably the finest on the continent, is enclosed to the south by Deepwater Isle, with massive sea walls running from both ends of the isle to the landbound ends of the city walls. This encloses the entire harbour, giving the city a formidable line of defence against attacks from both the sea and the land. To date, Waterdeep has never been captured in battle and only rarely suffered direct attack, although it has fallen to internal coups.
The peak of Mount Waterdeep towers 1,500 feet above the surrounding city. On its western side it rises from the sea in a series of sea cliffs and rock formations that are all but impossible to scale. The northern spur of the mountain is shallower and several notable buildings, including the bard college of New Olamn and the Spires of the Morning (a temple to the dawn god Lathander) are located here. The peak of the mountain is topped by a griffon eyrie, where griffon riders in the service of the Waterdeep City Guard keep watch over the surrounds. Castle Waterdeep, the seat of city governance, sits on the south-eastern flank of the city.
The plateau the city sits on is quite steep, providing a formidable natural defence. This defensive line is augmented by tall walls located atop the plateau, making land-based attacks under withering defensive fire almost impossible. Defensive requirements mean that the Lords of Waterdeep refuse to allow any settlement outside the walls, which, although tactically sound, has put a hard limit on the city’s growth. Unless this restriction is lifted, Waterdeep will simply not be able to grow any further and would-be settlers may be tempted to join other cities, to their benefit at Waterdeep’s expense.
The city is divided into seven wards: Castle Ward, enclosing the entire mountain and Castle Waterdeep, is home to many of the city’s nobles, notables and richest merchants, although its central location also makes it a prime location for business, parties and diplomatic negotiations. Dock Ward incorporates Deepwater Isle and most of the city’s extensive docks, extending for a mile along the harbour. South Ward, located around the gates leading south to the Sword Coast proper, is the city’s poorest district and one of its smallest, but also its liveliest and most bustling, with caravanserai and markets eager to take advantage of weary travellers. Trades Ward, to the north on the eastern side of the city, is given over to commerce and guilds. The City of the Dead, located north of Trades Ward, is the city’s immense cemetery and park. It is mostly peaceful, but is patrolled by city guardsmen and mages keeping an eye out for unsanctioned necromantic activities. Sea Ward, located to the north-west, is home of the city’s wealthiest citizens who can’t afford to live in Castle Ward. North Ward, which makes up the north-eastern corner of the city, is home to the city’s middle class and is noted for its relatively quiet status, belying the cut and thrust of business dealings (not all of them strictly legal) which take place in its taverns and coffee houses (a recent fad based around the introduction of beans harvested on the western continent of Maztica).
Unofficially, the city is also home to three other settlements, although their existence is not officially public knowledge (although rumours abound). Thar Qualnaar is a village of merfolk located on the underwater slopes leading up to Deepwater Isle. A few hundred feet to the north, at the bottom of Boatscrape Cove, lies T’quession, a sea elf stronghold. Although both sea elves and merfolk have lived in the harbour for centuries, their numbers have surged as a result of the Twelfth Serôs War. The Lords of Waterdeep maintain friendly relations with both communities, supplying them with food and aid in return for their aid with underwater defence.
The third community is Skullport. Located hundreds of feet below the city proper on the subterranean River Sargauth, accessible only by secret tunnels and an underwater channel through complex canal gates, Skullport is a free-wheeling, chaotic town of smugglers and adventurers. Denizens of Skullport include less-savoury creatures including drow, illithids and beholders. However, the city’s chaotic and “evil” reputation is somewhat misleading. Several Netherese mages who led the settlement of Skullport, thousands of years before Waterdeep proper was founded, survive as the Skulls, floating skulls of tremendous magical power. These skulls, whose magic is rooted in that of long-vanished Netheril, keep the peace in the city, obliterating with contemptuous ease anyone who threatens its security. The Lords of Waterdeep, of course, know of Skullport but tolerate its existence so long as it does nothing to threaten the rest of the city, knowing that destroying it or rooting it out would be possible only with an unacceptable high level of casualties. Agents of the Lords maintain a careful watch on Skullport.
Skullport is linked through underground caverns to Waterdeep’s darkest secret: the immense subterranean stronghold known as Undermountain.
Artwork by Larry Elmore.
The permanent population of the city of Waterdeep has been established by census at 132,000 as of 1372 Dalereckoning. During the height of the summer trade the population can increase to several times this, with every inn in the city packed out and immense campsites forming outside the walls.
The total population of Waterdeep’s full area of influence, including the surrounding villages, farmsteads and towns and allied settlements out to over 150 miles, is estimated at almost two million people.
The population mix in 1372 is: 64% human, 10% dwarven, 10% elven, 5% halfling, 5% half-elven, 3% gnomish, 2% half-orc, 1% other. The very high elven population is unusual in majority-human cities of Faerûn, a result of the city's unusually open and welcoming reputation as a centre for trade, knowledge and adventure.
Waterdeep is also home to many more unusual creatures in Skullport, Undermountain and the city's clandestine underworld, with an unusually high number of beholders, illithids and dark elves present.
History of Waterdeep
The history of the region goes back over 9,500 years, to when the great elven empire of Illefarn established the port city of Aelinthaldaar on the flanks of Mount Waterdeep. Refugees from Miyeritar, the great elven kingdom destroyed in the Crown Wars and whose ruins stand today on the High Moor, played a role in the city’s founding and early establishment. The city spread over much of what is now Waterdeep and became a great elven power of northern Faerûn.
The elves began digging into Mount Waterdeep for its riches and to establish crypts for their who chose not to make the pilgrimage west to Evermeet. Millennia later, bolstered by refugees from the fighting between Coramshan and Shanatar to the far south, the Melairkyn clan of dwarves were allowed to settle the mountain by the elves. By 1200 Before Dalereckoning (BDR) this had become a great kingdom within the mountain, known as Melairbode, allied to the great dwarven empire of Delzoun. A century later the elves departed, removing all traces of their city behind them.
Melairbode became rich and powerful, but also relatively exposed on the far south-western flank of Delzoun. With the dwarven kingdom under renewed pressure from orcs, goblins and other hostile tribes of the North, Melairbode was abandoned circa 100 BDR and its people retreated north to more secure strongholds like Citadel Adbar in the Spine of the World.
The area remained uninhabited for three centuries, although bold human tribes began to establish farms and fortified homesteads in the area. In 307 Dalereckoning (DR), the mage Halaster Blackcloak established a stronghold, Halaster’s Hold, on the flanks of Mount Waterdeep. Fascinated by the mountain and its history, Halaster soon disappeared within the peak, never to return.
With the departure of the wizard, human warlords began to covet the strategic and highly defensible location. In 472 DR Ulbaerag Bloodhand established the first permanent human settlement on the site of Waterdeep. In 882 the renowned warrior-king Nimoar the Reaver took the settlement as his own. Despite his bloody reputation when angered or thwarted, Nimoar also had a vision that the settlement could grow into a major city and encouraged peaceful migration to the region. He renamed the settlement as Nimoar’s Hold. The first stone buildings were built and the plateau used for defence, with several assaults by rival tribes out of the Dessarin Valley repulsed. The name “Waterdeep”, possibly derived from the already-in-use “Deepwater” for the island and the harbour, entered unofficial use during the 10th Century.
In 932 the Troll Wars began, with thousands of trolls spilling out of the Evermoors. Nimoar not only defeated several troll raids on his town, he unified several rival tribes and burned out the Evermoors in retaliation. A second wave of troll assaults began in 940, encouraging the unified tribes to permanently take shelter in the growing city. In 952 the powerful mage, Ahghairon of Silverymoon moved to the city and used his formidable magical powers to help defeat the trolls for good. For his efforts, he was named Archmage of the City.
Ahghairon, known as a steady and reputable man, helped give the city prestige. The temple of Lathander was established and the city flourished, a sign of the Morninglord’s favour. By 1010 the first city walls had been built and the city was formally renamed “Waterdeep”. A canny local soldier and politician, Lauroun, was named the city’s first Warlord. She ruled well, heeding Ahghairon’s advice. When she was slain in battle against the Black Claw orc tribe in 1026, her lieutenant Raurlor seized power and attempted to forge the city into the “Empire of the North”. Ahghairon killed him and took control of the city directly in 1032.
Ahghairon founded the Council of the Lords of Waterdeep, established the guilds and decreed that the city would stand for peace, prosperity and security. After numerous assassination attempts, it was decided that the Lords would rule in secret, their identities not known to the general public. This angered some people, who wanted to know who their rulers were. Despite this controversy, Waterdeep prospered, growing to its current size by 1256 and achieving economic dominance over the Sword Coast North.
In 1235, western Faerûn was ravaged by the Black Horde, an immense orc horde arising from the Spine of the World and all the other mountains of the north. A detachment of the Horde besieged Waterdeep for almost a year, but it was unable to assault the city directly due to the terrain and Ahghairon’s formidable powers. The city’s harbour also remained open, keeping the city fed. The besieging orc clans fell to infighting and started wanting for food themselves, eventually scattering back into the wilderness.
In 1256 Ahghairon finally succumbed to advanced age, his magic unable to sustain him any longer. Khelben Arunsun the Elder, a Chosen of Mystra, had settled in the city in 1150 and it had been assumed that he would replace Ahghairon as Archmage, but Khelben disappeared a few months after Ahghairon’s death. In the absence of a strong, guiding hand the city fell into civil conflict. The Guildmasters seized control of the city in a bloody coup, killing the Lords of Waterdeep, and then fell into internal fighting. By 1262 only two survived, Lhorar Gildeggh of the Shipwrights’ Guild and Ehlemm Zoar of the Gemcutters. They named themselves the Lords Magister and ruled for eleven years. Their rule was a time of mismanagement and neglect, threatening the city’s prosperity as its reputation for peace and order has been compromised. During this time, the evil Shadow Thieves gained a foothold in the city.
In 1273, it was revealed that two of the Lords of Waterdeep, Baeron and Shilarn, had survived. They returned to the city, killed the Lords Magister, and refounded the Council of Lords. However, they acknowledged that it was unjust to rule in secret and Baeron became the Open Lord of the City, a conduit between the council and the citizens. In 1298 their daughter, Lhestyn, infiltrated and destroyed the Shadow Thieves. Lhestyn, married to Zelphar Arunsun (son of Khelben), became the Open Lord of Waterdeep in 1308. Zelphar died in 1311 and Lhestyn, heartbroken, followed in 1314. Piergeiron Paladinson, a high-ranking young officer in the City Watch, known for his unbreakable moral and ethical code, became the new Open Lord, a position he holds until this day.
Khelben Arunsun the Younger, the alleged son of Lhestyn and Zelphar, settled in Waterdeep as its new Archmage in 1322, taking over Blackstaff Tower and taking the name of the tower as his own. Some decades later he rescued Laeral Silverhand, one of the Seven Sisters, from a cursed magical item and she became his paramour, both serving the city from Blackstaff Tower. It was later revealed that this Khelben was really the older one, posing as his own grandson for reasons far too complex to go into here (but may best be described as “pointless”).
In 1356 Khelben discovered that a powerful beholder cult, led by Xanathar, had taken root below the city. He sponsored an adventuring party in defeating Xanathar and scattering the cult (although it later reformed in secret). A year later he directed the same party to Darkmoon, a remote temple in the forests, where they defeated an evil cleric and his followers.
Also in 1356, a Flight of Dragons threatened the city, but Khelben led a powerful group of mages in persuading them not to attack.
Waterdeep was threatened as never before during the Time of Troubles, sometimes called the Avatar Wars. Ao, the Overgod of all Toril, banished the gods of the Realms to walk the lands of Faerûn as a punishment for their theft of the Tablets of Fate. Waterdeep, as the site of a celestial stairway (a magical conduit linking the world of Toril to the Outer Planes), came under attack by Myrkul, God of Death, and his undead legions. Myrkul planned to use the stairway and the powers of the Tablets to destroy Ao and assume supreme control over both Toril and the planes. Khelben and his mentor and ally Elminster rallied a defence of the city, but it fell to the young and inexperienced mage Midnight and the warrior Kelemvor to destroy Myrkul and end the threat to the city. Their treacherous former friend and ally, Cyric, killed Kelemvor, stole the Tablets and presented them to Ao atop the Celestial Stairway. For his act, Cyric was raised to godhood and granted the powers of the former gods Bane, Bhaal and Myrkul. Midnight was granted the powers of the slain goddess Mystra, becoming the new Goddess of Magic.
In the aftermath of the Time of Troubles, Waterdeep recovered and prospered again. In 1362 word came of the discovery of the continent of Maztica beyond the Trackless Sea. With both Amn and Baldur’s Gate launching colony ships, Waterdeep followed suit. It colonised Maztapan Island, settling the town of New Waterdeep just off the coast of the main Maztican continent. Trade goods soon started flowing both ways across the ocean.
Less happily, in 1369 the city suffered a massive onslaught from the sea. Iakhovas the Taker led a massive assault on the city consisting of sahuagin, lizard folk and dragon turtles, achieving total surprise. Khelben led the defence of the city and drove the sea creatures back into the deeps, but only at a cost of thousands of lives and the razing of most of Dock Ward. This attack was only part of the Twelfth Serôs War, a continent-spanning underwater military conflict, which ended some months later in Iakhovas’ death in the Sea of Fallen Stars.
Waterdeep endures as the largest and richest city on the Sword Coast, but this series of cataclysms and dangers shows that the city is not the bastion of strength that it presents itself as, and the future prosperity of the city depends on it restoring its reputation for peace and security.
Artwork by Larry Elmore.
Waterdeep’s darkest secret is that it sits on top of one of the greatest and most dangerous dungeon complexes in all of Faerûn. Undermountain is the name given to the colossal underground stronghold sitting within and below Mount Waterdeep, a network of caverns, tunnels, underground fortresses and caves stretching for dozens of levels and thousands of feet into the deeps. This used to be the dwarven stronghold of Melairbode, but has since been occupied by Halaster Blackcloak, the Mad Mage and populated with monsters for his own twisted amusement. Undermountain links to Skullport (which lies adjacent to its third level), the underground warren under the sewers of the city and the Underdark itself. There are several entrances to Undermountain, but the best-known is located in the Yawning Portal Inn.
Officially, Undermountain does not exist. Unofficially, the Lords of Waterdeep have sponsored hundreds of adventuring parties into descending into Undermountain in an effort to clear out its depths before Halaster himself can be confronted. Most of the adventuring parties do return, but only after reporting a gradually escalating level of difficulty before the dungeon became too much for them and they had to withdraw.
To the Lords of Waterdeep, the presence of Undermountain is an unacceptable security risk. Armies of drow, illithid, beholders, orcs or goblins could use Undermountain to invade the city from below. However, Halaster is protective of his stronghold and keeps out all interlopers, including other “evil” entities. Halaster is also one of the most powerful mages in the world, his power perhaps only rivalled by Elminster of Shadowdale. With Halaster showing no signs of acrimony against Waterdeep itself despite having a thousand years to destroy it if he wished, the Lords have reluctantly decided to leave Halaster and Undermountain in place as a buffer and defence against the hordes of the Underdark.
Origins and Influences
Ed Greenwood started telling stories about a fantasy land of his own devising in 1967, when he was just eight years old. A few years later he started running a Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying campaign set in the same world. Over time the world gained coherence, a detailed background and flavour, accruing a huge number of locations.
One of Greenwood’s most iconic locations came upon him quite suddenly. In one story, he created a character called Mirt the Moneylender, a fat and jovial merchant. Greenwood wanted to complicate the character and decided to make him one of the secret lords of a vast, sprawling city. This was unusual in his setting, which focused on smaller towns and hamlets. He placed this city on the west coast of his continent, a thousand miles from the regular haunts of his characters and stories in the Dalelands. Thus, was born Waterdeep.
Possibly the quintessential fantasy medieval city, although not quite as insanely huge as some of its contemporaries, Waterdeep is a highly civilised and ordered city which might at first glance appear to be a little boring, suitable only as a base for adventurers striking into the wilderness rather than a setting for adventures in its own right. But Greenwood complicated the city with politics and the shadow city of Skullport located underneath it. He also added the massive dungeon called Undermountain as an easily accessible source of gold and adventure for heroes less keen on wandering far from the city.
In 1978 Greenwood starting writing articles for Dragon Magazine and mentioned both Waterdeep and his home campaign – now dubbed “The Realms”, frequently. In 1987 TSR finally bought the rights to this setting and released it as the Forgotten Realms campaign setting for D&D.
In the thirty years since the Forgotten Realms appeared in print, it has become the default world and setting for the Dungeons and Dragons world. Countless video games (including the classic Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale) were set in its environs, along with over 300 novels. Although mentioned in the earlier Dragon Magazine articles, Waterdeep was first explored in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting (1987), although only lightly. City System (1988) provided large-scale maps of the city whilst the supplement Waterdeep and the North (1987) was its first in-depth companion and guide. The city made its first appearance in novels in Waterdeep (1989) by Troy Denning, concluding The Avatar Trilogy, and The Halfling’s Gem (1990) by R.A. Salvatore. After the release of D&D 2nd Edition, the city was updated thorough the City of Splendours box set (1994). City of Splendours: Waterdeep (2005) further updated the city for 3rd Edition. 4th Edition, which controversially devastated the Forgotten Realms in an event known as the Spellplague (cheerfully ignored by many players), had no major update for Waterdeep and instead focused on the cities of Neverwinter and Baldur’s Gate, which in its dubious timeline had both grown to challenge Waterdeep. 5th Edition, released in 2014, undid much of the idiocy of the Spellplague but Wizards of the Coast have, so far, chosen not to release a new Forgotten Realms campaign setting or companion guide for Waterdeep.
Waterdeep has also, somehow, avoided being the setting for video games. Eye of the Beholder (1991) was set below the city but included a lot of information about it. Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark (2003) revisited Undermountain but did not feature the city itself. Curiously, despite Waterdeep’s importance to the setting the city itself has never featured in a major way in any of the video games. The later switching of importance to Neverwinter and Baldur’s Gate may be due to the popularity of the Baldur’s Gate series (1998-2001) and the two Neverwinter Nights games and their numerous expansions (2002-08).
The city did gain some added exposure from the highly successful and popular board game Lords of Waterdeep, released in 2012, followed by its expansion, Scoundrels of Skullport (2013).
Most intriguingly, in 2019 the Realms will finally appear on screen in the next live-action Dungeons and Dragons movie, currently in pre-production at Warner Brothers. Reportedly, the movie will be set in Waterdeep and utilise the infamous Yawning Portal Inn, which should lead to a revival of interest in the city.
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