Sunday, 7 January 2018

Cities of Fantasy: Baldur's Gate

The Western Heartlands of Faerun form an extensive area of wilderness, hundreds of miles of open countryside dominated by several large city-states.  The most famous and storied of these is the great port city of Baldur’s Gate. From its position on the River Chionthar, Baldur’s Gate is the largest beacon of civilisation between Waterdeep and the kingdom of Amn and acts as a vital trading post. Everything is for sale in Baldur’s Gate, including adventure, trouble and morality.

Note: Baldur’s Gate’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.

Baldur’s Gate is located close to the north-western coast of the continent of Faerûn. It is located on the wide and deep River Chionthar, approximately twenty miles upriver from where it flows into the Sea of Swords. Technically the city is not on the Sword Coast itself, but its position as a major port and one of the few waystops north of Amn makes the difficulty of beating upriver to the city generally worthwhile.

The city is also located on the Coast Way, a vital trade artery along the west coast of the continent. The Coast Way extends south through the towns of Beregost and Nashkel into the Kingdom of Amn and thence to the rich southern kingdoms of Tethyr and Calimshan. The Coast Way eventually terminates at Calimport, the largest city in Faerûn, some 1,000 miles to the south, and continues to Waterdeep, the City of Splendours, located about 480 miles to the north-west. The Coast Way takes a massive detour to the east to avoid the Troll Hills and Trollbark Forest north of the Winding Water, an area infested with monsters. The Coast Way runs a dangerous gauntlet between the Troll Hills and High Moor to the north on its way to Waterdeep, so trade caravans usually travel well-armed.

Physical Description
Baldur’s Gate surrounds a significant inlet of the River Chionthar. With tall hills to the east hemming in the city’s walls, the city resembles a crescent moon with the bay forming the gap in the circle. Districts within the city include Bloomridge, Twin Songs and the Port District.

The most notable feature of the city is arguably Black Dragon Gate, built by Balduran himself, a formidable gateway and mini-fortress which has never fallen in battle. The city core contains the High Hall (or Palace of the Grand Dukes), the High House of Wonders (a huge temple to Gond, God of Artifice and Invention), the Water Queen’s House (a rare temple to Umberlee, the capricious Goddess of the Sea) and the Lady’s Hall (a temple to Tymora, Goddess of Good Fortune). Temples to Ilmater, Helm, Lathander and Oghma can also be found within the city centre.

The city’s primary defensive bastion is the Seatower of Balduran, located on an island in the harbour.

The population of Baldur’s Gate varied according to the season. In 1372 DR the city’s permanent population was approximately 42,100, but at the height of the summer trading rush this could more than double to around 86,000. During the height of the trading season, it’s not unusual to see extensive tent cities and ad hoc markets springing up outside the walls.

Baldur’s Gate is ruled by the Council of Four, also known as the Four Grand Dukes. As of 1372, the Four Grand Dukes are Eltan, the leader of the Flaming Fist Mercenary Company; Belt, a poweful warrior-priest; Liia Jannath, a wizardess; and Entar Silvershield, the city’s richest merchant. The Council works closely together to keep trade flowing through the city and to ensure threats are dealt with quietly and efficiently.

Baldur’s Gate is also part of the Lords’ Alliance, an alliance of city-states in north-western Faerun designed to resist the corrupting influence of the Black Network of the Zhentarim, the rulers of Amn, the Red Wizards of Thay and other potential enemies. Although the Alliance is a powerful force in resisting such enemies, it has no say over the internal running of the city. Other members of the Alliance include Waterdeep, Daggerford, Neverwinter, Mirabar, Gundarlun and the newly-founded Kingdom of Luruar in the Silver Marches, centered on the great city of Silverymoon.

The history of Baldur’s Gate dates back to the adventurer Orluth Tshahvur. In 227 DR he founded the short-lived kingdom of Shavinar at the mouth of the River Chionthar. He built a crude keep near the site of what is now Baldur’s Gate and attracted settlers to the town with a promise of freedom and mutual defence against marauding monsters and bandits. He gained a boon when a skilled Calishite shipwright arrived in the settlement, leading to a shipbuilding and repair yard springing up. The village became known as Gaeth (the local Thorass word for “rivermouth”) but, despite its good fortune, it was slow to grow. By Orluth’s death in 242 DR, the population was only 120 but the wider realm of Shinvar extended almost 100 miles upriver and as far north as the Troll Hills, where Orluth had built watchtowers to keep an eye out for trolls. Orluth’s son Arlsar, neglected his father’s achievements and was murdered in 256 DR by merchants angered by his incompetence.

There were several attempts to hold Shavinar together, the most notable being Arlsar’s youngest son Kondarar who had magical backing. Under his rule Shavinar began to grow again…but it was swept away by a troll horde in 277 DR. Gaeth was destroyed along with the rest of the realm.
Still, the realm’s existence did confirm that the location was a viable one for a port and over the next eight centuries several attempts were made to establish another settlement in the region. However, this always failed because the cost of building a wall around the port – which due to the geography required a very large one – was ruinous.

This situation was finally broken circa 1050. A great sailor hailing from the region, Balduran, took his ship, the Wandering Eye, across the Trackless Sea in search of new lands. Against the odds, beyond Evermeet he found a rich new continent, Anchorome, and found many riches there. He returned home, laden with gold, and paid for massive stone walls to be built around the nascent settlement on the site of ancient Gaeth. The port was named Baldur’s Gate in his honour and Balduran briefly stayed to rule and help the city become more established. However, he eventually could not resist the call of the sea and returned to Anchorome. He was killed there by the natives circa 1068, although some conflicting rumours suggest he actually returned to Faerûn but his ship was smashed to pieces on the coast south of the city. This rumour is considered fanciful.
Despite Balduran’s death, the city he left behind prospered. This was helped by the rise of Waterdeep to the north, and the presence of two new rich trade ports to the north saw trade start to flow up the Sword Coast from the rich southern kingdoms of Amn, Tethyr and Calimshan. The growing city was threatened in 1235 when the Black Horde, the largest orc horde in recorded history, rampaged down the Sword Coast. Both Waterdeep and Baldur’s Gate were besieged, but their walls held and the ports remained open, preventing either from being starved out. The Black Horde itself fragmented due to a lack of food and supplies and eventually dispersed.

Circa 1350, the fighter Eltan founded the Flaming Fist, a mercenary company rooted in honour and order. The mercenary army, noted for its discipline and its success in resisting border incursions from Amn to the south and repelling monsters and trolls to the north, soon became the de facto police force of Baldur’s Gate and Eltan ascended to the rank of Grand Duke.

In 1358 the Time of Troubles (or Avatar Wars) wracked Faerûn. Bhaal, God of Murder and Patron of Assassins, did battle with the nascent demigod Cyric on Boareskyr Bridge a couple of hundred miles north-east of Baldur’s Gate. Bhaal was defeated and slain, but upon his death his essence was split between several mortals, the so-called “Bhaalspawn”. Ten years later, in 1368, one of these offspring, Sarevok, instigated a plan to kill the other Bhaalspawn and reunite Bhaal’s power in himself. To this end he allied with the Iron Throne criminal organisation and a band of doppelgangers to topple the Four Grand Dukes and seize control of the region. However, another Bhaalspawn thwarted his plans and killed Sarevok, preventing Bhaal’s return and restoring peace to the region.

In 1361 word arrived in the city that Captain Cordell and the Golden Legion of Amn had discovered a new continent far to the west, across the Trackless Sea. They had named this continent Maztica and toppled the evil empire that had dominated the land, as well as founding the new town of Helmsport to help exploit this new continent. The Council of Four realised that Maztica was likely associated with Anchorome and dispatched an expedition to stake out their own claim to the land. This expedition confirmed that Anchorome is the continent to the north of Maztica (with Maztica as a subcontinent or region of Anchorome rather than a geologically separate landmass) and founded Fort Flame on the coast of the continent in 1364. The local jungle elf tribes attacked Fort Flame several times but were repulsed.

In 1369 the Fifth Serôs War, also called the Sea War, raged when the sahuagin minions of Iakhovas the Taker attacked the city (and most of the coast of Faerûn). They were defeated and forced out of the city thanks to the Flaming Fist and the city’s wizards and priests.

As of 1372 Baldur’s Gate appears secure, having averted the threat of war with Amn to the south and increased its dominance on Sword Coast trade. Baldur’s Gate’s ambition seems to be to surpass Waterdeep to the north as the greatest city on the coast. Some have speculated that the Gate may try to expand into a nation or at least a more formal alliance, comprising all the lands between the Troll Hills and Cloud Peaks and incorporating settlements as Ulgoth’s Beard, Candlekeep, the Friendly Arm Inn (located inside a massive fortress) and Beregost, but if so this ambition has not been realised so far.

Origins and Influences
Baldur’s Gate is part of the Forgotten Realms fantasy world, originally created by Ed Greenwood in 1968 and then developed as the setting for his home Dungeons and Dragons campaign from 1976 onwards. The world became better-known when Greenwood began writing for Dragon Magazine in 1978, often referencing his home campaign in his articles. In 1987 TSR, Inc. released the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, marking the first appearance of Baldur’s Gate in print. The city first appeared in a novel in 1990, when R.A. Salvatore set part of The Halfling’s Gem (the concluding novel in The Icewind Dale Trilogy) in the city.

Baldur’s Gate received little more attention in the second edition of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting (1993) but it was expanded greatly by Ed Greenwood in Volo’s Guide to the Sword Coast (1994), a sourcebook which provided the first canonical map of the city itself. He detailed much more of the city’s history, geography and power groups.

In 1995 the video game company Interplay bought a licence to release games set in the Forgotten Realms setting and using the Dungeons and Dragons rules from TSR. After a couple of disappointing titles, Interplay partnered with a new Canadian game development studio called BioWare to develop a D&D game. They considered several settings, including better-known Realms locations such as the Dalelands and Waterdeep, but ultimately settled on Baldur’s Gate as the city had just enough background to be interesting but enough blank spaces they could fill in with new information.

The resulting video game, Baldur’s Gate, was released in 1998 and was a smash hit, setting BioWare on the path that would eventually lead them to the Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises. This game began a series which continued with Baldur’s Gate: Tales of the Sword Coast (1999), Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000) and its expansion Baldur’s Gate II: Throne of Bhaal (2001) (although only Baldur’s Gate itself was set in the titular city). It also inspired a spin-off console game series, comprising Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance (2001) and Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II (2004). In 2012 Beamdog released Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition which updated the game for modern PCs and added a new expansion, Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear, in 2015 (although this expansion is not set in the city itself).

Baldur’s Gate III: The Black Hound was in development at Interplay when the company went bust in 2004. Despite the name, the game would have been set in the Dalelands with no connection to the earlier series by plot.

More recently, Baldur’s Gate was explored in both the 4th and 5th edition campaign settings for Dungeons and Dragons. The former saw the Forgotten Realms destroyed in an event known as the Spellplague, with Baldur’s Gate emerging as one of the few settlements to flourish following the cataclysm, becoming larger and more powerful than Waterdeep (a move motivated, it was believed, to cash in on the name recognition of the video games). 5th Edition has undone many of the impacts of the Spellplague, but Baldur’s Gate retains its place as one of the most prominent cities in the setting.

Most recently, the city is the focus for the Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate board game (2017), a variant of the classic Betrayal at House on the Hill board game.

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