Forgotten Realms: Splendors & Shadow
Waterdeep is a vibrant, diverse metropolis. Predominantly human (80%, a slim majority of which are the local fair-skinned Tethyrian race), but with a smattering of dwarves, halfings, and even a small community of elves, it’s unquestionably a cosmopolitan place. A product of the West, with distinctly Occidental culture, architecture, and sensibilities, it is nonetheless developing considerable minority communities of swarthy Calishites from the south, northern Damarans, and even far eastern Mulans and Kara-Turans.
Geography & Climate
Often considered the gateway to the North, the local climate tends toward mild summers and cold, wet winters, with Mount Waterdeep shielding most of the city from the worst of the winter storms. The surrounding roads, particularly those heading further north, are often impassible through the depths of winter, to all but the hardiest and best-equipped parties. The city’s native population, around one hundred thousand, grows easily to five times that at its peak in the late summer, before rapidly dwindling with the leaving of the last autumn caravans, as merchants and nobles alike leave ahead of the snows. City traffic slows to a trickle, particularly in the commercial districts, and many shops and homes are vacant through the winter — leading to the popular native winter-time profession of house-sitting, particularly among off-duty soldiers of the Guard and Watch constables.
Long ruled by a secretive cabal of masked Lords and an unabashedly theocratic Open Lord, the increasingly wealthy and savvy middle class of Waterdeep has demanded a greater say in their home’s laws and politics. Seeing the growing influence of the merchant class and other new-money rabble, the noble houses began to demand the same. As a result, city governance is done under a four-house City Council; each house has separate (but all-too-often overlapping) areas of power and responsibility. Many in the city believe, however, that the Masked Lords still rule in their new incarnation as the Council of Judges, interpreters and enforcers of the laws written by the other three houses. The City Guard, the standing army, and the City Watch, the police force, are distinct organizations, despite both being commanded by the Lord-Mayor. Each has its own hierarchy, rank structure, duties, and livery. The Grey Hand is an elite fighting force, answerable only to the Council of Judges, who handles problems that are beyond the means of the Guard and the Watch.
There’s no law prohibiting any particular religion as such, but the law does prohibit unsanctioned religions from building temples or preaching in public, and the Ecumenical Council decides which religions are to be sanctioned by voting on whether or not to allow a particular religion into the Council. Thus, religions with many rivals and enemies on the Council tend to remain marginalized within the city. The Church of the Holy Triad is the most influential faith, and exerts a large influence on what sects are admitted, as well as on how those guilty of “religious crimes” are dealt with.
The city is semi-officially divided into six Wards, though no formal boundaries exist between them: the affluent northwestern Sea Ward, home of much of the old-money aristocracy; the opulent northeastern North Ward, holding the new-money wealthy, such as merchants and guildmasters; the central Castle Ward, seat of the city government, as well as many of the city’s more magnificent temples and private residences; the eastern Trades Ward, a professional district that houses many guildhouses and a few minority communities of foreign merchants; the City of the Dead, central park and cemetery; the salty, southern Dock Ward, a collection of warehouses, immigrant laborer communities, and rough waterfront neighborhoods; and the southeastern, lower-middle class South Ward, comprised mostly of neighborhoods of row houses, businesses downstairs and residences upstairs.
The distinction between old and new money aristocracy in Waterdeep is perhaps even more vague than in many places, but the distinction remains important to the established gentry – mostly landowners with tenant farms around the area, but also old military families that have overseen the defense of the city through many wars. Representatives of these Noble Houses make up the Council of Lords, the highest of the four houses of the City Council.
Tradesmen & Merchants
Those derisively called new money, the growing merchant and professional classes, have been given official power over matters of trade only, but their ever-increasing wealth and influence proves that this is not so trifling a power as the Lords had thought. While they aren’t afforded the privileges of Noblesse Oblige, they are eking out (usurping, as the old money would have it) their own piece of the pie. The Council of Urbans, the middle house of the City Council, is made up of the masters and representatives of the city’s many Guilds and Merchant Houses.
The Adventurers’ Guild and Mercenaries’ Registry
Various kinds of mercenary work are in high demand in and around the city, and the Adventurers’ Guild and Mercenaries’ Registry facilitates the meeting of interested patrons and suitably-skilled contractors. The guild is an officially-recognized organization, with a place on the Council of Urbans, and maintains records of past contracts for reference by members and prospective employers.
The Arcanists’ Guild and Blackstaff Tower
Probably the most powerful guild in the city, due in no small part to the personal magical power of its higher ranking members, is the Watchful Order of Magists and Protectors, or the Arcanists’ Guild. Charged with regulating the use and sale of magic within the city, as well as providing the Watch with “wizards on duty” to handle supernatural hazards and crime. Blackstaff Tower, once the abode of Khelben the Black Staff, legendary arch-mage and Lord of the city, now houses the Order of the Black Staff, an exclusive wizards’ society made up of the students of his one-time apprentices. The Mistress of the Arcanists’ Guild is also a high-ranking member of the Order, and officials of both organizations enjoy wide latitude in their conduct with regard to “matters arcane.”
Most organized crime in Waterdeep is thought to be controlled by a mysterious underworld figure known only as the Eye. His influence is said to spread from a hidden lair in the dungeons below, through Skullport, and into every corner of the city above. Variously suspected (depending on who you ask) to control smuggling, slavery, assassination, burglary, and several vice rings, and to have infiltrated the guilds, the nobility, the Watch, the Lords’ Court, and the City Council, the exact extend of the Eye’s power is unclear. What is clear from talking to anyone with any sense of the city’s underworld is that no “big job” goes down without the Eye’s go-ahead.
Like any large city, Waterdeep has its petty and isolated crimes. Pickpockets, muggers, small-time robbers and fences can all slip under the Eye’s gaze and make a meager living. In places where the Watch doesn’t patrol as often, particularly the poorer neighborhoods in the South and Dock Wards, various local street gangs hold various levels of unofficial power, ranging from thugs and extortionists to genuine protectors and forces for order in their neighborhoods. The most famous of these groups is the Red Sashes, a group of anonymous vigilantes who claim to keep order in the places that the Watch fears to go.