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D&D: Waterdeep – An Adventurer’s Guide

9 Minute Read
Jan 14 2024

Today we visit the City of Splendors, the Jewel of Faerun, a sprawling fantasy metropolis where the average character level is 12…

Known affectionately as the City of Splendors, Waterdeep is a cosmopolitan metropolis that blends together cultures and from across Faerun, buoyed up by all kinds of magic, the rulership of a society of masked weirdos nobles, and a super tolerant, borderline libertine, attitude, it’s a city where everything is better, brighter, and more bizarre. You can find just about anything in Waterdeep, from half-orcs and hobgoblins to secret societies and services that are undreamt of elsewhere in Faerun.

Perhaps that’s why there’s so much that takes place here. After all, not every city from the Forgotten Realms has its own board game, not one but TWO different (rather large) supplements, or are featured heavily in multiple other products that take place in the setting. It’s even the center of the recent Tales from the Yawning Portal, which we’ve talked about extensively.


One of two substantial supplements…

And with a population of 1.3 million, we begin to see why. It embraces the surreality of D&D, presenting a city that’s relatable to people with modern sensibilities (i.e. you and me) while still remaining unfamiliar enough to be a place firmly rooted in the world of fantasy. After all, there’s not just a port city, but here’s a port city where the ruling body is a council of 16 people who are all protected by magic items that shield their identity, and nobody knows who they really are, but somehow this shadowy cabal works for the betterment of all, so it’s okay.

Here’s a port city where there’s a literal secret undercity (well, an Undermountain undercity, more on that in a moment) called Skullport that is home to smugglers, pirates, and a criminal organization called the Xanathar, so named because they’re a thieves’ guild that’s run by a Beholder whose name is Xanathar–although he’s actually not the original Xanathar the Beholder and now it’s more of a title than a name anyway…look it gets complicated, okay.

Yep, those are in fact rings on its eyestalks.


But basically, Waterdeep is a City that feels unlike anything else, even within the Realms. Even Neverwinter doesn’t quite capture the cosmopolitan camaraderie that permeates Waterdeep. That City of Splendors sobriquet is earned, by gum.

So let’s wander through the gates and take a look at what makes this Fantasy-Hong-Kong-New-York-Amalgamation work…

It’s a pretty decent-sized apple. Maybe not big. But certainly not small…

So first and foremost, Waterdeep is a city of trade. For all its culture and supposed splendor, its real value lies in the coin and trade that happen within its walls. Waterdeep is a city of wealth, and moreover, it’s a city where the richest people gather to trade among themselves. And that concentration of fortunes creates a sort of critical mass that serves as the fire beneath the melting pot that is Waterdeep.

The pot itself (and the ladle that stirs the contents within) is the various factions and their incessant struggle for control over the resources of Waterdeep. Not just merchant princes, mind you, but you have your guilds and important nobles, your mercenary bands and criminal gangs, a whole network of spies and intrigue, warring in the city’s shadows like some kind of Fantasy cyberpunk campaign. And caught in between it all, your hapless city watch.


Poor guy won’t even make it three chapters in his own life’s story…

The City Watch has to put up with a lot. It is a thankless job whose function can be gleaned from our friends up there. He hasn’t even drawn a weapon–his shield is the most important tool on the job. That and possibly the horn (not pictured) that would be used to summon reinforcements in the event that a fight breaks out that can’t be solved with diplomacy.

Diplomacy, of course, is the preferred solution when you’re level 3, at best, and you’re looking to try and talk down a gang of assassins who could probably end you with a single round’s worth of collective attacks. Or a Wizard who can definitely use their 7th, 8th, and 9th level spells to ruin your day, your week, your month, or even your year.

It’s times like that, when the rain really starts to pour, that you’ll be glad your friends are there for you.

But the City Watch is an organization like any other, with its own power structure, power struggles, spies, and intrigues. Though not quite as involved as a merchant’s guild might be, you can still find their agents moving in the shadows as they work tirelessly to try and keep the peace (or at the very least, their own heads).

And that’s just one faction vying for control over the city. There are many internecine struggles going on–turn a corner, walk into any ward of the city and you’ll come across a faction with an interest in running the city–though they’d be hard-pressed to wrest control of it from the Lords of Waterdeep. The Lords (of board game fame) are a council of sixteen powerful figures whose identities are kept secret from each other and from the populace at large. They appear masked and magically protected from any kind of divination–only one Lord is ever Open. In some editions, this is Piergeiron the Paladinson, a high-level Paladin who is the Warden of Waterdeep and Commander of the Watch. As to who the others are, nobody knows for sure.

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But enough about people who may or may not be secretly ruling the city—and never mind the fact that the “Moneylender” is a 13th-level Fighter/Rogue who can pretty handily defeat your party. This shouldn’t be surprising, though. In Waterdeep all the innkeepers are basically retired adventurers—see also Durnan, immortal proprietor of the Yawning Portal for more information.


As I said, though, we’re moving on. There are 6 major Wards in Waterdeep: the Castle Ward, the Dock Ward, the North Ward, the Sea Ward, the Southern Ward, and the Trades Ward.

The Castle Ward, predictably, is where the center of government happens. This ward includes Mount Waterdeep (at the very back of the map), where Castle Waterdeep is built. Castle Waterdeep is a nigh-unassailable fortress, protected by catapults and siege weapons ready to unleash their might on any who would threaten the city. Well, the Castle, at any rate.

The Dock Ward is where trade happens. Like most of the cities we’ve talked about before, the docks are a place of filth and poverty and crime. This is where actual work happens, and as such, it is basically untenable, described as smelly, clumsily built, dangerous, and “a riotous, nigh-perpetual brawl that covers entire acres, interrupted only by small buildings, intermittent trade businesses, an errant dog or two, and a few brave watchguards, the whole lot wallowing in the stench of rotting fish.” Because heaven forbid anyone actually make any money for the business magnates out there.

Why yes, this article did come out right around American Tax season…why do you ask?

The North Ward is where all the wealthy middle-class merchant families live. Lesser nobles and the like hang around this Ward’s presumably cobblestone-and-gold-lined streets that aren’t constantly ablaze with brawls.

But even the North Ward is looked down on by the inhabitants of the Sea Ward. The Sea Ward is the wealthiest ward in the city, home to actual noble families that have expansive estates. Here the elite of the city gather amongst the broad streets, wondrous statues, bright and expensive shops, and even the ward’s own arena.

The Southern Ward, sometimes called Caravan City, is where more regular work happens. This is where caravans are loaded and unloaded with goods and services, and where the City Watch actually manages to hold any kind of authority. They patrol it regularly, and the whole ward is also where tourists and travelers wind up, which has no doubt led to the first few Fantasy Hipster businesses being established. “South” is where you’d go to find artisanal baskets, woven from locally sourced trees, under cool clear water. And like the shop is built into a place that used to be the ribcage of a giant.


You might also find those kinds of places in the Trades Ward, which is where all the commerce happens. This is the part of the city that never sleeps—candles, lanterns, oil lamps, and continual flame spells are employed in good measure to keep this part of the city lit at any hour. And since there are many Waterdhavians who are nocturnal, this works out well for them, as they can work out of the scouring gaze of the sun.

But no discussion of Waterdeep would be complete without mentioning Undermountain, a crazy dungeon complex that exists beneath the creatively named Mount Waterdeep. In ages past, the insane wizard (like there’s any other kind) Halaster Blackbloak settled on the slopes of Mount Waterdeep and built himself a dungeon deep within. He was the sort who’d be fascinated by summoning and binding creatures, and forcing things to magically crossbreed so as to create even more, deadlier monsters.

Basically if it existed in Forgotten Realms, and was part one thing, part another, odds were good that the Blackcloak’s handiwork was to blame for whatever abomination was trying to kill you at that point in time. Eventually, seeking “true power” that lurked below the mountain, Halaster descended from its slopes deep into the caverns below and was seldom heard from or spoken of again.

Undermountain though, carried on its legacy, drawing adventurers of all shapes and sizes to try and tackle this dungeon. Though it is certainly a place of adventure and reward, it is also one of the largest known graves for heroes in all of the Forgotten Realms. But it was here that folks like Durnan made a name for themselves—fighting through Undermountain (and the underdark inhabitants of Undermountain) was what got him the loot he needed to retire and open up an inn that now draws adventurers from throughout the world(s).

And all that’s barely scratching the surface of why the City of Splendors is great. I could run another entire article and still only barely be covering it. This is a great nexus of activities–you could have an entire campaign happen and never leave the city, and it’s still varied enough to provide you with something different at any level.

That’s one of the things I love about the setting—it’s imaginative, and it takes a lot of the idiosyncrasies of the game and just runs with them. Sure the characters who run things are all high-level—but it’s because that’s what high-level characters do. They stop being concerned with saving the city from the goblins, and instead run it to try and keep it from being torn down by all manner of other forces. And of course, Waterdeep is a place where you can find the magic of just about any stripe and any caster—it’s an exploration of all things D&D and it’s condensed in the shape of one city.

So the next time you’re thinking of where to set your games, consider the City that sums up the ethos of the game. Consider Waterdeep.

Or, if nothing else, you know, consider Skullport. They like everyone(‘s money) there…

Author: J.R. Zambrano
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