An Introduction to the Forgotten Realms: The Sword Coast

The first three adventures for the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons are set on the Sword Coast in the Forgotten Realms.

This territory encompasses all the lands between the Kingdom of Amn in the south and the City of Waterdeep in the north on the western coast of Faerûn. Although the lands to the north of that are not traditionally called the Sword Coast (often referred to just as “The North”), the adventures extend into that part of the land. Let’s call it all the Sword Coast!

It’s a savage land. There are no great kingdoms of humankind in this region. Instead, settlements are city-states or organised into loose confederations. Much of the land is wilderness, inhabited by monsters: orcs, goblinoids, trolls and worse. Settlements that exist need to fight off raiding parties, although the bigger settlements boast too good defenses (walls, men and magic) to be bothered that often.

Despite the dangers, trade routes cross the land. The main route, running most of the length of the coast from Waterdeep southwards to Calimport on the south coast, is known as the Trade Way, while other routes lead inland to the central kingdoms of Cormyr and Sembia. Trading caravans typically gather several merchants together and hire a large number of guards, as seen in Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Smaller wagons occasionally try to get by quickly and unobserved, but most prudent merchants travel in groups.

Waterdeep is the great city of the Forgotten Realms. Known as the City of Splendours or the Jewel of the North, it has more than 100,000* people living in the city. During the Spellplague, many of the nobility lost their fortunes, and so had to make deals with merchants to retain their places – many intermarrying and with new “merchant nobles” rising to take the place of the old. The city is ruled by a council of Masked Lords. One of the council is traditionally known to the populace: the Open Lord.

In 1479 DR, the Open Lord was Lord Dagult Neverember, one of the richest men in Waterdeep. Lord Neverember sought to extend Waterdeep’s holdings, and spent a lot of money on rebuilding Neverwinter.

Waterdeep is known to adventurers as sitting on top of Undermountain, one of the biggest dungeons of the Realms. Built by Halaster Blackcloak, the Mad Mage, it contains many monsters, much treasure, and many magical tricks and traps. The most famous entrance to the dungeon is in the Yawning Portal inn, where a great shaft leads down into the dungeon.

Waterdeep was first described in detail in the AD&D product Waterdeep and the North, and has had a number of additional supplements devoted to it, not least 3E’s City of Splendors: Waterdeep. The upper levels of Undermountain were described in The Ruins of Undermountain, which has massive maps of the first three levels (but doesn’t detail every room). The setting was revisited in Expedition to Undermountain, but the earlier product is by far more interesting – if currently hard to find.

Basically, you can find about anything you want in Waterdeep. From what I gather, Undermountain was the dungeon of Ed Greenwood’s original D&D campaigns, first created in 1975.

* How many live in Waterdeep? That’s a good question. The original setting says that more than 100,000 people live there. The 3E campaign setting says it’s more than 1,300,000, and the current Wizards info page gives the number at more than 2,000,000! It should be noted that early D&D products tended to give very low numbers for city populations, which were raised in later supplements. Still, 2 million people is a lot!

Baldur’s Gate is a major trading city along the Trade Way, at the point where it intersects with the trading routes to the east. It was mostly ignored in Realmslore until a little computer game came along – Baldur’s Gate. At that point, it became an extremely familiar city to many, many people around the world.

In the game version of the Realms, the hero of Baldur’s Gate, Abdel Adrian became one of the four Grand Dukes of Baldur’s Gate, living an extremely long life due to his part-divine nature (he was the son of Bhaal, the God of Murder, who perished during the Time of Troubles, 1358 DR). Around 1482 DR, he was murdered as part of a plot that saw the essence of Bhaal regathered and the Lord of Murder return to his place amongst the gods.

That event caused a large amount of chaos in Baldur’s Gate, as described in the adventure Murder in Baldur’s Gate, and eventually saw Blaze Ulder Ravengard rising to become one of the new Grand Dukes of Baldur’s Gate. (Duke Ravengard is present in The Rise of Tiamat, 1489 DR). I believe one of the previous grand dukes, Torlin Silvershield – also one of high priests of Gond – was corrupted and slain in the final confrontation. It’s uncertain who the other three Grand Dukes are in the present day (1491 DR), but Ravengard speaks for the city.

The city has an upper city and a lower city, as it stands on the banks of the Chionthar River. The upper districts are strictly policed, and only people with business there are permitted to be there after dark. It is the place where the patriars, the nobles of Baldur’s Gate, live.

Outside the city, a large area of slums has grown up – home of the workers and immigrants to the city who don’t have a place to stay within the city proper. There, the Guild – the thieves’ guild of Baldur’s Gate – holds sway.

The cities fortunes are protected by the Flaming Fists, once a famous mercenary company and now the army of the city. They also work as the police of the Lower City. Ravengard is their leader, and was so before using the influence of that position to become one of the Grand Dukes. In the Upper City, the Baldur’s Gate Watch do the policing. And in the Outer City… you are at the mercy of the Guild and the other lowlifes who live there.

The city has grown in population from about 42,000 in 1360 DR to now rival – or even pass – Waterdeep in size. One source gives it as about 130,000 inhabitants, but it’s hard to tell. I think that it’s a sizeable city, but not anywhere near the million-plus level of Waterdeep.

The best source for information on Baldur’s Gate is the adventure Murder in Baldur’s Gate, which is actually a 64-page sourcebook and a 32-page adventure. It’s set about 10 years before the current year in the Forgotten Realms, and obviously it doesn’t cover the fallout from the events in the adventure!

Neverwinter lies north of Waterdeep. It was probably the third most populous city in the area (after Waterdeep and Baldur’s Gate), and a hub of trade. Then a fire elemental caused a great volcano to erupt – Mount Hotenow – and the city burned. These days, intrepid men, under the patronage of Lord Dagult Neverember, have been seeking to rebuild the city. It’s the nearby city in the Starter Set adventure, Lost Mine of Phandelver, and it is mentioned in the Tyranny of Dragons.

Like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter rose to prominence in the minds of many through a computer game. In fact, through several computer games. The original one was in the very early days of D&D computer gaming, in 1991. It was actually one of the early MMORPGs, and was hosted by AOL. More famous by far was the 2002 Bioware version. Not a MMO, it allowed players to build their own adventures and host them for groups of players to play through. It was followed by a sequel, which also did quite well.

The ruined version of the city was described in excellent fashion in the Neverwinter Campaign Setting, one of the best books of 4E (and of the Realms in general), giving numerous factions, intrigues and conflicts to help the DM build adventures and to interest the players. It no longer is much of a trading power, but rather a nexus to which interested groups come who want to gain power over one of a city whose stock is rising.

Ruined Neverwinter was the setting for two seasons of D&D Encounters. The first, Lost Crown of Neverwinter was enjoyable, but I didn’t think much of Storm over Neverwinter.

Neverwinter is threatened by the plans of the Ashmadai, diabolic followers of the archdevil Asmodeus, the Thayans, a distant land of wizards, and from below by the Abolethic Sovereignty, a race of monstrous sentient fish from the twin world of Abeir. The Netherese Empire was also a factor, but is likely to be much diminished if not extinct following the events of the Sundering – perhaps the Abolethic Sovereignty is gone as well?

Well, that’s all I have time for this evening. I guess I’ll have to continue with this tour of the Forgotten Realms at a later date. Those are the three important cities of the Sword Coast; I hope the article was of use to you.

(The links throughout the article and on the site generally lead to the Amazon or DnDClassics product page, depending on where the product can most easily be found. Unfortunately, Ruins of Undermountain isn’t yet available through DnDClassics, so I’ve had to link to a couple of second-hand copies through Amazon).

Post Tyranny of Dragons (spoilers!)

(Inviso-text, on!)

During the Tyranny of Dragons (1489 DR), Lord Dagult Neverember was replaced as Open Lord of Waterdeep by Laeral Silverhand, a human wizard (and one of the Chosen of Mystra). There’s a lot more to say about Laeral, but I’ll wait for a later article to talk in detail about the Seven Sisters.

With Lord Neverember losing his position as Open Lord, it’s uncertain what effect this will have on the rebuilding of Neverwinter. It seems likely that it will continue, but will his money be backing it, or will new sources of funding need to be found?

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7 Responses to An Introduction to the Forgotten Realms: The Sword Coast

  1. Be aware that the current FR date is 1489. Major changes happened with the Spellplauge and Sundering.

  2. shieldhaven says:

    As a point of comparison, maybe this Wikipedia page would be interesting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_cities_throughout_history

    It suggests to me that 3e’s figure of 1.3M is at the upper edge of non-magical believability, but well within what I’d expect a magic-heavy location like Waterdeep could manage. 2M+ might be a stretch, but… again, magic-rich city, really strong logistical support and port city… sure, why not.

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