If you want your city to be more famous than this one, you need to get golden age Bioware to make a game set there. We’re going to Waterdeep.
“Why would you expect anyone here to care that like eight tons of unmarked cargo passed through the city? It’s Waterdeep. Pay the customs and you can ship severed orphan heads through here.”
The trade capital of the entire Sword Coast, one of the greatest concentrations of wealth in all of Faerun, and from centuries ago until only very recently the most powerful nation ’till as far away as Amn or Cormyr (and this despite being a citystate), Waterdeep is one of the most famous, accomplished, and influential cities in the world.
Waterdeep is run by the masked lords and a single open lord, currently Laeral Silverhand. Laeral is personally dedicated to the Lord’s Alliance and thus, although Waterdeep’s influence over that coalition is waning somewhat in the face of the rising wealth and prominence of Baldur’s Gate, Waterdeep can be counted on to remain a committed member of the Lord’s Alliance for so long as it continues to exist and Laeral is running the city.
Laeral does not rule alone, however. The open lord and all twenty masked lords come to agreements in secret councils, the results of which are then announced by the open lord. The immediate thing to notice here is that an enterprising young autocrat needs only the cooperation of the open lord to take over the city, as the masked lords can all be killed and replaced without anyone in the city knowing that the assassinations were political. Only the lords’ unmasked secret identities would be reported dead. Of course, the masked lords are well aware of this and make themselves as hard to assassinate as they possibly can. The Shadow Thieves of Amn certainly take a stab at violent political realignment from time to time, and at one point the open lord Kerrigan the Arcanist did indeed manage to kill nearly half the masked lords before his plot was discovered and he was killed by a rival in the streets of Waterdeep.
Although they have final say over the city’s law, there are multiple other powerful influences in Waterdeep besides the lords. There are over seven dozen noble families of varying degrees of importance, who are famous (and infamous) throughout the Realms for their obscene wealth and aristocratic vanity. The merchant class also has tremendous influence due not only to their wealth, but the fact that everyone else’s wealth depends on their trade. Waterdeep is a trade nexus connecting the islands of the west, the Lands of Intrigue to the south, Neverwinter and Silverymoon to the north, and Cormyr and Sembia to the east. The merchants of Waterdeep, as a collective, can paralyze the economy of most of Faerun if they want to (fortunately for everyone, the merchants have no incentive to destroy the economy that pays for their dinner). The city is also host to a large clergy of nearly every deity imaginable, with representation for Oghma, Tyr, Tempus, Beshaba, Gond, Selune, Mystra, Silvanus and Mielikki (these two share a temple), Lathander, Sune, and Tymora. The clergy wield significant influence as many of them are the most senior and respected of their faith in all of the Sword Coast. Any one of these three groups (nobles, merchants, and clergy) stands a serious chance of staging a successful coup against the masked lords if they could be convinced to attempt one. All three together would be virtually guaranteed.
Waterdeep’s City Watch protects it within and its City Guard protects it from threats without, but perhaps its greatest military asset is the steady stream of adventurers who congregate there to receive jobs from various powers in the city. Chief among these are the Grey Hands, a band of powerful adventurers dedicated to the defense of the city, although their power is dwarfed by the sheer number of other adventurers who come to and from the city every day.
Also of note are the Red Sashes, a vigilante group dedicated to removing criminals when the City Watch won’t. While these are too weak to pose a threat to the masked lords, they might be built up into such a force should an ambitious would-be ruler manage to take control of the organization, and they could also serve as kingmakers in a civil war.
Seizing Waterdeep is no easy task. Their ground forces, while incredibly numerous, lack the skill of Silverymoon’s Knights in Silver or Baldur’s Gate’s Flaming Fists. Their greatest military asset is their adventurers, who can be bought into leaving the conflict or switching sides if Waterdeep attacked by an enemy wealthy enough to outspend them. Waterdeep’s navy is unmatched in power throughout the Sword Coast, but Silverymoon in particular has little reason to care, and Baldur’s Gate has plenty of land trade routes to keep itself supplied. Even so, the city is surrounded by quite a bit of friendly territory. Attacks from Silverymoon would have to hack their way through Triboar and Dessarin Valley, and attacks from Baldur’s Gate would first have to seize Daggerford. The only local allies against Waterdeep available are those found in Kryptgarden Forest, the Sword Mountains, and Undermountain, and all the inhabitants of these areas are either very difficult to control or relatively weak when compared against the powerful walls and sheer number of soldiers Waterdeep has at their disposal.
Waterdeep’s greatest protection against invasion from their neighbors is their economic significance. The more dangerous Waterdeep is, the fewer merchants want to go there, and the more Waterdeep ceases to be a nexus of trade for half the continent, the weaker that half of the continent’s economy gets.
Given this, anyone who wants to seize Waterdeep without damaging the juggernaut economy that makes it so valuable in the first place would be best advised to do so by either internal coup (and very quickly, before it blossoms into civil war) or a stealth usurpation by successfully doing what Kerrigan the Arcanist attempted: Becoming open lord and then killing all the masked lords to replace them with friends and cronies.
Waterdeep went through quite a few changes in the 15th century, and thus while the most complete guide to the city is 3.5e’s City of Splendors: Waterdeep, that book is tragically rather out of date and has not been replaced except in the space dedicated to it in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. Nevertheless, the book’s information on specific noble families, guilds, and other important factions remains relevant, even if most of the individuals named are no longer alive or have retired from their posts. Most of the dungeons and adventure hooks provided also remain valid, and could prove excellent springboards for a party attempting to curry favor with one faction or another within Waterdeep. While the events of any given game of Lords of Waterdeep are non-canon (and the Knights of the Shield are no longer active in the city anyway, since they were routed from it some time ago), a playthrough of that game does provide a good look at how the masked lords of Waterdeep interact with one another when the going gets rough. Waterdeep has also featured in too many novels to be listed here.
The Sword Mountains and Kryptgarden Forest
The Sword Mountains are, and if you’ve been reading this document sequentially you may find this a bit of a rerun, overrun by orcs. These orc armies have periodically attacked nearby kingdoms, most notably the kingdom of Phalorm that once stood where the Mere of Dead Men is now. The orcish invasion was set to successfully overrun the kingdom when Iniarv flooded the entire land out of spite. Since then, the orcs have fought primarily with the trolls who once lived there until the orcs successfully drove them out and into the Evermoors, where they lived until the giants started pushing them out from there, and have also staged two separate invasions of Waterdeep, neither of which succeeded. The orcs’ unity was shattered by this pair of defeats, as each tribe sought to assign blame to the others for the failure of the invasion and they descended into infighting.
Centuries later, that is still the current state of affairs, with the orcs fighting each other more than anyone else. They do frequently raid the High Road between Neverwinter and Waterdeep, but never muster up enough force to pillage settled lands in the Dessarin Valley, let alone attack Waterdeep itself.
Kryptgarden is home to goblinoids and dark fey, as well as a powerful, ancient green dragon Claugiyliyamatar, known as Old Gnawbones to people who hate trying to remember dragon names. The goblinoids are led by the Zartruss hobgoblin clan. The Cult of the Dragon has made alliance with Claugiyliyamatar, who rules over the Zartruss clan and their goblinoid minions, but they haven’t been able to secure the allegiance of the dark fey, who could prove a crucial ally in the fight to wrest Kryptgarden from the powerful dragon.
Kryptgarden and the Tyranny of Dragons
If you’re one of the lucky few to play in the epic quest for Tyranny of Dragons, you may distinctly recall that Old Gnawbones was already defeated and possibly killed, the Cult of the Dragon driven from the forest, and the dark fey of Kryptgarden have already been set at odds with the Zartruss Clan of hobgoblins. If your group wants to accept as canon the outcome of either the official Tyranny of Dragons epic quest or your local iteration of it, feel free to do so. However, since a relatively very small number of people were able to attend these events and because we want as much published material (including the Tyranny of Dragons hardbacks and Adventurer’s League pdfs) to be compatible with a sphere of influence campaign as possible, this document makes the assumption that the Tyranny of Dragons hasn’t happened yet. The Cult of the Dragon still controls Parnast and Castle Naerytar, they’re still raiding the Greenfields for treasure, and so on. Feel free to use the Tyranny of Dragons hardback as a launching point for sphere of influence quests set in the Sword Coast. The exception to this is the replacement of Lord Neverember as open lord of Waterdeep by Laeral Silverhand, since that is not a result of any player actions in the hardback and more neatly divides the Neverwinter and Waterdeep spheres of influence.
The Sword Mountains and Kryptgarden Forest have little economic value, but the strategic location of the former overlooking the High Road and the latter bordering the Dessarin Valley, as well as their close proximity to Waterdeep, means that controlling these areas is absolutely vital for anyone looking to control the Waterdeep sphere of influence. While the inhabitants are too weak to overcome Waterdeep’s massive army, organized raiding or blockading of Waterdeep’s northern trade and breadbasket could do serious damage to the city’s economy and the forests and mountains provide plentiful opportunities for ambush, chokepoints, and other combat situations in which Waterdeep’s superior numbers would come to naught. This means that the inhabitants of this region cannot attack Waterdeep, but nor can Waterdeep attack them, leaving them to raid and pillage Waterdeep’s most valuable hinterland with impunity.
The dark fey have little desire to engage in such raiding. This means a party working to protect Waterdeep could achieve this indefinitely by defeating the Zartruss clan and their draconic master, while a party working to attack Waterdeep would want to lead the Zartruss clan in an uprising against Old Gnawbones and the Cult of the Dragon. As they are seeking to summon a world-ending kaiju, the Cult of the Dragon make poor allies for anyone seeking to rule over a non-destroyed world, so one way or another a party seeking to control Kryptgarden will have to deal with Old Gnawbones.
The Sword Mountains are much more straightforward: Pick your favorite orc tribe and crush the others. Alternatively, get them all to meet up and agree to spend their forces attacking Waterdeep again, and when this inevitably fails, crush every orc tribe in the aftermath using a friendly military (preferably an ally from Kryptgarden, due to its proximity). Even a party working for Waterdeep might want to take this route. If Waterdeep knows when and where the invasion is coming, they can meet it before the orcs do any serious damage to Dessarin Valley. On the other hand, if Waterdeep doesn’t know when and where it’s coming, the invasion would do serious damage to Dessarin Valley (though it would stand no chance of capturing Waterdeep itself), which would weaken the Waterdeep economy.
These regions are pitifully underdescribed. Outside of DDEP1: Corruption in Kryptgarden, they have not appeared in any major modules, novels, sourcebooks, or video games (technically they do make an appearance in Waterdeep: City of Splendors, but only as historical notes, not fully described). Corruption in Kryptgarden covers only Kryptgarden, not the Sword Mountains, and more importantly is not publicly available. You can find summaries of the adventure’s results at various cons and a (possibly illegal) pdf of an unfinished draft online, but that’s it.
Dessarin Valley is just to the northeast of Waterdeep, a fertile farmland surrounding the Dessarin River. The valley is Waterdeep’s breadbasket, supplying the city with most of its food, and it is also a sparsely settled, underdefended region dependent upon Waterdeep’s army and adventurer economy for defense. The major towns all lie along the Long Road to Luruar and the Savage Frontier (most notably the Neverwinter periphery). Amphail is a playground for Waterdhavian nobles where they carry out their squabbles and intrigue from within their summer homes. Yartar and Triboar are more heavily defended than most of Dessarin Valley, situated as they are at its frontier. This is particularly true of Triboar, which was often used to meet orcish invasions from the Sword Mountains. Conversely, towns deep within the valley like like Red Larch are badly undermanned.
The entire region is plagued by primordial unrest caused by the hidden cults of Elemental Evil. These cults (knowingly or not) seek to reduce the entire world to a churning, elemental chaos of pure fire, earth, water, and air, constantly clashing against each other and never settling or combining. As this state of affairs would be inhospitable to say the least, aligning with Elemental Evil is not really an option for any sphere of influence. However, anyone who can provide Dessarin Valley protection from Elemental Evil may be able to peel them away from Waterdeep’s sphere of influence, or at least pull them from the center to the periphery, particularly if they can provide similar protection against the Sword Mountain orcs (and the Kryptgarden goblinoids, if they ever start doing anything).
Dessarin also has a small population of Uthgardt barbarians who might be used to seize Dessarin from the locals, or the Sword Mountain orcs or Zartruss clan from Kryptgarden. The trouble with this approach is that any attack on the Dessarin Valley is undoubtedly going to be treated as an attack on Waterdeep, which means seizing the valley would inevitably lead to a full blown war against a major power on the Sword Coast. A sphere of influence not ready for that would find all their gains in the region reversed as soon as Waterdeep’s Guard reclaimed the region.
Another option is to make alliance with nobles in Amphail who have been on the losing end of Waterdhavian politics and then re-establish their political sway in the city to the point where they can prevent retaliation by the Waterdeep Guard against anyone trying to take over the Dessarin Valley. The only way they could possibly convince the masked lords to keep the Waterdeep Guard at home, however, is if the valley continues to supply Waterdeep with food, which means the valley cannot be peeled all the way out of Waterdeep’s sphere of influence using this method. Still, having Dessarin Valley on the party’s side would be very helpful to political maneuvering in Waterdeep itself, and could be useful for a strategy of overthrowing the masked lords from within the city.
Dessarin Valley features quite prominently in Princes of the Apocalypse, which could be used as the basis for bringing the region into a sphere of influence, though you might want to cut it down a bit if you intend it to be one small part of a sphere of influence campaign, as Dessarin Valley would not be secured until around level 15 if used as-written.
Daggerford is the geographic southernmost point of Waterdeep’s direct sphere of influence (i.e. not counting the greater Lord’s Alliance sphere of influence), a fortified town that marks the border between the civilized land of the Waterdeep region and the wilderness that stands between them and Baldur’s Gate. Daggerford is prosperous due to its location along the Trade Way, but also under constant threat from the Lizard Marsh and the High Moor.
The Lizard Marsh is inhabited by lizardfolk who usually keep to themselves, but are extremely hostile towards any who enter the marsh and sometimes raid caravans on the Trade Way. The High Moor is not adjacent to Daggerford and the Misty Forest absorbs most of its aggression, but due to the wealth of the Trade Way and Daggerford, the High Moor’s raiders sometimes make the trip around Misty Forest to raid the Daggerford hinterlands, and sometimes even attempt to sack the city itself. These raids are largely comprised of orcs, goblinoids, trolls, and ogres, although all manner of monsters live in the vast reaches of the moor.
Daggerford is an independent duchy, but while the duke is in charge of foreign affairs, local matters are usually deferred to the council of guilds. For a sphere of influence, this means that the duke is the ruler whose opinion matters even though the council of guilds manages most actual government functions. The duke collects taxes and directs the military, so for the most part he is the one you care about even if he almost never writes or adjudicates any laws.
The current duke is Maldwyn Daggerford, who inherited the position in accordance with the tradition of male primogeniture despite the popularity of his elder sister Morwen. This isn’t headed towards a succession dispute on its own, however interested parties might be able to escalate it into one if they could convince the council of guilds (who support Morwen) to take more drastic actions to pressure Maldwyn into ceding the throne. With luck, this concession might even happen without a civil war. In the event of war, Daggerford’s army is barely a hundred soldiers and a high-level party could easily provide the power a guild militia needs to match Daggerford’s professional soldiers. Whether defending Maldwyn’s claim or pushing Morwen’s, a party working against Waterdeep could provoke a succession crisis to push a treaty onto Daggerford that would see them in the party’s preferred sphere of influence. A party working for Waterdeep will want the more capable Morwen on the throne of their allied city state (not that Daggerford can really be called a city, but they’re self-governing), although they’ll want the transition to be much more peaceful.
Daggerford plays a starring role in the D&D Next playtest adventures Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle and Scourge of the Sword Coast. By default, Morwen assumes the throne of Daggerford peacefully during the course of these adventures, and this is how Daggerford is presented in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide.
The Western Isles
A number of island kingdoms lie off the Sword Coast. Most prominent among these is the Moonshae Archipelago. Riven by war between the native ffolk and the northlanders, neither side has yet gained a decisive advantage. Although the invasion of the northlanders has been temporarily stalled, the ffolk were too exhausted by the fight to capitalize on the advantage and it appears as though both sides will simply regroup, likely for the span of a generation, before resuming the war again. There are three notable exceptions to this general state of affairs. The island of Snowdown labors under the brutal occupation of Amn, who have repeatedly put down revolts and stripped the island of most of its resources, Oman’s Isle has been occupied by fomorian giants, and Moray is overrun by lycanthropes of the People of the Black Blood.
The other islands of major note off the Sword Coast are Orlumbor and Mintarn. Ruled over by the ancient red dragon Hoondarrh who demands regular tribute from the inhabitants, Mintarn had a brief period of prosperity when Lord Neverember used them to replace his navy, shattered after a failed war with the northlanders. The influx of gold led Hoondarrh to demand more tribute, the economy collapsed due to lack of currency, and the shipbuilding industry folded. Nothing makes a dragon stupid like the promise of gold.
Orlumbor is an island of shipwrights and the key to Waterdeep’s world-class navy. Any attack on them would most certainly be treated as an attack on Waterdeep.
There are other islands in the region, but none of them came out of the Spellplague in particularly good shape except the Nelanther Isles, and those did well because they’re full of pirates of every race and description imaginable. Lintan blew up and then phased into an alternate world ruled by dragons for a century, and while they’ve recently returned, they’re very much worse for wear. Nimbral was so reclusive in the first place that people barely noticed when it was transported to Abeir for the duration of the Spellplague.
The important islands here are firstly the Moonshaes, because they’re potentially valuable naval bases that can be used to strike against or interdict trade to almost anywhere on the Sword Coast, including the Lands of Intrigue, which means anyone who controls both the Moonshae Isles and a powerful enough navy to resist anyone who wants to take them has control over the entire Sword Coast, full stop.
This brings us to the second important group of islands, Orlumbor and Mintarn, both of which have a demonstrable capability to produce a navy worthy of Waterdeep, the greatest naval power on the Sword Coast (not including the Lands of Intrigue, as Calimshan does have a comparable and perhaps even superior navy). Controlling only one of these islands means that a rival may control the other, so the best thing to do would be to control both of them. If you are not Waterdeep, this is going to be difficult. Even if you are Waterdeep, you still have to kill an ancient red dragon in order to secure the loyalty and long term economic viability of Mintarn.
If you are not Waterdeep, you must additionally find some way to secure the loyalty of Orlumbor, which is firmly in the Waterdeep sphere of influence since their entire economy is building ships for the Waterdeep Navy. Any effort to take control of the island (even non-violently) would be tantamount to a declaration of war on Waterdeep itself.
As for the Moonshaes, the obvious route to power is to draw out some concessions for naval bases from either the northlanders or the ffolk in exchange for resolving the current stalemate in their favor. The northlanders have a powerful navy of their own and thus it would be wise to side against them simply because defeating them means one less competitor navy on the Sword Coast. That said, defeating the northlanders in a naval/amphibious war for an island chain is no mean feat, so particularly if your party needs immediate control of the Moonshae Islands in order to project naval force against another enemy (perhaps Baldur’s Gate or Neverwinter or especially Waterdeep, in which case having the powerful northlander navy on your side is the only thing that will make you competitive against the Sword Coast’s naval superpower), siding with the northlanders may be a defensible choice.
Either way, Oman’s Isle, Moray, and Snowdown are largely inconsequential. Oman’s Isle would not be especially difficult for a veteran adventurer party to reclaim, nor would assisting the ffolk in their resistance against Amn’s tyranny (although in the latter case it is important to do so subtly, as a war with mighty Amn would be unwise for almost any sphere of influence on the Sword Coast), and this would help to solidify control over the region. After all, any island you don’t control is a potential naval base for an enemy. Moray might be harder, depending on just how much a taste you have for hunting down lycanthropes, but its position on the western end of the archipelago means that the only navy that can reach it without being interdicted by a Shaemoor-based fleet is one based in Evermeet or Maztica. Neither is especially likely to be a major concern, but if you have a taste for hunting the hunters, it can’t hurt to be thorough.
The Nelanther Isles could be a target, but if you don’t mind quite a bit of pillaging in enemy territory, they could also be used as a mercenary army. Some pirates might resist having even one nation’s shipping taken off the potential list of targets, but dealing with them will only prove your might to the others. If you already have a powerful navy, you can flush out the pirates from the Nelanther Isles fairly easily. Pirates never fare well against organized navies, as they are both disorganized, having no unified command above the rank of captain (and occasionally commodores of small fleets) and poorly disciplined, abandoning ship whenever the tide of battle is against them. Pirates are in it for the cash, not king and country. Even so, the pirates of the Nelanther Isles are not likely to be a high priority target. While victory is virtually guaranteed, whatever navy fights the war against them will be entangled for several years and weakened for a decade or more afterwards. With the northlanders on one side and Calimshan on the other, even Waterdeep would be foolish to weaken themselves like this (especially after it’s only just recovered from their losses to the northlander navy under the rulership of Lord Neverember).
The islands of the Sword Coast have a reasonably sized sub-section (seven pages) in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. The Moonshaes in particular have appeared in quite a few novels as well, including an entire trilogy dedicated to them.