Ending things on a high note, we’re bringing both the Sphere of Influence series for the Sword Coast and the third month of the blog to a close with the sphere of influence of Baldur’s Gate, quite possibly the most powerful city on the entire continent of Faerun.
“You need only two things to rule the world: Numbers and ruthlessness.”
Baldur’s Gate is the single most influential city in all of Faerun. Having become the more prominent trading port than Waterdeep in the 15th century, Baldur’s Gate is a nexus of trade going east to Cormyr and Sembia, north as far as Neverwinter, south to Calimshan and Amn, and out west to the islands of the Sea of Swords and beyond. Their Flaming Fists (nominally still a mercenary company free to fight in any war so long as they don’t side against Baldur’s Gate, but effectively the city’s military) form what is potentially the most powerful land military in all of the Sword Coast, and their navy is not far behind that of Waterdeep.
Baldur’s Gate is run by a council of four dukes, one of which is always the leader of the Flaming Fists and the others of which are elected by the Baldurian Parliament, comprised of fifty peers about one quarter of which are taken from the poor and middle class of the Lower City (including the new money merchants who seek to emulate, but are ultimately not accepted by the Upper City) and the rest from the wealthy psuedo-noble old moneyed merchant families of the Upper City.
Baldur’s Gate is also home to the Guild, a criminal syndicate that reaches into every aspect of the underworld. Smuggling, thievery, assassination, and more are the purview of this criminal superpower, and it deals regularly with the enemies of the city, especially Amn. The Guild doesn’t seek to rule the city but is more than happy to profit from it changing hands. This makes them natural allies of any foreign sphere of influence willing to make them filthy rich in exchange for effecting political change.
Unfortunately, Baldur’s Gate is very nearly a democracy, which makes overthrowing it from the shadows actually quite hard. You need to control at least twenty-six seats on the parliament before you can take over, not just one or two important posts. The assassination campaign required to position your cronies to control parliament would be extremely difficult to keep secret, especially since everyone knows who all the peers of the parliament are. If the secret gets out, you’re guaranteed not to get any more seats on parliament, because obviously no government would appoint new members from a faction who is trying to destroy that government.
Baldur’s Gate has a vast trade network, so controlling enough of that network to make them economically dependent will not be easy (you’d have to have Cormyr on your side, and they aren’t even included in this document). They have a powerful military, so even if you’ve dismantled the Lord’s Alliance by targeting its other members, Baldur’s Gate can repel even very large invasions on their own. The only city on the Sword Coast who can match their military might is Silverymoon, on the other side of the region, who would have difficulty maintaining the supply lines needed for such a war (the same would be true in reverse, but a stalemate is not a victory).
As such, the best way to take over Baldur’s Gate is probably to get elected. You need to control at least twenty-six members of the parliament, but you don’t need them to pass your policies, you just need them to elect you and at least two of your friends to be three of the Four Dukes and then you have total control over the city’s actual legislature. If one of you becomes leader of the Flaming Fists, that someone gets to be one of the dukes automatically, without any votes from parliament at all. You also control the city’s military, which means that if you and at least one other duke (the leader of the Flaming Fists breaks ties) revoke parliament’s authority to impeach dukes and make your positions lifelong, nobody can force you to back down even if the parliament or the other dukes would like to. It wouldn’t even be illegal.
The first installment of the inestimable Baldur’s Gate series takes place in and around the eponymous city. It is strongly recommended on its merits alone, and also gives a good look at not only the city itself, but the surrounding area, including most of Baldur’s Gate’s sphere of influence. Like most Forgotten Realms material, the game does take place in the 14th century, however, and in particular the entire Outer City is not present and the barriers to becoming a member of the city’s upper class in the Upper City were not as strong.
The Troll Hills and nearby Troll Forest are split between multiple competing troll kingdoms, raiders from which occasionally raid the Trade Way from Baldur’s Gate to Waterdeep. Trollish dynasties contend with one another and rarely last more than a few generations before being conquered by their neighbors or deposed by an ambitious vassal.
Not too far to the south are the Fields of the Dead, where the trolls of this land often fight with mostly Baldurian homesteaders, pushing the frontier of civilization northwards. The fields are so named because they were a common battlefield for control of the Sword Coast in the days before Waterdeep and Baldur’s Gate rose to prominence. It’s easy to see why, as the fields are where the Baldur’s Gate military would meet any attacker from the north, and Baldur’s Gate is a natural location for a port. If Baldur’s Gate should ever go to war with Najara (or the Misty Forest, Waterdeep, or Elturgard, none of which are as likely), the fields would be covered in fresh dead.
There’s plenty of old dead to go around. Plowing new fields often turns up humanoid bones, and barrows nearby are often broken open from without by tomb raiders or from within when some unfortunate twist of the Weave awakens the bones within.
In addition to the trolls and the undead, these lands are plagued by werewolves from the Wood of Sharp Teeth, who hunt cattle and farmers alike for food before returning to the shelter of the wood.
Despite this abundance of threats, the homesteaders in this region have seen no small amount of success and are steadily pushing back the frontier. They have become a breadbasket for Baldur’s Gate in much the same way as the Dessarin Valley has long been for Waterdeep, and indeed, being able to reliably feed themselves with nothing but the nearby fields is a major reason for the rise to prominence of Baldur’s Gate in the past century.
The homesteaders of the Fields of the Dead are dependent upon Baldur’s Gate for finished goods, but they can create all vital goods for themselves. Thus, while it is generally true that as goes the city, so goes the hinterland, the people of the fields could break with Baldur’s Gate if they wanted to. They cannot, however, fend off a troll invasion without help from the Flaming Fists, so if the people of the Fields of the Dead should prove uncooperative to a new authority in Baldur’s Gate, uniting the trolls of the north into an army with which to pillage the fields would be an effective approach, although it would provide a significant (if temporary) blow to the Baldurian economy. For the same reason, using the trolls the pillage the fields would be a decent opening move against Baldur’s Gate, although it is difficult to imagine what the follow-up could possibly be unless you plan on open war, since Baldur’s Gate has too many trade partners for the loss of any one component of its economy to force it into making any concessions at all.
In order to secure the Trade Way properly, the trolls will have to at some point be either united under a friendly troll dynasty or completely eliminated. The latter would require the construction of fortresses to keep the Troll Hills and Troll Bark Forest patrolled to prevent them from regrouping.
The Cyclopedia of the Realms contains the only write-up the Fields of the Dead seems to have ever gotten. The area is technically the subject of a chapter of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, but the emphasis there is on traveling along the Trade Way, not detouring into troll country just off the route. Still, the encounters in that chapter give a good look at all the unfortunate things that anyone profiting off of the Trade Way (i.e. anyone who controls either Waterdeep or Baldur’s Gate) would want to happen much less often than they currently do.
The Wood of Sharp Teeth
The Wood of Sharp Teeth, also known as the Werewood, is full of werewolves. There are additionally dryads, satyrs, and some other fey within the forest, but the werewolves are the only ones who leave and menace the surrounding countryside, so they get the forest named after them. This wood forms the eastern barrier to Baldur’s Gate’s sphere of influence, and also as a buffer between them and Elturgard (although relations between the two are currently quite friendly).
Just west of the wood is the town of Beregost and the nearby scholar’s fortress of Candlekeep, and just to its south is the mining town of Nashkel. These towns are all dependent upon Baldur’s Gate for trade. Even though Nashkel is technically a part of Amn. Nashkel’s mines are vital to the regional economy (except for Baldur’s Gate, which has too many other trade connections to care), and Candlekeep is the greatest repository of lore in all of Faerun, but neither of them (nor Beregost) has much strategic value, if only because Baldur’s Gate is so damnably difficult to isolate economically that the capture of Nashkel means so little.
Nashkel in particular is vulnerable to the ogres, hill giants, and gnolls living in the Cloud Peaks to the south. Anyone who could offer them more reliable defense than they already have would exercise a great deal of influence there. Beregost and Candlekeep both would have little choice but to be swayed to whatever side Baldur’s Gate takes, due to their trade dependence. The entire region would become significantly more prosperous if anyone could sort out the werewolf problem in the Wood of Sharp Teeth.
This region is the main setting of the Baldur’s Gate video game (except for the sections that take place in the city itself). While things have changed a fair bit in Baldur’s Gate over the past century, they are still mostly the same as they’ve always been in the area in and around the Wood of Sharp Teeth.
“Whenever the innocent pray for help, I shall be the answer.”
The capital city of Elturgard, Elturel is a powerful city defended by an impressive force of paladins and bathed in the constant light of a massive glowing orb which harms any undead who strays within its rays. It also makes getting to sleep at night much harder than normal. People there have thick curtains.
Elturgard’s Companions, powerful paladin defenders, are the match of any Flaming Fist veteran or Knight in Silver, but their limited numbers make them a lesser military force than Baldur’s Gate or Silverymoon, even supplemented as they are by the Hellrider cavalry and the Elturel Guard infantry. Even so, their might is sufficient to defend Elturgard from her numerous surrounding enemies: The yuan-ti of Najara just to the north, the lycanthropes of the Wood of Sharp Teeth to the west, gnolls from the Reaching Woods nestled on the east, and the ogres and more gnolls in the Sunset Mountains slightly further east.
Elturel is a theocracy run by the High Overseer of Torm. This makes toppling it from within very difficult, as getting promoted up through the Torm theocracy isn’t something you can have a crony do in a couple of months. Elturgard has no significant internal rifts and their primary trading partners are the immensely powerful Baldur’s Gate and similarly stable and titanic Cormyr. As such, finding a military proxy with which to conquer Elturgard is easily the best option for adding it to the sphere of influence. An alliance between the gnolls, ogres, and lycanthropes would have a fair chance if organized by effective leaders. An alliance of convenience with Najara isn’t out of the question, for while Najara would never accept non-snake sovereignty over their territory, they might be convinced to help non-snakes capture Elturgard simply to get rid of Elturgard as a potential threat.
A brief visit is made to Elturel in Hoard of the Dragon Queen, but more importantly, Elturgard is a psuedo-capital of the Order of the Gauntlet, which means any material on said Order can be applied more or less to Elturgard.
The Reaching Wood
In decades past, the Reaching Wood was inhabited by multiple forest dwelling creatures and races, but the gnolls have completely exterminated all competitors. Elturgard is in a state of low-grade war with them due to their raising shrines and temples to their demonic patron Yeenoghu within the depths of the wood. The gnolls raid in Elturgard and Elturel returns the favor.
Just on the other side of the Reaching Wood are the Trielta Hills, a land allied to Elturgard and inhabited by halflings and gnomes. Like Elturgard, the Trielta Hills are constantly fending off raids from the gnolls. Their main source of wealth are the small but not insignificant veins of silver and gold in the hills.
The Reaching Wood are a concentration of military power but have little economic value. The Trielta Hills, on the other hand, have valuable mines which any sphere of influence would do well to bring under their control. The gnolls of the Reaching Wood would make a good proxy with which to take over Trielta, or alternatively Trielta might be convinced to sign favorable treaties in exchange for defense against the gnolls.
There’s basically nothing written about this fringe area outside of all-inclusive source books. The Trielta Hills in particular are specifically called out as not having any particular ancient kingdoms, lost wizard towers, or other points of interest in it. It does have those gold mines, though.
The Sunset Mountains
The Sunset Mountains are inhabited atop by ogres and gnolls and down below by dwarves and drow, with an adult white dragon making its lair amongst the peaks. These small and divided tribes and clans are drastically overshadowed by the power of Darkhold, the Zhentarim capital. Although drastically reduced in power and influence in Faerun since the loss of almost the entirety of their sphere of influence in the Moonsea to the Netherese, the Zhentarim remain a local power in their one remaining stronghold here in the Sunset Mountains. The Zhentarim of Darkhold are mercenaries and slavers, not as vicious as they were in the 14th century but certainly ruthless and willing to side with whoever will grow their power and wealth.
As such, seizing the Sunset Mountains means bringing the Zhentarim to heel somehow. The easiest way would be to simply employ them reliably. If the pay is good enough, Zhent loyalty will not waver, and there are plenty of nearby enemies against which the might of the Zhentish mercenaries would be useful: Elturgard, Najara, Cormyr, the gnolls of the Reaching Wood, the other inhabitants of the Sunset Mountains.
Also lurking nearby the Sunset Mountains is the Well of Dragons, the stronghold of the Cult of the Dragon, which seeks to summon Tiamat to destroy the world (they imagine they will rule over what rises from the ashes). Particularly after the Draakhorn is employed to summon armies of chromatic dragons, the Cult of the Dragon represents a major military power in the area. Their power is particularly concerning because they are a small number of very durable monsters. If a single dragon fights a cavalry squadron, and half the squadron is killed and the dragon is halfway killed and both break off, that might be a stalemate immediately, but within a few days the dragon will be healed. The cavalry squadron will still be half-dead, unless they’re willing to pay thousands of gold to get their fallen comrades raised, something which no army can keep up for very long. Indeed, once they have the Draakhorn’s armies on their side, the Cult is a greater military force than even Baldur’s Gate or Silverymoon.
While they stand no chance against the united forces of the Lord’s Alliance, the Well of Dragons is quite a defensible fortress, and storming it quickly would be much more difficult than laying siege to it for months until the Cult is starved out and forced to fight in the open, where their breath weapons are less effective and the Alliance numerical advantage is more easily brought to bear. The upshot of all this being that the Cult is a significant military threat to the Sword Coast who would be extremely difficult to dislodge from their fortress.
Just south of the Sunset Mountains is Iriaebor, a city state that stands between Elturgard and Cormyr. Although independent, Iriaebor maintains a close alliance with Elturel. Their economy is wholly dependent upon trade going from Cormyr to Elturgard, as a city state they have little production of their own and can’t survive trading with only one of the two partners, which means anyone who controls either of the two nations would exert significant influence over them. Someone who controls both Elturgard and Cormyr would have Iriaebor at their mercy.
The Well of Dragons is fully detailed in the Rise of Tiamat, and Darkhold is detailed in the 3e source book Lords of Darkness. This source book is out of date, as the Zhentarim have undergone a serious shift in vision and operating procedure since their near-annihilation at the hands of the Netherese, but much of the details of Darkhold’s construction and defenses remains accurate.
The Greenfields are a bounteous farmland that form the breadbasket of Elturgard and also ship significant amounts of food west to Baldur’s Gate and the region near the Wood of Sharp Teeth. The entire region is usually quite peaceful, but recently has been plagued by raids by the Cult of the Dragon. These raids have even gone so far as to threaten Greenest, a large-ish market town that serves as a sort-of capital of the area (if only because almost everywhere else is either spread out homesteads or tiny hamlets). As the Cult’s raids on the Greenfields grow, the concessions its inhabitants would be willing to make in exchange for protection go up along with it.
Greenest and the Cult of the Dragon’s nearby hideout are detailed in the first several chapters of Hoard of the Dragon Queen.