This passage is the description I gave my online party for the campaign they are about to embark on. I’m placing it here for future reference…and to share with all of you!
The City of Splendors; the Jewel of the Sword Coast; the Lord’s City; all of these are nicknames for the independent city of Waterdeep, the largest in the North of Faerun. Built on a natural harbour, surrounded by a heavy wall, dominated by Mount Waterdeep and the castle above it, but protected most importantly by its famous inhabitants, Waterdeep is a city that can spawn a thousand and more adventures, without ever straying from the protection of its walls.
The city is rules by the mysterious Lords of Waterdeep, a cadre of sixteen rulers who, save one, rule in secret. The Open Lord of Waterdeep speaks for the Lords in all things, including foreign diplomacy; the current Open Lord is Piergerion the Paladinson, a famous holy knight who has been Open Lord for quite a long time. The other Lords appear, always, hooded, cloaked, and masked, and look like uniformly similar humans in splendid purple regalia. Though the names of the Lords are officially unknown, many whisper names like Mirt the Moneylender, Texter, and until recently, Khelban “Blackstaff” Arunsun, who removed his helm at a Lord’s Dinner and announced his retirement as a secret Lord.
From Sea Ward to Dock Ward, Waterdeep has locales for people of all sorts. Temples and noble manors stride the Sea and North Wards, both in the Northern end of the city. Castle Ward, on the West side, occupies most of the middle of the city, and has middle-class buildings, plus most government locals, the expansive Palace of Waterdeep (commonly known as Piergerion’s Palace), the defensive bastion of Castle Waterdeep, and the half-home half-fortress known as Mirt’s Mansion. Trades Ward surrounds the great market; the City of the Dead provides portals to extradimensional spaces for the dead to be interred; South and Dock Wards are rougher and have the lower class and workers of the city.
But today, we are not concerned as much with the City of Splendors itself, as with the expansive space underneath: Undermountain. The largest and deadliest dungeon in all of Faerun, Undermountain was once a dwarven hold, but fell to Drow from the Underdark, until they were driven out over a thousand years ago by Halaster, the Mad Mage. Halaster made his home Undermountain, where, for a milennia, he experimented with any number of strange and foul magics.
A fortnight ago, Waterdeep shook. An earthquake, but felt only inside of the city. Some buildings fell, and some people died, but the damage was little, though many had a fleeting image – a face, old, with a twisted and gnarled grey beard, white hair dancing awry, lit with electricity, and contorted in utter agony – as the shaking ended. Now, some few have come to the city, their dreams haunted by a dark cavern leading up a long stair, a sparkle of light offering them treasure or wealth or power…and then a sudden collapse, as the roof over the stair caves in.
They named them the Called. Many arrive, hear of Waterdeep’s hidden underlayer, and leave, visions forced out of their head by the fear of the death that quite possibly lies await for them in Halaster’s Halls. Others have already ventured down below, and not returned. The Called are from all walks of life; clerics in training in this very city; sneak-thiefs from the docks; warriors from passing caravans; wizards from over the North. All united by the tormented vision of the old man’s face; all united by the call from Undermountain.
You may have lived here all your life, or arrived on a passing ship; a merchant or a murderer, a hired sword or a member of the City Guard, but now you have asked around, and told that the quickest, best way to Undermountain is through the Yawning Portal Inn, a tavern very near the docks owned by Durnan the Wanderer, a warrior who made his fortune in Undermountain some time ago. When you arrive at the Yawning Portal, it is quite obvious where the name came from. In the centre of the room, with no safety rail, is a massive, forty-foot wide hole that heads down, deep, into the black. A collection of thick support beams encircle the portal down, each with a thick table set around it; other tables are scattered in the corners of the room. A large bar is opposite the gaping entrance to Undermountain, behind which stands a heavy-muscled man with dark brown hair that is starting to grey at the temples.
If you’ve ever spent any time in Waterdeep, you’d recognize Durnan the Wanderer immediately, but if you’re not from the city, it only takes a few moments before someone murmurs the man’s name to you. As a successful delver into Undermountain, the man with wise grey eyes has a bit of a name for himself forged, especially in this particular inn. To you, Durnan immediately turns his eyes, and then his lips curve into a grin.
“I’ve seen that look before. Half fright, half enthralled. You’re one of the Called, aren’t you?” he asks. Without waiting for an answer (or an order), he pours you a tankard of ale, sliding it to you. “The first one is free of charge for the Called. Now, it’s one gold to go down into Undermountain, but something tells me you’re not quite brave – or stupid – enough to try that on your own. But, the ranks of the Called seem to be endless. You might want to try that table over there.” Durnan points towards one of the tables in the corner, where a collection of obvious adventurers already sits. “Perhaps you can find some friends…or at least, allies…before you pay the handleman and try to find your fame down below.”
Already the tavern is filling with people, as rumours of the arrival of more of the Called has run through the Docks rapidly, and even as you move to the table indicated by Durnan, the various men (and few women) in the tavern are already pointing at some of the party and passing small glinting pieces of silver and gold around, wagering on the likely return of some of the Called; or possibly, the likely death of others. Those in the tavern are varied; a blond-haired priest with a symbol of Tymora wrapped around his fist is relaxing in one corner; two men, one with thick, ruddy cheeks and an impressive warhammer at his waist, and a younger man with brown hair carefully styled and expensive clothes, are sitting with a woman with short, spiky hair, wearing a tight dress designed to push up her bust and a hint too much makeup, talking quietly to each other near the bar, though Durnan’s eyes seem to drift over towards them from time to time. A nondescript man with green eyes tosses a gold onto the table with the Called. “That’s for your luck…or bait for the horrors below!” he calls with a grin, showing off straight, but yellowed, teeth.
You ease into the table and see four other pairs of eyes, some excited, some anxious, and surely, some frightened, for what awaits below…is Undermountain, the deadliest dungeon in Faerun, populated by powerful monsters, inhabited by tribes of beings both sentient and not…and you are called to it.