There have been three main centers of activity in Ed Greenwood’s own Forgotten Realms campaigns. Two of them, Shadowdale and Cormyr, are in the centra...moreThere have been three main centers of activity in Ed Greenwood’s own Forgotten Realms campaigns. Two of them, Shadowdale and Cormyr, are in the central area well covered by the original boxed set. The third, the great city of Waterdeep, is a bit north of the focus area, and was the primary subject of the first setting supplement from TSR, FR1. It has appeared many times in the years since then, in adventures, such as part of the Avatar trilogy, later supplements (such as City of Splendors: Waterdeep (Forgotten Realms)) several novels, and even one of the Catacombs adventure books (Knight of the Living Dead).
It contains the usual 64-page sadle-stiched book, with a three panel separate cover, with a small map of Waterdeep on the third panel, and is backprinted with a schematic map of the wards of the city, the main sewer system, and some typical building interiors; this only takes up the two main panels, and the third is blank. Also included is a keyed poster-sized map of the city.
One of the first chapters in the book grants it it’s ‘and the North’ title, giving a rough guide to trade and important locations in the area. The North is generally defined as the area between the Sword Coast and the great desert of Anauroch from the latitude of Waterdeep on north. The problem is, that the geography talked about is more detailed than is available in the boxed set, and there’s no map in the module to guide you, making the entire chapter very confusing reading. The North: Guide to the Savage Frontier would eventually cover the same ground (and partially quote these entries), with a pair of poster-size maps covering the region in detail.
Dragon #128 includes the article “Welcome to Waterdeep”, which had been cut from the supplement and details the area near the city. The module would have been better off to cut the entire chapter on the North, and include this material instead. It would have better aided the focus of the rest of the text, and the map of the area would have easily gone on the blank interior cover panel. I have a feeling that the decision to cut it was already long made when layout of a map of the North advanced to the point that it was realized that the entire region doesn’t quite fit in one 30 mile/inch poster map. Also, the publication of The Crystal Shard may have caused TSR to decide to do a separate module on the North, that could also include the Icewind Vale area.
The bulk of the supplement focuses squarely on Waterdeep itself, and is very well done, with a few problems. It is obvious that Ed had a bunch of material to present for this, and efforts were made to fit it all in, with the main text being a smaller font than normal (about 9 point), with some parts being an extra-small 7 points. A brief history of the city is given, wrapping up with some current news, before turning to the nature of government. The main government is sixteen lords, whose identities are kept secret behind robes and (anti-magic) masks, except for a high-level paladin who serves as the primary public face of government. This is all too idealized to be really believable, with the lords honestly working for the overall benefit of the city with clarity and foresight, and the protected identities not only protecting them from plots in general, but allowing them to be recruited from all levels of Waterdeep society, keeping the government in touch with the needs of the lower classes. However, there are political maneuverings from the nobles (not detailed) and the guilds (better detailed), so not everything is ideal all the time.
A large section of the book is a key to nearly 300 buildings, giving the name of the establishment, the general type of place, with occasional other details. This accounts for perhaps 5% of all the buildings shown in Waterdeep (probably less), and leaves plenty of latitude for the DM to establish his own residences and businesses (and perhaps borrow a few from the CityBook series…). Along with the standard taverns and inns are guild houses, noble villas and fences.
The main problem with the approach taken is that while a DM can sit down with the book and map, and really study an area, and get to know the neighborhood the party is based in, it is horrible at questions such as ‘where is the nearest inn?’ There’s no easy list of such establishments, so a party randomly asking after something in a random location (which of course they will) has to be met with either a lot of looking up possibilities or just making up a nearby one (which is perfectly fine… but the purpose of a supplement like this one should be not to need to do this).
The biggest problem is the amount of flavor that is buried away, where it can be easy to miss. If you look through the listings, you will note that there’s a bunch of tanneries located in the southeast corner of the Dock Ward. Tanneries generally stank to high heaven, so they were forced to exist in one corner of medieval cities to keep stench away from the rest of the city. But none of this is pointed out in the book, so if you don’t know this bit of trivia (and most people don’t—I certainly didn’t in 1987), nor sit down with the map and key to see the pattern, a bit of the logical flavor of the city will be lost, never to emerge in play. The fact that wooden buildings are restricted to one story by law, and anything taller (as most are now) must be made of stone is buried in the description of the Guild of Stonecutters, Masons, Potters & Tile-Makers.
The best part of Waterdeep is that it physically feels right. The city stops at the city wall, which even with edicts against building against the walls seems unlikely, and the few hints of farms and the like outside the walls seem to include a village with no marked path to the main road. But inside the walls, the streets both run straight and branch off in random directions that feel right for a living, evolving city.
In all, this really is a good springboard for urban adventures, and feels like it’s possible to DM such a large and diverse city without it feeling completely foreign to the original intent. This is a tall challenge, and one not often tackled in fantasy RPG writing. Despite the problems, there’s a lot here, and it fits together well, and I have to think this is one of the better city supplements that has been done.(less)
I’ll admit I was a bit surprised when I started it. I wasn’t expecting a 600-page book in 8-point type in oversized paperback format. This is a long r...moreI’ll admit I was a bit surprised when I started it. I wasn’t expecting a 600-page book in 8-point type in oversized paperback format. This is a long read.
And that length is put to good use. A Distant Mirror is indeed a history of just about the entire 14th Century, mostly focusing in France. Politics, peasant rebellions, the Black Death, knights, religious peculation, schism, it’s all there; it was a busy time. This is very good narrative history. It’s not a very ‘scholarly’ treatment of the time, but it pours out page after page of people, events, and quotes of contemporary chronicles, and fills you with a distillation of the events of a place which is revealed to be every bit as complex as today.
The central conceit of the book is that it follows the life of Enguerrand VII of Coucy, a fairly prominent figure of his time about which little is known past the facts of the places he shows up. This makes it resemble the book Alison Weir’s Eleanor of Aquitaine wanted to be. Her book was supposed to be a biography, but due the lack of information about Eleanor herself, it is not satisfying as such. A biography of Coucy would be just as unsatisfying, but as he is is just the focal point, the point through which the world is viewed, instead of the actual subject of the book, it works quite well.(less)