Review: City of Splendors: Waterdeep

Copyright Robert J Defendi © 2005

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

"I could probably build a whole campaign there, using just this book."

Wizards of the Coast has released a book concentrating on Waterdeep, the ultimate adventuring city in the Forgotten Realms. And why not? The city is one of the most beloved locations in the gaming world, finding its only real competition in the City of Greyhawk. Plus, if RPGNOW stats are any indication, there's good money in a well-done city book.

So does Waterdeep hold up?

I wish I could say no, at least this review would be funnier, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. There's a wealth of material in this book and you get the feeling that it just scratches the surface. In fact, I think the only complaint most readers will have is the low page count (at 160). There just isn't enough room in this book for everything that one might find in Waterdeep.

Still, the material is interesting and the author (Eric L. Boyd) has a delicate hand for how much is just right. I didn't feel like he rambled on too long and for the most part I felt like he gave me enough to build a game in the City of Splendors. Heck, I could probably build a whole campaign there, using just this book.

Chapter One begins with an interesting history of the city. This chapter actually captured my attention (whereas usually histories are just text you have to get through). It's hard to point out exactly why this appealed to me, but I think that it has to do with the many iterations of settlement the city passed through before becoming the place we all know and love. It took me back to certain real world histories I've read, and where an author's usual instinct is to say, "The city was founded in <blank>," Waterdeep has lived under different names, guises and rulers over the years. It just felt . . . rich.

The book then moves on to a brief who's who and then a treatise on laws and culture. It then tackles all the ways to get to and from the city . . . including teleportation. It was refreshing to have a high fantasy world deal with an issue that almost everyone ignores . . . how the casual use of magic could kill people in the streets. Finally, the book tackles the defenses of the city, both magical and mundane.

Chapter Two deals with People of Waterdeep (I'm not sure why the Who's Who wasn't here.) This chapter is long and complex, taking about a third of the book. In it they cover everything from guilds to monsters to the underworld to secret societies to the nobility and much much more. This is where the book really sold me, the level of detail just enough to fill me with the maximum number of colorful characters while giving me just enough information to run them properly in the game. As a game designer, I can only say this chapter must have taken five times as long to write as the rest of the book put together (characters can take forever, even when many of them aren't statted). I can only tip my hat at Mr. Boyd for not losing sight of the prize and becoming sloppy. Still, I think there are too many dragons detailed for a city with a ward against dragons.

Chapter Three handles prestige classes. You know what? I'm gonna give the book a pass on this one (and it's not the same pass I gave DMG II). This book needed prestige classes, and while I thought that four was probably a bit excessive, this is the perfect use of the game mechanic: defining a particular organization and their unique and often mystical abilities. The Gray Hand Enforcer, for instance, can tap into the dragonward of the city, accessing its power. I don't mind using a prestige class to simulate this.

Chapter Four is the obligatory sites-of-the-city chapter. I don't have much to say about this. It got the job done.

Chapter Five is a section on adventure opportunities in Waterdeep. This section contains everything from single encounters (a disturbing amount of haunted locales) to mini-adventures, to a small section on Undermountain. I think that a DM could build a good campaign, starting with this chapter.

The final chapter covers more rules-oriented materials. Starting with feats, it then covers magic items, poisons and a section on spells. The section on spells is mercifully short, and I can't begrudge it. People in Waterdeep will make spells. This, like the Prestige Classes, is a much better place for new material like this than 90% of the books WotC produces.

I do have to give one qualification on this review. I haven't done more than skim most of the past material on Waterdeep, so I don't know how much of this book is recycled materials. Still, I found what was here to be interesting, useful and well presented. This is one of the better books WotC has produced since 3.5 released. If you adventure in the Realms, it's probably a must-have.