Waterdeep, also commonly known as The City of Splendors, is a city-state located on the Sword Coast, near its northern end. It lies some distance from the northern bank of the Dessarin River. The city sits at the mouth of the eponymous Waterdeep Bay, and the peak of Waterdeep Mountain, a major passage to the Underdark, juts above the city's walls and is visible for miles afield from the city. It counts as neighbors the city-state of Neverwinter to its north, and the city-state of Baldur's Gate to its south. The city is known for its command of trade and commerce, being a hub of major trade roads and trade routes traveling in and beyond the Sword Coast, including the Trade Way, the High Road, the Long Road, and the Dessarin River.
Waterdeep has long been known as a leader of the north in such aspects as culture, economy, fashion, military, and influence. In recent decades, the city's influence has waned as a consequence of deadly internecine political intrigue, unstable leadership, and military disasters. Economically, Baldur's Gate has overtaken the city in both fortune and influence in the Sword Coast. The perception of Waterdeep's power remains, however, and the majority of it remains factual, as the city remains a force not to be trifled with.
Nearby holdfasts and keeps held by Waterdhavian nobility swear fealty to the Lords of Waterdeep, including Thornhold, Amphail, and Daggerford.
The city is famed for its professional standing military, unceremonious but expertly armed and armored. It is said that at any given time, the city can muster a force of ten thousand men strong, along with a heavy cavalry corps of knights numbering around a thousand. These professional soldiers are known as the City Guard. The pride of its military arm remains twofold: first are the Griffon Cavalry (also called the Griffon Knights), an elite force of two hundred griffon-riding knights that serve as bodyguard to Lords of Waterdeep that take to the field in battle (though it has been almost a century since this has occurred). The second is the Waterdhavian Navy, which many foreign commentators say is where the city's strength truly lies. The Navy remains the largest of such waterborne forces in the Sword Coast, and is the iconic enemy of pirates in the Sea of Swords. Waterdeep's fleet numbers around two hundred ships, though only a few at a time are moored in the Great Harbor, with most hunting down pirates across the sea, or protecting trade ships traveling to and from Waterdeep's foreign colonies.
The City Watch, the city's police force, serve as able police, firefighters, peacekeepers, and an emergency garrison. Unlike the City Guard, the Watch are trained in more utilitarian and urban duties, such as crime prevention, investigation, and riot suppression.
As with many city-states in all of Faerun, when Waterdeep goes to war, it hires a healthy amount of mercenaries to bolster its forces, using its vast finances to create ad-hoc (if unreliable) armies. The number of adventurers plying the Sword Coast are often looking for good military work if it is needed.
Waterdeep prides itself on its economic strength, and merchants and peddlers are often found to say that the there is no better home to them than the City of Splendors. Despite the loss of economic strength that Waterdeep has suffered in recent decades, the city remains a place where money flows through freely and with plenty, and its competitive tariff and tax rates have long encouraged mercantile activity. The city maintains trade relations with Baldur's Gate, and has entered a constant economic rivalry with the city. With Baldur's Gate, the city trades in such wares as livestock, fish, grains, wheat, raw ores, rare minerals, furs, lumber, and military supplies. It also nurtures similar but lesser relations with Amn, the eternal enemy of Baldur's Gate.
Relations between Waterdeep and Neverwinter have been strained of late, and it has affected their trade. Merchants travel the High Road to buy and sell when they can, but they recognize the risk of plying that route after the recent rise in tensions. With Neverwinter turning inward in its protectionism, Waterdeep has now become the primary exporter of goods, services, and survival gear to the now-developing Ten Towns of Icewind Dale beyond the Spine of the World.
Through the Dessarin River, the city maintains connections to the scattered elvish communities of the High Forest. The river also connects the city the Evermoors, and thus Silverymoon, the bastion of the northern inlands. Through Silverymoon, the city maintains second-degree trade relations with dwarven bastions further north in Mithral Hall and Citadel Fellbar.
Long travel and the rise of undead trouble in Dragonspear Castle has had merchants traveling to and from Cormyr and Waterdeep thinning out as of late. Astute merchants points to this debilitation of the Trade Way to Cormyr as one of the primary factors of Waterdeep's descent from its influential position. The Lords of Waterdeep consider the elimination of the necromancer inhabiting Castle Dragonspear to be of high priority.
The city maintains multiple colonies south of Faerun, from which it receives exotic materials, relics, foodstuffs, and spices that it then sells to Sword Coast cities and further inland at exorbitant premium prices. With the Waterdhavian fleet securing most of these colonial convoys, and the pursuance of further colonial activity over the past century, it is safe to say that Waterdeep will maintain a virtual monopoly on many of these exotic goods for a while yet. The Navy also protects convoys trading in the archipelagos of the Sea of Swords, such as the Moonshae Isles, Northander Isles, Snowdown, Gwynneth, Omans Isle, Ruathym, and Gundarlun. Most rich merchants make their fortunes in only a few runs through these islands. While Waterdeep does not maintain a monopoly with these states as it does with its own colonies, their competitive tax rates and the promise of its navy's protection has led a great many of them to consider Waterdeep over other city-states.
Waterdeep functions on a peculiar oligarchic feudalistic system. The city-state and its demesne are the ownership of the Lords of Waterdeep, an oligarchy who share rule of the demesne. The Masked Lords comprise the majority of this oligarchy. Each Masked Lord has his identity hidden by a magical artifact known as the Helm. A Masked Lord can be anyone: dockworkers, criminal masterminds, soldiers, politicos, diplomats, philanthropists, nobles, and everything in between have donned the Helms. Anyone can acquire a Helm, whether by violence, luck, circumstance, or otherwise. And by donning that symbol of office, one officially becomes a Lord of Waterdeep. The philosophy is that anonymity removes personal connections and judgment from the act of governance. It also ensures that Masked Lords stay true to being ideal leaders: if a Lord isn't performing well, someone in the city likely will make a play for the Helm, and it will always find a way to be worn. The number of Masked Lords fluctuates, as power struggles constantly occur in these positions, but the city generally has forty to fifty Masked Lords at any given time.
Only one Lord of Waterdeep, the Open Lord, has his identity revealed. The Open Lord is Waterdeep's sovereign among sovereigns, the face of the city, and the representative to The Lords' Alliance. Nominally, the Open Lord is an equal to the Masked Lords, but most recognize the position as "first among equals." Nevertheless, the Open Lord cannot rule without the support of the Masked Lords, and so the wiser Open Lords of the city's history have often worked in tandem with the Masked Lords to forge policy for the city. The current Open Lord is Laeral Silverhand, who had recently come into the position after engineering a coup d'etat with the support of Masked Lords to oust former Open Lord Dagult Neverember.
Supporting the rule of the Lords of Waterdeep are around seventy five noble families great and small who all swear fealty to the Lords of Waterdeep, their sovereign body. The greatest nobles live in palatial manses or holdfasts outside the city, and command peasants and landowners that, if pressed, can be called upon for serjeantry in favorable seasons.
The last but certainly not the least notable figure in Waterdeep's governance is the office of the Blackstaff, the great wizard of the city that advises the Masked Lords on possible courses of action in policy, decision making, wartime, and crises. The Blackstaffs are often understood to be wise: the first Blackstaff and the man who would forge the template for the gravitas of the position is the iconic Khelbun Arunsun, the now-dead husband of current Open Lord Laeral Silverhand. Now the office is held by Vajra Safahr, a young girl who has succeeded to her position due to her master meeting an untimely end. The Blackstaff always takes an apprentice that he rears as the heir apparent to the position. To succeed to the office is to inherit the wisdom of some of the greatest wizards Faerun has ever known. While Safahr is young, she has learned quickly from what is available to her in the Blackstaff Tower, and she has quickly become a wise, if sometimes willful mage.