You might well think that, after so many game sourcebooks, boxed sets, novels, short stories, and adventures set in, or passing through, the City of Splendors, that pretty much every facet of life in the Deep has been covered. Far from it. You may hold the opinion that we entered exhaustive overkill territory years and products ago, and there really isn’t anything worthwhile left to explore.
I disagree! Fervently!
There’s the sewers, and all the ghosts, and all the doppelgangers, and the Xanathar, and—whups, almost got myself off and running!
Ahem. Just one thing: clubs. Yes, clubs. Not the sort you swing and bash with, but the sort you sit in, drink in hand.
In a game book entitled Volo’s Guide To Waterdeep, I described a paltry handful of the clubs one can visit in Waterdeep. However, Volo was at the time penning travel guides, and his coverage of the few establishments that space allowed inclusion of was done as a way of presenting some tourist highlights for a wayfarer.
So something has been neglected. Fifty or so clubs, for starters.
But more importantly, the role of clubs; their social importance in the city. And that’s what I’d like to explore briefly in this column, being as it can shift your view of what daily life in Waterdeep is like for many, and provide many new adventure possibilities for game play in the Realms.
You see, there are clubs that beckon visitors to the city and citizens with coins to spare alike, and then there are private upper-room or downcellar clubs.
There are clubs that offer either a consistent theme (this is a club where people go to flirt and more than flirt, that one is a dining club for those whose palates are adventurous, over there is a gambling house, and yonder is a club where bards, poets, and scriveners read aloud from works both classic and their own new or unfinished efforts), or that are in truth just “different” eateries—different than standard taverns, inns, and ‘soup corner’ shops—offering places to dine and drink with some sort of live entertainment (from beast-wrestling to music to short plays). Waterdeep has many of both of these sorts of clubs.
But it also has nobles’ clubs, clubs open only to the wealthy (so guaranteed because there are stiff entrance fees and/or steep annual dues), clubs run by particular guilds for members and guests, or members only, or as recruitment fronts to gain new members—particularly as new jobs and professions arise and the existing guilds vie to expand their portfolios to take in members working in these new ways, which may differ from the fields they already represent—and clubs that focus on hobbies, such as dragonseeking (dragon spotting or dragon watching, we might call it in the real world) or collecting enameled chalices, or savoring exotic wines, or going on arranged treasure hunts around the city (finding notes and symbols left beforehand and assembling them to decipher clues and find the way to a real prize).
Anyone familiar with either real-world London “clubland” or its fictional (in the works of P.G. Wodehouse and others) versions, their Victorian heyday in particular, can readily grasp how eccentric a club can be (with arcane rules about what rooms one can speak in, or who’s allowed in, or any number of things), and how useful clubs are as a “city refuge” or even “temporary city home” for a visitor from the country, or abroad.
It is this latter function, with all of its add-ons (a club can be “neutral ground” for investors, adventurers and those desiring to hire them for missions more complex and delicate than mere mercenary guarding or “bullyblade” work; a club can be a means of small-hold investors banding together for greater clout and mutual benefit; a club can act as a “city storage vault” or bank for members; a club can be a place to bathe, rest, or grab some privacy, quiet, and shelter for a “breather” from hectic activities or a nap or even a place to hide; a club can be a place for someone to entertain or meet with persons a spouse finds objectionable) that made clubs attractive to me, fifty years ago, so I included them in Waterdeep.
Where they’ve always featured prominently, though not so much in the published Realms. Not out of any conspiracy or skullduggery, but simply because there’s always so much to cover and wordcount is precious (affordable, practical “pixels are free, take all the space you need” digital publishing lay in the future for most of the time the Realms has thus far unfolded, remember), and clubs are usually a passive element. A backdrop. That unless there’s a particular story reason for including, can be omitted in favor of material more germane to a current adventure or tale, that’s more exciting. And was omitted, over and over again.
Creating a deep injustice that simply must be redressed before another fleeting moment passes in our shared—
Well, no, nothing so dramatic.
Let me merely state that to those Waterdhavians who happen to be noble, or shopkeepers who don’t have a family to go home to when they shutter their workplace of evenings and other merchants not members of city guilds, or those who share hobbies (particularly “odd” hobbies, like breeding eels or exploring sewers), or ambitious, rising in wealth folk who want to be nobles or at least be treated like nobility, clubs are often an essential part of daily life.
Clubs that were beyond gambling and “better food and more private booths than festhalls” establishments first began to appear in the city in the time of Ahghairon. They flourished for decades, then fell into a steep decline when eateries that were cheaper and family-friendlier than local corner taverns sprang up all over Waterdeep, but in the early 1300s began to rise again. The Spellplague disrupted their growth, but by the 1470s they were flourishing in every ward of the city, in part because of these important functions: they serve as neutral ground for feuding nobles, guilds, mages, and just plain citizens who’ve had a dispute; they are a safe-for-both-sides spot for nobles to meet with commoners; they offer merchants and aggrieved customers a meeting-place in opposition to guilds; and they serve club members as covert mini-inns (we might say “boutique hotels”) or meeting-rooms (often rooms or private booths can be rented by the bell, half-day, or overnight highsun to highsun).
Clubs come and go, and many of them are secretive and upper room affairs (larger, grander versions of the hideaway established by the Gemcloaks [as seen in The City of Splendors, the 2005 novel Elaine Cunningham and I penned together]), but a few are well-known fixtures to Waterdhavians.
Here follow some very brief descriptions of three very different clubs:
The Farfarers Club (North Ward: west-front Shield Street, one door north of Downybeard the Tobacconist). This old, “respectable” all-walks-of-life club rents much of its street-level floor to a variety of shops, and flourishes up a flight of stairs, occupying the second floor of a solid, brown-hued stone building (the floors above are rental dwelling apartments, with their own private back stairs). The Farfarers sells drinks and simple hot meals (soup, meat- or seafood-filled hot buns, and sweets) to all, and hosts “three copper” (3 cp admission price) lectures by merchants, explorers, prospectors, and folk from afar about the distant corners of the Realms they’ve seen. They show tusks and strange flowers and the like, draw maps and tell colorful tales, and often sell exotic wares or chapbooks they’ve written, or maps. The club generates real coin by making and selling copies of maps in its collection, from simple Waterdeep ward street maps (25 gp) up to maps of Undermountain or the deep Underdark (which may cost hundreds or thousands of gold pieces).
Varendraleer’s (Castle Ward, west-front The High Road, four doors north of its moot with Buckle Alley). Varendraleer is now dead, but was a popular actor specializing in pompous buffoon comic roles, who amassed a huge collection of gaudy, rich—or at least, rich-looking—clothing, the overblown cloth-of-gold and eye-ensnaring over-the-top garments that country folk and dockers imagine that haughty highnoses (nobles, and “wannabe” nobles affecting the airs of nobility) wear. Varendraleer’s six wives (he, ahem, didn’t tell each lady about the others; he housed them in various Sword Coast cities) got together after his death and converted his large Waterdeep mansion into a club, open from dusk until dawn daily, where anyone who wants to pay the admission fee can arrive, get bathed and “made up” (wigs, cosmetics, scents) by one of the widows, then change into a glorious costume, and join the ongoing merriment (first two drinks and the “finger foods” brought around on trays included in the fee; additional goblets must be bought). The fees escalate on festival days and when the club is crowded, but are otherwise usually 1 sp/night. Most patrons adopt a larger-than-life persona and “act out a haughty lord” (or lady) to the hilt—and most patrons are either poor working jacks and lasses, or visitors to the city enjoying the revelry as a lark. Yes, boudoirs can be rented by the hour, and yes, Varendraleer’s has been a meeting-place for many couples—and more than a few villainous conspirators.
The Owldrake (Castle Ward, west-front The Street Of Silver, four doors south of The Mighty Manticore tavern). Quiet, luxuriously furnished (dark wood paneling, statuary, well-padded couches, thick carpets, and highbacked chairs), and exclusive, the “Owl” is the haunt of pedants and sages and those who wish to become more learned by discussion—or those who want to appear learned. The club has a 1 sp/evening admission fee, and offers drinks for 1 sp each, a full meal (roasts, catch of the day, side vegetable dishes, and a dessert) for 1 sp, and has a very few bedchambers (with private baths and jakes) for overnight rent at 1 gp each. (It also does laundry for 1 sp, which leads to many folk sitting around in threadbare old “Owl” robes—deliberately kept shabby so no one will want to pilfer them—while their clothes are being washed and oven-brick dried.) Increasingly, over the years, the Owl is frequented by groups who want to discuss hauntings or particular nobles or other city personages they are “fans” (or haters) of, and by conspirators wanting a private place to meet to negotiate shadywork without attracting overmuch suspicion. The City Watch is aware of this, and on many nights enriches the club coffers by paying admission fees for their “ears” (spies who are often old women or young lads few would suspect of being lawkeepers).
The City of Splendors is home to at least a hundred and sixty known, public, signposted clubs. The next time you visit, take the time to explore a few. You might be surprised. If the gods smile, that surprise might even be pleasant.