The Dark Streets Campaign
Early on in my D&D days (the latter half of 1978, for those keeping score), I was introducing some of my female school friends (fellow high school students) to roleplaying in the Realms. One consistently, her best friend fairly often, and another friend occasionally—so, one to three PCs, one constantly active and the others less so, being run by players who had less than no interest in Conan-like “heroic swordsman” adventures, and felt uncomfortable with magic (fighting it, fine; handling or wielding it, no). These were gossipy, clique-y teenage girls, gregarious as well as bright and imaginative and creative . . . so I hit upon the idea of having them play characters in a busy, bustling, city. Specifically, a shady neighborhood full of grasping social climbers, petty criminals, crazies, handicapped has-beens living out their strings rather grimly and quite willing to share what they knew for a meal or a flask of strong stuff or a few coins, and get-rich-quick opportunists.
Streets of run-down shops with the fantasy equivalent of tenements above, rag-and-bone-yards with plentiful rats and wild dogs and snakes (at least until someone was fast enough with a cudgel and a stewpot), a place of warehouses and caravan companies, stables and trading costers.
A place of street food, and looting whenever fire broke out, and “the law” being represented by very infrequent large armed patrols.
Into this delightful stew plunged the green characters of my novice players. With me the DM trying to provide roleplaying situations where said characters got to talk a lot, and use weapons only a little.
My first surprise was that these players all wanted to play strong young guys, not female characters, so guys they became.
Guys who didn’t start out as thieves, but . . .
My new-to-D&D players started out playing investors; buy-low and sell-high-to-the-wealthy entrepreneurs. Who had dreams of becoming procurers and providers to the nobility and wealthy at the far end of the city, the grand folk in their gilded, soaring-towered walled mansions with liveried servants, and private gardens, and gleaming-armored guards.
Those dreams quickly ran smack-hard into grubby reality. And the dreamers all too soon ran afoul of protection-racket running “toughs,” glib swindlers, and courtesans.
Which isn’t to say that they hated their increasingly rough experiences; they loved it all. An “all” that included a little mystery-solving, and a lot of talking in-character, and using their wits to get out of situations or best someone. They didn’t want to hurl spells (and genuinely feared wizards who might use magic on them), and coming face to face with a “monster” actually made them scream. (Which bolstered the “Satanic” reputation D&D had among the less informed teachers, but then promptly undid it because said teachers came running to the rescue, discovered no one was being molested or wounded, stayed to “make sure,” and then stayed longer, to listen in.)
The delight of having a cast of colorful “local, neighborhood” NPCs and PCs who were fast-talkers and sometime swindlers and falling increasingly under the sway of local muscle (“hoods” in real-world parlance at the time; “bullyblades” in Realmspeak), was that there were good in-game reasons, aside from needing to rest and heal, for my players’ characters to lie low for times, so they could readily drop in and out of the unfolding history of the neighborhood as their availability for roleplaying sessions. And they were learning street smarts as their characters developed street cred, and enjoying it.
As one of them told me years later, of the real-world city of Toronto, Canada we were all growing up in, “How things worked in Waterdeep was a far cry from how things worked in the meaner streets of Toronto—but I sure learned how to mistrust everyone until I could see truth for myself, and you’d schooled me on the laziest, easiest things human nature leans towards. I started out a real-world sucker; I moved on from school and your D&D sessions a lot shrewder and less trusting. Which meant I did pretty well at the stock exchange.”
Testimonials aside, I as the DM was having great fun working out the various scams shady NPCs would be pulling, and why they might need gullible, agile young men involved in them (yes, usually as dupes and scapegoats, but exactly how). And my players learned fast; if my NPCs repeated themselves, the gals were on to them in a hurry.
For example . . . the PCs were living in the better part (these terms are relative, remember; “better” means streets that aren’t running with human waste and fishguts, and crowded with dangerous lurkers who’ll redecorate your face with a dagger in broad daylight, in front of witnesses) of Dock Ward, right across the Way of the Dragon from South Ward, in Waterdeep. The scams NPCs wanted to involve them in included just about everything.
Waterdhavian investors have become quite familiar with swindles involving investing in the recovery of non-existent treasure discovered on just-located islands far out in the Sea of Swords, or found in Skullport, or even within the walls of nobles’ mansions. Fictitious cargoes, ships, and even fleets are less popular, and imaginary ports or entire countries have become really rare in recent centuries, though there was a brief surge during the upsets of the Sundering; Waterdhavians consult maps often, and are interested in trading news from distant shores, so they aren’t as gullible as some—and are by nature mistrustful.
Occasionally, city-states (notably around the shores of the Shining Sea; in the Border Kingdoms in particular) will send envoys to the larger Sword Coast ports selling the equivalent of bearer-bonds, to help finance a new wharf or shipyard or shipping fleet, and these tend to be high-risk, “long-paltry-return” ventures at the best of times. It’s increasingly rare for an impostor among such envoys, but not unheard-of, particularly when someone is quietly rebelling against current rulership and really wants to use the funds to finance a takeover, or backers for a new regime if they assassinate an incumbent.
My shady-neighborhood PCs faced a constant barrage of these sorts of solicitations, a few bad apples among them.
Most swindles originated closer to home, mainly in Castle Ward or Sea Ward in Waterdeep itself, where scammers established rented-office-and-on-paper-only trading costers with names and blazons confusingly close to established and successful costers, and solicited partnerships or bond purchases in these fictitious concerns by tricking the over-eager into thinking they were investing in a known, “solid” Waterdeep-based coster.
More modest swindles involved guild members or even courtiers at the Palace paying small sums to citizens to send “demand scrip” (invoices) to them for goods or services never actually provided, enabling the swindler to draw on substantial guild or city funds to pay these bills (i.e. to pocket the money). Or, in a twist on this scheme, reselling actual goods in Dock Ward alleys and taverns that just “disappeared” after being ordered and paid for by a larger concern. Sometimes the lack of any real ropes or nails or pulleys or potatoes was covered up by unfortunate warehouse fires in which unwanted refuse was burned instead of the goods so tragically (but fictitiously) immolated.
Yet another sort of recurring swindle involves steeply overcharging the Palace for harbor wharf repairs or breakwater rehabilitation (street resurfacing or civic building roof repairs are less popular, because the work can more readily be overseen without obvious inspections, and military maintenance—that is, repairs to the Castle or city walls and gates—are even less so, because such work is only given out to a small circle of approved businesses, and their work is always watched closely). In this sort of scam, the work is done, but the city treasury pays far more than it really cost, and the difference simply vanishes.
Ahghairon, way back when, stamped firmly on widespread corruption in city spending (usually of this sort: “the city buys sixty oxen to pull carts, or sixty smoked boar carcasses for a feast, but three or four vanish, actually ending up for the use of, or resold/bartered by, city officials”), so Waterdeep has never had the Realms equivalent of a full-fledged Tammany Hall, but as Laeral has recently (in the 1490s DR) discovered, such corruption was occurring, in small but constant ways, during Lord Neverember’s time as Open Lord.
My fledgling players were running characters in Piergeiron’s Waterdeep, in the 1350s DR, when corruption seldom lasted long—but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t tried, especially when “the Serpent” (Elaith Craulnobur) flourished.
Add to these shady doings the legitimate but genuinely risky ventures, and fierce price-undercutting competition, and the gals’ characters led very interesting lives—especially as veteran Waterdhavian sharks love to “frame and blame” ambitious rising novices.
And after you’ve been framed by folk, they often try to blackmail you by offering you their sworn testimony as to your innocence…if you’ll just do this little burglary for them: break into this noble mansion or wealthy Waterdhavian’s house, and steal those papers, or that jewelry.
This sort of coercion goes on in the City of Splendors to this day, and although my Dark Streets Campaign is now almost thirty-nine years in the rear-view mirror, imaginary Waterdeep still keeps going strong, in my imagination and in yours. Long may it (shadily) flourish!