Or as it is also known as “that city of 122,000 that used to appear on the map.”
Anyone familiar with Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn will probably have some memories of walking the streets of this distressed city. With it’s strict controls on magic, seedy underworld, and surprising willingness to permit nearly any activity (including slavery) Athkatla stands out from even the harshest cities of the Sword Coast.
Review of the Sources
Yet, despite it’s wealth and power very little has been written about the city in recent years. Essentially, what we know comes from four sources: Volo’s Guide to Baldur’s Gate 2 (this is also the best source), The Lands of Intrigue, Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, and the various Forgotten Realms Campaign Guides (though scattered references to the city can be found in the Grand History of the Realms and Power of Faerun). Still, despite it’s relative importance as a trading centre it has been largely forgotten about in official writings in the last 20 years. So much so that in the Sword Coast Adventure’s Guide it doesn’t even appear on the map! (though Murann does).
I thought I’d use this post to delve a bit into what sets this city apart from others (and in the process pierce through the useless fluff that fills so many of the sourcebooks produced for 2nd Edition). I also thought I’d take a critical eye on how the city operates and is described and maybe make some suggestions for how you can use this information in your game.
What Makes it Unique Compared to Other Cities?
Really it comes down to five things
- The overwhelming presence of the Shadow Thieves in everyday life: the begger you saw on the street asking you for a coin? Yea he could actually be a lowly member of the Shadow Thieves. That gambling operator that you thought cheated your party? He’s probably a member too. That local business you frequent with your party for rations or equipment? They are definitely paying off the Shadow Thieves. Their presence across Amn, and especially Athkatla, is extensive and very much in sync with the wishes of the rulers of Amn – the Council of Five.
- Slavery being legal: Athkatlans really have no issues with slavery. If Shadows of Amn is any indication even children aren’t immune from being dragged into it.
- Murder away if you pay the fine: it’s called the city of coin for a reason. Every ‘crime’ in Athkatla has a price that can be paid to make it go away. Murder is no exception to this. You should be able to just pay the fine and avoid jail time.
- One exception to this is if you are attacking a merchant house. If that is the case then don’t expect this to work.
- Another exception is if you are using a weapon on the sole bridge that crosses the Alandor river, or blocking someones way on it, as this is apparently cause for you to be put you to death instantly.
- Wizard/sorcerer magic being restricted: the implications for this for warlocks and bards is not clear. Presumably both would still need to pay a fee to one of the city’s oligarchs. It’s also not clear kind of magic allows the Cowled Wizards, the secretive cabal of mages that regulate arcane spellcasting in the city, to even know when an unregistered caster has used magic in the city.
- The coin you use reflects your status: Lands of Intrigue points out that your usage of specific coins in Amn is a reflection of your status. Only the poorest bother with coppers, while the merchant houses will bother with nothing less than electrum (ep) coins. The richest of Amn are even known to make their most expensive purchases not with coin but with items fitted with fine jewels. Ultimately, in Amn your choice of currency determines how others view you. If your party pays someone with a copper or silver they’ll know you aren’t anyone of any real power.
What are the City’s Issues?
To get the most out of this section I would encourage you to check out the Athkatla page on the Forgotten Realms wiki.
Swelling Population in the Summer Months
Athkatla goes from a city of 122,000 in the winter/spring to more than 400,000 during the summer. One wonders where exactly these nearly 280,000 people exist for half the year. Perhaps it is simply farmers looking to sell their produce and have it shipped elsewhere. Given it’s climate in the summer months it certainly doesn’t seem likely to be other visitors.
How this is relevant in your campaign: in a more hardcore campaign it may also be an opportunity to make it difficult for an adventuring party to find a place to stay in the city. Maybe they have to take on work just for room and board.
Quest idea: the intense competition surrounding needing to house this influx of people certainly would provoke the interest of the Shadow Thieves. Perhaps a less than lawful party would find opportunities for work by being willing to disrupt a rival inns or shops business.
Over 100 years ago the city’s population in the winter was 122, 000. By 1479 DR it had slightly declined to 118,000.
The reasons for this are not clear. Perhaps the cost of living in the city is so high, and the conditions are so poor, that many simply choose to leave the city once they have the means. Otherwise we’d expect the city to increase in population over that period (especially given how well its greatest rival has thrived).
Only One Bridge in the City
Somehow at no point in time in the city’s history have they thought about getting another bridge. If anything if history is any indication the absolute destitution of the River District would provide an ample opportunity for some noble to come along and propose a toll bridge that would cut through the district and directly connect the nobility with the merchants across the river.
Quest idea: I could actually see an quest involving one of the council of five paying thugs to terrorize citizens until they sell their property for the bridge. That or the Shadow Thieves. The party then has to step in to put those evil folks in their place (making some enemies along the way)
Other than the two small sections of the sewers featured in Shadows of Amn there is no indication in any of the sources I looked in of any sewer system. That is actually quite possible with a pre-industrial city like this where political power rests exclusively in a small handful of powerful and wealthy people. The River District, essentially the city’s slums, are said to be filled with garbage and to smell terribly. This suggests that the city (or the rich through some agreement between noble and merchant houses) might only be providing cleaning and sewage services to the richer areas of the city. In Shadows of Amn the Copper Coronet does have some sewers attached to it but that might be just specific to that inn.
How this is relevant in your campaign: as a DM think about the impact that this environment would have on the poorer areas of this massive city. Especially with the influx of people in the summer.
Enough Coin Makes the Guards Look the Other Way
With coin being all that is needed to avoid the law there is an opportunity for some truly terrible things to transpire in the city. Human sacrifices, rituals, cannibalism, grave robbing, etc are only limited by what profit they offer over the cost of getting caught or how deep the pockets of their perpetrators (and of course through whatever restrictions are imposed through the magic licensing). This kind of a system provides an excellent opportunity to put the party in moral dilemmas.
Quest idea: the city is known for it’s exotic trades. All the exotic animals coming into the city may present an opportunity for a quest for a party that finds themselves opposed to this sort of trade (including exotic animals).
Quest idea: The power that the criminal element in the city has also suggests that the city could be a major source of smuggling illicit goods into Waterdeep. Perhaps a party could wind up in the city investigating a drug ring that has been smuggling product into that city.
How do I Use it in My Campaign?
Athkatla is a solid city to base a campaign in. It’s large enough during the summer months that you could probably go through levels 1-20, especially if you are willing to branch out from it into the surrounding countryside. A city with no rules could also lead to some pretty serious wizard lairs beneath its surface (as was the case with Irenicus’s lair in Baldur’s Gate 2).
In many ways it is frankly better than Waterdeep as a setting because it’s loose restrictions on murder and other questionable acts will pose a far greater moral dilemmas to the party than what you’d find in Waterdeep. As I mentioned earlier, human sacrifices, rituals, cannibalism, grave robbing, etc are only limited by what profit they offer over the cost of getting caught or how deep the pockets of their perpetrators.
Just be mindful of the fact that you are playing a game. There are places where people just aren’t going to be comfortable going some places.
Issues With the Material as Written
Charge for entering the city: it costs a copper coin for a non-citizen to pass through any gate other than (from my reading) the one beneath the Centre District. What exactly constitutes a citizen? Athkatla is not a city state so is it sufficient to merely be a citizen of Amn in order to avoid this? What about property owners? Were I using this in my campaign I would simply make it a charge for everyone. Similar to the tolls that used to be charged at some (though certainly not all) city gates in medieval Europe.