Most people have probably never heard of Velen. It’s not a city that has gotten a lot of attention over the years. Even still I thought I’d take the time to go through and examine the city.
Review of Sources
Your best sources for this city are Lands of Intrigue and the 4th Edition Forgotten Realms Guide. Lands of Intrigue in particular provides a map of the city and also discusses the major sites in the city. If you had to choose a source I think Lands of Intrigue is your best bet by far.
Empires of the Sands and Empires of the Shining Seas also provide some earlier references to the city. I’m not sure you’ll get much more out of them then what I’ve already mentioned here. They may however cover some of the broader history of the region that might interest you (which goes back over a thousand years).
Volo’s Guide to Baldur’s Gate 2 also has a section on the city but it is surprisingly useless. It mostly just goes on and on about the different foods the inn serves (about half the pages dedicated to the city go on about this). It’s not very useful and you don’t really get a good feel for the city from it.
Before the civil war in Tethyr the city actually fell under the control of that nation. With the civil war however the nation’s forces were stretched thin and Velen effectively became an independent state.
It’s population even swelled from 13,000 in 1357 DR to 20,000 by 1370 DR (with 35, 000 in the peak season). The reasons for this aren’t made clear in any of the written material (though it is possible it may have had something to do with the civil war in Tethyr). By 1479 DR however it was back down to a population of around 16,000.
It’s since become an important port and line of defence against piracy. It’s said that crewmen of all types and levels of experience could be hired in the city and that the city was often used as a drop-off point for sailors rescued from shipwrecks, ransomed pirate captives, and other crewmen who had lost their jobs.
What Makes it Unique Compared to Other Cities?
- Seven Cuts Court: at some point before 1330 DR there was a severed foot found in this court. The foot had been left by the Shadow Thieves as a sign to show that a particular Shadow Thief assassin had failed to perform his assignment. Since then, all the poor souls who have walked alone through the court at night have found themselves hearing a slow, heavy tread behind them. Soon after they are always found dead, with each having taken seven slash wounds and having had their foot severed. Attempts to dispel whatever ghost or spectre haunts the place have failed. Locals understandably are pretty fearful of the place.
- Piracy: Velen is on the front lines of fighting pirates. This is thanks to its proximity to the Nelanther Isles and it’s fairly impressive fleet (at any given time there are a dozen ships patrolling its waters and another thirty can be sent out within an hours notice).
- Ghost sightings: Veleans tend to ignore the ghosts they see but the city itself is well know for how frequently its visitors see ghosts. Very few of these ghosts are disruptive or predatory. Instead many are simply souls that have some connection to the town (perhaps as a former home). When ghosts have proven themselves to be too unerving clerics and paladins have been known to turn them, though this only stops those ghosts for a decade or two.
- Twisted Rune: the Twisted Rune have a long presence in the city. Not only is there said to be a portal in the duchy of Velen that they established (connecting it with at least 35 other portals across the nations of Calimshan, Amn, and Tethyr) but the city itself was known to host spies of the organization. The portals could only be used by the undead.
- Buried treasure: it wouldn’t be a city near pirates if there weren’t tales of buried treasure. Local rumours claim that the pirate captain Belthar Hellborn buried his treasure somewhere on the Velen Peninsula inside an old ruin. Supposedly, the ruins drive any who enter them insane. If that wasn’t bad enough this secret cache is said to be guarded by bounded devils.
What are the City’s Issues?
Historically the city has had two hills (Widows Hill and Captains Cliff) that have physically separated the rich from the lower classes of the city. By 1370 DR signs were present that it may be changing. Whether or not anything came of that is ultimately up to you as a DM, but having the rich be separated from the lower classes by differences in height is not unheard of in European cities (the Buda of Budapest being an example of this). Should you choose to maintain this separation, then how does this play out in a very working-class city like Velen, where shipbuilding, ship repairs, and law enforcement play important functions? When your party is adventuring in the city is there any animosity shown between these classes?
Velen is not connected by road to any city so any supplies to the city have to come by sea. This isn’t a problem in the summer months but in the winter months (when ice makes travel difficult) the city is left to fend for itself. In a more hardcore campaign the party being able to access certain supplies could become more constrained in a place like this if it is occurring during the winter. By 1479 DR the city had become the target of a number of threats that had also kept it isolated (namely the pirates, the ogres of Muranndin, and other powerful Amnian interests).
Extreme Punishments for Crimes
Perhaps in response to these threats the duke began handing down harsh punishments on it’s convicted criminals. Thieves that were caught were forced to give up all of their possessions and would need to work off the value of the items they stole. Murderers on the other hand would be executed, with most not having a problem with this if they were truly guilty. Think about how this influences the atmosphere of your adventure. Should the party get caught doing some ill deed how will the duke treat them?
The locals aren’t bothered by them but everyone else in the region views the residents of Velen differently. For instance, to the people of Zazesspur (though not other Tethyrians), the phrase “going to Velen” means to be going crazy. After all, you’d have to be crazy to be willing to not only live among the constant dangers from the sea but also the ghosts. The rest of Tethyr rest of the country respects and admires the spirit of the Veleans however.
How do I Use it in My Campaign?
Velen works well I think for any campaign that is looking to have heavy pirate themes. You could even probably take inspiration from the Ghosts of Saltmarsh adventure and pull material from that adventure and apply it to Velen. Either way, whether it’s campaigns involving attacking pirate ships, exploring for treasure, or even exploring beneath the sea Velen is a good starting place. It’s unique geographic position and it’s history make it good for this.
It also works really well as a place where the undead (and powerful undead groups) conspire. The Twisted Rune already have a portal to the duchy of Velen and at least as far back as 1370 DR they have even had their own spy in the city. Odds are other powerful undead groups are present. They may even be responsible for the ghosts in the city not passing on. I could see a solid horror adventure coming from this. Maybe the Twisted Rune cause the ghosts to become far more aggressive, forcing many in the city to flee. A call for adventurers is heard and now you have to defeat the plans of the Twisted Rune. This could even work in a more hardcore campaign if its set in the winter (so that getting supplies is difficult).