The title of this is in reference to the fact that I’m not sure what the functional difference is between an old bureaucratic centre for a nation’s royalty (Saradush) and it’s former capital (Zazesspur). These seem so similar in terms of their roles. Especially given that it is a monarchy and it has been for centuries. Anyways…
Review of Sources
Unfortunately, the Forgotten Realms wiki hardly has anything about the city. I think the best sources people can use for the city (if they can get their hands of them) are Empires of the Sands and Lands of Intrigue. The Lands of Intrigue is by far the better of these and even has a map of the city (it’s on the back of the book’s front cover).
The 4th Edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting does briefly mention the city but hardly in a way that is worth talking about (it’s contribution is mainly that the city had 100,000 people in 1479 DR). Same goes for Empire of the Shining Sea (which just mentions it as part of a broader discussion involving events that are over 2000 years old at this point).
The only official adventure I could find set here is the 2nd Edition adventure “A Blight on the Land” (from Dragon Magazine #38). But it turns out that it just starts here and doesn’t actually have anything involving the city beyond just having it as a starting point (most of the adventure actually takes place around Darromar). Beyond that the city hasn’t been covered in any other adventures that I could find (which is a bit disappointing since even at it’s lowest point it’s a city of over 100,000).
Back in 1357 DR the city was said to have 375,000 people. The city had swelled to this population as a result of an influx of refugees from Castle Tethyr over the previous ten years (refugees were fleeing the castle as a result of the death of the royal family and ensuing civil war) .
As I’ve mentioned in other articles, the civil war in Tethyr went on for 22 years, was really bloody, had lots of assassinations, and just a real mess. It took over 20 years after it started for most of the major cities in Tethyr to return to a state of normalcy. During that period there was a lot of debate in Zazesspur especially over whether or not Tethyr should return to being a monarchy, who should lead that monarchy, or if some other system of government should be used.
Before the Days of Terror in 1367 the population was above 200,000. By 1370 the population had declined to about 170,000. It could however rise during the peak trading seasons to 375,000 (briefly peaking at 500,000).
By 1479 the city had declined further to 100,000 people – presumably as the situation normalized and Darromar (Tethyr’s capital) gained greater prominence in the kingdom. At this point in time Zazesspur was still a major source of goods and materials for Tethyr and a major departure point for trade by sea. It was controlled by nobles known as the Council of Lords (though the guilds and the Shadow Thieves had a great deal of influence). By this point it also housed the majority of the gnomes in Tethyr.
What Makes it Unique Compared to Other Cities?
- Amalgamation of cultures: Zazesspur really is a city whose architecture and cultures are a blending of influences from Calimshan and Tethyr. In any of the cities more active streets you may come across a seller claiming to be selling magic lamps from Calimshan, while right across from them is a someone selling some of Zazesspur’s famous carpets, and down the street someone is selling the wines of Amn. I would take inspiration from Iberian, North African, and Arabic culture to get a feel for how the place should look.
- It’s built on an old dwarven tunnels: along with Darromar it’s a city that was built over top of old dwarven ruins. These ancient tunnels, though sealed, have connections to places in the Underdark like Old Shanatar. They may also lead to sources for ancient dwarven wealth (as well as the usual contraptions, constructions, and traps that await any adventurer that would delve into such a place).
- Assassins’ Guild: if you want to become an assassin this is the guild to join. As of 1370 their notoriety had kept the local authorities from stepping in. If you’ve got someone in your party that maybe wants to get training in disguise kits, poisoner’s kits, or anything else you can think of that might be relevant you can consider having them complete tasks for the guild in exchange for training.
- Carpets: this is the city to go to if you want to get a fine carpet or rug. If you’ve ever had dreams of flying your magic carpet out of a collapsing dungeon then this is the place for you.
What are the City’s Issues?
A city of ruins: regardless of where you draw the line here the reality is that over several decades the city saw mass influxes of people as a result of the civil war. Large amounts of housing and other service-providing businesses would have been built for them. In much the same way that large chunks of Rome were empty in the medieval period (as a city of 30,000 tried to fit into a city made for 1 million) this is a city that would have expanded to accommodate these 500,000 residents. With only 100,000 left today (with presumably more during the peak trading season) this should feel to adventurers like a city that has whole sections that are abandoned. Undoubtedly in the 120 years since the civil war many of these ruins will be inhabited by monsters and they would make for a great opportunity for monster and loot hunting.
A decline in relevance: Zazesspur no longer has the valuable position for trade that it once did. With the destruction of Castle Tethyr and rise of Darromar as the capital, ships looking to supply the capital or Saradush could simply travel further south, avoid Zazesspur, and then travel up the River Ith. Smaller, more easily transportable goods may still taken up the River Sulduskoon to be brought into the capital by land. But anything bulkier or in more demand will logically favour a route that involves more time on the water (where it can avoid the difficulties in bringing products across land). The city’s importance for Tethyr as a trade city has been on the decline for over a century by this point.
Lack of mages: Lands of Intrigue mentions that mages tend not to stay in the city for very long. Wizards who are fleeing Amn tend to want to go further away from that nation than Zazesspur, while visiting Calishites have a habit of hiring their wizards as part of their journey north to the city. (typically from a place south of Memnon).
Crime: Even at its heyday the city had a problem with the active presence of the Shadow Thieves. With all it’s abandoned places (and with the city still being an important trade city) the city should be a magnet for criminal activities. Law enforcement are constantly rooting out thief rings but never getting anywhere at ending it for good. Burglars, pickpockets, and racketeers make a healthy living off the hundred or so thousand people who remain in the city (who probably have some connection themselves to the trading industry).
How Can I Use It in My Campaign?
Zazesspur is a city that makes a great stand-in for a ruined city for any urban adventure. This city would have been built for hundreds of thousands of more people than it currently has. In it there might be abandoned places like mage towers, old temples and shrines, banks, and even a largely abandoned sewer system. Anything that people may have used in their day-to-day lives that were no longer needed and eventually were abandoned as the population declined.
Zaz-ess-pur (or Zaz for short). It might also just be easier to pronounce it like “Zazzpur” and leave the “ess” silent.