I’m not sure there is any city in the Forgotten Realms setting that has changed as much as Luskan has. Perhaps Baldur’s Gate, which they’ve most recently decided, needs to be a gritty Gotham like place for some reason, but Luskan has probably changed even more than it.
Because of this, the first place you are probably going to want to look at when running anything in Luskan is the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. Normally, I don’t think much of this campaign book. It just lacks a lot of the kind of detail I would like to see for running any kind of adventure in a city. But to get a feel for how the city is today, you aren’t going to find a better source.
An alternative, if you happen to have it, is Storm Kings Thunder. It gives a much shorter overview of the state of the city.
The 4th edition campaign guide is probably your next best bet after that in terms of finding a good source to use. But the information in it is a bit out of date. If you are looking for inspiration about establishments in the city, there is also Volo’s Guide to the North. It’ll be even more out of date, so much so that it makes reference to the Arcane Brotherhood killing non-humans on sight here, but I don’t think you’ll find a better breakdown of all the old neighbourhoods in the city and establishments. Whether or not these places are still running with the city’s state is ultimately up to you, but it’s certainly a good resource if you are looking for some inspiration.
Neverwinter and Luskan have always had a bit of a rivalry. Both cities, however, have had their share of tragedy over the last 120 years. Today Luskan stands as a fraction of its former self, with its population dropping from around 16,000 people back then to closer to 4,000 people as of the 1480s.
In Luskan’s case, this stems from the death of all four of its high captains about 100 years ago in realms time. Without any central government, the city fell to street fighting. Gangs, thieves, and pirates fought throughout its streets. None ever held control of the city for very long, though in the last decade this has changed. The city is now under the control of five captains that each are responsible for a different aspect of the city. Their rank in this newly established hierarchy ultimately determines what aspect of the city they are responsible for, with the less ideal responsibilities falling to those captains with less power.
What Makes it Unique Compared to Other Cities?
Run by Pirates
The fact that pirates run the city is probably one of the more interesting things about this city. The rules in this city are lax, though perhaps not as lax as Athkatla. Slavery, for instance, doesn’t get mentioned, so assume there are some behaviours that even the pirates here won’t tolerate. Especially anything that could hurt the standing of the pirate captain responsible for the area that captain is responsible for. However, bribery makes up a good portion of the high captains’ income here and helps to pay for the improvements that keep the city somewhat functional. So a party should be able to get away with a lot here with enough coin. Provided they do nothing to upset one of the high captains.
This is a city of ruins. It’s a city that is 1/4 of the size it was 120 years ago. On top of that, it sits next to the ancient ruins of Ilusk. The opportunities here to find ancient magic artifacts and other relics should be considerable.
Host Tower of the Arcane (aka Arcane Brotherhood)
For a long time, the Arcane Brotherhood here was reduced to rubble. But in recent years, its seen a bit of a resurgence. Arklem Greeth, a Lich and the original founder of that organization, has since fled, and in his place, the organization is run by archmage Cashaan the Red. Four overwizards also each individually control one of the four host towers. The tower ultimately doesn’t have the power it once had over the city, but past actions on its part to help the citizenry of Luskan have kept it in the citizens good graces.
What are the City’s Issues?
Pirates and thieves aren’t known for being generous and won’t gain much prestige through charity. The only way a high captain in this city gains any kind of power is by maximizing his profits and minimizing his losses. That means bribery, theft, tolls, and any other tools in their belt are needed. It also means that a lot of the population is probably barely making ends meet.
Broken Down Infrastructure
Without any taxes to pay for services, even with whatever paltry sum the pirates offer, odds are a lot of the infrastructure in the city will have fallen into disrepair, especially with its population shrinking so much. Any side streets or places that don’t benefit the pirates will have been left to decline.
Constant Power Struggle
Between the pirate captains themselves, outside criminal forces looking to gain a foothold in the city, and organizations like the Arcane Brotherhood, this is a city that is likely to see a constant power struggle. Outside criminal organizations like the Zhentarim, Shadow Thieves, Xanathar’s Guild could also all be looking to gain a foothold here as well. These pirate captains, after all, have only been in power for around a decade at this point. Not that long in the grand scheme of things.
How Can I Use It in My Campaign?
Luskan is the kind of city you send your adventurers to if they are all murder hobos. I kid, of course, but the opportunity to do petty crime here is much greater. The risk, of course, is also much greater. Should you get caught engaging in unsanctioned criminal activity, you almost certainly are going to get thrown in front of a high captain or their lackeys. They are not going to be as forgiving as the city watch of Waterdeep or even Neverwinter. These are, after all, pirates.
Of course, such behaviour could instead lead to the adventurers being forced to do work for the high captain in exchange for their life.
Therefore, I view Luskan as the kind of rough and tumble place you can send a party off to if you all just want something very different from the rigid order of other cities on the Sword Coast. Life in Luskan is far more chaotic, and control over any given district can switch hands between pirate captains (whose attitudes and approaches towards governing may be vastly different) on a moments notice.