Small Presses of Waterdeep

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Endless Chapbooks

The boom in broadsheets that has befallen the City of Splendors over the last thirty years was spurred by the tireless efforts of Emberstone Haumbroad, but made possible in the first place by the large number of independent "backroom" frame presses, calligraphers, and woodcut artists available in Waterdeep. They were there because of an industry that had already been flourishing in the city for centuries: chapbook publishing.

Chapbooks are parchment pamphlets, often having only a dozen pages, but sometimes as many as thirty-six. Most are two human-handwidths across by three handwidths high in exterior dimensions, and about as thick as the edge of a large man's hand (smaller examples retain the same rough proportions). Chapbooks always have covers of dyed and sewn hide (usually of rothé or other livestock), which are sometimes stiffened with metal plates or thin (and often faulty in looks) ceramic tiles. The covers and pages are sewn to thick leather "spines." Although most chapbooks look quite trim when new, damp causes many to bulge and swell into curved "bundles."

Recently, the publishers of broadsheets have discovered an increasing hunger among Waterdhavians for swift, accurate reporting of "the real news" -- even if mysteries remain unsolved and tales untidily unresolved. Fancies of talking fish in the harbor and lost princesses from other realms discovered among nobles' servants just don't have the allure they once did. Waterdhavians still love their trashy serials, but they want sober facts in the front pages.

This trend is by no means so strong among chapbooks, which from year to year display a "stable" mix of publications: religious tracts; oft-scary "feel the wonder" books about magic, for the uninitiated; political rants; smart-mouthed adventurer yarns; lurid romantic tales for hungry male readers; tear-reaping romances for female readers; a small number of useful "hard information" books on spells, herbs, and how-to-do tasks; an even smaller number of histories that almost no one seems to buy; and a very large number of quirky, opinionated "the True Secrets of" tomes on a bewildering variety of topics.

"True secrets" books have yielded most of Waterdeep's bestsellers thus far, in a busy, bustling mercantile city. Most long-term citizens read voraciously for pleasure and "don't want to miss" anything important that could be an opportunity to make money (and so try to keep abreast of any topic that strikes the popular fancy). Like the broadsheets, almost all Waterdhavian chapbooks are printed in Common, and so travel well, and are often found in unexpectedly distant places in Faerûn.

Examples of past "foreseeable" bestsellers include Whisper-Secrets of the Lords and Ladies of Waterdeep; Skullport: the Lurking Evil Below; Lashes of Loviatar: Beloved Pain and Those Who Seek It; and The Exploits of Roral Readysword, Knight-Adventurer.

A few of the useful steady sellers among chapbooks, decade after decade include Engelvaer's Poison and Sickness Remedies; Herbs of the North and How to Recognize Them; and Trade-Roads and Tavern-Notes: A Wayfarer's Guide to Inns, Wells, Taverns, and Perils in the North.

Here follows a sampling of the more unexpected "highcoin" titles:

  • Beyond the Dark Door: Sewers, Cellars, and Secret Passages of Castle Ward
  • Broad Beneath My Back: Sixty Summers of Mattress-Making in Snail Street
  • Feuds of the Founders: Old Quarrels and Disputes of Early Waterdeep
  • Hunting Haurauthadoar: The Slaying of a Great Green Dragon
  • Jossra's Sayings: Mind-Governing Advice for All Social Occasions
  • Lady Naga, and Why I Loved Her
  • Lord Malavar's Moustache: A Mirthful Mystery of Old Waterdeep
  • Malpurth's Catalogue of Lances, Pendants, and Banners of Fallen Houses
  • Moonfall: The Tragic Tale of a Dancer of Waterdeep
  • Songs on the Wind: Ghosts of the Old City, and What They Whisper to Me
  • That Old Cask: A Drinker's Tales

On any given day in Waterdeep, battered, well-used copies of all these titles can be found by someone who visits a mere handcount of printers or "old tome" shops.

Anyone can copy any book without legal penalty in Waterdeep, and printers amass libraries of chapbooks printed by their rivals so that they can plunder for ornaments and illustrations when a "new" book must be swiftly assembled. Many woodcut artists and apprentices can't craft a new illustration to save their lives, but they can readily and speedily accomplish what they've been trained to do: exactly copy something set in front of them.

Bookshops in Waterdeep tend to be crowded with dusty histories and volume after volume of adventure, romance, or bawdy sagas that are twenty to forty titles long.

Titles of Note

Any roster of the most popular, important, and useful chapbook titles published in Waterdeep will inevitably be subjective and hotly debated -- but in all such lists drawn up fairly, the following titles must appear. (It should be noted that their resale prices reflect lasting popularity; lesser-known chapbooks usually fetch 2 to 4 gp at most, and many go for less than that.)

Engelvaer's Poison and Sickness Remedies

Engelvaer's Poison and Sickness Remedies is a compendium of alchemical preparations and folk medicines (including herbs and the placing of certain gems and other substances on the tongue of the stricken). Most of its contents have been discredited, but many sages believe some instructions may have limited efficacy if augmented by information deliberately left out by Engelvaer (and rumored to be contained in a second chapbook, the very expensive and rare Coderium that he sold for 1,000 gp per copy).

A growing number of folk believe the convoluted prose of this chapbook contains a coded message regarding the whereabouts of great treasure -- quite possibly a rich hoard of potions or scrolls. No one, so far as is known, has yet deciphered this hidden screed. Engelvaer disappeared some eighty summers ago through a portal somewhere in midair above a roof in Dock Ward; his fate, present whereabouts, and the location or continued existence of that portal are all unknown.

  • Format: 12 pages, bound in "dusty blue," with silver gilt stamped title on front.
  • Typical Resale Price: 4 gp.
  • Sample Passage: For relief from ye shaking fever, take first ye outer leaves of ye salath plant, taking great care that they be not withered but yet retain their prickly hairs, and soak a goodly handful of these in ye blood of. . . .

Herbs of the North and How to Recognize Them

Herbs of the North and How to Recognize Them is a fanciful overview of a strange selection of ground plants found in the Dessarin valley. The roster is considered odd in that none of the plants, so far as is known, actually has healing properties. Each is portrayed in a crude line drawing and identified by common names plus a grandiose title apparently crafted by the unknown chapbook author. Listings of uses follow; readers may learn (some the hard way) that every single use was apparently invented for this work and that attempting many of them may be harmful.

Many of the listed plants do have mild druglike effects such as causing drowsiness, deadening pain, calming (even against magical fear effects), or temporarily negating all sense of taste or smell, and almost all of them have strong flavors that might see use in cookery.

  • Format: 34 pages, bound in dark brown, with no lettering on the covers.
  • Typical Resale Price: 3 gp.
  • Sample Passage: Dragonfire Weed, hight also Common Thrubweed, Bootspice, Rust-Tassel, and Brownshar. A creeping, wilted-looking plant of slender, ragged dusty-green leaves sprouting from a single root without apparent flower. Older, outer leaves turn brown and lengthen into long stalks ending in the shriveled leaf, or "tassel." This plant sprouts wherever fiery dragon-breath touches fertile ground. Uses: Wards off dragons when worn on naked body instead of -- not as well as -- clothing or armor. Cures burns when rubbed on them. Calms troubled digestion and cures drunkenness instantly when chewed and swallowed. When boiled, yields a brown dye that can tint eyes and hair as well as skin.

Trade-Roads and Tavern-Notes: A Wayfarer's Guide to Inns, Wells, Taverns, and Perils in the North

Trade-Roads and Tavern-Notes: A Wayfarer's Guide to Inns, Wells, Taverns, and Perils in the North is a guidebook consisting of very brief (alphabetical, by place) listings of travel-relevant features found along the roads of the Sword Coast North. Out-of-date judgments and curious omissions abound; no maps are provided and the work in general is "only a little better than nothing at all," but despite years of warnings by outlanders and Waterdhavians who've tried to use it "in the wild," the "Trusty Guide" is widely considered reliable by Waterdhavians who've never traveled. If such folk do undertake a journey, most will bring along a copy. In the words of one caravan rider: "Well, let them wave it about. Judiciously used, page by page, it can help get about ten wayfires going."

  • Format: 20 pages, bound in green (apt to fade in a mottled manner) with the letter "T" stamped on the front cover.
  • Typical Resale Price: 3 gp.
  • Sample Passage: Drowned Lady Well. A day east of Calling Horns along the Evermoor Way: seek small hill crowned by three tall pines, cairn like ram's head at west end. Well covered by large flat stone below cairn, flows out into stone-lined basin. Watched by wolves. Drinkable water, no drowned ladies. Troll country; camp with ring-fires.

That Old Cask: A Drinker's Tales

That Old Cask: A Drinker's Tales is a compendium of colorful but simply told yarns, all of the "I was told this good story of Waterdeep in a tavern" sort. Most are clever little tales of revenge, farce, or strange gods-fated happenstance and are entertaining rather than moralistic or useful. It is a standard book in Waterdhavian households, where many old folk read it aloud to younglings around the evening fire or low-lamp.

  • Format: 28 pages, bound in black with copper corners; a copper-painted metal cask badge is claw-stamped into the center of the front cover (the corners go green very swiftly, and it's rare indeed to find a cask badge with any paint left on it).
  • Typical Resale Price: 4 gp.
  • Sample Passage: But the miller was not quite ready to give up on his gold just yet. Down he came a-creeping, with three stout friends and all of them bearing cudgels, too, to where the proud knight lay sleeping, and they set upon him like thrashers in a hurry to be done before a windstorm, flailing with their cudgels until blood flew like raindrops and cracks and splinters beset the wood that had bludgeoningly served them for lo these years. . . .

The Exploits of Roral Readysword, Knight-Adventurer

This chapbook tells a grand, stirring tale of rollicking derring-do in light, arch prose, of the seemingly endless rescues, fights, pranks, and monster-slayings practiced by the smilingly empty-headed hero Roral (pronounced "ROAR-all"). Set in an imaginary landscape of always summer where roads wind through lush farms and deep forests populated by endless bad barons and sinister always-helmed knights (and by legions of beautiful damsels who lie fetchingly bound and oppressed by aforementioned barons and knights), this sprawling tale of bold action after daring escapade strays neither into foul language, bawdy description, nor truly frightening description, and reading it can lift spirits.

  • Format: 36 pages, bound in red, with covers embossed with a large "RR" (most editions).
  • Typical Resale Price: 4 gp.
  • Sample Passage: But Roral came down then upon him like a child upon hot tarts. Zish went his bright blade, and zlosh, and at each stroke gore gouted like wine and evil men cried out as they perished, until all the guards lay fallen and Roral faced his foe alone. And then the bold knight drew his dagger sharp, and then he let it go -- and then the air itself screamed loud, a-sliced both high and low! The Baron of the Black Jaws darted he to the left and then to the right, belly and mustaches bobbing wildly, as Roral's sword and hurled dagger sought his vitals. . . .

The Ramath Saga

The long-running series called the Ramath Saga deserves special mention. Although it never achieves the splendid tone and humor of the Roral tome, it has been the daily reading fare of men of action -- and the vastly greater ranks of men who idly dream of being men of action -- for two decades. Greater numbers of these chapbooks have been sold than any other series, perhaps because readers of romances have more to choose from. Ramath is a grim, darkly handsome hero who calmly and tersely handles all perils in stride, never seeming to change in character from one book to the next. All of the anonymously-penned Ramath books are dreadfully written, but those listed hereafter contain such striking tales that they remain popular while the others are now largely forgotten.

  • Format: (most volumes) 22 pages, bound in crimson with a diagonal silver stripe emblazoned in black: Ramath.
  • Typical Resale Price: 3 gp (for titles listed hereafter; 3 to 6 sp for other Ramath titles).
  • Sample Passage: The dark figure laughed coldly, but Ramath strode forward undaunted, the sword that had slain seven sorcerers in his hand. When he was but a pace away, the cowl facing him grew empty and fell to the stones in a heap, and his foe was not any longer there. Ramath turned as swift as any serpent, questing alertly in all directions for the peril he knew to yet be assailing him. . . .

The valued volumes include the following:

  • Ramath the Rake, Volume the First: Young Ramath
  • Ramath the Rake, Volume the Twelfth: Slaying Six Kings
  • Ramath the Rake, Volume the Sixteenth: The Skull Beneath the Crown
  • Ramath the Rake, Volume the Twentieth: Reigning Over Three Empires
  • Ramath the Rake, Volume the Thirtieth: Castles Burning
  • Ramath the Rake, Volume the Thirty-Second and Last: Ramath's Waiting Grave

The Dark Dragon

The Dark Dragon is a frankly lewd tome that is notorious for the vivid details of its largely plotless narrative, which concerns guests overcome with passions in the mysterious castle of the Dark Dragon.

  • Format: 36 pages, bound in black, with a leather binding-closed loop fashioned to look like a dragon's tail.
  • Typical Resale Price: 7 gp.
  • Sample Passage: And beneath her straining fingers -- and the blazing flame of his desire -- his tunic gave way, and. . . .

Nargeth's Roving Eye, and the Wonders It Witnessed

A bawdy tome more humorous and less torridly written than the notorious Dark Dragon, Nargeth's Roving Eye, and the Wonders It Witnessed concerns many amorous goings-on seen by the arcane eye of the young wizard Nargeth, who seems to have an affinity for hiding in closets in grand mansions and castles and just watching life . . . er . . . unfold.

  • Format: 34 pages, bound in light buckskin, with a single, staring eye (with a smile just beneath it) embossed on the cover.
  • Typical Resale Price: 5 gp.
  • Sample Passage: Giggles and chuckles seemed to be at war with each other on the other side of that door. A passing guard cast a look of frowning envy at its closed darkness as Nargeth urgently sought to find a hole, no matter how small, that would permit his skulking orb to see into the bedchamber of the princess. . . .

The Rose of Neverwinter: Love Conquers Darkness

The most popular of dozens of well-loved feminine romances concerned with matters of the heart rather than of the flesh, The Rose of Neverwinter: Love Conquers Darkness is setin a city of Neverwinter that no inhabitant of the real one would recognize. (The fictional Neverwinter is a remote northern city of linked castles surrounded by a tamed "garden" wood, in an always-warm, always-fair-weather setting.) This long narrative is crammed onto the pages, and it has tiny margins and even tinier script. It follows the Rose, most beautiful of the "seventy lovelorn ladies of Neverwinter," as six rival princes from distant lands arrive one "wolf-howling night," and all set about seeking to conquer her heart.

  • Format: 36 pages, bound in maroon, with the full title stamped onto the cover in flowing script (the characters painted in silver).
  • Typical Resale Price: 4 gp.
  • Sample Passage: They drew off their gloves in unison, saluted each other with full finger-weaving courtesy, and then -- the darkly-glowering Prince Haundrath boldly, and the Rose slowly, the graceful advance of her hand daring yet reluctant -- touched just their fingertips together.
    • His skin was smooth, firm, and yet shockingly cold, and an icy thrill seemed to race through her. She felt at once chilled and warmed, as his eyes kindled into what could only be called a burst of flame, and the Rose felt heat to match the inferno of his two ardent orbs rising in her own breast and throat and face. Without thought she leaned forward, yearning to meet his warmth -- and was rocked with dashing cold once more when a cheerful voice said very suddenly from close behind her, "How now, you two? Overboldness before highsunfeast? Impetuous as chambermaids, what?"
    • It was Prince Murnlarreo, as mocking as ever, his stunningly handsome face wearing a smile that did not quite hide the pain lurking in his magnificent storm-gray eyes. Those eyes, those magnificent eyes! As the Rose turned her head to gaze into his eyes, waving the once-more-glowering Haundrath away, she felt herself drawn helplessly into the welcoming depths of Murnlarreo's warmly regal orbs. . . .

The Mystery of The Black Spur

One oddity among chapbooks that never fails to ignite furious debate among collectors and sages alike is The Black Spur, a curiously stilted work of fiction purporting to recount the disputes, intrigues, and romances within the sprawling, luxurious household of a fictional noble family of Waterdeep. Many folk believe its prose conceals spell incantations, for those who know how to look for them, and this and other strange beliefs about the Spur have been fanned by the fact that every single copy of this chapbook is slightly different, with paragraphs or individual lines added, omitted, or altered. Certain wealthy collectors of the city (who've learned to remain anonymous since those who were more public suffered, one after another, robbery and murder) have for years tried to amass as many copies of the Spur as possible.

At least two thousand copies of the Spur were printed some twenty-four winters ago, by unknown presses acting for an anonymous author. Blackstaff Tower is known to hold more than a dozen copies, and all of the noble houses like to own at least a copy each (to hunt for what are said to be thinly veiled references to real nobles, not necessarily out of any interest in chasing down spells at all). One long-lasting rumor insists the spell hidden in the copies of the Spur is a "hanging" doom spell that will be unleashed to devastate Waterdeep if it is ever properly uttered. Still other whispers say it will set the Walking Statues to performing some unknown task, or cause the Castle to collapse down into Skullport, or force all living things up out Undermountain or the sewers into the city streets.

Production of Chapbooks

Resale prices of used chapbooks vary with demand, but the fees paid by printers to produce a book can be summarized thus:

Most printers pay an author a flat fee per tome (no royalties) of 6-12 gp (8-10 is the average), though the fee can be much higher for books "the public is demanding" such as tell-all tales from celebrities of the moment. Artists are usually paid 1 sp per illustration or 1 gp for all the illustrations needed for a book. (Many printers will recycle these woodcuts for several future tomes with no thought for paying the artist any more coin: once a woodcut is sold, it becomes the buyer's property.)

Newly printed chapbooks are usually sold to vendors (who can rarely add more than 2 or 3 gp to the price, lest they be undercut by another seller) at 2 to 4 gp a copy.

Waterdeep is home to literally hundreds of printers, but the best-known (and regarded) ones are: Nanalo's (Nanalo Druen, north-front Keltarn Street, two doors east of the Street of Silver, Castle Ward) and the House of Sharp Quills (Speakers: Immarsk Tanthuulen and Blaela Murrowind; south-front Julthoon Street three doors west of Gothal Street). Generally, the respectable printers, and those with a lot of money, but also a few well-heeled rebels and mavericks, are located north of the Market ("upcastle") and the less respectable makers of lower-quality chapbooks are south of it, or "downcastle." The most notorious "print anything" business, Malikho's Maw, can be contacted only by asking doorguards of certain Dock Ward taverns to arrange clandestine meetings.