How and where and when did the Forgotten Realms start? What's at the heart of Ed Greenwood's creation, and how does the Grand Master of the Realms use his own world when he runs D&D adventures for the players in his campaign? "Forging the Forgotten Realms" is a weekly feature wherein Ed answers all those questions and more.
he late 1300s DR and much of the 1400s were a time of turmoil, thanks to the devastation of the Spellplague and the many changes of the landscape. The status quo was threatened everywhere. In some places, rulers rose or fell, but almost everywhere less dramatic but no less real shifts occurred in daily power and dominance. Or to put it another way, local moneybags or powers behind thrones lost some of the power they had enjoyed when customs and trade routes changed and alternatives appeared. In some places, this meant oldcoin noble families and large stranglehold local guilds waned in power, and ambitious locals who'd been suppressed for a long time saw their opportunities to snatch power, and tried for it.
One of the more legal (and therefore, seen as more desirable and more lasting than the rule of the sword and fist by those who avoid violence as a threat to general law and order) ways of concentrating rising power in legitimate form is guild creation. Since the early 1200s DR, guilds have grown in numbers, reach, and real daily power almost everywhere in Faerûn, and they've done so in the lands along the Sword Coast especially. Though, like everything else, guilds have enjoyed varying popularity and growth over time, in general over the last two centuries they have become more numerous, and attempts to consolidate many small guilds into fewer and larger ones, or alliances between guilds, have soon failed. Monolithic power blocks of all sorts are declining, and many petty power groups are flourishing. Nowhere is this clearer than among guilds.
In such places as Ormpur, guilds have recently risen to dominate local politics—with many rival guilds being the norm rather than two or three dominant ones, as was more often the case during the mid-1300s DR. Merchants who want to retain some independence, and rulers who want to hold on to power, naturally favor many weak guilds over a few tyrannical ones—if they must deal with guilds at all. So rulers have made rulings and passed laws that limit monopoly attempts by guilds, and they make it possible for ambitious merchants to form their own. In some places (Waterdeep and the powerful southern port cities of Sembia, for example), wealthy nobles and self-styled lords have covertly bankrolled their own cults (to serve in part as their "outside the law" personal agents) and their own guilds (both to give them a say in local mercantile affairs, and to break up the growing power of common-born successful merchants).
Such things make founding guilds possible, but there remain impediments, including fear of reprisals, being just too busy with one's own trading and work to afford the time and expense, and a loathing of what we real-world sorts would call "red tape" (and foreseeing an ongoing life of dealing with same).
Enter Rilduth Jarasson, a clever commoner born in the rural Velen peninsula, who grew up working on ships, in warehouses, and in portside taverns and clubs where trading is done, up and down the Sword Coast. Jarasson is clever and perceptive, and he sees consequences—and starting in 1466 DR, he went into business as a founder of guilds.
Nowadays, he has refined guild-founding into a process that varies only in local details. He begins by identifying a suitable "underserved" city, where he quietly purchases a suitable building to serve as a guild headquarters, then learns the local process for forming and registering a guild and follows it. Once he officially has a guild (often complete with approved-by-heralds blazons), Jarasson then recruits a careful blend of "wolves" and "sheep" (publicly he would call them "suitable partners," and in candid private discussion "leaders" and "followers," never wolves and sheep) of local successful merchants to be members. Those who feel aggrieved or excluded are prime candidates, as are all who have fallen afoul of powerful local guilds, rulers, and noble families.
Jarasson becomes the landlord of the guild, and if he can do so without guild members knowing about it, he will so that he can conceal his ownership of their headquarters by working through intermediaries. He does whatever diplomacy he can to get it up and running. Then—and this is what he privately calls "the key to the entire vault" (meaning the vital element of his string of successes)—he covertly arranges (via hired adventurers and local lowlives) any "incidents" (arson, robbery, alley violence, even a murder or two) that will bond the new guild members together so they feel they are oppressed as a group, or that they face a foe determined to personally harm them.
He also tries to get himself trusted by the most important members of any of his guilds as what we might call a "go-to guy" (their first and preferred contact when they want to get something done that is messy or outright illegal, or need to obtain something unusual, rare, or locally unavailable). In this way, he derives a steady stream of income (headquarter and warehouse—because he always takes care to buy or build suitable warehouse space handy to his guilds—rents) and an irregular trickle (providing shady services and procuring goods) from every guild he founds.
Jarasson is more greedy than patient, has no scruples, and possesses a healthy "preserve my own skin" suspicion of everyone that drives him to prepare backup plans and hired waiting-in-the-wings-lest-something-goes-wrong formidable armed aid, all while preferring a low profile to public fame. So Rilduth Jarasson has become successful in a relatively small handful of years, and among other things he has grown to know a lot about mercantile business in the Sword Coast and Heartland areas of Faerûn. Over time, the shrewdness of his judgments has increased with experience, and in Elminster's words, "he sees much farther than he knows." In other words, Jarasson can correctly guess and anticipate much when he knows little, by calling on what he knows of human nature, of specific individuals, and of the larger pattern of intersecting and conflicting investments, activities, and aims among rulers, nobles, guilds, and trading costers.
Jarasson resists arranging shortages of goods, because he deems this practice too risky. Those most affected tend to end up enraged enough that they go energetically looking for causes, and rulers take steps to try to ensure that a given shortage will never happen again, with such steps often involving more restrictive laws and more attentive scrutiny by the authorities. That said, he isn't above profiting from shortages that do occur, and he is in a unique position to enrich himself and the guilds he has connections with by doing so. As a result, he is valued by most of "his" guilds, not tolerated or quietly disliked. This doesn't mean he's free of enemies, including the sort who contact slayers-for-hire on occasion to rid themselves of "sly, all-seeing Jarasson."
And this is where the most secret organization Jarasson has founded comes into play. Long ago, realizing he needed not just bodyguards but capable agents who could be where he couldn't, Jarasson founded The Capable Hand, a shadowy society of a dozen or so (sometimes as many as sixteen, sometimes as few as eight) younger and more energetic persons who are personally loyal to him. They are privy to all monies coming in, have a limited say in Jarasson's major decisions, and share equally in all his profits (all to minimize any tendencies among them to eliminate him), and they genuinely see themselves as privileged to be at the heart of "a better way of running things" in the Realms. The most senior Capable Hand members include Flaerathae Harlwheel (a plain but passionate woman who is brilliant at sums and remembering tiny details, and has been Jarasson's lover from time to time; they are currently easy, lifelong friends); Larathin Tarnflask (a taciturn, strong, patient man of nondescript looks and a great skill at accurately throwing things, from knives to large casks); and Imryn Julth, a disgraced former priest of Tempus who fell into thievery and mercenary swordwork before Jarasson "rescued" him.
Right now, Jarasson has his eyes on Baldur's Gate and Waterdeep, where he sees introducing several new, small guilds that can "struggle" for some time as a way to eventual large profits. As he has discovered, some of the local wealthy families and guilds are corrupt, lazy, and overextended, and they will either collapse or, in time, urgently need his covert aid.