A Sea of Troubles
Hunched on the banks of the subterranean River Sargauth, Skullport is no stranger to death and destruction. Built on the site of a long-dead Netherese encampment, more than once Skullport has weathered storms that have brought it to the tattered edge of annihilation. No matter how unlikely it seemed that this Port of Shadow could rebuild after a devastating event, each time it has risen from its bones to exist again.
A festering sore on Undermountain, Skullport lies deep beneath the streets of Waterdeep. Far from the prying eyes of the Waterdhavian lords, the city has long had a reputation as a hub of illicit trade, fed by a stream of pirate vessels that used the port as a hidden sanctuary. After falling victim to disaster upon disaster, that stream became a trickle, but the intermittent influx of goods, coupled with Skullport’s relative autonomy, has drawn a bizarre range of creatures to the city. Outcast criminals, plotting illithids, luckless merchants, spell-scarred refugees, and now even yuan-ti struggle to survive here.
Built within an immense cavern, the port is an erratic array of reclaimed materials. Narrow walkways and gangplanks once threaded through the chaos, creating makeshift streets between the creaking stilt-houses of the city, intermittently lit by thrashing lantern-eels held in suspended globes of Sargauth water. Aside from Skull Island it is now mostly rubble, and makeshift tents and huts are home to the evil that lurks here. Overhead, a thick layer of dripping mold covers the ceiling, glowing sickly when stirred by the currents of air in the cavern. This wan green light, known as the Gloam, is Skullport’s poor imitation of the night sky.
To protect against the brackish water that constantly drips from overhead, longtime inhabitants of the port—colloquially called “Skulkers”—wear thick mantles of oiled canvas and broad-brimmed hats that cast their faces into shadow. True Skulkers are easy to distinguish from visitors to Skullport by the cloths they wear over their mouths and noses when on the streets. Even though these cloths are soaked in sweet-smelling oils to keep the stench of the cavern and river at bay, they provide small comfort from the “riverstench”.
Lacking anything that could even jokingly be called a day, the people of Skullport measure time like a ship’s crew: in “bells” of roughly an hour each. At the start of each hour long block, timekeepers around Skullport ring corroded bells that have been salvaged from sunken ships. The hollow peals drift across the city, marking the passage of time. The only exception is during the watch in the middle of the night. Rather than many chimes, a single bell is struck—a tremendous, grime-encrusted, pitchblack bell whose low, mournful tone echoes through the night. The people of Skullport are superstitious regarding the hour marked by the Black Bell, believing them to be an unlucky time when monsters and misfortune claim their victims.
Deep currents of rivalry run through the city. Long-time Skulkers resent the city’s recent newcomers; the poor resent those who have coin for taking what little the infrequently visiting pirates have to offer; and pirates resent the wretches who have long lurked in the shadows of the port, preventing them from taking it over. All of Skullport would have dissolved under the conflict of its inhabitants were it not for the mysterious sentinels who keep watch over it—the grisly disembodied Skulls from which the city gets its name.
During the most recent, true disaster of Skullport, the Spellplague, magical surges ripped through the mantle (an artificial, magical barrier created to protect the city), destroying much of the enclave and killing its inhabitants—with a few exceptions. Thirteen mages were absorbed and altered, becoming disembodied skulls that would keep watch over the city through its future iterations. These have since all been destroyed or undone, and although rumours of a fourteenth skull abound, the city is otherwise held in a tenuous power balance between three main, rival gangs.
Largely, Skullport exists in the shadow of its nearly complete destruction. Though the Port of Shadow is considered a relic and a rotting echo of its former self, each passing month brings with it a handful more of those who are brave or desperate enough to seek a new life among its mouldering ruins.
There are three main organisations in Skullport, all share the city and its trade but tensions are always at breaking point and brawls turn into bloody battles at the drop of a hat. The Mandible, The Riverborn and The Lowfellows vie for what little gold can be made there.