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.
hese days, Waterdhavian noble houses, guilds, and business magnates often speak of "our Reaching Hand" where a century ago they might have said "our man in the field," just because so many of these agents now aren't male or for that matter human. Usually a Reaching Hand of Waterdeep is a trade factor—that is, an agent who represents a business concern, usually as an inspector, deliverer of contracts or payments, bill collector, and in some cases a negotiator.
That said, Reaching Hands might do far more than factors and be far less in official known-to-the-world standing than a factor. Or to put it another way, they may be undercover "rough and ready" agents who do dirty work, often without much regard for the law.
Whenever player characters are adventuring in the countryside in the Heartlands or the settled Sword Coast North, they are apt to encounter such Reaching Hands, though the Hands may well be posing as something else (often peddlers), and won't seek to involve themselves with characters unless their objectives conflict, or they are in swift need of some muscle and deem hiring the characters on the spot to be their best move in the circumstances.
Although a Reaching Hand might be "up to" just about anything when encountered, or (like the infamous meddling archwizard Elminster) customarily be at work on a dozen matters or more at once, here are some of the more usual missions a Hand may be pursuing when characters encounter one:
- Tracking down someone who owes coin or goods or both to the Hand's master, to demand repayment, deliver terms, or exact revenge. Sometimes the latter is up to or including on-the-spot assassination, or "arranged murders" where the victim is to be left in a particular manner so that when found, the description of the murder scene will send a message or warning to others.
- Trying to find a source of goods, or a skilled craftworker (someone who's moved or dropped out of sight, or a rumored-to-be-hereabouts source or artisan—such as a locksmith, founder who can cast small and precise items in metal, or cobbler) to replace a source who's died, gone bankrupt, or left a field of business. Usually to make an offer to them, within a provided range of prices or terms.
- Seeking to covertly damage, destroy, or steal wares belonging to a competitor (examples: taint wines, set fire to a full warehouse, smash breakables, or redirect bulk cargoes to the wrong destination), to damage the competitor's reputation and "hurt them in the purse."
- Spying on a creditor, debtor, or competitor of their master, to ascertain what they're doing, when or where they are doing it, and how far along they are on a particular endeavor. Or: deliver instructions to, and receive reports from (to take back to the master), local spies already working for the master—or in rarer cases, working directly for the Hand.
- Overseeing the transshipment, storage, or exchange of the master's goods in a location far from the master's oversight.
- Spying on other agents who work for the same master (a few nobles and guildmasters, and a large number of lone business magnates, are notoriously suspicious of their own people, seeing conspiracies and thefts reigning over every day of trading, where the reality may be far different). Reaching Hands engaged in this sort of work are often aware, or often suspect, that other Reaching Hands have been "set" to watch them. The notoriously paranoid Castle Ward business magnate Arthlen Harlryfe, who rose to great riches in the 1470s DR dealing in his own mixtures of painkillers (dry herbal powders intended to be stirred into soups), and who has been diversifying into ever-more-extensive landowning within cities, has been revealed to have "lurking chains" of as many as seven Reaching Hands watching each other work on his behalf.
- Gathering intelligence on local politics, wars or skirmishes, or the condition of bridges, fords, docks, roads, warehouses, and ongoing large construction projects (for example, the rebuilding or expansion of city walls) for the master, usually because such things will affect trade flows and therefore prices in the near future.
- Making payments on behalf of the master. Almost always, this includes collecting receipts, and it may also incorporate making small cash-payment purchases upon instructions from the master.
- Collecting and guiding large acquisitions (fleets of new wagons or coaches or ships or sledges, or bulk crates or barrels, or herds of livestock, or large bulk cargoes such as foodstuff harvests) from one place (usually a source of supply) to another (usually the master's "home" place of business, on behalf of the master). Or, shifting bulk resources (wares or business assets such as conveyances or even staff, less often the assets of other businesses acquired by the master) from one location to another, on orders from the master. For some businesses or masters, such movements are regular seasonal relocations; for others, they are one-offs in response to changing business needs.
- Hiring adventurers to assist in seizures of goods in lieu of debt, or to protect cargo or assets in a dangerous area, or as a show of force deterrent to competitors or opportunistic predators. For instance, when orc or goblin raids increase in an area, many overland shippers will bulk up on guards for warehouses and caravans, just to dissuade "the problem" from attacking them, when there are weaker targets to be had on the same road or in the same vicinity.
- Mustering caravans in locales where none are forming (sometimes because caravan masters are all elsewhere, sometimes because competitors are paying to keep shippers from departing indefinitely, to drive up prices or to harm the Hand's master), or providing guides or guards or conveyances for same, when none seem available or roadworthy or affordable. Such practices have traditionally been called "handfixing" among merchants (which confuses common citizens who often think repairs are being discussed).
Although the stereotype of a Reaching Hand is a grim, weathered, armed to the teeth and obviously formidable "hardjaws" (the polite Faerûnian equivalent for "badass"), some of the longest-serving Hands (and lengthy survival is in itself success in the world of Reaching Hands) are nondescript, small in stature middle-aged to elderly human or half-elf or halfling women.
Being known (outside the particular fields of business a Hand's master is engaged in) isn't necessarily useful to a Reaching Hand, and it is not a mark of success among Reaching Hands; acquiring a "reputation" among lawkeepers or with the inhabitants of a particular locale can be a pronounced hindrance.
Here are three of the currently most highly regarded "free" (as in, not tied just to one master) Hands:
Laskelos Harlmeld (a male halfling who is usually visibly dirty, sports an eye patch, and has long blond hair—but these are all a costume he can remove so as to not be recognized as himself); older than he looks, and an accomplished thief and stealthy break-and-enter artist who prefers to remain quiet and in the background as much as possible, and observe much. Works for six Waterdhavian guilds and occasionally freelances by adding clients, and is mainly a spy, go-between for spies, and locator of debtors and thieves (whom he either enacts revenge upon, or collects debts or stolen property from, according to his orders).
Marlaerla Tlarthimble (a female halfling of tart tongue, gigantic dark eyes, buxom build, and perfect memory—superb at faces and names even if heard or glimpsed only once and fleetingly); very persuasive in mercantile negotiations and makes a habit of spying out the local situation first before revealing her presence; has built up an extensive network of folk who owe her favors or like her coin and will readily hide her, assist her, or cover for her, up and down the Sword Coast and across the Heartlands. She works for many Waterdhavian shippers, noble houses, and guilds on a short-contract basis.
Tantathra Vaerdryn (a female half-elf of ordinary looks, who constantly shifts her facial appearance with cosmetics and deft uses of wax and wigs and clothing, and is a devastatingly good mimic); the epitome of someone who's "not there" and passes unnoticed, until she reaches the person she wants to make contact with. Has no scruples about assassinating, but far more often delivers messages or contracts, and brings back signed contracts or payments or items desired by masters (that she must sometimes "engage in stern persuasion" to get). Keeps abreast of the doings of thieves and adventurers in and around Waterdeep, and among its noble houses. Was instrumental in reclaiming noble titles from commoners who'd purchased them, throughout the 1460s and 1470s, on behalf of nobles who'd "come into coin" and wanted their "grandeur" back (this Reclamation restored not many more than a dozen houses, but heartened many oldcoin nobles, who regard "our Tan" as the "go-to" Hand when they need something "unpleasant done fast, and done right").