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While I had naively thought of a "noble" as being just somebody in a rich, influential family, I'm reading through Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and it seems to be much more than that (at least in Waterdeep), and is some sort of an officially recognized status. For instance, the Code Legal distinguishes between crimes against nobles and crimes against an ordinary citizen, and per the Volo's Waterdeep Enchiridion chapter (p. 172) nobles have the right to bear arms and retain soldiers.

So what exactly determines whether or not somebody is a noble? Is it just a inherited title, so you are only a noble if (at least one of) your parents are? Can one become a noble by marrying into a noble family (as either bride or groom)? Can the Masked Lords (or some other group) bestow the title of noble on somebody for performing some particular brave act defending the city, or on somebody making a substantial financial contribution?

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    \$\begingroup\$ First, get Ed Greenwood drunk, then ... \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Aug 22 at 1:57
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Detailed answer to your question can be found on pages 59-60 of City of Splendors: Waterdeep. While it is 3e sourcebook, it might be reasonable to assume that how one becomes a noble would not change much in Waterdeep, given its long history starting with the nobility claims of various wealthy families dating back to 882DR and the formal beginnings of the nobility dating back to 1248DR, when the Lords of Waterdeep recognized the merchant gentry.

Nobility was established as a practical way of diminishing chaotic use of self-proclaimed titles and as a carrot to lure powerful land-owners from the surrounding countryside and wealthy merchants from far away lands into the city. As these goals got more or less achieved, the rate at which the Lords ennobled new families has slowed down, though it is still possible for a wealthy (min 25,000 gp personal wealth obtained from mercantile endeavours) individual to ask the Lords the title of nobility for themselves and their descendants. There are no written rules for this, but based on examples, some rough criteria can be deduced as described on page 60 of the book.

Perhaps the most important of these criteria is being sponsored by at least five noble families, and current families do not want to reduce the privilege of being nobility by adding new families. So ascending by petition is quite unlikely in modern Waterdeep and that leaves marriage as the only practical way for an ordinary citizen to achieve nobility.

Each family has a head noble, a patriarch or matriarch. Whether and how a relative of this person gets to be considered a part of the noble family is unclear, presumably this is decided by the head. Some families have ~10 nobles, others have over 50. Titles, lands, and funds can be inherited by any child or heir of the head. The standard practice is the eldest child (regardless of gender) inheriting the title and the majority holdings.


Available 5e Information

It is worth noting that none of the data in this answer are contradicted with the information on pages 55-57 & 154 of the 5e Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide. While we learn that during Lord Neverember's tenure as the Open Lord, it became legal for impoverished houses to sell their titles, this decision was reversed with Laeral Silverhand and it is still difficult to become nobility. Quoting:

Although they seldom agree on much, one matter that all the noble houses see the same way is that their status should not be tainted by newcomers, and certainly not by anyone so brightcoin as to purchase one's way to a noble title.

Further evidence that the century between CoS:W and SCAG has not changed the nobility much comes from SCAG's explicit mention of "More than seventy-five noble families call Waterdeep home" (note 75 and not 80 for instance), and the still-freely-available web-enhancement for CoS:W lists exactly seventy-five noble families. (This web enhancement is rather nice for a DM who wants to develop the historical background. It lists the founding year, ethnicity, trade and interests, predominant alignments and favored deities, and resource limits of each noble family as they were in 1370s.)

PS: SCAG describes the Waterdhavian Noble background on page 154, where we again read that "... there are around seventy-five lineages in Waterdeep". And one needs to be in the main line of a family to be eligible for becoming its leader one day.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Nice answer. Although of course if there were five noble families that had something to gain from your ascension, they might be more inclined to offer sponsorship. \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Aug 22 at 3:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ There's a bit of an inconsistency with the number of nobles listed in SCAG and in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist: It says in the Introduction (under "Character Backgrounds") that "Waterdeep contains well over a hundred noble families." Adding another inconsistency, the Volo's Waterdeep Enchiridion chapter under "Nobility" says "Seventy-eight noble family lines are found here, many of which can trace their lineage back to the city’s founding." Though perhaps there's a difference between the definitions of "noble families" and "noble family lines", or perhaps Volo (as an in-world source) is mistaken. \$\endgroup\$ – user37158 Sep 18 at 15:27
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Taking the Noble Background for your character.

In 5e, in order to play a nobleman or noblewoman, you can simply take the Noble Background. This grants you the social and legal benefits of being a member of the noble class as a result of its Background feature, but no additional money or personal resources.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This question is specifically asking about how to become a Noble in waterdeep. Do you have any sources that support the Noble background granting this kind of nobility? I don't disagree but I'm not sure "up to the DM" counts as lore support for this. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Aug 22 at 5:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @linksassin I don’t have Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, but I can double check my copy of SCAG when I get home. \$\endgroup\$ – nick012000 Aug 22 at 5:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's worth noting that SCAG has a separate "Waterdhavian Noble" background (p. 154): dndbeyond.com/backgrounds/waterdhavian-noble \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Aug 22 at 7:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ And in fact, the Waterdeep: Dragon Heist book suggests several noble families that PCs might be a part of if they take the Noble or Waterdhavian Noble backgrounds, while of course leaving open the possibility that the DM might want to create their own. My question was purely about the lore and "official" story, not about how it would end up being implemented in a specific campaign. But yes, it is interesting that any PC can be a Noble if they want, as just yet another way that adventurers are more special than the common folk. \$\endgroup\$ – user37158 Aug 22 at 12:07

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