In Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide, Mike Schley's map shows a series of gaps in the Trade Way/Coast Way between Waterdeep, Baldur's Gate, Sconubel, and points east. The version available for free on the Wizards of the Coast website shows the gap:

enter image description here

I figured the interrupted road between Scornubel and Dragonspear Castle at least was a misprint, but subsequent versions of the same map show the same discontinuity. The version currently for sale on Mike Schley's website has been updated for Storm King's Thunder, with all of the roads redrawn. However, the gap persists.

map showing a gap in the road between Baldur's Gate and Waterdeep

Descent into Avernus implies that there is a road continuing north from Baldur's Gate, though it could be interpreted to refer to the stretch of the Trade Way that resumes farther north.

With trade ways running north and south along the Sword Coast, a port on the Sea of Swords, and the Chionthar River leading inland, Baldur’s Gate is perfectly situated for its role as a commercial hub.

The map showing the immediate environs of Baldur's Gate remains consistent with previous editions, although in this the road makes it as far north as Boareskyr Bridge before terminating.

map of the Baldur's Gate area from Descent into Avernus

Is there a canonical reason for this? Does all trade between Baldur's Gate and Waterdeep take place by water? Or is this still a misprint? The Forgotten Realms Wikia shows no such interruption, but it tends to have a heavier focus on earlier editions.


5 Answers 5


The Trade Way itself isn't broken — WotC’s cartographers have just forgotten it’s there

The "broken" Trade Way is a symptom of the maps being drawn and redrawn too many times over the editions, and a lack of careful cartographic referencing far enough back when redrawing them. Like a game of Broken Telephone, the deterioration of the Trade Way's depiction (as opposed to its in-world state) can be traced through lapses in mapping between the editions.

Since the beginning of FR publishing, the Trade Way has been continuous between Waterdeep and Scornubel; ditto the Coast Way between Baldur's Gate and where it meets the Trade Way south of Dragonspear Castle. In the AD&D 1e and 2e maps, the Trade Way is marked in the Fields of the Dead with the line-symbol for "trail" rather than road (as the rest of the Trade Way is marked), along with numerous small tributary trails through the Fields of the Dead, and that portion of the Coast Way.

For some reason, in 3rd edition both the Trade Way and the Coast Way are marked the whole way as "road" with no "trail" sections in the Fields of the Dead, despite no corresponding change in the conditions in-world, and despite some trails being marked right beside them. However, the 3e map is not a good map. While the 1e and 2e maps closely track each other, the 3e map was notable at the time for being much prettier while grossly distorting most details of the geography of the Realms. (The Fields of the Dead in particular shrank by more than half, moving Baldur's Gate much farther north than it should be and warping the shape of the Coast Way, and the things the cartographer did to Cormyr, the Dalelands, and the rest of the original "core" lands of the Realms is enough to make a map-lover cry.)

Notably, the 4e map tracks with the 3e map, and shows the Trade and Coast Ways as fully "road" (and intact) along their whole length. That rules out 4e-era catastrophes and cataclysms as being in-world responsible for the addition of real gaps.

It turns out that the lack of these parts of the Ways on the 5e maps seems to be a fault of the cartographer going back far enough, but to the wrong maps. The first time that gaps were mapped in the Ways was actually in the 1e maps — in the continental-scale maps. These maps only marked the "road" portions of the two Ways, leaving depicting things like trails to the detailed regional maps. It is this continental-scale view of the Fields of the Dead that the 5e maps appear to be based on — even the zoomed in region around Baldur's Gate, which really should have been based on one of the regional-scale maps instead of on a continental-scale map, if the effort to reference 1e maps was being made anyway.

(Aside, the 5e map around Baldur's Gate restores the Fields of the Dead and environs to their proper size and shape. That's nice to see, though it does make it doubly confusing why the mapping lapses in the Ways at that scale weren't also corrected.)

So that's all that's going on: The 5e map just doesn't chart any routes categorised as "trails", probably because it was based on a map that didn't mark them either, so it looks like the Trade Way and Coast Way are broken. With no depiction on even the more detailed maps, it makes it seem to someone coming to the Realms for the first time in 5e like it's a deliberate break rather than just a failure to mark them. And because these maps are not being presented alongside a detailed almanac of the Realms, as the original maps were, there's little beyond the map for a reader to draw conclusions from.

The Ways are there, though. The maps are just not showing the parts of the Ways that are rougher, that are passing through the region of sparse civilisation that is the Fields of the Dead.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Any chance we can find some imagery of the relevant bit of the map between editions to illustrate this answer? \$\endgroup\$
    – Carcer
    Commented Oct 3, 2019 at 9:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ It turns out that you're absolutely right. I didn't select your answer due to the lack of citations, but as you say, it does appear to be an error in the cartography rather than a deliberate change to the world. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mikkel
    Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 2:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ I still am intending to pull out and photograph my maps through each edition, but unearthing them will take some work and higher priorities keep preempting it. ^^; \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 6:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie :( in the end you didn't :( \$\endgroup\$
    – HellSaint
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 5:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HellSaint It's a lot of sourcing or scanning (and cleaning) map images. I might still get around to it! It's just a degree of completeness that is nice to have but not necessary (since the maps are cited and can be looked at to verify the answer). I do like maps though and here they would definitely improve the answer. I've accepted that it will be a less-quality answer than it has the potential to be until I do that work. ^^; \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 20:49

The Hoard of the Dragon Queen adventure includes a chapter where the party is expected to join a merchant caravan heading from Baldur's Gate to Waterdeep. To answer part of the question, we know that Merchants are traversing the "broken section" of the trade road, rather than going exclusively by boat. The adventure does not give any insight into why that section of road is broken on the map.

From p. 33 of the adventure, under "Life on the Road":

The most difficult part of the journey is near the beginning. A few days’ travel north of Baldur’s Gate brings the caravan into a countryside known as the Fields of the Dead. The road twists and wanders through hills dotted with ancient battlefields, dolmens, and barrow mounds. Common wisdom holds that it’s a very bad idea to light a fire on a hilltop at night in the Fields of the Dead, because the light attracts monsters from miles around. Crossing this territory takes several days, during which everyone will be edgy and on watch.

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    \$\begingroup\$ What kind of terrain does the caravan traverse on this journey? Are they described as sticking to an established road or roughing it through wilderness? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 29, 2019 at 17:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ They don't really describe it. There are a few "events" for the DM to pick from. They leave all the planning up to the DM. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 29, 2019 at 17:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ Interesting! Although to read it, it doesn't sound like the road disappears, only that it's winding and treacherous. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mikkel
    Commented Aug 29, 2019 at 18:44

The gap is an error in the cartography, nothing more.

I hate to answer my own question despite receiving some very well-researched responses, but the smoking gun is indeed in Hoard of the Dragon Queen – not in the text, but in the map. That book was published prior to Mike Schley's otherwise-delightful map of the Sword Coast, and includes a different map of the region. In that map, presumably contemporaneous in-universe to Mike Schley's, the Trade Way and Coast Way bifurcate just south of Dragonspear (Castle), with the Trade Way continuing south to Scornubel and the Coast Way to Baldur's Gate and Candlekeep.

Map from Hoard of the Dragon Queen showing an intact Trade Way and Coast Way

This makes much more sense from a world-building standpoint, and absent any information to the contrary, I'm going to run my games based on the assumption that the termination of the Coast Way at Baldur's Gate is a cartographer's error or possible trap street.

The map is reproduced unchanged in the recent (and amended) Tyranny of Dragons compilation.


There are references in the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide that describe the land being shifted, and transformed (in some cases) to pre-Spellplague formations (under "The Second Sundering", on page 18) which may give a future reason:

Early in 1487, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions abounded for months, as if the whole world was convulsing. Rumors spread of chasms caused by the Spellplague suddenly vanishing, and stories circulated of known destinations being farther away from one another, as if the world had quietly added miles of wilderness to the distance between them. Word began to spread of places and peoples not heard from since the Spellplague.

I went through several references, including the 2e Forgotten Realms Atlas, 2e Volo's Guide to the Sword Coast, 4e Forgotten Realms World Map, 5e map from Hoard of the Dragon Queen, and the 5e Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide.

On all maps, accounting for the fudge factor on map scales drawn and held to the screen, the distance from Waterdeep to the Boareskyr bridge appears consistent. The one thing that is apparent is the differences in the geography for the 4e map, which shows several new features not found on other maps (that I saw) such as the Deep Maw (Just east of the Far Forest, which shows as the Frozen Sea on the SCAG 5e map), and other items omitted (Such as Dragonspear Castle, which does not show on the 4e map).

However, in every edition map that I looked at, the Trade Way tracing is unbroken. This is the first time it appears unbroken, and despite the above passage, the distances between major landmarks in that path appear consistent.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm curious, is there any evidence in the older maps of the surrounding area being warped by this as well? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 28, 2019 at 19:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Rubiksmoose - Not that I have found. I looked at maps from various editions, and the Trade Way is intact. I have not gotten as far as measuring the actual distances to see if there was actual change, or someone ran out of ink tracing the Trade Way. \$\endgroup\$
    – JohnP
    Commented Aug 28, 2019 at 19:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ From memory, in HotDQ, the Trade Way was unbroken. \$\endgroup\$
    – Miniman
    Commented Aug 29, 2019 at 2:13

I don't think it's actually a cartography error. If you look at Ed Greenwood's original, hand-drawn map of the region, you can see that all through that region, the roads are marked not with strong lines, but with light dots.

I read that as indicating that the roads through here are rarely traveled, poorly maintained, and dangerous. They're not even true "roads" as we would think of it, so much as barely marked tracks through dangerous wilderness.

It's interesting to think about what that means for the setting. This is presumably an area where the "Trade Way" loses some of its cohesion. I would assume that means that it is safer (but probably more expensive) to travel by sea between Baldur's Gate and Waterdeep than by land. I would also assume you probably can't find much by way of towns or safe inns around Dragonspear and the Trollclaws, and playing all this up would make a land journey through this stretch of the Trade Way far more interesting.

Ed Greenwood Map

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. Can you provide a source for this image? I'd also suggest elaborating on what evidence you have to support the claim that the dotted paths "indicat[e] that the roads through here are rarely traveled, poorly maintained, and dangerous. They're not even true "roads" as we would think of it, so much as barely marked tracks through dangerous wilderness." \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 5:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast This image seems to be coming from Dungeons & Dragons Art and Arcana: A Visual History (ISBN:978-0399580949) page 201. As is visible in this review article: tenkarstavern.com/2018/10/… \$\endgroup\$
    – SynerCoder
    Commented Jun 16, 2022 at 8:58

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