The many faces of Durnan the Wanderer

Posted on November 12, 2018 by


Looking for danger and excitement, are you? Well don’t be so eager to hunt it down it often finds you soon enough in this city. If you ever want to ever live to see your first gray hair, you’ll learn to not rashly seek out peril at every opportunity. I don’t mean you should stop seeking adventure, but Waterdeep provides enough amusements and thrills for men and gods alike all on its own without stirring any more up. – Durnan, circa 1352 DR (City of Splendors boxed set)

This is a post nobody has asked for and won’t make your D&D game any better, but I feel like writing it because I find it interesting.

Let’s talk about Durnan, venerable owner of The Yawning Portal, leader of the Red Sashes, one time Masked Lord of Waterdeep, and of the way he has been presented throughout various editions of D&D and other products. Then let’s talk about D&D as an IP and why I think Durnan is slated to be a major player for the brand moving forward.

We first meet Durnan in FR1 Waterdeep and the North Forgotten Realms supplement for 1e Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, where he is described as a “closemouthed, prudent man who hates unfairness and injustice, but is tolerant of the differing interests of others, until they draw a weapon in his inn, whereupon he promptly punishes them severely on the spot.” 

Definitely not someone you’d want to mess with. There are no images of Durnan in FR1, so his look is left up to your imagination. There are a few nuggets of backstory there, suggesting that he’s been wandering the world alone ever since hobgoblins killed everyone he knew when he was just a child.

We next meet him in 1989’s “Waterdeep” module, the climax of the FRE series. And while there’s no image of him, it’s worth noting that Ed Greenwood himself (creator of the Forgotten Realms), told me that his vision for Durnan was that of a

“…thinking man’s Conan…. He was never supposed to be Conan. He was supposed to be a smarter, more street-wise young adventurer with the thews and luck of Conan, but a good grounding in the ways of Waterdeep and “civilization.” Practical, pragmatic. Which is why he retired the moment he’d made his bundle.”

And in this module, the famous character is hinted at in this passage:

Screen Shot 2018-11-16 at 11.54.30 AM

In TSR 1060 “Ruins of Undermountain” for 2e AD&D, Durnan is expanded upon a bit. He’s described as being about 45 years old, and with a family. The unfortunate part is that the wife is described as being 30, and his daughter 16…..yuck….

There was no picture of Durnan in this product either, so he was left to our imagination.

The “TSR 9525 Heroes’ Lorebook” for 2e AD&D, we’d get our first image of Durnan the Wanderer:


HIs appearance in that book is described as such: “While he is no longer a young man, Durnan’s shoulders are broad and unslouched. His dark hair is spotted with gray, and he is starting to go bald. His usual garb is a bright tunic (with his magical armor beneath it) and dark trousers tucked into his favorite (magical) boots .”

Durnan even appeared in a D&D computer game in the later 2e era, “Descent to Undermountain”


In 3e Dungeons and Dragons, Durnan’s appearance starts to deviate a bit from what we saw in 2e.

In a 2003 computer game, “Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark”, we get a new image of Durnan!


Looking good, Dur!

In a 2005 article for the Wizard’s web site titled “Return to Undermountain”,  Durnan is described as:

“Durnan built the Yawning Portal with wealth taken from the Undermountain, and he has run the inn since his retirement from adventuring more than seventy years ago. Now approaching a hundred years of age, the white-haired Durnan is nevertheless a powerful presence behind the bar, and many consider him an institution in Waterdeep. With muscles like catapult shots and a great sword hung among the racks of mugs and bottles, few make trouble in the inn, and those who do quickly come to regret it. ” 

100 years old? White hair? What happened to him being 45 as stated in the ruins of Undermountain boxed set? Or the description found in the Heroes’ Lorebook that read “His dark hair is spotted with gray, and he is starting to go bald.”? Or that look in the Neverwinter Nights computer game?

Best not to think about it.

3.5 D&D gave us “Expedition to Undermountain”, where Durnan once again shows up. Here, the authors explicitly set the date as 1375DR, and provide an updated image of Durnan. One would expect a near-100 year old man with white hair, right?

Think again.


Wut?  Here, Durnan is described as:

“…gruff, square-jawed, burly man, close-mouthed and prudent. His shoulder-length russet hair is graying, his eyes are icy blue, and he looks physically strong and ready for battle. He is confident and alert, and he usually wears a leather jerkin, breeches, and boots, with a cotton shirt.”

His family, as described in 2e’s Ruin of Undermountain, is still around.

Lets talk about Lords of Waterdeep, a FANTASTIC D&D branded board game featuring the oddest depiction of Durnan yet…


Dafuq? He looks like Bono. While no year is mentioned as to when this game takes place, it’s safe to assume it is set in the 3e era of the Forgotten Realms, based on some of the organizations and people included in the game.

But really, that picture? Why is Durnan so inconsistent?

Anyway, moving on… In 4th edition D&D, set 100 years after 3e, Durnan is no longer around. He either died or disappeared.

What happened to Durnan isn’t even spelled out for us. But it doesn’t matter, because “Halls of Undermountain”, a 4e adventure, includes a writeup of a direct descendant of Durnan named “Durnan the Sixth”.

He’s basically a Durnan stand-in, and is described as such:

“DURNAN THE SIXTH A direct descendant of the Yawning Portal’s founder, Durnan the Sixth runs the inn in the same manner his forebears did. Like the original Durnan, he backs his policies with the point of a sword if necessary. Durnan understands the tradition established and honored within the Yawning Portal’s walls, and he knows adventurers of all shapes and sizes are vital to that history. A practical fellow, Durnan shows great respect for all dungeon delvers who enter his tavern through its doors and exit it through the well into Undermountain. Despite that respect, Durnan does not tolerate violence or suspicious behavior in his establishment.”

So, no mention of what happened to Durnan, so it’s probably best to assume that he died, right?

Not so fast.

Cut to 5e’s “Tales from the Yawning Portal”, where the original Durnan, not the 4e stand in, is back behind the bar at the Yawning Portal, running the show.

He’s also featured on the cover of the book. Joining some iconic D&D personalities such as the fire giant King Snurre, the arch lich Acererak, the Xanathar, along with other iconic characters of the game.


Here, We’re told that Durnan has returned from Undermountain once again, paid off Durnan the Sixth (handsomely) to go away, and retook ownership of the bar. Obviously magical shenanigans are at play here in regards to his survival, but he’s definitely the original Durnan from the early days of D&D.

Was it necessary to retcon the 4e version of Durnan? I don’t think so, but they felt that they had to. Mike Mearls even acknowledged it on twitter…

Honestly, it’s a weird retcon. Would new players to the game know that Durnan the Sixth is a different Durnan? And would older players care that it isn’t? Odd.

Screen Shot 2018-11-12 at 4.58.53 PM

And his aesthetic is… quite different from what we’ve seen. But at least it’s consistent.


In miniatures…


And even in WOTC’s Stream of Many Eyes event…


@rutywoot as Durnan, pic by Greg Tito

So what’s up with Durnan? Well, in my opinion, WOTC is setting up Durnan to be an important character for the brand. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that we’ll see him on the silver screen, and having a defined aesthetic and story is important for IP purposes. And that’s what D&D is, an IP beyond just the game. And every IP needs characters, rights? He’s featured on the cover of a book, and has been explicitly brought back from the dead to take his rightful place in Waterdeep. His backstory is definitely more interesting than 4e’s Durnan’s the Sixth, who basically had none. He was a cardboard stand-in.

I think that we’re going to see this guy in a D&D film…. I mean, we already know that the Yawning Portal will feature in it.

And I think that he’s destined to be a major character… let’s see.

Anyway… hope you enjoyed this trip down Durnan memory lane.

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