Sunday, September 22, 2019

Forgetting the Realms

I don't know jack about the Forgotten Realms.

Because I'm me, I write this with a bit of puffed up pride, as in "I'm too good for that goofy property." But the fact of the matter is, I simply missed the whole FR experience. The original boxed set detailing the Forgotten Realms was published in 1987, a year after the last new AD&D book I would purchase (the Dungeoneers Survival Guide). By that time, I wasn’t even running a game, having surrendered all DM authority to my friend, Jocelyn. I would give up the hobby entirely circa 1988, only briefly returning (a couple-four years later) to DM my brother and his buddies in a turgid, short-lived AD&D campaign. My interest in the D&D during the 90s was roughly equal to the Seahawks playoff hopes during that same period (translation for non-Seattle residents: slim-to-none).

Here’s what I know about the Forgotten Realms: it was the home campaign setting of Ed Greenwood whose “Ecology Of...” articles (as voices by Elminster the Sage) I would occasionally read in Dragon magazine Back In The Day. When I was bored. After I’d already peruses any new classes, monsters, magic items, or Marvel-Philes that might be present in the mag.

I know Elminster is a prominent figure/NPC in FR. There were some video games based on the setting (Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, etc.) that I never played. I've never read or owned an FR novel, though I understand there's quite a few of them, some of which feature a Drow ranger named Drz'zt (or whatever).

Um...that’s about it.

Of the various D&D campaign settings that were put out over the years, the ones in most familiar with are Krynn, Mystara, and Oerth ("Greyhawk") that order. Krynn I know because I read the first seven or eight novels (multiple times for some of them), not because I ever owned or played any of the game publications. Mystara I know from reading (and using) the Gazetteers (during my BECMI days) or from more recent research. Greyhawk was a large part of our old AD&D campaign, although we never did use more of it than the map and the names of cities/regions...I couldn’t tell you anything about the “Suel” or Iuz or the Horned Society, etc. to save my arse.

[I did read Gygax’s first two Gord novels, though. Still own them, too]

And that’s it. I picked up a used (and incomplete) copy of 2E’s Dark Suns campaign setting decades later, but I’ve never done anything with it. Oh, and does SpellJammer count as a campaign setting? Steve-O game me a copy of that back in college, though we never did use that either.

Really that is pretty much the extent of my knowledge of the “official” D&D campaign settings. I don’t know anything about Birthright or Planescape (besides the fact that tieflings originated there), or Eberron, or anything else. And I know absolutely nothing about the Forgotten Realms (besides the Greenwood thing) except for the fact that everyone loves it and it continues to be a standard setting for the current edition of D&D.

Okay, okay, not everyone loves it, but quite a few people do.

More or less how I
picture Prince Gwydion.
So when I examine D&D Essentials and see this map of the “Sword Coast,” I really have no context or sense of scale or ANYTHING as it relates to the Realms. The illo on the original box cover felt reminiscent of a scene out of a Lloyd Alexander book, but I have no idea if the setting is heavily influenced by Tolkien or Wales or, well, anything. I suppose I could look up what Wikipedia says on the subject. Here, hold on a moment...


Okay, that didn't give me much...though, wow, there have been a TON of FR-themed vid games released. I had no idea.

Dragon of Icespire Peak does provide a page briefly describing this particular section of FR ("The Sword Coast"). Regarding the Realms in general it states:

"The world of the Forgotten Realms is one of high fantasy, populated by elves, dwarves, halflings, humans, and other folk. In the Realms, knights dare the crypts of the fallen dwarf kings of Delzoun, seeking glory and treasure. Rogues prowl the dark alleyways of teeming cities such as Neverwinter and Baldur's Gate. Clerics in the service of gods wield mace and spell, questing against the terrifying powers that threaten the land. Wizards plunder the ruins of the fallen Netherese empire, delving into secrets too dark for the light of day. Bards sing of kings, queens, heroes, and tyrants who died long ago."

[in other words, it's just D&D]

"On the roads and rivers of the Realms travel minstrels and peddlers, merchants and guards, soldiers and sailors. Steel-hearted adventurers from backcountry farmsteads and sleepy villages follow tales of strange, glorious, faraway places. Good maps and clear trails can take even an inexperienced youth with dreams of glory far across the world, but these paths are never safe. Fell magic and deadly monsters are the perils one faces when traveling in the Realms. Even farms and freeholds within a day's walk of a city can fall prey to monsters, and no place is safe from the sudden wrath of a dragon."

Okay, that's mostly just an overview of the D&D game's premise. However, there are some clues in this text (besides the proper names provided) as to the make-up of the setting. I don't usually think of "steel-hearted adventurers" coming from "backcountry farmsteads and sleepy villages." But when "no place is safe" and "farms and freeholds within a day's walk of a city can fall prey to monsters" that says something about the make-up of the setting: namely that there isn't any sort of serious government or military presence and that the landscape is a frightened no man's land where death is no more than a stone's throw away.

A hellscape, really...and that's something I can work with. Those "teeming cities" are probably nothing more than huddled masses of refugees from the countryside. These fallen empires and long-dead kings, etc. (not to mention "terrifying powers that threaten the land") speak to a vanilla fantasy world that's had all the idyllic/pastoral bits squeezed out of it. This isn't the's Mordor. There's even an active volcano less than 35 miles from the area's major city (Neverwinter). The closest large town to Mount St. Helens is probably Kelso (about 60 miles away)...and it's only the 80th large town in Washington State as ranked by population. One might think it strange that the people of Neverwinter would hang out "rebuilding" after the most recent eruption (50 years before the campaign start) "badly damaged" the city. I can only assume that other areas of the region are so dangerous and monster infested that moving wasn't a real option.

Phandalin, the "home base" for the adventure is pretty much described the same as it is in Lost Mine of Phandelver (I think GusL's comments on the village are appropriate). While there are some callbacks to the idyllic ("you see children playing on the town green") I don't think it can't be rectified by playing up the mud, squalor, and horse shit of your typical medieval village (especially a slap-dash mining town as Phandelvin is). This should be something closer to HBO's Deadwood, not Downton Abbey's little village, especially one under constant menace of orc raiders and dragons.

"I've got a f*!%ing
quest for you."
Clearly then, much of this requires the makeover treatment. The town master (and "quest giver") Harbin Wester should be much more Al Swearengen and much less the cowardly Master of Lake Town (as portrayed by Stephen Fry in the film). Wester is trying to hold his little kingdom together, and he should be manipulating the hell out of any courageous dupes (i.e. the player characters) in order to make that happen.

[actually, I suppose if you really wanted to re-skin Phandelvin as Deadwood, you'd keep Harbin as is and make Toblen Stonehill, the real "Swearengen" character. Then you could set up Linene Graywind (by way of Patience from Firefly) as a competing, slightly less underhanded town faction]

Will probably kill
you anyway.
Point is, Phandelin should be more Nulb than Hommlet. And I think there's enough textual material in the adventure to support this view. Which is important to me for getting my mind right as I try to twist this bugger into something a little more playable.

The rest of the Forgotten Realms? Meh. Not all that important at this point.


  1. I love the Forgotten Realms, but it has been really muddled since AD&D. The original Campaign Set and FR5 The Savage Frontier are probably the best guides if you're interested. They're both on DMsGuild

  2. World of Warcraft classics have now turned on the server, let us courageously conquer this continent.

  3. I love the Realms, but I recommend stopping early. The first boxed set was fantastic, giving just enough info about locales that you could build off of. I actually found the Realms grey box set more useful than the Greyhawk gold box, the gold box being too sparing on info for me.

    After that the first Realms sourcebook was good, as it has lots of nice city information but was again not overloaded with detail. The first Waterdeep city manual was also nice.

    After that the Realms got way too complicated for me. TSR started making more and more off their Realms-set novels, so the setting became bound to the stories. They ended up detailing every stone, every tree, and everything was tied to the events in the books.

    But that was no problem for me; I had the three open ended source books I wanted and just made sure my players knew that my games were in My realms and not to assume anything in the dozens of novels that were coming out had any bearing on the adventures I was going to run.

  4. @ Everyone:

    I'm not terribly interested in learning more about the Realms. The only reason I'm looking at FR at all is trying to contextualize the setting background of the adventure Dragon of Icespire Peak.

    I really don't think it's all that difficult to create one's own "vanilla fantasy" setting in which to set a couple dungeons. Though I suppose it really depends on your stomach for nonsense.

    1. My main problem with the Forgotten Realms is that it's 'anachronistic in a bad way' and filled with dumb 'arcane positivism'.

      Anachronistic in a bad way means that even in the first Grey Box the tentacle sex creep beardo who writes the stuff (I tried to read one of Greenwood's books once...) includes stuff that makes little sense, like the FR has printing presses, but it's cultural system is more like ancient city states then any place where the printed word and mass literacy would be a thing. This is frustrating because you lose all the fascinating crap about pre-modern life (Someone needs to write fantasy cities that have a medieval approach to building materials and urbanism - guess what the city kills people fast, burns down a lot, and construction is super super expensive because it's all stone and timber dressed by hand and architectural fasteners have to be hand forged)for a modicum of familiarity.

      Arcane Positivism is the tendency (something really common in later TSR) to make magic a stand in for technology and adapt 20th century American views about technology to magical items. Like the magic carpet taxi service in B10 or villages lit by magical glowsticks. How did FR's get this way, how was the religiosity that characterized ancient society set aside in favor of the scientific/arcane method. How does feudalism even exist in this sort of society where not just widespread literacy but wide spread ability to shoot magic lasers exists - Also the FR gods are also real, and capable of worldly interference, how do they feel about people not spending every waking moment in praise in exchange for not dying of diseases? How do they feel about wizards waltzing about and fiddling with the way they made the universe - ending plagues, lighting the night, etc. Magic is so much better if it's freaking weird, terrifying and extracts a price ... but if it isn't that's gotta be explained. Magic light bulbs and refrigerators are one thing, but why isn't FR filled with trees that grow sheep and entire towns of people geased to make a wizard rich?

      FR is literally the lowest common denominator of fantasy settings. I hates it.

    2. @ GusL:

      I appreciate your POV immensely.

      I don’t suppose you’re familiar with David Chandler’s “Ancient Blades” trilogy? I find his version of the “medieval fantasy” setting very informative. It’s like a B/X version of Warhammer’s “Auld World.”
      : )

    3. I have not, I just finished Joe Abercrombie's current grim fantasy - and while I've enjoyed his world building in the past it's clumsy in this one - rapid and inconsistent industrialization. I have been reading the Malazan books for sometime, rather slowly, and note that they handle EPIC Fantasy fairly well - though because they are the stories of gods and ancient forces battling across continents they tend to be very short of material culture. I think it works for fantasy of an Epic nature, but if you're doing even standard heroic fantasy the questions of locations and stuff will need to be a lot more detailed for solid world building because the scale is more individual.

  5. Basically by old becmi or bx rules all of the FR would be categorized as borderlands and wilderness with no settled lands with random large cities interspersed without any large hinterlands. This fits the feel of both the novels and video game. FR is a very "points of light"/on the edge of the borderlands setting based on the fiction.

  6. I am very familiar with the Realms, especially due to its position as the default setting for nearly twenty years and I am definitely not a fan of its “kitchen sink” approach.
    The last time I ran Lost Mines of Phandelver, I did my best to ignore the setting beyond the edges of the included map and concentrate on the provided sandbox, bounded on three sides by mountain ridges and a seacoast on the fourth.
    Elevator pitch to follow:
    Dwarves live in the northern mountains beneath the shadow of a volcano which they keep in check by binding earth and fire elementals.
    The central valley is dominated by a huge forest kept in perpetual summer by multiple volcanic vents. The elves here are isolationists and ruled by a domineering Summer Court that has forgotten how to share. The eastern edge of the forest it home to a baker’s dozen coven of hags which I used instead of Drow as the main baddies of the adventure.
    Humanity clings to the seacoast with the city of Neverwinter as the largest hub. Small villages (such as Phandalin and Conyberry) along the Triboar Trail are slowly being resettled after an exceptionally brutal invasion of goblinoids from the southern hills nearly two generations ago.
    No Thay, no Zhents, no secret factions to send you on missions or control your decisions.

    1. @ Sovereign:

      Um...sorry, I’m confused. Is that a summary of the area as published, or your re-skinning of the FR for your (or my) campaign?

    2. Sorry, that was a nutshell of my rewrite when I ran Lost Mines last year.

  7. I never cared much for the Realms myself till a couple of years ago. I have since read a few books and have a few of the game books and my point of view as since softened.

    Sure there are things that I still scratch my head at, but I now see more good than bad.

    TSR/WotC are in the market, well to make money, they need settings like this that appeal to a lot of people. To do that they need to make it comfortable (no one really cares about how the shit piles up in a real medieval castle), familiar (light spells on the street lamps! just like home!) and diverse (but everyone speaks Common).

    EVERYONE knows you don't need this stuff. Telling people this is pointless, it's like telling them they need dice to play too. But some people do like this.

    If the approach to design is "Kitchen Sink" then the proper approach for use is "Salad Bar". Take what you like, leave the rest.

    Which is what you are doing. So maybe you are using the Realms in the way it is REALLY intended to be used.

  8. I liked the early FR material but also liberally left out things I didn't need. As mentioned above I think it was largely designed to be a kitchen sink where any campaign could be put there because there was always somewhere where it would fit.

  9. Drop off the modern sensibilities, the Magic as "the latest high tec" and the ubber NPCs cities defenders against players change things.