Friday, April 28, 2017

Ten Things that Made Me Fall in Love with the Forgotten Realms

My current D&D group isn't the type of group that dwells a great deal on the lore of a given campaign setting. Despite this, as I've been running Storm King's Thunder, I have been reminded of the things I have loved about the Forgotten Realms, and how long I've had those feelings.

Over the years, that love has shifted a bit. When I was a younger gamer, with far less grey in my beard (or even before I had one), "love" meant that I had to have everything that came out for the setting. It meant that even if I wasn't thrilled with a product, I owned it, and tended to make excuses for the things that failed to excite me.

While the roleplaying hobby feels like its in a sweet spot right now, and while it is a great time for D&D, I don't feel like it is a great time for the Realms. Before you read the wrong thing into that comment, however, let me elaborate. It's not a great time, but it is a good time--a far less tumultuous time than the setting has had in the past.

If people want to engage all the bells and whistles of history and canon, they can do so, and if they just want proper names for cities and NPCs without worrying too much about what else goes with those names, it's there for them too. A decade ago, I would have decried that as a waste, but now I can appreciate it.

In some weird ways, the Realms is like an ex that I haven't gotten back together with after we split up, but we're really good friends now, and understand each other. Totally not weird at all. And in the spirit of that totally not strange relationship analogy, I wanted to look at ten Forgotten Realms products that made me fall in love with the setting in the first place, and why it took a lot for me to pack up my bags and leave for a while.


#1--The Old Grey Boxed Set

I saw an ad for this on the back of one of my Spider-Man comics back in the ancient days of yore. I never thought I would need a campaign setting. I had been playing for months, just making stuff up on my own. Why would I want to play in someone else's world?

For some reason, despite all of those thoughts running through my head, I still picked this book up. I loved the descriptions of all of the places and organizations, and I loved this weird old wizard putting notes at the end of the sections, mentioning that X may or may not be true, or that Y might actually be the case. It felt like I was in on the ground floor of something, not just playing in a setting, but experiencing some kind of interactive fiction about a place on a level I hadn't encountered before.

On top of that, the maps were huge, and there were these neat clear plastic hex tools to use on them. They could look kind of like what maps would look like in the setting, but you could use a "meta" tool to make the map more useful at the game. That was mind-blowing!



#2--Waterdeep and the North

I had my answer as to why I wanted to play in someone else's setting, but what else could they possibly offer me that I could want? I mean, they spelled out almost a whole continent in that boxed set that I bought. There can't be anything else worth getting, right?

Urban adventures can be tricky, but after reading this, I almost always wanted to start my campaigns in Waterdeep. I never realized you could have so many locations in a city that were as interesting as adventuring sites on a map. On top of that, there were crimelords and cults in the sewers, and hints that the boxed set didn't spell out everything going on in the upper left hand side of those maps.

Plus, this was the first time I encountered that magical word--dracolich!



#3--The Savage Frontier

Remember all those places in the North that Waterdeep and the North hinted at, that weren't mentioned in the Old Grey Boxed set? More details on those! On top of that, the Savage Frontier had information on barbarian tribes, giants, and weird dungeons that led to alternate dimensions, and hinted that really weird cross planar monsters were a thing in this setting.

The other thing that struck me was that this book followed the same pattern as the Old Grey Boxed set, with entries that contained the "common knowledge" of various places, and then had in-world commentary by a local sage on what the real story may or may not be. However, what I loved here was that the author didn't  just try to use Elminster to do what Ed Greenwood had done initially. This was a whole new quirky sage with his own foibles. It made the setting feel even more alive that there were multiple sages chronicling all of these strange goings on.

It also doesn't hurt that for some reason, cold, snowy, mountainous regions call to me when it comes to fantasy settings. I'm okay with pastoral hills or pristine woodlands, but slap those next to towering mountains with snow blowing a good portion of the year, and it all feels more epic to me.



#4--Forgotten Realms Adventures

I played Basic and Expert D&D, and AD&D 1st edition. I really enjoyed them. But, especially with AD&D, I felt like there were a lot of "inside jokes" that I missed out on over the years. I could run it, and appreciate it, but I felt like I was always missing something here or there. When 2nd edition came out, I loved it because I was there from the start. I was going to "get" all of those inside jokes this time around.

I wasn't thrilled with the Avatar Trilogy of books. I "knew" the point was to change the underlying rules of the universe to explain rules changes, but even back then I wasn't convinced that there needed to be an explanation for game rules to change. Additionally, most of the Forgotten Realms novels I had enjoyed at this point had been books about mid-level adventurers doing "average" adventurer things in the setting. The Avatar books started the trend of protagonists getting involved in major events that would likely have higher stakes than anything your PCs would ever do. But that trend doesn't really get going until later at.

Despite not being a huge fan of the Avatar books, I loved this "translation" of the Forgotten Realms to 2nd edition, not just because we got things like specialty priests, but because this thing was a great toolbox. There were images of the priests of various gods in their vestments. The cities detailed had very "adventurer friendly" information, like what temples existed in what town, what sages existed in a given city and what he studied, and where PCs could get wizardly advice. There were proper names of inns that adventurers would stay in, and example treasures that included things like trade bars tied to trading companies, cities, and churches. It took a bunch of D&D concepts and put a firm Forgotten Realms imprint on them, and made it possible to randomly wander into a city and the DM would know concrete adventurer level information about the destinations.



#5--Volo's Guide to Waterdeep

Even more stuff about Waterdeep! I already loved the city, but what I enjoyed about this product was that it was a whole book of rumors, legends, inns, and taverns. The stories are rarely presented as "this is absolutely the history of this thing," and there are great footnotes where Elminster completely refutes what Volo says. These are details about daily life in the city that made the it more alive. Even if you wouldn't remember them, these weren't details like "this law governs all people in this ward" and was much more like "this is why people in this area might give this kind of gift," which doesn't cause anything to break if you happen to forget the detail in the middle of an adventure.



#6--Dwarves Deep

This may seem to be an odd one to put on the list, because its kind of focused on one aspect of the Realms that isn't usually the main focus of the setting. Looking at who wrote it is a big clue of why this is part of my love affair with the setting.

Ed Greenwood did a great job of both making dwarves what you would expect they would be, and also giving them their own quirks native to the setting. It's at this point I let out a deep sigh and mourn the loss of most of those specific quirks. Ed laid out a naming convention that didn't involve taking an overly hyperbolic descriptive word as their last name. He details dwarven reproductive problems in the Realms and their dwindling numbers, and introduces an interesting cultural sticking point. Dwarves are cross fertile with humans, introducing the cultural tension of dwarf-human intermarriage. Dwarves have their own myths about other races, and they have all kinds of weird metals that other races don't know about.

I miss the days when dwarves were tragic, had depth and moral quandries, and didn't all exist to be the slightly more combat effective versions of Jar Jar Binks in various novels.




#7--Faiths and Avatars

The thing that many D&D "god" books tend to do is to stat up gods and mythic monsters. Player facing elements for characters tend to be spells and magic items along the themes of the god in question. Faiths and Avatars did some of that, but it also started to relate myths about the gods that went beyond "what is their alignment and their portfolio." There were details about the names of different ranks in the church, some discussion of what people do in the church when they aren't adventurers, and there were those awesome color plates showing priests in their vestments. It all went towards making the priesthoods native to the Realms more interesting, not just the gods themselves.



#8--Volo's Guide to the Dalelands

I never disliked the Dalelands, but they never jumped out at me as a location for adventures until Volo's Guide to the Dalelands. Even the little villages out in the middle of nowhere had named inns and weird legends. It also has one of my personal favorite Dalelands locations, the dwarven village of Glen, which had access to the Deep Road, which led to other dwarven realms, and a secret dragon egg trade going on. At least Glen was one of my favorites, until a later author wrote a short story that ignored this sourcebook and made Glen into a boring farming village notable only because there was an awesome elf sword hanging around, because only elves can have cool things, you stupid comic relief dwarves! Ahem. Sorry.

Before this book came out, I had multiple campaigns set in and around the Sword Coast North, from Waterdeep, to Silverymoon, to Baldur's Gate. After this book came out, Shadowdale, Mistledale, and Featherdale became places that I started campaigns.




#9--Volo's Guide to Cormyr

Its a theme, but the Volo's Guides did a lot to exemplify what I loved about the Realms. Cormyr had some interesting uprisings and weird history with Tilverton and Arabel, but this book "muddied up" the setting a bit. Not by making it seem bad or evil, but by showing that people lived there. It wasn't just the place where knights came from. All of those rebellions and conspiracies leave their mark, and inform the kind of adventures you have roaming around the Forest Country.




#10--The North

The North was a big boxed set that updated and expanded information that first showed up in the Savage Frontier book. In addition to having more recent information on those lands, it also had a lot of detail on the village of Daggerford, which gave me another place in the North to stage a campaign.

The book doesn't have the same entertaining voice that the Savage Frontier has, and it advances the timeline in the setting, something I would grow to dislike in future products. However, the way it advanced was something I liked. You see, at this point in time, R.A. Salvatore had moved on from writing Forgotten Realms novels, and this product gave context for what reclaiming Mithril Hall had meant to its neighbors, and in a way, put a "cap" on the events of the Drizzt novels.

Mithril Hall gave hope to northern Shield Dwarves, but didn't fully reverse the fate of the dwarven race. The implication is that Bruenor could grow to become a wise king, possibly ruling the whole of the Silver Marches once Alustrial stepped down, and  Drizzt could be a scout working for the Silver Marches as a background NPC. They all lived happily ever after.

At least until WOTC convinced R.A. Salvatore to come back to writing in the Realms, and he refused to acknowledge anything that happened to his characters while he was gone. I'm not saying I blame him, per se, but it was emblematic of how the needs of the novel line outweighed the needs of the game setting.

What Does All of This Mean?

Looking over all of these products that highlight of my Realmsian love affair, I can see some patterns evolve about what the Realms meant to me.
  • Sages are important, but not infallible
  • Rumors and myths made for an interesting implied history
  • Adventurers are the rock stars of Faerun society
  • Political intrigue plays in the background of a lot of adventuring
  • Proper names for mundane things can be a powerful thing
  • There should be random magical wonder that isn't about powerful practical effects
  • Weird alternate dimensions are a background threat to the setting
  • The best narrators are unreliable narrators
  • Home bases are important
  • Ancient societies exist to provide context, not to be the current driver of the plot
  • Religion is more important than just the gods that engender them
It's also informative as to what didn't make this list. The following things in products started to turn me off of over the years.
  • Major country-continent-world shaking events happen that NPCs deal with
  • Concrete details of the ancient past are detailed in products as facts rather than through the lens of unreliable narrators
  • Ancient empires show up in the modern day
  • Cultures appear that aren't just "flavored" by real world cultures, but are cut and pasted from history books
  • NPCs from novels get entire books dedicated to their stats--the more level of detail you give something, the more it becomes the focal point (i.e. the level of the character isn't the problem, the level of detail is)
  • A major cosmological event has to happen in order to explain . . . game . . . rules . . . the things that are suppose to happen in the background to facilitate having adventures, not become the adventure
  • Gods show up and become point of view characters

I've read the opinions of a lot of long term fans of the setting that aren't thrilled with the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide. They mention that there isn't enough detail or concrete material. For me, it was a breath of fresh air. Most of the book was unreliable narrators talking about the current state of the Realms. It gives you an idea of what the world looks like, but doesn't detail much beyond what well traveled adventurers would know. I've also heard some die-hard fans complain about the big events hitting the Sword Coast over and over again. I'd argue I'd much rather have events threatening the Realms in adventures, where the PCs can be the heroes, than in novels and sourcebooks, where the PCs live in the shadow of the people that got things done.



I'm not a fan of all of the returned to life NPCs. Some things probably needed to be walked back to regain the old feeling of the Realms. NPCs mysteriously avoiding death, however, feels a bit artificial to me. I also know that the current trend isn't to go too deeply into the details. Maybe those guys aren't really who they say they are. Maybe the fact that they are where they have been reported to be is just a rumor.



I do wish I could get some solid information--but mainly in the form of the inns, sages, myths, and rumors that are common in various areas. At least we know someone calling himself Volo has started producing material again.


I can't say that I'm infatuated with my ex again after all of this time. We are different than we were back when we were both younger. But damned if I don't enjoy spending time with her again, even if we just go out for coffee or lunch once in a while. Because I needed to end this post on a weird, awkward note again.

2 comments:

  1. Excellent article! The Volo's Guide were always a favorite of mine as well. I wholeheartedly agree with you on digging the new campaign books that actually cast the PC's as the stars of the show,the saviors of the Realms from the big bad instead of the guys who run around doing sorta cool stuff while the novel stars save the day.

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  2. Sounds about right. And I can recall a couple of campaigns you've started in and around both Waterdeep and Mistledale that I've had the pleasure of playing in. Your knowledge of these is super helpful and makes weaving the various plots you run through your games that much more fun to play.

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