So, I’ve been banging on about the state of the Forgotten Realms for some time, culminating in the Tomb of Annihilation multi part review. While talking with a friend of mine, he asked what I would do to address the issues with the campaign setting, and what approaches I would take to it that didn’t involve throwing it all out and ignoring hat it ever existed. So, after a lot more discussion, and a lot of thought on the matter, I’ve decided to embark on a new series of posts called “Fixing the Realms”. In part one, I’m going to look at the world building that went into it, and how that has left us in the position we’re in today.
Like so many other campaign settings, the Forgotten Realms (FRCS) does not trace its lineage to a purpose made creation for gaming. Its origins lay in the 1960’s and 1970’s, where it was created by Ed Greenwood as a world to write his own stories in. It was later purchased by TSR, who worked in concert with him to develop it into a game world, where it would later become the most written about campaign setting in fantasy gaming to date. Now, this sounds amazing, but there’s issues already cropping up, and they can be seen when one looks at various works produced, interviews with Ed Greenwood, and in the rather handy book produced about the FRCS by Ed Greenwood back in 4e D&D.
On the outset, the FRCS has its origin as an alternate, parallel Earth; an idea I think was more popular back in the day than today. In his notes, Greenwood explains that its original cosmological model was that was one of many Earths parallel to our own, that was once linked to Earth, but subsequently detached more until it was forgotten. Think of it as being similar to the various Underworlds of Celtic mythology, where things were similar but different and there was dramatically more magic. It was also a fairly self-contained build, including analogues for European areas, the Near and Middle East, a decidedly North American Arctic, and a few other bits and bobs. It was a weird combination of planned additions and things that Greenwood made up on the fly. This shows itself strongly in the differences between areas with immense detail and attention versus ones that are more skeletal and simplistic.
The FRCS soon fell victim to TSR’s drive to consolidate some of its properties into a single campaign setting. Greyhawk was too well developed at this point, and Dragonlance was too specific; this was the era immediately before the D&D cosmological model would be fully fleshed out and then ruthlessly applied to every game world after all. However, the FRCS was wide open to expansion, since it had only been partially drawn and developed in 1e AD&D’s boxed set, and only marginally expanded in the then recent Forgotten Realms Atlas (1990).
Additions came fast and furiously. Oriental Adventures, which ultimately included East Asian, South East Asian, and South Asian areas (as well as some really bizarre alien-human hybrids that, surprise, looked a lot like Black Africans) was bolted onto the east part of the map. Zakhara, the Land of Fate and a shameless rip off of Hollywood’s Arabian Nights esthetic was bolted onto the undrawn southern part of the main continent. Maztica was sent out to the far west, attached to barely described Anchorome as analogues for North and Central America. It was flurry of world building.
This all sounds great, but the setting began to run into serious issues very quickly as an internally coherent world.
In the formative years of D&D, specifically between OD&D in 1974 and the end of 2e AD&D in 2000, D&D had some identity crisis problems. It’s origin as a medieval wargame was still strong, and as a game, it wasn’t sure if it was a mythological fantasy game based in IRL history and myth, or a true fantasy game. The FRCS tried to play it both ways, drawing on its origin as an alternative parallel Earth. This is something that should have been scrapped, but was kept, and resulted in the inclusion of Unther and Mulhorand, regions occupied by literal Sumerians and Egyptians from antiquity, ruled over by avatars of their respective culture’s pagan pantheons. It also resulted in a bizarre pick’n’mix of other gods being included from both mythology and fiction, divorced largely from their cultural contexts. These included Tyr (Norse/Germanic), Mielikki (Finnish), and Nobanion (Aslan, a Jesus analogue from Narnia). Instead of adding to the setting, this served more to detract from it; and in the cases of Unther, Mulhorand, and Nobanion, the result was a lot of “Oh that? Yeah, we don’t talk about that…” even as they persisted through editions, whereas Tyr and Mielikki were completely divorced from their origins and continue to be popular gods.
The idea of parallel, alternate Earths in fantasy is old, but it’s something that needs a lot of management and effort to pull off well, especially if you’re going to play the cross over game. The FRCS did not get that level of attention. I say that because there’s an immediate internal consistency issue on the cosmological scale, just in that example of peoples and gods. Lord Ao, the high god and top dog of the FRCS is a stickler for control. Yet apparently there are different policies in effect for gods arriving on site. Oghma, Nobanion, Tyr, Mielikki, and others can apparently arrive, set up shop, and carry on like they’ve always been there. Whereas when literally thousands of Sumerians and Egyptians are kidnapped and enslaved, he’s powerless to lower the magic barrier that the Imaskari erected, no one notices the sudden influx of people praying to absent gods, and the rest of the story basically runs with “and this is why there are no gods left on Earth” as its explanation for how the gods of Sumer and Egypt got to the FRCS? It’s bad writing at best, and painfully hacked together junk at worst; which leads directly to the next issue.
The FRCS has suffered badly because it was never intended to be as large as it has become, or to try to encompass as many competing ideas around religion and philosophy as it tries to. It’s easy to hand wave this away, based on IRL religion and philosophy, to which we are all generally acquainted with. But we don’t live in a fantasy world where the gods are literal, active, spell and miracle granting entities with a vested interest in their followers.
When the FRCS was still in its earliest form, it only consisted of what we now recognize as Faerûn. Its cosmological model made sense in this form; you had the Faerûnian pantheon, some demihuman pantheons, Lord Ao on top, some mystery gods in Chult, and that was it. Good to go. It was solid if unimaginative. As a general rule, gods got power from their worshippers in a symbiotic relationship, if you didn’t want a crap afterlife experience, you followed a god, and things were good.
This immediately fell apart when new regions were added. Zakhara and Kara-Tur both featured philosophies as “religion” which, in the FRCS, means that you were effectively damned to a horrible afterlife for not following an actual deity. Oriental Adventures was also notable carbon copying IRL Shinto and Hindu religion and presenting it as “fantasy”, which is pretty lame. The net result being a patchwork of different approaches to religion, several of which ignore the rules and mechanics as laid out in the initial planning stages. While this can be explained away as an act of fiat, I think that’s a lazy approach that only invites more issues down the road.
Then, there’s the issue of the Faerûnian pantheon, a local operation, being in charge of global level things. Important things, like magic. Imagine, if you will, that you live in Kara-tur, Zakhara, or Maztica. You’ve never heard of Ao, nor is Msytryl/Mystra a familiar name to you. In fact, you have no gods of magic, even though you use magic every day. Then, suddenly, magic shuts off. Or it goes crazy and surges. What is happening, why is it happening? Why can no one provide answers? They can’t because Mystryl/Mystra is a Faerûnian goddess who, for some reason, has been given the task of managing the entire planet’s magical network, who is frequently kicked out of the heavens, killed, or otherwise made unable to do her job. This is a direct result of expanding a world past its original parameters without thought for the long term effects or interconnectedness of things.
As much as the phrase hurts to type, 4e got something very right. That being what a fantasy world, with magic, monsters, and whatnot would probably look like in its Points of Light setting. FRCS loves borders, but doesn’t have the right conditions for borders to be “things”. Also, it uses borders the way we today do, based on arbitrary geospatial positions. This makes for a great and familiar looking map, but is terrible at representing a good impression of what the world would more likely look like.
A general rule of thumb in world building is that if you’re not going to use lore you’ve come up with in a meaningful way, don’t waste the wordage and page count. The FRCS has some of the most amazing deep history I’ve seen in any established campaign setting. But it does so little with it, and it affects the world so minutely, that it might as well have been left out. The FRCS is literally sitting on a gold mine of potential to drive it from being just another D&D Fantasy world into being a legitimately deep, engaging, academic study of it is possible level world. However, through five editions of the game, it’s been restricted to the limitations of Gygaxian constructs.
Earlier, I mentioned that OD&D through 2e AD&D were having identity issues. This is where it showed the most in an established setting. Specifically, in the drive to have real world history played out in the FRCS. The two most notable events were the Mongol Invasion of Europe, and the Invasion and Conquest of the Americas. Both were badly assembled affairs that were examples of researching something so much that you ultimately get in wrong in the execution. These events also didn’t do much to expand or enhance the world in a long term way. None of areas of the Hordelands, the “Unapproachable East”, or Maztica took off as regions for adventure in any significant way.
This isn’t just an FRCS problem, in fact, I’d go so far as to say that having apocalypse level events as a method of moving the world narrative forward has become a crutch in too many RPG designer pools. But the FRCS has just rolled from one into another, and for reasons that I cannot discern, does not acknowledge or even really deal with any long term effects. The event happens, and afterwards, everything is pretty much back to business as usual. There’s no changes in how people approach their lives, religions, conflicts, or anything else; and they just keep rolling out. This results, in my estimate, in a world where there are no stakes, and no long term effects for anything, which doesn’t enhance mood or immersion at all.
What to Do?
So, the whole premise of this thought experiment is to rebuild the FRCS without completely scrubbing the entire operation and going out for a pint. So I’m going to approach it in five stages.
Stage 1: The Origin Story and Cosmology
Stage 2: Deep History and Modern Influences
Stage 3: Great Events and Catastrophes
Stage 4: The Peoples of the Realms
Stage 5: The Nations of the Realms
So, this is the project for the next little bit. A thought experiment where I’ll be rebooting the FRCS, using a canon light approach, to see if it can be salvaged without losing too much of its character or history.
Forgotten Realms and its logo are property of Wizards of the Coast, and is used here for review purposes.