The core of any fantasy setting, especially ones in the mode of Dungeons & Dragons, is its cosmology and mythology. This is because, unlike our own, mostly mundane world, in these fantasy game worlds, these are very real things that have active and tangible effects on the world around them. So this is where Fixing the Realms starts.
As it stands, the Forgotten Realms has two worlds, Abeir and Toril; with the latter being the main world. I’ll address Abeir in a later post though. So, as it stands, as has been well established in books and materials from 1e on up, is that Toril is a non-functional patchwork of crazy in a cosmological and mythical sense. There is no rhyme or reason, and adding to the issue is that large areas (Kara-Tur, Maztica, and Zakhara) were bolted on with no consideration for how the world “worked”, all while Faeûn remained the “main” show, most heavily supported area, and where, for some unknown reason, the least functional, most unreliable pantheon was given world spanning tasks and portfolios.
Cosmic Origins of Toril?
By and large, this story is solid. It’s a very conventional Indo-European Gods vs Titans sort of story with a few twists. What I would change here are the Primordials. Their links to the Dragon Pantheon need to go, they don’t serve any good purpose, and within the larger concept of the multiverse, their imprisonment and defeat has a lot of connotations and only makes things more confused. That said, they need to be defined (what are they, what did/do they represent etc…), and a story needs to be built around why they tried to seize Ao’s creation, why they went to war with Ao and the young gods of Abeir-Toril, and why and how they were defeated (why did Ubtao betray them? ).
An Over God and High Gods?
Toril’s existing map of pantheon regions needs serious modification, as does the way gods work. In this I propose Ao remain the Over God, but that some gods be elevated to High God status. These gods are the “universal” gods and goddesses of Toril. These being the four goddesses, being the oldest deities in the setting, and the divine causes of life, magic, and so on that got the ball rolling on what was otherwise a lifeless rock in space. They are Selûne, Shar, Mystryl, and Chauntea (these being their Faerûnian aspects’ names, but the idea is there). Perhaps with a few others, representing “big” things like Sun, Death, and Ocean, they would make up a group above the normal gods, but below Ao. Regional variances would be aspects of these gods that match or at least sync up with the cultural coding of the area. Other gods, for things like War, Storms, Travel, and so on, would remain regional.
Now, this does have some knock on effects, specifically given the number of times that the goddess of magic has been killed/incapacitated. That can be dealt with by having her aspects be the targets, as opposed to her herself. In this scenario, Mystra has always been the goddess of magic in Faerûn, and it’s Faerûn’s weave that has taken the beatings, with only light rumbles elsewhere. This also means that it was Mystryl who placed limitations on magic, and who maintains, or eases them, depending on her whims, while her aspects deal with the fallout.
Who is where?
The old Faiths and Avatars books had maps covering off what pantheons were in charge where. This is a huge problem. What happens when clerics from one area travel to another? What happens when you die out of your god’s “zone”? My fix for this is to delink the gods from geography, and link them to different ethnic groups and larger cultures. It might sound the same, but it’s not quite. People move around. They interact. They take their culture with them, and modify it to meet the needs of their new surroundings. The Shou in Nathlan are way outside of their “zone”, and are likely in the stages of adapting to life in Faerûn; they still follow their old gods, but are also probably learning about the local ones. Helm was taken to Maztica (in a horrible, ill-thought out, let’s make his church do all the evils the Catholic Church did in history story, but that’s for a different day), but wouldn’t the Feathered Dragon, Qotal probably start scoring some converts as well?
So this something, to me, which needs to be more flexible and responsive to in game developments than a simple “these gods are here, not here” map. After all, if demihumans have gods that follow them across worlds, why can’t a world’s gods follow their worshippers?
There are a lot of interloper gods on Toril, and there seems to be no reasoning behind who gets let in, and who gets denied. For example, Nobanion was a port of Aslan from the Narnia novels, Tyr and Mielikki are real world mythology Norse and Finnish deities respectively, and all the demihuman and non-human pantheons are all from other worlds and places, or have been connected to them over the editions as origins for things like Orcs, Elves, and Dwares have been homogenized. There are also issues around bad ports of real world faiths into the game.
This is problematic, but not unsurmountable. My approach here would be to scrub real world mythology out as much as possible. Then approach each area that needs a unique pantheon or faith with a bit more respect, and dramatically less “China = Celestial Bureaucracy, Meso-America = Human Sacrifice” concepts. The world needs nuance and differences, but not things that promote quick stereotyping. For odd cases like Nobanion, simply dropping the Aslan reference and maybe adding a dualistic relationship to Malar or a triumvirate with Lurue and Malar would be solid.
The final thing would be to make a set of reliable rules about how gods from the outside get permission from Ao to roll on his turf. Dealing with the Mulhorandi (ancient Egypt) and Untheric (ancient Sumeria) pantheons, and the arrival of the Orc gods in the Orc Gate War would very much fall under this, but that’s a post for another day.
Worshippers, yay or nay?
Do gods need worshippers, yes or no, and do these worshippers give their gods more power/prestige, yes or no? This needs to be nailed down, because at the moment, the answer is “splurghl”. Sometimes gods are described as needing their followers to have any significant power, and other times they seem to get by based on their divine awesomeness. The reason this is on the fix list is because it determines a lot about the world.
In a world where gods don’t need followers, in my mind, the situation lends itself to the “distant/uncaring” model of deity. This is a world with few clerics, capricious gods, and to be honest, it does not match the feel or tone of Forgotten Realms, where the gods have been active participants in their followers’ lives.
Here is where I’d hybridize things. Ao and the High Gods are exempt from needing worshipers at all, and worshippers to them are just a prestige thing. The other Gods don’t need followers per se, they are gods after all, but their power levels are very much linked to their followers and the amount of faith their followers have in them. As a result, these gods are active in the world, because inactivity invites competition for their followers.
The reason I’d take these approaches is because they keep the flavour of Forgotten Realms, with its many competing temples and clergies, and large numbers of clerics, and tradition of divine activity. Unlike other many other settings, this has always been an aspect of Forgotten Realms, and a Dragonlance style “Age of Mortals” doesn’t fit it particularly well in my opinion. I see the Realms as being a myriad of competing, allied, and opposed pantheons, where even aspects find themselves in conflict with their kin at times. It all adds nuance and variety to the setting, while cleaning up some of the issues.
Now, this is not a comprehensive fix. There’s a lot of things that still need to be addressed here, but as a starting point, I think this would result in a Forgotten Realms that had stronger internal consistency, deeper nuance, and more variety and potential for players and DM’s alike to develop their own concepts.
Forgotten Realms and its logo are property of their respective owners.