Forgotten Realms: Odi Et Amo, Excrucior

In the past couple of months, for whatever reasons of nostalgia (and reading about the new expansion of Lords of Waterdeep), I’ve been thinking about the Forgotten Realms setting – likely the single most loved and hated setting in all of D&D. Hence the title of this post quoting Bernard Cornwell, quoting Catullus. My history with the setting goes back to probably ’93 or ’94, when I first picked up the 2e boxed set. I expect that a sizable percentage of my readers are either closing this post already or simply turning up their noses – let’s face it, the setting doesn’t get a lot of love in the blogosphere. This is what I want to talk about: the flaws that quite justly turned people away from the setting, and the merits by which the setting earned its place in the gaming pantheon. (Disclaimer: this is a post with a high risk of violating my rule against fulmination.) It’s my belief that the setting is ideal for brand-new DMs and very experienced and talented DMs, but pretty much awful for anyone who has departed one shore without reaching the other. I don’t claim to be one of those transcendent DMs, but I think I may have sighted it from the crow’s-nest.

I’ll be talking primarily about the 2e version of the setting here; while some parts of the setting were improved in the core releases of later editions, I think this comparatively primal form has much to recommend it. Because I want to lay out a redemptive arc for my commentary, I’ll start with the setting’s flaws, and some means of addressing those in actual use. This gets into outright re-imagining the Realms.


The Big One

Powerful, goodly NPCs control the story of Forgotten Realms, without any kind of clear structure in place to explain why the PCs need to act. This is the result of a setting guided by the success of its novel line, but even before the novels, Greenwood was obsessed with blatant self-insert characters. At the risk of making baseless assumptions about someone I’ve met only once in passing, I’d point out the number of older, cantankerous men who, for reasons surpassing understanding, are spry, powerful, and desired by women whose only significant adjective is nubile.

Then there’s this guy, who I will endeavor not to mention again in this post.

Basically, all of the things that one would like to see the PCs do, from establishing heroic spy organizations to defeating just about every major evil in the setting (okay, let’s be real, I haven’t read any FR novels in the last fifteen years, I have no idea what goes on now), are canonically accomplished by named NPCs. It’s obvious enough that a DM can just change that, but as those same NPCs keep cropping up, one must work delicately, or else scrap the whole thing. If the DM wanted to do the latter, then why work with a published setting at all?
We’re lucky enough to live in a time when a group of noted D&D designers have just released a near-D&D system that addresses the problem of how to use the big-name NPCs.

Seriously, if you take nothing else from 13th Age, its system of Icons that gives PCs actual, meaty hooks to interact with the big-name NPCs is an awesome innovation. I suspect that this is how Greenwood originally used those NPCs in his own game – not as distant titans overwhelming the significance of the PCs, but as nearby characters that the players interact with often, people the players can love or hate on a personal level. If your character has history with Elminster (preferably a negative history, because conflict is good), suddenly the emotional reaction to his presence in the setting is something other than, “oh, why bother, the big guy will handle it.” Even a friendly history is good, though: I’ll note that Brust keeps managing to challenge Vlad, even when he is close friends with Morrolan, Sethra Lavode, and Keira the Thief, some of the most capable and motivated NPCs in the setting.

Now, I haven’t followed this advice, because the Forgotten Realms campaigns I’ve run – seven or so, I lose count – predate 13th Age by right around a decade. I went the other way: drag the PCs out to some part of the setting that doesn’t see a lot of big-name NPCs, and just never have them show up or do anything. Those players weren’t the type to ruin their own fun just to skewer the setting’s flaws. In my long-running college game, Alustriel was on-camera for about twenty minutes, in her role as the ruler of Silverymoon rather than her role as an epic-level spellcaster. (On which note, I wonder if D&D Next will add levels 21 and up just so that the FR NPCs can be statted according to tradition.)

My last note on this is that in general, the best place for powerful, heroic NPCs that might overshadow the PCs is the history books. It’s still possible to be overshadowed by the dead, but it’s trivially easy to write plot around PCs stepping into the shoes of a dead NPC; that NPC’s heroic exploits become a promise of glory yet to come, as long as the players trust the DM to let them become as great as that predecessor. I’ve certainly been tempted to start a campaign with the mysterious-yet-quite-permanent demise of one or more of those NPCs and run the story from that premise, but I never came up with quite the right way to make the PCs give a rat’s ass.


Good, Evil, and Insanity Are Not Motives or Ideologies

Especially when writing about the bad guys, the setting’s writers have always had a bad habit of treating Good and Evil as a sufficient shorthand for some actual motives. Now, this is true throughout D&D’s published material; reversing this trend is what sets Eberron, Planescape, and Birthright apart. I’ll grant that there’s enough background material that a lot of villain groups have now received a bit more depth, but the text should put those motives front-and-center. For example, why are the drow all evil and hell-bent on attacking the surface world? Well, there’s a complicated and rather obscure story about a war between the Caucasian elves and the Ilythiiri, stemming from Araushnee/Lloth’s fall from grace within the elven pantheon. It comes down to “because Lloth has an absolute chokehold over (percentages vary) of drow society, and she’s completely psychotic.” So… basically the drow are just run by the world’s greatest drama queen. That’s actually a little more interesting than the self-defeating destructive impulses assigned to Lloth and the drow matriarchy. (You know they’re evil because matriarchy.)

Far too many villains are evil by reason of insanity – off the top of my head, Halaster, Sammaster, and Druth Daern are all archmages driven mad by (handwave, handwave). If madness were a game mechanic visibly threatening PC wizards, this would be a lot more understandable; as it is, it’s a bit too obvious that the setting writers wanted lone archmages of vast power and completely random actions. Folks, I am here to remind you, interesting conflict does not come from “Dude, I’m so random” insanity. Now, Halaster at least doesn’t tend to show up and fry the PCs, as written – he just does random things to make progress harder, instead of latent magic or bizarre dungeon devices doing the same. He’s more of an environmental effect with a face and untouchably high stats (making him harder and harder to portray within the rules as wizards gradually become less-unfair relative to the rest of the game – bounded accuracy may be his death knell). The only evident fix for this kind of thing is to unpack it a bit and figure out what the hell we mean by “insanity.” I’m not talking about breaking out the DSM-5 here – some layman’s-terms mental disturbances would do. Paranoid schizophrenia is probably the way to go here, and let’s all remember that mental disorders played for laughs are in poor taste.

The only real evil motives in the setting are conquest and enslavement, which typically go together. I’ll certainly grant that dominion over others is a great form of evil, but there needs to be more – the setting includes far too many evil groups that throw themselves futilely at the big, established good-guy groups. For a few examples: the Zhentarim against everyone (but especially the Dales), the orcs against the Silver Marches, Thay against Rashemen, the drow against the surface… the list goes on. This really gets into my next point about the Realms’ relationship with change and stagnation; what the setting needs to address this point is nuance and believable ideologies.

Looking at the history and ideology of the Harpers just now, it wouldn’t be too great of a step to introduce a few more people who are upholding less than 100% of the group’s tenets, and use the group’s secrecy and information-gathering for selfish ends. Basically, I’m talking about turning the Harpers into a Cold War spy thriller or a medieval-fantasy James Bond, where 90% of the villains are former members of the organization who have gone rogue. I really like the fact that late-3e Realms canon establishes a rift between Khelben and the Harpers, resulting in a competing intelligence organization. I didn’t keep up with all of that story arc, but it’s got a moral ambiguity that the setting needs in greater measure.


Stagnation and Radical Change

The Realms have a life-cycle that looks really strange if one is familiar with other settings. Whenever D&D releases a new edition, there’s a radical change, known to WotC and the fans as a “Realms-Shaking Event,” or RSE. Yes, they’re entirely common enough to have their own acronym. RSEs are an excuse to bring the cosmology in line with the new edition, revamp whatever the writers are dissatisfied with, let the forces of evil make some gains, and introduce new factions or landmasses. It’s halfway between “WoW expansion” and “comics crossover event;” the 3e -> 4e RSE, the Spellplague, is particularly comparable to Marvel’s “House of M” in-continuity setting reboot.

In between RSEs, though, things change only when novels come out and move the canon forward. Since the protagonists are the good guys and this is heroic fantasy, they’re pushing back the forces of evil with every novel that goes by. The many different evil groups either hold steady or lose ground until the next RSE allows the bad guys to claim some territory without undermining the awesomeness of the Big-Name Heroes.

Now, this has both a solution on the DM’s side, but I can also imagine some solutions on the writers’ end. A DM can and should treat it like a setting with extraordinary detail for several different points in its timeline, so pick whatever you like and run with it. For that matter, you could start a generational (or just elven) campaign in 1367 (or 1194, if you want to go back to the first point that the timeline includes every year in sequence) and have better than a century of pretty detailed world history already written for you. It could be a pretty solid approach to a Pendragon-style Great Campaign.

On the writers’ side, I really can’t blame them too much for the stasis. Their job is to provide grist for adventures, and bad things happening that can’t be addressed in novels or published modules isn’t really their job. What I’d like to see, though, are some one-year and five-year timelines, of such a form that “if the PCs don’t stop it, this happens,” along with suggestions of contingencies and solutions if things get way off-course. What I’m getting at is that they should teach the DMs to use the setting well. Plenty of these won’t work out for any particular campaign, but they could do a lot more than other kinds of setting-writing to teach DMs how to think about the world and show some of the things that the devs expect to go on there.


Word Choice and Naming Phonemes

Okay, this one’s petty. I have a tough time with the aesthetics of a decent percentage of the names, both place-names and personal names. They jam together phonemes that range from weird to outright jaw-breaking, all glau and gulph and thiir. I do care about the aesthetics of names, but more than that I care about something that won’t sound ridiculous to me as it’s coming out of my mouth or to my players as they’re hearing it. I have, over the years, had more than one player who couldn’t keep it together after Blibdoolpoolp (not FR-specific), much less Corm Orp, Urmlaspyr, or the like. These stand alongside portmanteau names like Eveningstar and Waterdeep, without any sense of a cultural division to justify the contrast.
Cultural hooks in general are hard to find in the Realms, if we’re talking about what the books call “the Heartlands.” These central regions are presented as some of the main adventuring areas, but they all have the same bland pseudo-Europe culture and assumptions; only things tagged as “Beyond the Heartlands” merit even a nod to cultural distinction: Arabians, Bedouins, Russians, Scandinavians (this one is pretty thin until you count in the gods Ilmater and Mielikki), and so on.

Now, this does have some solutions present within in the setting, even if the text doesn’t lay them out. There have been a lot of fallen empires in this setting (the 2e book lists 18), many of which once encompassed a substantial percentage of the known world. A DM could go a long way on assigning one naming pattern to each culture, and there are some cues in this direction buried in the text.

So about word choice. Ed Greenwood has this thing he likes to do where Elminster makes up new hyphenated words to refer to people (for example, “free-stave” for a mercenary wizard is used… once that I’ve ever seen) and things in the world to create an air of… I’m really not sure what, but wry world-wisdom may be the closest thing. This could work if it were done with a little more restraint, but between this and all the mayhapping, the overwrought prose reaches a state beyond purple and on into colors evidently not visible to the human editor. Given how often Greenwood uses a quote from Elminster to deliver setting exposition, it’s a constant reminder that Elminster “should” be a core part of the experience of playing in the Realms.

I don’t have a fix for Greenwood’s writing, except to say that it becomes more sporadic in later editions, as more writers make their mark on the Realms. If this technique were used to establish in-character idioms, there could be something to that. I mean, it would make every character sound like a crotchety, self-important old wizard, but it could be a thing, you know? Instead, Elminster makes up a new word for whatever-it-is each time, and the terms he makes up aren’t evocative or memorable enough for players to use. I’d just as soon my players weren’t all as jaded about the concept of “adventurers” as Elminster and a lot of setting NPCs are.


Now For the Good Stuff

I wasn’t kidding when I said the Realms had some virtues as well. The level of detail from 30+ years of constant writing and re-writing is intimidating, and the organization could be a little more helpful, but your PCs could really go in any direction at all (including down) and expect to run into published content. Within the very broad aegis of “medieval-ish heroic fantasy,” the setting has you covered for more subgenres and setting flavors than you could fit into a dozen campaigns. I’ve mentioned the detail level of Realms history – that might add some work to the DM’s session prep, if one wished to keep to the published timeline, but it brings a lot to the table as well.

That’s the hard part: tying it all together and holding it in mind so that you can sprinkle references to other things in the dialogue, set dressing, and so on. This is why I say the setting turns great again for experienced, stellar DMs: it took me years to see the magnitude of importance to this. It isn’t that players need to take notes and remember every detail – just the opposite. The point of dense cross-referencing is to use every scene to lay foundation for every other scene so that the players will realize they already know interesting, useful things about this fallen empire or that type of monster.

The 2e boxed set was, in some ways, ahead of its time – that is, setting design has circled back around to some of the things it does. It includes three books and numerous visual aids, though it would require a very well-prepared or quick-thinking DM to get a lot of use out of the visual aids at the table. The books, though, are what interest me: all three are individually pretty brief, and the largest weighs in at 128 pages. They’re written at different levels of detail: A Grand Tour of the Realms is the bird’s-eye view that gives every city other than Waterdeep a half-page at best; sometimes whole nations don’t rate any more than that. For a setting so dense with detail, overviews are important! There’s a cultural overview of the Realms – unfortunately this spells out how the whole of the Heartlands is a monoculture. Even dividing the Eastern Heartlands from the Western with a few key cultural points would help here.

The “middle” book, in terms of zoom-level, is Running the Realms. It overlaps to a certain degree with A Grand Tour, and I can wish that it included more advice for DMing a Realms campaign. It does include the Timeline, though, including a month-by-month timeline of the “current” campaign year (in this case, 1367 DR). If the book had included some suggestions of likely contingencies, this would be the one-year plan that I mentioned wanting. Next up is a breakdown of the major power groups, followed by several pages of Select NPCs. (On a side note, I can’t say enough good about building FR plotlines about two villain groups clashing to create some of the moral ambiguity that the setting needs – it isn’t like any of the bad guys are normally motivated to cooperate.)

On one hand, these NPCs point out all too well that the setting thinks its NPCs are more important than the PCs will ever be. On the other, using a Technoir-like adventure generation would be a top-notch use of these details. Cut the NPCs you really hate or the ones that just make no sense, and then pick six. Do yourself a favor and give them some reasons to call upon or interact with the PCs. There’s some good material here, if you’re willing to treat some of the third-string NPCs here (that is, they don’t show up anywhere else in print) as important people at around the time the PCs are a little lower or roughly equal to them in level. Yes, I realize the Sample NPCs are meant to be used – but I know that it never really occurred to me to use any of the third-stringers when I was running FR games, so maybe it didn’t occur to some of my readers.

The third book is Shadowdale, with the super-close zoom you’d expect. It includes a dungeon crawl set in Shadowdale that takes up a little more than half the book; I’d be happier if it were any good. We’ve learned a whole lot about adventure design in the last twenty years… and since there’s no school other than hard knocks, everyone learns those lessons individually. SO MUCH BOXED TEXT. So many goofy puzzles and traps.

The rest of the book is an acre-by-acre breakdown of Shadowdale. Now, there are some staggering design problems involved in having two epic-level heroes and a quite substantial number of early-mid-level heroes populating what is otherwise described as a sleepy little village. Look, it’s straight-out terrible when the retired farmer just up the road is literally one of the top twenty most powerful individuals on the face of the planet, and still isn’t the most powerful person in the village. No matter what the PCs do or how far they progress, they’re still going to be overshadowed by these characters. The other problem is that the setting cares way too much about the NPCs who were (if I recall correctly) originally the PCs in Greenwood’s game. It’s… not good. If you can endure past all of that, then you’re made of sterner stuff than I was when I first picked up the setting… and you’re looking at a level of detail that could be used for some very nice verisimilitude. Each hill and spring has a name and a little bit of story; over the course of a dozen adventures the players could develop intricate, personal connections to the land and the people.

In summary, the strength of the Realms is its sense of history, continuity, and breadth. There’s a huge amount to see, there’s a place for just about every kind of adventure, and weaving it all together would be difficult but satisfying. The weakness of the Realms is that the good guys do always wear white hats and win in the end. Grayscale morality (but then I hate alignments and the way they push people into thinking about characters) and a lot more desperation would really class up the joint, for my tastes. The bad guys should have some mitigating virtues, or at least an understandable perspective. Why do the Zhentarim want to conquer everything? Because Cyric tells them to. Why do they worship Cyric when his orders would send them to their deaths without much chance of success? It should be the good guys who face that kind of tough choice, not the bad guys. Signing on with the Zhentarim should be joining the winning team.

Also, the drow of Menzoberranzan should be presented as warring Mafia families in the neon-lit gloom of Blade Runner, but that will have to be another post. I’ll leave you with this (poorly made, but I am not talented in visual arts) “artist’s rendering” of Michael Corleone as one of the drow.

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