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Wednesday 25 September 2013

Learning to Love the Forgotten Realms in 4 Easy Steps

Learning to Love the Forgotten Realms, In 4 Easy Steps

So even to this day, there are people out there who express serious trauma regarding the FR. And that's understandable, as rarely has such a great setting been treated so shabbily by its owners. The realms has been shat upon consistently since the end of the '80s by its own authors, with only a few rare points of redemption. But underneath that mountain of crap, there's one of the best fantasy settings ever made.

Let's remember here that the realms were a 20-year labour of love before it ever became an RPG setting. And that original work was incredibly rich and full of gaming potential. That's all still there. You just need to redeem the setting, to clear away the crap and focus on what's great about the Realms.

So here's what you have to do, what I've done, to run the realms without losing your lunch:

1. Forget that the novels exist. Instead of complaining about them, and the pernicious effect that they've had on the game setting, just ignore their existence and everything in them. Make it clear to the players that the novels have no bearing on YOUR Realms. It helps if like me, you've hardly read any of them (I read a couple back in the very early days, when I was a dumb kid, and after a while even I realized that they were cheap, ugly, c-grade fantasy fiction). If you weren't that clever, then you just need to wash your mind clear of anything you ever learned, or thought you learned, about the Realms from the novels.

2. Read either the original "grey box" set or the 3e FR book; and read it as though it was a brand new setting you'd never read about before. Forget everything you ever thought you knew about the place, and treat it all with equanimity, as though what's in the main volume is all of equal importance and all there is to know about the place. I'm not saying you can't choose to add material and detail from other sourcebooks, but start from the basis of treating the Realms as though it was a brand-new thing.

3. Treat all the NPCs equally too. The Realms are full of author's pet characters; but its also utterly full of local NPCs that have barely been touched upon, much less tainted by exposure to the crappy novels. Imagine that the wizard who has a tower in Tantras you'd never heard of until now is just as valuable a potential NPC, if not more, than Khelben Blackstaff.
Remember point 1? Forget that some of the NPCs are supposed to be "more important" because of the novels; remember, the novels don't exist! And remember point 2? The only things you "know" about any of the NPCs, including Elminster, the Simbul and fucking Drrzt, is what you read about them in the main volume you choose to center your campaign on. And even that can be changed at will. In the grey box, Elminster is far from the annoying demi-god you see in your head from years of character-abuse, and drrzt doesn't even exist!

4. Change the NPCs, and the setting, however you like. Use the material as your basis, but in the core books there's shitloads of space, and "blanks" for you to fill in about what even the detailed places are like, and what there is to do and see in them. Make the Realms your own. My own realms have a far more sword and sorcery feel to them than the default idea of the Realms that exists in most people's heads; and that concept really fucking works. If you follow points 1, 2, and 3 above, the Realms are a dangerous and wild place full of S&S adventure. But if you want something more medieval, there's lots of room to do that. If you want something more exotic, there's shitloads of room to make Amn and Calimsham, never mind the Jungles to the south, unbelievably exotic. The realms is huge, and the tragedy of the setting is that 90% of gamers who run it always run it the same way, usually bound by the rotting corpse of the novels and years of bad novel-influenced supplements. It doesn't have to be that way.

Trust me. Take those four easy steps with the Realms, and you won't regret it.


(originally published February 25, 2012; on the old blog)


  1. This is solid advice.

    For YEARS I hated the Realms. HATED them. I hated the NPCs I hated the stupid world and I hate the Drow-fetish they all seemed to have. Mostly because it was not my beloved Greyhawk.

    But I picked up the "core" Realms product for each edition on the way cheap recently. The Grey Box, the 2nd ed "Adventures' book, the 3e campaign book and the 4e books.

    It works. I like what I have been reading so far.

  2. I'm playing Under Illefarn with my kids and using these very same ideas. I plan on having them eventually play through the FRE trilogy, without all those "Midnight needs to survive" and "The Zhents need to be defeated at Shadowdale" nonsense.