It’s been more than 30 years now since the Forgotten Realms setting was released (the beloved Grey Box) and more than 50 since Ed Greenwood originally started working on his vast fantasy world. It was an instant hit, is almost certainly the most popular fantasy world in existence (absolutely the most played one) and is now the default world of D&D.
There can be no simple discussion of this giant and so we elected to make this a round table. But first some context and history.
Ed Greenwood started creating the fantasy world of Faerun, set on the planet Abeir-Toril (or simply Toril), in 1967. In his version of the world, it is a parallel world to our own and there are several connections. Yet, most do not know this and therefore they are the forgotten realms. Since the official published version has dropped this connection, many over the years have been somewhat confused why they are referred to as forgotten.
In the latter days of 1e, TSR sought out a new campaign setting for the emerging 2nd edition. After Gary Gygax’ somewhat violent ouster from TSR, Greyhawk was no longer a viable option and Dragonlance wasn’t considered accessible enough by a large group. Ed Greenwood had been a regular contributor to Dragon magazine since 1979, writing about his fantasy world, and TSR noticed. They saw it as a fresh and open-ended world with great potential and you cannot argue that they were wrong.
Although it is more or less accepted that the release of the Grey Box in 1987 is the starting point of FR, there were some things published even earlier. The H series of adventure modules are considered to be FR adventures, although the first two were released well before the box (H1 Is from 1985). The first official product is the novel Darkwalker on Moonshae, published a month before the setting.
It was an instant hit and even in the dying days of the first edition, several products followed. The Kara-Tur setting, previously established in Oriental Adventures (1986), was now set in the same world. The outstanding compilation adventure Desert of Desolation was reworked for FR (writer’s note: Do yourself a favour and play it). There were several supplements, adventures, novels and computer games.
But it was with the coming of 2e that FR truly exploded. It was dominant throughout the 90’s. It was so popular that an interim book to update the setting for the new rules was released in 1990 (Forgotten Realms Adventures) until a new boxed set replaced the old in 1993. There were scores of products released and not just strictly game related. The novels were vastly popular and if you’re a computer gamer of a certain age and don’t know the Baldur’s Gate games, then your nerd card should be revoked. It should be noted that in the early 90’s, a highly controversial change was made to the setting. Called the Time of Troubles, the gods of FR were set loose on the world and some of them died, causing a major shake-up in the dynamics of the world. FR was so popular that TSR attempted expanding the world of Toril, first with the Maztica campaign setting, based on the Americas during the time of the Incas, Aztecs and conquistadors, and later with the highly underrated Al-Qadim setting, based on Arabian and Middle-Eastern legends and lore.
It remained popular through the 3e and 3.5 era, and a hardcover detailing the world and adapting it to the new rules (and in many ways removing the effects of the Time of Troubles) was followed by a massive number of hardcover supplements, several adventures and more.
As with so many things 4e, its approach to FR was, to put it mildly, controversial. It advanced the timeline by more than 100 years and drastically changed the world. This was considered by many to go much too far and caused a major stir in the player base.
Therefore it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that 5e backtracked with these changes and restored the 3e version of the Realms. But it did more. It made FR the official and default setting of D&D, something it had never been despite its popularity. While this makes perfect sense, there are those who do not approve of this.
With the rising popularity of D&D and considering that unless you are specifically playing another setting, you are playing FR if you’re playing D&D, it’s very hard to argue against the future of FR being very bright. Even away from the gaming table the same applies. FR novels have been extraordinarily successful and have a long shelf life, there have been scores of popular computer and video games and indeed most licensed D&D products are FR related.
Hjalti: Dungeons & Dragons is the 800 pound gorilla of the RPG world. That is simply a fact. Within D&D, the Forgotten Realms are the giants within the game.
And there are times I really wish it wasn’t, that these realms would actually be forgotten for a while.
To be clear, I don’t want the setting to go away – but it’s sometimes overbearing and collapsing under its own weight. For a lot of reasons.
First of all, there is the looming presence of Ed Greenwood. Yes, he is the father of the setting and we have him to thank for the world. But when you read his work through the years, it becomes clearer and clearer how much he “owns” the world and dictates its flavour. I’ll concede that this isn’t as big a thing as it used to be.
Second, there is too much going on while there aren’t enough (or big enough) threats. Faerun is a massive continent with enormous potential. And yet, when reading through the many supplements, I always have trouble seeing how to expand and use it. That has never been a problem on other worlds.
Third, there are the bloated superheroes and omnipresent gods. I like the gods to have a large role in my worlds. I don’t like when they are downright busy and meddlesome in the affairs of mortals and shower them with attention, making them their chosen ones. With the large cast of characters that have put on many hats throughout the last 30 years, it’s not that strange that some characters have emerged as superstars but boy, oh boy, does FR take that way too far! I deeply despise Elminster through no fault of his own. I’d happily support a rule that officially bans Drizzt clones. And I’ve had my fill of these characters all being obscenely high-levelled stat munchers that own every magic item there is. I know very well that this tends to happen with long running and popular characters, but there’s a limit. One of the strangest experiences of my gaming life was when I was invited to guest DM a table of friends. Experienced players all, but this was the mid 90’s and Drizzt mania was everywhere. When I sat down with my adventure ready and asked them what they were playing, three out of five had chaotic good renegade dark elf characters. I almost entirely lost faith in humanity that night.
But my biggest problem with FR is this: What are the stakes? In this giant world, where large parts of it are ruled by incredibly powerful forces of darkness (I’m looking at you Red Wizards, with an occasional glance at the Cult of the Dragon), why does good always triumph so handily? Where is the dark, oppressive force that needs to be defeated? In FR, good has already triumphed and must defend against the forces of evil. It’s a defensive game and that is never as interesting as the opposite.
There is a lot to be positive about. It’s a massive and very well established world with almost limitless potential. But I cannot stop thinking how bland and uninteresting it is compared to other worlds. My beloved Greyhawk (more on that later) has exactly what is lacking here – the forces of evil have the upper hand and good must find a way to triumph in a dark world. Eberron is oozing with flavour and attitude and possibilities and Dragonlance has that epic and grand feel that FR lacks but should have, and has much more character at the same time.
Thorsteinn: Forgotten Realms as a setting has many great qualities. It is the most developed setting for D&D, with huge support and a plethora of sourcebooks and novels. That can be a double-edged sword, since having all these great NPC‘s and so much information on places, factions and so forth can leave little room for the PCs.
The setting is highly accessible and many subsettings have been introduced, such as Kara-Tur, Al-Qadim and Maztica which all have something to offer.
FR is a very high fantasy setting, where magic is as easy to come by as bread. This can be appealing, but as I grow older the more I like the mysterious and forlorn aspects of magic. When you have archmages in every city and the Art seemingly something almost everyone recognises, magic loses its mystery and becomes common.
Since the introduction of FR we’ve seen many great storylines, like the Time of Troubles, the Spellplague and the Second Sundering. Despite these storylines however, despite Abeir-Toril being reunited and torn apart again, we see little social effect. Why hasn’t worshipping Shar been outlawed around the Dragonmere and in Sembia? Why haven’t the other gods killed or cast out Cyric?
There are two things that I have never come to terms with in FR. First thing, the ever-present deities and their ever-meddling nature. Every god seems to have a few chosen who are almost avatars and do the gods bidding in Faerun. These characters are simply too large and too instrumental in the fate of the Realms. I feel that this has been somewhat diminished in 5e, and that’s great. No more deus ex machina, please.
My other issue is that I’ve never really liked the fact that despite numerous evil plots in taking over the world or replacing this or that god, these plans never seem to work and are always thwarted by the forces of good. Yeah, I don’t like that. I’s not plausible. Seemingly the forces of evil are either too greedy, too evil, too stupid or too preoccupied with internal strife and politics (Why haven’t The Red Wizards of Thay taken over the world? For the love of Helm, this is the greatest force of arcane casters in the Realms) to accomplish anything. Even the Drow can’t seem to do anything right. Because of this, there are few surprises in the setting‘s metaplots. What if the Drow had succeeded with the Darkening? I liked the changes to the setting in 4e and would’ve loved seeing WotC push these forward.
Overall FR is a great campaign setting, where almost all fans of D&D should be able to find something to their liking. It has a rich history and a myriad of modules and sourcebooks. Despite its flaws the Realms is a good choice as the basic D&D setting for 5e. I would, however, love to see a storyline that shakes things up and leaves them forever changed, not so that after the events everything turns back to normal. I hope that Ao hears my prayers.
Helgi: One of my first groups played in FR almost exclusively, maybe some Ravenloft, a dash of Dark Sun, but mostly just the Realms. I hated it. Back then I preferred Dragonlance, before I lost interest in that setting, and now I think Eberron is leaps and bounds ahead of FR in so many ways it’s laughable.
For me FR suffers from the “crazy quilt”syndrome of setting building. It’s the patchwork setting of a score of authors, often working from novels written for the setting without real oversight or vision. The setting is riddled with annoying Mary Sue characters like Drizzt and Elminister, to say nothing of Volo who in his 2nd edition adventures somehow showed up to steal the show at the end in some sort of recurring Deus Ex Machina.
The geography of the Realms is another matter, with the map never making much sense to me, feeling like a jumbled mash of ideas forced together by some intern tasked with making sense of all the stories already written for the setting.
In later years I have forgiven FR many of these flaws but old rivers run deep. I still play in campaigns set in the Realms but I think I have never run one myself. I have accepted the fact that it is the most popular setting but when I have the choice there is always some other setting that fits my ideas better in the long run. For people that love Forgotten Realms I say “Have fun” but I will be having mine over here in Eberron.
Hjalti: I see there’s quite a lot we agree on here, a lot of it rather negative. The looming presence of super-characters, lack of oppressive forces that need to be defeated instead of kept at bay and the somewhat lacking flavour of the world. Do you see any solutions to this, can FR be “saved” in your eyes? Or is the cat out of the bag?
Thorsteinn: Well, as I mentioned I think that in many ways Wizards have minimised the roles of the super NPC‘s, if they make an appearance in modules their roles are more of a gentle nod towards the canon, rather than showing up and saving the day. That is a step forward.
As for the lack of oppressive forces… well, my guess is that since the Realms and especially the North tend towards being good or neutral, it would take something tremendous to change that. The resurfacing of Netheril was exactly that kind of an event. We still haven’t seen any storyline in 5e that comes close to that.
I think that for now Wizards are too preoccupied with re-purposing and shoehorning in the D&D classics for 5e to shake things up and why should they? The vast majority of D&D fans are happy as it is. And that is hard to overlook. Despite what we think, they are doing fine and the 5e Realms are generally well received.
FR and the fact that they have been restored to their pre 4e version (I mean Leira and some of the other dead gods are back etc.) is a hit. Some might say that Wizards already saved the Realms.
Helgi: I am one of the few that kind of liked 4e but the same cannot be said of FR in 4e. Yes, getting a force such as Nethiril was helpful but some other features, such as the Spellplague, were taking it a step too far. That, coupled with them keeping Drizzt around as a sort of viewpoint character to keep the fanboys happy, was not what I consider cutting edge setting design. Of course some of this can be traced back to Wizards’ driving need to insert their new Dragonborn race into any supplement they published because, in the words of Xzibit, a wizard’s name if I ever heard one, “I heard you like dragons, so I put dragons in your dragons so you can dragon while you dragon”. At least that’s how it felt like.
Hjalti: There’s a big gripe for me, there are no other official options. If WotC only support one world and are hell-bent on adapting the classics into 5e, everything has to exist there. That means that an already cluttered world now also contains elements of Greyhawk and Dragonlance. Isn’t there simply too much going on in a world that is too established? Is there enough space for your own vision? This is a problem for any setting that has been around for a while, but nowhere is it more apparent than in the Realms.
Thorsteinn: As a person who has already written material and published on DMsguild.com (shameless plug…)… no. This setting has so much lore, so much history and there have been so many modules, sourcebooks and novels written, it makes it really hard to fit your ideas. If you wish your material to be in line with canon, you have both hands tied. Of course, you can fit anything, but it takes a lot of work and you need to double and triple check that all your sources are right. Even then, there are frequent inconsistencies.
Still, to be fair, having this much lore and history can be really helpful and makes it easy to write. After all, you don’t have to fill towns and cities with NPC‘s, lore and what-not, since it’s already there. But for game masters that like to do all this work themselves, perhaps FR shouldn’t be their go-to setting.
Hjalti: That’s just it. 1e and 2e had no official setting and 3e didn’t really either. It was clearly Greyhawk, but it was never explicitly stated and the world wasn’t truly fleshed out in the base materials. By making FR the official world, they are imposing certain limits to what you can do.
But I have to ask how much this is the case of the old farts. Of the three of us, one is decidedly not a fan, another is at best ambivalent about the world and only one can be called an active FR player. All of us have decades of experience playing and running many systems. FR has to be very exciting for a new player, with its massive scope, size, history, lore and characters. I remember that a lot of the things that I take issue with today are the sort of things that were very exciting when I was a youngin’ – but they’re the exact kinds of things that you have to be careful with. I completely quit playing with a group when every adventure started with seeking out Elminster and concluded with some superstar NPC rescuing us from an overwhelming force. We were witnesses to their heroism and not the heroes. Most of them loved it, I didn’t.
Simply put, FR is by far the most popular D&D setting whatever flaws I perceive it to have. And I have no problem with that. It’s just not where my games take place.
Helgi: I personally am a fan of setting neutral adventures. It should be no big deal to adapt a well written module into a setting, be it Ravenloft, FR or Eberron. Heck, I can run Dragons of Autumn Twilight in Dark Sun if I feel like it. “Keep it simple, stupid” should be the go to mantra of game developers in my honest opinion, let the settings be their own beast.
Thorsteinn: The old farts play a huge role here. I’m not a big fan of Wizards’ storylines, I think they are old, recycled classics (some of which haven’t aged well at all) and playing it safe. My kids however love the new modules. But, then again, we old farts, always complaining, are no longer the target audience. Just as with Star Wars. Sorry guys, but we’re getting old.
The long and short of it
There is simply no way to dispute the clear facts. Forgotten Realms is the big gun in this playground. It was the most popular setting for the most popular game long before it became the default setting. Some of us value its strengths, and there are many, while others lament its weaknesses. There is a lot of good FR material out there and some not so good. Perhaps one day we’ll discuss what is the best of FR. We’re in no hurry. It’s not going anywhere. If you like the Realms then that’s just great. If you don’t, there’s a lot of good options out there. There’s only one thing that truly matters – having fun at the table with a group of friends.