by Dex Tefler
The Forgotten Realms are arguably the most popular of all the Dungeons and Dragons settings, often confused with being the base world for the game as a whole. The continent of Faerûn, part of the fictional world of Abeir-Toril, is the basis for most of the major adventures. Originally developed by Ed Greenwood for his private campaign, he began to contribute heavily to The Dragon magazine in 1979 with articles outlining adventures, locations and artifacts from his world. He sold the rights to TSR in 1986, and the following year, the first Forgotten Realms materials were published. Over the next several years, many existing TSR modules were retooled and re-issued as part of the Forgotten Realms. A series of novels were also launched, introducing arguably the best known character, the Drow Ranger/Fighter Drizzt Do'Urden.
The popularity of the Forgotten Realms setting has spawned over 200 novels and anthologies, a comic line in the 1980s lasting 25 issues, and 40 video games. Starting with Pool of Radiance, most of the highly successful D&D branded video games are set in the Forgotten Realms, including Curse of the Azure Bonds, Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights.
“Life has no meaning but what we give it. I wish a few more of ye would give it a little.”
The main setting of Forgotten Realms is the continent of Faerûn; a diverse collection of kingdoms and freelands, often embroiled in small wars and intrigues as various forces struggle for control. The continent features a wide range of kingdoms, political systems and environments, which allows for varied campaigns and modules. The central starting place for most Forgotten Realms campaigns is the great city of Waterdeep. Waterdeep is a powerful city-state, ruled by secret lords, set on the Sword Coast. The city is connected to both the pirate city of Skullport and the Undermountain, which leads to the Drow controlled Underdark.
Faerûn`s scope offered a variety of game styles and settings, moving away from the dungeon crawling motif or the high fantasy of D&D`s other two primary game worlds. Parties roamed from land to land, each character with potentially different motives, advantages and interests to guide them. The detailed pantheon of gods added an additional dimension, as characters could find themselves in the midst of religious wars and struggles for followers and power. The sprawling setting allowed for a wide diversity of plots and travel, as players followed different trails which led from secret temples to lost cities in the scorching wastes to battling pirates on the high seas.
Popular nations include Zhentil Keep, a fortress controlled by the church Bane, god of fear; Cormyr, the besieged human kingdom that contained the ruins of the great Elf city of Myth Drannor; Amn, the rapidly expanding and ambition merchant and trade nation; Thay, a mountainous slave nation controlled by evil Red Wizards; and the Dalelands, home of Elminister and an implacable foe of Zhentil Keep.
“If you care to listen, I can give you a small preview of what I'm going to say about those people who have the glory of adventuring with you”
- Volothamp Geddarm
When the Forgotten Realms was released, it quickly became one of the most popular D&D titles, to the point that it was often considered the default D&D setting with players. As the world evolved, properties like Kara-Tur were redeveloped to take place in the Forgotten Realms. As TSR began to develop their 2nd edition of AD&D, the opportunity was taken to revamp Forgotten Realms in order to clear up earlier inconsistencies and establish a more consistent and cohesive setting. ‘The Time of Troubles’ was a major event that spanned books, modules and the comic series, where, as punishment for their endless plotting, the Lord Ao forced the pantheon of gods to take mortal form, spreading them across the land. The events created wildly unpredictable magical effects, and over the span of the Troubles, many gods were killed or imprisoned and several were replaced by humans, now raised to the divine. The changes were designed to reflect new rules in second edition and eliminate a number of no longer supported classes like the Assassin.
Forgotten Realms would also become the basis for the RPGA’s Living City campaign, set in the city of Raven’s Bluff. The campaign, which ran from 1987 to 2004, was highly successful and often formed the backbone of role-playing conventions. Further materials expanded out the Forgotten Realms world, including the Underdark and the Drow culture, heavily popularized through R.A Salvatore’s best selling series. Bioware’s hugely successful Baldur’s Gate series renewed focus on the Sword Coast and later Icewind Dale, supported by additional materials.
Further changes took place with the release of the Third Edition Forgotten Realms campaign setting in 2001. More detailed descriptions were made to update the various nations and to advance the post-Time of Troubles setting decades following the event. A wide range of additional modules expanded areas like the desert lands of Anauroch, Shadowdale and unrest in Cormyr. It would eventually lead to the Spellplague event set to coincide with the release of the Fourth Edition players and DM guides, in which massive magical upheaval reshaped the land itself, destroying several nations entirely, removing gods, and creating areas of magical instability or desolation.
“Jump on my sword while you can, evil... I won't be as gentle!” – Minsc
Forgotten Realms’ allure is that it tries to find a line between the elements of dark and high fantasy common in other lines like Greyhawk and Dragonlance. The characters and NPCs are typically flawed figures, who are rarely black and white in their motives and actions. The inclusion of Elminister as a Gandalf-esque plot device means that in many cases, the player group is often a collection of opportunistic adventures in search of treasure who end up thrust into an unlikely role as heroes. The campaign setting lends itself strongly to a mixture of adventures, from dungeon crawling to exploring ancient cities to campaigning against invaders or bringing down evil wizards. The setting relies more on mortal antagonists having the most impact on the wider world, while monsters are more of an atmospheric threat, dragons excluded.
Because of the flexibility, good DMs can experiment with settings, basing campaigns set mostly within the walls of a big city like Waterdeep, locked in as part of the local political intrigue, or campaigns that take characters to the far ends of Toril, engaging in epic adventures and fighting evil. The variety of nations also offers itself well to parties with mixed races, as few areas are solely dominated by one race or another. That flexibility can occasionally work against less experienced players, finding themselves lost in the possibilities and the opportunities the world provides.
Another advantage are the easily recognizable characters from many of their popular properties like video games and novels, which offer quick ways to encourage players on the right track in an adventure through brief interactions. Forgotten Realms tends to be conservative with the power of magic and magical artifacts, which helps keep certain classes from quickly outstripping the rest in usefulness.