Monday, April 6, 2015

The ForROTTEN Realms

In light of recent events, I've decided to take the month of April off from role-playing. I've written before about how it takes a certain strength of will to put together and run an RPG, and quite frankly I just don't have it in me right now, and I know better than to try and fight that. I can look back at just the past few weeks...the rapid jump from Lovecraftian horror to superheroes to Fate Core and back over to D&D...and see that my mind is just not in the right place.

But I do want to return in May. I feel like I may need to. I'm going to need something to help me in those first few months. It's going to be a lonely summer, I fear. So I've begun thinking about what I'm going to do then. Since I think I've burned a lot of goodwill with the recent erraticness and now the April benching, I'm going to have to go back to something strong, something that'll bring people in, something that'll carry the group even if/when I can't. That something, of course, is Dungeons & Dragons. 

I've thought a lot about what I want to do with the game when I return. I've considered that the easiest return to form might just be to run the published adventures. I already have Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat, so I could just study those, run them straight, and get a group together pretty easily on that. If I wanted to keep going, I could even transition to the new adventure, Princes of the Apocalypse. 

There's only one problem with all of that: it takes place in the Forgotten Realms, which blows.

The Forgotten Realms is one of the oldest campaign settings in roleplaying, not the oldest (that would probably go to Greyhawk), but way up there. It, like the game it's attached to, has gone through tremendous changes in the past three decades. Hundreds and hundreds of pages have been written about the place and all its heroes and villains and apocalypses and gods and wars and so on. Its heroes...Drizzt Do'Urden, Elminster, the Harpers...are amongst the most well-known in fantasy fiction.

My problem with the Forgotten Realms is pretty basic: it's been done to death. It is essentially the Marvel Universe of fantasy fiction, in that any hero my players roll up is going to inevitably sit in their shadows. It's such a huge world that it has just about transcended being an RPG setting and is fundamentally a franchise of its own (that certainly seems the case when you look at all the card games, board games, videogames, and novels that comprise it; a young fan to the series could in theory not even realize it's a setting for D&D!) So even though the Forgotten Realms was created expressly for gaming groups to forge their own epic legends, publisher Wizards of the Coast (and TSR, before them) has gone ahead and done it for us.

What's interesting is, almost every DM I come across feels the exact same way! Most blogs I've read concerning the Realms usually has some kind of variation of this sentence: "I'm not a fan of the Forgotten Realms, but..." It oftentimes feels like the Forgotten Realms are being forced upon DMs, a necessary evil to get everyone on the same page for organized play.

Perhaps the single biggest disappointment for me about the new 5th edition of D&D (aside from the lack of pdf support..."hi, Wizards of the Coast? This is 2015 calling. Get your shit together!") is Wizards of the Coast's decision to focus all of their early development of the line on the Forgotten Realms. I never thought I'd say this, but I think I'd rather have a bunch of "Complete (Insert Class Here) Guide" books to collect than a cross-media product line based on a world that seems almost arbitrarily chosen for me to like. That makes it all sound like a forced marriage...a comparison I find quite accurate.

From a pure mass market appeal, I of course understand this decision. The Drizzt books and the Elminster books have millions of avid fans. The videogame heritage of Neverwinter Nights and Baldur's Gate is legendary. It would be foolish to avoid not tying this all into the very game that created them. But I find it interesting...and sad...that the people who really make a good RPG...the DM and his or her players...are the most put out by this decision. There are plenty of casual fans who may love the idea of playing alongside Drizzt. But I can't think of many RPG veterans who would enjoy such an opportunity.

The counter-argument, of course, is to say "They're all dead." It's to create your own version of the Realms where Drizzt is too busy watching sunrises and frolicking with his pet panther to slay armies of orcs, and Elminister really is a bumbling old fool rather than just acting like one. And that does work, to a point...but I find myself resentful of this answer. WotC is saying it's on me to fix the setting. I'm supposed to pick the lore I don't like out of the setting like picking banana peppers off a pizza. And, following that simile...picking the peppers off still leaves a bit of the taste that I'm trying to avoid.

So my options are a) Run these Forgotten Realms adventures and just force my way through the bits I don't like, or b) Completely design my own adventures from the ground up, including a setting, and ignore all the material WotC has made available for purchase. The former is work I don't like; the latter is work I do like, but a LOT of it. My current plan is c) all of the above. I'm adapting my favorite campaign setting, Ravenloft, to 5e. This is a lot of work, but at least there's a framework in place. Coloring instead of painting. We'll see how it goes...

Behold: the Wal-Mart of campaign settings.


  1. Not surprisingly, I agree with your assessment, and add one more caveat: I always find a player who knows Forgotten Realms more than I do, and is willing to take up valuable time telling me why I'm wrong about something. This is both an irritation and a waste of the other players' time. Worse than either of those, though, is that he might be right!

    So I've gone and done something horrible. I wrecked the world, making it a magically post-apocalyptic version of its former self, sort of like the post-Roman Britain. I didn't so much wreck the topography as I did the cultures, writing out many of the luminaries we all know and love(?). Some of them I have intentionally left vague -- no one knows what has happened to Drizzt, for example. I might trot him out later, or perhaps players will discover his tomb.

    At any rate, my own view was that I needed a setting that needed new heroes. They now have it, in a place where they know the history (as legends) but not the current setting. This alleviates the need for creating an entirely new world, and gives the players that creeping sense of familiarity when they discover ancient ruins with familiar landmarks.

    As with anything, YMMV.

  2. That is an AWESOME way to handle it, sir! I used to do something similar back when I played the old' West End Games Star Wars...all my adventures took place in an alternate timeline where the Rebellion lost the Battle of Endor, Luke went to the dark side and he and Darth Vader together slayed the Emperor, and all the other major characters were either dead or missing. It is a fun way to keep the universe but clear the playing field for a gaming group...and perhaps something I should keep in mind if I decide to break out the Tyranny of Dragons adventures. Thanks!

  3. I think the Realms' success is being overlooked. Every OTHER setting D&D has produced has sales that pale in comparison to the Realms.

    Too often, I think DM's are afraid to make the Realms their own, which is how I have been handling the setting. While I hope we someday see 5th Edition having the dearth of settings that 2E had, I think the Realms usage makes perfect sense.

  4. It definitely makes perfect sense...I just don't like it!

  5. The Realms of the Future in an apocalyptic setting is a cool way to roll. I generally go the other direction. I have the AD&D original boxed set of the Realms and I use it. None of the Time of Troubles, Spell Plague, etc non-sense has gone on. The setting is smaller in terms of full write ups with lots of space to make it your own. I might mine some of the splat books for ideas and such but none of them are canon in my game. Much easier to handle and not so many niggling details.


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