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
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)