Forgotten Realms is a long-running fantasy setting originally conceived by Ed Greenwood for the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game, and is possibly the most well-known setting for the game: although other settings, such as Greyhawk and Dragonlance, predate Forgotten Realms, the books of authors such as R. A. Salvatore, and game franchises such as Icewind Dale and the nostalgia-machine Baldur’s Gate, have done much to cement the Realms’ visibility, influence, and memetic status.
The influence of Forgotten Realms cannot be underestimated: when the Eberron campaign setting was released, it was notable that, in his effort to make the setting distinct, creator Keith Baker made changes which often seemed to fly in the face of fantasy RPG tropes as Forgotten Realms had defined them: drow had been, in earlier settings, omni-malevolent, subterranean murderers with a spider motif and a society so ludicrously violent and petty that it is a narrative miracle they had a society at all.
Eberron opted instead for a ‘fanatic, jungle-dwelling scorpion cult’ theme, thus closing the book on dark-skinned, demon-worshipping, villain clichés with the inescapable potential for racist interpretations, and opening the book on jungle-dwelling savages and their wacky, unreasonable resistance to colonialism and genocide, which, everyone agreed, was much more tasteful.
The point of this flame-bait diversion is that it was notable that before Forgotten Realms, the concept of the drow was an established one, although other settings had other kinds of dark elves. After Forgotten Realms, fantasy settings can be understood as vehicles that reject or embrace tropes that Forgotten Realms did not necessarily create or codify but certainly used and, in some minds, represented. When Pathfinder began to assert its own identity as one preserving the good against D&D 4th edition’s innovations, it is perhaps unsurprising that drow were exiled back to their pre-Eberron domains deep below the surface.
So what are the key blocks of Forgotten Realms’ world-building? What is it against which other fantasy world-builders react and what lessons can we learn?
One way to start building a world for a novel or for a role-playing game is to start on the small scale. Greenwood began with the city of Waterdeep as a setting for his group’s fantasy adventures. As a fantasy metropolis, it gave the setting a semblance of depth: all those orcs and elves had to come from somewhere after all. Were they cultural neighbours? Distant trading partners? At the very beginning, it almost does not matter, although most world-builders will have some idea. Others might leave it vague, wait for a player to say, ‘Can I play a trademark-free, squid-faced wizard from another dimension?’ and incorporate it into the larger world only then, or perhaps a writer will want to dabble in cosmic horror and adapt his lawyer-friendly creature to the story as a result.
The advantage of starting small, especially for pen-and-paper games, is that it provides a reasonable field in which to begin engaging with an audience: not every kingdom, dominion or realm needs to be fleshed out with its dynasties in order to start slaying some goblins. If a party’s first adventure is about slaying goblins, then they only need to know about the goblins and why it is necessary for them to be slain. If one needs to establish a cloak-and-dagger theme from the start (and for this, dynasties may be rather more important to develop first), replace the words goblins and slaying with whatever is necessary to get the game running. Jewels and stealing for example, or rebels and subverting. A wise GM/DM/Storyteller will take constructive suggestions from his party at this point (‘Rather than being social outcasts trained in isolated magical societies, wouldn’t it make more sense for sneaky illusionists to be distrusted by all yet nevertheless be highly prized as political allies and therefore controlled by wealthy patrons?’). Greenwood rounded out his world as players asked questions about it, sometimes about places that he had not yet invented. This is also a viable approach. However…
The Dreaded Bloat
Forgotten Realms has so much stuff in it that it is hard to take it seriously. That may well be the point: dinosaur-riding dwarves going on adventures with chivalrous knights and ninja elves aboard gnomish sky-ships to do battle with dimension-hopping wizards and rabid gods has a certain madcap fun to it that many other RPGs lack. To keep us grounded, many of the fictional cultures have a certain amount of real-world basis to allow a new player to feel, or fake, a sense of familiarity. Other cultures are clear
copies of homages to other fantasy writers, the most obvious example being the many flavours of elf and their westward voyages across the sea.
There are also many bland cultures: nations like Amn, the Sword Coast, Waterdeep, and Tethyr can only really be differentiated by their governments, and because technology is generally pre-gunpowder medieval, many allegedly diverse and interesting peoples might as well all be citizens of a single nation. Even the far-flung and isolated Spine of the World is just ‘medieval but also chilly’. Not every part of every world needs to be as thrilling as every other bit, but, perhaps as a consequence of being places in which action occurs, a set of backdrops, rather than living parts of a larger narrative, many of the Forgotten Realms are eminently forgettable.
Even more depressingly, one of Greenwood’s earlier concepts for the Realms, that there had been previous, magical contact with Earth, led to some cultures in the story being literally transplanted from our world into the fictional world. The Dothraki may on some level be Mongol-derived, but Mulhorand and Unther are just Egypt and Mesopotamia, and ones largely trapped in cultural stasis at that. Again, this is presumably so the characters can have Egyptian-themed adventures, but it is more than a little patronizing. Pathfinder did a similar thing, with cultures starting precisely at the geographical borders and going no further abroad, but depending upon the origins of the player characters, any game session could be a jolly pot pourri of Shelley, Lovecraft, Tolkien, Herbert, and Weiss, and as weird as that sounds, at least each part contributes something distinct to the setting. Greenwood’s approach seems to embody an idea that medieval stasis is required for fantasy adventure, and that chucking in some hieroglyphs will provide something suitably diverse when people grow bored with yet another forest full of giant spiders.
There are also, to be fair, some much more original cultures: the Red Wizards of Thay and the witches of Rashemen, for instance, provide two contrasting examples of cultures in which there are wizardly ruling classes. Alas, due to the preponderance of rather less original elements of world-building, it must be asked whether they stand out due to their own merits or due to failures in the rest of the world.
With umpteen cultures come umpteen deities, but again, they are integrated in a narratively unhelpful way. The deities of Forgotten Realms are active, anthropomorphic beings with distinct areas of interest and influence. In third edition, Lathander is the god of the sun, for example, whilst Talos is the god of storms, and Mystra is the goddess of
resetting between editions magic. What they require from their followers and why is made explicit (worship, otherwise they weaken and fall into a half-dead slumber) and so are a number of doctrines and ceremonies for each: the former for players to justify their characters’ worst impulses and the latter for GMs to dig out precisely once in order to beat unsuspecting players with the Plot Sticktm.
However, the superfluity of gods is rather ridiculous. Not only is there a single “main” pantheon, there are also some regional pantheons (such as the Mulhorandi/Egyptian gods) and even racial gods, and so deities like Mystra – who as Goddess of Magic is already doing part-time work with Azuth, the God of Magic-Users; Cyric, the God of Madness and Magical Illusion; Oghma, the God of Knowing About Magic; Savras, the God of Magic about Knowing; Selûne, the Mother of the Goddess of Magic; Shar, the Goddess of Alternative Magic and Existential Oils; Silvanus, the God of Natural Magic and Homeopathic Sorcery; and Velsharoon, the God of Just Generally Bringing Down the Tone of Magic – also have to share credit with the deities of magic specific to the Mulhorandi, orcs, gnomes, and at least two flavours of elf. How they are supposed to relate to each other is never satisfactorily explained. One nugget of lore I seem to recall suggests that they are all simply aspects of Mystra. Even Thoth, who migrated from another dimension. Ahem.
The result of this cultural and divine mish-mash is that the setting as a whole does not work as a unified structure: it is impossible for all this nonsense to co-exist. Yet, on the very small scale explored by most parties, that same nonsense can make for great fun. Mask of the Betrayer even showed how compelling a world Forgotten Realms could be, but that still requires someone to forget a large amount of the setting or, preferably, not know about it in the first place. The lesson to learn is this: when starting small and building up, know when to stop.
Failing to do so results in a bloated mess: in addition to the various slightly different flavours of dwarf, elf, gnome and halfling, monsters include largely similar groups of giants, zombies, aquatic humanoids, spiders, and a veritable kaleidoscope of dragons. The Monster Compendium: Monsters of Faerûn even introduced two different kinds of frog-people. Not one race with two different cultures, but two different kinds of frog-people with different mechanics. In the Realms, it seems that only humans are sophisticated enough to develop different societies: other races are biologically monocultural for some reason. I look forward to R. A. Salvatore’s forthcoming series about Nomnosh, the wandering bullywug; a brooding, mysterious, dual-kukri-wielding, inexplicably attractive and totally unique frog-man who wants nothing more than to be understood and maybe some tasty flies if you would be so kind.
Bizarrely, the Compendium provides its own answer to the question, ‘How could we integrate all this into a cohesive whole given that we’re stuck with it now?’. Namely, the fact that certain monsters, say, banedead, are distinguished from other undead by linking them to one of the many deities of the Realms, Bane. Other monsters, such as Beasts of Malar and Ghaunadans are similarly rooted in the setting through the gods. Why not simply apply that same logic to as many other monsters as possible? Giants could have been one race once, but perhaps their divergent beliefs led to physical changes as their gods moulded them into more fitting forms. Bullywugs and sivs do not need to be separate species but different cultural groups. Or they could be more contrasted: newt-people with their society in the depths of the swamps feuding with the frog-people who thrive on the fringes. Interbreeding is yet another way of making the setting less atomized: it is clearly established that hybridization in the Forgotten Realms is not so much a product of genetic compatibility but that the entire setting is a cosmic playground for Doctor Moreau, so why not simply use this as an established device rather than inventing multiple different creatures with mysterious origins which do not seem to tie into anything else? Again, as a cue for a GM, it is fine. As a way of building an interlocking world, it leaves much to be desired, because it makes it seem that nothing relates to anything else, even within each edition. On that note…
Because Forgotten Realms is one of the flagships for Dungeons and Dragons, when the system is updated, so must the setting be. This is always handled in the same tasteful way: a universe-altering cataclysm occurs, lots of gods are destroyed/die/vanish, always including Mystra, the
Many-Faced Goddess Goddess of Magic because when the magic system updates, it is impossible to ask the audience to imagine that the world has simply been a given way all along. Players just cannot cope with that level of suspension of disbelief when they sit around tables throwing plastic shapes around and pretending to be Izzt O Durden and chums. That would be madness. Instead, rocks fall, everygoddess dies, offending parts of the world are disintegrated, new parts appear out of nowhere and then (and this is the part which is truly magical), everyone carries on almost precisely as they did before.
This might have worked once, and perhaps the campy repetitiveness of it all appeals to other players, but I have not bothered to update my Forgotten Realms books since third edition simply because the “new” lore will not be new for very long, I do not have enough spare money to keep up with constant revisions, and I am simply not that invested in a narrative which follows commercial demands. In any case, given that Mystra comes back in some form every time, what is there, really, to act as an incentive to update? Worry? Attachment to a character? Interest in a narrative? Forgotten Realms is at its best as a world when it acts as the stage on which a story is told, and many GMs can do that quite well enough without needing to update their libraries and dice mechanics every five years.
The setting therefore seems to spend a great deal of time resting on the cusp of self-awareness before falling back into narrative simplicity, and not only in terms of alterations between editions. Let us take, for example, the earlier nations of Thay and Rashemen. The parallels and contrasts between the two cultures make not only for believable cultures and narrative but also put an extra edge on their conflict: the witches of Rashemen hate their Thayan counterparts and vice versa. The Thayan wizards are famous in part for their brutal slavery and the Rashemi for their ferocious sense of independence. All well and good so far, but the fact that only Rashemi women can become witches and any men with magical talent are forced into what effectively amounts to slavery is, strangely, glossed over by most of the setting’s third edition books.
It is good that magic is seen to have consequences on the cultures of a magical world, but those cultures should be affected by other forces as well: only Thay really seems to interact with its neighbours in any meaningful way. Other nations, even the very similar ones, exist in a vague ‘rivalry’ which is really nothing more than a cue for the GM.
On the other hand, the Underdark, that lightless, subterranean realm, received one of the more interesting supplements, in which the authors considered how agriculture, trade, recreation and the like would exist amongst the various races which live in the depths. Even the maniacal drow were made a tad more realistic as a result.
As I wrote above, there are many colourful peoples and monsters to encounter or about which one can read, but they seem to exist largely in isolation from one another despite centuries of rubbing shoulders. Similarly, many features of the landscape itself are very compelling (e.g. the Ring of Gray [sic] Flames*, the Dragon’s Tooth**, the Fortress of the Wailing Dwarf***) but most either do not really seem to feature in the lives of the people, or are diminished by their prevalence: the landscape is positively strewn with trap-filled ruins, all the better to explore and plunder. Many are in the nth iteration of plundering as successive villains use these places as hideouts, but it rather strains the imagination to believe that these ruins have not been levelled or rebuilt by local communities/overzealous adventurers in all but the notable minority of cases.
Ultimately, it is hard to say how many of these shortcomings are a problem with the world-building, a consequence of the commercial enterprise, or the nature of a setting for a role-playing game. I have made my opinion clear, but it cannot be denied that the purpose of the setting is to play games in it, and defining too much might make things difficult for a GM to run his own adventure. There are a lot of fun and engaging ideas, after all, and a GM is free to ignore what he does not like. In many ways, the strength of Forgotten Realms lies not in its texts but in the implementation of their best ideas whether a computer game, a novel, or – most pertinently – by a skilled GM and a good group of players. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a new character to roll.
*Five stone towers crowned with grey fire which emit bizarre mechanical noises and interfere with magic.
**A mountainous island where a clan of protective, riddling dragons live.
***A stronghold carved into a mountain, one side of which is shaped like a dwarf’s head: the wind makes a wailing sound as it passes through the eyes and mouth.