Why I Love Thee, Forgotten Realms
My friend Judd Karlman has been talking both on Twitter and his blog about a new Burning Wheel game he’s started set in the city of Waterdeep, in the Forgotten Realms (FR), arguably the most detailed campaign setting for Dungeons & Dragons. This, of course, has gotten me thinking about FR as well, and has brought a flood of nostalgia washing upon me, causing me to write this post where I can wax poetic about my love for this world.
Let us travel back to the last years of the Rubik’s-Cube-and-leg-warmers era and to the little island of Puerto Rico. In 1986 I was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons, or more precisely to Basic D&D. To say that I fell head-over-heels for this game of the imagination would be an understatement. We played the game as much as we could, as much as 8th-graders can manage, as much as was humanly possible at our age. And given we were playing Basic D&D, all our adventures were in the Known World (later to be known as Mystara): we played through B1-9: In Search of Adventure straight through, once, twice, more. The Known World as our world far more than the real world was. But this isn’t a post about the Known World (though I certainly think one will eventually have to be written as well).
A couple years later, we finally got our hands on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) books. Getting RPG books in Puerto Rico during this time was about as difficult and exiting as Indiana Jones finding the lost ark (sans snooty French nemesis), so these were great treasures and the literal keys to even more adventures than before. Problem was, AD&D didn’t come with a built-in setting. There were a couple to choose from: my friend Braulio wandered down the road to Greyhawk, and me, I took the road leading to a brand new land just recently discovered, a placed called the Forgotten Realms.
I’ve no idea how long this gray boxed set had been published (this was way before I would follow or even care about such things), but I do know it hadn’t been long. Its cover was well known to me, as an ad for it would appear regularly in the pages of many of the comics I read. I didn’t know who wrote it, nor cared: this was from TSR, and it was AD&D, and that was all that mattered. I bought my boxed set with my own money (huge!) and started to read.
One of the reasons this gray box made such an impact was that it was an experience. The maps were large and enticing, showing you the breadth of this world with only names to whet your appetite; the clear hex-grid overlays with the logo on the corner were these items of legend, things we could never make ourselves (this was before Kinko’s), which freed the map to be its own beautiful piece of art without the grid pre-printed on; and the books, the two thin books held a veritable world of adventures right at my fingertips. What most impressed me then, and remains one of the thing I still admire about them now, was that, in presentation as in content, they were all about creating an experience.
The cover art for both box and DM’s Sourcebook of the Realms, this lone Mongolian-looking warrior mounted on his horse in the middle of a rocky landscape, said immediately, ‘this could be your character; you can be this horse-riding, spear-wielding, bad-ass warrior – you.’ The cover for the Cyclopedia of the Realms showed an action scene, an intense actions scene where the explosive movement of a high-speed chase on horses had been frozen for a second, long enough to make you wonder if the woman would survive the orc’s axe. This cover said, ‘this could be your adventure; you can be the woman escaping the orcs and being forced into a fight, or you can be the ones to go rescue her after these events – you.’ That was powerful art mojo; the art alone had me chomping at the bit for our group to get together and roll some dice!
Then you opened the books. It’s a parlor trick, I understand this, but the parchment-looking pages of the two books instantly told you that these were no ordinary books, these were special tomes of knowledge. They set the tone, without even having to read a word, and I’ll be darned if I didn’t smile wide when I laid my eyes upon them. The even more awesome thing is, the text was even cooler than the presentation.
What I always loved most about the Forgotten Realms was that this was a world that was alive, that breathed, that had things happening while the books were tucked away in my bookbag. My characters, once they were rolled up and ready to go, would join a thousand other stories all going on at the same time, taking place in this specific point in time, influenced by what came before. The Realms had History: there’d been empires risen and fallen, heroes come and gone, events that had shaped the very face of the land yet now were forgotten except for tiny bits of legend tied to a few locations covered in ivy or dust. It was like my own world, but with magic and dragons. The Realms were a world where a nerdy boy who likes history, like me, could indulge in that love even in game. It’s not a coincidence that my love for the Bard character class emerged hand-in-hand with my love for the Realms.
And all that history? I learned it. By heart. At one point in my life I was far more knowledgeable of the history of the Realms than I was of our real world; I was no Ed Greenwood (the creator), but in my circle of friends I was the encyclopedia. (Yes, I was proud of this, no, it’s not the case anymore.) I learned it all because it allowed me to play to what I saw as the strengths of the setting. When we traveled and arrived in Cormyr, I knew that this was a land ruled by King Azoun IV which also had a standing army of War Wizards; if in Luskan, I knew it was a mercantile-driven nation usually at war (overt or not) with Cormyr; if in the Dalelands, I knew the elven empire of Myth Drannor had risen and fallen here and the lost city still hid in the forest, overrun by demons (and that the dale known as Mistledale had as capital the small city of Highmoon). I knew that to the west was the Sword Coast with Waterdeep as the shinning jewel of civilization, to the north was the Savage Frontier, where an ice dragon had fallen to a dark elf; to the south the jungles of Chult and the magocracy of Halruaa; and to the far east the exotic lands of Kara-Tur. I knew this because my bard would know this and it would make our own adventures seem as an integral part of the very same world.
To the gray box I eventually added the Forgotten Realms Adventures book, which expanded on the very same type of information provided in the gray box (updated for AD&D 2nd Edition) and was thus like water to the thirsty for me. The switch from 1st Edition AD&D to 2nd Edition had been brought about in the fiction of the world by an event called The Times of Trouble, a cataclysmic event that saw the death of a couple of deities and the emergence of three new ones, along with other changes to fit the new rules. I’d joined the Realms shortly before the new edition, so I accepted the changes without any issue; it was all part of the greater story. In fact, in many ways, as much as the 1st Edition gray box was my introduction to the Realms, it was this post-Times of Trouble world where I truly developed my lasting love for this setting. I collected all the regional sourcebooks I could find (my fave? The Moonshae Isles) that had been published to date for 1st Edition AD&D, but this was the time when I got to buy sets as they came out, starting with the new campaign boxed set. The Realms were being uncovered before my eyes, and I felt like a historian who suddenly finds a trove of new documents revealing more of that subject which holds his passion. I will always be thankful to Ed Greenwood (original creator of the setting as his own homebrewed world), Steven E. Schend (how many books and boxed sets did he do during this time!), Eric L. Boyd (he started his work on the FR mailing list and usenet group, and that’s hardcore fan-to-pro stuff right there) and Jeff Grubb (for Alias and the AD&D & FR comics, among many other projects) because to me, they were the architects of this new explosion of discovery (I know many others worked on the products of this era, and I thank them as well, but Greenwood, Schend, Boyd and Grubb were the first ones to make me search the credits page for their names and buy products solely on their involvement).
Time passed, I moved to Miami, and eventually my D&D games died down. I continued to collect all the books I could, but with the collapse of TSR in the late 90s, my golden era of Forgotten Realms came to an end. When an update to the Forgotten Realms for the new 3rd Edition D&D was announced, I planned to get it (actually, I got this at Gen Con 2001 for free, after someone left their copy lying around at one of the RPGA Living City events I was participating in as part of the Bard’s Guild) but that was it. By then the magic had faded. The Realms had grown far too large for me to keep up with the hundreds of stories I once knew about. Larger-than-life NPCs seemed to dominate the action far more than that one dude on a horse with a spear from long ago, and I just didn’t have it in me, emotionally and economically, to buy all the new books that were sure to come out for the new edition. I greatly enjoyed the campaign setting book, but with that one tome I bid farewell to the Realms and consigned them to my bookshelf. (In case you’re wondering, I have not even looked at the 4th Edition version of the Forgotten Realms, nor do I have any interest whatsoever.)
Obviously my love for the Realms is not gone, even after all these years. Now that I am older I can understand something about why the Forgotten Realms had such an impact on me: the Forgotten Realms were my Narnia, my Middle Earth. I did not grow up reading fantasy literature; avid reader as I was in my youth, it was mostly comics, not novels that I devoured. My first fantasy genre novel was Richard A. Knaak’s Firedrake, not The Hobbit. I had read more Latin American magical realism by the time I got into D&D than pseudo-European fantasy stories; I just come from a different cultural background. So when I arrived at the Forgotten Realms, in copying the standards set by Tolkien and Lewis, it provided me with the very thing those two authors had provided many others before, a fantastical world for their own imaginations to run free within.
Though today I’m more well-versed in the greater realm of fantasy literature, the Forgotten Realms is ensconced in my psyche as that fantasy world where my imagination first soared, and for that I will always have a place in my heart for it.