I didn’t like the World of Greyhawk when I was a boy. That’s a heretical admission for one who associates himself with the Barony of Eld, but a truthful one, nonetheless. My exposure to the World of Greyhawk, outside of the background notes for various modules, was the 7th printing of the campaign world boxed set. Prior to that time, I had been using my own homebrewed campaign world - one inspired by the Known World map from the Isle of Dread.
The reason that I disliked the World of Greyhawk was ironically its main selling point for many gamers, which was the lack of detail provided. Oerth was a canvas painted with broad strokes that left a lot of room for DMs looking to pencil in their own details. But to my twelve-year old mind this wasn’t a benefit. I instead saw it as a rip-off. If I was going to spend my hard-earned lawn mowing money (and my not-so-hard-earned birthday cash) on a TSR product, I’d better be getting my money’s worth. At the time, I certainly didn’t think that this was the case with Greyhawk. There wasn’t even a complete adventure included, just some ideas for some which I’d have to make up on my own – something I had been doing all along. I would admit to the map being fantastic, but that was slim condolence for a boy who had been expecting much more bang for his buck.
In 1987, the release of the Forgotten Realms boxed set changed my mind about the feasibility of using a published campaign world. A couple of different factors were responsible for my new opinion. The first was I was a few years older and wiser, and I could appreciate the appeal of blank space on a campaign map, so to speak. The second was that I felt that the format of the Forgotten Realms boxed set was superior to that of World of Greyhawk. I was (and remain) the type of person who gets great joy out of reading encyclopedias. The mental adventure of reading alphabetical entries without knowing where they may lead to next is something that entertains me. The “Cyclopedia of the Realms,” which was included in the boxed set, pushed all the correct buttons of my psyche. The last factor, while an apparently minor one at first glance but very important to me when I first read it, was The Promise.
The Promise, as I refer to it, appears on p. 6 of the “DM’s Sourcebook of the Realms.” Consisting of a mere two paragraphs, to my eyes it was nevertheless the most important piece of text in the entire set. In brief summary, The Promise states that several locations in the Forgotten Realms will never see “future adventures, modules, or sourcebooks” for them. The “will not” was even italicized to demonstrate how serious they took this statement.
I can only properly explain why these two paragraphs were so important to me by revealing an embarrassing secret: I was a TSR fan boy. Shameful, yes, but I was much younger then and didn’t realize that not everything coming out of Lake Geneva, WI was written on stone tablets handed down from on high. So blind was my devotion that even the Dungeoneer’s and Wilderness Survival Guides were treated as holy tomes. As far as I was concerned, anything and everything with a TSR logo on it was canon and had to be treated that way.
The Promise was, although the term wasn’t in my lexicon at the time, a social contract between me and TSR that effectively said “do what thy will.” The scales fell from my eyes and I embraced this idea with a fervor that exceeded my previous devotion to the company. It suddenly became clear to me that, outside of my purchase of their product, I had no further connection or obligation to TSR and was free to pick and choose and bend and break anything in the Forgotten Realms that I wanted to. And that’s precisely what I began to do.
Taking the suggestion of the boxed set, I wrote my own version of the town of Ashabenford in Mistledale. Although it was inspired by the entry for Shadowdale, Ashabenford was mostly my own thoughts put on paper and I was rather proud of it. Gathering a group of my friends together, we set about exploring the brand new (to us) setting of Faerun, as seen through my fifteen-year old eyes.
Almost every adventure we had in the Forgotten Realms was self-created. I pulled color, NPCs, and locales from the boxed set to give it a veneer of Faerun but that was it. Even as the first Forgotten Realms source books began to appear on the market, which I purchased to mine for ideas rather than use whole cloth, our weekend meets in the Forgotten Realms took place is one that was uniquely our own. We explored Myth Drannor long before the canonical version appeared, strode the streets of Waterdeep in the time before City System and which only owed slight acknowledgement to FR1 – Waterdeep and the North, opposed the plots of the Zhentarim and the Red Wizards of Thay (who more closely resembled the Cosa Nostra and the sorcerers of Stygia than as they’d ultimately be presented), and generally made ourselves at home in Ed Greenwood’s home, although with much redecorating to the premises. I can also say that a certain arch mage never even poked his beak-like nose into our goings-on.
Between the years of 1987-1989, which fortunately was the time in which my Realms campaign was most active, Faerun was little different from the published campaign worlds that had proceeded it. A bit more detailed, perhaps, than Greyhawk or the Wilderlands, but still a world that was wide-open to exploration and homebrewed creations. It was a world that was perfectly suited for someone such as me – a person looking for enough detail to help guide them into a more serious and realistic game experience. Despite how reviled the Realms has become to certain schools of thought, if one looks back on the original grey-green boxed set, many of the arguments against the Realms hold very little water.
But time stands still for no man, especially when there’s money to be made, and in 1988 and 1989, two events would occur that irrevocably changed the Forgotten Realms forever.