To say that the Forgotten Realms became a victim of its own successes is accurate, if not 100% truthful. Although the amount of source books, novels, and other ephemera associated with it might have been slightly less, I’m certain that its bloated state was a planned goal. As the first game setting published under the helm of Lorraine Williams, I think it’s safe to surmise that the development of a Forgotten Realms brand was inevitable.
Despite this predetermined fate, the deluge of additional Realms material might have been lessened if not for two events: the publication of the Icewind Dale trilogy by R.A. Salvatore and the release of the 2nd edition of AD&D. These two happenings, which occurred within two years of each other, created a perfect storm of publicity for the Realms and an insatiable appetite for all things Faerun – needed or not.
Bob Salvatore catches a lot of flak from gamers, myself included, but despite some validity to these accusations, I think picturing him as a nefarious mastermind who hoped to have the effect on the Realms that he did is ludicrous. By his own admission, when he was approached to write his first Realms novel, Salvatore had no idea of the breadth and scope of the world he was about to enter. When his initial proposal (set in the Moonshae Islands – which he believed were the entire Forgotten Realms – and utilizing characters created by Douglas Niles) was shot down, Drizz’t and the Icewind Dale rose to replace them. As I stated previously, Salvatore was doing exactly what the Realms seemed intended for: take a small portion of it and make it your own.
By accident or design, however, Salvatore created a character that resonated with TSR’s audience, which is hardly surprising in retrospect. A social outcast, misunderstood by society yet gifted with awesome fighting skills and dual-wielded scimitars, is a natural fit with adolescent boys, many of whom are struggling with their own feelings of social ostracism. If there were any doubts that the Icewind Dale trilogy wasn’t going to be a big seller, they were allayed when The Halfling’s Gem, the trilogy’s final installment, reached the #14 position on the New York Times Bestseller List. The trilogy proved that there was a market for Forgotten Realms fiction and TSR began flooding that market as quickly as they could line up writers.
The deluge of Forgotten Realms novels changed the role game fiction had previously played in the industry. Once, game fiction were a minor offshoot from the game lines themselves, regulated to the minor supporting role of advertising the game and siphoning off extra cash from role-playing hobbyists. Once the Forgotten Realms steamroller got moving though, the fiction line rose from a support role to that of an equal partner, and sometimes even overshadowed the game itself.
Each new trilogy added another layer of detail and metaplot to the Realms, thickening the setting’s canon. These new details and additions created the need for new game materials that incorporated or expanded upon what was presented in the novels. They also had an unfortunate (from the DM’s point of view) side-effect of establishing what the Realms “were” in the minds of the audience – casual readers and RPG players alike. Woe be it if a DM wanted to use the Realms in a way that didn’t coincide with these preconceived notions of the Forgotten Realms.
The Realms as an old school campaign world might have weathered the storm brought on by the success of the fiction line, but an even worse tempest was brewing: the release of AD&D 2nd edition. Once that storm broke, it unleashed devastation upon the Forgotten Realms, both in the game world and in the real one.
Although the foundations had been laid for a revised version of the AD&D rules under the Blume/Gygax years, it would take Williams’ business plan of turning D&D into a marketable brand to come to fruition. The Forgotten Realms (being both the newest kid on the gaming block and the one growing in popularity) was chosen to be ground zero for the second edition’s release. Unfortunately, in order to better market and incorporate this new edition, TSR decided to inflict a titanic event upon the Realms - one which would greatly change the setting.
Known as the Time of Troubles (in game and out), the release of 2E coincided with the gods of Faerun being cast from their heavenly abodes and the upsetting of the laws of magic throughout the Realms. A handful of gods perished in the chaos, magical and natural disasters transformed the landscape, and a trilogy of novels and modules were released so that the audience could play along at home. Play along, however, is a very loose term.
When asked to point at the worst example of railroad modules in the history of the hobby, a great number of gamers would choose the Dragonlance line as being the guiltiest of culprits. I can only assume that these individuals were blessed enough to have missed the Avatar trilogy of modules, FRE1 – Shadowdale, FRE2 – Tantras, and FRE3 – Waterdeep. Players “fortunate” enough to have experienced these modules were treated to novella-length boxed text, carrying the spears of various NPCs, and waiting for events they had no chance of altering to occur. Because of my respect and admiration of Ed Greenwood, I prefer to live under the illusion that he wrote these modules with either a gun at his head or a large briefcase of cash in his hand.
The release of 2nd edition also acerbated a trend in role-playing game marketing, which would lead to the final blow against the Realms as an old school sandbox setting. For years, TSR and other game companies had realized that the problem with the traditional game support book, the module, was that you could generally only sell one copy to a particular gaming group. The DM would buy the module to run, but the remaining four-to-six members of that group weren’t buying TSR products outside of the core rules. In order to tap into this virgin market, game books intended for use by both the DM and the players were written.
While this trend precedes 2nd edition in the form of the Dungeoneer’s and Wilderness Survival Guides, as well as Greyhawk and Dragonlance Adventures, 2nd edition cranked out similar products by the truckload, starting with the “Complete” series dedicated to individual classes. In time, the Forgotten Realms would see specialized “Complete series” book, the Volo Guides, a trail map, the Forgotten Realms Adventures hardcover, et al. It seemed that every square inch of Faerun was being catalogued and codified. To make matters worse, even the previously undiscovered lands off of the map were being covered in extended detail, thanks to TSR’s plan to bolster boxed sets of questionable value or interest by slapping the Forgotten Realm’s logo on them and adding them to the game world. Is anyone out there still running a Maztica or Horde campaign?
Between the two factors of the success of Forgotten Realms novels and the release of 2nd edition AD&D, the branding of the Realms was complete and its last old school vestiges swept away. For players such as myself, the Realms no longer resembled the happy home we had made it since the box set’s release just two years before. Instead of endless possibilities, we found ourselves with a limited choice of options. We could accept the changes and try to relearn our game world, we could ignore all that had happened and attempt to swim against the tide, or we could put away our game and move on to something else. Sadly, the third option seemed to be the best for me.