Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Undeveloped Realms

Because the Forgotten Realms gets short shrift as having any legitimate claim to being an old school game setting, we’re going to take a detailed look at what exactly comprised the Forgotten Realms in the years 1987-1988, which was the period that I believe Faerun still retained its old school pedigree. In light of what it has become, an overview of its early days as a published product reveals that things weren’t quite as bad as the setting’s detractors say they were.

Anyone who was exposed to the Forgotten Realms after the mid 1990’s may be surprised to learn that there was once a paucity of support material for TSR’s (and now WotC’s) most popular game setting. That seems unimaginable now, considering the mountain of material that has accumulated in association with the Realms. It is not hyperbole to stay that the Forgotten Realms is the most detailed and supported published campaign world in the history of the hobby. It has seen boxed sets, modules, sourcebooks, splat books, monster manuals, novels, magazine articles, computer games, comic books, trail maps, atlases, guide books, and other assorted materials set in or detailing the world of Toril. This glut of material grew to such an unmanageable size that WotC seemed to have little choice but to advance the world’s timeline a century or two in order to escape what had been wrought.

This ocean of detail is the target of most of the vitriol hurled at the Realms and that ire is completely justifiable. The Forgotten Realms has long since made the transition from game world to a company brand, losing all of its old school credibility in the process. The Realms no longer welcomes the casual gamer who wants a framework to hang his adventures upon. Now, a self-taught degree in the Faerunish History seems to be necessary in order to use the world “properly.”

In the all-too brief golden period of the campaign world’s history as a published product, however, this wasn’t the case. As with any yet-unproven product, TSR seemed to be hedging its bet as to whether or not the Forgotten Realms would have an audience in the first few years. Support for the game world was substantial enough to help keep the product afloat in its infancy but nowhere near what it would become once it had become an established property. Additionally, what was available was very compartmentalized and could be utilized or not without much impact on the setting at large.

Without question, it was the initial run of sourcebooks that took up the biggest piece of the marketing pie. These books would prove to be an indication of the ultimate fate of the Realms and much of the blame for the world’s transformation from traditional game setting to structured, metaplot-centric, marketing brand is placed upon them. I happen to agree with these sentiments but early on the impact these books had on Faerun was limited in scope and could easily be ignored.

In 1987-88, TSR published six books in the FR series. These were Waterdeep and the North, Moonshae, Empires of the Sands, The Magister, The Savage Frontier, and Dreams of the Red Wizards. With the exception of The Magister, each expanded upon an area of the Realms not already detailed in the original boxed set (The Magister being a collection of spells and magic items, many of which had previously appeared in Dragon Magazine). Each sourcebook covered an individual region and, if you weren’t playing in that area or had no desire to start a campaign in those lands, they could be disregarded or (as I did) mined for ideas but have no other impact on one’s homebrewed campaign. The beginning of “detail overload” was present in these books but the ripples they caused were small enough to overlook.

During this time, and I remember being surprised at this back then, the Realms saw very little support in the form of game modules. To anyone who’d been playing in the hobby for awhile and well-acquainted with the number of Greyhawk adventures on the market, this lack of support seemed strange. In researching what modules TSR put out at this time, I was astounded to find that there were only three traditional adventure modules published between ’87 and ’88 that were set in the Forgotten Realms. These were N5 – Under Illefarn (the first FR module), FRC1 – Ruins of Adventure (a “module-ization” of the computer game Pool of Radiance and my pick for the worst module in TSR’s history), and H4 – Throne of Bloodstone (which was the final entry in the Bloodstone Pass series and is the only module even written for 100th level characters). The module pool was so shallow that TSR retrofitted 1986’s N4 – Treasure Hunt into the Moonshae island cluster and co-opted the entire Bloodstone Pass series into the Realms. One-shot adventures were also available in either the pages of Dungeon or in the sourcebook REF5 –Lords of Darkness (an excellent undead reference book that is still useful after all these years), but the marketing strategy had definitely moved away from the module and towards the sourcebook at this point, and was a harbinger of things to come – not only for the Realms, but for the hobby in general.

The Forgotten Realms also saw what was to be the first of many tie-ins to computer and video console games during this period. TSR had previously licensed Dungeons & Dragons to Mattel to produce a hand-held video game and two titles for the Intellivision video console, but the Pool of Radiance game was the first D&D property to be set in a specific TSR game world. Although entertaining for its time, Pool of Radiance nevertheless had little effect on the overall Realms.

Finally, there were the novels. Clearly, TSR hoped to recapture the lightning in the bottle that the Dragonlance novels turned out to be by launching three planned trilogies set in the Realms (with a fourth developing after the fact). In May of 1987, as accompaniment to the boxed set, Douglas Nile’s Moonshae trilogy started with Darkwalker on Moonshae. Although a Forgotten Realms novel, the book’s events are set within the Moonshae Islands and occur far away from the lands presented in the boxed set. In April of ’88, the second book in the trilogy, Black Wizards, appeared but remained centered in Moonshae. Like the initial sourcebooks, this trilogy is compartmentalized and therefore of limited impact on Faerun.

In January of 1988, The Crystal Shard by R.A. Salvatore was released. Although intended as just another trilogy, the book’s publishing would be one of the two events that altered the Realms forever. I’ll cover The Crystal Shard in another post in detail, but it should be stated here that R.A. Salvatore did exactly what the Realms seemed intended to invite: take a small portion of it and make it one’s own.

That same year would see the birth of two more series: The Finder’s Stone Trilogy, which began with Kate Novak and Jeff Grubb’s Azure Bonds, and Shandril’s Saga by Realm’s creator, Ed Greenwood. Shandril’s saga is a special case, as it seems to have originally been intended as a single book: Spellfire. The two sequels to Spellfire, Crown of Fire and Hand of Fire wouldn’t see publication until 1994 and 2002 respectively. Out of these novels, Spellfire would have the most effect on the campaign world in my opinion and will be discussed in greater detail at a later date.

In a time when entire bookcases in retail stores are now devoted solely to Forgotten Realms brand novels, it seems preposterous to think that once there were but five, three of which were set in areas outside the scope of the boxed set. The rain may have started and the water begun to rise, but the dam wasn’t yet creaking under the strain.

Looking back on these two years, we can see that, while the Forgotten Realms was already beginning to accumulate the amount of detail, metaplot, and other additions that would turn the world into a brand name, it remained an old school campaign setting at heart. This is unsurprising considering this was a time when AD&D was still in its first edition and the Realms themselves a product of Ed Greenwood’s ongoing home game sessions. There was still more than enough space for a DM to customize the Realms to his own tastes and to the wants of his players. Even in a post-Dragonlance world, the old ways of gaming weren’t dead yet, although the plug was getting ready to be pulled.


Derek said...

This series prompted me to dig the Cyclopedia from the grey box that still sits prominently on my shelf, between other TSR boxes. I remember seeing three of them in the store and, with two friends and fellow DMs, buying them out.

My first impression was that it was a Greyhawk styled environment with a better foundation laid for making what would become known as a sandbox. the modules that followed, Waterdeep & the North, etc. were the Gazetteer done "right". "Right" being entirely subjective.

The original FR caught my imagination in a way Greyhawk never did and it's hard to quantify why. I was in High School when Greyhawk was released, everything before that was either totally home brewed, swiped from the books we read whole cloth, or just module play w/out worrying about more of the setting than what the module covered. With FR, there were decidedly different regions with enough information on what was unique, while not being so much that you couldn't customized the hell out of it. Very light frameworks of relations between cities and regions that could be built on. Many of things I always struggled with in developing my own worlds or in fleshing out Greyhawk were given just enough of a start that I could keep going without the start up costs.

I miss it. If/when I run again, the temptation would be there to dig out the old notes on the corner I made my own. To return to the grey box and the grey box alone.

Although I certainly don't hold it against TSR, WotC, or Hasbro, I blame the crass commercialization of the product on the loss of my old friend. The owners of the franchise have to make a buck too, or nothing new comes out, but I don't have to like it. I was amazed at the way the "good" drow concept captured people's imagination (hated it, myself), but it was the start down the road they've come.

There is a lot of mileage still in the FR, but for myself, it's only if I return to the way we used to do it and disregard the last almost 20 years of product line.

Anonymous said...

Just a couple of notes for you. The Moonshae novel trilogy was Niles' own creation, and originally was to have nothing to do with the Forgottrn Realms, but it was adjusted to fit (and the Realms adjusted to host it) before either the novels or the boxed set were published. The Moonshaes weren't in Ed's version of the Realms. Also, Azure Bonds, like Spellfire, was not intended as the first of a trilogy. They only added "Book one of the Finder's Stone Trilogy" to it after the sequel was out and the third part planned.

Dr-Rotwang said...

Ya know, Mike, for a...for a while now, I've been saying: "Sometimes, I wanna grab that FR box off the shelf, grab a notebook, and pretend the last twenty-some years never happened*."

Naturally, I have not yet done that.

Reading this series (just 2 days in!), however, moves me to get off my metaphorical buttocks and do just that -- specifically, to reach for the Old Grey Box, pick a place on the map at random, and flesh it out to my order.

I'll let you know how it goes. By the way, my verification word here is "brapper", which I officially declare to be the greatest word for anything, ever.

*I have a lot of reasons for wanting to ignore the last two decades, but I digress

Amityville Mike said...

Derek: Over the next few posts, I think you'll discover that we're both of a very similiar mind. It's nice to see that I'm not alone in my experiences and attitudes towards the Realms, and I think you'll enjoy (or at least identify) with what's forthcoming over the course of the week. Thank you for sharing your memories.

Amityville Mike said...

Anonymous: Thanks for that information. It certainly clears up some questions that I've always had on why Moonshae (a place so far removed from the Realms as a whole) was the setting for the first FR novel and the second sourcebook. I'd always thought that was an odd marketing plan, but, in light of this, it makes much more sense.

That Azure Bonds was supposed to be a stand-alone novel also explains why the trilogy seemed a little wonky to me, even back then. Thanks!

Derek said...

I'm very much looking forward to the posts. I suspect that many of us in the community feel the same about it. An additional article to think about in the series might be a comparison between what's happened to the Realms and what Living Greyhawk has done for Greyhawk.

Thanks for doing this, I lost touch with FR after a while, only recently picking up a used copy of the 3.x book for it. Haven't looked through it yet though to see the changes.

Amityville Mike said...

Dr-Rotwang: When I started putting these posts togethers, I realized (and feared) that I was doing so mostly for my own sake: to work out my own issues and reflect on what once was. I'm very pleased that others, such as yourself, are being inspired to look back on the Realms and remember the old days and think of new ways to preserve and revisit Faerun once again. I'd be very interested to hear how your original boxed set efforts go.

Amityville Mike said...

An additional article to think about in the series might be a comparison between what's happened to the Realms and what Living Greyhawk has done for Greyhawk

I'd have to leave that to someone much more knowledgeable about Greyhawk and Living Greyhawk, as my experiences with the first are limited and, in the second case, non-existent.

Dr-Rotwang said...

Well, Mike, I was just discussing this stuff with a cohort here at work, and I tossed this bit his way:

I don’t care what the hell the 3rd Edition Forgotten Realms Compendiapedia or whatever says about Shadowdale; in my Realms, it’s a sizeable city in the Dalelands that’s been enslaved by Thri-kreen. Oh, and gnomish slaves built it for their Slime Elf masters, so it’s full of hideyholes and secret tunnels and crap.

Hey, this is fun!

JoetheLawyer said...

What's interesting is that what we did with the Realms is buy the grey box, buy the first 6-8 supplements detailing regions, then stop. We saw what they did with the god wars series of books, where Cyric etc. became gods, and how TSR was integrating and changing future supplements based on novels, and we decided very early on not to ride that roller coaster.

Amityville Mike said...

We saw what they did with the god wars series of books, where Cyric etc. became gods, and how TSR was integrating and changing future supplements based on novels, and we decided very early on not to ride that roller coaster.

Which brings us to tomorrow's post...

Badmike said...

"In 1987-88, TSR published six books in the FR series. These were Waterdeep and the North, Moonshae, Empires of the Sands, The Magister, The Savage Frontier, and Dreams of the Red Wizards."

This was truly the (very short) golden age of FR gaming. I too was a FR devotee; the original boxed set (for 1E) was brilliant, just enough detail to intrigue but lacking details enough to let the DM create his own world. Taken with the very few first supplements, this is a game world with a breadth and depth of imagination rivaling the WOG and allowing for all styles of play. For me the World of Greyhawk was just a map with little blurbs for a lot of the locations; I wanted more info, and the FR world and boxed set gave us that (compare Ed's brilliant FR1 City of Waterdeep with the abysmal City of Greyhawk boxed set....quick to point out not written by EGG...and his Waterdeep is by far the more intersesting and playable setting of the two)

I think a campaign game with the original box set and these handful of supplements would be truly fun, and that's exactly what we did when FR first came out, running a long campaign in the Moonshae islands (because that was the only setting that had been released when we started play in the FR), then eventually an Undermountain campaign that took a couple of years and never ventured from the city of Waterdeep. Our last campaign took place on the edges of the civilized world (Phlan and the Moonsea) and we were already growing weary of the intensive commercialization that even saw a boxed set called "Elminsters Ecologies" released, which catalogued flora and fauna in the Realms!!! This over commercialization and demystification of the Realms led to the creation and implementation of my own campaign world, so I guess it wasn't all for bad.

However, any GOOD Dm can ignore the heaps of unnessary material and have a great campaign sticking to the basics. Greenwood in his way was as much a genius as any world designer, and this is really only fully shown in the orignal boxed set. It would be great to leave all the fluff behind and start over with the original box, FR1-6, and Ruins of Undermountain.

Amityville Mike said...

Badmike: Your experiences with the Realms very much mimic my own, as it was the complexity of the little details compared to the sparseness of Greyhawk that drew me in. At the same time, the canvas of the world was so wide open to invite and accept anything that the DM and his players wanted to do with it.

However, any GOOD Dm can ignore the heaps of unnessary material and have a great campaign sticking to the basics

This is something that I agree with 100% in theory, but not quite as much in practice. I have a post the covers this exact topic being prepared, since I think it's very pertinent to any published game world and the Realms brand in particular. I'd ne remiss not to touch upon it.