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.