Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Establishing Boundaries in the Realms

Having decided to go ahead with a 2nd edition AD&D game in the Forgotten Realms, my first task was deciding what to bring to the table and what to leave on the shelf. Between the various rules and campaign supplements available for 2nd Edition and the Realms, there’s a small mountain of books waiting to be climbed. And I wanted this to be fun, not mountaineering.

Deciding my limits for the rules was easy. Although not my usual “go to” D&D rules, I’ve never had too much a problem with 2nd Edition in its initial form. The core rules are close enough to 1st edition in practice and don’t make for far-reaching changes to the original advanced game. I’ve found that it’s only once you start bolting on the supplemental material that the power levels start getting wonky and the wheels fall off.

So no problem here: I’d only allow the players the class and race options available in the Players Handbook. No “Complete Book of…” class kits allowed, no Tome of Magic spells, and especially nothing from the Player’s Option books! This kept it strictly in the classic AD&D family, and had the bonus benefit of freeing me from such troublesome classes as assassins, cavaliers, and barbarians. I had forgotten that 2nd Edition removed half-orcs as a playable class, but that wouldn’t matter for what I had in mind for the campaign. And, of course, as the DM, I could make use of any of the verboten material freely. Sometimes it’s good to be boss.

Choosing the Realms material I intended to limit myself to required a bit more thinking. My introduction to the Realms—outside of Ed’s excellent Dragon articles—had been the “gray box.” Using that as the backbone was a no-brainer. But I’ve got a respectable collection of other Realms stuff I’ve accumulated over the years. Would say the material in The Dalelands supplement trump what was presented in the Gray Box, which was much less detailed or would I stick to the bare bones presentation found in the original set?  Would I make the Volo series my primary source for all things Realms? Was I going to concern myself with Realms canon?

I wrestled with these decisions a bit, and my original thought was to go all the way back and just utilize whatever information was given in the Gray Box, building my own campaign from that modicum of information. The designer in me loved the idea of such a challenge and I readily imagined myself pouring over the two slim books from that set, ferreting out small nuggets of information and implied hints at the larger world to build upon. But then I remembered the real purpose of the summer campaign: Let Mike have some fun for a change. This isn’t work, knucklehead!

Ultimately, I made what I feel is the wisest choice and decided that the only limitations I’d place on myself was “Is the ‘canonical’ material in X entertaining, inspiring, useful, or fun? If so, use it. If not, forget it.” This gave me a lot of leeway while still maintaining a game which would be easily identifiable as the Forgotten Realms to anyone playing or observing it. Sure, a die-hard Realms aficionado might take me to task for fudging a few dates or adding new places, but last time I checked, I didn’t need anyone to vouch for the orthodoxy of my home games.

And speaking of dates and orthodoxy, this led me to my biggest alteration of the established Realms’ timeline: The Time of Troubles.

It never happened, folks.

I started running my first Realms game back in 1987 when the Gray Box was released. Reading that set completely changed how I approached world design. In fact, the experience of turning the pages of that set remains such a developmental milestone for me that I can still remember what food I ate and what was playing on my tape deck as I paged through Cyclopedia of the Realms (if you’re interested, I’ll always associate the Gray Box with port wine cheese, Paul Simon’s Graceland, and Eddy Grant’s Killer on a Rampage.)

So when the Time of Troubles happened, it needless to say had a great impact on my vision of Faerûn. Although even then I realized it was a marketing ploy to steer gamers towards the 2nd edition of the game, I made a half-hearted attempt to adjust my own version of the Realms to accommodate the changes inflicted by the Time of Troubles. But it always stuck in my craw a bit. Years later, it seems that most of the world-shaking changes that Time of Troubles wrought have vanished (Bane’s been back for a while now), so why bother? Let’s just pretend it never happened and excise any obvious Time of Troubles-related material from the campaign setting. It’s surprisingly easy.

Removing the Time of Troubles was also a breeze due to my choice of when to set the campaign. Rather than keep the game relatively current to the established timeline, I went back to the beginning. This campaign takes place in 1358 DR, the Year of the Shadows (and interestingly not “Year of Shadows” as later supplements would refer to it), the suggested starting year in the original Gray Box. So technically and temporally, somewhere out there in the Realms, the campaign I ran in 10th grade is currently underway with a much younger Michael at the helm. Maybe I should finagle a crossover event between the two groups?

The last limitations I needed to establish were campaign ones, boundaries stipulated by the focus of the campaign. I had a few possible themes and potential plots I wanted to introduce (which I’ll cover in a forthcoming post) that would be best done if I drew a few lines in the proverbial sand. In the end, it came down to demi-humans in character creation. With a small group, I wanted humans to equal the number of demi-humans (if not outnumber them) in the party. Originally, I was looking at three players, and decided only one person could play a demi-human, ability scores allowing. At the last moment, we picked up a fourth player, so I relaxed that limit to two non-human PCs in the party. But there was a catch to this: To quote a famous ad slogan for Talislanta, “No elves!”

What? No elves in a Forgotten Realms campaign? You’re mad!

There’s a method to my madness, gentle reader, one I’ll explain in a future post.


Anonymous said...


The ad was for Talislanta, not Jorune.

Michael Curtis said...

They all blur together after forty years. :D

Rob S said...

I have just the single frozen in time D&D + music memoory: listening to Graceland while reading Horor on the Hill.

John Adams said...

Gray Box Set, removing Time of Troubles - perfect. :)

Michael Curtis said...

@ John: I certainly think so! Glad you agree.

Hamlet said...

You know, it's days like this that I wish I was in your campaign.

I think I'll dig out my copy of the old Grey Box and peruse it tonight in honor of this post.