Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Time of Troubles

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.


James Maliszewski said...

This is an awesome series of posts. As a devotee of the old school Realms, I know all too well what an amazing setting it is. Greenwood catches a lot of undeserved flak for things he had nothing to do with and many gamers have forgotten (or never knew about) the great stuff he wrote in the pages of Dragon many winters ago, which is a real pity.

Derek said...

Mike -

Thanks for another memory provoking post. As I read through this one the first thought that crossed my mind was that it never occurred to me to blame Bob for what his trilogy started. The second thing was how strongly it seemed that what I think of as the Games Workshop model. Although my first memory of GW is the old White Dwarf magazine, my most solid memories are when I moved back into war gaming in college, playing War Hammer Fantasy Battle and War Hammer 40k (epic scale). I was quickly struck by how every month with the new White Dwarf magazine, there was a new "top" race to beat. With WD being "official" rules, it became harder to game with strangers w/out hauling not only minis and rule books, but several months of White Dwarf magazines as well. That seemed to be the model that struck TSR as well. If you didn't have the latest it was hard to be portable between campaigns - as the game was sold. Homebrew was still there, but with all the stuff flooding out, seemed to take a backseat for a while. That was part of what triggered my original exodus from gaming, it stopped being fun and became keeping up. A faulty perception, but it was what I saw at the time. White Wolf also was successful with this model, I think.

Hamlet said...

Very awesome post. Yes, the launch of 2e's unfortunate supplement glut really did a number on Forgotten Realms, though if we're being honest here, it was sort of inevitable with the brandification model set in place.

Yes, I had the distinct displeasure of being subjected to the Time of Troubles modules. I remember listening to a lot of "riveting" boxed text and being told "you can't do that" very frequently.

Tacoma said...

Dont forget the forgotten realms atlas. I love that book! We have two copies because one was getting torn apart from constant use.

I hated how they changed the maps when they reprinted stuff for 3E, so that roads that used to go east/west now went diagonally - it was stupid.

And I remember in the grey boxed set for FR how they had explanations for why there weren't any Cavaliers anymore ... it seemed all very quaint. They can tell us how to play our game? Right. To this day we use a hybrid 1E/2E (minus Dark Sun, Psionicist and Humanoid Handbooks, and Oriental Adventures) and our Forgotten Realms is the atlas plus imagination.

We have one DM who insists on including an Elminster cameo in every campaign but at this point I think it's pretty much just a joke.

Michael Curtis said...

James: If it hasn't been made apparent yet, I too am a fan of the old school Realms. This series is primarily me looking back upon a place that brought me much enjoyment, but has changed since its orignal appearance in the public eye. There's a lot of mixed emotions here and I'm trying to reconcile them once and for all. Your comments also reminds me I need to touch upon Ed's Dragon articles before the series concludes.

Michael Curtis said...

Derek: I was never drawn into the GW minature war games so I have no first-hand experience with how they changed over time, but what you write is certainly very similiar to changes that branding the Realms wrought.

Michael Curtis said...

Hamlet: I agree that the brandification was inevitable. I mention that straight off. I still maintain that the damage might have been lessened and more easily ignored if not for the success of the fiction line and the coming of 2E. So much more the shame.

As for experiencing the Avatar modules, I'm sorry to hear that but I'm certainly glad that my impression of them wasn't limited solely to myself.

Michael Curtis said...

Tacoma: I didn't forget the Forgotten Realms atlas, although I deeply wish that I could. The atlas, to me, was another unfortunate Forgotten Realms product that I could have done without. I can't even say that the cartography stuck me as being especially competent or inspirational. Your milage, of course, might vary.

Badmike said...

The Forgotten Realms flopped when it moved beyond the writings of Ed Greenwood himself (I don't count the horrific FRE trilogy, as it appears Ed either didn't really write these or had to base them so closely off the events of the trilogy his hands were effectively tied)and into minutia like flora and fauna (Elminsters Ecologies); detailing every single tiny corner of the realms (The Great Glacier, anyone?), and releasing huge boxed sets with absolutely zero interest (Maztica). Unfortunately TSR got caught up in releasing very flawed products based on their popular setting as if praying for a hit among the debris ("Maybe Maztica will catch on and blow up huge!!!")

Now, I have to say, a lot of the perceived problems with FR are what I love to call the "P*ssy DM Syndrome". That is, a DM whining that he can't run his campaign the way he wants because something written contradicts it, or his players tell him thats not the way it is in the books, or that he doesn't want to use this or that supplement but he HAS to...huh? That DM (and any DM over the age of 18 running the FRE series) should get his ass booted back to DM pre-school and maybe run a "Choose your own Adventure" book instead...sheesh. I agree with James that Ed catches a lot of flack for what was instead DM problems and not setting problems.

Hamlet said...

I agree that the brandification was inevitable. I mention that straight off. I still maintain that the damage might have been lessened and more easily ignored if not for the success of the fiction line and the coming of 2E. So much more the shame.

Oh yes, I understand. My point, and I suppose I failed to actually make it, is that 2nd edition gets a huge amount of flak for this, but in my view it is as much a victim as it is a perpetrator, perhaps even more so.

The core 2e books (i.e., PHB, DMG, and MC/MM) are, in my mind, truly excellent. They retain most of the base mechanics of 1e to the point where they are almost interchangeable and made the rules more accessible to those of us on whom Gygaxian language sometimes grates.

It wasn't until later on (not much later on, but still) that "brandification," or, as I think is more accurate, "the commodification of fun" took over that things went very far south. Maybe it's just the other side of the same coin, but when the focus turned into TSR/WOTC selling us more expansive materials so that we could more fully enjoy something we were already "fully" enjoying that many just walked away. "Here's a supplement that details region X, now you can pay us $25 (adjusted for inflation would come out closer to $45) for the priveledge of having fun in region X where you couldn't before!"

thekelvingreen said...

Isn't Maztica now the moon, or some other such insanity, in the latest cataclysm/relaunch?

I wonder if there's an influence from comic book storytelling at work here too. The idea of a vast cataclysm changing the face of the world, but in such a way as to leave it just as open for further stories as before, is something that's very common in US superhero comics, starting around the mid-80's with DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths. It's not a type of storytelling I've seen elsewhere, except in rpg metaplot. Given that they're both "geeky" pursuits, I wonder if rpgs borrowed the concept?

Anonymous said...

I never read Salvatore, and never felt too compelled to include "official" things in our Realms campaign, but the deluge of "stuff" after the Time of Troubles was a turn off. As you said, it was not the same Realms anymore. I still do love the old gray box though. It was a good campaign setting.

Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

The 2nd ed splat book-o-rama is what drove me from D&D and from the hobby really for many years. I never got into FR and 1/2 blamed it for being part of 2e era.

Interesting to read it started off different.

Maztica, is probably the only part of FR that might interest me. Although, I haven't looked at it in detail. I dig meso-american flavor and don't know too many products that have that.

Mel said...

Yeah, I'm like Norman. Second edition from the get go struck me as a money grab. Just my opinion, of course, but I found the core books poorly written and laid out, I thought that the writing in the TSR novels was abominable, and I never actually cared for Ed Greenwood's writing, either. It was also during this time that TSR became T$R. They threatened law suits left and right. I can remember a collection of "netbooks" on the then purely text-based internet that were passed around secretly, which were really just a collection of fan-based homebrew. During this time I tried to get into some of the other rpgs, but nothing really grabbed my fancy until Earthdawn was released.

AndreasDavour said...


After reading this I decided to go and snag that copy of FR that sat in the discount bin at the local game store. Naturally, it had been sold after sitting there for months.

AndreasDavour said...

Like Norman I am intrigued by Maztica. I also love meso-american flavor and would love to have a setting somewhat maize flavoured.

Unknown said...

I count myself lucky to have never had the misfortune to play any of the the FRE or DL series. That said, the Time of Troubles had no impact at all on the Forgotten Realms adventures we ever played, nor did the various novels, even though I read far too many of them. I often think that it would be fun to run a Horde campaign...

Anonymous said...

Heh. Those Avatar modules were written by Ed BEFORE the novels each is supposedly linked to were written, and more than heavily revised by TSR's editors to match the novels. It's a credit to Ed's design skills that they are readable at all. Last year at ORIGINS I interviewed him about those modules, and he revealed that he wrote about three times as many encounters and mapped locations and details as got printed in the end, because the editors just kept asking for more and more and more - - and then chopping it all out to make room for, as you quite accurately describe them, the "railroad" plot scenes of the modules. For one thing, Ed completely mapped and detailed Tantras and its main temple, Castle Krag in Cormyr, and some smaller mini-dungeons, using the project as an excuse to detail and describe what he called "useful campaign building blocks" along the route the PCs are forced to take. All of that got edited out, and we got a "PCs are forced into this encounter, then that one" adventure.
NOT Greenwood's fault. He'd signed a contract to write the modules and did that; very little of the published modules are his work.
Nor has he had much of ANY control over the Realms over the years, except by helping TSR or WotC out of a time-jam by coming to the rescue of their designers at the last second. Or by the details he puts into a novel whose plot and main characters are dictated by the publisher. Sometimes they don't have TIME to ruin what he writes for them.
Myself, I'd like to see "unedited Ed" some day. I strongly suspect it it would be far more useful and fun for gaming than what we did get.