A guy I used to game with had all of this stuff, but he didn’t really enjoy running games. I had been talking about starting a new D&D campaign, and he offered to sell me his FR materials if I promised to set my campaign there.
So I bought those books from him and dove in, and it wasn’t very long before I had fallen in love with the setting. No, it wasn’t perfect, and there were lots of little things that didn’t really make sense, but it had a sense of history and grandeur that I could find in few other published settings.
Plus, the Forgotten Realms was just so gameable. This was a setting that had been used in actual play since Ed Greenwood started his AD&D campaign in 1978, and there was a nearly infinite amount of adventure that could be found there.
I ended up owning about 90% of all published adventures, sourcebooks, and boxed sets for the Forgotten Realms up to the end of AD&D 2nd Edition.
The Realms are also known by many people who have never played an actual tabletop game of D&D. The computer games introduced the setting to a large audience, and the novels—the most notable being R.A. Salvatore’s series about the drow ranger Drizzt Do’Urden—brought in even more people who were unfamiliar with the actual game.
Oh, the Hate
But the Forgotten Realms can be controversial at times. For every person who loves the Realms, there is another who hates it with a great passion. In participating in online discussions over the years, I’ve come to see a few common reasons people give for hating the Realms:
- It’s precedence over Greyhawk: For those who started gaming in the world of Greyhawk—the original D&D setting from TSR—the Realms is seen as a competitive setting. Over the years, TSR shifted resources away from producing more Greyhawk materials and focused more and more on the Realms. The current 5th edition of D&D is the first to make the Forgotten Realms the “default” setting of the game. I can certainly understand why people hold this opinion and I have sympathy for it, even though I don’t actually share it.
- That it is “unrealistic”: Yes, the countries/kingdoms, economic models, and so forth might not be realistic. Yes, there are many other elements that, if considered in a purely logical way, do not fully “make sense.” For people who want to play D&D with a gritty and serious tone, FR will not provide the experience they desire. It was designed as a background to stories that Ed Greenwood wrote starting when he was a child, and perfect realism wasn’t something he needed in his setting. I can’t really argue with this complaint, as if the setting doesn’t have the right level of realism for someone, then it’s not the right setting for that person’s game.
- There is too much to know: With all the material that has been published for the Realms by first TSR and then Wizards of the Coast, the setting can certainly seem overwhelming to new people. When you add in all the novels that have been published over the years, it seems like every part of the Realms has a special history and important people that the DM is supposed to remember in order to portray it properly. While I understand the sentiment, this one makes less sense to me (as I will explain below).
- Too many powerful NPCs: Characters like Elminster or Drizzt represent the most powerful of heroes that walk the Realms. The protagonists of the more than 300 novels that have been published in the setting comprise a group of legendary figures, many of whom have been given D&D stats in the various sourcebooks over the years. And many people don’t see the point in adventuring in a setting already filled with powerful heroes. This is one argument that doesn’t make the slightest sense to me (and I will expand on this one below as well).
Certainly, the Forgotten Realms can be challenge for a new DM. With such a large setting, it isn’t easy to immediately grasp what you need in order to run a game successfully. There is always a worry that you’re going to accidentally contradict something that is published somewhere, and that will cause a problem for your players.
Certainly, if your players are very familiar with the Realms through the novels and/or videogames, then that is a potential issue. But it speaks to something that I’ve never understood when running games in a setting that I didn’t create myself. And this applies whether it’s a setting developed specifically for a roleplaying game, or if it’s a setting from a movie (like Star Wars, for example).
What I don’t get is the perceived need to slavishly adhere to canon.
This is something that I see quite often in online discussions. That people are unwilling to take the reins and run the game the way they feel is best for their campaign. Certainly, if you make sweeping changes to a setting you run the risk of alienating the players who joined the game specifically to play in that setting they know and love.
But the fact is, it’s impossible to run a game that adheres 100% to an existing setting the moment your players create their characters and you toss them into the world. At that instant, you have changed the setting. And every adventure your players engage in after that point will change the setting even more.
That’s the whole point of playing a roleplaying game instead of reading a book or watching a movie.
If you decide that one of the peaks in the Nether Mountains is actually a dormant volcano, and that it’s beginning to show signs of an impending eruption that will threaten the survival of the city of Silverymoon, it doesn’t matter that such an event has never occurred in the novels, video games, or sourcebooks.
At the moment you start running the game, the setting becomes yours to do with as you will.
If you have players that expect everything in the campaign to reflect everything that happened in published sources, then they should spend their time reading, not playing. The very act of playing the game is a creative process, and the players have to be open to the changes that result.
When I’m running a game in a published setting, I make it a point to tell my players the following:
This game will take place in the setting that is recognizably the Forgotten Realms (or the Star Wars setting, or Middle Earth, or whatever). However, I reserve the right to change whatever elements I need in order to present you with the best opportunity for adventures. I won’t unilaterally change core elements of the setting, but any particular detail may be changed at my discretion. So if I tell you that Mithral Hall has not yet been found, even though the year is 1365 DR, then it means that Bruenor didn’t succeed on his quest and the handful of events related to Mithral Hall that would have taken place between 1356 and 1365 never happened. I have no obligation to incorporate every novel into the history of my campaign.
The NPC Problem
The other major problem often quoted by people who dislike the Forgotten Realms often involves some variation of “there are too many powerful NPCs.” Certainly, if you go by the setting as presented in the novels, there are a great number of powerful heroes who go around fighting the forces of darkness.
However, I feel this is a silly complaint to make about the setting. Most of the sourcebooks present high-level overviews of regions within the Realms. When it comes to the setting materials as presented in the roleplaying products, the statistics of most of the NPCs are irrelevant.
Does the removal of Elminster, for example, have a major impact on the Realms? Well, his removal would have an impact on the plots of a number of novels, of course, but that’s not the same as the setting as used in a D&D campaign. I’ve run D&D games set in the Realms for literally decades, and I’ve used Elminster once in all that time. He was a sage, and the characters came to him for help in translating some ancient writing they had found. And the fact that, in my campaign, he was just a very knowledgeable sage had absolutely no impact on the game setting.
The fact is, most of those NPCs can be used or ignored at will without making any real changes to the Realms, because the characters only need to know about those people who affect the adventures the characters are having. Does it matter that there is a high-level drow ranger wandering around in the northern Sword Coast area? Only if the DM decides the ranger is going to play a part in whatever the player characters are doing does it make a difference.
In many D&D campaigns, the reality is that the adventurers usually find themselves in the right place at the right time (or perhaps that should be wrong place at the wrong time). The adventure is right there and so are the characters. That presents an opportunity that no one else has. If Drizzt is somewhere up near Icewind Dale or at Mithral Hall, or out sailing on the Sea Sprite, then he can’t rush in to save the PCs or get involved in their adventures in the Vilhon Reach, no matter how epic they end up becoming.
Settings for roleplaying games are designed to be a background in which player characters have grand adventures. The dogmatic clutching at canon does the game a disservice and relegates the player characters to observers. The first lesson a DM or GM needs to learn is to let the characters interact with the setting, and in so doing, initiate changes to that setting.
The published books should not be static things, and no game requires that you remember and use every element exactly as it is written. Gaming should be a creative endeavor, and we should embrace the chaos that PCs generate in a setting and make the most of it.
I’m a fan of the Forgotten Realms (among other settings), and I can also accept its flaws and inconsistencies. For any setting, the key is to take what you and your players like best, highlight those elements, and ignore those elements that add nothing to your game.
What is your favorite setting that gets a lot of hate? How do you feel about adhering to canon? Tell us your opinions in the comments.