What’s Wrong with Drizzt, Anyway?

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of the Forgotten Realms as a setting for fantasy roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons.

I discovered the Realms with the original grey box and a handful of the early 1987 and 1988 sourcebooks, such as Waterdeep and the North, Moonshae, The Savage Frontier, and Dreams of the Red Wizards.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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).

Too…much…information

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.

Conclusion

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.

Combining the Best of Old and New School

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve been running a first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game for my son and his friends. Scheduling issues for 6 people, four of whom are kids, has been a bit difficult, so we haven’t played as often as we’d like. We’re working on establishing a regular routine, though, so things should smooth out over the summer.

For the first adventure, I wanted to showcase one of the most famous adventure modules ever written for D&D. Yes, I’m using B2: The Keep on the Borderlands. This adventure was packaged with Tom Moldvay’s “Basic D&D” boxed set in 1981, and it was the first adventure ever played by a whole generation of gamers.

However, while B2 is a classic, it’s not perfect. Many people have found that the adventure tends to be pretty deadly and completely unforgiving of mistakes by new players. The tight cluster of beginner dungeons with much deadlier areas means that going in the wrong cave entrance can result in a complete wipe out of a whole party.

In addition, as the adventure proceeds, it can become a bit of a grind. By the time the players are ready to tackle the evil cultists, they may have already lost interest in the caves and moved on to other adventures.

So when I selected B2, I knew I wanted to make some changes, but I also didn’t want to put in a ton of work on this campaign. One of the reasons I chose AD&D as the game to run was that I know it really well and I would be able to run it with a minimum of prep, especially as I don’t get that much free time and I try to spend most of that writing my novels!

That’s where a more modern adventure came to my rescue.

Rescue at Rivenroar (Wizards of the Coast has made a free PDF of the adventure available for download here) was an adventure published in issue #156 of Dungeon Magazine for D&D 4E. In that adventure, a bunch of goblinoids attack a town, steal a bunch of treasured historical items, and kidnap some villagers. The PCs are hired to go rescue the townspeople and retrieve the items.

I think this is a great adventure, and it worked wonderfully when I ran it using D&D 4E. But one of the elements that I didn’t want to push in the kids’ first adventure was a time limit. So I removed the kidnapped villagers and left in the recovery of the historical items. But I also kept the background of the Rescue at Rivenroar adventure—a powerful hobgoblin named Sinruth is trying to build a new hobgoblin army and the raid on the town was just the first step.

So now I had a starting premise and some background for the villains. In my campaign, the goblinoids raided the town, the PCs helped fight them off, and then the town council hired them to track the remaining goblinoids back to their lair and recover the stolen items.

But now, returning to B2, I decided that the module might work better if it was spread out a bit. So instead of having all those lairs within shouting distance of each other, I decided that the hills in that area were riddled with ancient—and abandoned—Dwarven ruins that are now inhabited by these goblinoids. As various tunnels have collapsed or been damaged over time, it has created separate clusters of rooms that could be used as individual lairs.

So I started off in B2 with the cluster of dungeons D, E, and F. Dungeon D is a series of rooms filled with goblins, Dungeon E is just one large room with an ogre, and Dungeon F is filled with hobgoblins. Further on in the hills, I placed Dungeons B and C, which is the main orc lair. Dungon H—the bugbear lair—is in another location in the hills. And Dungeon K is where the main hobgoblin Sinruth and the evil cult that he serves resides, and this is located deep among the hills and is the hardest one to find.

The historical items stolen from the town have been separated out and given to the various tribes of evil humanoids, so that the PCs will need to visit each dungeon in order to recover all the treasures. This will most likely lead them into a final confrontation with Sinruth and the evil cult.

And among the treasure in the final dungeon, the players will find links to a local evil druid who lives in the area (thus giving them a hook to The Sunless Citadel adventure that was published for D&D third edition). Further, since I’ve placed the Temple of Elemental Evil in the region and there is starting to be activity around there, the PCs will find some evidence among the treasure in the final dungeon that the evil cult is also allied to a greater evil temple somewhere in the area. This way, I’m foreshadowing the eventual activity the elemental temples will take, and it gives the players a sense that there’s something bigger going on out there.

So the first adventure is a combination of module B2 (Basic D&D) with Rescue at Rivenroar (D&D 4E) leading to ties with the Temple of Elemental Evil (AD&D 1E) and a hook relating to The Sunless Citadel (D&D 3E).

There are so many good adventures available for the Dungeons & Dragons game, from every edition since the beginning right up until the most recent, that a DM has an immense amount of resources he or she can use to put together the ideal campaign for his or her players.

In this case, the first adventure in my campaign is a great combination of both old and new school, and the kids are having a blast.

Have you used adventures from earlier or later editions in your D&D campaigns? Did you hack them apart and combine elements from different adventures into a new creation? Did you use them whole-cloth and just convert the monster and treasure stats? Tell us about it in the comments.

The First Few Levels

As mentioned in a previous post, I’m running a first-edition AD&D game for my son a few other kids in the 10-12 age range.

My primary goal is to give them a great experience so that they enjoy the game and look fondly at the RPG hobby in the future. I’m not trying to indoctrinate them into one true way of gaming, and I intend to go with the flow and adjust things as necessary to suit the interests they develop as they play.

This, of course, impacts the selection of adventures that I intend to run for them. I want to demonstrate the range of various activities that a character can get up to in the game. This is a game of Dungeons & Dragons, so some elements are a certainty, such as exploring a dungeon, fighting monsters, gathering treasure, finding magic items, encountering traps, exploring the wilderness, fighting a “big bad” at the end of an adventure, interacting non-violently with non-player characters (regular people, other adventurers, and opponents), spending time in towns or other civilized areas, learning a bit about the history of things that have gone before, and a few other basic staples of typical D&D campaigns.

But there are two things that hold no interest for me, which I think are just stupid, and which will play no part in this game.

  • Edition-warring: There are hundreds of adventures that have been published for the game throughout its lifespan. Obviously, as the game has changed with editions, the specifics of the published adventures have changed in response. But a good adventure can be made to work with AD&D, no matter what edition it was originally written for. There are great adventures from Classic D&D, 1E, 2E, 3E, 4E and 5E, and nothing is off the table. In fact, I’m starting the campaign with a 4E adventure, because it works really well for a group of new players, regardless of edition.
  • “Earning” greatness: I’m not interested in running a game where a single wrong move can end up with multiple dead characters. And random death is boring as hell and has killed more D&D campaigns than anything other cause. The kids are playing characters who are the stars of their story. And while a heroic death is possible, randomly killing characters will easily kill the interest in this game. And the characters, even at first level, are capable of succeeding with reasonable odds.

The First Adventure

I wanted to mix a bit of tradition with something more modern. So I started the game in a tavern…which was immediately attacked by goblins and hobgoblins in a surprise raid on the town. I’m kicking things off with a Dungeon Magazine adventure for D&D 4th Edition called Rescue at Rivenroar (Dungeon #156). This is a great little adventure that involves a bunch of villagers being kidnapped off-screen during the opening fights, and the players are hired to follow the surviving goblin raiders back to their lair to rescue the villagers and recover a bunch of historical artifacts that were stolen by the goblins.

One of the great things about D&D 4th edition was that characters started as heroes right from the first level and took on fights that would have been too tough in previous editions of the game. So, of course, I need to modify the actual encounters to make them reasonable for a first-level AD&D adventure.

But other than playing with monster numbers and changing out a few creatures, the adventure stands pretty well on its own.

The kids have played through the opening fight in the bar (with some creative use of abilities already), and then encountered the ogre that was chained to a wagon and throwing incendiary bombs at the buildings. They pretty handily beat both of those encounters with only minor damage to a couple of characters, which filled them with a healthy dose of confidence and made them want to come back for more.

Rescue at Rivenroar is the first adventure in the Scales of War adventure path, and I have no intention of running the whole path. I’m not actually a fan of the “adventure path” idea, as it requires the players to have no plans of their own for their characters, and the payoff takes a very long time to come.

Besides, I’m running AD&D – the speed at which characters level slows down the more powerful they become, rather than the consistent levelling system in 3rd and 4th editions. Which means adventure paths get too difficult too quickly for these characters.

I mentioned before that I’m planning to use The Temple of Elemental Evil adventure in this campaign, which is a fairly large, single adventure. I plan to make a bunch of minor changes to the TOEE adventure so that it doesn’t become a dungeon crawl that bogs down partway through. Those changes include plans for the various factions within the temple, providing opportunities for the characters to approach the temple in various ways (full-on assault, sneaky infiltration, cutting deals with factions against other factions, etc.) and allow opportunities for these different approaches to work.

So the goblins that raided Loudwater and which will be the first opponents of the characters in this game have a link to the temple. It won’t be so blatant that the kids will immediately find out about the temple, but it will give them a couple of clues that they can choose to follow when they are back in Loudwater.

As I’m running this game for completely inexperienced players who are also children, I want them to have a level or two under their belts before they discover the location of the moathouse in TOEE and head in that direction. This means providing them with a bunch of other adventure options they can choose to explore before they learn about the moathouse itself.

In this case, there are some great adventures that I can insert into the campaign:

Module N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God – I intend to use the town of Secomber, just down the road from Loudwater, to replace the town of Orlane in the module. The characters will hear the rumours about the town and can decide for themselves if they want to investigate.

The Sunless Citadel – This was a 3E adventure for first-level characters. In the adventure, the characters have a chance to ally themselves with kobolds against a more powerful goblin force. Again, they will have a chance to discover some force behind the goblins, foreshadowing the rise of the temple.

Menace of the Icy Spire – This is a 4E adventure from Dungeon issue #159. This short adventure gives the chance for the characters to encounter an elemental-themed location well before they discover anything about the temple itself. I will use this as a great opportunity to drop in some history about the area and the temple.

The Fountain of Health – This is an AD&D adventure from Dungeon Magazine issue #39. It’s a pretty standard dungeon-crawl in which the characters are searching for a well that provides a healing potion. I intend to replace that with rumours of some kind of magic item that was lost here a long time ago, prompting the players to try to acquire the item.

While running these adventures, I intend to start foreshadowing the rise of the temple by having minor earthquakes, freak rainstorms, sudden heatwaves or perhaps a fire, and a tornado or two hit the region. The players won’t have the information to link them to the temple right away, but once they discover the temple, they’ll see the effect its presence has already had on the area and will understand the threat it presents.

I figure these adventures will easily get all the characters to second level. Once they hit level two, I will drop the location of the moathouse to them via rumours or NPC interactions. It’ll be up to them to explore the moathouse (I figure they might hit all four of the above adventures first before they head in that direction).

Other than a couple of minor adjustments, I intend to run the moathouse as it is in the adventure.

Actual Play

Unfortunately, as mentioned, we’ve only managed two sessions so far as there have been some life-related things that have gotten in the way. But I expect that we’ll be able to pick up a more regular schedule in January.

I’m considering writing the game up as an actual play, which I would post here on my blog. But I’m going to wait until we have a few more sessions under our belt first, just in case this game doesn’t end up having legs. I hate reading an actual play thread that just ends up fizzling out shortly after it begins.

Who else has run the Temple of Elemental Evil adventure? Did you add a couple of early adventures for the characters to get them some experience before they tackled the moathouse or did you send them out there right away? Did your players actually complete the entire TOEE adventure? Tell us about it in the comments.

 

Which Forgotten Realms? All of them!

Later today, I’m going to be starting a new Dungeons & Dragons campaign with a bunch of kids aged 10-12, including my son. When I was planning this game, I considered a number of different system, including various editions of Dungons & Dragons, RuneQuest, the Omega system (found in the excellent Atlantis: Second Age), and the very well designed Shadow of the Demon Lord.

playershandbook8coverUltimately, I settled on the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. There were a number of reasons for this choice, but I’ll go into that in another post.

The second thing I had to decide was where I was going to set my game. Some of the campaign worlds I considered included Athas (the world of the Dark Sun setting), the amazing Ptolus, Pathfinder’s Golarion, and the world of Green Ronin’s Freeport.

But ultimately, I chose the Forgotten Realms.

There are, of course, rabid fans of the setting, and major detractors. It seems as if the Forgotten Realms is a setting that people either love or hate.

frcs-1edBut it is a setting I discovered with the original grey box campaign set back in 1987 and one that I’ve enjoyed ever since. I’ve run countless campaigns in the Realms, and flipping through the various books always gets my imagination running.

There is so much to the Forgotten Realms, however, that it can overwhelm a DM when trying to plan out the early stages of a campaign.

I was helped out when planning my campaign, though. I knew I wanted to run the original adventure The Temple of Elemental Evil, a rather large adventure originally published in 1985 as an expansion of Gary Gygax’s The Village of Hommlet adventure from 1979.

t1-4toeecoverSo my first step was to figure out where to set the Temple. The adventure as originally published was set in the world of Greyhawk, a setting that has been around even longer than the Realms. But the Realms has so much written material that it can be difficult sometimes to take a place on the map and do your own thing with it without contradicting some other published book.

Luckily, I don’t really care about that kind of stuff. I like the Realms because of the material that is available to me as a DM, but I’ve never felt the need to adhere to canon just because TSR or Wizards of the Coast published a book.

It’s my game, so it’s my setting.

While the original village of Hommlet is a great place, I decided to take an existing village in the Realms and use that instead of the village as presented in the original adventure. In my campaign, the village of Loudwater is where my campaign will begin.

Loudwater is located just south of the High Forest, and not very far from the Sword Coast. And I’ve been itching to return to the Savage North for a long time—the last three D&D campaigns I’ve run have all taken place in the Moonsea region.

The next thing to consider is when to set my campaign. In the Forgotten Realms, that’s a real concern.

If you are at least passing familiar with the Realms, you know that the timeline of the setting keeps getting moved forward. With each new edition of Dungeons & Dragons that has been published, the Realms timeline has shifted so that the changes inherent in a new rules set could be reflected in changes in the setting.

What this means is that countries have change, gods have changed, organizations have changed, and major NPCs have changed.

And it’s even worse, because every era has had some fantastic stuff going on that I want to steal for my game.

Luckily, I happen to have the excellent Grand History of the Realms. Originally compiled by a fan of the setting, it was purchased and published by Wizards of the Coast as an amazing reference for major events that have taken place in each year of the setting.

Consider that the original grey box version presented the Realms in the year 1357 DR, the AD&D second edition Forgotten Realms setting moved that up ten years to 1367 DR, the third edition advanced the timeline again to 1372 DR and progressed it through 1376 DR, the fourth edition jumped ahead a hundred years to 1479 DR, and the current fifth edition started in 1484 DR and has moved to 1489 DR.

So more than 130 years of history have passed in the official timeline of the Realms through the editions of the game.

But since I was going back to the first edition of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game, I wanted to jump back to an earlier time as well. In fact, I decided to jump back to before the year of the original boxed set.

pool_of_radiance_coverartI’ve gone all the way back to 1340 DR. This was the year of the old Pool of Radiance computer game, set in the city of Phlan. The events of that game probably won’t affect my campaign, as my players are unlikely to head for the Moonsea on a whim, and I’m far enough in advance of the Time of Troubles that I don’t need to worry about that timeline and consider if I want to include it in my game or not.

However, the one problem is that there are a ton of interesting things that happen later on in the setting. In fact, they happen so much later that there’s little chance they will ever come to pass in this game.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t use them.

In particular, some of specifics from the 4th edition campaign guide to the Realms are fantastic. And since the setting is over a hundred years in the future, anything I take from there isn’t going to cause me headaches later in the campaign. These include:

  • The Red Wizards of Thay: Thay is an interesting land and a spawning ground of great villains. It’s gone through some changes as the game has gone through editions, and in the years of the fourth edition, the kingdom was ruled by a powerful necromancer. This is my favourite version of Thay, and it gives me a chance to have Red Wizards allied with all manner of undead creatures.
  • The destruction of Neverwinter: The city of Neverwinter was famous for the hot springs that run through the city, keeping it from freezing in the winter. A nearby volcano was the source of the heat, powered by a vastly powerful primordial being of fire that was magically imprisoned under the mountain. A group of villains released the primordial, and the volcano erupted, nearly destroying the city of Neverwinter. Now the city is a battleground for multiple evil factions.
  • The Abolethic Sovereignty: I’ve always considered Aboleths to be really cool monsters, and the Abolethic Sovereignty is an amazing idea. The presence of their great flying city warps reality and is filled with huge, ancient elder aboleths that alien to the Realms.

But most of those elements are for later on in the campaign. The kids are starting with brand-new, first-level characters. They are going to be presented with a few low-level adventures to give them some experience with the rules and their characters, and then I’m going to introduce the Temple of Elemental Evil.

I’ve got a lot of plans on how to make that mega-adventure more exciting and interesting, and I’ll be posting some of my ideas here as the game progresses.

But the kids will be here shortly and I’ve got a little more prep to do.

Have you ever set your game in the Forgotten Realms? Where did you set it? What year (in-setting) did you start with? Tell me about it in the comments.