The History of the Forgotten Realms
In 1967, the then-eight-year-old Ed Greenwood started writing stories for his own amusement about dragons and elves. Over the next few years the stories gained a coherent setting, a world Greenwood called the Realms, and when he got into the Dungeons and Dragons game a decade or so later, he adapted the Realms as a setting for adventures, and began contributing articles to Dragon Magazine located in the setting, beginning in 1978. Greenwood became a popular contributor to the magazine and fans were soon asking for more information about his home setting.
By 1986 D&D creator and TSR founder Gary Gygax had moved on and the company had decided to put his Greyhawk setting on the back-burner. With the narrative and history-driven Dragonlance setting doing great business at the time, TSR decided there was a gap for a new, large 'standard' medieval fantasy world which could be the setting for many different stories. They called in Ed Greenwood, paired him up with veteran designer Jeff Grubb, and set them to work on delivering the Forgotten Realms to a wider audience. The name was settled on because in the ancient prehistory of the world it apparently had links to our own world, but these gateways and portals closed, so from out point-of-view the Realms were now 'forgotten'. Also, it sounded cool.
The Forgotten Realms, when the setting appeared in mid-1987, was a mixture of Greenwood's home setting and several other existing D&D properties. The popular Bloodstone Lands series of adventures (beginning in 1985) was retconned into the setting, as was the even more popular Oriental Adventures landmass of Kara-Tur, which was bolted onto the eastern side of the Realms core continent of Faerun.
The setting was an almost immediate hit. After the success of the Dragonlance books, TSR decided to launch a range of novels accompanying the new setting. The first novel and Realms product ever published was Douglas Niles' Darkwalker on Moonshae, which appeared a month ahead of the first edition boxed set. Showing the versatility of the setting, this first novel and its two sequels were set on the Moonshae Isles, a Celtic-flavoured society a hundred miles off Faerun's west coast. Greenwood's own stand-alone novel Spellfire soon followed, set over a thousand miles to the east in the Dalelands (a mid-European, Black Forest-style society) and featuring zero references to the earlier work.
However, what really took the setting to the next level happened in 1988, when the computer game Pool of Radiance was released. Although previous D&D-flavoured computer RPGs had appeared, Pool of Radiance was the first one to become a really big hit, and was followed up by a series of best-selling sequels in the now-fondly-remembered 'Gold Box' series of games. Even more important this year was the release of a novel called The Crystal Shard by a new, young author named R.A. Salvatore. Set in the frozen subarctic tundra of Icewind Dale, the book charted the coming together of a band of adventurers including the dwarven warrior-chieftain Bruenor, the halfling thief Regis, the barbarian warrior Wulfgar (originally the main character) and, most infamously, the dark elven range Drizzt Do'Urden. The book took off, propelling its sequels into the bestseller lists and beginning one of the major success stories of fantasy in the 1980s and 1990s. The Drizzt books, of which there are now eighteen (plus another nine books featuring related characters and situations), have sold almost ten million copies and are now a staple 'entry point' for young readers looking to get into fantasy fiction.
Four of the Realms' most iconic characters. Clockwise from top-left: Elminster Aumar, Drizzt Do'Urden, the Simbul and Khelben 'Blackstaff' Arunsun, Archmage of Waterdeep.
The Realms continued to develop and expand. New expansions and sourcebooks detailed most of the continent of Faerun, from the distant and remote lands of the Great Glacier to the humid jungles of Chult to the depths of the Great Desert of Anauroch to the city-states of the Vilhon Reach. The secretive Black Network of the Zhentarim, the insane Cult of the Dragon and the villainous Red Wizards of Thay proved to be worthy foes for many D&D adventuring parties over the years and new books and products were lapped up. The great city of Waterdeep was detailed and became a fan-favourite location and base of operations for their parties, its iconic status increased by the arrival of the best-selling Eye of the Beholder computer game trilogy. The Realms also proved popular and endurable enough to host 'sub-settings' on other continents. The oriental lands of Kara-Tur were soon joined the Aztec-influenced continent of Maztica across the western sea, whilst the Arabia-like landmass of Zakhara to the south hosted the Al-Qadim setting, heavily influenced by the stories and legends of the Arabian Nights.
To mark the introduction of AD&D 2nd Edition in 1989, the Realms were afflicted by the Time of Troubles, also known as the Avatar Wars, when the gods were cast out of the heavens and forced to walk the Realms as superpowered but still vulnerable mortals. The pantheon was shaken by the deaths of several major deities and the rise of new ones to replace them, the rules of magic were changed and things generally shaken up. Some fans were suspicious of what seemed a bit like a Dragonlance-style Cataclysm, but it actually proved compatible with the basic idea of the Realms as a world where many different stories could be told. The Avatar Wars had many different fronts and many different regions were affected on a small, local level without any interaction with the wider storyline. After the success of this big event, TSR repeated it two years later with the introduction of the Hordelands, a new, Mongolian-influenced sub-setting located between Faerun and Kara-Tur, and the invasion of a horde of barbarians into the eastern Realms. This gave rise to probably the Realms' finest series of novels, The Empires Trilogy.
In 1993 the second version of the Realms boxed set was introduced to codify and tidy up the previous materials, and new versions of old products were published. However, this marked the first appearance of a real inherent problem with the setting. It was simply far too vast for all the different cities, countries, dungeons, ruins and islands to be detailed within the lifespan of any one edition of D&D, and of course the introduction of a new edition and the constant pushing ahead of the timeline would make the extant material outdated quite quickly anyway. A lot of DMs had no problem with this. After all, it was up to them to create games and settings based on the source material, not slavishly following it. However, a tremendous urge to detail every nook and cranny of the Realms now seemed to take root amongst the D&D writers, an ultimately futile and unachievable goal which they nevertheless tried to satisfy.
In 1996 TSR fell into deep money worries, although the Realms, as its most profitable setting, was not as adversely affected as say Birthright, Dark Sun and Planescape (which were all dropped at short notice). A new writer, Steven Schend, came on board at the TSR design team with the goal of really expanding on and developing the deep back-history of the Realms and bringing new depth to the setting. During his watch the Arcane Age sub-setting, which explored the backhistory of iconic fallen Realms empires such as Netheril and Cormanthyr, was developed whilst the long-neglected south-western kingdoms of Faerun such as Calimshan and Tethyr were also radically updated. Schend also thought outside the box, developing an entire undersea setting based on the floor of the Sea of Fallen Stars, complete with sea elf cities and hordes of hostile sahuagin led by a dark god-like force determined to conquer the world. Other writes also expanded on the Realms' pantheon of gods through three classic game products, namely Faiths and Avatars (sometimes argued to be the single finest D&D product ever written, although it has plenty of competition), Powers and Pantheons and Demihuman Deities.
However, whilst the Realms underwent an impressive creative surge, in other areas it was taking knocks. RA Salvatore and TSR had a falling-out in the mid-1990s that led to another writer being brought in to replace him on the Drizzt novels. They changed their minds and Salvatore returned with a new Drizzt novel in 1998, but the resulting lack of his bestselling novels for several years in a row hurt TSR's finances. In addition, the mid-1990s Realms computer games (Descent to Undermountain and Blood and Magic) were notably inferior to earlier games.
The Forgotten Realms 3rd Edition hardcover campaign book, published in 2001 and one of the very best products ever published for D&D.
Wizards of the Coast took over TSR in the late 1990s and decided to introduce a 3rd Edition of D&D and, with it, the Forgotten Realms. A wide-ranging revamp of the setting took place. No 'Realms-shaking' war or cataclysm, but some (mostly cosmetic and mostly growing out of the direction of the latter part of 2nd Edition) changes to the setting which made it a more interesting and vibrant place to game. The 3rd Edition Forgotten Realms setting hardcover book remains almost certainly one of the single most attractive and impressive D&D books ever published, certainly the best ever published by WotC, with a gorgeous art style and real attention to detail.
The original cover art to Baldur's Gate, BioWare's first game and the beginning of a series of classic computer RPGs that continues today with Mass Effect and Dragon Age.
The Realms' fortunes in other areas radically improved as well. In 1998 a little-known Canadian company called BioWare released a Forgotten Realms computer RPG called Baldur's Gate. Featuring a vast playing area, memorable characters, excellent writing and a faithful but fast-paced implementation of the D&D rules, Baldur's Gate was an instant classic and is still one of the finest computer roleplaying games ever made. BioWare released an expansion called Tales of the Sword Coast in 1999 and a colossal, ambitious sequel called Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn in 2000, concluding the saga with the expansion Throne of Bhaal in 2001. Some five million games in the series have been sold to date. In 2002 BioWare released a new game with an updated engine called Neverwinter Nights, which also enjoyed widespread popularity, whilst their partner studio Black Isle (later Obsidian) released Icewind Dale in 2000, Icewind Dale II in 2002 and Neverwinter Nights II in 2007, all of which were popular if not quite hitting the heights of the Baldur's Gate series. These games introduced a whole new audience to the Realms, to the pen-and-paper game and to the novels.
Throughout the 2000s the Forgotten Realms remained WotC's most popular campaign setting for D&D, generating significant amounts of revenue. However, as with the previous edition, a decision was made to explore the Realms in extreme depth and just as before it turned out to be a futile endeavour, with several key areas left unexplored. As before, fans seemed suspicious of these moves, and there was some grumbling when the mercantile kingdom of Sembia, deliberately left a blank slate in previous editions for DMs to develop as they saw fit, suddenly got 'filled in' by game developers. This problem was now exasperated by the designers' growing obsession with 'Realms-shaking events' (RSEs, as dubbed by the fanbase). After the success of the Avatar Wars and the Horde Invasion, designers now seemed to enjoy blowing up the Realms every other week, or so it felt. The Babylon-esque kingdom of Unther was devastated by flood and famine and then invaded by its Egyptian-style neighbour Mulhorand. The Zhentarim suffered civil wars and realignments. The Red Wizards, somewhat unconvincingly, became a race of magical merchants. A new kingdom appeared in the formerly lawless (and therefore fun to roleplay in) Savage North. Thanks to some time-travelling shenanigans, a bunch of ultra-powerful wizards from the ancient fallen kingdom of Netheril showed up to rebuild their empire. A massive and devastating horde of dragons run amok across the continent. The pantheon seemed to radically change every other week.
These rapid and radical changes to the setting at the same time the designers were trying to describe the setting in insane levels of detail led to both a loosening of focus in the setting and the growing apathy of the fanbase. In addition to these problems, 3rd Edition was an inherently higher-powered game than its forebear, and as a result many, many NPCs and groups in Faerun were now ridiculously high-powered (to stop player-characters being able to kill them at will). With an almost encyclopediac knowledge of the setting now required for any DM wishing to run a canonical game set in the Realms, it is unsurprising that many either gave up or went over to the newer, much more straightforward Eberron setting.
Aware of the growing disenchantment of the setting (although computer game, novel and sourcebook sales remained strong), WotC decided to take a radically different approach when they introduced the 4th Edition of D&D (and, with it, Forgotten Realms) in 2008. Only a single campaign setting and a single add-on sourcebook were released, which would give the DM a bare bones knowledge of the setting they could add onto and flesh out as they wished. They also pushed the timeline of the Realms an additional 100 years into the future and, almost literally, blew up the setting in a magical cataclysm that radically altered the setting right down to its fundamentals.
The Forgotten Realms 4th Edition hardcover campaign book, published in 2008 and one of the very worst products ever published for D&D.
Forgotten Realms fans really did not like the changes, at all. With 4th Edition itself proving very controversial, these simultaneous huge changes to the game's biggest setting really earned WotC a lot of ire. Even big fans of the 4th Edition rules seemed to dislike the extent of the changes done to the Realms to make it fit the game. Even before the campaign setting hit the shelves, fans were working on ways of adapting existing 3rd Edition material to 4th without incorporating the nuking of the world. The existing Realms fanbase was resulting shattered between those who hated the changes (a clear majority, at least going by reviews and message board comments) and those who embraced them (plus a new, younger generation of new players put off by the previous edition of the setting's bloat). How this affects things in the long run remains unclear, but the Realms have survived for forty-odd years so far, so I wouldn't be writing its obituary just yet.
The World of the Realms
Canon world map of the Forgotten Realms in late 2nd Edition, before the shrinking of Faerun for 3rd Edition and the nuking of it for 4th.
The Forgotten Realms world is called Abeir-toril, and is an Earth-sized planet (know any other kind?) divided into four huge landmasses and many thousands of islands. The main landmass comprises three continents or subcontinents, called Faerun in the west, Kara-Tur in the east and Zakhara in the south. Across the Trackless Sea to the west, beyond the elven home island of Evermeet, lies the continent of Anchorome (with Maztica a subcontinent in the south of this landmass). South of that lies the jungle-filled, secretive land of Katashaka. Far to the east of Kara-Tur lies a large, unexplored continent called Osse.
Between the 3rd and 4th Editions of the game, the subcontinent of Maztica was destroyed in an transdimensional cataclysm called the Spellplague. It was replaced by a new landmass called 'Returned Abeir'. The fate of the neighbouring landmasses of Anchorome and Katashaka is unknown. Many fans of the setting have disregarded this 'official' change.
Faerun is the principle campaign setting of the Forgotten Realms world. Approximately 3,500 miles across, the continent is based on Europe and the Middle-East in the medieval period, although Faerun is considerably larger than Europe. It has a landlocked sea called the Sea of Fallen Stars which allows relatively rapid transit across the centre of the continent, with its oldest and most formidable nations located on or close to its shores, such as Cormyr (an English-influenced kingdom controlled by a powerful, centralised monarchy), Thay, Chondath and the resurgent Mulhorandi Empire. Whilst all of Faerun is covered in various Forgotten Realms products, a strip of land running west from the Sea of Fallen Stars' north-western shores to the Trackless Sea has received more development than any other part. This area, the 'Heartlands', incorporates Cormyr, Sembia, the rural Dalelands, the forebidding Moonsea (most notably the city of Zhentil Keep, home of the Black Network), parts of the Great Desert and the western city-states of Baldur's Gate and Waterdeep on the exterior ocean. This is the area which Ed Greenwood notably set a lot of his fiction, RPG campaigns and later novels.
RA Salvatore's Drizzt books mostly take place north-west of this area, in the forebidding and mostly uncivilised Savage North.
In 3rd Edition WotC oddly decided that Faerun was too large and shrunk the continent in size by about 15%, losing several areas in the far south of the continent in the process and altering its shape. This was a retcon, with no in-universe reason given for the change. In 4th Edition the continent was almost completely devastated by the Spellplague, with the south-eastern coast destroyed, massive channels connecting the Great Sea to the Inner Sea formed, the Great Desert wiped out, several entire kingdoms drowned beneath the waves and millions of people killed. Quite a few players have disregarded this official change as well and continue to game in the pre-Spellplague version of the setting.
Unlike Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms has no over-arcing metaplot as such. Instead, the setting is built on the idea that the modern kingdoms and cities are built on the ruins of much older, usually much more powerful and advanced civilisations, with humans as a relative newcomer race on a world where at different times the elves, dragons, giants and lizard-folk held domination. This set-up means that the dungeons and ruins strewn over the world usually have deeper back-stories than some others. These dungeons include one of the biggest dungeons ever detailed for the game, Undermountain (located underneath Waterdeep) and the tantalisingly-described fallen city of Shoonach, once the capital of the most populous human empire in the history of Faerun, sprawling across tens of square miles of above and below-ground sites, but the size of the dungeon defied any kind of detailing in game products.
Whilst there is no world-spanning storyline, there are regional ones. Waterdeep, for example, is a safe and civilised city but there are political machinations as well as hidden threats to its continued survival. The city of Silverymoon in the distant north is a beacon of light surrounded by thousands of square miles of hostile, monster and bandit-infested territory. Cormyr, on the other hand, is a powerful and civilised kingdom which unfortuantely lies between several rival and competing powers who desire nothing more than its collapse, whilst the peaceful rural folk of the Dalelands have been forced into a sometimes strained and uncomfortable alliance with the local elves against the encroaching desires of the Black Network to the north. These more locally-focused stories give rise to greater feeling of realism than some other fantasy worlds where absolutely everything that happens ties in with an over-arcing metaplot in some fashion.
The classic 1991 RPG Eye of the Beholder. In-game, skeletons cannot smash through doors like this. Still a nice cover though.
I got into the Realms by playing Eye of the Beholder on my Commodore Amiga in 1992. In the manual was a small map showing the west coast of Faerun (taken from Karen Wynn Fonstad's very fine Atlas of the Forgotten Realms) and the lands within several hundred miles of Waterdeep and I was immediately intrigued by the scope of the setting. When I picked up and read The Crystal Shard in the library a few months later, I realised that all the lands in the book fitted into a tiny corner of the map from the computer game, and I was impressed by that sense of scale. After I started playing D&D in 1995, the 2nd Edition Forgotten Realms campaign setting was one of my first purchases, and I went on to purchase dozens of further game supplements and novels over the next decade or so as I ran several campaigns in the setting.
During that time my adventuring parties attacked Waterdeep with an army of infuriated treants (hey, I was young and inexperienced), re-opened the Silk Road between Faerun and Kara-Tur by blazing a trail of violence through the enraged Tuigan clans, inadvertantly joined forces with a vast orc horde descending from the Spine of the World mountains (and ended up besieging their own castle), engaged in a clandestine battle of assassins on the streets of a drow city and helped save Cormyr from the machinations of a dragon-led horde of interdimensional goblins (which, seriously, was from an adventure book and not my own crazed mind). I have lost more hours than I can count to the Eye of the Beholder, Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights series of computer role-playing games, and still recommend the early Drizzt books for anyone looking for an easy-to-read YA fantasy series (although, seriously, stop after Siege of Darkness as it's all downhill from there).
I always liked the idea of the Forgotten Realms as a world with each nook and cranny, every village and ruin hiding a dozen stories behind it, where people in one town might not give a toss that the dark god Bane was running amok 300 miles away because they were more concerned with solving a spate of local murders or tracking down a lost flock of sheep. Whenever I encounter a roleplayer who says they dislike the Realms I am always somewhat puzzled, as an adventure set in Cormyr should be so different varied from a campign set in Zakhara or Calimshan that they might as well be on different worlds. It's a bit like meeting someone who loathes going on holiday to Bognor and thus concluding that NYC also sucks because it's on the same planet.
Of course, it's easy to get lost in the moirass of details in the Realms setting. The latter 3rd Edition products also unwisely focused on big epic events, which has never been the setting's main purporse, and the prevalence of NPCs like Drizzt Do'Urden, Elminster (worst author-insertion character ever) and Khelben in some campaigns (either directly by the DM or by players playing knock-off characters) is annoying. I am also not a fan of high-powered, high-magic settings and the Realms, whilst not really like that in 1st and 2nd Editions, definitely became that in 3rd, leading to apathy with the setting. The changes and alterations to the world for 4th Edition, however, seem like the equivalent of cracking a walnut with an atom bomb. There were more elegant solutions they could have used to fix what was wrong with the Realms. Certainly my interest in playing in the current incarnation of the setting is very low.
Still, I have to thank Ed Greenwood, Bob Salvatore and the rest of the Forgotten Realms game-designers, computer game programmers and novelists for providing me with many hundreds of hours of entertainment in the setting, and I will continue to keep an eye on it in the future.