Realm Guide: Faerun

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Take a look at one of the most iconic settings in all of D&D. I just wish I could remember the name of it. Something about realms maybe? I have forgotten.Faerûn. How does one land hold so much adventure? Even if you’ve never rolled a d20, odds are good you’ve at least heard of the Forgotten Realms. It’s no surprise, really–Faerûn is the setting for literal hundreds of stories, spread across novels, comics, video games, magazines and campaign books. In those lists you can find the names of legends: Icewind Dale, Neverwinter, Water Deep, the windswept coastline of the Sea of Swords, Candlekeep.

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Alright let’s get this Bhaal rolling.

Heck, even if you’ve never heard of any of those, if you’ve ever played a computer RPG, you’ve been influenced by it. I don’t think it’s too hyperbolic to say that without games like Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II, you wouldn’t have things like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, or even Knights of the Old Republic. And it all comes back to the Forgotten Realms. With so much of the RPG landscape having been shaped by this setting, I thought it might be fun to see just what makes them tick.

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Geographically speaking, the Forgotten Realms are home to just about everything you could want. The whole thing feels very well developed: the setting is on an actual planet, Toril, the main region, Faerûn, is an ecologically diverse continent, and there are diverse peoples that inhabit it. Just going through various entries for humans, we’ve got: Chondathans, Calishites, Tethyrians, Damarans, Illuskans, Rashemi–you get the idea–and they’ve all got their own languages, customs and names.

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In the north, you’ve got untamed forbidding icy wastelands clashing with hard-fought civilization. Here you’ll find huge forests, like the Lurkwood and frozen regions like Icewind Dale, as well as more civilized places along the Sea of Swords. Here you’ll find cities like Waterdeep and Neverwinter–which gets its name either because the Neverwinter river (and the city’s water supply) is heated by fire elementals and so the water never freezes, and the heat from the water makes it temperate, OR, the city is named after it’s founder Halueth Never, and was originally called Never’s Winter. I leave that decision to you, but it is the setting for the first official 3.x D&D game, and I believe you can still find multiplayer servers active to this day.

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Also we have a board game!

The west is one big coastal region, whether up against the actual coast, or butting up against the Sea of Fallen Stars, a massive inner sea formed in days of legend. Here you’ll find places like Amn, Tethyr, Calimshan–so in one stretch of continent you go from standard vaguely european high fantasy to vaguely middle-eastern  merchant princes and sultans, where you can find djinn and efreets warring with tribes of humans.

Further to the south you start getting deserts and halfling-filled lands, like Lurien. Big stretches of grasslands like Shaar. It’s also where you get your Mediterranean analogues with a suite of coastal city-states, the Lapaliiya league, famous for their olives, and savage jungles full of hulking beasts, like Chult. If you’re looking to get add a little Howard to your Tolkien, this is the region you’ll want to turn to. The valley of flames could easily be dropped into Hyborea without really tweaking anything.

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Actual dinosaur, or polymorphed wizard? YOU decide!

Speaking of Tolkien and Howard: the eastern parts of Faerûn are shrouded in mystery. Home to exotic lands where they take slaves and where evil wizards practice forbidden arts, the east is rife with peril. It really earns the moniker “The Unapproachable East.” Not that you’d really want to go there. I mean, you’ve got Thay, which is a nation of evil wizards, who think being an evil wizard is awesome, and of course their society is perfect, it’s just the way it should be: with the Red Wizards of Thay on top. Or there’s the nation that was briefly ruled by a red dragon who attempted to ascend to god-hood.

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Ladies and gentlemen, please clutch your staff of power for our National Anthem. “Ohhh Thay can you thee…”

And if that’s not enough for you, there are whole other continents to explore, including: a mysterious jungled land that is totally not based off of mesoamerica, called Maztica. Kara-tur, which is a further eastern land, separated from Faerûn by a vast steppe. Fun fact for those of you playing along at home: Kara-Tur is also the original campaign setting for Oriental Adventures, back in its 1st edition days. Or perhaps you want to step onto Zakhara, the land of fate, home to even MORE mysterious and exotic peoples (where the Calishites came from, it’s kind of neat if you go back and look it seems they’ve figured out a few migrations here and there). All in all there’s another 5 or 6 beyond Faerûn.

Give or take a cataclysm or two.

And if that’s not enough (it is), there’s also an entire Underdark to explore. Or rebel from. With two scimitars and a complicated personality that makes it easy to brood because you left behind everything you knew, but everything you knew was terrible. But he’s rich, so that makes it kind of okay.

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D&D’s equivalent of Lego Batman.

That touches on one of the problems of the Forgotten Realms though. It’s big. And exhaustively detailed. I talked about mixing Tolkien and Howard up there for a reason. The Forgotten Realms are the most Tolkienesque of any D&D setting. The fact that there are multiple languages should be your first clue, but wait there’s more: immortal elves living in a secluded mystic isle that they are “called to” when they get to a certain age. Hordes of orcs and goblins anyway you turn. Mysterious lands fallen under the shadow of evil. A kindly wizard (or 12) who wander around seeming like they don’t know what they’re doing, but then everything all works out for the best because they are around. And it’s this last part that becomes a problem.

Because everywhere you turn in the Forgotten Realms there’s a legendary hero. Or a powerful wizard. Or a godling. Or any number of other people who should be able to easily deal with whatever threat you cook up. I’ve seen it handwaved in the past that, “oh they’re off fighting other, more dangerous things that only they can solve” which is kind of a cop out. I mean, if you believe that, then the whole world must be under constant threat every day, and your mightiest heroes take on almost Stark-esque levels of gallows humor and meta-awareness of the world they protect.

To be fair, sometimes, that seems to be the case. Take a look at the history of the Forgotten Realms. It’s a living, dynamic world. Stuff happens there all the time. Starting in 1st Edition, you had a lot of conflicts with the Thayans, and Waterdeep was a big fixture in the land. You had groups scheming to overthrow the city just about every week. Then in 2nd edition comes the first big event that I can remember reading about: the Time of Troubles.

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All the gods were really Bhaaling their eyes out.

In the Time of Troubles, all the gods of Toril were banished to take on mortal forms as punishment for their hubris and negligence. Gods lived and died, and mortals ascended their vacant thrones, and you better believe that there was a multimedia release that encapsulated all the goings on of this time period. There was a trilogy of novels (the Avatar trilogy)\. Baldur’s Gate I and II are set during it. The very first piece of D&D lore I owned,The Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, came out and detailed the aftermath of these events as well.

I can still see the big grey box that contained A Grand Tour of the Realms, which was my first introduction to Volo and his illustrious “guides.”

3rd edition advanced the timeline and expanded the setting even more. With a shelf’s worth of campaign supplements and splatbooks, as well as the other big computer RPG, Neverwinter Nights, which helped set the stage for D&D’s foray into the MMO world. People are still playing on these games. There are persistent world servers you can log onto today. And 4th edition upped the cataclysm ante to make the Forgotten Realms fit its “points of light” idea. The world was ravaged by the Spellplague, and there are all kinds of wastelands where once great kingdoms existed.

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Yeah, kind of like that. But worse.

5th edition is firmly ensconced in the Forgotten Realms. Whether you’re playing one of the big campaigns that Wizards has released, or just using some of the character options in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. Little by little the story of the Realms keeps being written. And it can be daunting.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this setting. And I love that you can have so much out of just one world, but how do you go about using it, without either running into glut or epic characters all over the place? Well. Like most things in my life, I found the answer from Star Wars. It took me a while to get on board with this idea–it wasn’t until I started playing Star Wars Saga edition that I realized–the Forgotten Realms is a lot like D&D’s own expanded universe. You can run a game and not have to worry about what Rogue Squadron is up to. There is a lot of room beyond just what they show you in the movies.

Or in this case, in the games. Or the books. Or the campaigns.

Don’t want to deal with modern Faerun? Pick a time in the past. There’s always something interesting happening. Or find some far flung corner of the world that has little mroe than a paragraph. Lapaliiya, for instance, has very little on it, aside from that it’s there. With the Forgotten Realms, you have an opportunity to take a larger, living world and connect your own campaigns to it.

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And since all the lore is so well developed, you might find your players saying, “Hey, I’m interested in this event.” I remember running a campaign set during the Time of Troubles about a rogue god who decided that being mortal was the best thing ever and the PC’s had to help convince them to try and take back the throne. You might have a favorite setting or story that you can steal from if you’re in a hurry. Gotta prep for game night? There’s plenty to steal from and enough that you could never steal the same thing twice.

So even though it is daunting to start, the Forgotten Realms are home to a literal world of adventure. And they’re waiting for you to dive in.

Got a favorite memory of the Realms? Want to see another campaign setting explored here? Let us know below!

  • zeno666

    The last few years my gaming group have been playing Pathfinder.
    But I’m really starting to miss Faerun with its Beholders and other neat monsters 🙂
    Really considering D&D 5E.

    • matthieu parmentier

      Another solution, that I’m using with my group: Pathfinder rules with Forgotten settings.
      A game system isn’t exclusive to a setting or vice-versa 🙂

      • zeno666

        Sure, but I’m too lazy to convert stuff 😉
        And I’m also a bit tired of all the math in Pathfinder…

        • matthieu parmentier

          There’s nothing to convert really, just use as is or tweak on the spot if you feel it’s necessary (but then I have a weird brain wired for RPGs and other nerdy stuff it seems).
          I can totally understand the “math” bit, I don’t have any issues with it but some of my players struggle a bit. But then again they manage to struggle with Star Wars D6, so …

        • Shawn

          I hear you. I’m a 20th level fighter with 5 attacks at +15/+12/+10/+8/+1. What? I got to add my sword’s +5 bonus? Now I have a minus four because I’m blind? Oh wait, it’s only -2 becuase I’m flanking.

          Big head ache to say the least.

    • Jesse Cavazos

      You really should give 5e a shot. I’ve found myself enjoying the system more than any other edition and it ranks even with Edge of the Empire as my favorite to DM.

      Of course my group preferred Pathfinder but they only did so because they knew all the tricks and loved to break the system. Guess that kind of soured me, I suppose.

      • Jay Arr

        Agreed. 5th Edition is a TON of fun on either side of the table. It’s a nice change from Pathfinder–sure you don’t have as many options, but what you do have is solid and it plays very well with any kind of playstyle you prefer.

        • Matthew Pomeroy

          We only use 5th edition for AIME, I found running normal 5th edition somewhat disappointing. We still use 3rd (and sometimes 4th) for Eberron games. Jesse, I definitely see your point with Pathfinder, had the same issues. And yeah EoE is awesome to play and run. 5th though seemed to need alot more work before it was ready.

          • Jay Arr

            EoE… now there’s a name I’ve not heard in a relatively recent time. Have you played Force and Destiny or Age of Rebellion?

            I kind of conflate the three sometimes.

          • Matthew Pomeroy

            We actually use all three for our EoE game. The force awakens set will be the first one we wont immediately incorporate into our game, but we are very interested in what it brings.

          • Shawn

            Need more work? Ike what?

          • Matthew Pomeroy

            Without derailing the thread into a “why I dislike 5th ed” I’ll give a brief couple things, the inspiration system, advantage/disadvantage, everything being tied to stat increases and the proficiency concept,none of which I thought were very well conceived or executed. It gave me the impression that it was very rushed (and this despite being a playtester.)

    • Shawn

      You won’t be disappointed Xeno. I love 5E. As soon as the play test came around for 5th I dropped Pathfinder like a hot potato. Mostly for personal reasons. Three point five had moved away from D&D in some ways and required way too much math to keep up with everything. Then throw in that miniature placing rules – flank, aoe, shift, etc., the game became more like a board game than a fantasy rpg. Then that got worse with 4th.

  • Dominic Pirrello

    I stopped playing D&D when 4th ed came around because the story advancement for the game was motivated by game mechanics and dumbing down the game to appeal to mmo players and not plot development. They dropped numerous story arcs and pissed off many players and writers with the direction they went. Even Ed Greenwood took a step back from forgotten realms with the direction they were heading. 5th edition makes up for it though. The plot advancement was more subtle this time and flows naturally. There was no reset button event like the spell plague and the gods are largely intact. They didn’t invalidate years or lore building this time and it motivated me to get back into it. I still play on those forgotten realms neverwinter nights servers. Some of the best rping I’ve ever had.

  • EnTyme

    Faerun always felt like generic fantasy to me. I always found it to be D&D’s weakest setting. I’ll take Eberron any day of the week. Would love to see more rules for Eberron in 5E.

    • Matthew Pomeroy

      You are now one of my favorite people, in the world…I LOVE EBERRON.

      • EnTyme

        What’s not to love about a mago-steampunk setting?

        • Matthew Pomeroy

          Heh, that setting has it all. I ran a game in the Lhazaar Principalities that was very “Vikings” like and the players had a blast (except for the warforged he hated the cold and wet for some reason.)

          • Jay Arr

            That setting really does have it all. I you’ve got steam, magitech (which holds a special place in my heart) and HALFLING DINO-RIDERS. Seriously, what more could you want? And even if you DID manage to think of it, Eberron probably has you covered.

          • Matthew Pomeroy

            It is that very freedom that made us fall in love with the setting. I still play DDO religiously because it is in Eberron.

          • Jay Arr

            I also really loved the intrigue/espionage aspect of it. The Dragonmarked houses and all the spies added a neat wrinkle to adventuring.

          • Matthew Pomeroy

            Oh yeah! and Sharn is an awesome city to adventure in.

          • EnTyme

            Every campaign I’ve ever run in Eberron has somehow featured the party unintentionally destroying Sharn.

          • Matthew Pomeroy

            That does not surprise me somehow, the city does give off that “mess this place up” vibe

  • Ronin

    To avoid on stepping anyone’s toes, we decided to shift the storyline from Faerun to the Utter East which is sort of in the middle of the world and the equivalent of where the Byzantine Empire was. Because it’s far from Faerun, we could up the scale of magic and technology so a lot of the economy revolves around the high elves being able to manufacture spell gems and orbs that could magically power items and even engines. It’s also a sort of point of possible conflict. I’ve also got it set to tie in with Kings of War in case enough people got interested in that and we decide to escalate to full scale war. http://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/35cc518a2ecafcb67cdd67ec78623602e1a0f896932d61990d92d8ae16366b68.jpg

    • Jay Arr

      Huh, that’s a neat idea. I’m curious, how would you go about tying in your game with Kings of War if it went that direction?

      • Ronin

        That’s a good question. There’s no hard rules on how one would affect each other, but it’d be similar the along the lines of playing out a 40k campaign and having the results of Kings of War battles be added to the context of what the DnD players are going through and vice versa. My country is also set to be pretty segregated among the races so if you wanted to fight for the Dwarves in Kings of War, you’d be part of the province of Nix or if you wanted to fight for the humans, you’d be fighting for Ulgarth. Sometimes, what would happen in DnD would also have an effect on the larger campaign and award bonuses to factions. Like I said, it’s all concepts for now, but I would love for the scale to expand. 😉

        • Jay Arr

          Neat! So you could zoom in for more personal scale events, and then pull back to see what’s happening in the kingdoms at large. That makes sense to me. I like that they influence each other, but you also aren’t necessarily bound to having the players be the generals or whatever in the armies. Hmmm…

          • Ronin

            Exactly, yup. We also have parallel dnd campaigns happening and they can influence each other too. To keep it organized, the different DM’s tend to run things by me since I’m the overall grandmaster of the setting. One of them supposedly has plans for something apocalyptic for the dwarves.

  • Sahel

    I would like see more of Mystara and an updated Karameikos.