Today we delve into one of the most iconic settings in all of D&D. Welcome to the Forgotten Realms!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.
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.
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.
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.
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 the 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 analogs 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 in the comments!