Waving the White Flag . . . Again (The Ever Rebooted Forgotten Realms)
Anyone that knows me and has for a while probably knows that at one point in time my greatest RPG love was the Forgotten Realms. I could picture the streets of Waterdeep and Skullport, I had a very strong idea of what Mistledale and its environs were like, and I had spent a great deal of time with the grand old city of Arabel in Cormyr.
I enjoyed a lot of the fiction, but I was a bigger fan of the setting itself. My favorite novels weren’t novels that drastically changed the setting or that featured larger than life characters, but rather those novels that illustrated what is was like to live in the setting, as an adventurer, or an agent of a given group, or what it was like to run into a unique monster from the setting.
Fourth edition drove me away from the setting. In a lot of ways, it wasn’t just the drastic changes, it was the fact that what replaced that which came before was a lot less nuanced previous editions. Yes, we might know that this race lives in this new land, and this dungeon is here, and these monsters are common, but we didn’t know that this new dungeon was castle built by duke whomever as a wedding gift for his daughter before she was cursed by an artifact from an ancient empire that fell 4000 years ago.
The changes seemed, to me, to be twofold. Changes to accommodate things in the 4th Edition rules, and changes to make the setting more inclusive of people that might like settings other than the Realms. It felt very much like “flattening” a lot of the texture of the setting to allow it to serve as a “generic” setting.
To me, the previous Realms were a thing that you might either love or not love, but it was a distinctive thing, with its own feeling and quirks. Making the setting more generic relegated the setting to a tool, and while a functional tool might get used, a functional tool is never really loved.
Stepping back from the Realms, however, did allow me to more objectively evaluate the Realms products of the past. Right from the start, there was a war between native setting flavor utilitarian cut and pasting of generic D&D elements. At various points in the settings lifespan, the war went one way or the other. For a while in 2nd Edition, for example, the Realms was a place that had a slavishly bland and generally accurate fantasy version of a real world culture, between Mulhorand, the Hordelands, Maztica, and Al-Qadim (keep in mind, none of those products are bad, per se, they were historical fantasy settings in ways that Cormyr, Waterdeep, Silverymoon, the Dalelands, or Thay were not, and in the case of Zhakara, there were a multitude of similar cultures scattered about the map that weren’t even related to one another).
But WOTC almost got me to come back. I recognized names that worked on the Neverwinter Campaign Setting for 4th Edition, and it seemed like the focus there was to actually start adding some of that flavor and nuance that the setting used to have by narrowing the focus on one particular region. But by that point in time, not only was I done with the Forgotten Realms, I had already moved along from Pathfinder as well, and reinvesting in 4th Edition was a bridge too far for me.
People that read my blog a few years back might have noted I was never that excited about 5th edition. I figured I had left D&D and the Forgotten Realms behind, and I wasn’t going to look back. I thought it was nice that the D&D seminars from last year seemed to acknowledge that they may have gone a bit too far with the 4th Edition changes to the Realms, but I just didn’t want to take the time to investigate, and potentially get burned yet again.
But then 5th Edition actually came out. I went from no interest to, “hey, this thing actually seems kind of interesting.” I like the rules. Now, I’ve had ups and downs running it, but that’s a whole other blog post. Still, all of this “hey, it might be good” revelation that struck me got me to look at those Realms changes they were talking about last year.
They talked about bringing gods and organzations back, and trying to get the feel of the old grey boxed set back without getting rid of anything people might have loved about the setting in any edition. I was excited because for the first time in a very long time, the artwork for elves in the Player’s Handbook actually reflected how elves in the Forgotten Realms looked, instead of seeing elves in Forgotten Realms products that looked like generic D&D elves.
They even got me to read an RA Salvatore book again. I’m not going into details. It sort of just happened.
The problem is by the time I started doing the research, my excitement about revitilizing the setting was already starting to wane.
I had purchased Hoard of the Dragon Queen adventure, since I had a good feeling about Wolfgang Baur and Steve Winter writing it. I thought that since this was a Realms based adventure, it should give me a glimpse of the “new” Realms.
I can’t say that I can fairly evaluate the adventure, because every time I attempt to read it, it just doesn’t really grab me. I can’t keep my interest in the adventure, and no matter how many times I skim it, it just doesn’t seem like this needed to be set in the Realms. Rather than telling us how Tiamat fits into the Realms, it seems like the Cult of the Dragon was reskinned as the Church of Tiamat that could exist in any other setting where Tiamat appears.
Tiamat is very generic for D&D. Not only is she generic to D&D, but since 3rd Edition, we’ve had the Red Hand of Doom, the big push of Spawn of Tiamat minis, the Spawn of Tiamat themed Monster Manual, the “lets not make it a setting” generic 1st to 30th level digital Dungeon Magazine Tiamat themed adventure path, and now this series of adventures. And that’s not even taking into account that the Realms specifically had a bunch of dragon themed content towards the end of 3.5 that involved hundreds and thousands of dragons going berserk and yet still somehow doing minimal damage to most of the Realms, which also involved the Cult of the Dragon.
I’m kind of played out with Tiamat, dragons, and the Cult of the Dragon being the big bad guys in published Realms storylines.
But my enthusiasm managed to ebb even further once I started reading WOTC’s plans for the Realms. You see, the Sundering novel series may have sort of kind of reintroduced some of the dead gods, and may have walked back a few of the 4th Edition changes, but with the exception of a few big events, not in any real detailed manner. So, that’s what a campaign setting book would be for, right?
Well, sure. Someday. If they ever do one. Which according to WOTC isn’t going to happen any time soon. In addition, the next big thing for D&D is going to be an Elemental Evil themed “story” for next year, including a new player’s handbook thing with options just for this adventure series.
So the next big thing for D&D is to take the previously Greyhawk-centric “Elemental Evil” style adventure, and shove it into the Realms. While not detailing the setting in any significant way, except to have three authors writing novels about specific characters that will obliquely reference the current “story” of organized play.
Then it occurred to me, this is just another shade of the generification that has always been the bane of the Realms. In 4th Edition, we just nuked a bunch of existing lands to introduce lands that were more “general D&D” friendly. In 5th Edition, something big and ill defined happened that involves planar changes and gods. And it won’t be defined outside of novels. The Realms are whatever you want it to be, so long as we never really detail it very much! If you want hard setting details, buy the mega adventures, which will have maps, and not much more in the way of facts, but at least you will know how far apart stuff is now!
So, despite my spike in interest in 5th edition, I now face the fact that I need to combat baggage that D&D has as a ruleset, and I’m not at all interested in doing the Forgotten Realms dance again. Nothing against anybody working on the setting, but it seems that WOTC is fighting hard to keep the Forgotten Realms as generic as possible.
I think if I use a setting that already exists, maybe I’ll give the Wilderlands of High Fantasy a shot for the first time.