I’ve got weird mixed feelings on the Forgotten Realms as presented in 5th edition material. On one hand, I’m thrilled, because there are a lot of deep cuts and overall, the handling of the Forgotten Realms feels more respectful than at least the earliest 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons material. On the other hand, a lot of those deep cuts are also shallow treatments, and as much work goes into adding in classic D&D-isms not originally found in the Realms into the setting, and creating a core “D&D” experience that may not draw too deeply on highlighting what makes the Realms different from other settings like Greyhawk or Mystara, for example.
That got me thinking about what previous edition products I would recommend someone pick up if they wanted to get a better idea of more Forgotten Realms specific products that had more elements that were concerned with presenting the experience of the setting before the experience of D&D, as a whole.
These aren’t my top Forgotten Realms recommendations, in general. These are my top recommendation to provide more context to the setting, when looking at the Forgotten Realms material that has been released for 5th edition D&D. That means that this list is heavily weighted towards the Sword Coast, Amn, and Chult, as opposed to just a recommendation of previous edition products that encapsulate the Realms feel, in general. Maybe I’ll do that one eventually, but right now, I’m just thinking of providing context and bridging gaps.
There are also a few products on this list that provide context and allow for a deeper exploration of various regions and Realms specific themes, but may be problematic as well, and I’ll try to point out that as best as I can.
20. Lands of Intrigue (2e)–Lands of Intrigue focuses on Amn and Tethyr at over 100 years before the current timeline of the setting, but also gives some context to the Amnian influence over Chult. The reason I picked this 2nd edition sourcebook over the 1e Empires of the Sands is that this version has a lot more Realms specific details included, as well as throwing in more detail on Erlkazar. Content warning–Amn is an expansionist economic power that sinks its capitalistic jaws into Maztica and Chult, although both expansions are less of a bad copy of real-world history than what showed up in the Maztica boxed set a few years earlier.
19. Giantcraft (2e)–This one ends up on the list because it provides a lot of context for the Ordening and Storm King’s Thunder, as well as providing some details on giantish society that didn’t get played up quite as much in the adventure (the Stormazin, how different giant societies worked out their differences under the Ordening, where some giants and giant-kin fell on the social ladder). Content warning–Othea, Annam’s wife, suffer sexual abuse in giant myths, and Annam himself is pretty awful in how he reacts to this. That sexual abuse also plays into the creation myth of several giant related species.
18. Spellbound (2e)–I’m recommending this one over the 1e sourcebook Dreams of the Red Wizards because it goes into more details on the Witches of Rashemen and Aglarond, while Dreams of the Red Wizards was more focused on Thay’s culture. While they draw on many different tropes, the amalgam culture of the Witches of Rashemen are definitely a unique element to the Realms, and the Red Wizards play into the greater politics of the setting to this day. Minsc, a long term NPC that still shows up in Realms products today, has a background tied to Rashemen as well. Content warning–Thayan culture is predicated on racism between human cultures, and there are gender-based roles that are part of Rashemi culture.
17-16. Demihuman Deities and Powers and Pantheons (2e)–I’m listing these two together, as the “god trilogy” of 2nd edition is often seen as multiple volumes of the same work, but I personally feel that these two books are less integral than Faiths and Avatars, as Faiths and Avatars presents the most influential and well known Forgotten Realms deities. All three books provide a level of detail on the actual faiths of various deities, not just information on the gods themselves, that has yet to be matched in any other products. Content warning–while the book gets into the deeper psychology of various species, there is still some species superiority assumed in some of the deity entries, especially in Demihuman Deities (i.e. elves, dwarves, halflings, gnomes, and humans are more civilized and advanced than orcs or goblins, as an example).
15. Shining South (2e)–Okay, so I’m breaking my “only relevant to current Realms material” rule that I established up front for this one, and I’m specifically recommending the 2e version over the 3rd edition volume, because I feel like the 3e version got a bit more lost in presenting mechanical options for PCs. Shining South was always one of my favorites because it expanded the Realms without creating a direct cut and paste of a pop culture version of a real-world region of Earth. Halruaa does still have some ties to Netheril and proximately to Thay. Content warning–Dambrath is a matriarchal nation, but one that is influenced by the prevailing matriarchal notions of the drow as presented in the setting in 2e, as well as being a nation influenced by Loviatar, which gives a very specific, narrow view of some aspects of BDSM culture as lawful evil deviance.
14. Faiths and Avatars (2e)–The main reason this book sits a little higher on the list than the other two 2nd edition “god books” is that it deals with the most commonly worshiped gods of the setting, and if you can only get one of these books, this would be the one to pick up. Something I wanted to point out is that even in a time when AD&D had rules about how many steps you could drift in alignment from your god, this book was listing ranges of followers that went beyond that “one step” rule for multiple gods, based on how they are worshiped in various societies.
13. The North: A Guide to the Savage Frontier (2e)–For reasons I’ll explain later, other books that deal with the North, or the Savage Frontier, capture the “feel” of the Realms a little bit better than this boxed set, but if you have ever wanted more details on a smaller base of operations in the North, the information on Daggerford in this book is a great starting point. I personally really liked the emerging information on Lurar, or what would be known as the Silver Marches, although the 3rd edition Drizzt books reworked a lot of this so that some of this information ended up being booted out of canon. Content warning–some of the tribal tropes of the Uthgardt pull on very shallow tropes, and there are some peak ridiculous clothing choices for some of the women in the artwork.
12. Serpent Kingdoms (3.5)–The Yuan-Ti get a lot of love in this book, and it expands the lore for Mhair and Chult as well. The nations in the Serpent Hills of the North are referenced in the Sword Coast Adventurers guide, but they are given a lot more detail in this book (even if it’s set over a century before the current edition).
11. Drizzt Do’Urden’s Guide to the Underdark (2e)–A lot of the Underdark realms that are touched on in Out of the Abyss are detailed in this book in greater detail. The framing device is that this book is the research that Drizzt has done for the leaders of the Silver Marches about the Underdark beneath them, and I’ve always felt that unreliable narrator NPCs providing information on a location in the Realms is very in keeping with it’s earliest days. This also provides a broader view of the Underdark than to just focus on drow cities, and again, I think the voice of book makes it a stronger pick than the more wider ranging, and more mechanically focused Underdark sourcebook from 3rd edition D&D.
10. Lost Empires of Fearun (3.5)–This book provides a lot of information on, well, the Lost Empires of Faerun, which provides the context for where a lot of the ruins and ancient magic items in the setting come from, and how the modern nations and cities that exist on the Faerun map came to be where they are. The lost civilizations are broadly pertinent to most of the ongoing lore of the setting, although many of the story hooks from this book haven’t been explicitly connected to any of the current adventure storylines.
9. Dragons of Faerun (3.5)–There are several plot hooks in this book that go nowhere. The building clash between Tiamat and Bahamut and the information about the Spawn of Tiamat and the original version of Dragonborn don’t really pan out, and are only tangentially used in the Tyranny of Dragons storyline. The main reason I recommend this book is that dragons from all kinds of sources were pulled together and presented in this book, so if you want more information on dragons that show up in modern adventures, like Arveiaturace, or a snapshot of the Cult of Tiamat, the Cult of the Dragon, or the Well of Dragons, that all show up in the Tyranny of Dragons storyline, this has got a lot of details on those setting elements.
8. Forgotten Realms Adventures (2e)–The biggest reason I have for recommending this book is that a ton of Forgotten Realms cities that only show up as dots on a map get a lot more detail on how the city appears, notable areas of the city, population sizes, and important figures. While this may be over a century out of date, it’s still a good place to start when trying to imagine what various cities are like. Additionally, there are some nice “small” setting details in the treasure section. And when I mention a treasure section, I mean things like Realms specific valuables, not just magic items or artifacts.
7. Waterdeep and the North (1e)–There have been more, and more detailed, Waterdeep sourcebooks since this came out, but this is honestly the book that cemented my love of the Realms. There are tons of details on the guilds, personalities, Masked Lords, noble houses, and adventure seeds in the city, as well as a quick overview of the rest of the North, with a few small tidbits of information that I don’t think transferred over to other dedicated sourcebooks on those same areas.
6. Volo’s Guide to Waterdeep (2e)–If Waterdeep and the North cemented my love of the Realms, Volo’s Guide to Waterdeep reminded me of that love when it came out. While many of the establishments that Volo rates in the book may not look the same a century later, there are many historical pieces of information, as well as various curses and hauntings, that still form the basis for a lot of potential adventure seeds in the current incarnation of Waterdeep. If you have never seen a dedicated Volo’s Guide, Volo is literally rating various inns, taverns, and establishments, and seeding in rumors that he has heard, which then have some footnotes for readers from Earth provided by Elminster. Sometimes these notes challenge Volo’s assumptions, provide more context, or just give some AD&D definitions for what Volo is talking about. Overall, it’s a stat-light kind of sourcebook that gives a lot of the day to day details of the city.
5. Volo’s Guide to the Sword Coast (2e)–While I personally love Volo’s Guide to Waterdeep just a bit more than this book, given that this book looks at wide-ranging places like Neverwinter and Baldur’s Gate, it’s more broadly applicable to the modern Realms and hopping around locations in the North than the previous, Waterdeep focused volume. This has the same format of looking at shops, inns, taverns, and alleys, and rating them in travel guide fashion. It also has Elminster’s notes to the reader, just like the previous edition.
4. FR5 The Savage Frontier (1e)–I love this book so much, and it covers a lot of ground that provides the backdrop for Storm King’s Thunder. There are a few more just generally weird adventuring locations provided, most of which are pretty timeless and still applicable to the modern Realms, although some locations, like Hellgate Keep, have changed quite a bit over time. My favorite part of this book, however, is that it features something I wish had been both standard and mandatory for Realms books–this book retains a similar format to the entries in the 1e Forgotten Realms boxed set, with details on a location, and then a narrator’s note on that location. However, instead of Elminster’s notes, we are introduced to a new sage and his travel companions, with a few references to their misadventures researching the sourcebook. I would have loved for future Realms authors to have maintained the tradition of adding more sages with their own voices to these sourcebooks. Content warning–as with the other sources in the North, the Uthgardt do draw from some pretty broad, and sometimes shallow, “tribal” inspirations for cultural details.
3. Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting (1e)–I love how this campaign setting was set up, and the impact may be a little lost without context. The book provides entries on many different elements of the setting, with Elminster’s notes following, both to cast some doubt on some of the prevailing Realms wisdom regarding that particular aspect of the setting, as well as introducing more doubt, as Elminster himself often disclaims that he isn’t all knowing and is just working from rumors and second-hand stories for some of his information. There are sample adventures, story hooks and time-sensitive rumors all over the place in the boxed set. Even with some of the mysteries “solved” and more details provided on just about everything detailed in this boxed set, I think it’s well worth looking at to get an idea of the initial “feel” of the setting.
2. The Grand History of the Realms (3.5/Edition Neutral)–This started out as a fan project, attempting the Herculean task of consolidating various timelines from all over the product line, digging through years of work, and putting all of those dates in one place. In some places, this product extrapolates and clarifies some of the information that is either contradictory or not present on other timelines. It’s an amazing list of dates and chronicles of what has happened in the Realms over the years, but I will caution one thing–this is an amazing resource, but for individual games, don’t sweat the small details too much. Mine this for context, if you want it, but don’t get too hung up on the exact year of any given thing that appears in the timeline. The amount of work is amazing, and it’s great to have all in one place, but as a consolidated timeline, it’s missing the disclaimer that comes with some of the best Realms sourcebooks, in that it doesn’t have a built-in unreliable narrator to give you wiggle room to deviate. While not the fault of anyone that worked on this book, the last stretch of time detailed in the timeline also rushed towards catastrophe to set up the Spellplague and the changes in 4th edition, and feel very rushed and almost like a whole other setting.
1. Ed Greenwood Presents Elminster’s Forgotten Realms (4e/Edition Neutral)–If you are at all interested in how the Forgotten Realms feels as a setting, as opposed to having a list of “facts” about what happened and when, this book is invaluable. While it is ostensibly set during the 4th edition era of the setting, a century after the Spellplague, many of the cultural details have been in place for a long time. This book details daily life, foods, dress habits, swear words, and general outlook. This is the book you want when you want to determine how someone walking down the street thinks about their day to day life, not when you are determining how much an adventurer would know about the best way to destroy a fiend or clues about how to shut down an ancient artifact.
What Terrible Purpose, This List?
So, that’s my list of products I would recommend, if you want to get some context for how the Realms should feel, beyond just what is presented in the current adventures and sourcebooks. I would also stress that this is all to give you an idea of how the setting feels, not to give you a list of exact things that have definitely happened in the setting in a very precise and certain way.
For all of the sourcebooks, adventures, novels, and comics I have read in the setting over the years, my current mindset is that only what is presented in the 5e material, right now, is “canon.” Everything else exists as stories, legends, myths, or sage’s conjecture, pieced together from a million sources with varying degrees of veracity. The point, for me, is to get an idea of the kinds of things that happen in the setting, and the way they unfold, not to create a definitive checklist of Things That Must Have Happened. Its all in service to what is happening at the table now.
That’s why, as much as I wish there were more Realms “flavor” to what is coming out, I am a big fan of presenting the major events in the setting as adventures that PCs can participate in, so that unfolding story of the Realms is one that is assumed to be resolved by players portraying unique characters, not a history of named and well-detailed characters that you aren’t playing yourself.
Hopefully, this is a useful list for anyone that doesn’t quite “get” what might make the setting special, and if not, maybe it’s at least some context for why I can never quite quit the setting, even when I actively try.