Ed Greenwood and the Wisdom of Vaguely Identifiable Fantasy Worlds
Note: The following post is based on a Twitter thread from 11/23/2019, and I wanted to keep a record of it on the blog, as it helped to sort out some thoughts I’ve had for a while more clearly.
That’s right. The problem is, it jolts some gamers out of immersive roleplaying and into “what I learned in history class about this or that real-world culture” (e.g. “But stirrups weren’t in use in…”) rather than experiencing the Realms.#Realmslore https://t.co/nJBwzTdoYi
— Ed Greenwood (@TheEdVerse) November 23, 2019
I think this gets to the heart of a lot of Forgotten Realms versus Greyhawk, and even Conan versus Fafhrd and Mouser discussions, especially when people have a difficult time seeing the fine distinctions.
The First Kingdoms
Greyhawk seemed to embrace the wargame aspect of it’s heritage to the extent that knighthoods and serfdoms and sumptuary laws were all assumed to exist to some extent or another because “kingdom X looks like real-world historical kingdom Y.” To some extent, those things aren’t made expressly clear in the campaign material, but there are many oblique references to such things, assuming you should just bring that as a “given” to your engagement with the setting (not unlike OD&D assuming you know Chainmail rules).
What a lot of the original Realms material brought was a light dusting of what you would expect from a culture, but not a deep assumed constraint. Uthgardt barbarians aren’t Vikings. Calishites aren’t Persians. Real-world allusions gave you the general shape, not details.
This is why the Realms often reminds me of Fafhrd & Mouser more than Conan; Howard’s stories existed in a proto-historical setting, where many of the cultures would eventually become later cultures-nobody really knows what Ice Gnomes or Ghouls are supposed to act like beforehand.
That’s why it was extremely jarring to have much more historically analogous regions stapled on to the Realms as time went by. The Hordelands, Maztica, and the Old Empires were all very jarring to me back in the day.
You felt as if the text could have said “all of the stuff in this sourcebook is true, plus if you look up the cultures imitated in an encyclopedia, you can assume all of that stuff is true as well.” It added a meta-constraint to the overall tone of the sub-settings being added.
[It also added an arrogance of being sure of the portrayal of a real-world culture to each of these regions as well, which is a HUGE problem, but admittedly, not what jumped out at me when I was younger]
Of all of the things that got thrown into the blender to create the gaming smoothie that resulted in Dungeons and Dragons, “historical medieval assumptions from wargaming” is the one that leaves the grainiest bits that don’t contribute well, for me. I think this is also where D&D’s “domain game” continually falls apart. You have multiple worlds where a lot of the world doesn’t conform to medieval assumptions, but suddenly, you impose a single structure based on feudalism.
Revisiting the Domain Game
When Fafhrd and Mouser became “leaders,” it meant they had a small squad of people doing stuff they were good at to help them do larger-scale things. When Conan became king, it meant he had to fight wars when people screwed him over instead of skirmishes.
But D&D’s domain game often falls into if you have the “right” to rule a region, how many commoners produce income, what your upkeep is. It doesn’t tell you how the story changes, it attempts to bolt on an economic model of feudalism that may not exist in the setting otherwise.
At least to me, the assumption of hidden, yet present, “historical accuracy” always felt more oppressive than any amount of story-based, “unique to the setting” canon might have felt.
Disclaimers and Context
I also wanted to make sure it’s clear that I know even with its “light touch,” Calimshan has some issues in it’s presentation and what it borrows, as so a lot of Realms regions, even before some of the 2nd edition “real-world” mapping started.
Additionally, while Nehwon didn’t have the pro-cultures real world cultures that Hyperboria had, some elements, like the southern lands and the Mingols, still had problematic assumptions brought in from tropes and stereotypes.