Friday, September 11, 2009

The 1st Edition Forgotten Realms

Ed Greenwood's Forgotten Realms has gotten a bad rep over the years, and old schoolers and grognards have blamed it for everything from destroying D&D to causing dandruff. I always get intrigued that most of the brickbats are thrown by a group of people (mostly the OSR crowd) that proudly carry the flag of never having bought or used anything post-EGG. The Forgotten Realms, in their mind, is just a handy scapegoat of the entire post-Gygaxian sweep that the POG (as Frank Mentzer calls her) instituted. Any contact might cause a disease of the most uncurable type!

Yet, when released in 1987, the original Forgotten Realms boxed set was firmly ensconced in the 1E game rules and mindset. It's my thesis that taken alone, with only the very few pre-2E products (the supplements FR1-6, plus module N5 and perhaps even the City System boxed set) is a pretty solid sandbox setting for old schoolers. Reading and using the above materials, I find it hard to believe that a lot of the complaints about the Forgotten Realms hold up. I know when first introduced, we started 1E campaigns based in the Moonshae isles with nothing but the boxed set, FR1 and FR2 to back us up, and it felt more like a sandbox setting than almost anything I've played since.

Complaint #1: It's second edition!
No, actually, the products above are all firmly 1st edition, and have a 1st edition feel and mindset. Ed Greenwood ran a 1E campaign, and most of the material presented in the first few supplements (and all of the boxed set) is from his original notes and campaign. Now, FR is not's more explicitly a FANTASY setting rather than the quasi-post war European/medieval setting of the WOG. Like Runequest, the FR posits a more fantasy milieu than the WOG's very much human-centric setting, not to mention WOG'sfirm boundaries between countries and regions, and "ghettoization" of the demi-humans into their own firmly established realms. FR is actually much more wide open, kitchen sink, dare I say, "SANDBOX" oriented than the firmly established pecking order of the WOG's setting.

That the FR setting was chosen as the "face" of the new AD&D 2E rules set has no effect on that which came before; the eventual examination, codification, and over-development of the setting in the wake of 2E was yet to come. As most old schoolers have read little that TSR released post-Gygax (more later), it's not surprising they would lump most of the FR setting into "Second Edition" and not realize the first couple of years were 1st edition material.

Complaint #2: It's too "Fluffy" and not grim and gritty enough
I would argue that as written, the FR is a pretty darn mirthless place. An entire country full of powerful evil wizards (Thay) seeking to subjugate their neighbors; an evil god roaming the Moonshae Isles; "The Savage North" well named because hordes of orcs and barbarians lurk around every mountain (with "Hellgate Keep", and entire city given over to demons and their ilk, as it's centerpiece); an entire evil organization (The Zhentarim) threatening to take over the Dalelands from it's center of evil, the city of Zhentil Keep; Elves, a powerful force for good, leaving the continent in droves to return to their homeland of Evermeet (leaving behind a gigantic ruined elven city full of nasties); a civil war ongoing in the country of Tethyr; an entire country run by a merchant council (this may be the most bonechilling of all!), and the supposedly placid Dalelands themselves just recovering from a nasty civil war (Lashan's Folly). Not to mention dangers only hinted at in the original boxed set. To me, this passage in FR5 The Savage North (written by the estimable Paul Jaquays) seems to put the lie to "fluffy" as a perspective to life in the North:

Though it has been centuries since the last orc invasion, there is still constant strife. Barbarians harass merchants,travelers, and towns; the seas are filled with Northmen pirates; the demon forces of Hellgate Keep assault the east; and two wars have marred the land in recent years. Luskan, now a fierce merchant city known to harbor (and support) pirates, wages war with the island realm of Ruathym over an actof piracy against a Luskan merchant ship; and to the far north, in Icewind Dale beyond the Spine of the World, the Ten Towns are slowly rebuilding after being nearly destroyed by the monstrous forces of Akar Kessell.

I would argue the "fluffiness" of the FR came later, after the Powers That Be decided to turn the FR into less a sandbox and more an "adventurer friendly" (or player centric as some have said). Heck, just compare the spare yet intriguing description of Waterdeep in FR1 compared to the bloated and over the top portrayal in 1994's remake Box set City of Splendors. Waterdeep turns from a somewhat sinister fantasy city with lots of dark alleys and dangerous inhabitants to the Disneyland of Faerun.

Complaint #3: The move from WOG to FR is a shift from a DM-centric to Player-centric model
I have no doubt this is what eventually happened, with the numerous and unending handbooks, supplements and compendiums. However, the original FR does NOT support this view. It can be seen as a really well written sandbox for both players and DMs, but initially, the DM is given a lot to work with. Remember, only a handful of products (Boxed set, FR1-6, N5, and City System) were put out to support the FR before 2E. Of these, one describes the setting in very bare terms, gives a couple of sample adventures, a smattering of campaign specific info (the gods of Faerun, the calendar, timelines, characters, etc), a paragraph or two about most countries...the barest of necessities to run a campaign there. FR1 deals with the city of Waterdeep (and is actually less meaty and detailed than, say, Midkemia's Jonril or Tulan, Runequest's Pavis, or Warhammer's Middenheim); FR2 the Celtic flavored Moonshae Isles; FR3 the odd triumvirate of Amn, Calimshan, and Tethyr south of the Northlands; FR5 the north, and FR6 The lands east of Thay and surrounding (FR4, The Magister, is an excellent sourcebook of new magic items, spells and tidbits).
Notice what is details about the Dalelands or Cormyr, seemingly too of the most advantageous locales for starting an adventuring party. That's because in the original boxed set, a page or two is spent on delivering some basic info about the Dalelands and Shadowdale, Cormyr, Myth Drannor and other interesting locations....because that was ENOUGH info to use for a campaign setting! Unlike later publications, you weren't beat over the head with detail after detail, and the development of these areas was left to the DMs (and Players) imagination. In the first few supplements, many possible settings for adventure (Waterdeep, The Moonshaes, the South, the North, Thay's neighbors) are developed to the slight extent that they can be expanded upon by a diligent DM

Complaint #4 : The Forgotten Realms was a slap in the face to Gary
What can you say? There are a LOT of old school guys that never again bought an item from TSR or WOTC after the way EGG was tossed out back in the 80s. I have to think Ed Greenwood and the Forgotten Realms were not remotely responsible, like any of us would turn down having our homebrew campaign world be the face of TSR at the time (and if you say otherwise, unless you were a personal friend of EGG like Frank Mentzer, take it somewhere else because you are a fucking liar). However, the FR did take on the "face" of the movement to toss Gary, and suffered among the old school because of this.
Like 2E hatred, dislike of the Forgotten Realms is rooted in deep-seated animosity that has nothing to do with the setting (or system). Sandy Peterson, Dave Hargraves, Paul Jaquays, Steve Marsh, and Steve Perrin could have gotten together and created the next setting and system of TSR, and it would have been spit on and derided by the same group of grogs. I find most FR-haters have no (or very little) working knowledge of the original setting except for the buzz word of "Elminster" (who started out a bit NPC character in the original setting) and aren't typically qualified to comment on whether or not it's any good; the circumstances of EGG's ouster are too ugly and painful for such to ever accept anything that came after. Suffice to say from someone who has all the FR releases (good and bad) from 1987 to the bitter end in 1999, 1E Forgotten Realms is an entirely different beast from that which came afterwards, and quite compatible with what any of us would want in a sandbox-type setting.

Complaint #5: Elminster!
...was barely a factor in the original release. He only became a nuisance later on; he's a shadowy and non-essential NPC figure in the original boxed set, and the narrator of the tour of the Moonshaes in FR2, But basically his character has little or no effect in gameplay. Mordenkainen and his bunch by comparison are scene-stealers of the highest order in the WOG setting.
Here's our original introduction to Elminster in the FR boxed set; would it have stayed so vague. Hell, he sounds like a powerful but harmless old coot you'd love to have a brew with:

Shadowdale and the Known Planes
26th level magic-user
CG, None
Human Male
The exact age of the sage Elminster is unknown and his year of birth unrecorded. It is suspected he learned his magical arts at the feet of Arkhon the Old, who died in Waterdeep over 500 years ago, and was in Myth Drannor near that magical realm's final days. The Sage currently makes his abode in the tiny farm community of Shadowdale, living in a two-story house overlooking a fishpond with his aide and scribe, Lhaeo. Elminster may be the most knowledgable and well-informed individual in the realms, though thismay be only his own opinion, it is often voiced in his discussions. His areas of specialization are the Realms and its people, ecology of various creatures, magical items and their histories, and the known planes of existence. Elminster no longer tutors nor works for hire, save in the most pressing cases.Many of his former students and allies include some of the most powerful good individuals in the realms, including the Lords of Waterdeep, the Simbul, ruler of Aglarond, the group known as the Harpers, and many powerful wizards and sorceresses.

Notice all the "mights", "maybes" and "suspecteds" strewn around there. Elminster as created could be as useful, or useless, as you wanted. Hell, he lives behind a fishpond and is called a "sage" instead of a wizard...the dude might just be a 7th level mage with a good publicist for all we know!

Likewise, the prominence of NPC's such as the Seven Sisters, Knights of Myth Drannor, Khelben Blackstaff and others is only hinted at. Using the broad guidelines of the original set, they are merely fascinating and possibly useful background characters instead of world-changing entities. Much more interesting, IMO, are the brief character sketches we are given in the NPC section of the FR boxed set. What kind of interesting scenarios does the below character conjure up just reading Greenwood's evocative description:

7th level thief
NE, Mask
Human Male
This dark-haired, nondescript young man now lives quietly in Selgaunt, where he arranges for certain people to be (willingly) hidden or transported to safety or (less willingly) kidnapped and held for ransom. Flame works with a small band of trusted aides, including at least magical powers (3rd-5th level).
Flame can be contacted through the Green Gauntlet inn on Selgaunt's eastern docks. Flame originally operated as an arsonist in Selgaunt, until a combined force of leading mages and clerics in the city convinced him of the error of his ways (via a series of flame strikes and similar mishaps). After a brief period of self-exile while this "heat" died down, Flame does a quieter business in town, and stays wary of both magicusers and clerics.

What I like about this description, which is true of a lot of the material in the boxed set and the first few supplements, is that Flame is shown as a mover and shaker baddie, yet he's only 7th level. The power inflation of characters evident in future releases is not part of the system yet....a 7th level thief can be seen as the head of a evil network and not be laughed out of the room.

Complaint #5: Waaaaauggggh!

Ok, just fill in the typical bitch and moan fest of any grognard who doesn't have a clue the Forgotten Realms started out at 1E, much less any useful information past 1984 or so dealing with AD&D. Most of the time the complaints don't make a lot of sense, once again because the person making them hasn't read the material. The Forgotten Realms, IMO, was never about the old-schoolers anyway; such a dramatic and different break from the stodginess of the WOG was intentional I believe. Yes, there are OLD old timers that moan and bitch about how EGG's WOG doesn't hold a candle to Dave Arneson's Blackmoor or Hargreave's Arduin, so in a way the cycle just continued through to Greenwood's Forgotten Realms.
It would be intriguing to have seen what would have happened had something like Dark Sun, Spelljammer, or Planescape (or even Keith Baker's Eberron) had ended up being the "face" of 2E in place of the Forgotten Realms. I doubt the animosity for the setting would be present had it stopped being published in 1990 (say, after the Forgotten Realms hardback) in lieu of some other "hot" gameworld. With only the products above to go on, I suspect the Forgotten Realms would be a rather quaint and quite well-thought of setting for 1E and beyond.

If I get time I'll go over all the 1E material for the FR....some real gems there!


  1. oh wow, you actually just convinced me to hold on to my boxed set when i was about to trade it in somewhere for store credit! thanks for the food for thought...

  2. I think a lot of the hate for Elminster came from Greenwood's articles in Dragon, where he used the wizard as a device way too often, rather than from the setting publications themselves.

    At least, that's why I hated Elminster.

  3. I too find most of the hatred of the Realms in old school circles bizarre, but I'm weird that way. The original boxed set is a superb product, in my opinion, and very sandbox-y. Had the product line not become so beholden to the vicissitudes of New York Times bestselling novels, it might well have been able to retain its original open-ended charm more readily.

  4. Bulette: You shouldn't get rid of anything! Then one day your office can look like mine...crap piled to the ceiling! But the FR boxed set is a good keeper...

    Faserip: Yeh, those articles, while containing some really good gaming nuggets (I liked the ones that had, say, nine magical daggers, or magical lanterns) were made quite annoying by the old sage's presence. But I really think most of the hate came from his portrayal in the novels as a Deus Ex Machina...

    James: Yes, the FR novel line really started driving the bus after the first few series became hits, and it was downhill from there.

  5. The 1st Edition Boxed Set was a really fun sandbox. It became overdeveloped, we developed a case of Elminster overload (and later the Invasion of the Drizzt Clones), and that was that.

    Great article!

  6. Although I remember one of the books in the boxed set advising DMs to go easy on PCs and fudge in their favor so that they can "have a chance." That's a poor excuse for "1st edition feel and mindset", IMHO.

    Cramming the NPC section with NPCs from his own campaign was pretty lame, too. EGG had the class to not drone on about how awesome Tenser and Robilar and the crew were in the Greyhawk box. He know it was about *your* characters, not his. Greenwood has had this fault from day one, even though it did get worse over time.

  7. Will;

    Was this the section you are referring to?

    Under Campaigns for NEW players (as opposed to the later "Campaigns for Experienced Players":
    "Give the Players an Even Break. Great stories have to begin somewhere,
    and if the players' characters buy the farm early and regularly, they won't develop personality.
    Don't reward foolish play, though. it may be useful to keep a cleric of sufficient level in the area
    for the first couple adventures in order to bring back from the dead characters who are learning from
    their mistakes."

    Sounds pretty tame, and more a rant against serial TPK DMs than "Remember to kiss the party's ass". Pretty good advice to a novice DM with inexperienced players (which that section is for). If there's a "Ode to Fudging" somewhere in the box I can't find it. Hell, if you read the advice right it's pretty much stated you are going to have to KILL those foolish players that don't get a clue; that's some 1E hard core bad-assery....!

    As for the NPC section, I like it. Lots of short, concise character sketches of the good, bad, ugly and other NPCs of the Forgotten Realms. I doubt Ed called up Jeff Grubb and pleaded "Dude, just three more lines about Elminster, Please!!!" More than Ed (who only supplied his notes), Jeff Grubb and Karen Martin were the movers and shakers of the box set and are probably the ones that came up with the nifty NPC section (which I don't have a problem with, it's not any more or less narcissistic than anything in the original Rogue's Gallery, for example). I've yet to see a correlation between "NPC section = Not a 1E vibe", especially considering all that time and space spent on talking about every Tom, Dick and Furnok of Furd in the classic T1 Village of Hommlet. That Gary, someone should have told him it wasn't all about HIS characters in the village, it was about MY characters in the village....!

    (All kidding aside, did Ed bore us to death with the old sage, Seven Sisters, Blackstaff and others as time went on? You betcha. But none of that is evident in the 1E FR boxed set as written).

  8. I agree with your opening premise that FR is solidly more "adventuristic" than may players will acknowledge. The setting is solid and if you could just separate the 1e stuff from what came later, it would surely be held in higher regard. The simple problem is that what came later sucked so bad, it tainted the entire product line...which is too bad.