This month’s Design & Development column is brought to you by Senior Managing Editor Phil Athans and Designer Bruce Cordell.
Starting Points in the New Edition
Philip Athans: Discussions about a new edition of the FORGOTTEN REALMS world began in the late spring of 2005. As the FORGOTTEN REALMS novel line editor, I was pulled into the discussions early. I’m not quite sure when the idea of jumping the timeline forward was first proposed, or even who first proposed it, but after spending a couple weeks mulling it over, I was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the idea.
Bruce Cordell: At first glance, the century leap forward is the most shocking part of the new FORGOTTEN REALMS setting. It is a jaw-dropping change. But it wasn’t a decision made lightly. In fact, it was felt something drastic had to happen in order to breathe new life into a shared world whose well-trampled edges were quickly approaching. Many believed that if something bold wasn’t done to expand the canvas, the world would begin to die beneath its own extensive history of novels and game products.
How do you do something like that without reinventing the entire world?
A two-fold plan emerged: A great leap into the future would allow nearly every part of Faerûn to appear fresh to everyone, both new fans and old. No one could be intimately familiar with the previous century’s happenings. Every place would have some element of novelty simply because a century can’t pass without even the most stable of kingdoms seeing some shift or alteration.
The other part of the plan involved literally bringing completely “new” lands into the FORGOTTEN REALMS setting. With Ed Greenwood’s help, the real forgotten realm of Abeir returned to Toril, in the midst of a cataclysm of unleashed wild magic.
PA: By the end of June, Bruce Cordell, Richard Baker, and I were assembled as the FORGOTTEN REALMS revision team. That summer we participated in a series of long meetings in which we hammered out the FORGOTTEN REALMS 4th edition “Revision Guide,” a document that would later morph, with the help of a lot more people, into the 4th Edition FORGOTTEN REALMS Campaign Guide.
BRC: They were long meetings followed by long writing sessions to create drafts of what we’d just discussed, followed by more meetings. We talked about every realm, great and small, including the cosmology. Indeed, the cosmology we settled on as one that would work best for FORGOTTEN REALMS was the cosmology that the D&D core rules itself accepted—excluding the particular deities, of course.
PA: Before we got into the specifics of what the new edition of FORGOTTEN REALMS would look like, we wanted to be sure we had a clear shared understanding of what the FORGOTTEN REALMS was then, and what we all wanted it to be like. We worked together, and with a number of key people both inside and outside of Wizards of the Coast, we organized our principles for the new edition around nine core ideals.
FORGOTTEN REALMS Core Ideals
What is this world? What is it all about? Where should we be taking it?
1. It’s exactly what it says it is: a world of ancient realms to explore and discover.
PA: By the summer of 2005, there wasn’t a whole lot left of Faerûn to discover. We’d spent the last fifteen years or so detailing just about every nook and cranny of the map, in hundreds of books, game products, short stories, comic books, Dragon articles, and Dungeon adventures. There was hardly a square centimeter on the poster map that wasn’t detailed somewhere, and frankly it was getting harder and harder to find room to tell a story. Authors, game designers, and DMs alike were being pushed farther and farther off to the edges. We knew we needed new places to discover, and the ability to refresh the core FORGOTTEN REALMS so that even the Dalelands had some surprises in store.
BRC: Even my own first steps in novel fiction showed me how the novels and games were having to move to obscure spots to tell new stories. Darkvision takes place largely in Durpar, a country hardly even on the map. Stardeep was hidden away in a hardly visited eladrin realm behind the Yuirwood forest in Aglarond. Other folks were finding themselves similarly squeezed to the edges—even long-time writers in the FORGOTTEN REALMS setting. It was a trend the editors noted first. What do you do when all the ancient realms have already been explored and discovered?
Aside from jumping the timeline enough to be significant and splicing lost worlds back into the core setting, one thing we could do is to change how the very rules of D&D work. That opportunity was serendipitous, and it was a fantastic chance for us to see all of the FORGOTTEN REALMS setting through a completely new lens.
2. It’s a thousand stories, all happening at once.
PA: From the novel line point of view, the FORGOTTEN REALMS setting has always succeeded because there is no core story. It isn’t a world where if you weren’t a member of, say, the Fellowship of the Ring, all you were really doing was watching the real heroes. The world has to have room for a 4th level D&D character, or the apprentice mage from the next novel, to save, if not the world, then his or her little part of it and not feel unimportant or left out.
BRC: In a world where Elminster is merely the tip of an epic level legion of NPC good guys, the opportunity for less powerful PCs and less epic stories was small. Certainly, NPC good guys exist all over the FORGOTTEN REALMS setting, but few of them should be as capable as the PCs. Because of the very nature of the player characters, they are special, a cut above other folks and even potentially touched by fate to one day take up an epic destiny.
PA: Even as we discussed the various agents of change that would help us introduce new elements for the D&D game into the setting, we knew that just like there shouldn’t be one set of heroes, there shouldn’t be one single agent of change. Though the Spellplague has had a huge impact on the FORGOTTEN REALMS setting, it’s not the only thing that’s happened in the hundred years between editions. It’s not the only explanation for why things work or look different.
BRC: Speaking of the Spellplague, even though I was one of its original proponents, I feel like the concept got far too much promotion, both prior to the release of the FORGOTTEN REALMS Campaign Guide, and in the FORGOTTEN REALMS Campaign Guide itself. At the time where this 4th Edition of the FORGOTTEN REALMS setting is set, over ninety years have passed since the Spellplague. Most folks in Faerûn don’t give the Year of Blue Fire a second thought or wonder how strange it was that there used to be a goddess of magic. Yes, it was a cataclysmic event in its day, but that day is long past. Many other factors are responsible for changes to the landscape and cosmology—so many that the Spellplague is mostly a memory (except for those places where pockets yet linger).
3. It’s a place where your character can be the most important person in the world or die in anonymity.
PA: This was a message that should have been getting out all along, but somewhere along the way—was it the Time of Troubles?—a notion emerged among the readers and players that the FORGOTTEN REALMS was a world built for a small group of superheroes and a place to read about their adventures. It didn’t have room for more heroes. Wow, did we have to make sure people knew that wasn’t the case, and back that up with a world that put a greater emphasis on villains and that asked you to be the hero.
BRC: The new FORGOTTEN REALMS setting delivers bad guys in droves: the Shadovar and Thay, of course, but also strange threats out of Abeir, including not only dragon-ruled nations, but even realms recently ruled by primordials! And there’s that floating city of ancient creatures that hovers in a perpetual storm over the Sea of Fallen Stars. Just what is the Aboleth Sovereignty up to?
4. It’s a fully realized world, full of history and legend.
PA: I think the best example of this is one we used in various presentations in the past. Core D&D will give you the rules for a +1 longsword, but in the FORGOTTEN REALMS setting that +1 longsword is the Platinum Tongue of Garthak, fashioned as the parade sword for Garthak Hammerfist, patriarch of the dwarven clan of Hammerfist, one of the ruling houses of ancient Gauntlgrym. Everything in the FORGOTTEN REALMS setting has a story.
5. It’s a vibrant, ever-changing world that is constantly moving forward.
PA: For years we’ve been closely watching sales trends of the novels and seeing that, without exception, books that move the world forward, however incrementally, tend to outsell books that go back into the past or that have less or no effect on the greater setting. What we call “Realms-shaking events,” like Troy Denning’s Return of the Archwizards series or Mel Odom’s The Threat from the Sea series, had become the rocky center of the FORGOTTEN REALMS novel line. As we talked about resetting the FORGOTTEN REALMS world, we knew that what we were really doing was establishing a new starting point, and that the world would evolve and grow from there.
BRC: The Realms-shaking events that drive sales for the novels are a dichotomy and ongoing tension in the game. From the point of view of game setting design, it’s hard to write a definitive “Guide to the FORGOTTEN REALMS” when you know that a year down the line, three different novel lines will have killed off, altered, or in some other way changed basic features described in that putative “guide.”
But as Phil notes, moving forward is fun. Not moving the game world side of things forward with the novels would mean stagnation for the game setting. Everyone wants to feel they are part of the same dynamic world described in The Orc King, Shadowrealm, or Swordmage.
PA: We made sure that at least some of the transition stories were told in novel trilogies. In these novels, the fans can see in detail the development of new or the destruction of old realms (like the establishment of the Kingdom of Many-Arrows or the fall of the city of Luskan in R.A. Salvatore’s Transitions series), changes in the pantheon (as in Lisa Smedman’s The Lady Penitent series and R.A. Salvatore’s The Ghost King), shifts in the halls of power (Paul S. Kemp’s The Twilight War series), or the reordering of the cosmos itself (in Thomas M. Reid’s The Empyrean Odyssey series).
BRC: Phil has nicely set me up to either ignore a chance to plug myself or dive in. I’m diving in: The Abolethic Sovereignty trilogy explores how the city of Xxiphu came to be stationed over Faerûn and what its presence portends, if strict vigil over its beslimed residents is not kept.
6. It’s core D&D “plus.”
PA: We started out with the absolute conviction that the FORGOTTEN REALMS Campaign Guide would render no part of the core D&D rulebooks obsolete and vice versa. Every D&D race, class, monster, and magic item has its place in the FORGOTTEN REALMS world, and we’ll give you more, like the swordmage and the genasi. No matter what, the FORGOTTEN REALMS setting is a Dungoens & Dragons world.
BRC: Indeed, core D&D and the FORGOTTEN REALMS setting have never been closer. A DM can pick up the FORGOTTEN REALMS Campaign Guide and use one or two of its nicely contained regions in his own game if he wishes. I think a lot of D&D campaigns will find themselves with genasi PCs, swordmages, and perhaps even spellscarred PCs touched by the fire of wild magic—even those campaigns that do not take place on Toril.
7. It’s contemporary fantasy.
PA: Though 3rd Edition D&D went a long way in updating the look and feel of the FORGOTTEN REALMS world, we knew we still had a long way to go before it felt truly contemporary. This core ideal informed pervasively. How do we preserve the spirit of the FORGOTTEN REALMS setting, while making it look like a 21st century fantasy property—one that would appeal to a contemporary audience? I think the art, the political and philosophical ambiguity, and the sheer scope of the revised setting shows you just how far the FORGOTTEN REALMS setting has come from its 1980s roots.
BRC: Here’s one example. The great and ever-increasing popularity of eastern fighting styles and eastern myths sees a similarly increased profile in the FORGOTTEN REALMS setting. Shou from down the Golden Way have continued to settle in Faerûn, and they have claimed a nation all their own west of the Sea of Fallen Stars that they have named Nathlan. Extraordinary feats of martial proficiency abound in these regions. When the day comes that the monk and related character classes sees the light of day in a future Player’s Handbook, you can expect Nathlan, Telflamm, portions of Westgate, and other places similarly Shou-settled to catch fire with possibility.
8. It’s 50% all new.
PA: Okay, don’t hold us to that 50% figure exactly. I’m not sure there’s even a way to measure what percentage of it is new, but that’s the core ideal we started with. We knew we wanted big parts of the map to be marked, for all intents and purposes: “Here Be Dragons.” This goes back to the first point: If the FORGOTTEN REALMS setting is a place for your characters to explore, there better be some stuff you haven’t seen before!
BRC: Apparently I’m example boy on this article. Well, here’s another: Returned Abeir—an entire content flush with new wonder and conceived by Ed Greenwood’s bountiful pen, no less. Other portions of Abeir fell into Toril, too, but they are now part of Faerûn: the dragonborn land of Tymanther and the genasi-ruled badlands of Akanûl.
9. We’re not retconning. We’re assuming that everything that was, was.
PA: I guess you could call this the “not throwing out the baby or the bathwater” rule. If it happened in a novel or in a game product—any part of the FORGOTTEN REALMS canon—it happened. We aren’t going to ask you to buy a copy of The Grand History of the Realms then throw it away. Every detail ever published on this massive setting is still there, is still a part of the history of this living, breathing world. We may have a hundred years’ worth of distance from it, but it happened, and all that history will continue to inform authors, game designers, players, and DMs as they continue to explore the FORGOTTEN REALMS world.
BRC: You know, there might be a couple niggling little details that the 4th Edition rules insist upon that we may just ignore. For instance, I doubt you’ll see a three-novel epic on how halflings grew, on average, an extra foot.
But barring strange little bits like that, if a story has been told about something to establish it in the previous setting edition, then another story describes how that feature reached its current manifestation in the 4th Edition FORGOTTEN REALMS setting—even if we haven’t yet told you that story. It’s a wide world filled new opportunity. I can’t wait for my Elfharrow elf barbarian character to go on his next adventure. When’s that going to be, Phil?
PA: The week after we get back from Gen Con Indy!