Ah, yes, the geography of the Forgotten Realms setting -- or as Mirt the Moneylender puts it, "How the dirt lies, and where the landmarks are, that let you know when you're well and truly lost."
The thing is about Forgotten Realms dirt is that there's a lot of it.
This is a BIG world. We've only scratched the surface of the northwestern end of one continent, really -- both in my original, home campaign (where such places as Dambrath were little more than "distant exotic lands where these trade goods and those strange-looking sailors came from") and in the published Forgotten Realms setting.
The printed products have been chugging along since 1987, and Dragon Magazine articles since 1979, and we've STILL covered some places only skin deep and a lot of places not at all. I realize that covering all the noble families of Cormyr in a product would still be only a safari snapshot of a moving target, dated before it was printed (the very danger The City of Ravens Bluff flirted with), but I always want to do more. I want everything covered, with trade route summaries and Volo'sGuides to every last village, and -- and this is about the time the grim-looking folks come in with the straitjacket and start talking nicely to me.
So (to placate them, if nothing else), I admit it: We can never cover it all. We'll never have the time and money, even if you wanted us to nail down the horizons and paint over every last corner so you didn't have room to add your own village here, and your own dungeon there. We can't. I accept that (growling softly and staring out from the battlements). I'm a big boy now (rather too big in the belly, but I digress). It can't be done.
However, the new Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting book makes a darned good try. We mention a lot of places in a brief overview of each region that gives enough hard facts that the DM can make up local details and still have it all fit and hang together. Our role is that of the real-world Islamic architect Sinan.
Let me tell you a tale of Sinan. He built many of the largest Turkish mosques in the 16th century. Recently, the keystone of an arch in one of those mosques fell out, leaving modern-day workers scratching their heads as to how to get it back into place. While they were peering at the cavity where the stone had been, a worker noticed a little glass bottle in a crevice. Inside was a note from Sinan whose first few lines can be paraphrased thus: "One day, this keystone will probably fall out. You will have your ways of putting it back, I doubt not, but just in case, here's how I did it."
The workers followed his instructions, and the keystone is back in place today.
We can't be sitting at your Forgotten Realms gaming table, and we can't write printed Forgotten Realms accessories that tell you specifically just what to do next in your own campaign, but we can "play Sinan" and put up the way markers that show you where the roads go, and how it all links up.
With that in mind, I turned again to what we had to leave out. I'm sure you all know by now just how unreliable a narrator Volo is -- and some of you have begun to guess that Elminster can stretch a truth almost as far, when he has to.
So, posing as a stay-at-home scribe of Suzail, I asked a farfaring merchant (who'd rather remain anonymous -- I think he may harp from time to time, if you know what I mean) to give me a few one-line summaries of some of the more distant places in Faerūn so that I'd know what to expect if I stepped unexpectedly through a portal and found myself there.
Here's what he told me. (Bear in mind that he, too, could be playing up his descriptions to impress.)
Anauroch: "Desert, but not lifeless. Scorching hot by day, chill at night, but only dunes and hard plain in the south, where the Bedine swing their swords at you and play "I'm fiercer" with any intruder. Cold rock to the north, and more life than you'd think for a land so parched, with old, fell magic beneath your boots and the stony spires of ruins covered and then laid bare by the sands when storms howl, like old teeth sticking up from a buried jawbone."
The Border Kingdoms: "Deep forest like we have here [in Cormyr], rolling land with many small streams, and ridges cloaked by the trees. Verdant valleys choked with farms, wandering lanes, and boulder or stump fences -- with a new realm every few miles, and more grand high dukes, lord high emperors, and overkings than you can shake a wagon at. Take them away, and you'd have beautiful country, all up-hill-and-down-dale. Adventurers go there for sport and ruin it for the rest of us."
Chult: "Steaming jungle, hot and wet. Trunks and boughs of blood-red and purple, vines looped everywhere, sucking mud, shrieking beasts -- and everywhere, stinging insects. Bites to drive one mad as the snakes slither and the lizards scurry and death comes from a hundred directions. You're too intent on what you must swing a sword at to know what disease is stealing into you to bring you down. Bats as big as horses, caves where they lair in many a ridge and cliff hidden under jungle -- and more gems down those caves than shine in Amn and Calimshan put together."
Damara: "Bloodstone and metals are common like in Vaasa, but the climate is just a shade warmer. It's enough to make herding work, and even farms in the warmest parts, but is still a harsh land. After all the troubles out of Vaasa, weary folk live here, and wary, too. Not a land I'd want to settle in -- winds so harsh that you can tell how they blow in any vale by the way all the trees lean. Rocks everywhere, too. A hard land."
Dambrath: "Evil elves ruling humans. Drow blood, pride, and deadly swift nobles. Loviatar is the favored goddess, and there is much wealth. An elf of Evermeet who ventures within reach will be a corpse in short order. Quite wealthy enough to buy these nobles are, but very choosy. They want silver goblets, and only silver goblets, one season, and not a goblet the next. Spices they seem to want lots of these last few years. They sell little themselves, too, but I hear the Durpari see more of their trade. They are not welcoming to outlanders, but they will host touring visitors who worship the Maiden of Pain -- so long as they pay well."
Durpar: "The traders in their part of Faerūn, these folk are wealthy and merchant-ruled and luxury-loving. Verdant farms surround the Golden Water, but the shoreline is all given over to luxurious mansions, all domes and spires and curving walled walkways. Gardens are everywhere, as are servants trained to dance and act and sing. There are nightly entertainments in every house, so the inns are worth seeing. All are welcome so long as they have wealth or know how to conduct themselves. Steal not, or lose much blood, fast."
Estagund: "Durpar, but with warriors exalted over merchants. Noble slayers, but slayers nonetheless -- and dangerous because of their honor and discipline. This is where the Durpari get their guards. Wealthy but with more places to ride hard, more walls for defending, and fewer gardens. They love beautiful weapons, and buy and sell such things as eagerly as children devour candy. Got a thrice-gilded suit of armor to sell with inlays of varying hues to go with different gowns of the lady on your arm? Or shoulder spurs and monster masks for fancywear to swap for the hard plate of real war? This is where to sell it."
Evermeet: "The isle of the elves. Strong, strange magic, soaring forests that make ours [the Hullack and King's Forest of Cormyr] look stunted and sick, blue foliage in a lot of places, achingly beautiful -- and the elves don't want any of the rest of us there, so most will be as fierce as one can imagine. So, so beautiful. I see it still."
The Frozenfar: "The miners' frontier of the northern Sword Coast -- all ridges and little lakes, thick mixed forest and rocks, tinkling streams and lurking danger. Orcs breed like rabbits in those mountains and sweep down in their hordes whenever things grow too crowded. The boldest orcs go out hunting -- aye, and bugbears and hobgoblins, too -- all the time. Metal and gems to be had, for those who dare to dig. Cold, of course, and a long way from aid or the good life or even someone to talk to. If you find someone, beware. A lot of folk no longer welcome elsewhere go to the Frozenfar -- and there's usually a good reason they're not welcome wherever they came from."
Halruaa: "A wall of mountains around a land of ranches and forests and farms, warmer than here and with more swamp, but otherwise not too far off [from conditions in Cormyr]. Now people this place -- a series of river valleys draining down out of the mountains, with gentle hills between -- with folk who know magic, every last walking one of them. Children hurl spells around; they are sorcerers all, I guess. It's a wonder they haven't blown each other to dust and flames years ago, and it must be strict laws or their nature that stopped that from happening. Instead, they throw up more cities than any of the rest of us can afford to, build ships that can sail high in the air, and keep the rest of us out. A good thing, too, for our own protection. I'm sure they have their feuds and ambitions, but I couldn't tell you the first true words about them -- like Nimbral, I know too little to say more than 'fireside fancytongue.'"
The Hordelands: "Thousands upon thousands of miles of too-dry, sparsely grassy plains, broken by rolling country and rocky ridges -- each ridge a lookout for some horselords who want you dead for daring to enter their land. The Tuigans, who swept into the rest of Faerūn not so long ago live here. There's a reason they rule a whole lot of nothing between us and Kara-Tur, and not a huge fancy kingdom. In a land with too little water, they spend much of their time slaughtering each other over control of oases, except when storms that stab the lands with lightning like they have a thousand fingers sweep across everything. They freeze in winter -- frozen beasts, frozen right where they stood, rot there every spring. They bake in summer, raid traders trying to get between Faerūn and Kara-Tur along the Golden Way, and have nothing much else to do but make trouble. Certainly there's nothing worth dying to get from them that one can't find elsewhere. They need everything, and they offer leather, wool, their beasts and mounts, and a few gems. Not worth it."
Lantan: "Ah, yes, the land of Gond. Contraptions and metal devices and little lights and whirling sparks and hammering at workbenches everywhere. Too many blasts and crashes to be entirely safe, but I like it. Sunny and gently rolling hills, farms everywhere with berry bushes where they haven't yet tilled. The Lantanna aren't much on casual magic, nor visitors, either, mind. They like their secrets, and would just as soon see you at your home when they come calling on you to sell their latest gadget. Mind you, some of them are priceless, as futile amusements or as darned useful little things. I've a bootjack over there with a turn spindle that works by itself, so wet boots upended on it near a fire turn as those metal twists flex in the heat, and the boots dry all over, in and out, without scorching. I once had a lamp that would fill itself when its oil got low -- that sort of thing. The whole island's like that."
Lapaliiya: "As warm and lush as the Tashalar, but so different. Each city holds up one god over the rest here, and honor is all. They fight duels with you over the way you look at them, when you cough, the color of your boots or eyes -- anything. Watch sharp, be swift with a sword and stronger in spells, or stay far away. Good workers, hard traders, and they have coin to spend -- but oh, they love to fight. Proud, proud, proud -- I'd rather watch them kill each other from a safe distance than have to play their 'Ye besmirch me and my ancestors with your whistling -- I challenge thee!' games."
The Moonshaes: "Peaks and rock ridges around bogs, dark pine forests, and a few farms (for herding, mostly) nestled between all the fierce nature. Freezing fogs, fish as large as ponies pulled out of the freezing waters by those who dare the storms, and proud folk, but peaceful. Not welcoming, though. They watch you like hungry hawks."
Murghōm: "Rivals to Semphar and just a step closer to their rulers in Mulhorand. A land of rolling farms, abundant food, and horse ranches all over the grasslands of the heights. Villages everywhere, no proud kings or petty lordlings -- and every last village can muster lancers who can skewer you from horseback and pour themselves a drink at the same time as they gallop past calmly reading the latest epic."
Narfell: "Flat and dry, grasslands roamed by swiftstags [reindeer] and wild oxen -- and the Nars, horse barbarians who, like the Bedine of Anauroch, want to play "I'm fiercer than thee" with any intruder. Horses are their wealth and their pride, and they want us to stay away from them. Half of them who gather at the Trade Fair each year are just looking for an excuse to bury blades in you. Mountains to the north, and hobgoblins; a few lakes and small streams, but nothing lush, anywhere. Another good place to stay away from."
The Nelanther: "Pirate isles, a maze of them, with wash rocks everywhere that'll rip the bottom out of your boat if you're not careful. The pirates know the channels, but even they stay put or down sail and drift when the fogs come in. That happens often, and there's nowhere decent to winter over. The biggest isles have ridges and peaks and a few tiny wooded vales hiding away on their flanks, but the salt and the damp get into everything, and the ancient stone hill tombs are the only buildings that last for long. Not to mention that every third pace takes you over some pirate's buried treasure cache, and if he's still alive he'll be wanting your skull to drink out of for straying too close to his fortune."
Nimbral: "A little slice of Evermeet, with those beautiful forests. Humans, but a touch of strange magic and little farms that a Cormyrian would give his heart for locked away in the forest, each by itself. A hidden treasure -- but of course the inhabitants want to keep it that way and treat visitors accordingly."
Raurin: "Dunes and rocks, great purple skies split by lightning, cherry-red sand under your boots, and purple drifting dust. Ruins here, too, and the bones of dragons and other great beasts so large that a skull can serve as a shelter for a large band and their beasts. Valley farms where there's water, but such places are few. Be warned: I've never been in a land where more living dragons dwell, all hungry and on the hunt!"
Ruathym: "Fiercer than the Moonshaes -- all cold and howling storms or chilling fogs over a land that's mostly peaks falling sharp into the sea. Ranches and farms, yes, and a few small forests, but mostly barren and hard, like the folk who dwell there. War raiders who'd knife you as soon as trade with you -- why pay for your goods when they can take it for free? Not a pleasure destination."
Semphar: "Proud folk, who wear their gold and know magic. Sharp traders, particularly down into Var, and said to trade with Kara-Tur. Theirs is a sunny country of a few forests they haven't gotten around to cutting down just yet and lots of rolling farmland. More food than they know what to do with. Ivory carvings and finework seem popular, and they carve gems, too, just to keep from being bored. One of the favored places, if you can take the heat, but not all that welcoming to outlanders."
The Shaar: "Thousands of miles of grass, as far as the eye can see, sloping from east to west but with a cliff in the middle, the Landrise, where west drops down to east. The Eastern Shaar is more dry, but both bake by day and freeze by night. Fierce horse nomads (aren't they always fierce?) herd rothé, wemics and centaurs, and there must be something worth trading fo out there, hidden in all that open space. They give us slaves and trinkets and a little ivory, but would rather raid the Border Kingdoms and everywhere else they can reach. Magnificent horses, but they seem to sicken if taken away in trade."
Sossal: "Strange folk, the Sossrim -- strange magic, that is. I know they can jump from tree to tree as druids down here do. They sell us furs and gold and beautiful smooth-curved wooden furniture as flowing in its lines as elf work, but I've never been across the glaciers to get there. Very few have, and they don't seem eager to welcome anyone. Hardy folk, who think nothing of striding out alone in fierce blizzards."
The Tashalar: "Hot days, warm nights, cinnamon-skinned folk with grace and striking eyes and good bones. Lots of wealth and olive groves and spicy fish dishes and style, with high arched windows and fans to snatch the cooling breezes, lots of moonlight to plot by, and men with elegant mustaches sitting doing that plotting over all manner of wine they make in elegant spiral or sweptside glass bottles that they also make. The sort of place where trade is king, so everyone is welcome, and as long as you watch your back, coin can buy you everything. I loved it, and I'll go back whenever you give me the right cargo. All the good of Calimshan with half its sneering pride and none of its deadly politics. No slave-taking, for one thing."
Thar: "The Great Gray Land of the beastfolk [ogres] and their crossbreeds, and orcs, too. Windswept, cold, lots of rain and freezing rain, moors with gullies and rock faces everywhere, teeming with game for some odd reason. Odd, I say, because there don't seem plants enough to raise all that scuttling and scurrying meat, and there are entirely too many beastfolk hunting it all. Mining caravans have to pass through it, but you or I need not be with them, if we have any sense."
Tharsult: "An island of trader folk right in the heart of the Shining Sea. Looks like chalk cliffs and little farms from the waves, but great harbors and tall cities are tucked away in it-- or rather, one big sprawling city that doesn't call itself a city. It's all warehouses and interlinking bridges and wealth, wealth, wealth. Those warehouses hold everything one can think of, trade rules and rivals meet here as equals. So long as you don't try open piracy or arson, the Tharsen are tolerant of you and everyone. It's a crossroads like Waterdeep. You've probably heard that they're crazed because they take statuettes as money. They take everything as money, and just use the statuettes as trade tokens to represent sums whose weight in coins would tear the bottom out of any purse. Intrigue, yes, and sharp trading -- but a place a merchant has to love. Sembia without the self-styled nobles and the nastiness."
The Tortured Land: "This is a barren place where monsters chase smaller beasts around endless spires and weirdly sculpted rocks. It's a deities' playground of teeth and swirls and fingers and suchlike of stone, some of them pierced by caves where bats lurk, but most of them just in your way as you flee from the next prowling monster. A little metal to be had, but no safety in which to mine it. Water, but not enough, and the beasts watch the waterholes for their next meal."
Thesk: "Good merchants, shrewd appraisers who are friendly and with good farms to feed themselves from. Gnomes here do good work, but they lack the horses they need, so have to trade. Young Theskians apprentice out to caravan masters and go all over Faerūn. They see much, know about a lot of places, and tolerate most folk, even orcs. Not much magic, but a lot more happiness than most other places. Not wealthy, but comfortable. Rolling farmland with a lot of woods left, and not the windy dustlands that too much of this region is turning into."
Vaasa: "Frozen moors, grasses rippling under winds that chill to the bone, and tundra where only lichens flourish on the rocks. Inky pools of water, sheathed in ice, running down from mountains as hard and sharp-spired as swords. Bloodstones in those peaks, and rich metals, too -- but one has to claw and dig to get at them, and there's always orcs and beasts and those who wield evil magic lurking to strike down miners who intrude. Freeze to death or be eaten by starving wolves in winter or sledge in endless mud in summer. At least when things get warmest, the small-stags [caribou] go up into the coldest valleys, giving the orcs something to feed on besides you."
Var the Golden: "Var is "golden' because of all the grain. It is a well fed land rich enough that its merchants, its nobles, and its priests can devote their time to vicious, unending intrigues under the benevolent rule of a sublime potentate who's sat on his throne for nigh two hundred years and must sleep more than he's awake. A land of the honeyed word, the covert bribe, and the dagger in the dark; of courtiers, 'knowing the right person,' and much wealth; of fabulous trade goods and no safety at all. Better to trade in Durpar. Stay clear unless you love lies and taking swords in your back."
Veldorn: "Yes, those tales your mother told you were true: There is a land of monsters, ruled by monsters, and this is it. They eat caravans whole along the Trade Way, love to raid the camps of outlanders who will all be too dead to hit back, and dream of ruling all Faerūn. Avoid the place or be eaten, as the old maps say."
And with those cheery words, our swift tour of the far corners of Faerūn must end. You see, I have to get back to detailing a certain corner that you won't get to see soon enough, by Tempus!
Or, as the monks of Candlekeep have been known to lament, "All the learning of a wide world, and it's never the night to taste the good wine!" (And the traditional response: "But always the night to hear a good whine.")
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