Monday, December 9, 2019

The Differences in Mystara, Greyhawk, and Forgotten Realms (Part 3)

I'm going to be upfront about this: this is not going to be a very positive article. In seeking to answer the question of this series (see title), I... just don't have much good to say about the Forgotten Realms. Maybe some FR superfans can come in and help me out but I feel like a lot of the obstacles in this article will serve to illustrate some of my more important arguments about setting and worldbuilding.

Forgotten Realms
So let's get into it. What are the main features that characterize FR in contrast against Greyhawk and Mystara?

  1. ... Uh ... Well...
  2. What does the Wikipedia article talk about? That should give us an idea of the most important stuff. Let's see...
  3. ...Uhhhh. Uh oh.

Alright, look, there's a reason that FR is treated as the default setting. The "implied setting" in the Monster Manual descriptions? That's FR they're talking about. The nature of magic as described in the Player's Handbook? That's FR magic. Its most famous thing is the Underdark, but... that was stolen from Greyhawk. It's one of the most "high fantasy" D&D settings out there, but it's not as high fantasy as Dragonlance, and even without that we still yet find Mystara can offer the same thing while also being fairly vanilla and pretty distinct, too.

If the goal is "to play a campaign where the players really felt like it was Forgotten Realms and not just any ol' vanilla setting," where you want a sort of amusement park ride of all the most FR-iconic elements... that would basically mean having a bunch of celebrity cameos. Drizzt Do'Urden and Elminster the Wizard would show up, I guess.

There's this neat thing where they rationalize every new edition's changes in the magic rules by having the in-universe goddess of magic, Mystra, die and be reincarnated. Either her new form changes the nature of magic somehow or some wild shit happened while she was dead and nobody was keeping control over magic, so it got changed without her being able to stop it.

...Except FR isn't the only setting to use in-universe explanations for why the rules change from one edition to the next, and even so I still kinda hate that trope.

It's actually been hurt by its status as the default setting, because it begins to lose its identity as new things are added to D&D. That's right, the logic seems to be that "if it exists somewhere in the D&D multiverse, then it also exists in FR, since the purpose of a default setting is that it can serve the expectations of all potential players." That means that Eberron introducing steampunk shit and artificers and whatnot also means FR gets those things. It has psionics even though psionics really only have a purpose in Dark Sun. It has dragonborn even though dragonborn really just belong in Dragonlance and, I guess, technically 4E's Nentir Vale. It has Modrons and Gith and every other outsider that only truly has a place in Planescape, although I fully acknowledge that those things also originated in Greyhawk during AD&D. Every race, every class, every sub-class, every magical item, and every monster gets included. FR is just crowded with too many thematic elements and so no theme dominates, and it just becomes an ugly mess. It's never even had a consistent aesthetic.

Despite having all the things and making sure that all of those things are their most vanilla versions of themselves, it somehow manages to also not be a very accessible setting. The reason for that's because it has way too much goddamn detail and lore. It is such an insanely fleshed out setting that you cannot take two steps without accidentally breaking the "canon" lore that you didn't even know about. And all of it is really boring and un-creative.

There are two things that legitimately stick out to me as potentially distinctive of this setting, but they need a fair amount of work to be properly felt by the players.
  1. Factions and adventuring guilds
    • FR definitely focuses on this trope more than pretty much any setting other than Ravnica, but it also really needs help bringing it to life. For instance, in the 5E Starter Kit adventure, in and around the main town of Phandalin there is at least one NPC that is secretly a member of each of the major FR adventure guilds. The retired adventurer who tends the orchard is a member of the Order of the Gauntlet (faction goal: fight evil!), the leader of the miner's exchange is a member of the Zhentarim (faction goal: control the region! With... uh... influence!), the acolyte at the local shrine is a member of the Harpers (faction goal: fight evil!), and the druid in the nearby ruins is a member of the Emerald Enclave (faction goal: fight unnatural evil!). The party can also rescue adventurer Sildar Hallwinter, member of the Lord's Alliance (faction goal: fight evil!). Each of them has a condition upon which PCs can be granted membership in that faction, always including the completion of a little sidequest. Aside from the half-baked lore of the factions, the setup sounds awesome for adventuring, right? Except that "being granted membership" is... meaningless. The PC will be given a low-level title (e.g. "watcher" or "cloak" or "fang") and nothing more. There are no rules to being in the club, no resources for being in the club, no favors, no contacts, no secrets, no nothing. It has fucking zero consequence. You might say, "oh, well now that NPC owes them a favor, so they have one advantage gained from being in the club," except that the faction part wouldn't actually have been needed at all. You do an NPC a solid, and you can usually expect to later get some help from them if you ask. That's just normal D&D. There is no part of this or nearly any FR adventure where the faction concept is built into the structure of the world, the adventure's plot, or any of the moving parts making all of this up.
    • That being said, a homebrew ruleset for solidifying adventure factions would be a fantastic resource. A procedural system for integrating a group membership into campaigns where it'll actually have some consequences on the act of adventure. I don't think that Ravnica went far enough with this and didn't use nearly enough mechanics. Matt Colville's upcoming Kingdoms and Warfare will hopefully make good on this, but I'm cautious of being too optimistic. My own best attempts at doing something with this are in my in-progress Knave expansion, in which character classes themselves are the factions. Stay tuned for that, but be warned that it's a pretty damn shaky concept at this stage.
  2. Weird Sex Stuff™
    • This is one of the things that got gradually lost in the transition from Ed Greenwood's personal worldbuilding project into a commercialized and published family-friendly campaign setting owned by Wizards of the Coast. In fact, a lot of unique things about the setting have been lost in the commercialization process, unfortunately. That being said, a lot has been gained as well. I kind of like that despite all the superficial medievalism, this setting inexplicably has socially-accepted gender egalitarianism, queer sexual orientations, visible trans people, and all that sort of stuff. Few attempts at evoking "the fantastic" through imagined secondary worlds can capture that sensation better than the very simple juxtaposition of a trans person fighting a dragon and it being normal. But with that being said, I recognize that this is merely a fortunate convergence of interests: Wizards of the Coasts is just riding the wave of "woke brands" packaging and selling social progress, just like Disney and Starbucks. If they were really woke then they wouldn't be scared to bring the Weird Sex Stuff™ back. Although they did, admittedly, hire former pornstar Satine Phoenix as their official community manager, so that's pretty rad.
    • Therefore, it is my contention that Forgotten Realms needs to be the sexy campaign setting. What is all of this lost and hidden Weird Sex Stuff™ I keep alluding to, you ask? Well, according to FR creator Ed Greenwood on many various occasions and platforms over the decades, we have learned that the original, pre-D&D version of FR had:
      • Prostitution everywhere. This thread has a list of prostitute types that Ed came up with: I've never put this amount of effort into anything I've ever created for D&D before.
      • Seemingly everyone is, like, pansexual, I guess? Fuckit, why not
      • Brothels are not stigmatized, they're just the norm. If PCs spend a night at an "inn" then you can assume it's a brothel and part of what their money buys them is the sex services provided.
      • Orgies. Orgies everywhere. People love 'em.
      • Sex in public. "On rooftops" was an example Ed once gave for a typical location a person might relieve their most basic sexual needs.
      • INCEST EVERYWHERE. It's just for siblings to "indulge feelings of mutual affection" and that it's "only incest if she gets pregnant." See here:
      • Oh shit, a ton of trans ideas that Ed just had on is own before it was ever commercially viable! Drow totally change sexes magically as needed, apparently.
    • I'm not at all saying that all of Ed's ideas about this were woke. Good god, no. They were ridiculously exploitative and tasteless and indulgent. Many stories of adventurers raping people and then it was okay because the rape victim violently got her revenge. That level of schlock. But it does have the ingredients to be woke, and that's where the potential lies.
I'm not done though. There's more yet to be said in answering the main question of this series and satisfying its goals. In the next and final article, I'll be taking a look at all three settings at once, contrasting them as a group against other settings, talking about more houserules/mechanics that you can use in these settings, and so on.


EDIT: I've now come back, like, five and a half months later because I read an old post by Patrick Stuart that, to no one's surprise, seems to hit the nail on the head about something. He sees in this setting something I don't that maybe would be the key to making it work really well. I recommend it.

1 comment:

  1. One thing that always stuck out to me in forgotten realms is that it introduced wild magic-not just the wild mage class variant (which is at least in second edition if not before) but also wild magic zones, areas where magic goes crazy. Sounds like a Greyhawk idea to me, but it's got its roots in good old FR.

    Also it occurs to me that of all the BIG settings paizo has the "wokest" since it essentially tries to do what the realms does as a vanilla setting but has its roots in the 21st century. I guess there's blue rose, but that pretty far from DnD as far as d20 games go and it's just trying waaay to hard (also there's other issues with it and green ronin but that's a tale for another time)