Friday, 21 February 2020

Forgotten Realms: Old School Redux

I've reviewed the Forgotten Realms as a setting before. To sum up the issues with the setting:
In its present incarnation it's an unmanageable mess, plain simple. The tabletop equivalent of the Marvel universe - Overburdened with an absolute immensity of 'canon' , loads of 'story line' developments that have no relation to gamers, universe-wide 'crossover events', desperate retcons and a handful of mary sue novel characters blazing a trail of shit through the setting that no one cares about. 

WotC have done what they can to salvage the wreckage in 5e. An ill defined event to normalize the wreck that was 4e, move the timeline forward to let the passage of time erase as much of the canon baggage as possible, be intentionally vague about what has actually changed and otherwise just leave the setting the fuck alone, so gamers can walk around without tripping over 'setting lore' at every step. It's ok I guess, as a cardboard background for generic D&D on the shelves.

But as I see it, it began its descent into chaos with their first setting-wide event (the aptly named "time of troubles"). Which was only two years after the setting was first released. So the halcyon days of the setting didn't last long.

But that early setting, best encapsulated perhaps by the original gray box and Jacquay's The Savage Frontier, had a lot going for it. I quite like how it puts takes a Tolkien-esque setting and dumps a fledgling feudal/mercantile Sword & Sorcery civilization into it. There is something to work with here that really captures players' genre assumptions of D&D. But to me, it still needs a bit of work to really accentuate what works and what doesn't. This merits further exploration to me.

So I am going to try and riff a bit to change what doesn't work to my mind and put some stuff in to accentutate the good stuff. I am mostly rewriting some of the history to paint a bit more coherent picture that more properly explains why the modern realms are the way they are today (Cormyr and Dalelands for example, I find make far better sense as successor states of Myth Drannor rather than millenia old minor nations dating back to before Myth Drannor). This itself I find also paints the picture of this Redux well enough.

Forgotten Realms: Old School Redux

First, Ed Greenwood's introduction in the gray box to set the tone for all that follows:

"Most of the area under discussion here has until recently been covered by wild forests and unsettled grasslands. Civilization is still a novelty in much of this world, even the oldest of cities on the Inland Sea, or the founding of Waterdeep, the greatest City of the North, are within the memory of the oldest living elves of Evermeet."

"City-states are common, and nations on the increase as more of the wild lands are pushed back and gathered under a single king or government."

"Finally, the Realms are a land of adventure, and therefore adventurers. It is the time of heroes, when one man of pure heart (or with a powerful artifact) may hold his own against enemy hordes, where legions of evil forces may muster and be destroyed by the actions of a few, where the nations rise and fall on magical tides which mere men can control."


The Realms is  a setting of once-high romantic fantasy, in the vein of Tolkien's Middle Earth, that has fallen into a state of decay from which humanity is emerging as the dominant power. City-states dot the realms as isolated survivor-states of former realms, whilst a growing feudalism and mercantilism is giving rise to an emergent phenomenon in the realms, that may yet prove more influential than what has come before it: Human nation-states.

The state of mankind in the Realms is somewhat analogous to the transition from the post-roman barbaric migrations in Europe to a feudal society (except that Rome here is the elven Myth Drannor and the roaming barbaric tribes are orcs, who simply move on after pillaging, leaving it to the human survivors to build a far more scantly populated post-imperial society than post-roman Europe).

A History Primer

Ancient Times - The Age of Magic
For untold millenia before mankind grew out of barbarism, the elves and dwarves had civilized and tamed the Realms. The first human civilizations emerged in two places:

Far to the south and east from the Heartlands (which is our primary topic), in what is known as the Old Empires. Alas, these lands are so distant from the Heartlands so as to have barely affected them at all. These ancient empires are said to still exist in the far south as crumbling relics, a fossilized monument to a bygone age.

The second starting point of human history, in the Heartlands, begins with Netheril, which arose perhaps sometime just before or just after the the Old Empires in the south.
For millennia, this greatest of magical empires dominated central faerun. Although the mainlands of that empire are now buried under the sands of the Aunaroch desert that spelled the end of it ages ago, it seeded the Heartlands with outposts and infrastructure that would sow the seeds for future human endeavors in these lands. 

The Age of the Orc
When Netheril fell, so did human civilization - Centuries of orc warfare, low populations and scattered points of civilisation meant that mankind survived only in fortified city-states increasingly isolated from each other, and the haphazard and short-lived existence of villages and barbarian tribes across the landscape.

Realms such as Anauria, Hlondath, Illusk and decadent Asram emerged in the wake of Netheril for a while, but none could not stem the tide of orcs, increasing isolation and natural hazard and all eventually left the land to untamed growths and barbarism.

Dwarves also saw their last great realm of Delzoun pillaged by humanoids in the same period. The time after the fall of Netheril belonged above all else to the orcs. And for an age mankind cowered in its shadow.

The Age of Myth Drannor / Age of Wonder
This changed about 1300 hundred years - When the elves of Cormanthor opened Myth Drannor as a haven for all races and erected The Standing Stone to commemorate the welcoming of all good people to the elven woods (this also marks the first year of Drannor Reckoning [DR], the commonly accepted calendar of the heartlands).

Under the protectorate and civilizing influence of the elves, mankind began to flourish. Elves routed the orcs and for five hundred years, the Pax Myth Drannor spanned all the heartlands and kept the the roads safe from the Sword Coast to the Sea of Fallen Stars. From the elves, humans began to rediscover the lost arts of magic and with the threat of humanoids on the wane, began to develop vassal states enjoying the protections of Myth Drannor.

South of the Myth Drannor sphere of influence, in the lands north of the now receding Old Empires, proud city-states had already developed on the Vilhon Reach, and these now prospered further from the rich trade that began to flow from its northern neighbors.

On the Dragon coast, settlers from the Vilhon Reach erected trading posts that would soon grow into cities in their own right, connecting the Inner Sea of Fallen Stars with the emergent civilizations of the Sword Coast.

And on the eastern shores of the Dragon Reach, city-states such as Tantras, Calaunt and Procampur began to emerge in what was once untamed wasteland, opening new traderoutes to the south and east.

Even the harsh Moonsea began to be civilized, buffering Myth Drannor from the savageries of the lands beyond. Fabulous Northkeep was erected there as the first shining beacon of civilization in these lands and proud protectorate of Myth Drannor.

In the Western Heartlands, the storied Kingdom of Man, in truth an alliance of elves, dwarves, halflings, gnomes and mankind made in the image of Myth Drannor's Pax, brought the first measure of peace and civilization to these lands since the fall of Netheril.

Even the savage frontier north of these lands slowly began to be settled for the first time since the fall of Netheril.

It was not to last however. When Northkeep was destroyed by dark hordes from Thar, Myth Drannor retreated from the Moonsea area.
The humans of the Moonsea, left to fend for themselves, were forced to become a hard and cynical people to survive. This development is perhaps best exemplified by the rise of the martial city-state of Zhentil Keep, whose Bane-worshipping warriors have since spread across the Realms as the beliggerent and subversive mercenary company named the Zhentarim.

The Kingdom of Man fell to goblinoid hordes in 702 DR, and Myth Drannor found itself unable to assist its vassals with the same strength it had in former centuries.

When demon hordes finally assaulted Myth Drannor itself a decade later, there were no allies left to help. In 714 DR, the grandest experiment in civilization was left in ruins, which to this day are festering with demons and corrupted magics.

The Modern Realms

In the six centuries since the Fall of Myth Drannor (or simply "The Fall"), elves have isolated themselves from the rest of the world in hidden sanctuaries, where visitors are as likely to be shot before questions are asked, as they are to simply to be asked to turn around and leave.
Dwarves remain holed up in the last few fortified citadels they still control of their former great kingdoms, fighting off the humanoids that now roam their ancient departed halls.

It has been left to mankind to try and rebuild civilization. In the heartlands of Cormanthor, a few human successor states soon emerged in the wake of the Fall.

In the very heart of the Cormanthor woods, human refugees from Myth Drannor spead into the vales dotting the ancient woods, finding that their new rural way of life made them too insignificant for evil forces to take notice of. The Dalelands, as they eventually became called, have lived on ever since under the cover of rural and decentralized inconspicuousness. Though elves still inhabit the deeper woods, the dalelander know to stick to their well-throdden paths and villages where most monsters will not go.

On the western rim of old Cormanthor, a feudal society emerged soon after the Fall where, in the image of the gallant elven champion, righteous warriors assumed lordship of the peasant population they protected. The greatest among these "knights" (as they came to be called) they named 'King' and thus was born the kingdom of Cormyr. In the centuries since the Fall, much of what was once deep woodland has been tamed to make way for town and agriculture, but much monstrous wilderness still remain to threaten the fragile communities of this kingdom.

South of Cormyr and the Dales, the trading communities of the Dragon Coast were left to fend for themselves in a hostile world. They've grew into fiercely independent and festering pits of rogues, backstabbing and corruption.

The Vast on the eastern shore of the Dragon Reach soon regressed to untamed wilderland, but less than a handful of human city-states, now left isolated and independent after the Fall, remained as points of light, where mankind could shelter themselves behind its walls against the encroaching spread of chaos.

A few centuries later, in 913 DR, settlers seeking their fortune in new lands away from the now stagnant and quarreling city-states of the Vilhon Reach, founded the mercantile nation of Sembia on the edge of the old Cormanthor woods and its rise has seen proper trade begin to emerge in the region for the first time since the Fall.

In the Western Heartlands, no successor states have emerged in the wake of the destruction of the Kingdom of Man and the land has reverted to mostly uncharted hinterlands, dotted by a smattering of small holds, villages and keeps that spring up, only to be abandoned within a generation or two.
A handful of small city-states and scattering of walled towns are the only enduring signs of civilization here. The most significant of these is the emergent city-state of Waterdeep, which has become the main hub of the Sword Coast. A hope perhaps, that civilization may take root here again some day.

North of these lands lie the Savage Frontier, where civilization ends. Even moreso than the Western Heartlands, the North is an untamed wilderness grown over the ruins of long lost empires such as Netheril and  dwarven Delzoun. It is teeming with orcs, trolls, barbarian tribes and monsters, who regularly descend upon the hapless palisade of villages that eke out short-lived lives in the wilderlands.

Paradoxically, the last unspoiled remnant of Pax Myth Drannor lies in these northern wastelands. Silverymoon, though originally no more than a frontier outpost erected in the finals days of Myth Drannor, has survived untouched, as if frozen in time, from the halcyon days of Pax Myth Drannor and is now famed as "the gem of the north", a sanctuary of arts, lore and magic where people of all races continue to live in harmony amongst its gilded streets, marbled domes and arched bridges.
This is all thanks to its succession of powerful "High Mage" rulers who have protected the city from its savage neighbors since the days of Myth Drannor. The current High Mage is a powerful sorcery queen whose just rule has extended for nearly two centuries.

The Lands Beyond
Where the history of the Heartlands have seen ages of splendor ended by long ages of darkness and something new having to be built on its ruins, mankind south of the old Pax Myth Drannor have had a different evolution of history

The Old Empires to the south, though withered and decayed, still stand as they have since the days of Netheril. As the Old Empires receded from their wider territories, the successor states that sprang up in its wake - the Empires of the Sand and the cities of the Vilhon Reach - have themselves grown now millenia old by now.

Where they touch the borders of the Heartlands, they remind the fledgling realms there that their civilizations are still no more than barbaric upstarts in the eyes of the old kingdoms to the south. And yet, for all  its proud unbroken history, the southlands are stale - Visitors to these land find a sense that their times of prosperity have come and gone and they are merely living out their last ages of decadence and insularity on the shoulders of past glories they can no longer emulate themselves.

In the Unapproachable East, even more exotic successor states to these ancient empires developed. Woodland realms ruled by powerful sorcery queens and witch covens. And dread Thay, the legendary kingdom of the red wizards, where undead are said to walk the streets and slaves toil to build arcane ziggurats and towers of their wizardly rulers.