An introduction to the Forgotten Realms, part 1

The Forgotten Realms campaign setting debuted in 1987, in a set later known as the Grey Box.

This is not the whole story.

One trouble with describing the Forgotten Realms is that there has been more written for the setting than almost any other gaming world. There are a couple of other long-running game worlds that might exceed what has been written for the Realms, but regardless, there has been a huge amount of material written. Game supplements, adventures, novels, computer games, comics… it has been a hugely successful setting.

At the moment, Wizards of the Coast are releasing all of their adventures and setting them in the Forgotten Realms. I’m really happy with that, but I’ve been playing D&D for over 30 years and I’ve been gaming (on and off) in the Forgotten Realms since shortly after the Grey Box came out. I think it’d be helpful to newer players to learn about the Forgotten Realms. There isn’t a campaign setting book yet released for 5E and, although I think there will be one coming, it’s probably a good idea to give people an overview of the Realms.

This first article looks at some of the publishing history of the Forgotten Realms. Further articles in the series – assuming I get around to writing them – will look more at the actual setting and its important regions. Things like “What’s the Sword Coast?” and “What’s up with Waterdeep?”

The Forgotten Realms first came into being as the creation of Ed Greenwood, age 6, as he wrote a fantasy short-story. That’s 49 years ago now. I don’t think the story was that good, although Ed revised it later – it eventually became “One Comes, Unheralded, to Zirta“. At this point, D&D was still 6 years away from being published – and a few years away from even the earliest versions being played. As Ed continued to write stories of fantastic adventures, and later – once he started playing D&D – writing rules additions (magic items, spells and the like), gradually a world began to form. In 1979, the first Realms-related article was published in The Dragon #30 (later Dragon Magazine) and, as Ed was a somewhat prolific contributor to the magazine, the editors at TSR became interested in if there was an actual world behind it. There was, and so the world was bought by TSR, and eventually the Old Gray Box got published in 1987, along with the first of the Forgotten Realms novels, Darkwalker on Moonshae.

And from there, a lot of gaming products were written. Boxed sets. Adventures. Books describing various regions in the Realms. And the details piled up. From 1987 to 2007, more and more was added to the Realms. Enough that it became thought that it was difficult to write new things without contradicting something already written, or getting something wrong. And the details were intimidating, especially for new players.

So, with the release of D&D 4E, Wizards decided to jump the timeline forward about 100 years, and blow some stuff up. The goddess of magic, Mystra, was killed, releasing the Spellplague, causing great problems through the land. Another world merged with the Realms, and a major force from the ancient history of the Realms, the Shadovar, creatures of shade, took over one of the main merchant nations (Sembia). You no longer needed to be a Realms expert to design stuff for the Realms!

This didn’t go down so well with fans of the setting, and it is fair to say that the few 4E supplements for the Realms were not well-received. The setting got more development through the D&D Encounters and Living Forgotten Realms programs, although the official status of LFR adventures is dubious at best. It’s not like everything released in 4E was bad – the Neverwinter Campaign Setting is one of the best books ever written for the Realms – but overall there wasn’t that much released, and a lot of people yearned for the Realms they remembered. (One of the worst consequences of the time jump was that most of the popular characters in the novels were now dead, which disaffected several of the novelists working in the Realms).

When work began on D&D 5E, the designers at Wizards wanted to return to a more popular version of the setting. Interestingly, despite the problems the novelists had with the previous time-jump, they didn’t want the last six years not to have happened. Invalidating all the work in the meantime wasn’t to be desired, either. Could they have the best of both worlds? Well, possibly not. However, the answer they came up with was The Sundering.

There are three elements to the Sundering. It’s (primarily) named for the separation of the two worlds, bringing the setting’s geography back closer to the original 1987 box. The second element related to the reduction in the numbers of the Chosen, special servants of the gods. The final element allowed a number of old, beloved characters (and gods) of the original setting to reappear in the world. Exactly how far the Sundering has affected the Realms has yet to be revealed, and I’ll go into greater detail in a later article on what we do know!

The Sundering saw play over five game products – Murder in Baldur’s Gate, Legacy of the Crystal Shard, Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle, Scourge of the Sword Coast and Dead in Thay, which were designed for the playtest version of 5E. A little work would update them to the full 5E. Meanwhile, six novels were written about the Sundering: The Companions, The Godborn, The Adversary, The Reaver, The Sentinel and The Herald. They vary in quality, although I really enjoyed running Murder, Legacy and Scourge. (I haven’t run Ghosts, and Dead was fun, but really wants three or four groups going through it at once!) The novels don’t tell one big tale – instead, they’re often part of other ongoing stories, just highlighting the effects of the Sundering on the participants.

Now that the Sundering is over, and the world is in a state where Wizards feel happy releasing stuff for it again, we’ve seen big storyline events coming out for it: Tyranny of Dragons, the current Elemental Evil, and the upcoming Rage of Demons. Adventures, comics, novels, and computer games all telling the ongoing story of the Realms. (Not forgetting Organised Play, where a lot of attention has been paid to the Moonsea region).

So, what is the Forgotten Realms? It’s a setting on a continent bigger than North America, on which many different cultures and nations exist, and where the lore and works of past civilisations is occasionally a threat to the present, and heroes and villains strut the world stage. Yes, it’s a place to place D&D campaigns in – and one to inspire many future adventures!


  1. shieldhaven

    I am looking forward to future posts in this series! My history with FR goes back to 1994 or so, and for me the Gray Box of 2e is the Most Canonical of Canons. I did like the 3e setting book a lot, though my tastes have changed over the years and NOW I wish it had less of a focus on mechanics and more on introducing setting mysteries.


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