An Introduction to the Forgotten Realms: The Time of Troubles

As I was writing my last couple of articles, it became apparent to me that there were a fair number of events in the Realms that all related back to one storyline, and it’s a storyline that I didn’t even mention in my introductory article. Oops. So, before continuing on to the recent history of the Realms, I’m going to return to one of the pivotal events in its past.

The initial presentation of the Forgotten Realms as a campaign setting was in 1987. At that stage, the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game was the primary form of D&D, and the one that the Realms was written for. However, the AD&D rules were showing a number of flaws and badly needed a rewrite. The 2nd edition of the AD&D system was thus released in 1989… and the changes immediately caused a few problems for the Realms.

Compared to the differences between previous editions and 3E, 4E and 5E, the change to 2E was actually fairly minor. Most of the rules worked the same, and the mathematics likewise. Giants and Dragons were a little stronger. Clerics of different gods could have different spell lists. More significant, however, was the growing perception in the media that D&D was an unsuitable game for children. And so TSR removed a number of “problematic” elements from the game: half-orcs, assassins, monks, demons and devils. And the Forgotten Realms, being the flagship setting for the company had to follow suit.

It was thought that TSR ought to offer some in-game explanation for why the world was changing, and the answer was the Avatar Crisis, also known as the Time of Troubles. Or about six other names, depending on who you ask. Interestingly, it would be supported not only with a trilogy of adventures, but a trilogy of novels. Unfortunately, the decision was made – probably based on the success of the Dragonlance line – to have the adventures parallel the novels very closely. One difference from the way Dragonlance handled it was that instead of the players playing the main characters, the players would accompany the main characters and help them achieve their goal.

This did not go down well. The adventures aren’t actually all that badly written – and the beginning of the first adventure, by Ed Greenwood – is fantastic. Unfortunately, that lasts until the adventure proper starts. At that point, the players quickly realise that all the decisions in the adventure are actually being made by the NPCs, and the players are playing the sidekicks. And it’s the NPCs that get the rewards. If you read the novels, you get a party of four characters going on a quest. If you play the adventures, you have the same four characters going on a quest… accompanied by the PCs. At some point, I intend to do a proper review of the adventures, but when people talk about poorly constructed and railroaded adventures, they normally mention the Avatar trilogy and Dragonlance. And the Avatar trilogy has more problems than Dragonlance!

So, what actually occurs during the Time of Troubles? The basic idea is that two evil gods, Bane and Myrkul, steal the Tablets of Fate, upon which all the rules of the gods are written. Lord Ao, the overlord of all the gods, banishes all the gods to Faerûn in mortal form as punishment until the Tablets are returned. Basically, he’s really annoyed at the lot of them – squabbling infants – and wants them to learn to be better. (Guess how that works in the long term?)

During this period, the gods caused a lot of trouble in the Realms. And several of them died.

Mystra, the goddess of magic, got the idea that she could return home if she revealed to Ao who stole the tablets. I’m pretty sure Ao already knew, and when Mystra tried to barge her way past Helm, the god of vigilance, to get home, she was killed for her trouble.

Bane, god of tyranny, tried to ascend the Celestial Staircase to return with the Tablets, but was slain in a massive battle with Torm, god of duty, who also died in the battle.

Bhaal, god of assassins, was slain by the adventurer Cyric.

And Myrkul got himself killed by the adventurer Midnight.

With the gods who had caused it all dead and the tablets returned by human adventurers, the gods were allowed to return home, much chastened. Lord Ao destroyed the Tablets of Fate, saying they were worthless and only meant to remind the gods of their duties towards mortals, and enjoined the gods to pay more attention to mortals in future, enforcing this by tying their power to the faith of their worshippers. Midnight was rewarded for her services in bringing the Tablets of Fate back by being raised to godhood as the new goddess of magic – she assumed the name of Mystra to reduce confusion – and Cyric, who had betrayed his fellow adventurers (Midnight, Kelemvor and Adon) several times during the trilogy, eventually killing Kelemvor, was “rewarded” by gaining the powers and portfolios of Bane, Bhaal and Myrkul and also ascending to godhood.

There are quite a number of other things that happened during the Time of Troubles, many of which we didn’t find out until much later. Cryptic references to Waukeen, goddess of wealth, having disappeared. That sort of thing. The Forgotten Realms wiki has a nice list of what we know happened.

Now, the point of this was to update the world to the new rules. The change in clerical spell lists could be attributed to the gods now paying more attention to mortals. Half-orcs, demons and devils were just pushed aside in the new Realms… they existed, they just weren’t talked about much. Monks had never been that much of an issue. But assassins… TSR had a special plan for them. You remember how Bhaal, the god of assassins, got himself killed? Well, when he was killed, that act also killed every assassin in the Forgotten Realms. Sucks to be them! (Or to have an assassin PC!)

This development was less amusing for R.A. Salvatore, the best-selling author of the Drizzt books. One of his main (and popular) antagonists was an assassin, and he was somewhat taken aback by the news that he had to kill Artemis Entreri. Eventually, he persuaded TSR that Artemis wasn’t actually an assassin, instead he was a fighter/thief who took money to kill people. (Bob tells this story quite a bit; it shouldn’t be hard to find an instance of it on youtube or in a podcast).

Meanwhile, the Zhentarim – who, at this stage, were one of the major antagonists of the Realms – had lost their patron god, Bane. So they started following Cyric instead. Cyric wasn’t the most stable god, and that ended badly for both Cyric and the Zhentarim.

The effects of the Time of Troubles have kept trickling down through the years since then. The Baldur’s Gate computer game? The story is totally reliant on Bhaal getting killed. The Spellplague? Cyric murdered Mystra. (Really, why does anyone want to be goddess of Magic in the Realms?) And the Sundering? A lot of it was undoing deaths of various gods – Bhaal in particular.

Although there are lots of things that went wrong in the implementation of the Avatar Trilogy, it has led to some pretty good storytelling!

In-game, the Time of Troubles occurred in 1358 DR. The current year (from Princes of the Apocalypse) is 1491 DR.

The main source of information about the Time of Troubles, is the trilogy of novels – Shadowdale, Tantras and Waterdeep. Incidentally, the books were originally released as being by Richard Awlinson (All-in-one), a pen name for the actual writers, Scott Ciercin, James Lowder and Troy Denning. I rather enjoyed the books when they first came out, but I was 16 at the time! The adventures share the same names: Shadowdale, Tantras and Waterdeep, and I found them most useful for their descriptions of the various towns in the Realms, especially Arabel, a major town in Cormyr (described in Shadowdale). This isn’t particularly surprising, as all three adventures are written by Ed Greenwood, creator of the Forgotten Realms, who loves putting in detail. They’re a good source of lore, if nothing else. (Apparently the deadlines were so tight that he had to finish writing the adventures before the novels… and the novels weren’t fully plotted yet!)

It seems strange to me that a campaign setting not two years old needed such a shake-up as what occurred here. It seemed strange to a lot of other people as well! It wouldn’t be the last the Realms would have either…

2 comments

  1. Xaeyruudh

    Well said. I love the Avatar trilogy adventures for the NPCs and items and the glimpses of personalities… typical of everything Ed writes. The structure of the story, though –the utter helplessness of PCs to make their own choices– was probably the worst I’ve ever seen. Probably unavoidable in adventures that mirror novels, and I can’t fathom why TSR didn’t see that coming… especially since Ed undoubtedly spelled it out for them. Anyway, my original point was that you were far more civil and tolerant of the mistakes than I could be. Kudos!

    Like

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