Blowing it All Up and Starting Over

As gamers' thoughts turn to a New Year, it's worth remembering how the Forgotten Realms has reinvented itself with each iteration of Dungeons & Dragons.


Dungeons & Dragons
has been through several iterations, but because the standard fantasy campaign world has morphed from edition to edition, those changes were usually independent of the game world itself. The Forgotten Realms went through some startling in-universe changes to reflect the new rules set -- three times: The Time of Troubles, the Spellplague, and the Second Sundering.
[h=3]2nd Edition: The Time of Troubles[/h]Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a hit in the 80s. It was also a focal point of the Satanic Panic, a belief in America that children were being corrupted by media, including Dungeons & Dragons. TSR planned to consolidate the disparate rules for AD&D, but it also had another goal in mind. Shannon Appelcline explains in Designers & Dragons:

TSR (re)announced the new edition of the game in Dragon #117 ( January 1987). In the next issue, project lead Zeb Cook famously penned a column title “Who Dies?” It mentioned that part of the revision would involve deciding which character classes to throw out. The column was remarkably prescient, spotlighting the two classes that were eventually removed from the game — saying that assassins had always been bad for party unity while monks had been better covered by Oriental Adventures. However it also threatened many other favorites, from clerics and thieves to illusionists and druids. The result was a huge outcry, thousands of letters, and a lot of debate about the new edition. Cook would later say that he was trying to evoke a reaction. Whatever the purpose, it allowed players to have a real hand in the revision of the game, first through their letters, then through a massive questionnaire. Players even saved the bard, another class that Cook had marked for extinction.


The changes went beyond classes. Appelcline explains:

James M. Ward, who had instituted the removal of demons and devils, explained in Dragon #154 (February 1990) that “[a]voiding the Angry Mother Syndrome has become a good, basic guideline for all of the designers and editors at TSR, Inc.” Apparently, TSR had received one letter a week complaining about the demons and devils since the original Monster Manual was printed, and those 624 letters, or what Ward called “a lot of letters,” had been the reason he’d removed the infernal races.


The end result was that D&D's rules didn't just change, its policies did too:

The release of AD&D 2nd Edition corresponded with important policy changes at TSR. An effort was made to remove aspects of the game which had attracted negative publicity, most notably the removal of all mention of demons and devils, although equivalent fiendish monsters were included, renamed tanar'ri and baatezu, respectively. Moving away from the moral ambiguity of the 1st edition AD&D, the TSR staff eliminated character classes and races like the assassin and the half-orc, and stressed heroic roleplaying and player teamwork. The target age of the game was also lowered, with most 2nd edition products being aimed primarily at teenagers.


To reflect these changes, the Forgotten Realms experienced a world-spanning event known as the Time of Troubles. Lord Ao, over-deity of the Forgotten Realms gods, decided to shake things up by demoting all deities to avatar status to teach them some humility. Some deities died during this time, while other mortals ascended to godhood. MerricB explains the mechanical end results:

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!)


Much of these changes were expressed through fiction and comics, while other changes were hinted at and explained only later. And of course, Bhaal's death was an excuse to remove assassins from the game. You can see the full list of changes on the Forgotten Realms wiki, but suffice it to say that these changes were far-reaching.
[h=3]3rd Edition: Nothing to See Here[/h]Third edition passed the Forgotten Realms without incident:

The introduction of D&D 3e was exceptional in that there was no overarching, global in-setting event introduced to explain the rules changes. Oddly, the adventure Die Vecna Die! was intended to explain the rules changes (for all D&D settings), but its events were never made FR canon. WotC just proceeded with the 3e rules and setting changes without adding any corresponding historical events. The 3e change is thus “silent” in FR's historical record.


This isn't to say that the Forgotten Realms weren't changed in significant ways, but rather that the campaign wasn't adjusted to reflect the rules. The next edition would not be so kind to the Realms.
[h=3]4th Edition: The Spellplague[/h]The Spellplague didn't have nearly the amount of fictional support but its effects were just as far-reaching -- if not more so -- as The Time of Troubles, Mystra was assassinated by Cyric and Shar -- Cyric and Midnight were adventuring companions at one point before the Time of Troubles -- causing the magical essence behind the Forgotten Realms to be warped by the Far Realm. 4th Edition's changes to D&D were significant, so the impact felt on the Forgotten Realms was equally disruptive. Planes were shuffled, including the creation of the Feywild and the introduction of the Elemental Chaos. Deities were shuffled too, with Asmodeus ascending to godhood and bringing the Abyss into the Elemental Chaos (demons were reclassified accordingly). Spells and magic items worked differently, with items that possessed charges no longer functioning the same way.

Like many changes tied to Fourth Edition, the reception was mixed, including one of the authors who had a significant stake in the Forgotten Realms, R.A. Salvatore. Aldrick explains on the Candlekeep forums:

Salvatore and presumably the other authors were called in and basically told what the changes were going to be; they weren't consulted at all. So it was a major shock. They were basically told, "Hey guess what, we're advancing the world 100 years." Salvatore was very, very, very upset. Since over half his main characters were human, he basically didn't see how it could work for him. In his words, "140 year old humans don't fight very well." Salvatore wrote a really long letter to several Senior Editors at WotC pleading with them to reconsider the 4E changes, but clearly it fell on deaf ears. Presumably a lot of other authors were also very upset, and more specifically Ed Greenwood. Salvatore talks about coming out of that 2006 meeting where the changes were revealed with Ed Greenwood, and Ed was basically about to cry. Ed turned to Salvatore and asked, "What are we going to do?" It seemed that they couldn't stop it or change their minds. So Salvatore responded to Ed with, "We're going to be smarter than them. We're going to think long term." That's when Ed and Salvatore got together secretly and started brainstorming on how to fix the Realms when WotC realized how much it was going to be despised by most of the fans.


They would get their chance with Fifth Edition.
[h=3]5th Edition: The Second Sundering[/h]To understand the Second Sundering it's helpful to understand the First Sundering. It was a magic ritual cast by elves that created the Isle of Evermeet -- but also blew up much of the Forgotten Realms:

Hundreds of High Mages assemble in the heartland of Faerûn at the Gathering Place. Ignoring the lesson learned from the destruction of Tintageer centuries earlier, they cast a spell of elven High Magic designed to create a glorious elf homeland. On the Day of Birthing, the magic reaches its apex as the spell extends both back and forward in the mists of time. Faerûn, the one land, is sundered apart by the unbridled force of the Sundering. As a result, hundreds of cities are washed away, thousands of elves lie dead, and the face of Toril is changed forever. The name Faerûn, no longer the One Land, is given to the largest continent. Surrounded by vast expanses of water, the island of Evermeet, thought to be a piece of Arvandor and a bridge between worlds, breaks the surface of the Trackless Sea. Blessed by the goddess Angharradh, verdant forests and wildlife soon flourish across the island. Corellon Larethian wards Evermeet against Lolth, Malar, and the other powers of the anti-Seldarine and entrusts a unique seed to the Fair Folk of the isle. The seed soon sprouts, growing into a miniature tree known as the Tree of Souls. Over time, the souls of ancient elves who choose to stay on Toril, rather than pass on to Arvandor, merge into the Tree of Souls, slowly augmenting its power. Prophecies reveal that the Tree of Souls will someday be planted on Faerûn when the Fair Folk finally return to the mainland after a period of exile on the Green Isle.


The Second Sundering reversed a lot of what happened due to the Spellplague, with Ao restoring much back to pre-Fourth Edition changes. This video of a seminar on the topic explains the Sundering in more detail. Aldrick picks up the thread:

Fast forward to a couple of years ago at Gencon when 5E was announced. James Wyatt pulls Salvatore aside after he's done a seminar, and begins bringing up 5E Forgotten Realms. At that time WotC hadn't planned on what to do, but according to Salvatore, James Wyatt said that 4E FR had "gone off the rails" and then started outlining everything that needed to be done to fix it. That's when he took James aside and for over 20 minutes outlined everything he and Ed had been planning for years. Salvatore basically sees all of this as an attempt to try and fix "Ed's Realms" - that's how everyone is basically looking at it. He said that he's willing to take personal responsibility for 5E FR because he had a direct hand in it, but he also said that he's "very proud" of what they've come up with.


And that brings us to now, the 5E Forgotten Realms that looks a bit like the same Realms before changes wrought by the Spellplague. The Forgotten Realms wiki illustrates how everything old was new again:

By the end of the Sundering, the world began to look very much alike to how it was during the 1300s...At the end of the Second Sundering, most of the consequences that the Spellplague had wrought upon Toril were nowhere to be seen...Many deities previously presumed dead or missing managed to return to life (or to re-emerge) during the Second Sundering, and then to quickly amass new followers (or to win back their old faithful), and to reclaim at least some of their former portfolios (resulting in a new distribution of spheres of influence among the Faerunian deities)...The Sundering of Toril and Abeir had extensive repercussions on the arrangement of the planes of existence and of the divine domains. The World Axis cosmology was rearranged in a new Great Wheel, which only differed from its previous iteration because of the presence of the Elemental Chaos and of the Feywild and Shadowfell.


As gamers look forward to new games and new worlds to play in 2018, they can take comfort in the fact that even the Forgotten Realms goes through cycles. Happy New Year everyone!

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

4th Edition was a constant WTF they did to the fluff for Forgotten Realms and Dark Sun. I didn’t had the opportunity to look at the other campaign settings.
 


"They blew it up! The maniacs!"

Just goes to show ... if you feel a sudden desire to blow up your cosmology, it's probably you that are off the rails. The Star Wars EU did the same think with the New Jedi Order and Yuuzhan Vong -- RA Salvatore had a hand in that one having dropped a moon on Chewbacca. Maybe it gave him insight with what was to come for the 4E Realms.

Though there were some major changes with the 3E Realms -- return of the Shades, erasing Tilverton from the map, that sort of thing. It was more Realms-shaking than Realms-shattering, though.
 

Thanks for this article Mike. One thing though: The Die Vecna Die! changes *were* implemented weren't they? AFAIR, the end of the story basically just said that some creatures disappeared (e.g. piercer), and new ones appeared (darkmantle), that the Plane of Shadow is the new transitive plane, and so forth. Basically the 3E cosmology, which FR did adopt.

What's mind-boggling for me is that from a canonical perspective, each edition of the Rules is a distinct Reality, which has subtle effects on the world itself, which only the gods notice (see the quote in the DRAGON magazine article by Bruce Heard):
https://sites.google.com/site/dndphilmont/d-d-realities

Though hardly anyone knows about that, it basically means that the 1E, 2E, 3E, 4E, 5E FR products were each depicting a separate Reality.

WotC bumped into this conundrum when it released the Arcane Age products for 2E which were set in the ancient past...which means those adventures should've been played with 1E rules! AFAIR there was even a paragraph explaining this. But of course the product used 2E rules, which means the "2E Reality" always existed side-by-side with the "1E Reality". Conceivably, each of the five Realities continues to exist, and always existed.

Because the "Rules Realities" aren't "parallel storylines", they presumably model the in-story events from all eras as closely as possible, but using their own "rules lense". So, though no WotC product would actually depict it (because it would confuse customers), the ToT, DVD!, SP, and 2ndS events took place in all Five Realities.

For example, in the continuing 1E Reality, the same story-events which lead to the death of all Assassins still happened, it's just that the other classes continued on in their 1e version. When Assassins later emerged again in the FR, whether as a 2E Kit or 3E prestige class, this would be modelled with 1E rules.

Over in the 3E Reality, Assassins were always just depicted as a Prestige Class. Since there are subtle in-story differences between the powers of a 1E assassin and a 3E assassin, there are subtle differences between the two Realities...but only the gods notice.

The Second Sundering is taking place in the 1E, 2E, 3E, and 4E Realities of the Realms too.

I propose Mike Mearls and team bring this Reality concept back to light. It really provides a graspable conceptual framework.

The "6E Realms" and "7E Realms" invisibly exists already too, throughout the past, present, and future.
 
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murquhart72

Explorer
You can always tell a world is poorly conceived when it has to alter itself to conform or new or "updated" rules. A good, solid world can take any rule-set and make it conform to the setting, not the other way around. Just imagine Conan's Hyborea without assassins or demons! HA! How about throwing in some Dragonborn? Haha, no.
The Forgotten Realms were good, but every time TSR made D&D weaker and with every tweak WotC made, they became the Failed Realms. Bowing down to the rule & policy changes while claiming it was "growth" or "healthy change".
Updated a setting or shaking things up purely for a literary challenge is one thing. But doing it to "reflect major rule changes" just proves that either nothing needed to change in the game, or something was wrong with the setting.
This is my opinion. If it were a common one, the Forgotten Realms would actually BE forgotten and not still at the top everybody's list for default D&D gaming.
 

talien

Community Supporter
Thanks for this article Mike. One thing though: The Die Vecna Die! changes *were* implemented weren't they? AFAIR, the end of the story basically just said that some creatures disappeared (e.g. piercer), and new ones appeared (darkmantle), that the Plane of Shadow is the new transitive plane, and so forth. Basically the 3E cosmology, which FR did adopt.

I consider that change belonging more to Greyhawk than Forgotten Realms (although to your point, it was trans-planar). I actually played through that adventure but changed all the names around for my own campaign. It's quite epic, even if it is totally railroad-y.

What's mind-boggling for me is that from a canonical perspective, each edition of the Rules is a distinct Reality, which has subtle effects on the world itself, which only the gods notice (see the quote the DRAGON magazine article by Bruce Heard):
https://sites.google.com/site/dndphilmont/d-d-realities

Excellent find, thank you for sharing this and Happy New Year!
 

MarkB

Legend
You can always tell a world is poorly conceived when it has to alter itself to conform or new or "updated" rules. A good, solid world can take any rule-set and make it conform to the setting, not the other way around. Just imagine Conan's Hyborea without assassins or demons! HA! How about throwing in some Dragonborn? Haha, no.
The Forgotten Realms were good, but every time TSR made D&D weaker and with every tweak WotC made, they became the Failed Realms. Bowing down to the rule & policy changes while claiming it was "growth" or "healthy change".
Updated a setting or shaking things up purely for a literary challenge is one thing. But doing it to "reflect major rule changes" just proves that either nothing needed to change in the game, or something was wrong with the setting.
This is my opinion. If it were a common one, the Forgotten Realms would actually BE forgotten and not still at the top everybody's list for default D&D gaming.

The problem is, the Realms were (and are) supposed to be the representative setting of D&D, so they couldn't be left free of the changes to that setting. Either the changes couldn't be made at all, or they had to be implemented within FR.

With a setting less central to the system, you could leave it out of such changes. For instance, Eberron has its own idiosyncratic planar system, which is part of that setting's identity. Ideally, it would be kept out of the general D&D cosmology entirely. But FR doesn't have the luxury of obscurity.
 

Gothstaff

Explorer
3e was not exactly w/out incident:
You forgot to mention how 3e got rid of infrared vision, something repeatedly mentioned when Drow were involved (Dark Elf Trilogy, e.g.) which no longer happens in 3e, and they silently changed in 3e as if darkvision had always been that way, it always bothered me how suddenly the Drow lost infravision for darkvision and everyon pretended the changes didn't impact anything (Narbondel, and Drow's letters in books depended on heat signature, and now suddenly they were different)
 


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