DMs Guild [Design Notes] Player’s Guide to the Forgotten Realms: Faerûn, Kara-Tur, and Zakhara

A few years ago, in my spare time, I started prep work on a long-term project: I wanted to gather information from across my library of Forgotten Realms products and compile my notes into a single DMs Guild product. The working title is Player’s Guide to the Forgotten Realms: Faerûn, Kara-Tur, and Zakhara. I had no established audience for this product and no real money to spend on it, but I figured I’d give it a try anyway.

Fast forward a few years. I’ve curated information from dozens of primary sources and compiled it into a 350-page rough draft of a player’s guide. I’ve sifted through tens of thousands of stock art images to find the best human-generated images available on my shoestring budget. I’ve created dozens of all-new regional maps of the Realms, from Faerûn and Kara-Tur to the burning land of Zakhara.

I don’t have a blog or a social media presence, so I’m starting this thread as a clearing house for random design notes. I’m in the process of editing and refining my player’s guide for publication on the DMs Guild (in late 2024 or early 2025, with any luck). I’ll try to post occasional notes here regarding my process and my progress. Questions and comments from other posters are also welcome.

What, exactly, am I working on?

The project I’m working on is a sourcebook whose working title is Player’s Guide to the Forgotten Realms: Faerûn, Kara-Tur, and Zakhara. This player’s guide is intended to supplement all existing Forgotten Realms campaign setting products and adventures without rendering any one of them obsolete. As noted above, I aim to release this player’s guide through the DMs Guild once it’s finished.

My primary sources of inspiration are the Character Regions section in the 3e Player’s Guide to Faeûrn and the Backgrounds chapter in the 4e Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide. I’m not attempting to recreate those sources, but to create a new, similar work which compiles updated information about the lands and cultures of Faerûn, Kara-Tur, and Zakhara together in a single volume.

Plenty of existing products explore specific parts of the Forgotten Realms setting in great depth. I’m not attempting to compete with those products in that regard. Instead, my goal is to highlight a wide range of character options from across all of Faerûn, Kara-Tur, and Zakhara, providing readers many different ways to engage with the setting when creating a character.

To distinguish itself from online wikis which present encyclopedic information about the Forgotten Realms setting, this player’s guide provides a curated, player-facing experience. The book focuses on character options, cultural details, and widely-known geographical information. It avoids delving too deeply into historical, political, or plot details which are more the purview of the DM.

The longest chapter in this guide describes over one-hundred cultures native to Faerûn, Kara-Tur, and Zakhara, plus over two-hundred regions where those cultures are found. The book also includes an appendix of new rules, mostly options for new and existing Species. Outside that appendix, content is largely rules-neutral, so it can be used with Forgotten Realms products of all editions.

Why am I working on this project?

From a business standpoint, this project is a terrible idea. I’m just one worker on a shoestring budget with no upcoming crowdfunding campaigns to support my efforts. I’d be better off writing a dozen highly-focused, thirty-page products detailing specific parts of the Forgotten Realms. I could release them every few months in an effort to build both an audience and a catalog of past releases.

Instead, I’m putting my efforts into a three-hundred-plus-page sourcebook with no established audience. Why am I doing this? Because the player’s guide I’m writing is the document I’d want to provide to my players if I were running a Forgotten Realms campaign. No one else seems to be designing anything like it for me to use, so I’m designing it myself.

Hopefully, when I release this player’s guide, other folks will find it useful. Speaking for myself, I will definitely benefit from having a Monster-Manual-style chapter of over one-hundred Forgotten Realms cultures, all of which I can pick and choose from when designing Realms-inspired characters or campaigns. As an added bonus, I also know (for example) what a typical building in Cormyr looks like.

What’s next?

I’m currently working on the second draft of the player’s guide. Everything will require a copy-editing pass, and I’ve identified a few sections that will need to be rewritten for various reasons. There are also a few sections where my design decisions are just placeholders. In those sections, I will need to make final decisions about the direction I want to take with certain content.

I also need to finalize my regional maps. I’ve mapped out the boundaries of all relevant terrain to my satisfaction, but the maps will need labels and probably a few added textures. My goal is to make the maps clean and functional. I don’t expect to produce high-end artwork worthy of a stand-alone poster map, but I do hope to at least match the quality of some less-detailed, inline maps from older Realms products.

That’s all for now. I'll return with more design notes and updates as time permits.

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On Fish, Shellfish, and Inline Citations

Until recently, I hadn’t set a deadline for the project mentioned in this thread. (Don’t try this at home if you’re trying to actually finish what you’re doing.) The lack of time pressure has given me plenty of chances to go down all sorts of strange rabbit holes. Occasionally, there’s useful information at the bottom of the rabbit hole. More often than not, the only pay-off is the enjoyment I get when I finally dig up some obscure piece of trivia that has eluded me for hours. (What can I say? I’m weird like that.)

My latest rabbit hole involved fish and shellfish in the Forgotten Realms. The details are relatively unimportant, so I’m putting them in a spoiler block:

Among other things, my player’s guide lists some of the foods commonly consumed in each of the hundred-plus cultures described within. As it so happens, Forgotten Realms products mention fish and fishing in connection with certain cultures fairly frequently, so that food staple was relatively easy to associate with specific groups.

But I was left with a nit-picky question: when Forgotten Realms products mention fish being eaten, are they using the archaic definition of the word “fish” (in which shellfish count as fish)? Or are they using the scientific definition (in which shellfish are distinct from fish)? And would listing shellfish as a separate category from fish be worth the effort?

After scouring my sources for references to various types of shellfish, I determined shellfish are consumed in most parts of the Realms where “fish” are consumed. Given the the overlap between fish and shellfish, I decided to use the archaic definition of the word “fish” in my player’s guide. There would be no meaningful benefit if I listed fish and shellfish as separate categories of food.

One lesson I’ve learned from my trips down rabbit holes: I don’t want to include too many trivial facts in my player’s guide. I want to focus on big picture details that inform meaningful player choices.

I’ve also realized—after counting the number of sources I would have to cite just to confirm which cultures eat fish—that I don’t want to include inline citations in my players guide. I’ll include a self-contained list of my sources so folks can do further reading if they so desire, but my primary goal is presenting useful information, not documenting the underlying research behind every paragraph.

In any case, it occurs to me that none of my musings in this post are previews of cool stuff I’m putting in my player’s guide. I’ll be sure to focus more on that cool stuff in future posts.

What’s in a Name, Part I

There are a few design decisions I need to finalize before I can say the text in the Player’s Guide to the Forgotten Realms is nearly finished. Several of those decisions involve names.

As mentioned upthread, this player’s guide includes descriptions of over one-hundred cultures native to the Realms. For the most part, naming these cultures is easy. Chondathan humans are raised in Chondathan culture; shield dwarves are raised in shield dwarf culture; Serôsian sea elves are raised in Serôsian sea elf culture; etc. Each of the many peoples of the Realms has a corresponding culture.

But there are six particular Realms cultures which aren’t so easily named. Three of them have never been explicitly identified as unique cultures and thus have no names; one of them has been detailed extensively but never been given a name; and two of them have established names which, for various reasons, are confusing or potentially problematic.

For anyone who’s interested in the specifics, I discuss the six cultures in question in the following spoiler block. For convenience, I've given each culture a place-holder name.

Abyssal Tiefling Culture. Tieflings in the Realms don’t have a single, shared culture, but some of them learn the Abyssal language and interact with Abyssal-speaking Fiends. I decided the shared attitudes of this group qualify as a distinct tiefling culture, but I don’t have a good name for it. “Abyssal” is the name of a tiefling lineage in the 2024 Player’s Handbook, and this Abyssal-speaking tiefling culture isn’t specific to that one lineage. So this culture needs some name other than “Abyssal.”

Infernal Tiefling Culture. This culture has the same problem as the Abyssal tiefling culture mentioned above. I can’t call this Infernal-speaking tiefling culture an “Infernal tiefling” culture, because “Infernal” is the name of a tiefling lineage in the 2024 Player’s Handbook. Thankfully, this problem has a potential solution: the arch-devil Asmodeus meddles extensively in the affairs of most Infernal-speaking Fiends and tieflings, so I could arguably call their culture Asmodean.

Kata-Turan Hobgoblin Culture. The hobgoblins of Kara-Tur aren’t called Kara-Turan hobgoblins anywhere. In fact, they’re never called anything but hobgoblins, as are the hobgoblins of Faerun. Despite this, these two groups seem to have distinct cultures. Faerunian hobgoblins are raised in goblinoid culture alongside bugbears and goblins. But there’s no evidence of this goblinoid culture existing in Kara-Tur. The hobgoblins of Kara-Tur are a distinct cultural group with no proper name.

Koryoan Human Culture. This name is problematic. Why? Because Koryo is literally an alternate spelling of the word Korea. Giving a land in the Realms a name taken from a modern, real-world country is, at the very least, confusing. Korea/Koryo and the Korean/Koryoan people of the Realms need to be distinguished from their unrelated Earth namesakes in some way. That will require changing “Koryo” to some other, similar name, but there’s no obvious alternative to use.

Kozakuran and Wa Human Culture. The people of Kozakura and Wa are well documented in existing Forgotten Realms lore. Sources explicitly state that these two peoples share a common culture, and said culture is described in detail. So what’s the name of this culture shared by the people of Kozakuran and Wa? We don’t actually know. As it turns out, no sourcebook provides a collective name for the people of Kozakura and Wa as a single, unified group.

Orog Culture. Choosing a name for this culture should be easy. Orogs are a specific tribe of orcs in the Realms, and they have a distinctive orog culture. Unfortunately, “orog” also refers to certain elite orcs which aren’t members of the orog tribe, so using “orog” could potentially cause confusion. Thankfully, members of the orog tribe are also called deep orcs, so there’s a convenient alternative to orog. But orogs would likely call themselves orogs, not deep orcs, so deep orc is less authentic.

This leaves me with a lot to think about. I’m still deciding what to use as the final names of these six cultures. I’ll have to revisit them in a future post once everything is decided.

What’s in a Name, Part II

In the previous post, I mentioned a few name-related challenges I have yet to resolve as of this posting. Thankfully, I've already resolved several other name-related challenges.

For each of the hundred-plus cultures in my player’s guide, I include a list of sample names appropriate for characters raised in that culture. The description of each culture lists a dozen or so gender-agnostic given names for anyone to use. For those cultures which use them, I also include separate lists of feminine given names, masculine given names, surnames, epithets, etc.

I did my best to make sure every list of sample names was as authentic to the Realms as possible. Most of my lists include a curated selection of names drawn from existing Forgotten Realms products. In cases where there weren’t enough existing names available, I generated new names by modifying existing names drawn from Forgotten Realms products, not creating new ones from scratch.

One helpful source for generating authentic Realms names was an older sourcebook called Dwarves Deep. In addition to listing sample names of dwarves, this book explained how dwarves generate new names in-universe, giving me an authentic process for generating new dwarf names. Even better, the book says these names can also be used for gnomes and halflings.

Other culture’s names weren’t so easy to pin down. On a few occasions, I had to combine names from multiple cultures which shared a homeland or a language into a single list. I then used that larger list as source of names for all contributing cultures. This resulted in a few cultures sharing names, but only when those cultures were geographically or linguistically linked, which I felt was reasonable.

In the case of Kara-Tur, where most languages use a script invented by Shou humans, I used Shou names—sometimes with cosmetic changes to spelling and with spaces between words removed—to fill in any gaps. It helped that every Shou has as many as three given names. Generating every possible permutation of individual Shou names gave me thousands of combined names to choose from.

To make sure I wasn’t assigning Shou names to non-Shou cultures at random, I consulted a Dragon magazine article which noted the real-world analogues of Kara-Tur’s fictional languages. I only assigned a Shou name to a non-Shou culture if that Shou name appeared similar to a name used in the real-world analogue of the given culture’s language (allowing for minor variations in spelling).

Was it worth devoting this much time and energy to making a few lists of names which meet my arbitrary standards of authenticity? Hard to say—but in the end, I’m satisfied with the results.

One of the lists of names from the Player’s Guide to the Forgotten Realms appears below. This list presents sample given names for characters raised in the Kuong culture of Kara-Tur.

Kuong Given Names – Alanka, Aree, Chatuphon, Khan, Myin, Nyan, Nywan, San, Sukha, Tan, Thuta, Thvan; also:

Feminine Given Names – Ama, Anjali, Bharani, Kalyani, Ke, Kesa, Manju, Nanda, Nila, Onma, Padama, Ratana, Singgi, Sundara, Suni, Thanda, Thuza, Yuzana

Masculine Given Names – Anan, Chintana, Devuri, Jirayu, Kavayah, Komon, Malvaya, Okka, Pathom, Raja, Sura, Thiha, Thura, Ukka, Vira, Vanna, Vishnan, Zani

Some design notes: A few of the listed names are those of Kuong NPCs. The rest are names taken from Shou NPCs with the spaces between syllables removed and, in one or two places, a minor change in spelling. A Dragon magazine article suggests using certain words from Burmese and Thai languages as words in the fictional Kuong language, so I compared Shou names to names purportedly* used in Myanmar or Thailand when deciding which Shou names to include on the list.

(*Because I wasn’t attempting to create a list of authentic real-world names, I spent little time verifying the authenticity of any real-world names I encountered when conducting research. I was merely using that linguistic data as inspiration when selecting and modifying NPC names which already appear in existing Forgotten Realms products.)

Chthonic Tieflings in the Realms

Until recently, I wasn’t sure how to best describe the cultures of the three tiefling lineages from the revised Player’s Handbook. It was fairly easy to identify cultural traits associated with Abyssal and Infernal lineages. At various times, demons and devils have ruled territory in the Realms, giving Abyssal and Infernal tieflings distinct cultures they can look to when exploring their fiendish heritage.

I was having more difficulty finding a place for Chthonic tieflings in the Realms. Neutral evil succubi and yugoloths show up here and there in the Realms, but they’ve never founded a society with a distinctive culture. Without a distinctive Chthonic culture, I would need to sort tieflings from three lineages into two tiefling cultures, neither of which would be exclusive to a single tiefling lineage.

Thankfully, I eventually identified one distinctly Chthonic culture in the Realms. While Chthonic tieflings can have succubus or yugoloth ancestors, they can also have night hag ancestors. In fact, in Races of Faerun, the three groups of Fiends most often mentioned as tiefling ancestors are demons, devils, and night hags. Succubi and yugoloths aren’t prominently featured.

Identifying night hags as the most prominent ancestors of Chthonic tieflings gives those tieflings an obvious connection to the Realms. Volo’s Guide to Monsters details the culture of Faerun’s hags, and the Unapproachable East sourcebook notes there are certain parts of the Realms where mortals descended from hags are well known members of the local population.

That results in one distinctive culture associated with each of the three new tiefling lineages, Abyssal, Chthonic, and Infernal. (I also include rules for fey’ri tieflings, non-standard tielfings with a culture all their own.) Now I just need to finalize my write-up of the night-hag inspired Chthonic culture and add some artwork depicting a Chthonic tiefling. Both of those tasks should be easy enough to accomplish.

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