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D&D General Ed Greenwood: A World of a Thousand-Thousand Stories

So the Forgotten Realms began ten years before I first saw those initial three booklets of D&D, as an imaginary world for one young boy to explore by writing stories in. Stories written to entertain myself, that usually flowed from something I’d read written by someone else, in a “So what happened next?” fashion.


This was more than twenty years before I would describe the Realms to Jeff Grubb as “a world of a thousand-thousand stories” to contrast it with Dragonlance, a world initially built to tell one epic story. As it happened, that’s exactly what TSR was looking for (a world to accommodate all sorts of D&D adventures, from pirate to arctic to jungle to exploring pyramids to Arabian Nights), which was why the wider world ever got to see the Realms, but I was being entirely honest with Jeff: the Realms was literally home to countless stories.

In those two decades, I’d built it into that, because stories entertained me and I needed a lot of entertaining.

Subconsciously, as I voraciously read nigh-everything I could get my hands on, from instruction sheets and cereal boxes to way-over-my-head quantum mechanics theses and steamy romances, I was mining everything for “what’s in here that I can use? And to tell what story?”

So I undertook worldbuilding. Informally and often without really thinking about it, I built conflicts into the Realms, and tactical geography (such as straits, and towns in mountain passes, and cities that would logically dominate trade routes by being transshipment points and so either supply bases, or controlling trade up and down a river they sat at the mouth of).

For conflicts, I had border strife between realms, intrigue within cities for daily control and taxation, and bigger intrigues between factions in the ruling courts of kingdoms, plus street-level power struggles between guilds over new innovations, competition between trading costers and caravan companies, and various small backroom cabals of merchants and shopkeepers. I called all of these groupings “power groups,” and ere long had decided that I wanted this setting to be awash in magic, so along came the sexier power groups that later received more attention in the published Realms: the Red Wizards of Thay, the Arcane Brotherhood, the Cult of the Dragon (spearheaded originally by wizards seeking to control dragons they’d convinced to become liches), the Zhentarim, and the Harpers.

These power groups, the conflicts, and the geographical hotspots are generators of endless stories, the “on the scene or in the way” elements that would have to be part of many tales, or that would shape stories even if omitted from them.

Later, I took a stab at explaining what by then was intuitive to me but that I saw again and again wasn’t to others (I recall a DM at an early Gencon, asked by his players what was in the wagons of the caravan they were raiding, who stared back at them in surprise and asked, “Er, does it matter?”). This stab was in the pages of The Dragon (Plan Before You Play in issue #63, and no, writers never got to pick the article titles), but the artist who illustrated it couldn’t resist jazzing up the map to look interesting, whereas my entire point was that tons of world detail could be logically built from a very plain, featureless map (my original was literally a backwards “C” of land about to bite down on a central island, with the mainland ruled off into alphabetized sections).

A less mystical way of describing worldbuilding thinking is to understand the basics of how the world works, from “water runs downhill, and does this to what it flows through, over time” to “sentients tend to settle here, there, and yonder because” to “caravans and cargo ships carry surpluses to shortages.” If you do this in one setting, for a long time, detail builds up in ever-richer, deeper layers until you can walk the streets of imaginary cities in your head, remembering where all the potholes and dangerous back alleys and interesting architectural features are. (Or as one of my early-grade school teachers put it, “You can glibly demonstrate that you’re utterly nuts.”)

This in turn lets you “know” what consequences a change will make, in the same way that you can see how the flow of a tiny stream is affected when you create a dam of stones across it.

Or in Realms terms: Sembia is a rich country full of energetic entrepreneurs, investors, and traders. Over time, their power and influence expands, reaching into Cormyr, the Dales, and Westgate (as well as, with lesser force, into more distant places). Some of these places, such as Zhentil Keep, Hillsfar, and Cormyr, have the means and inclination to strongly resist increasing Sembian influence (which often takes the form of buyouts: buying property, businesses, and the loyalty or at least cooperation of key individuals). If Sembian interests succeed in putting “their” pawn on the lord’s/lady’s throne of a particular dale, I can immediately see how this will affect trade and local governance, and how all the interested power groups will react.

And if Player Characters are going to live imaginary lives in the community, with day jobs and homes and the need to buy supper or drink somewhere if they can’t hunt for it or make it, they will be affected. And if their day jobs are as bodyguards or warehouse guards, or caravan or valuable-shipment escorts, they should be very interested in such power shifts, because their bread-and-butter employment opportunities are closely linked to such events.

Which is why, since regular D&D play began in the Realms (1978), I’ve always had “Current Clack,” the news and rumors brought to any Faerûnian locale by the latest wayfarers (usually caravans, but sometimes peddlers with mule-trains, or even local families on the move by cart or wagon). It’s customary for good tale-tellers to earn a drink or two, or even a meal, at a tavern of evenings by imparting the latest juicy gossip, colorful tales, and more. Inevitably embroidered in the telling, but still…that’s how backcountry folk form their changing opinions of the Realms, and how PC adventurers hear of new adventuring opportunities.

And with every tale told, the setting seems more alive.
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Ed Greenwood

Ed Greenwood

Forgotten Realms Creator

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
This is why I've always loved playing in the Forgotten Realms. I never felt I needed to use the entirety of the vast library of knowledge, depth, and detail of this setting. But it is there if I wish to use it. And for me, that is more than enough.

You can run multiple campaigns within a single city and never leave its walls, such as Waterdeep, Neverwinter, Ravens Bluff, or Baldur's Gate. And some regions practically write their own storylines, like (one of my favorites) the Bloodstone lands where the small, hardened kingdom of Damara once resisted the Witch King in the dark, frozen lands of Vaasa. But despite all of this information and lore ready to use, there is still enough blank spaces on the map to fill in your own personal creations and stories.

I, for one, am grateful for the sharing of the Forgotten Realms. May we always be able to gather our parties there and venture forth.

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This is the very reason I love the Realms, and my DM style has grown over the years based on what I think your game is like. It's all about characters and their stories, and not only are the stories about the characters, but they are written by them (well, their actions, anyway). And they always surprise me (and quite often the players as well).

What I'd love to see is more from you! I would continue to buy anything you publish on DMsGuild, along with things from George Krashos, Eric L. Boyd, R.A. Salvatore, etc., etc. My dream series of stuff would be a follow up to Ed Greenwood Presents Elminster's Forgotten Realms, making it clear that it's an alternate version/timeline than the core Realms that is unfolding in the WotC releases. While I always find stuff to use in whatever they release, and it's in no way a criticism of what they do, my Realms leans very, very heavily on your writings and I'm always hoping for more. I was super excited when Mirt's adventures continued (with game stats for new stuff), so when can we see more!

Ahh, but life is busy, and it wouldn't surprise me if there are complications with what I'd love to see regarding WotC, too. But one can dream. In the meantime, I'm working on getting a new group up and running, ironically in a non-Greenwood part of the Realms, Damara, although they have arrived there in part from the last group, via some interesting stories around the Moonsea and in Zhentil Keep.

The stories continue...and thanks for all of yours that you've shared!


Also glad to see Ed is doing well from the hospital stay mentioned in his previous post!

I’ve recently used the news of the Realms site for tavern rumors or news....all things that help ring the setting to life. Little things like these articles have added so much flavor while we play and in the tavern as rumors overheard, etc. Thanks for these back in the day as well Ed, very much appreciated.
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It’s a great setting, that has some of my most treasured locales from 2nd ed... Myth Drannor, Menzoberranzan and Waterdeep/Undermountain.

This month I started a massive ultimate dream campaign combining Dragon Heist, DotMM, and the 2nd and 3rd editions of Undermountain into a massive city adventure set in Waterdeep.

Next year I’m planning my mash up of Out of the Abyss, War of the Spider Queen, and the abortive Throne of Night to complete my second ultimate dream campaign set in Menzoberranzan and its environs.

Thanks for creating such an amazing and evocative framework for me to have fun in!


Kobold Enthusiast
This is why I've always loved playing in the Forgotten Realms. I never felt I needed to use the entirety of the vast library of knowledge, depth, and detail of this setting. But it is there if I wish to use it. And for me, that is more than enough.

It is really cool to always be a Google (or index lookup) away from the left turn the party made in your right-turn plans. The number of ways Forgotten Realms have turned left during the years with different authors also gives an incredible wealth of plot hooks, approaches, and themes to plunder while giving players that "comfortable D&D feeling."

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