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D&D 5E Forgotten realms recent history

I honestly don't know of anyone who genuinely liked the continual train of Realms Shaking events (by the time of late 2nd ed they were even coming along purely in novel series, while the game supplements struggled to catch up, continually about 3 cataclysms behind - Rage of Dragons, Death of the Dragon, Return of the Archwizards, Evermeet the novel, Last Mythal, Threat from the Sea etc all come to mind), but in the most part they were relatively ignorable. They tended to be localised, so if your game was set somewhere else and if you GM didn't feel the need to bring Elminster or the Seven Sisters into things to update the party on what they'd been doing, and if none of the PC clerics worshipped whatever god TSR had murdered this week, it probably wasn't a big deal to you. There was still a huge volume of lore out there, many regional sourcebooks, and most of it was still perfectly usable as reference material. Time advanced sure, but not so quickly as to immediately obsolete any of the legacy books.

The Spellplague and the transition to the 4th ed realms was a beast of a different colour. It went out of its way to be destructive, and it took deliberate pains to make sure that all the old lore was of no use. The time jump of 100 years made any NPCs or small, localised settings obsolete, because most of them would have died of old age. The enormously huge changes to the pantheon - not just who the gods were, but the very nature of them - rendered decades of lore about the deities and churches largely unusable. Huge tracts of Faerun , which had been painstakingly detailed in multiple sourcebooks - were blown up, or sent to Abeir, or rendered magically radioactive wastelands, and all that lore was rendered moot in a stroke. It's like Spellplague and similar changes to the realms were designed with the express intention of making old sourcebooks useless. And even worse - after burning the old Realms to ashes, WotC didn't even bother trying to replace it.

I can understand SOME of the rationale behind what the designers were trying to do. Clearing out the glut of Named Novel NPCs who did everything, and breaking down some of the big realms nations a bit to better reflect the 'Points of Light' model they were busy promoting. But creative destruction requires creation as well as destruction, and WotC badly dropped the ball (and for what it's worth I think they do now realise that, given there was an interview a while back where one of the designers talked about how they'd lost the trust of the FR player base and had to prove once again that they were worthy custodians of the lore).

After the Rage of Dragons, I could still play a priest of Tyr. I could look at a bunch of older sourcebooks and there'd be lots of material there on Tyr, his church, his doctrine, etc etc, and the Rage of Dragons would have left that largely untouched. After the Spellplague, I got three lines in various disparate sourcebooks vaguely saying that Tyr had murdered Helm and then abandoned his godhood and then (after the FR playerbase read about this in the Grand History of the Realms previews and pointed out how mindnumbingly stupid it was) came back, and I have no detail on how this affected his church or clergy or faith, or whether he'd changed as a result of the experience. Probably the most significant event in the history of Tyr, and there's no effort put into it whatsoever. Lazy, bad, design that destroyed without creating.

Same with Var the Golden. Tiny little place, in the far south-east of Faerun. Got one chapter in an old 2nd ed sourcebook and has been largely ignored since then. Quiet and peaceful sort of agricultural place - 'the Golden' was a reference to the fertile fields of wheat surrounding it. I could run a campaign in Var the Golden using that single old sourcebook all the way through 2nd ed and 3rd ed, regardless of what was happening with Mystra and Shades and the Cormyr monarchy etc. The 4e books, on the other hand, carefully and maliciously devoted one sentence to dropping Var the Golden into the sea, therefore destroying a functional (if old) setting and replacing it with nothing. I mean, if Var the Golden was too nice for Points of Light, there's a thousand solutions. Put it under the control of a renegade evil Chosen of Chauntea who goes all Children of the Corn and sacrifices people to the harvest, for instance. Don't just offhandedly destroy it.

FR has, since Avatar, always been somewhat in flux. It's a pretty gonzo sort of place, of Big Magic and Big Villains and Big Melodrama and Big Evil Plots. I was no fan of the continual Realms-Shaking Events that always seemed to be dealt with by boring NPCs in forgettable novel series, but I could accept them as part and parcel of the setting, and entirely in keeping with the FR ethos. The Spellplague was on a different order of messed-up.
 

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twofalls

DM Beadle
I think all the upheaval plots were garbage and ignore them in my games. Your essay is more eloquent than this, and well written so there is little point for me to elaborate, other than to just say that I'm hoping this thread doesn't turn into a bash the writers post. I put a lot of time into developing my games at the local level. The background is mostly meaningless to my players, but sometimes I can use it to create depth, where something they learned about early on comes back up in the game in interesting ways. Having a cohesive and organized history helps with that.
 


cbwjm

Hero
I got my start with D&D in the early 90s, so the Time of Troubles was already a thing of the past. I read the books and enjoyed them and played in the 2e era Realms with no knowledge of what the 1e era was like. I've since purchased a used copy of the Grey Box but have only ever skimmed it.

I was fine with the changes WotC made to the Realms for 3e to make it less like Middle Earth.

Wasn't a big fan of the 4e changes, although I did like some of the more fantastical elements, like the earth motes and such.

I'm pretty satisfied with the state of the Realms in the 5e era.


As for Dragonlance, I stopped paying attention to that setting after Dragons of Summer Flame. For me, it's always been the setting for the War of the Lance, and that's it. I don't even really feel like it's a viable gaming setting. Ansalon feels too small and empty. (I did own the 2e box set back in the day, though.)
I don't think I ever really realised that anything was different between 2e and 3e realms. I do recall thinking something like, oh, no time of troubles type changes to the setting. I came into the realms much like you when the time of troubles had already happened, after reading up on it all, I really quite liked it.

4e changes were a little extreme, but they definitely had cool stuff in it. Things like plaguetouched were kind of cool and and the way they integrated genasi was really neat as well.

5e realms feels like a mess but only because I have some knowledge of the past realms. Various gods are back alive at the same time as others. Both Myrkul and Kelemvor, Amauntator and Lathander make it a little weird and now apparently the Bane, Bhaal, and Myrkul aren't proper gods but demigods or some such running around the sword coast or something. At least I think that's what's mentioned in Dragonheist.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
I don't think I ever really realised that anything was different between 2e and 3e realms. I do recall thinking something like, oh, no time of troubles type changes to the setting. I came into the realms much like you when the time of troubles had already happened, after reading up on it all, I really quite liked it.
The change from 2e to 3e had a few events happen, most of which were either quietly introduced as part of the changeover (e.g. Bane returns) or were noted as being from recent novels (e.g. the Return of the Archwizards), but none could actually be called "Realms Shaking Events."
 

pukunui

Legend
I don't think I ever really realised that anything was different between 2e and 3e realms.
Yeah, it was all pretty subtle. I’m sure there were other changes, but the two that stood out the most for me were the dwarven baby boom that counteracted the whole stereotypical “dwarves in decline” funk and the reversal of the elven exodus to Valinor Evermeet.
 

jeremypowell

Explorer
The Spellplague was on a different order of messed-up.
I think most FR fans agree with you, with the exception of some of those who first got into the setting during 4e.

I'm a 5e-era FR convert—I never played in the setting or followed it before 2016. But since then I've dived in deep, reading all the 5e hardcovers and a lot of earlier novels and supplements.

Unlike a lot of longtime FR fans, I like the 5e Realms a lot. I especially like the 5e hardcover adventures more than longtime fans do—and they seem to me to be more respectful of the lore than a lot of 2e supplements were.

I even like the 4e Realms, though I wish it were a lot more fleshed-out (I also wish this about the 5e Realms). I also recognize that I only like the 4e Realms because by the time I joined up, it was in the past; if I'd been a fan during the 3e–4e shift I'm sure I would have hated it like most other fans did.

But I have one major problem with the 5e Realms that's growing bigger and bigger as I play in more 5e groups.

The problem is that the 5e Realms function in two almost incompatible ways with relation to the setting's recent history.

The first Realms is a default fantasy setting—a lore-rich setting that's still close enough to generic high fantasy that you don't have to explain much to newbies in order to get going (there's no high concept like in for example Eberron).

The second Realms is what I like to call a post-post-postapocalyptic fantasy setting.

The Wailing Years—1385 to 1395 DR, the decade immediately following the onset of the Spellplague—were truly apocalyptic. Suddenly whole regions were destroyed or transformed in a magical cataclysm, and many thousands of people mutated into spellscarred monsters. The Realms of that era would essentially be a postapocalyptic fantasy setting.

But because of the time-jump, the 4e era starts almost a hundred years after that, when things are still pretty weird but have settled down a lot—into a post-postapocalyptic fantasy setting. In fact, I think part of the justification for the time-jump was (or should have been, even if this wasn't actually a major motive) precisely so that the apocalyptic transformation would be far enough in the past that players could be told "this is the way things are, and have been for a while" rather than "everything changed just a few years back."

Then comes the Second Sundering, which is really almost as big a transformation as the Spellplague was. It only seems less huge because the resulting status quo is closer to generic high fantasy, rather than farther from it. The 5e Realms, by this logic, is a post-post-postapocalyptic fantasy setting. But there was no second time-jump (or rather, there was a very short one), so the Second Sundering is very recent history.

The majority of PCs in 5e games in most regions of the setting should be keenly aware of this event—probably not of the reasons for it, nor the cosmic specifics (they might know nothing about Abeir, for instance), but of the fact that whole regions and even populations suddenly appeared or reappeared, loads of gods returned to power after a long absence, etc.

The original apocalypse, the Spellplague, is now just over a century old in historical terms; most characters don't need to know much about it. But in the 5e Realms, the "restorative" apocalypse of the Second Sundering happened over the previous decade. It's not in the rear-view mirror, it literally just happened. For campaigns to gloss over it would be like setting a pulp adventure game in 1949 and ignoring WWII.

And yet, in order to function in its first role, as a generic default high fantasy setting, the magnitude of the recent history has to be minimized or ignored.

As a player and a DM in games where most other players aren't as invested in the setting as I am, I'm constantly bumping up against this. Increasingly it feels to me like players who know a lot about FR and players who don't are playing in completely different settings.

This isn't just like a Star Wars nut playing a Star Wars RPG with folks who've only seen the movies; in that case you might have the fan sometimes informing people about this or that alien race or planet or whatever.

With FR, it's more like the knowledgeable fan telling the rest of the players, "Well, you know, the region next door was trapped on another planet for a hundred years, until it mysteriously returned at the same time as half the gods were resurrected—last summer." To which the response is a very understandable "WTF is this setting supposed to be anyway?"
 
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Alzrius

The EN World kitten
I especially like the 5e hardcover adventures more than longtime fans do—and they seem to me to be more respectful of the lore than a lot of 2e supplements were.
Would you mind citing some examples of this?
The Wailing Years—1485 to 1495 DR, the decade immediately following the onset of the Spellplague—were truly apocalyptic.
Minor correction to what was probably a typo: the Wailing Years were 1385 to 1395 DR.
 

jeremypowell

Explorer
Would you mind citing some examples of this?

Minor correction to what was probably a typo: the Wailing Years were 1385 to 1395 DR.
D'oh! Yes, typo. Fixed.

Lore: sure. My standard examples of 5e lore-fidelity come from the first two adventures from 5e:

- Lost Mine of Phandelver. This whole adventure is heavily based around on info from Volo's Guide to the North. Everything in that module is based on prior lore. Wave Echo Cave, Phandalin, Conyberry, Old Owl Well, etc. It's all very true to what these places could look like in the late 15th century DR. Every one of them is described in that older book, and to my memory nothing from the older lore is contradicted.

- Tyranny of Dragons. I've seen so many people complain about how this adventure tramples on lore regarding the Cult of the Dragon. The complaint runs like this: WotC wanted an adventure focused on Tiamat because of the cartoon, so they should have used the Church of Tiamat, but "Cult of the Dragon" just sounded cooler so, even though the Cult is dedicated to creating dracoliches and has nothing to do with Tiamat, they just reinvented the Cult to be like the Church, out of nowhere.

But ToD is actually based around the idea that the Church of Tiamat has successfully infiltrated the Cult of the Dragon, which was previously a loose network of independent cells united in goals and doctrine but not in leadership; the Church has transformed the Cult's dogma and unified the Cult. There's a whole aspect of that campaign about how old-schoolers from the dracolich-oriented days aren't entirely committed to the current Tiamat-oriented leadership and doctrines, and the party can potentially turn some of those older cultists against the new ones.

And this isn't at all out of nowhere but is actually set up perfectly in the older lore. Here's a passage from Cult of the Dragon (1998, p. 61–62; 1370 DR):

"The Church of Tiamat, little known in the western Realms, venerates (Tiamat). . . . The Time of Troubles convinced Tiamat that she had to quickly acquire greatly increased power if her presence in the Realms was to survive the collapse of the Untheric pantheon. The Cult of the Dragon, composed of powerful but godless cultists predisposed to worship dragons, was just too tempting a target for the Dragon Queen to resist absorbing into her faith. The Dark Lady (an alias of Tiamat) expects strong resistance from the more powerful Cult cells' leaders, but she feels that the fractious nature of the Cult actually plays into her plan. She can conquer the smaller cells easily enough, she feels, most often from within by proselytizing to the Cult members. Then, with numerous cells under her wings and the benefits additional worshippers give her, she can overcome the powerful cells. . . . In the years since the Time of Troubles, Tiamat's faithful have begun to infiltrate and co-opt the Cult's vast network of followers. . . . Tiamat has been warmly received by a significant minority of the lesser-ranking, disillusioned Cultists and Cult supporters."

Moreover, the whole Castle Naerytar section is a plausible development from lore presented in the 2e-era Dungeon magazine "Mere of Dead Men" adventure path. Etc. It's all quite consistent and respectful.

- Another book that catches flak is Dungeon of the Mad Mage. For example, people complain that the Promenade of the Dark Maiden is gone from Level 3. I guess if you think that changing anything is disrespectful, then OK, sure. But this is addressed in two ways: first, it's explicitly said that this was destroyed, and that worshippers are rebuilding it elsewhere in the dungeon (the campaign book covers only a portion of each level, not the entire megadungeon, so this is happening "off-screen"); they also give themselves a lot of latitude (admittedly a little too much, perhaps) on things like this by making Undermountain a magically reshapeable place.

But really, take a look at what they've done with the three levels from Ruins of Undermountain II; not only are they very plausible 100-years-later versions of those levels as presented in the earlier box set, they're also infinitely more usable, because in the earlier box set, maps of two of those levels were pervasively mislabeled and/or the descriptions simply don't match the rooms. But rather than toss out that garbled earlier lore, the 5e book tries to make sense of it and make it into something coherent.

Contrast all this with things that happened in the supposedly halcyon lore days of 1e–2e. Take a look at a box set like The North—this material tramples on lore that was only a few years old, for no real reason other than sloppiness.

Similarly, the city of Baldur's Gate was substantially reinvented by the video game, departing from its description in Volo's Guide to the Sword Coast; the whole idea of an Upper and Lower City separated by a big wall running through the city is totally absent from the map and description prior to the video game. It was invented out of whole cloth to suit the game's story, contradicting all previous descriptions, and of course immediately after the game's release the lore is silently retconned to match the CRPG. This kind of thing happened in the 2e era, and nothing remotely like this has happened in 5e lore, not without providing an in-world explanation for it, anyway.

I actually like most of the 1e–2e stuff very much, so I don't want to denigrate it too much. But I don't find 5e to be any more contradicting of earlier materials than the earlier materials themselves were, actually less so—and much, much more internally consistent (granted, an easier task given that there are so many fewer 5e releases, but still).
 
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Alzrius

The EN World kitten
But I don't find 5e to be any more contradicting of earlier materials than the earlier materials themselves were, actually less so—and much, much more internally consistent (granted, an easier task given that there are so many fewer 5e releases, but still).
And here I was sure you were going to mention the retconned timeline for H4 Throne of Bloodstone. ;)

That said, the 5E lore has had a few issues, such as Storm King's Thunder apparently forgetting that only members of the Shanat bloodline can use the Wyrmskull Throne (as established in the appropriately-named 2E adventure, Wyrmskull Throne). There's also the apparent misdating of when Mount Hotenow erupted in the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide (which is discussed more over here). But overall I agree that the lore for the 5E Realms isn't necessarily a mess per se...though I likewise agree that it has a lot to do with the comparative dearth of materials.
 

jeremypowell

Explorer
And here I was sure you were going to mention the retconned timeline for H4 Throne of Bloodstone. ;)

That said, the 5E lore has had a few issues, such as Storm King's Thunder apparently forgetting that only members of the Shanat bloodline can use the Wyrmskull Throne (as established in the appropriately-named 2E adventure, Wyrmskull Throne). There's also the apparent misdating of when Mount Hotenow erupted in the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide (which is discussed more over here). But overall I agree that the lore for the 5E Realms isn't necessarily a mess per se...though I likewise agree that it has a lot to do with the comparative dearth of materials.
Those are good counterexamples (though the Hotenow thing doesn't seem like a big deal to me; "some fifty years ago" in Icespire Peak is off by almost twenty years, but it's explicitly an approximation, hence the "some").

There are also other minor timeline problems in the 5e lore that result from WotC's new policy to avoid explicitly dating adventures—the idea being that players might not want to move on to an adventure that precedes the one they just finished, and this undermines WotC's current approach, where they want every D&D adventure to be an evergreen product perpetually in print.
 
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Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Those are good counterexamples.

There are also some minor timeline problems in the 5e lore that result from WotC's new policy to avoid explicitly dating adventures—the idea being that players might not want to move on to an adventure that precedes the one they just finished, and this undermines WotC's current approach, where they want every D&D adventure to be an evergreen product perpetually in print.
Well, as Alphastream's blog notes, there are enough on-the-sly references that you can generally figure out what happens when.

Though honestly, I'm still surprised at the idea that anyone balked at the idea of linking Tiamat to the Cult of the Dragon in 5e. As you correctly noted, her wanting to take them over had been referenced for years; the 2E Powers & Pantheons supplement even noted that she made an undead avatar (the "Undying Queen") specifically to make herself more appealing to the Cult. It was similar to how some people complained about Lathander becoming Amaunator in 4E, despite the fact that the change was heralded by a fairly successful religious heresy from Lathander's church in 3E's Power of Faerun.

That said (and I'm on shakier ground here, as I haven't finished the Brimstone Angels series), I don't recall Tiamat being trapped in Hell and needing help to get out in order to invade the mortal world before 5E. That seemed awfully "Takhisis in the Abyss" to me, rather than adhering to Realms lore.
 
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jeremypowell

Explorer
That said (and I'm on shakier ground here, as I haven't finished the Brimstone Angels series), I don't recall Tiamat being trapped in Hell and needing help to get out in order to invade the mortal world before 5E. That seemed awfully "Takhisis in the Abyss" to me, rather than adhering to Realms lore.
That's another good counterexample. How'd her status change from its previous Realms description to what we see in ToD and Descent?

Ed Greenwood has given us a semicanonical answer.
 

pukunui

Legend
@jeremypowell: I agree with you regarding the official 5e adventures downplaying the effects of the Sundering. In the SCAG, it talks about how the Sundering messed up the seasons, pushing back the start of each one by months. I've been including that little tidbit in most of my 5e FR games.

If/when I eventually get to run Rime of the Frostmaiden, I'll be using that part of the in-game justification for why the inhabitants of Icewind Dale didn't take the everlasting winter seriously at first ... that is, they just assumed spring and summer were running late like they had been for several years already but now that it's technically heading towards autumn and it's still wintry, they're starting to realize something is very wrong ...

I also make sure to mention the Spellplague at every opportunity. Like just last session in my Tomb of Annihilation campaign, the players wanted to know why so much of the jungle was overrun by undead, so I was able to talk about Ras Nsi and how the Spellplague took away his control of his undead army, allowing them to spread through the jungle.


That being said, I think the main reason the Sundering has a minimal to non-existent presence in the 5e adventures is two-fold: 1) it makes it easier for people to run the adventures in the 1e-3e FR timeline as well as the 5e timeline and 2) it makes it easier for people to cut-and-paste the bits they like into their homebrew campaigns. This second one is the real clincher, I think, because pretty much every 5e hardcover adventure is written in such a way that it's relatively simple to break it down into all its parts and just use them separately. I've done that to great effect with both Princes of the Apocalypse and Out of the Abyss and to a lesser extent some of the other adventures.



EDIT: As for how Tiamat got stuck in Avernus ... I'm uncertain of how she ended up there in the first place, but the idea that she's "trapped" there does in fact relate to one of the changes that Ao made during the Second Sundering. By reforging the Tablets of Fate, he made it so the gods can't just show up in Faerûn whenever they feel like it. They've become more distant and remote, forced to communicate through dreams and prophecies, etc etc. So in order to make it so Tiamat could manifest in Faerûn again (something she's done previously in the Old Empires IIRC), she needed her minions to undertake a massive magical ritual to break through Ao's restrictions, thus "freeing" her from her supposed imprisonment.
 
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twofalls

DM Beadle
"That said, the 5E lore has had a few issues, such as Storm King's Thunder apparently forgetting that only members of the Shanat bloodline can use the Wyrmskull Throne (as established in the appropriately-named 2E adventure, Wyrmskull Throne)."

This doesn't phase me so much in running my current SKT game. Giants are so ancient, heirs of fallen Empires that once held world dominance, that I portray their leaders as still in possession of scraps of magical lore that rivals the height of ancient elven power. Thus this deep magic can be tapped to allow use of the Skull by giants.
 

pukunui

Legend
This doesn't phase me so much in running my current SKT game. Giants are so ancient, heirs of fallen Empires that once held world dominance, that I portray their leaders as still in possession of scraps of magical lore that rivals the height of ancient elven power. Thus this deep magic can be tapped to allow use of the Skull by giants.
Yeah, that bit didn't bother me either. We're talking the king and queen of the storm giants here. If anyone can override that restriction, they ought to be able to.

Also, who knows what the Spellplague did to all the magical artifacts out there. It could very easily have stripped away the Shanat bloodline requirement. When I come across an inconsistency relating to magic (like how none of the big-name dragons have access to any of their old unique spells and abilities any more), I just chock it down to the Spellplague taking it away.
 



pukunui

Legend
I don't require that you agree with me by any means, but as I played that one session it jumped out at me like a hammer in the face.
4e had some good stuff in it. I miss the way it handled monsters, for one thing.

5e monsters, in comparison, tend to either be really bland and boring (ogres, beasts) or ridiculously over-complicated (just about any spellcaster).
 

twofalls

DM Beadle
I'm certain that you aren't alone in liking 4e, and I'm glad that some folks enjoy it. I'm also certain that you are all in the minority, but that isn't in itself a bad thing.
 

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