Making The Realms Come Alive

I’ve worked on the Forgotten Realms every day of my life now for over fifty years, and for over forty of them have been joined by scores of fellow creators, all of us pumping our energies into the setting. So a lot has happened, in-world, and with so much going on, the place certainly seems alive. Some hapless crofters in the Dales or shopkeepers in Waterdeep would probably tell you their world was a lot too alive, a lot of the time.

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Some gamers prefer less detail, and may find catching up on all the Realmslore daunting or a time sink or too expensive, but the secret is: you don’t have to use even a tenth of it. It’s there if you need it, to answer a question or save you design time, but most gamers take what they want to, and freelance their own homebrew setting from that standing start.

And all of the years of news and rumors goes a long way towards building the illusion that the place is vast and real and, yes, alive.

Which is certainly better than dead.

I’ve often talked about taking care to avoid this: your FRP setting being a lifeless backdrop, with the lights low and all NPCs frozen in place, dust settling on their eyeballs, until the moment the PCs walk on stage and the lights come up, everyone starts moving and talking, and it’s action time. Players can sense this; their characters are the prime movers in the setting, and nothing happens when they’re away from the world, not playing.

Which makes it all seem a trifle hollow and unsatisfying, and robs the play of some of the fun because the actions of the PCs can shove and shape the world too much.

It’s preferable if the world rolls along, with things happening, while the PCs are resting or recuperating or studying or shut away experimenting with new spells...or incarcerated. And if there’s just one background plot (everyone’s vying to put their pawn on the throne while the old King lies on his deathbed, and suddenly royal heirs start disappearing), the players can still feel as if their PCs are the prime movers, because everything swirls around them and reacts to them.

I’ve always avoided this particular problem by having four or five subplots unfolding at the same time, so the PCs can pick and choose what they want to get involved in, and try to profit from. For instance…

1. Wherever the PCs dwell or move to, daring by-night burglaries happen. Are sneak thieves following them around and using the PCs for cover, knowing the PCs will eventually get blamed?

2. Rival merchant companies (or unofficial cabals) are feuding, with arson and alley knifings and cargo spoilage and thefts, and the PCs are caught in the middle because they’ve been hired by a third party as warehouse or wagon or caravan or pay-packet guards, and are on the spot when some of the feud’s darker deeds erupt.

3. An exporter of live monsters has hired the PCs to live-capture certain local beasts lairing in ruins, but this is going to land them in trouble because local smugglers are using the ruins to cache contraband, and they’re working with an impoverished old-blood noble family with shapeshifting bloodlines, who are controlling or at least goading the monsters to run interference; the PCs may very well end up trapping a shapeshifted—and furious—young noble, perhaps the heir of the house.

4. A royal heir has been threatened with a slow and painful death during the aforementioned quiet struggle for the throne, and has gone to ground locally, hiding in disguise with a handful of trusted and formidable bodyguards. Who don’t want the PCs or anyone else nosing around too closely to certain ruins where they’re now hiding out. With good reason, as another faction is hunting them, seeing this as a golden opportunity for an assassination or capture of the heir, and will assume the PCs are part of the heir’s hired defenses, and act accordingly.

5. Long ago, the king outlawed and exiled a genius inventor whose innovations threatened the crown’s control of society—and the inventor came here and hid. Now elderly and infirm, the inventor has surrounded herself with automaton guardians of her own creation, and will fearfully use them against the PCs, agents of the faction hunting the heir, and the heir’s bodyguards.

6. The crown has never been all that friendly with independent wizards of power and accomplishment, and quietly made it clear that they’ll avoid trouble by maintaining a low profile in the countryside. One such wizard has done so, right here, and now finds trouble has come to them. This mage knows all about the inventor, and is quite willing to seize control of her guardians and use them as defenders or to misdirect anyone who gets too close.

And so on. Now, a fine line has to be walked here, best navigated by DMs who take care to find out the triggers, likes, and dislikes of their players (dungeon crawls or not? Palace intrigue, or draw blades and kill someone?), because no one wants to sit down at the gaming table to relax and get away from real-world problems and stresses—only to find themselves in an imaginary situation that’s even more tense and fraught than real life. Gaming tipples should be optional, not desperately needed!

Plots in fantasy fiction often involve big stakes. The fate of the world may hang in the balance, an ancient evil or god may be on the verge of awakening, or the Magical McGuffin in the wrong hands could unleash devastation on a realm, a continent, or a sacred special spot that harbors a precious last hope for all.

However, plots in an ongoing FRP campaign should be both large and small in stakes and scope, with the small ones in the foreground.

A local merchant wants to burn down the warehouse of a competitor, or a handful-of-coins swindler comes to town. A local official has to enforce an unpopular new royal law or tax, and the resentful common folk react by deceiving the local constabulary to avoid the consequences.

To personally involve or victimize the PCs is to court player dissatisfaction (Hey! Where’s my relief from everyday real-world troubles?), but if the adventurers have been hired by someone affected by events (such as feuding merchants), they’re inevitably involved. The brute-force way to involve aloof PCs is to have them falsely accused or framed, but far better is to bring them into situations where they must make a choice, and then consequences flow from that. When bad things happen to us, we feel better if we had some choice, some say in what unfolded.

It doesn’t have to be complicated; it can be as simple as “Where does our next meal come from?” for the PCs. Suddenly there’s no water; who’s stealing it? It’s draining away underground; who or what in the dungeon down there is diverting it? Only one way to find out, so down we go…

Nor do these setting events and politics have to drag the PCs into involvement in an aggressive and forceful way; they can be a panorama of passing “news of the day” that the PCs can reach into when something catches their eyes.

Right, enough preaching. Every gamer who reads this will do what they want to do and change this or that; it’s what gamers do. ;}
 
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Ed Greenwood

Comments

murquhart72

Explorer
I like this. I reminds me of having rumors of werewolves harrowing a nearby forest. If the PCs concentrate on the local ruins (megadungeon) too much for too long, they may find some old, friendly NPCs have become werewolves or even a nice village they enjoyed previously has become a "ghost town" do to lycanthropic hunting.
PCs make choices, and there will always be consequences in a "living" campaign.
 

LuisCarlos17f

Adventurer
The worlds of the RPG are like LEGO, after buying you can create and build as you want, and it has not to be like the showed in the cover of the box.

I would rather to have a lot of details and after I change it as I want than an "empty space".

In many comics the superheroes aren't always saving the world, sometimes only a life, or to defend a little neighbood/district in the city. Other times they have to save themself and to survive.
 

Scrivener of Doom

Adventurer
I would love to see Ed publish expanded notes for all the WotC 5E adventures set in the new, barebone Realms. He could cover additional rumours and plots to help DMs bring the world to life instead of simply running them through the adventure as written.

And I would also love to see "Ed's Realms" where he publishes his own version of the Realms set, say, ten years before Ye Olde Grey Box.
 
A living, breathing world that is not frozen in time is one reason why I like the Realms more than any of the other settings that have been published by TSR/WotC. A year passes in the real world and a year also passes in the Realms. I know other people want to always be in the same time/year in their setting of choice, but I prefer the idea of this year's adventuring party perhaps hearing stories and rumors of what last year's adventuring party was doing, or going and visiting the kingdom taken over/established by an adventuring party from 5 or 10 years before that.
 

Derren

Adventurer
It all depends on your expectations for a living world. On a low level this certainly works and you can have the PCs project a bubble of activity. But still, outside this bubble everything is still frozen.
The Realms suffer from the same problem most other fantasy settings have. Centuries, sometimes even millenia, where nothing happens. No progression in technology (including magic), culture, etc. It doesn't help that in the realms the cultures hardly interact with each other. You have your tropes, the greedy merchant republic, feudal knights, ancient egyptians, etc. all in close proximity to each other but their cultures never interact or influence the others, meaning everything is static.
So when you look at the big picture the FR is anything but living.
 

LuisCarlos17f

Adventurer
Anytimes nothing happens in the fantasy kingdom until the group of heroes appear. I call this the Skywalker effect. In FR sometimes a little group of characters change the History, but not always the same group. In Dragonlance the main characters are in the main happenings.
 

PMárk

Explorer
Thanks Ed, you described exactly why I like settings like the Realms, or WoD, or Shadowrun (and how I prefer to handle these kinds of detailed settings). They feel alive. They have going-ons outside the PCs, which I can read about and may or may not come up in the home game. It's the ammount of details and yes, the dreaded word "metaplot" and the novels and such. It's just that these worlds are lot more immersive for me, because they feel like living, breathing worlds, not just backdrops for the game. I know some people feel contstrained by those things, but it wasn't like that for me.

I also appreciate all the tremendous work you and others put into the Realms. It's one of my favorite settings and I have tons of precious memories connected to it. Hell, the 3e Farűn poster-map, that came with the 3e FRCSG is still up on my wall! :D

I wish if WotC would put more actual work into the setting (and the other settings too). I just miss the good ol' days (which for me was mostly under 3e as the game goes, though I read a lot of 2e novels and I generally miss the novels now a lot). Our group still uses mostly the 3e material, because there just wasn't anything better since then. The 4e Realms was... while not bad, per se, wasn't really the continuation of the Realms, IMO (though I liked some of the stuff, like Erin Evans's books) and the 5e material is just shockingly scarce and to be frank, bland and boring. I miss the stories, the characters, the myriad plots and story hooks. :(

It would be great to have some FR material on the DM's Guild, if not else, from the authors, like you Ed, that I could consider "canon". Maybe they're already here, I'll certainly check. I didn't bother with D&D stuff for a while, 4e and 5e largely drove me to Paizo and other games and I just stopped caring. A big part of that was WotC's handling of the settings, foremost the Realms. I'd buy FR material, that is on par with the old books, even if I'd use them with 3.5 or whatnot and I'd buy novels from you guys. I'm not interested in the stripped-down Realms WotC uses as a mere backdrop for their annual big campaign book. I'd be very interested in some "real" Realms stuff.
 
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blueznl

Villager
That 2e FR Adventurers cover is an awesome blast from the past. Actually had it out again for my FR campaign recently for inspiration.

Thanks again Ed, great advice for a master story teller!
Heh! I'm actually doing the same thing. Had the second request in 10 years :cool: to update my old Secomber doc, and bought Ed's 'Elminster's Forgotten Realms' as a PDF to see what else I could steal ;). Then decided I'd better re-visit the ol' FR 2e box and book (preferring that flavor over the 3e books).
 

jedijon

Explorer
I like details—and living places that change over time are the objective.

It’s hard to picture The Realms, or Star Wars as good means to that end.

If you step into a point in their history you’re surrounded by the baggage of “what’s canonical”. Either you’re living in the shadow of main characters or retelling the interstitial events to caused the big blocks to fall into place.

Now, this can work OK if only the DM is familiar with those intricacies, OR if the group is studiously avoiding meta-knowledge actions. It would be a really low moment for a player to say “naw, that’s not what happened”. And that’s precisely the position you’re putting them in by running an adventure in a deeply realized setting with a chronology already defined.

For me they don’t work well, but it’s personal—the lengthy names, the bombastic lore. It smashes bad fantasy into a history class. But I’m well versed in the lore of A Song of Ice and Fire...so I should talk...right?

What I’d like to see in an epic adventure is more tables with the building blocks for what’s happening around and despite the PCs plans. Then you still have the detail without confirming to a prescribed outcome. Not unlike the faction system in Stars Without Number.
 

cmad1977

Adventurer
I like details—and living places that change over time are the objective.

It’s hard to picture The Realms, or Star Wars as good means to that end.

If you step into a point in their history you’re surrounded by the baggage of “what’s canonical”. Either you’re living in the shadow of main characters or retelling the interstitial events to caused the big blocks to fall into place.

Now, this can work OK if only the DM is familiar with those intricacies, OR if the group is studiously avoiding meta-knowledge actions. It would be a really low moment for a player to say “naw, that’s not what happened”. And that’s precisely the position you’re putting them in by running an adventure in a deeply realized setting with a chronology already defined.

For me they don’t work well, but it’s personal—the lengthy names, the bombastic lore. It smashes bad fantasy into a history class. But I’m well versed in the lore of A Song of Ice and Fire...so I should talk...right?

What I’d like to see in an epic adventure is more tables with the building blocks for what’s happening around and despite the PCs plans. Then you still have the detail without confirming to a prescribed outcome. Not unlike the faction system in Stars Without Number.
The secret that few seem to realize is that Canon is much like ‘The Spoon’.

There is no canon in your games.
 

blueznl

Villager
" It would be a really low moment for a player to say “naw, that’s not what happened. "

I was considering the different versions of the FR maps (here) which pose a similar... eh... dilemma.

But... it's easy. Do a little 'Corwin'...

Corwin lied

I always approach it like this: in Roger Zelazny's Amber books Corwin tells his story from his point of view. Avid readers have noticed some inconsistencies in his tales.

In the Amber role-playing game Erik Wuijck (the creator of the game based upon Amber) poses an interesting question: what if Corwin has been lying? It might have been mistakes, covering for other participants, embellishment of Corwin's tales, leaving out a few embarrassing facts... or outright lying, because why would he spill secrets you (as a mere Earth mortal) are not supposed to know?

What if Elminster has been lying?

What if Elminster has been lying? Why wouldn't he? His lines suggest he left out some of the more juicy (and dangerous) details. You could even claim it's canon 😈

Hold on to that thought. What if all the paper versions we have are distortions of reality? That these are only an approach to the reality of the Forgotten Realms, of which we see some parts through a fogged and broken mirror? With a decent helping of misdirection, a heavy sauce of redaction, and a pinch of outright lies?

Oh deep thoughts!

Which means what, exactly?

For players: the DM is always right!

For DM's: how about throwing a curve ball at your players, those damned know-it-alls? Who cares if WOTC set an event at a specific date? Perhaps WOTC got it wrong. Perhaps Ed Greenwood misinterpreted Elminster's words. Perhaps it's all deliberately misleading...

So pick the parts you like from whatever edition you like, and ignore the timeline, changes, just change it to whatever you like, and have fun. Add a little Corwin 😇 to your game... Swap Cormyr and Thay? Perhaps replace some do-gooder NPC with an evil counterpart? 😈 So Elminster is, after all, one of the nine lords of Hell? Who knew!?! o_O

So, my standard reply would be: "Seriously? You must have read that somewhere. And we all know it must be the truth, then. Right?" <insert appropriate evil cackling>
 
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PMárk

Explorer
I like details—and living places that change over time are the objective.

It’s hard to picture The Realms, or Star Wars as good means to that end.

If you step into a point in their history you’re surrounded by the baggage of “what’s canonical”. Either you’re living in the shadow of main characters or retelling the interstitial events to caused the big blocks to fall into place.
I never really got that complaint and why some people are so allergic to "canon" lore. Yeah, things are happening in the world, people do things. If you want to tell a story with your characters particiapting in thsoe already written stories, you could incorporate them and you could change the story, the named NPCs involvement, etc.

Players, who are "lore-lawyering" are missing the point, IMO and I never did that, despite liking detailed worlds, with lots of canon lore.

Also, there's the other boogeyman for many people: the named characters. As if having heroes outside of the players in the world would make them instantly insignificant and supporting cast for those NPcs. No. Just like Elminster's words said in the 3e CSG, even the big fish can't be everywhere and do everything and they constatnly have to keep an eye on each other. I mean, Drizzt himself wasn't present at most of the really important events. Elminster, or Khelben wasn't present at other events. FR is a big world and those characters have more than enough on their hands.

If a GM constantly parades around those named, high-level NPCs and the players always feel they're just cheerleaders, well, that's the GM's fault.

So what if you have a run-in with Elminster? If you're on a lower level, it'd be likely short, he'd give some cryptic advice passing by, or a quest. If it's higher level and you're at some serious calamity? Doesn't mean Elminster would be there too, or any of the others, and if one, or some would, wouldn't be awesome to fight side-by-side with the greatest heroes you've read in the books? It's very different than them solving the problems instead of the players.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
If you step into a point in their history you’re surrounded by the baggage of “what’s canonical”. Either you’re living in the shadow of main characters or retelling the interstitial events to caused the big blocks to fall into place.
I disagree. In your world you are the main characters; you are as big and important as Drizzt and Elminster. You’re the stars, the heroes. And the adventure you’re playing is the mega plot; all that other stuff that Drizzt etc. did is just background.

The world forks as soon as you enter it, and you are the main characters. Not Elminster. He’s a supporting character at best, if he even features. From the moment your campaign begins you’re telling your story about your world.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
If you step into a point in their history you’re surrounded by the baggage of “what’s canonical”. Either you’re living in the shadow of main characters or retelling the interstitial events to caused the big blocks to fall into place.
Being "in the shadow of main characters" is a misperception. The heroes should always be the ones who the adventure relies on and should they fail, it will fail. This is because there is no Elminster ready to save them. Elminster is off countering Fzoul. The Simbul can't come help. She's off on one of her planar sojourns. The Harpers aren't able to come, either. They are involved in Thay countering Szass Tam's latest evil.

If all there were in the Realms were good NPCs of might and renown, you'd have a point. They'd be sitting around waiting for the things the PCs are dealing with to come along. That's not the case with the Realms, though. Everyone else is busy with each other and if the PCs fail to save the day, the day will be lost.

The PCs are the ones central to the story and any major NPCs show up, it's because the DM placed them there as secondary support only.
 

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