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

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…

...

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

One reason why the Forgotten Realms have always been one of my favourite setting, is because of the endlessness of things happening, most of them troublesome. I like to think that the real "weave" is the weave of plots :D

Having lots of intersecting plots and quests, major and minor, going on all the time is my ideal of a D&D campaign, and not just in the FR, but in every fantasy world. It is so challenging as a DM however...

I also think that when the plot weave is thick and intricated enough, it even helps against the main drawback of FR, which is the fact that you can easily have players who know a lot more about the world than the DM. Have a lot of stuff going on all the time to give the sense that the cards are constantly flushing, so when the savvy player catches you unprepared or making a mistake on a certain location or faction or whatever, you can always ask them "are you sure that what everyone told your character was really true, or is it still true?".
 

Zardnaar

Hero
I think the Elminster thing comes from bad 2E adventures where PCs met him.

He was in the boxed set adventure where the PCs explore near Shadowdale and if they're low on hp he turns up with a pet dog saying heel and a magic items heals the PCs.

Throw in all these attractive young things including Drow ladies throwing themselves at him and yeah.
 

PMárk

Explorer
Throw in all these attractive young things including Drow ladies throwing themselves at him and yeah.
I'm saying it's the beard.

Also, in my experience, there is a certain kind of rpg players, who just hate everything that is popular, on principle, inlcuding Drizzt, Elminster, or FR itself.
 

Zardnaar

Hero
I'm saying it's the beard.

Also, in my experience, there is a certain kind of rpg players, who just hate everything that is popular, on principle, inlcuding Drizzt, Elminster, or FR itself.
Applies to music, movies, video games etc.

I don't care to much about FR after the time jump and spellplague.
 

PMárk

Explorer
My 3.0 frcs is on the table beside me atm lol.
Heh, the poster map that came with it is still on my wall. I don't dare moving it, because the ink will peel off fot the slightest folding of the paper.

Honestly, there were two seminal moments in my early rpg history. The first was getting the 3e FRCSG for christmas around age 14. The second was the Revised Vampire corebook a few years later.
 
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Beleriphon

Totally Awesome Pirate Brain
Heh, the poster map that came with it is still on my wall. I don't dare moving it, because the ink will peel off fot the slightest folding of the paper.

Honestly, there was two seminal moments in my early rpg history. The first was me getting the 3e FRCSG for christmas around age 14. The second was the Revised Vampire corebook a few years later.
I think WotC still has some high quality scans of it, you should get it printed as a vynil sign.
 

PMárk

Explorer
I think WotC still has some high quality scans of it, you should get it printed as a vynil sign.
Yeah, though it's even more unique, since it's in Hungarian, as the 3e FRCSG came out in my language too.

It also has countless signs of wear-and-tear, which brings back many memories. :)

At some point, I think I'll remove it somehow, repair some of the tears and laminate it in a print shop. I just have to come up with a way of doing it without the slightest folding of the paper...
 

jgsugden

Explorer
I wish they'd rereleased the 1.0 box set with updated game stats for 5e and improved maps. Back ty o where it began....
 

Zardnaar

Hero
I would pay money for a map folio product with say a couple of friends maps, greyhawk, and a couple of others.

Reprints if the main maps of the bigger world's.
 

Ilbranteloth

Explorer
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.
While on the surface this sounds accurate, things have changed in the Realms over the centuries. Perhaps superficially sometimes, but they have. More importantly, though, few campaigns cover a period of "centuries." In our own world, while technology did move on, the period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance seems very static to the layperson of history, much like the Realms might to many folks.

More importantly, in the Realms, like any published setting, you can decide what to include or not in your own campaign. For example, I'm not a fan of many of the "ported from the real world" elements that were dumped into the Realms during TSR's "everything fits into the Realms" period.

Beyond that, the campaigns themselves take place in a much more localized fashion. That is, at the table, the PCs aren't concerned about everything that's happening well outside of their given area. Yes, some news comes from distant cities and towns, but it's really what's happening here and now that matters to the PCs. And Ed's point is that there should be lots of stuff going on, some related, some not, to make the world feel bigger than just the current adventure.

A different way to look at it, is that there is no such thing as a "side quest." The adventure is whatever the PCs are involved in right now. And that might change. But in the meantime, the activities of the world continue both with and without their involvement. That is, their decisions to not do something can be as important as their decision to do something.

We're in the era of published Adventure Paths, and the approach they are teaching is that you need to have some overriding story arc and everything leads to some final conclusion. I've always been a fan of how Gary's early campaigns, and especially Ed's campaigns, where the point is to follow the exploits of many characters over many years. Not epic stories and saving the world (although the novels tend to go that direction), but just following the tales of the average adventurer. Where we'll see them week after week, like a TV series, where they don't necessarily need to be gaining levels every 3-4 sessions, and even when they "go away" for a little while, they can come back even years later to adventure some more.

This is what I think of as a "living campaign" where each week we get to see more of some of our favorite heroes and whatever (mis)adventures they get into this week.

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.
One of the things I love about the Realms is all of the published material. But nothing is canonical in my campaign unless it actually enters the campaign. I've been running my campaign since the release of the Gray Box, and have never had an issue with "canon" interfering with the campaign. And that's kind of the point, as far as I can tell. I let the players read whatever they want (encourage it, actually), because then they know stuff that their characters would know. Whether the events actually happened as reported in the books is an entirely different story. There's never a prescribed outcome within my campaign, because there's nothing established as fact until it's established as fact within the campaign.

Yes, many of them are common tropes, cliches, etc. But that plays really well at the table because it's easy for a bunch of people to grasp onto when they get together for a few hours a week.
 

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