Using Northeastern Faerûn as a Campaign Setting

Yora

Legend
I've long had the opinion that Forgotten Realms would actually work better as four or five separate campaign settings than one big barrel of everything to all people. (Which WotC might actually have concluded too, with almost all content of the past decade being only northern Sword Coast.) The three most viable for standing on their own feet are the NorthernSword Coast, the Heartlands of Cormyr, Dalelands, and Moonsea, and the Northeast with Aglarond, Rashemen, Thay, Impultur, and Damara. Southern Sword Coast and the Old Empires of the Southeast could also work, but always seemed underdeveloped.

The Northeast of the Unapproachable East and the Cold Lands is somewhat in the middle of the field. More developed than the two big southern regions, but seemingly very underused compared to the Sword Coast and Heartlands. Even though the Red Wizards seem to have always been quite popular. It's a region that I find really compelling from looking at it and I am quite curious about what great campaigns could perhaps be run in it.

NEF scale.png


The region in this map is 960 miles high and 1280 miles wide. The best comparion I could think of would be the Black Sea region. While it doesn't line up exactly and is located more southernly, I think the highlands of Anatolia and Armenia could make great references for the the landscape of Thay, and the Caucasus and Caparthian mountains might be of similar scale to the Earthspur and Sunrise mountains. Imagining the coast of Impiltur as similar to the coast of Bulgaria and Romenia could also work. And of course the Endless Wastes to the east are a literal stand in for the stepped of Kazakhstan. This map below is exactly the same size as the one above.

NEF ref.png

One thing I noticed browsing through Bloodstone Lands (1st ed.), Spellbound (2nd ed.), and Unapproachable East (3rd ed.) is that this region is almost exclusively populated by humans. The exception are some dwarves in the Galena Mountains in Damara, a population of half-elves in the Yuirwood in Aglarond that are culturally separate from the human coastal cities, and a sizable population of gnolls in Thay that has prospered as vassals of the Red Wizards. This is actually in line with the original concept of the Forgotten Realms, which had the elves almost entirely gone, and the dwarves becoming a nearly forgotten shadow of their former selves. With the way D&D settings are often presented, I usually find it difficult to really grasp how various regions are populated. What I found very useful is to visualize the size and distribution of major settlements that have been described in detail. For this part of Faerûn, it looks like this.

NEF pop2.png

Not all surprisingly, most of the population is clustered along the coast of the Sea of Fallen Stars in numerous major port cities, but also the big metropolises of Thay. I would expect the rural population density to somewhat reflect the distribution of urban centers, simply because we don't really have anything else to go with. Once you're out of sight of the sea and get off the big trade roads, you're out in the wilderness.

Something that appears to be kind of a theme with this region is the presence of many very powerful wizards, but also a high exclusivity of magic. For the masses of common people, magic is something largely absent from their lives, and it's the domain of a small elite, that is as much feared as respected at best. The region also used to be the territory of two ancient empires of terrible sorcerers and demon worshippers who eventually both wiped each other out with their endless magical wars. These make for great sources of old dungeons hidden in the forests and under overgrown piles of rubble.

The Northeast isn't anything particularly special if you look at its many aspects separately. But a cold wilderness of forests and grasslands, with barbarians, witches, and sorcerers among ruins filled with burried ancient evils is something I find quite appealing. And approaching it with a Eastern Europe/Black Sea aesthetic in mind, which does occasionally shine through in the sources, I think it could be something really fun to play in.

I'm not having any specific questions right now, but I think this is a fun setting that would be really interesting to share impressions and exchange ideas about.
 
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aco175

Legend
The only real knowledge I have read come from the Salvatore books with Jarlaxle and Artemis going through there and then people returned in some of the newer 4e/5e books and the dragons. Although it looks like Wulfgar may be producing the future king there. There was some decent flavor there and kind of reminded me of the Van Helsing movie with Hugh Jackman in terms of feel of the commoners and style of buildings.
 

Blackrat

He Who Lurks Beyond The Veil
I love to use these areas. I had a longish orc-centric campaign set in Vaasa* long time ago. My current group shipwrecked on the Pirate Isles, and there was a possibility for them to continue on eastwards. They took the riskier choice and used an unknown portal though…

You can get 3e Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, Unapproachable East, Mysteries of the Moonsea, and Lost Empires of Faerun, on drivethrurpg btw. Those are all awesome resources on the less used areas of FR.

*Vaasa is funny for me, as my country actually has a city named Vaasa 😂
 

Yora

Legend
After staring at the map cropped like this for a long enough time, it started reminding me of Skyrim.
And I think pretty much every possible idea you might get from Skyrim should fit in perfectly with this region. The Reachmen are somewhat like Nar barbarians, the Companions are a Rashemi berserker lodge, Nord Tombs could be Nar fortresses (described as being small surface fortifications with huge underground tunnels), Dragon Priests are like ancient Nar demonbinders. Solitude could be a city in Impiltur, and Thesk is already pretty much Whiterun to begin with. Oh yeah, and the Red Wizards are Thalmor. :p

I think Diablo 2 could also be a nice source for ideas to mine, with both the ancient Nars and the Red Wizards being big fans of summoning demons, and the Rashemi barbarians vigilanty holding back the infernal hordes.
And you can never go wrong with The 13th Warrior. It's basically an Untherite joining 12 Rashemi berserkers on a quest to defend a town against
Nar barbarians corrupted by a demon possessed shaman.

Though another thing I noticed is that even with all the places and peoples described, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of plot hooks inherent to the setting. Red Wizards trying to invade Rashemen or Aglarond is a bit of a one trick pony. And the region isn't quite the place where scared farmers are hiding in their villages waiting for some great warriors from a distant land to save them. It's less the typical question of "Why don't any of the high level NPCs deal with this?" and more "Why doesn't anyone of these badass villagers deal with this themselves?"
I'm not much a hero of Heroic Adventurers traveling the Land in Search for Wrongs to right to begin with, but I think in this part of the Realms it seems particularly out of place. However, being such a large region with mostly very sparse settlements, but a rich history of ancient evil sorcerers and filled with many great dangerous beasts, I think the more classic Treasure Hunters types would fit in very well around these parts. And you're not even robbing the cultural sites of the native inhabitants, which is always nice.

What I do find rather puzzling is how strong the focus on just humans is in the material I've been flipping through so far. Adding ogers, trolls, hill, stone, and frost giants to the setting is a no brainer. But what else might work well in regard to people monsters? I feel that if you'd want to feature orcs prominently, you would need them in considerable numbers to make any kind of splash, and that would mean having to add orc cities and strongholds to the map which doesn't really have any by default. So I am somewhat leaning away from that.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
I've long had the opinion that Forgotten Realms would actually work better as four or five separate campaign settings than one big barrel of everything to all people. (Which WotC might actually have concluded too, with almost all content of the past decade being only northern Sword Coast.) The three most viable for standing on their own feet are the NorthernSword Coast, the Heartlands of Cormyr, Dalelands, and Moonsea, and the Northeast with Aglarond, Rashemen, Thay, Impultur, and Damara. Southern Sword Coast and the Old Empires of the Southeast could also work, but always seemed underdeveloped.

The Northeast of the Unapproachable East and the Cold Lands is somewhat in the middle of the field. More developed than the two big southern regions, but seemingly very underused compared to the Sword Coast and Heartlands. Even though the Red Wizards seem to have always been quite popular. It's a region that I find really compelling from looking at it and I am quite curious about what great campaigns could perhaps be run in it.

View attachment 249671

The region in this map is 960 miles high and 1280 miles wide. The best comparion I could think of would be the Black Sea region. While it doesn't line up exactly and is located more southernly, I think the highlands of Anatolia and Armenia could make great references for the the landscape of Thay, and the Caucasus and Caparthian mountains might be of similar scale to the Earthspur and Sunrise mountains. Imagining the coast of Impiltur as similar to the coast of Bulgaria and Romenia could also work. And of course the Endless Wastes to the east are a literal stand in for the stepped of Kazakhstan. This map below is exactly the same size as the one above.

View attachment 249672

One thing I noticed browsing through Bloodstone Lands (1st ed.), Spellbound (2nd ed.), and Unapproachable East (3rd ed.) is that this region is almost exclusively populated by humans. The exception are some dwarves in the Galena Mountains in Damara, a population of half-elves in the Yuirwood in Aglarond that are culturally separate from the human coastal cities, and a sizable population of gnolls in Thay that has prospered as vassals of the Red Wizards. This is actually in line with the original concept of the Forgotten Realms, which had the elves almost entirely gone, and the dwarves becoming a nearly forgotten shadow of their former selves. With the way D&D settings are often presented, I usually find it difficult to really grasp how various regions are populated. What I found very useful is to visualize the size and distribution of major settlements that have been described in detail. For this part of Faerûn, it looks like this.

View attachment 249679

Not all surprisingly, most of the population is clustered along the coast of the Sea of Fallen Stars in numerous major port cities, but also the big metropolises of Thay. I would expect the rural population density to somewhat reflect the distribution of urban centers, simply because we don't really have anything else to go with. Once you're out of sight of the sea and get off the big trade roads, you're out in the wilderness.

Something that appears to be kind of a theme with this region is the presence of many very powerful wizards, but also a high exclusivity of magic. For the masses of common people, magic is something largely absent from their lives, and it's the domain of a small elite, that is as much feared as respected at best. The region also used to be the territory of two ancient empires of terrible sorcerers and demon worshippers who eventually both wiped each other out with their endless magical wars. These make for great sources of old dungeons hidden in the forests and under overgrown piles of rubble.

The Northeast isn't anything particularly special if you look at its many aspects separately. But a cold wilderness of forests and grasslands, with barbarians, witches, and sorcerers among ruins filled with burried ancient evils is something I find quite appealing. And approaching it with a Eastern Europe/Black Sea aesthetic in mind, which does occasionally shine through in the sources, I think it could be something really fun to play in.

I'm not having any specific questions right now, but I think this is a fun setting that would be really interesting to share impressions and exchange ideas about.

I’ve long mined Baltic-Slavic and Turkic myth and legend for game inspiration so I whole heartedly approve of this idea and yes, it would be great to have FR split out into different settings with their own race and monster pallettes
 

Yora

Legend
There are a few mentions of drow and the underdark, but it's really very sparse. Even the Underdark Sourcebook hasn't much to say about that region. Drow and mind flayers don't feel like they would fit with the style of the region in my view, but I think duergar and grimlocks could work very well. Perhaps also quaggoths. I don't think they have much established backgrounds, and big furry beefcake dudes with big teeth seem like they could make great antagonists for human barbarians.

Even though there's lots of plains and forests, most civilization is on the Sea of Fallen Stars, which is sahuagin territory, if I am not mistaken. Which I haven't really seen much of in the past. They could be an interesting choice to give some special local flavor to the coastal towns. Maybe also aboleths?

I also totally forgot about hags. This is hag country!

But I think of all of these, giants and ogres are the only ones that really feel like fitting the role of great enemies of humanity.
 

Eltab

Lord of the Hidden Layer
Possible campaign theme: the Druids of Lethyr decide to clean out the demons in Rawlinswood.
Unexpected development: some powerful demons from the demon cult in Impiltur decide to get involved.
Third force: the blight-spreaders from 3e days have made a redoubt for themselves in the eastern woods.
Why the PCs care: they were sent to purchase Nar-bred horses and have to get the herd from the trademeet city to a port on the coast.

Damara and the Bloodstone Lands have a superficial resemblance to the gold rush -era Yukon, which offers some plot hooks of its own.
 

Laurefindel

Legend
My favourite 1e FR product is the Savage Frontier, 2e had Waterdeep box set and for me, the highlight of 3e D&D was the Unapproachable East.

I still like the Silver Marches area (which was my Skyrim analogue, on a background of Illuskan-Tethyrian going on a civil war), but the Northeastern regions of FR are my close-second favourite (sub)setting.

For reasons described in t he OP, it makes a good place for a low(ish)-magic FR with a very whimsical, mythical land magic and powerful but recluse mysterious sorcerers/witches.
 
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Yora

Legend
Imagining the Northeast as an open land of cold steppes and forests covered in demon haunted ruins and barbarian burrial mounds, with enigmatic sorcerers and witches had me thinking of classic pulpy heroic fantasy.
The classic snake men and ape men don't really fit here. But frog men would! Bullywugs could be great humanoid antagonists. You just have to not make then googly eyes goblins, but instead big burly hulks. In their original incarnation they had stats similar to orcs. They can stay under water, have stealth advantage in swamps, can jump 20 feet, and have a decent bite attack. They don't have to be funny if you don't present them that way. And the 3rd edition illustration looks mean.

It's also a great place to use fog giants. My favorite kind of giants, and I've never had real opportunities to use them.

As I mentioned before, I think this region would work quite well with having large numbers of low level warriors who can be found in most small settlements on one end, and a small number of high level wizards on the other end. This stays true with the style of the Rashemi and Nars being strong barbarians, and the Damarans pushing back the monsters on the frontier who can all take care of themselves, but leaves open a nice middle space for mid-level PCs do to stuff that makes an impact. Have some 1st level and maybe a few 2nd level fighters in most villages, with the occasional 3rd or 4th level local champion. Villagers can handle the occasional goblin or bullywug raid or deal with a rampaging griffon, but that's it. They are not going to go anywhere near a hag's swamp or basilisk's lair. That's where a party of half a dozen 4th level PCs can already feel like badasses riding into town.

However, I think for this setup to feel really believeable, characters will need to level up slowly. That isn't to say they have to advance at a snails pace, but that it will have been spending years on adventures since they got off the boat in Uthmere or Telflamm. Thing is, the region is actually not that huge in terms of distance, and much of it is open grassland with nice big trade roads going through it. So typical adventures wouldn't take a great amount of traveling and only take a couple of days, so a party going for fast progress might easily do an adventure per month on average. And if they gain a new level every two or three adventures, that could go from 1st to 12th level in just three years. If it's that easy, why aren't lots of people doing it in this land that greatly values strength and heroism?

Here's a few ideas I got mostly from Against the Wicked City.
First, have the PCs only go on adventure during spring to fall. Winter adventures should be exception and things that have great urgency and time pressure. Make travel in winter so unappealing that anything not time critical can wait until spring. In a cold region like this, this cuts the time for adventuring down from 12 months to 8. The remaining four can be a time skip while the PCs are waiting for spring (and burn through money during that time with no income), with the unexpected crisis of monster attacks now and then.
Another one is to actually have the PCs go back and forth all across the region map. They don't have to stick to one town and see what kind of adventures they can find nearby. If they are explorers and treasure hunters, let them get information about ruins ready to plunder that are a couple hundred miles away. While this land is desolate, people have been living here continuously for over a thousand years. All the easy to find stuff has long been discovered.
The third thing is that 3rd and 4th edition actually scaled down the continent map of Faerûn considerably. I guess they thought it was too sparsely populated and wanted it to be a bit denser. Going back to the map comparison files I made to measure the changes at the Sword Coast and doing some measurements in the Northeast, restoring the original distances from 1st edition means increasing any distance on the 3rd edition maps by +10%. That doesn't seem like much, but in two dimensions that adds up to +21% more area. And in in the absurd hypothetical model of a party doing nothing but traveling every day, this translates to about a month lost per year.
 

GuyBoy

Hero
I'm not a fan of the "developed" FR (too much 2Elminster and Driz'zt sort it all out) but this thread is interesting and opens up a much more interesting area.
Obviously the Bloodstone series of modules did cover this area in some depth, but the S&S feel combined with steppes and ruins is pretty cool.
 

Yora

Legend
After leafing through old FR books and boxes I still have and checking the sources lists on the Forgotten Realms wiki, I am actually surprised at how little information and material has ever been published on this region.
The 1st edition books are small little things you can easily read end to end in one evening, and the 2nd edtion Spellbound only covers Aglarond, Rashemen, and Thay. Impiltur, Narfell, the Great Dale, and Thesk are really more suggestions than developed areas. As far as I am able to tell, the awesomely named Shadowmasters of Telflamm are a one hit wonder that got covered only once in Cloak & Dagger and didn't even exist before that.

This is very different to The North and Sword Coast I've primarily been interested in back in the day. This might explain why this area is somewhat obscure and unpopular other than Minsc and Red Wizards. There's not a lot to work with. Though this also means lots of space to expand into.
 

If they ever published a "sourcebook" or expansion book for a particular nation or region within the Realms, then that nation or region really can be (and probably should be) considered a setting unto itself.

I mean, if you have to hand DM's a whole 'nother book and say, "The original information on this part of the setting we sold you just wasn't enough for you to possibly grok it and do it justice," then what are you saying about what you originally sold them?

One of the best campaigns I ever ran was set in the Forgotten Realms and never left Cormyr. A bit of action took place on other planes but I didn't need any other information about the Realms beyond the Cormyr borders - and if I would have needed it, then I'd have preferred to make it up than buy another entire sourcebook to teach me every detail that the original setting didn't tell me (and which I'd ignore 98% of anyway). I expanded on the information I had about Cormyr with my own ideas - especially some stuff about the nobility throughout the nation. Another game that I never ran basically took that peninsula between the Dragon Reach and Easting Reach, placed "Barovia" on the south coast and a couple new nations of my own conception to the north of it (replacing Impiltur and The Vast), and pretty much wasn't going to leave that area. The rest of the Realms would be out there beyond that region in some measure, but none of it was really necessary for the setting I had in mind.

Really, this has been my experience as a DM for my entire life. Settings are WAY bigger than they need to be because when you design them to be sold to other people, you need variety of "sub-settings" within them to give people some choice about the kind of game they're wanting to run. You don't give people just Waterdeep and The North, you give them Baldur's Gate, and Mulhorand, and Cormyr, and Shadowdale, and Thay, and on and on. It's not because people need ALL those places in any given campaign - it's so that any given campaign they run can be set in a variety of places within that larger setting, or have adventures that DO expand beyond one area. Nobody want's all mountains, all plains, all forest, all jungle, ALL swamp, ALL sandy desert, etc. They want to have the variety out there somewhere when they want to take advantage of it, but not have to cram it all into a single smaller area like, say, Cormyr.

Hell, I eventually ran SO MANY Forgotten Realms campaigns set in various places ALL OVER the Realms that I just got incurably sick of the FR always hanging over my head as the end-all/be-all "setting to contain all settings". I vowed to never run another FR game again, and though I've had a few ideas about what I'd do if I did, I never have returned to it and I still don't see it ever actually happening.
 

Matt James

Game Developer
In Dungeon #170, we took some time to help expand content around Phlan (hey, old school Pool of Radiance fan here) for the Monument of the Ancients adventure. I agree with the comments around micro-settings with nearly limitless possibilities when zoomed in.
 

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