Forgotten Realms is an official Dungeons and Dragons campaign setting created by Ed Greenwood circa 1967 for his little stories, but was not part of the official TSR Games/Wizards of the Coast lineup until 1987 and has since been supported by TSR/WotC through all five editions of the game. The setting is supported by hundreds of novels' worth of lore by dozens of authors (R.A. Salvatore being a standout), and is notable for prominently featuring the Planetouched.
- 1 Setting
- 2 Abridged History
- 3 The Appeal of Forgotten Realms
- 4 Interesting Side Notes
- 5 Forgotten Realms And Sex
Set on the planet Abeir-Toril, most of the Forgotten Realms source material focuses on the continent Faerûn. Faerûn is pretty similar to pre-industrial Europe, with the exceptions of all of that crazy fantasy stuff. At the low end, Wizards and Sorcerers make up 1% of the typical human population, and half of them are actually good at it. It seems to think that's a small number, despite being substantially more than MDs in the modern world (0.29%), most of whom are in very niche specialties. Multiple Clerics, "often" mid-level, can be found "in virtually every thorp and hamlet", and are common enough that people tend to die of old age, rather than injury their body can't heal naturally or disease. Despite a serious percentage of the population being casters, many of some skill, outside of Thay none of them do anything but maintain the status quo, try to violently conquer the world, or violently put an end to those trying to conquer the world. (That's the player's and villains' job)
Here are a plethora of nations, kingdoms, organizations, deities, and fully fleshed-out NPCs who are ripe with political intrigue and conflict.
As You Know Who tightened her grip on TSR, and pushed Greyhawk and The Known World into the margins, Forgotten Realms annexed some other authors' work. Douglas Niles' Bloodstone Pass and R.A. Salvatore's Icewind Dale both got retconned in. And then Niles did Maztica. Each time this happened, that pushed the boundaries of others' creativity that much further away. You know. Those others, who don't have contracts with bigshot publishers. Us.
By the end of 2e little left on Toril was left worth a DM's time to flesh out that had not been fleshed out. There was very, very little room for an incomer's own stuff.
Even WoTC thought that this had gotten really out of hand: when 4th edition rolled along, they decided to give the place a reboot. Hey, the Time of Troubles worked for the 1e-to-2e shift, right? They came up with the idea of "the Spellplague": killing Mystra off through the machinations of her long-time enemy Cyric and triggering another massive magical upheaval, similar to the one that had ended the Age of Magic when Mystryl had been killed off. They then skipped time forward a century, to add icing to the cake, presenting a rebuilding world and retconning Abeir-Toril from being the planet's almost never used full name (so it'd be first in the setting encyclopedia) to being twin planets, with Abeir, under the dominion of the Primordials, serving as an origin for 4th edition races.
Unfortunately... the result was an absolute PR nightmare. The dramatic changes in everything from geology to cosmology, with the World Tree replaced by the World Axis, just infuriated the setting's fandom, who have something of a reputation as obsessive-compulsive grognards even by the standards of the D&D fandom.
Not surprisingly, when the edition change rolled out, a new apocalyptic makeover, the Sundering, was used alongside a 10 year skip to change things more back to the way they were. Although, on the plus side, a lot of the uber-NPCs who didn't have huge fanbases actually stayed dead - they even killed off some more of Mystra's Chosen during the Sundering.
All in all, Forgotten Realms is the ultimate skub setting of D&D, with people still bitching over every little change from 1st edition onwards. Yes, even more than 2e/3e Greyhawk: at least there, the grognards enjoy a consensus, that what From The Ashes did was a blip, a Late Unpleasantness in the past. Ironically, 5e's attempt at focusing attention on the Realms has begun making it even less popular, as by this point most of the fandom is getting well and truly sick that one setting is getting all the 5e love.
You'll notice going down that a lot of the sub-settings, in particular, seem to rip-off of real-world places and people. Well, that's intentional: Forgotten Realms was designed with the idea that it has long had secret portals to our real-world throughout history - which may or may not have anything to do with the D&D Cartoon. So, a lot of shit in Forgotten Realms is literally supposed to have either been brought there from earth, or inspired earth by slipping through the portals. Mulhorand, for example, is not only "Ancient Egypt in D&D with the Egyptian Gods ruling it", but is by its fluff actually populated by the descendants of Ancient Egyptians who were sucked through portals into the Realms and enslaved by evil wizards.
Medieval/Renaissance Europe/Near East/Africa. The setting of the vast majority of D&D stories, including those of a certain dark elf, to top it all off with the center of attention in D&D videogames to boot. This setting provided inspiration for most of the 3e splatbooks. Most of the attention Faerûn gets is centered on its west coast, the Swordcoast, and Dalelands.
A common theme of the continent, (as the others like Kara-Tur and Zakhara were original and currently treated as separate D&D worlds). How littered the region is with the remains of long-dead temples, towns, cities, and civilizations whose existence has mostly washed from memory with the passing of time (Forgotten Realms TM). Rarely does this happen by mundane real-life means like profits drying up or being conquered by a neighbor. It always has to be the fault of some Fiend, power-hungry Mage(s), and/or adventuring party, with a notable percentage of the prevous occupants dying in some horrific manner, often with a Horde of orcs being somehow involved that has come to raid and raze the place before, during or after the incident. So remember when exploring some ruins, never will the original inhabitants just abandon a place willingly, minute residue from their dusty dried blood must still stain the walls.
As a continent is still a Dizzying vast place, Sword Coast is the main location for adventures or at least the start, with the majority of 5e modules assuming this. In terms of operation area, the Sword Coast is the areas surrounding cities that are part of the Lords' Alliance. This is your Usual sandbox fantasy location, with cities-states Overlooking smaller Towns, instead of classical Kingdoms. Still tons of monsters and ruins of past civilizations.
The Sword Coast with the Heartlands, so Baldur's Gate can feel included.
South of the Sword Coast and Baldur's Gate is basically Faerûn's slice of Zakhara. Long ago the Genie lord Calim swept into the area with his lackeys and created his slave empire. Eventually, his Genie generals tried to take a slice of Caliym's pie for themselves, resulting in a brief war that absolutely ended with the local angry tree-hugging elves High mages Fusing much of the Genie across the nation into a giant floating crystal, taking care to also shatter Calim's and his former head righthand, Memnon, minds across the land, but transforming the surrounding area into a desert as a byproduct. and then the elves pat themselves on the back and called it a day instead of finishing the job like they usually do.
After their master was imprisoned, the humans created their own empire of Calimshan, with eventually the land of Tethyr rebelling for independence, resulting in the merchant nation of Amn also getting some breathing room.
Amn the northern plutocratic nation of trade ruled by a council of once 6 now 5 wealthy families. Ships from every land on Toril make port in Athkatta, the city of a coin whose marketplace is twice the size of Waterdeeps. From magic items to your kidnapped grandma this is the best place to find, buy and sell those kinds of things. Wealth is expected to be flaunted and the only major government setback to committing most crimes is paying a fine for getting caught. The only death penalty is being an Arcane caster who has not paid the secretive Cowled Wizards' steep membership fee.
In the south, not so obsessed with acquiring wealth as Calimshan receives about as much trade as Amn. Like Amn, wealth determines power in Calimshan movement class hierarchies, with the Syl-pasha, the "chief guildmaster" of the city of Calimport being usually the most important. Calimshan is defined by how prevalent magic is in everyday life and sees itself as the greatest of nations as they accept and are willing to evoke any and all gods in the Faerûn pantheon and have at least one still working temple dedicated to each one. Nothing can go wrong when a public temple to Tyr, Bhaal, Cyric are in the same city.
Sandwiched between the two nations is the kingdom of Tethyr. The Spanish Constitutional monarchy, with landholding being important with gods that enrich it the most important. Tethyr's history has long been defined by the many secret coups and the peasants' viva la revolutions.
Pseudo-Africa and Pseudo-India, in that it's mostly covered in tropical jungles and swamps, with one huge-ass desert. Notable regions include Halruaa, an isolationist magocracy, Dambrath, a nation of horse-riding, Loviatar-worshipping black amazons (of the "women run things, men obey" variety) ruled over the by Crinti (a matriarchal mixture of half-elves, drow, and half-drow), and the halfling homeland of Luiren. Is home to Faerun's native population of thri-kreen, as well as a race of alien elephant people called Loxos.
Despite the Shining South's lack of any major influence or pronounced interaction with the rest of the Forgotten Realms, the damage this region suffered as a result of the 4E Spellplague - which, amongst other things, saw Halruaa blow up and Dambrath's Crinti rulers be deposed by a human uprising that brought about a restoration of their pre-Crinti culture - was hugely unpopular. Some of that is inexplicable - Halruaa blowing up makes perfect sense, since the place was literally as magical as Eberron and the Spellplague's whole thing was making magic dangerously unstable - but other complaints are more reasonable; if such an "old ways" movement against the Crinti had ever been explicitly mentioned in 3e or 2e lore, Dambrath's civil uprising would have made sense - especially in light of the baked-in drow tendency towards slave raids - but with no explicit pretext, it seemingly comes out of nowhere.
5E brought Halruaa back from death. with foresight foreseeing the all-consuming blue fire that followed Mystra’s death, and used it to displace itself in Abeir (while displacing part of that world into the Plane of Shadow). Now they're back to spread the joys of Airships.
Dambrath are still are horse-riding nomads and hate the Crinti. They take lycanthropy as a showing reverence to a favored deity and honoring their heritage.
Eastern Asia, a blend of Mongolian, Russian, Indian, and Chinese traits. Most famous for being the lands covering Thay, the biggest civilization of evil wizards in the setting, and the more obscure land of Rasheman, which is sort of Russian berserker country ruled by masked witches but which everyone knows because it's the homeland of Minsc. It's the setting for Mask of the Betrayer, the first expansion pack for Neverwinter Nights 2, since they decided to set a Forgotten Realms video game somewhere interesting for once.
The Eurasian Steppes, with Tibet thrown in as well, and yes they had their own version of Genghis motherfucking Khan and Mongol invasions. Didn't get updated for 3e, but bits got included in a Dragon article for 4e.
Ancient China/Japan/Korea. Updated for 3e with the Book of Weeaboo Fightan Magic and Oriental Adventures, but never updated for 4e as a setting. Little bits of it were included in Dragon for 4e, covering Samurai and Ninja and horde themes as well as new monk stuff and Hengeyokai as a race.
Ancient India/Southeast Asia. Got its own living campaign at the end of 2e and the beginning of 3e, and was soon forgotten afterward.
Pre-Columbian South/Central America, the subject of the eponymous splatbook for AD&D. Was not updated for 3rd Edition, but skipped a generation and got an update for 4th Edition. In the form of being replaced by the continent of Abeir and having everything about it shunted into another universe. Wasn't in 3e either so fuck them. Manages to be the skubbiest aspect of the setting; some adore it for being South American Fantasy, a rare thing, others hate it for being so transparently "the Aztec world shunted into the Forgotten Realms". Some madlads at the DM's Guild went and wrote a full translation to 5th Edition with a "the Aztec world shunted into the Forgotten Realms, but this time the Aztecs won and gave Lolth and to a lesser extent Helm the finger before integrating the surviving colonists" feeling. Also, they're back where Abeir used to be because why the fuck not.
Pre-Columbian North America. What's written about is based on the Native Americans of the Four Corners cultures.
Despite being located south of not!Central America, it's supposed to be based on Pre-Colonial Africa, and that is literally all that is known.
Pre-Colonial Australia. That's largely all that's known.
Medieval Middle East/Hollywood Arabia. Left to hang in the wind after 2e ended, save some 3e articles in Dragon Magazine, and probably not likely to come back any time soon. But 5e did bring back the yakmen.
Home to the Dragonborn and primordial elementals, as well as all the new sub-giant races and whatever else was introduced in 4e. Ruled over by evil draconic overlords, barring a few kingdoms founded by rebellious giants and humans. Oh, and some weird undead empire that has magical undead-only portals connecting to all graveyards and mausoleums and crypts on Toril, which they claim as their territory.
Ao creates the twin sister deities Shar and Selûne. Shar is darkity darkness levels of evil and Selûne isn't. So naturally, they hate each other. They swirl around in the void that is Realmspace for gods know how long until via catfighting, they accidentally create Toril and create a couple of gods, mainly Chauntea and Mystryl. The latter going on to die several times and become Mystra because she couldn't fucking balance the byproduct of her creation, the Weave, which is the source of all magic, both Arcane and Divine. Things just got out of hand after that and next thing you know, you've got your campaign setting.
Netheril, the Empire of Magic, ruled most of Faerûn long before Dale Reckoning. Netherese archmages were capable of obscene displays of magical power, such as the mythallar magic engines that enabled their signature floating cities to exist. The innately magical phaerimm opposed Netheril's heavy use of magic and retaliated, starting a war for the control of magic that created the Anauroch Desert.
In -339 DR, the archwizard Karsus attempted to save the empire by becoming a god. He created what is likely the only 12th-level spell in existence, Karsus's avatar, and used it to steal the power of Mystryl, goddess of the Weave. His last thought before the spell turned him to stone was probably "I have made a huge mistake." The Weave, damaged by the Netheril-phaerimm war, finally collapsed without Mystryl's constant intervention, causing all magic to fail. That included the mythallars. The majestic floating cities of Netheril plummeted to the ground.
In short, Karsus ruined everything for everybody on that day. Fortunately, Mystryl reincarnated herself and rose again as Mystra, marking the first in the goddess's long line of deaths and rebirths. She repaired the Weave, managed to save three Netherese enclaves, and restructured the arcane magic of the Realms, cutting off mortal mages from spells above ninth level and requiring them to prepare their spells in advance.
This sparked all the shit that went down in the game Neverwinter Nights 2, and is the reason why magic sort of meets a cap.
Times of Troubles
The Times of Troubles, also known as the Avatar Crisis, started in 1358 DR when the two deities Bane and Myrkul thought it would be a great idea to steal the Tablets of Fate from the overdeity Ao. As punishment Ao banishes all of the gods to walk on Toril as mortals (except for Helm who was to guard the gateway back into the heavens) until whoever stole them felt bad and returned them. During this time Mystra got some of her power back and thought it would be a brilliant idea to challenge Helm to get back into the heavens. Helm wouldn't have any of it and bitch slapped her down the Celestial Stairway. She hit the bottom and died in an explosion of magic. Eventually, some mortals, Midnight (who went on to be the next Mystra), Kelemvor, Cyric, and Adon of Sune, fixed everything and they got be gods for a reward. Except for Adon of Sune, he really got the short end of the stick on the loot table for that encounter. He lost faith in Mystra, committed suicide, then got his faith back and went on to frolic in the brothel in the sky. This signaled the change from AD&D 1e to the second edition and magic changed in real-time in correspondence to these events, depicted in the canon Forgotten Realms Comic book series, featuring Bruce Campell as an Ex-drug addict halfling, an ex-alcoholic Paladin, an Elf with expressions that would put the Laughing elf to shame, a hot golem, and other goodies.
Keep in mind these are relatively recent events, being about 150 years before 5e modern times, 3 to 4 generations ago, where you could ask an older Dwarf or Elf what it was like during that chaos when gods walked the world.
In 1385 DR the goddess Shar had the god Cyric stab the goddess of magic Mystra. This caused giant pillars of blue fire to ravage Toril, killing untold masses and driving most wizards to madness. One of the few wizards to be unaffected by the event is Szass Tam, who continues to be a badass by turning into an uber-powerful lich, seizing control over Thay, and killing off almost everybody there to create a fuck-huge kingdom of the undead. To make matters worse, unlike the previous times Mystra has died she couldn't reincarnate, a stunning development that "changes the rules of magic" which translates as another real-time spell-casting change for 4e rules, just like what happened in the Time of Trouble. Parts of the planet end up either destroyed or switching places with parts of the land from Abeir. Elminster lost his special status and all his powers, and most of his Chosen buddies wound up dead. The Pantheon was reshuffled, Tieflings changed to match the new unified tiefling look, and the World Tree was reshaped into the World Axis. It was a huge upheaval, with insurmountable rage from its critics.
In 1485, the worlds of Abeir and Toril split apart again, as WoTC tried to desperately bring back the Faerun grognards by retconning the Spellplague. It turns out being stabbed wasn't in fact enough to kill Mystra, she was just hungry and had wandered off to find a cheeseburger made of her own children. Abeir went back to where it belonged and several other dead gods who were deemed superfluous suddenly came back to life.
This event was known as the 'Sundering' but the writers didn't want to piss off the fans, so they held off explaining what the fuck happened until the fans could tell them what, in their opinion, should have happened. While waiting to be told how to do their jobs, dragons attacked everyone, trying to rescue Tiamat from Hell where she had in fact NOT been since before the Spellplague but because she was there in every other setting, we're all supposed to pretend that she was, so mighty adventurers can stop her from escaping in a linear story which was easier than the likes of the first time this asspull was pulled with Bloodstone Pass, Fuck you Bahamut.
From there, various other intersecting adventure modules happened at roughly the same time, and since things were mostly back to the pre-4e days everyone was happy. Except for dragonborn fans (and Dragonborn, whatever you think of them, are still a damn core race), as the writers quickly killed almost all of them off, or crammed them into a tiny corner of the world. Nonetheless, many grognards still balk at the return of several 4th edition era elements, such as cramming the Shadowfell and the Feywild in the Great Wheel. But, appeasing the old guard is ridiculously hard anyway. As much as the old guard wants a full reboot back to the Old Gray Box era (or some other era which can't be agreed on), the Sundering made it pretty clear that there is "One Canon, One Story, One Realms". Given the popularity of this new Realms among new players, it's unlikely that any major reboot or alteration will happen any time soon.
The Appeal of Forgotten Realms
In 1975 Sony released the Betamax video cassette system as a system of playing recorded TV shows and similar on your TV. A year later, JVC released the first VHS system and there was a competition between these two formats. Both of these systems had their pros and cons comparatively with Betamax having among other benefits higher image quality. But ultimately VHS won the competition, mostly because it was more accessible to consumers and movie studios and as such established itself as the standard. Everyone had a VHS VCR, so everyone was buying VHS tapes and since everyone was buying VHS tapes people bought VHS VCRs and similar until DVDs and Blu Rays showed up.
Similarly, Dungeons and Dragons have become the standard for what people think of when someone brings up a tabletop RPG and Forgotten Realms has become that for the DnD setting. People may not have read the lore books 100% through but nowadays most people could imagine the broad strokes of the setting going in. Parties of Human Bards and Paladins, Dwarf Warriors, High Elven Mages, Wood Elven Archers and Halfling Rogues and Bards wandering the countryside and delving dungeons dealing with orcs, kobolds, bandits, beholders, skellingtons, necromancers, and various monsters leading up to the many flavors of dragons. When you see someone doing a tabletop campaign in fiction, it's usually based on Forgotten Realms more often than not. For better or worse, Forgotten Realms is the Archetype. As it's the thing that most people are familiar with and as such is something that is easy for a tabletop group to get into. You may think the whole Tolkien Knockoff world thing is overdone. You may desire something with fresh ideas in a novel setting built largely from the ground up. Fully valid positions to hold which encourage creativity. But the ability to get into a familiar setting without having to look through a whole bunch of homework is convenient and lets you shake things up if you want to using that common framework.
Interesting Side Notes
- Drizzt will outlive all of his friends and he cries about this often until they fixed it.
- There was a time Drizzt was bearable until all of his adventures amounted to the power of friendship and his magical power of secretly Lolth's blessing empowering him into a murderhobo edge lord that got so broken he BEAT FUCKING DEMOGORGON with the power of an anime power-up one-shot asspull to SAVE THE UNDERDARK
- The Neverwinter Online scenario of this event had the Demon Prince smack him and his party straight into an Abyssal rift, after the generic shounen speech of the power of friendship which is a great way to retcon this entire event for a ranger beating a monster so hard to kill based on how much it can throw at a party in summon-spam alone, nevermind the threat the creature itself actually poses.
- Elminster has sex with Elvira who is polymorphed into a man. He also was turned into a woman once, he's effectively, a massive fucking degenerate that hasn't been killed off because plot Armour and horribly oppressive "good" organization of spies, scouts, and adventurers he tricks into doing his work for him, he also advertises Faerun as anything but a clusterfuck continent so full, it feels more like the description of the endless murderfest an MMORPG provides over an actual living setting.
- Szass Tam is fucking awesome and basically Ming the Merciless in D&D.
- Larloch, Feared Master of the Warlock's Crypt, is one of the few statted NPCs representatives of a finalized epic-level minmaxed PC wizard, with so much shit in his arsenal he ranks as a DMPC in his own right. He's also (with a little bit of Szass Tam) the inspiration for the character of Ainz Ooal Gown from Overlord.
- Tempus, the badass bro jock god of battle.
- The world goes to hell in the 4th edition.
- After apparently being killed by one of his only friends, the god Helm survived the Spellplague in the form of a goat.
- The first 3-D CRPG was set in FR.
- Jarlaxle the dashing drow mercenary had a three way with twin copper dragon sisters named Tazmikella and Ilnezhra.
- Khelben Blackstaff has a fear of Lawyers and will do ANYTHING in his powers to avoid them, even resorting to elaborate illusions of unwanted marital scenarios to avoid lawsuits from extraplanar entities (I am not making this up)
- The setting is so high magic that even before the current established era in 3.5 and onward, even back in Ancient Netheril, there were FUCKING LICHES EVERYWHERE.
- The God of Vampires does not give a fuck, do not try to make him, he will just try to eat you and fuck with you on his layer of the Abyss.
- His high priest fucks Lolth, and this is the reason why Drow like vampires so much
- The last time a vampire gave a shit in FR, he nearly conquered Baldur's Gate itself solo, but got his ass kicked because he went ahead of a forty-thousand undead strong army with a macguffin that literally made him an Elder Evil, by technicality of demigod level strength which would have been even more broken anyway as he was a base vampire + vampire Lord
- Minsc was petrified, turned into stone, and kept preserved until marketing would call upon him again for a lackluster comic book series that is only good for shilling 5th edition products as bad as Neverwinter Online and Siege of Dragonspear.
Forgotten Realms And Sex
The current Forgotten Realms material is highly sanitized from Ed's original vision. In FR as created by Ed:
- Bi-sexuality is normal (and yes, this means the men as well as the women)
- Transgenderism is encouraged by several deities so that priests can experience life as the other sex
- "Revels" (some of which involve sex) are normal
- "Festhalls" (many of which employ prostitutes as staff) are relatively common and visiting them is the normal way to spend evening.
- Prostitution is a core industry of Forgotten Realms; "sex workers" are all over and there are about 40 different names for different kinds of prostitutes.
- Incest is a normal way for noble families to "indulge feelings of mutual affection" (poor people don't as they can't afford the contraception)
- Pretty much all of the immortal NPCs in the Realms have come to believe that accepted sexual norms are bullshit, so they flout them. Constantly
All of this is confirmed by Ed Greenwood himself, from Ed's responses to fan queries on the Candlekeep forum. So Saith Ed here, here, and here. It's also all completely, 100% canon thanks to Ed's ludicrously favorable contract.
Of course, this isn't exactly out of place in certain historical periods and cultures (Per example the Greeks, the Etruscans, were particularly known for having frequent orgies, Canaanite religion frequently involved cross-dressing (which may be why the Bible forbids it) and the nobility of many cultures like Hawaiians and the Ptolemy Egyptians practiced sibling incest so as to avoid muddling the bloodline with peasant genome; Rome had all of the above at various points), so some individual cultures or nations with this going on probably wouldn't be off the mark, and notably, the post that included the stuff about incest also included that Ed himself is against incest... but when the whole damn world is into this stuff, it's not treated as a problem, no one questions it and there's no sign of things changing, then clearly the author has something on his mind.
As of 5E, WoTC has decided to embrace the first bullet-point, there are random bits of homosexuality everywhere. Two men sharing a bed, a married pair of male porters and married pair of homesteaders, a gnome settlement with two kings, and a shopkeeper with nonbinary pronouns all appear in 5e adventures. An attempt to Retcon the massively corrupt and crime-ridden city of Waterdeep into "Seattle during Pride" was actually met with significant backlash.
No regular orgies in every village yet, but Rime of the Frostmaiden does feature a completely inbred town.