Thursday, February 17, 2011

Gray Box Celebration: The DM's Sourcebook Of The Realms

Having completely blown the notion of the Gray Box Week, I've switched to Celebration Mode.  Same output, less pressure.  I hope.

As previously mentioned, TSR provided two books in the original Gray Box Forgotten Realms set.  While they weren't numbered, I always thing of the DM's Sourcebook as the first volume, as it contains all the material introducing Faerun and how to set a game there.

The frontispiece contains a quote from Ed Greenwood's alter-ego, the iconic sage Elminster: "On my word as a sage, nothing within these pages is false, but not all of it may prove to be true."  I like it.  To me, it says to the DM, "Don't feel bound by what's in here, it's just a starting point."

We get introductions from the three principals involved in creating the book: Ed Greenwood, Jeff Grubb, and Karen Martin.  I'm always sort of surprised that Mr. Grubb doesn't get more credit when it comes to the Realms.  His task, as I understand it, was to take reams of raw information that Greenwood churned out (often in boxes straight from his basement) and turn it into something useful.  No small task that.  Of course, he also gave us the Azure Bonds material and wrote a bunch of Forgotten Realms comics for DC.

The book's organization shows that the notion of setting sourcebooks was still relatively new.  Information is presented in a stream of consciousness method almost worthy of the original DMG.  After the introductions, we get about three and a half pages (triple column text) on how to use the setting. A lot of this is fairly generic advice, complete with advice on how to bring characters from existing campaigns into the Realms (this seems to have been more common back then).  One interesting tidbit bears further mention:

"A Note on Future Products:

Certain areas of each of the enlarged maps of the Forgotten Realms will contain areas that will not have future adventures, modules, or sourcebooks set in them and are left solely for use by the DM for development without fear of some later product invalidating that portion of the campaign.  In the initial boxed set, those areas are:

The Serpent Hills (east of the High Moor)
The Wood of Sharp Teeth
The Desertedge Mountains (outside the Dales), and
The Nation of Sembia

The last mentioned, the nation of Sembia , is a large section of (partially) civilized land with the following boders:  starting with the west, the Vast Swamp, the Daerlun, the path through Kulta, Saerb, and Archenbridge (including parts of Archendale) to Ordulin, east to the Dragon Reach, and bordered on the south by the Sea of Fallen Stars.  This region, though discussed in the players' guide [By which I assume they mean the Cyclopedia of the Realms] and in this book, will not have further adventures set in it, nor will its cities be explored or detailed.  A DM with a campaign city or nation already designed may set that city in the area of Sembia without great difficulty caused by future products setting some epic adventures (or great disaster) in the same region."

Of course, as I recall, this went out the window in later years and editions, as every available piece of Faerunian real-estate was detailed, but it was a lovely idea at the time.

After this introduction, the next bit of information provided is instructions on filling out an Adventuring Company roster (available on the back of the Cyclopedia).  A bit of an odd departure, but I have to say it's a nice roster and the idea of Adventuring Companies has always appealed to me.

After this, we get a page showing side-by-side comparisons of the continental US and western Faerun.  Faerun is much, much larger, showing the DM how much room there is to place a campaign.  This is followed by a discussion of the provided maps and how to use them.  As I mentioned the other day, the maps are ungridded and quite lovely.  A handy transparent overlay is provided to allow hex-based movement without detracting from their appearance.  This rolls into a fairly detailed set of rules for overland movement that remind the reader that this was written for first edition AD&D and the wargame roots are still very apparent.

From overland movement, the topic flows more or less organically random encounters and we get more than a page of information on creating custom random encounter tables (a blank example is on the back cover of the book).  I've never used this method, but I think it's an interesting look under the AD&D "hood."

Encounters are followed with "A word about dragons."  Quite a few words, actually, and good ones all.  I can't speak for other old farts, but I found the 1e AD&D dragons rather uninspiring.  They lacked personality and "oomph."  In short, they were obstacles, not individuals.  "A word about dragons" set out to change this.  It made dragons faster, for one thing.  A lot faster.  It changed up the way their breath weapons worked. It made them harder to subdue.  It gave them the aura of dragonfear that's part and parcel of the critter today.  And it emphasized that if a dragon has magic, he'll wield it.  In less than two pages, D&D dragons got scary again.  I'm not sure, but I think when I first read this, it was when the Realms really grabbed my attention.

The next section is entitled "Selected NPCs of the Realms." At eighteen pages, it's one of the larger sections.  It provides capsule write ups of 76 NPCs.  While the section detailing them is called "Humans of Note," it contains Humans, Dwarves, Elves, Half-Elves, and a Beholder (though the vast majority are human).  Included are NPCs of all power levels, from local bandits to rulers of nations.  We also get our first real look at the Knights of Myth Drannor, who were clearly based on (or lifted whole-cloth) from the PCs in Greenwood's home campaign.  A few are illustrated by Clyde Caldwell (my least favorite of the 80s TSR artists); some have extensive histories, others a brief paragraph.  After the NPCs, we get a brief list of notable merchants and nearly two full pages detailing an almost 2,000 man strong mercenary company.  It's nice flavor material, I suppose, but I still don't know what one's supposed to actually do with it.

The next chapter is "Recent News and Rumors in the Realms."  I truly love this section without reservation.  It provides a month-by-month breakdown of events transpiring all across Faerun for the two years previous to the "current" campaign date.  It's not only full of adventure hooks hefty enough to hang a campaign on, but it does a tremendous job of conveying the non-static nature of the setting.  To me, the Realms was the first published setting where things happened whether or not the PCs were involved. It felt like a living, breathing place, something I strive for (and generally fail at) in my games.

After that, the reader is given two adventures with really no prologue whatsoever, "The Halls of the Beast Tamers" and "Lashan's Fall."  We're informed that "Lashan's Fall" was originally published in DRAGON #95 as "Into the Forgotten Realms."  Both adventures are set in the ruined elven city of Myth Drannor (One of those places that absolutely grabs my imagination and refuses to let go.  Seriously, I love that pile of rubble.)  "Hall of the Beast Tamers" is a pure exercise in dungeon exploration.  No reason for the PCs to be there is provided.  It's assumed they're exploring Myth Drannor and find the ancient underground halls of the Guild of Naturalists.  A number of creatures lie within, held by magical stasis.  It's a fairly undistinguished dungeon crawl, but I remember loving the map and how utilitarian it was.  It lacked the seemingly random twists and dead-ends that characterized so many published and self-made maps back in the day.

"Lashan's Fall," on the other hand, actually has a plot.  The PCs are posse, sent after a fleeing would-be conqueror of the Dalelands.  he's fled to the remains of a school of wizardry in Myth Drannor and the heroes have to root him out.  This adventure also features lovely, efficient maps, along with challenges that reflect the dangers of the setting (Let's face it, walking into the remains of a school of wizardry is not one of the safer activities in which one can engage.  Never mind that the dungeon is in a pile of demon-infested ruins.)  The adventure is remarkably well done, and the ending is downright unsettling, if played right.  It's one of my all-time favorites.

The final 32 pages are devoted to one of Ed Greenwood's strengths as a game designer:  Magic Books.  "Books of the Forgotten Realms" brings his full powers to bear, describing over a score of magical works, their appearance, their histories, and contents.  It's a chapter one can get lost in just on the fiction alone.  I mean, how can you resist things like:

"Orlajun, the white-haired High Mage of Silverymoon in the early days of the North (now believed dead), oversaw and took a large part in the construction of this work, designed to be a permanent repository for the most useful defensive spells he could provide for the continued safety and security of his beloved city in years to come.  But it never served so, for when Orjalun gave his staff of office to his chosen successor, Sepur, and left the city, Sepur revealed his true nature -- taking the Arbatel and staff as his own, he also left the fair city.

Sepur's fate is unknown, although the sage Alphontras recounts the finding of a broken staff atop a lonely, scorched tor in the Trollmoors.  The Arbatel is first identified in the village of Longsaddle by the Alphontras' colleague Eelombur the Learned, who observed in the possession of the sorcerer Arathur Harpell..."

And on and on like that.  I love fictional history, so this hits my sweet spot.

So there you have the first volume.  Hopefully, I can get to the Cyclopedia soon.  I think it will either need a couple of entries, or a lot of glossing over.  We'll see.


  1. Yeah, dragons got beefed up quite a bit. I think this was a stepping stone on the way to the 2E dragons, which were considerably more complex than the 1e variety.

    Caldwell was the artist, particularly in 2E, that I most associated with Forgotten Realms. Lots of bright colors. And usually a lot of cleavage.

    Yeah, the month by month stuff is something I really liked. Lots of ideas, but also the sense the campaign world was moving on.

  2. For me, the iconic Realms artist was Keith Parkinson. Then again, he's one of my top two or three fantasy artists period.

    I always thought Caldwell's stuff would look better on black velvet. :-)