(This post has taken longer to get started on than planned. I blame life's many distractions.)
Ah, the Gray Box.
For me, the Gray Box came out at a time when I'd come back to AD&D. I'd gotten into it in high school, then moved on to newer and (in my opinion at the time) more sophisticated fare (Champions, RuneQuest, Stormbringer, Call of Cthulhu). Mostly, I got back into it because of my job. I was working at a bookstore, we carried lots of D&D stuff, and I could get it cheap on my employee discount. As a result, I'd picked up the DragonLance stuff when it came out, thought it wasn't awful for what it was trying to do (provide more of a story-based approach to the game), and, as a result, I started messing around with the game again.
But I wasn't really happy with the DL setting. It was too juvenile. There were things about it that just seemed dumb (and still do, for that matter). For instance, there was a line about steel and iron being the only metals of value. Now, when I read that in the books, I thought "Hey, that's a cool way to make a statement about a world ruled by violent warlords." But, as it turned out, they meant it literally, and gave us rules for steel coins and iron pennies, possibly the dumbest idea in the history of a fictional world.
But, I digress.
(I'd missed out on Greyhawk, by the way, as the publication of the boxed set happened during my anti-D&D phase, and back stock was hard to get from TSR through the sources I had available.)
I had also by this point, found the SCA, which very definitely colored my opinions of fantasy and gaming and what passed for realistic depictions of a wide number of things. Opinions I have since revised, many, many (many many many) times. At that point, however, I was very much into big sweeping fantasy fiction, with characters who were more than cardboard cutouts and worlds that felt alive. Come to think of it, I still like that stuff.
The first mention I remember of the FR box was an ad in the back of a comic book. I can't find a copy of it online, unfortunately, but it featured a dragon's footprint, with the game box left behind, and I thought it looked plenty nifty.
And nifty it was. One box, two books, four poster maps, and an awesome transparent hex overlay for the maps. All for fifteen bucks, which was a damned good deal even 1987 money. The two books were "DM's Sourcebook of the Realms" and "Cyclopedia of the Realms." I've still got my print copies, and in the coming days, I'll be reviewing them in detail, but tonight, I'm more interested in how I remember seeing them originally.
The maps blew me away. They still do, to be honest. The fact that they were drawn first and foremost as maps, not gaming maps (no hexes or squares) gave the entire product a different feel than DL or GH. It felt like a world converted to a game, not a game presented as an adventure setting. Thumbing through the DM's Sourcebook, I saw descriptions of important NPCs and even just glancing at them, they felt like real people.
In fact, that's the real impression I got from the Gray Box: here was a setting with a real sense of place. It felt "lived-in," and if it was a little less detailed in places, that's because not every little bit of it was nailed down. It felt wide open, but not empty. In short, I couldn't wait to jump in and look around.
Tomorrow: "The DM's Sourcebook of the Realms" in detail.