Favorite RPG Setting
This is an easy one. And it’s not Glorantha or the Young Kingdoms, or even Scott Bennie’s amazing Gestalt Earth. It’s a setting that, like Prog Music and “The Malazan Books of the Fallen”, is almost certainly guilty of every accusation of excess laid at its feet. But that doesn’t diminish the warm place it occupies in my heart.
In the early 80s, I thought I’d put D&D away for good, thanks to RQ and Stormbringer. But, in 1984, I got a job working in a bookstore that carried some RPGs (mostly TSR stuff) and got Dragon Magazine in every month. I initially grabbed a copy to have something to read on break and soon was picking it up as it came in. After all, there were articles for Marvel Super-Heroes in there, I told myself. Over time, D&D wormed its way back into my heart and for Xmas of 1985, I spend all the gift certificates work gave me as a bonus on a complete set of AD&D books, to replace the ones I’d gotten rid of.
Somewhere in all of that, DragonLance came out. I read the books and looked at the modules, but they weren’t really for me. The novels felt like they were aimed at a slightly younger audience (I was in my 20s by this point, and reading “important” fantasy, like Katherine Kurtz and Raymond Feist. :p).
Greyhawk was kind of in its dotage, Gary Gygax having departed TSR, and to be honest, that setting wouldn’t get its hooks into me for another fifteen years or so. So I was kind of adrift when it came to places to set a game. I worked half-heartedly on something I thought be cool (it wasn’t) and mostly played Champions.
Fast-forward a couple of years. Ads from TSR start appearing on the backs of comic books. These don’t have comic strips, they show a parcel of parched ground, with a footprint that can only be from a dragon. The ads read something like “It’s Coming”. I couldn’t find one online. I’m sure if I go digging in my long boxes, I can find an example, but that smacks of effort. Each month, they revealed little more detail. It was a great ad campaign.
I grabbed a copy of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, aka the Grey Box as soon as it came off the truck. Hell, I might have snatched it out of the truck. The insides remain my gold standard for a boxed set: multiple books, multiple maps, and that cool transparent hex map overlay.
When I read the books, I saw a setting that spoke to me in ways no D&D world had before. It simultaneously embraced the crazy of the game while making sense of it in odd ways. It felt lived-in, in a way Krynn and Greyhawk didn’t (unsurprising, considering its history prior to publication). It was mature without being titillating. It had wide-open vistas and places for the PCs to matter. A place with ancient history and epic yarns of swashbuckling adventure.
In short, it said “Play Me.”
Nearly thirty years on, a lot of those wide-open vistas have been filled in and altered by official canon. The Realms probably have the worst examples of Pet NPCs you can find. But back in the day, that slim grey box, packed full of stuff, was a breath of fresh air.
Even in the bad times of overpowered NPCs and goofy metaplots, I’ve loved the place. I’ve played there many times, run there on occasion. It’s probably the only game setting I can think of where if you told me, "OK, we’re in Faerun, you’re playing a [CLASS] from [Place]," I could make a go of it just on that information and feel comfortable doing so. I won’t get the details right, but I know I’ll be playing to the spirit of the setting.
I could go on. And maybe I will, later. For now, I leave with a quote that sums the place up for me entirely:
“We face death every day,” Ferostil said with a shrug, “and treasure’s guarded the world over.”
That’s the Realms I love.