A Rant and a Review: Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide

It was originally not my intention to review this book. Indeed, it was not originally my intention to ever touch this book. However, due to popular demand, a review copy being offered to me and me having nothing better to do with my time, I give to you… my unabashedly biased and uncensored opinion.

You want objective, read Gnome Stew’s review. They did it, I don’t have to. I also recommend it for the map links. Indeed, the quality of the poster map is one of the few things I agree with Martin Ralya on – it’s an ugly mess. It’s also riddled with errors; there are the ones he mentioned, and a cursory glance also reveals Candlekeep, Ankhapur and Veltalar, all described as cities by the sea, all drawn inland.

The Backgrounds

Now, let it be stated upfront that, unlike many other angry white males prowling the forums and chats of the internet, I like the Forgotten Realms. I own probably in excess of a hundred Forgotten Realms novels, and have read most of them. I even thought some of them were good (Paul S. Kemp’s novels are my favourites).

I think the setting’s strength is in the depth of lore and the intricate details that bring it alive. It oozes atmosphere, and it is a delight to weave the plot of a campaign into the setting, bringing elements of the background together to support it.

When WotC announced the new edition of the Forgotten Realms was going to be moved a century into the future, I just knew it wasn’t going to end well. And, well, I was right. The marketing screed was much like with 4E, except even more ridiculous, directly portraying the strengths of the setting as a problem they were going to solve – apparently, having depth and detail is a bad thing. Somewhere in there, we got a line about how the design team didn’t really like Forgotten Realms (I’d love to be able to source this, but have been unable to find the link again. The only reason I know I didn’t dream it up is that I’ve seen other people reference it.), and a promise they were not going to retcon anything.

That could be termed false advertising, or just plain old bullshit.

“Retcon” is a term that’s been bandied about and misunderstood a lot in this particular conversation, so I’ll just go ahead and make sure that everyone’s on the same page here as to what it means. It comes from the words “retroactive continuity”, and means the changing of previously established facts in a work of fiction, saying “that’s how it always was”. It is different from changing things by advancing the story. To contrast, the Spellplague that hit the Realms after the death of Mystra and brought about all this crap is storyline development. The invention of the world of Abeir is a retcon. Wikipedia actually has a handy article on the topic.

The name of the planet, Abeir-Toril, meant “The Cradle of Life”, according to the 2E campaign setting. In the 4E version, Abeir and Toril were originally different worlds. After a great war between the primordials and the gods, the gods claimed Toril and the primordials took Abeir. There’s a lot of retconning going on with the pantheon, too, with Talos suddenly being an aspect of Gruumsh, Sehanine being an aspect of Selûne, and suddenly it being the eladrin instead of the elves who were born of Corellon’s blood when he fought Gruumsh. The dwarf pantheon was renamed from Morndinsamman to Moradinsamman.

Now, in the 3E Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, there was some retconning going on as well. I don’t really mind slapping sorcerer levels on the Simbul, since that’s rules and a different issue entirely, but what really annoyed me was changing Eldenser, the Wyrm Who Hides in Blades from a gem dragon to a brass dragon. It was a change with no real purpose. However, I can forgive this, because it’s a small thing to change back and the 3E FRCS is an awesome book in most other ways, and a textbook example of how to write a campaign setting. It’s easily among the best works of the 3E era.

The problem with the changes of 4E is that they’ve failed to sell them. They have failed to convince me that they are a good idea, that they make the setting somehow better. What they would do, if I were to accept and use their version of the setting, is render obsolete most of my former Forgotten Realms collection. The material is simply incompatible. NPCs have died, organisations have changed, the pantheons have been extensively shuffled around and even the maps no longer apply. It bears so little resemblance to the old Forgotten Realms (except for Drizzt, who just keeps on going) that it’s really a different setting altogether. They should’ve found a bit of spine and just developed a new one if they hated working with the Realms so much.

Additionally… has any one of these setting reboots ever resulted in anything good? Greyhawk and From the Ashes is probably the most successful of these, in that it managed to garner enough popularity to create a rift in the fanbase that persists to this day. In the Realms, the Time of Troubles was widely panned. Dragonlance has been getting steadily worse with the repeated reshufflings of the setting. I’ve never met anyone who preferred Dark Sun’s second edition over the first. Ravenloft’s Grand Conjunction was just boring and the situation was eventually reset. Planescape’s Faction War is universally reviled, even though, objectively, it’s easily the best-written of this bunch.

The thing is… they never manage to improve the setting. In the best case, the transition supplements will be hated for all eternity while the setting itself makes a recovery (Greyhawk or post-ToT Forgotten Realms), and in the worst, the setting ends up as a lesser, derivative work, a shadow of its former self (Dark Sun 2E, and this one here).

Production Values

The book is a 288-page hardcover, in glorious full colour. It retails for $40. However, it’s not the entire setting. It has a companion volume coming out later this month, the Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide, which is another $30. The Campaign Guide here is supposed to give you the world, while the Player’s Guide gives you the rules items like a new character class and the drow race.

After these books and an adventure module that’s coming out around now-ish, that’s it for the Realms. It’s the new three-book model WotC has for campaign settings. One setting a year, three books per setting, that’s it. I actually advocated something like this for the 3E era, as a way of bringing back the old favourites like Planescape and Spelljammer. However, it’s too late now and after seeing what they’ve done here, I’d prefer them to keep away from anything else that I like, especially with the rumours of 4E Greyhawk that are making the rounds.

The layout of the book is the same as in the core books – annoyingly large font, lots of white space. Had I paid money for this, I’d feel ripped off. The art ranges from passable to some truly hideous scrawlings. The best of the lot are the chapter opening splash pages.

What’s in the Book

The book starts with a brief summary of what the setting is about, headed by a quotation from Elminster. There’s a list of ten things that have changed in the Realms, which I think was a stupid idea to include. For one thing, to get to an even ten, they included this gem of a sentence:

10. Most portals no longer work. The breaking of the Weave destroyed most of the portals that crisscrossed Toril, because it destroyed the hard-won knowledge of arcane casters.

Because, you know, one thing logically follows from the other. Also points for repetition. This, friends, is bad writing. It’s a common theme throughout the book.

It also feels like I’m being talked down to. It’s something easily digestible for the Xbox generation, much like the rest of the book. There’s little in the way of substance.

But we move onwards, to…

Chapter 1: Loudwater

The first chapter presents us the small town of Loudwater, nestled in the northern frontier. It’s tied with a series of short “adventures”, to introduce the players to the setting. I believe one source stated the purpose was that you could pick up the book and start playing within 15 minutes.

Me, I’m of the school of thought that if you have only 15 minutes to prep for a game, it’s better to just wing it than even try to run something off a book. If you have more than 15 minutes, I’d advise to run something else than this, because… damn.

It opens up with an encounter where, in bright daylight, a raiding party of 13 goblins blows a 20-foot hole in the 10-foot-thick stone wall of Loudwater, to capture a MacGuffin from a nearby store.

The encounter leaves certain pertinent questions unanswered, such as the following:

  1. How did the goblins bring about such a massively destructive explosion?
  2. How were they able to remain close enough to the explosion that they could move straight into the town during the same round?
  3. How come they weren’t noticed by guards on the walls when they approached the town and prepared the explosion?
  4. Why did they opt for a frontal assault in broad daylight when sneaking over the walls at night would have likely yielded better results – if the wall patrol is blind during the day, they can’t be that much more alert during the night.
  5. How did the goblins know where the MacGuffin was in the first place, since it’d changed hands once after being taken from them? They had to know to blow up the wall at the correct spot.
  6. Why is it nobody thought of these things during the design process?

What follows is an adventure location straight out of a subpar computer RPG. There are things labelled as “roleplaying opportunities”, which are mostly just attempts to prod the adventures to the direction of the local thieves’ guild – except for the one with the local smith, whose “roleplaying opportunity” is about how she will fall for any guy who’s taller than her.

We also get a map of Loudwater, evidently done with MS Paint, which shows that the 2,000 residents of the city have about 40 buildings between them. The housing problem is not as bad as it was in Winterhaven, but it is somewhat exacerbated by the fact this is the second time they did it.

Then there’s the NPCs, who read like inferior Neverwinter Nights scripts. I especially love the dwarf named Zark, possibly in homage to another abject failure in the middle of an otherwise brilliant property. Zark trades child slaves for the serpentfolk living nearby. They’re stored in barrels, shipped down the river to Loudwater, and there Zark hires the PCs to unload the cargo.

There are hundreds of ways to handle slave trade well, and none of them involve bringing outsiders in direct contact with the merchandise. Another spectacularly idiotic plotline, here.

This chapter is concluded by two pages on the High Moor, which aren’t bad. However, we’re now 37 pages into the book and they’re far too rare for my liking.

Chapter 2: Adventuring

This is a short chapter on how to run a campaign in the Realms or how not to write a chapter on running a campaign in the Realms, depending a bit on your point of view.

It has a few suggestions on how to wind up your old campaign, such as running it through the Spellplague and onwards post-Spellplague until it ends naturally. This is an interesting suggestion, since we have no information on what the Spellplague was actually like, or really, any substantial information on what happened in the intervening years between the Spellplague or the present day. This chapter, see, also contains the history of the Realms and the timeline. From the creation of the world to the present day, this takes up two and a half pages. The post-Spellplague era gets one paragraph. It’s a joke.

As a point of note, the 3E FRCS had twelve pages of history.

Then we get a couple of pages of objects of art to use as mundane treasure at different tiers and a brief, incomplete and random glossary. The objects of art are interesting, I suppose, but I can’t help but feel that space could have been better used.

There’s also the return of the coinage and currency sidebar, reprinted nearly verbatim through the ages.

Chapter 4: Magic

The Magic chapter gives the most information on the Spellplague, mostly in how it shaped the landscape. The Realms now has “earthmotes”, or “floating rocks”. We also get “spellscars”, which sound a lot like Eberron’s dragonmarks, and “plaguelands”, which are areas still affected by the Spellplague. Here there be weird stuff. We also have a lot of “ridiculous names”, but that started back in the late 3E era.

The chapter ends with a smattering of magic items and a pair of rituals.

Chapter 5: Cosmology

Here we have ten pages on the new cosmology of the Realms, telling in one paragraph of each of the deities’ domains and mentioning who lives there. The 4E brainfarts of Elemental Chaos, Feywild and Shadowfell get one or two pages each.

Shaking up the cosmology with the Spellplague was a bit pointless, in my view. Even going by their explanation of shaking off excess baggage, as depth and atmosphere are nowadays called, it doesn’t make much sense since the tree model had been explored in only two books. There was nothing there.

Now, there still isn’t anything there. While in the last edition, I would’ve applauded bringing the Realmsian cosmology in line with the core cosmology, in this case it’s just a case of replacing something lame with something even lamer.

And why must the names sound so dumb?

Chapter 5: Pantheon

The chapter on gods gives us the new pantheon after the old one was first hit by the decimation of the last two pages of Grand History of the Realms and then the post-Spellplague retcons. Well, at least parts of the new pantheon.

So, quite a few gods are dead now, or gone, or turned out to be completely different gods. Tyr just up and left, nobody knows where, in a plot twist taken straight off the WotC forums (a good indication, I feel, that the designers were really out of ideas). Most of the former lesser deities and demigods who didn’t get killed or retconned or ignored into oblivion are now called exarchs, not all of whom even have churches of their own. This change isn’t explained anywhere. There’s a preview article somewhere on the WotC website that explained how the exarchs were meant as endbosses for campaigns. None of them are statted out or even detailed, however. Marthammor Duin is given as an example of an exarch and gets two sentences’ worth of fleshing out.

Actually, only the eighteen greater gods get their own entries here. Of the 19 gods, only Umberlee is given as an example, the Primordials aren’t all even named, and of the archdevils, they only give Mephistopheles as an example. And, well, Asmodeus, who’s now a greater god after killing Azuth and rising in the ranks.

Normally, I wouldn’t be opposed to such brevity. There’d be a deity book coming out sooner or later. However, with the three-book model they’re now using for settings, no such luck. There’s only the uncertain promise of additional material in the online Dragon and the dim possibility of additional sourcebooks if these sell enough. One would hope that the brand’s strength would falter before this crap sells to that critical mass. At least that would indicate there are still some buyers out there with a bit of taste.

Chapter 6: Faerûn and Beyond

Now, 82 pages into the book, we come to the big one. Here, after some 80 pages of mediocrity and stupidity, is the atlas of the 4E Realms.

Some 152 pages more mediocrity and stupid. Yay.

It begins with a short rundown of the different areas. Basically, if the place was popular and central, such as Waterdeep, Silverymoon, the Dalelands or Cormyr, it’ll still be there, for the most part. If it wasn’t, such as Calimshan, Halruaa, Chult, the Old Empires, Thay, or Sembia, anything may have happened.

The actual nation entries are a mixed bag, and nothing really jumps out at me to make me say “oh, cool!”

What they’ve done with Thay especially irks me. In 3E, it was an evil nation ruled by the Red Wizards, a proper magocracy, with lots of intrigue, backstabbing and so forth going on, and with enclaves in faraway lands to sell magic items to fill the coffers of Thay and possibly as part of some greater scheme.

Now it’s a Mordor-ripoff full of undead that occasionally assaults Rashemen and Aglarond. Some of the enclaves are still around, dealing in magic items, no strings attached. In one fell swoop, the whole region just became less interesting.

Impiltur is another gelded region. It was only recently detailed in George Krashos’ marvellous article in Dragon, but in the 4E era, all that is gone, to be replaced by an anarchic nation of random encounters and demon worshipers.

Halruaa went boom. Chult is now an island.

In the Western Heartlands, there’s now Elturgard, a country ruled by lawful stupid Amaunatori paladins. Of all the annoying character archetypes they could have enshrined in setting material, they chose the most annoying one.

We also get another returned ancient nation in addition to Netheril of the shades. The Imaskari crawled up from under their rock and reinstated High Imaskar, taking over the land formerly called Mulhorand.

Unther is now Tymanther, land of the dragonborn, that was ported over from Abeir. It’s neighboured by Akanûl of the genasi, from the same place. The sarrukh are back, now ruling the state of Okoth on the northern coast of the Gulf of Luiren. The Gulf of Luiren, incidentally, is where the nation of Luiren formerly stood.

There’s also a section on Returned Abeir, which seems to be missing the description of a fairly large country visible on the map, and another on the Underdark. The Returned Abeir section is somewhat better than most of the book, though. The writing feels somewhat more inspired and there are fewer ghosts of a better setting lurking underneath.

Overall, this chapter feels like a patchwork of different nation entries with no proper ties between them. It doesn’t feel like a world, just a pile of countries. They feel disconnected from each other.

Chapter 7: Threats

And we come to the final chapter, where the DM is given a number of power groups and creatures for the PCs to kill. It’s got all the usual suspects – church of Bane, church of Shar, the Zhentarim, Cult of the Dragon, and so forth. Then there are a couple of new faces, like the Eminence of Araunt, an undead state that claims every tomb, crypt and grave in the world as a principality and endeavours to bring even Thay and the Twisted Rune into its fold. It is remarkable for having no hooks whatsoever or any real reason for living characters to interact with it, or even care about its existence. Then there’s the Warlock Knights of Vaasa, with their mystical metal “ironfell” that they got off the Random 4E Name Chart.

We also get Halruaan sky pirates, which is pretty cool.

In Closing

Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide is not a good book. It fails to live up to the standards set by its predecessors in terms of compelling lore and interesting adventure hooks, and even if you judge it as a standalone, the writing is mediocre and the whole is incomplete. First of all, you will need the Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide to get all the rules material, and even then you will lack a lot of important stuff, like descriptions of deities. It doesn’t make me want to run games with it, it makes me want to write reviews like this.

For the prior editions, all of that stuff exists, but the changes of the edition switch render most of the lore incompatible. The three-book model (the third being an adventure module) also ensures that we’re unlikely to actually see any expanded material in print. The whole thing smells of an attempt to artificially channel buyers to Dungeons & Dragons Insider, an online service that remains a laughable joke.

The book closes with a rather crappy index, complete with a disclaimer:

This index is meant as a source of inspiration rather than as a comprehensive reference.

There is no excuse.


14 thoughts on “A Rant and a Review: Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide

  1. Ouch.

    I’m still bemused why we “need” two books for this stuff where one worked perfectly well for 3rd Edition. But anyhow.

    While I like the way the new Realms is taking a step back and giving room for GMs to breath in the setting, it looks to me like they’ve made far too many changes this time ’round. As you say, it’s the Realms written by non-Realms fans. Ick.

  2. “The writing feels somewhat more inspired and there are fewer ghosts of a better setting lurking underneath.”

    That was an amazing line, I wish I had thought of it myself. 🙂

    While yours is a much harsher review than I would have written to my blog, I’m starting to really feel the same way about this book. I just received it, and have read through it one full time now, and I’m very disappointed. I had hopes after Ralya’s review over at Gnomestew, but now, I’m not very happy with the book.

  3. Spot on! The whole thing feels like an add-on to the 3E book, not a full blown setting of it’s own. If you picked this up cold, you’d be disappointed with how incomplete it is. When I looked at it in my FLGS, I just couldn’t buy it. I’m happy I didn’t.

    For my own campaign, I will apply the description of the Spellplague to the old campaign setting and make my own way forward.

  4. I am not a big fan of the Realms and actually avoided the setting, except for some Maztica way back when, so the changes to the Realms have no real impact on my group. We completely skipped it in 3e so I guess you could consider us new to the Realms as we always played in Dragonlance, Eberron, Maztica using stuff from Dragon Magazine, or our default home-brew setting. However, the one thing that really got me po’d was the fact that Maztica is no longer around in 4e, or at least it is no longer part of the actual Realms. I want my Mazitca back!

  5. Things like these plaguelands and the spellscars make it sound as if they’re just turning it into Eberron with the names changed. Obviously there should be some similarities, as it’s all D&D, but surely the settings should be a bit more distinctive?

  6. The FRCG 3e (not to mention its supplements) was an artisitic creation worthy of awards and praise with its depth and endless possibilities. I don’t mind them using the Spellplague, but I’m still upset with the whole video game RPG makover of the system. My games were never about power-ups. They were always about stories and characters and value.

    I’m glad downloaded this one. I’ll be damned if WoTC is going to profit off me for replacing a great setting with a lesser product.

  7. Excellent review, spot on and well expressed as well. Sadly, I agree with most of your opinions about it. For us who played 3e alot in FR, it’s a huge step back/sideways. More than ever, FR now demands a huge library to be lugged around, to cope with the many missing areas and the much-to-brief descriptions of civilisations reborn, for example. It’s going to be a bitter struggle to get this ship back on course.

  8. I fell in love with the Realms back in 2nd edition and it wasnt till when 3.5 was around that I got to Dm and play in it. As my group is younger then my by a few years they dont remember the second and I was the one that brought them in to the great game of D&D..I am mostly using the 2nd ed version with Kara Tur as our base.. But I am also mixing in 3E and3.5E stuff.I have heard way too much about how bad the 4E was and when I went and looked at the books I was highly disappointed,I like the half orcs they make a cool counter to the half elves and they are gone. So I am looking for all the 3E Realms stuff and 2E maps. does anyone have an Idea where I can find any online?

  9. I think you should be able to find maps by googling. Old stuff can be bought on eBay.

    It’s also possible to find 3E books at game stores, since it’s unlikely they’ve managed to move all of their stock.

  10. Pingback: 4e / GSL Lets try this again- 4E FR Campaign Guide - EN World D&D / RPG News

  11. Pingback: Die 4th-Edition-Realms taugen nicht einmal mehr als Brettspiel-Hintergrund | Das herzliche Rollenspielblog

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