As soon as I’d read — and loved — the 4e core books (reviewed right here on the Stew), I was excited about seeing the 4e Forgotten Realms setting book. I paid full price for the privilege of getting it at the one store in my area that had it on release day (our lone Borders), and tucked into it right away.
After several days with it, here are my impressions of this book — a 3,000-word review from a longtime FR fan and GM. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first in-depth review of the FRCG to appear anywhere.
There are lots of ways to love (or loathe) the Realms, and I think it’s important to tell you where I’m coming from before I dive into this review.
I’ve been a fan of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting ever since I got my hands on the old grey box back in 1989/90 (or thereabouts), and I started GMing campaigns set there shortly after that. It’s my favorite D&D setting by far, and my default when I want to run a game. I own and love most of the 1e and earlier 2e supplements (especially the pamphlet style regional guidebooks), as well as about half of the 3e and 3.5e material. I thought the 3rd Edition revamp of the Realms was excellent.
The fiction, on the other hand, has never really grabbed me. I enjoyed the original Dark Elf trilogy, but have never been able to get past the first book of the classic Icewind Dale series. I’ve read a couple of other random Realms novels, and found them to be poorly written and not all that interesting. (My last attempt was The Thousand Orcs, which was so bad I put it down after a chapter or two.)
When it comes to running games in Faerûn, I’ve always made the setting my own. For example: I thought the concept of the Time of Troubles was lame, so I ignored it. You can do this with any setting, but some folks seem to worry about ignoring canon — and ALL the dozens of novels of varying quality are considered canon — when it comes to the Realms. I never have.
Why I Love the Forgotten Realms
I love the Realms as a campaign setting for three big reasons:
1. It’s HUGE, incredibly detailed and built for adventuring. You can set a campaign nearly anywhere in Faerûn and have plenty of published support, or range further afield and create new material on your own. There’s a ton of diversity among the different regions, and all of them just scream “You can adventure here.” It’s hard to pin down, but something about the setting has always spoken to me on an unconscious level — it just feels right for a D&D setting.
2. Open the book and point. Ed Greenwood once said that you could close your eyes, open the core FR campaign guide to a random page, point to any spot on that page and start a campaign based on what was written there — and he was absolutely right, both about the original AD&D core books as well as the 3e campaign guide. Faerûn is bursting with ideas.
3. The little stuff. In the old grey box, Sembia was left completely blank, so GMs could mold it however they saw fit. The Forgotten Realms Adventures hardcover listed the collective nouns for inhabitants of different places, so citizens of Mulmaster were Mulmasterites but the people of Hillsfar were Hillsfarians. Little stuff, but very cool. These kinds of touches dropped off in 3e, but not entirely — there’s always been an attention to detail in FR products that I love.
When I read the new Campaign Guide, those three things were uppermost in my mind. So how did it stack up?
OK, Let’s Do It: The 4th Edition Campaign Guide
Here are my impressions of the Campaign Guide, more or less in the order they came to me. SPOILERS ABOUND, obviously.
The art rocks: As with the 4e core books, I love the cover (and the whole shiny/matte thing) and the splash page approach to the chapters really works for me. When I saw the illustration for the Chapter 1: Loudwater, my first thought was “I want to adventure here.” That’s a great lead-off impression for a setting book. (And I love the homage to the cover of the old grey box in the Magic chapter’s splash page.)
This is a pretty slim book: Given how big Faerûn is, that seems like a weird choice. On the other hand, the forthcoming Player’s Guide will have all the crunch in it, so maybe it’s just slimmer by that margin?
I decided to compare the page count of the section of the book I care the most about as a GM — Chapter 6, which is entirely devoted to describing the lands, cities and wild places of Faerûn — to its analog in the 3rd Edition and 1st Edition (old grey box) versions of this product, and just set aside the sections on gods, monsters, etc. Here’s how that shook out:
- 4th Edition FRCG: 288 pages, of which 153 are devoted to world description
- 3rd Edition FRCS: 320 pages, of which 133 pages are pure setting material
- 1st Edition Cyclopedia of the Realms: 96 pages, of which 74 are pure setting
That was a real surprise for me. Despite being 32 pages shorter than the 3rd Edition FR core book, the new one actually offers up 20 more pages of setting material. I’d love to have that extra 32 pages back in the form of still more detail on the world, but given that that’s not the case, I’m glad the setting section got a boost in pagecount.
Pagecount versus the amount of info presented: Type size and layout play a role, though — this book uses a larger typeface and more whitespace than the 3rd Edition FRCS. That makes it easier to read (I found the 3e core book’s type to be slightly too small), but also means there’s less information on any given page. Word for word, I think the 3e version covers more ground in fewer pages; if it had been produced with the same type and layout as the 4e FRCG, I think the 3e FRCS would actually have more pages of setting material.
Despite that, I would still say that the 4e FRCG offers more directly useful information than the 3e FRCS — everything in a 4e region entry is useful to you as a GM, whereas there’s info in a 3e region entry that many GMs likely won’t use. This is doubly true for adventure hooks. For example: The 4e Aglarond entry includes 13 adventure hooks; the 3rd Edition entry includes just four. That plus the improved readability makes me very happy with the amount and style of the setting info in the 4e FRCG.
The mother of all reboots: One of the things I was most curious about was how WotC would adapt the Realms to 4e’s new “points of light” philosophy — where D&D worlds are largely wild and dangerous, but dotted with outposts of civilization. As it stood in AD&D and 3rd Edition, Faerûn just flat-out doesn’t fit that design approach — although parts of it do, like the North.
So how did they do it? This is covered on the very first page of the book, and for longtime fans it’ll hit like a ton of bricks.
- It’s been a hundred years since the time of the 3e Realms.
- The Spellplague (caused by Cyric’s murder of Mystra and the subsequent destruction of the Weave) has ravaged the entire world. Plaguelands still linger, and a massive Plaguewrought Land of crazy magic now occupies a huge area in the south.
- Netheril has been fully restored, and Thay has become a nation entirely dominated by undeath.
- Parts of Toril’s sister planet, Abeir, have literally merged with the Realms — there’s now a whole new continent to the west, Returned Abeir (where the dragonborn come from), and bits and pieces of Abeir (and the creatures that lived there) are scattered throughout Toril.
- A country-sized opening into the Underdark has formed, draining much of the Sea of Fallen Stars and reshaping the landscape all around it.
My first thought was Wow. My second thought was I’m not sure how I feel about that, quickly followed by That’s actually really cool, and fits perfectly for 4e. I predict that most gamers will love or hate this book based largely on this single page of text.
I wasn’t sold on it until about 80 pages later, when I read the overview of “new Faerun” — those intervening 80 pages aren’t so hot. But the overview, followed by the very first region entry, Aglarond, cemented it for me: This isn’t the Forgotten Realms you know and love, but it’s balls-to-the-wall crazy in a good way, and it makes a perfect 4th Edition setting.
Great layout, with one exception: The white background and minimal, software manual-style layout carries over from the core books, and it works just as well here. This is a very readable book, with one annoying exception: the sidebars. They’re shaded, which sets them apart nicely, but they have no padding (gutters) around the text — so the edge of the shading runs right up to the letters. I have no idea if most people will care, but it drives me nuts every time I read a sidebar.
All the wrong stuff comes first: You know how the 3e campaign guide slapped you in the face with Elminster’s huge statblock? The 4e guide does the same thing, but with an adventure section. I see the thought process (jump right in without needing to read anything else), but it doesn’t work for me. The adventures in the previous editions of this book have always looked pretty lame, and these look about the same — and they take up 32 pages. This section should be at the back of the book, and a lot shorter.
The same goes for the next four chapters: With the exception of the glossary and magical features sections, I would have liked all of them to come after the setting material. I love the Realms, and I got bored reading large chunks of the first 80 or so pages. I actually set the book aside for an entire day out of frustration — which helped, because when I came back to it, pushed through to Chapter 6 and got to the awesome stuff, I came to it fresh rather than crabby.
Chapters 2-5 are a very mixed bag: Next up are the Adventuring, Magic, Cosmology and Pantheon chapters, most of which should have come at the end of the book. The timeline in Adventuring is snooze-worthy, and the selection of mundane treasures should have been skipped entirely in favor of more setting material. The glossary is nice, and in the right spot — but it doesn’t include “Well met,” the traditional Faerûnian greeting since the setting was first published back in 1987, which seems weird to me.
I liked the first half of the Magic chapter, which describes magical features of the world — portals (many of which no longer work); earthmotes, which are airborne landmasses that can support forests, strongholds, whatever; the plaguelands — but disliked the second half, which sketches out a cool idea (give every magic item a story tied to the setting — not new, but still good) in too little detail to be useful; it should have been cut or expanded.
I found the Cosmology chapter unlikely to be of much use to me, but I can see how other GMs would enjoy it. I would have liked it to be a lot shorter, so that extra space could go to setting material.
The Pantheon chapter does a nice job of describing the Greater Gods in ways that give you and your players some good details to work with, but slips at the end when it lumps all but a couple of the lesser powers into a huge list with no details whatsoever; that felt unsatisfying to me. If you want less gods to worry about, though, you can just stick to the biggies and leave it at that.
Minimal crunch = awesome: I like rules material (crunch) as much as the next guy, but it’s not why I buy setting books. I love that this edition of the Realms does away with the rules-heavy approach of the 3rd Edition core book. Apart from the adventure and a chapter of monsters and NPCs, the book is pretty much rules-free. That’s my cup of tea, and as a GM I like that they included only the crunch I’m most likely to care about.
The poster map is godawful: Partway through reading the first section, I carefully pulled out my poster map — and was immediately disappointed. The maps have always been one of the strong points of published Realms material, from the macro view of the world and the detailed regional map of the Heartlands included in the original grey box and the beautiful and incredibly detailed world map in the 3e hardcover to the excellent maps included in supplements.
A good map should do two things: be useful at the gaming table, and inspire you to want to game in that world. The 4th Edition Realms map does neither. It’s an undifferentiated brownish-green blob overwhelmed by heavily-outlined text, and it doesn’t even use the entire sheet it’s printed on (the edges are blank).
Add to that the errors (for example, in the Dalelands: Tilverton Scar is marked as a city, when it’s a ruin/site; Harrowdale is marked as a city, when it’s actually a Dale — its main city is called New Velar, which isn’t on the map at all), and you have a complete waste of paper.
Here’s a closeup of the Heartlands (and a bigger version):
…and here’s a comparison between the new map (bottom) and the one in the 3rd Edition FR core book (show me the big one):
The index sucks: Indexes aren’t WotC’s strong suit, when they’re included at all, but this one is a joke. This disclaimer is included at the top:
This index is meant as a source of inspiration rather than a comprehensive reference.
I shit you not. It mostly refers to sidebars, which I’m never going to remember by name anyway (and therefore won’t be able to look up), and leaves out all the details I might actually want to find in a real index. Contrast that with the 3e FRCS’s index, which took up 4 1/2 pages and was insanely comprehensive. Why not cut some of the cruft from the first few chapters to make room for a comprehensive, multi-page index, rather than a glorified appendix of sidebar titles?
Awesome overview of the world: This is what should have come right after the introduction: the section that briefly describes each region of the world is excellent. Every region sounds like a neat place to adventure, and it really helped sell me on the cool factor of the massive changes that have taken place in the Realms. For such a short section, it makes a big impact.
Chapter 6: Faerûn and Beyond, the reason I bought the book: This is where the book starts to get good — really good, actually.
The depth and volume of setting material has always been one of the Realms’ greatest strengths as a campaign world. With 1st-3rd Edition, there was guaranteed support in the form of a raft of supplements for individual regions, power groups, etc. — generally quite good (the tail end of TSR’s 2e run was awful, though), and always excellent timesavers and sources of inspiration.
From what I’ve heard, that’s not a given for 4th Edition campaign settings. The Realms and Eberron (the only two announced so far) will each be getting a Campaign Guide (the fluff), a Player’s Guide (the crunch) and an adventure, with the publication of further supplements being dependent on the sales of the first three books.
Now, with the Realms it’s a reasonably safe bet that the line will continue to grow, but without that being guaranteed I think the core book becomes much more important. This is potentially ALL of the setting material you, as a GM, are going to get for 4th Edition’s rebooted Realms — which is why it’s awesome that this edition of the core book devotes more pages to pure setting description than any previous edition.
And those pages are good.
By the time I’d finished the first entry, Aglarond, I wanted to start a campaign there. After reading the next one, Akanûl, I wanted to start a campaign there, too. The region entries are well-written, concise and jam-packed with fun stuff. There’s a whole section on the Underdark that’s particularly good, with overlay maps showing where major underground settlements are located relative to the surface world, a great map of Menzoberranzan and tons of cool details about the different sections of the subterranean world.
Let’s stick with Aglarond for a minute, though. Aglarond — an area I wasn’t too familiar with — is a nation clinging to its sovereignty in the wake of a Thayan invasion, its coastline affected by the retreat of the Sea of Fallen Stars and its northern border under constant assault from the undead fortress of Undumor. In two short pages, I counted 13 adventure hooks, ranging from the tunnel the forces of Undumor are rumored to be digging to strike deeper into Aglarond to the goblins lairing in the abandoned silver mines of the Tannath Mountains to the evil malaugrym on Veltalar’s ruling council.
Cormyr offers a great example of how the changes in this edition have impacted an area most FR players are familiar with. They fought the Netherse to a standstill, and that uneasy peace continues. Marsember was hit hard by the draining of the Sea of Fallen Stars, so Suzail, the capital, has also become Cormyr’s main port. The entire city of Wheloon has been walled up (both physically and magically) and is now one big prison for Shar worshippers. Tilverton has been swallowed by a shadowy blue magical funnel, at the bottom of which lurks a malevolent entity that has yet to reveal itself. The fundamentals — strong monarchy, Purple Dragons and War Wizards, chartered adventuring companies — haven’t changed, though: it’s still recognizably Cormyr.
The region entries hit the “Close your eyes and point” mark, too — which is a big thing for me. This entire chapter is full to bursting with adventuring opportunities, with no clutter or cruft whatsoever. Each region gets at least a page, and most get two; the famous bits get more than two. And every section features a snippet of the map for easy reference.
What’s missing when compared to the 3e FRCS are the cultural and societal details. The 4e FRCG mentions the populations of most major settlements and gives you a few tidbits about the people, but covers nothing like the import/export lists and “Life and Society” sections of the region entries in the 3rd Edition version. Some of that I can do without (like 3e’s population breakdown by race — who cares?), but it would have been nice to have a few more fluffy details than are presented in the new book.
This somewhat stripped down approach fits very well for 4th Edition, though — it matches up with the feel of the PHB and DMG. It’s all about adventuring opportunities in a points-of-light world, and less about painting a rich tapestry of cultural details about the Realms. If they do more supplements, that’s fine; if not, part of me will miss those details.
Crunch for GMs: Rounding out the book is a solid chapter of NPCs, power groups and monsters, from the Five Companies (sky bandits out of fallen Halruua) to the Order of Blue Fire (a spellscarred cult) and the forces of Netheril, all with stats and excellent illustrations. The Threats chapter is pure GM-oriented crunch, and it’s a big improvement over 3rd Edition. This is 49 pages well spent.
What a weird ride: I’m so glad I reviewed this book, because if I hadn’t been planning to review it I might have stopped reading partway through the first few chapters. The combination of “Holy shit, they did what?!” and the lackluster chapters that open the book could easily have kept me from getting a chance to enjoy what’s actually a damned cool setting — and one that I think will be a ton of fun to GM and play.
Skip around: I recommend reading it like this: Start with pages 4-5, then jump to 46-55, then skip straight to 82 (the start of the setting chapter) and read from there.
Please remake the map: The included map is like all of the Highlander movie sequels for me: it shouldn’t exist, and I’m just going to pretend it doesn’t.
Swing for the fences: Unlike the incremental changes the 3rd Edition FRCS brought to the setting — which, while major, didn’t fundamentally alter the entire world — 4e’s changes are HUGE. They’ve essentially created two strongly distinct versions of the Realms for GMs to consider: pre-Spellplague and post-Spellplague — they’re dramatically different in tone, tenor and feel, while still both being recognizably the same setting in a lot of ways.
The next time I want to run a Realms campaign, I would decide which of those two versions fit best for what I had in mind. Right now, I have to say that the craziness of the post-Spellplague, post Abeir-fusion, 4th Edition take on the setting really appeals to me. Overall, I think the changes are cool, and I like the unabashed, “all adventuring, all the time” vibe of the rebooted Realms. It looks like a killer place to run a game.
Hopefully you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. Thanks for reading!