Originally posted here: https://theotherside.timsbrannan.com/2024/02/review-forgotten-realms-campaign-set.html
I have asked this before, but it bears repeating here and now. How does one review a classic? Better question. How does one review a genre-defining classic? Because that is what I have sitting in front of me now. A genre-defining classic. Eighteen-year-old me back in 1987, ready for his first year at university, would not have thought so at the time, but that is what much older me thinks now.
The Forgotten Realms was the foundation of the "new" TSR, the one without Gary Gygax and many of the other founders on which they would build their new home. We can debate the merits of this and financials ad nauseam, but by any stretch of the imagination, the Forgotten Realms were very successful. So successful that the biggest video game of 2023 is set there.
This review will cover the Forgotten Realms Campaign Set, the Boxed set from 1987. Written by Ed Greenwood and Jeff Grubb and edited by Karen S. Boomgarden. But any insight to this product knows that the genesis was with Ed, and he first brought it all to life in the pages of Dragon magazine. At least that is alive to us. Many other authors have contributed to Realms over the decades, but here is where it begins.
How do we begin? Let's take Ed's own words, which he scribbled into my Cyclopedia of the Realms as our opening.
"Welcome to the Forgotten Realms!" - Ed Greenwood
Forgotten Realms Campaign Set
by Ed Greenwood, Jeff Grubb and edited by Karen S. Boomgarden. 1987. Boxed set. Full-color covers and maps. Cyclopedia of the Realms 96 pages. DMs Sourcebook of the Realms 96 pages. Maps and clear hex overlays.
For this review, I am considering the physical boxed set from 1987 and the PDFs from DriveThruRPG. There has yet to be a Print on Demand version.
The DriveThruRPG PDF combines all this information into a 230-page book. Maps are broken up and scanned in at letter size.
Cyclopedia of the Realms
96 pages. Color covers. Sepia-tone pages and art.
"Let's start at the very beginning. A very good place to start." - Maria von Trapp nee Kuczera, Bard/Cleric
This book is an introduction to the Forgotten Realms, and maybe the most important bit here is the introduction by Ed Greenwood/Elminster and the About this Product. We start immediately with the "voice" of the Realms, Elminster. He is no ersatz Gandalf, nor is he a more approachable Mordenkainen, and certainly, he is more interesting than Ringlerun. He is our guide, but sometimes I still like to think of him as an unreliable narrator. These are the Realms in his eyes. More (if the not the most) knowledgable, but there are still "small stories" to tell that are beneath his notice. Those are the stories (aka games) I want to know about.
This book covers the timeline (I do love timelines!) and ways of keeping time in the Realms. The date for this set is the end of 1357 DR (that's Dale Reckoning or Dalereckoning). For full context, the Baldur's Gate III video game takes place in 1494 DR, with the current year of the D&D 5e titles at 1496 DR. There is a bit of discussion about holidays and how the "weeks" are grouped as Tendays (3 a month). It feels different and I like it. The money system is rather AD&D standard, with some proper names to the coins. This is fine because this IS supposed to be an AD&D world, and the authors want people to feel familiar with it all, if not right at home.
Languages and scripts are up. Some of these are still being used in current versions of D&D.
The Gods are next. These were already familiar to me, not just because this is an old product, but because Ed talked about them in Dragon magazine back in 1995. See "The Dragon Connection" below. While these gods have "Earthly" sources, it actually works out great and ties into the mythology of the Realms as one being connected to Earth. Something it shares with Greyhawk's Oerth. The connection between Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms is strong. They share almost all the same demi-human gods. By extension of the rule-set they also share all the same demons and devils. This makes moving between worlds a little smoother. The gods and their relationships are detailed well here and there is just enough unknow to keep them interesting.
Next section is about Adventuring Companies. So here is one thing that the Realms does better than Greyhawk (well there are more, but the first thing in this book). Adventurers are baked into the system. The world doesn't just need adventuring parties, it demands them. These parties can be used as models for your own adventuring parties. All these parties have names as well. I'll have to think about how Sinéad and Co would fit this format. Plus, the back cover of this book has a grid for the adventuring party! Room for 10 characters even.
We get into the "Cyclopedia" part of the book now. This is an alphabetical listing of major topics within the Realms. These include things like the various character classes, races, countries, towns, areas of interest and other topics. There is a narrative piece describing it, Elminster's Notes for the point of view of the most knowledgeable native (even when he admits to not knowing much), and Game Information.
I rather like it, to be honest. Hit me with facts, and let me build some adventures around it!
DMs Sourcebook of the Realms
96 pages. Color covers. Sepia-tone pages and art.
One of the best things in this book is the Introduction. We get words from Ed (as Ed) talking about the World of the Forgotten Realms and how it is now our world too. Yeah it is trademarked by TSR and now WotC/Hasbro, but this is an open invitation to do what you want with this world now. This is a foreshadowing to all the great Ed Greenwood content we would get over the next almost 4 decades. Honestly reading Ed's own words make me excited for all the exploration ahead of me. This is followed by words from Jeff Grubb, who also had a hand in shaping the AD&D version of the Realms. And more by editor Karen S. Martin who adds her experience and excitement to this world.
So much better than any puff-piece bit of gamer fiction!
We get right into it. Information on how to use this as an AD&D campaign world is started from the word go. Overview again of the boxed set. How to set up campaigns for new players, new campaigns for experienced players, and bringing in characters from other campaigns. Hmm...I should try all of these to be honest. Maybe a character from one of my Greyhawk or Mystara campaigns could come on over. I DO like the idea that Elvish and Dwarvish and some others are mostly the same languages. Would really help bring the worlds closer together.
A bit of coverage on the maps and how to use them. Nice comparison of the map of Faerûn compared to the continental United States. And a section of various wandering monsters. The Forgotten Realms may be Forgotten, but they are very much alive!
The next 20 pages detail NPCs of note. Any to drop in as background, enemy, or ally.
Speaking of living. A really nice section on recent news and various rumors starting in DR 1356 to 1357 are presented. With or without your characters, the Relams live on.
Another plus for this boxed set is the ready-run adventures for low-level characters. The first, The Halls of the Beast Tamers, is a nice dungeon crawl. Next is Lashan's Fall, which appeared in Dragon #95 as "Into the Forgotten Realms," and even the maps are the same! Mind you I think this is a bonus since that is the adventure I always wanted to use as an intro to the Realms. I still can come to think of it.
The next section is a "Pages from the Mages" style entry. Lots of spells books to be found with plenty of new spells. I think some of these were in "Pages form the Mages" to be honest. That's fine, they work well here.
Honestly, the ONLY thing missing here are some new monsters, and this would be complete.
Maps & Plastic Hex Overlays
There are four gorgeous maps of the content of Faerûn. While it doesn't quite live up to the artistry of the Darlene World of Greyhawk maps, they are more practical. The plastic hex overlays also make it easier to read the maps and then do your hex crawls in whatever area you like.
NOTE: There are no overlays in the PDF for obvious reasons.
The Dragon Connection
One of the great things about doing my This Old Dragon feature and concentrating on the period between 1980 and 1987 is watching the Forgotten Realms develop and grow as an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons world. From Ed's musings on gods in Down to Earth Divinity to magical tomes and spells of the Pages from the Mages and The Wizards Three features to adventure Into the Forgotten Realms, all of which would find homes in an official Forgotten Realms product in some shape or form.
I mentioned already that Dragon #95's Into the Forgotten Realms makes an appearance here as an introductory adventure.
As I mentioned, all we were missing were monsters. Well, Ed penned enough monsters in the pages of Dragon Magazine that were explicitly for the Realms, so collecting them all is worthwhile. In addition to monsters, there are magic items, more spells, blades, shields, and even musical instruments, and I know I am nowhere near collecting it all. I do know I will run out of room in my box for them all.
There is a lot packed in this box. It's like a TARDIS really; bigger on the inside. In truth, nothing of what I thought was going to be here was here. Yes, there are NPCs, but they are background, and your characters may never ever run into them. They are the background noise of the Realms until the characters are the big noise. I certainly unfairly judged the Forgotten Realms.
A lot of this stemmed from me thinking that Gygax had been done wrong. Yes, that was true, but the Realms really had nothing to do with that. The New TSR was working to relgate Gygx to the past and Ed was just the guy in the right place in the right time with the right idea. I was also unfair of me to judge the Realms on that. If reading Ed's "The Wizard's Three" has taught me anything that Abier-Toril and Oerth have more in common than not.
This is, of course, just the start. A big start, to be sure, but a start all the same. This is a canvas to paint on. This is a great set, not just for its time but also for now. Minus some of the stat blocks and spells, everything here can be used with any version of D&D or similar game with little or no effort.
While I am somewhat overwhelmed by the task before me, I am also excited about it.
Honestly, I am going to pull out some dice and roll up some characters now.