For the middle part of this week, I've been privileged enough to have one of my gaming buddies lend me a copy of the 4e Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting. Lunches, late nights, and waiting to go into work in the morning have all been opportunities for me to peruse this 288-page tome. I'm not comfortable with doing a full review at the moment, but I did feel like sharing a few observations that really jumped out at me in my reading.
(A little background: My last regular Realms campaign was in 2003, but I've done some one-shots and convention play since then. I also read some of the fiction in sort of a hit-and-miss style, but do enjoy the setting, even if Greyhawk remains my first love. I was a fan of the box sets of old, but in between spent time in a lot of other campaigns. As such, I'm not a die-hard canon fiend, nor a detractor of the setting--when I do play in it, I tend to enjoy it. Please keep in mind this is very much a "first impressions" overview as much as anything. That said, here's a few of the Pros and Cons as I saw them from my reading):
-This is a very readable book. There are some irritating and abrupt editing choices, but by and large, this book is easy on the eyes and easy to get through.
-Nice region-by-region overview. They do a good job of throwing in plenty of adventure hooks, even if the cultural stuff is rather lacking (see below). You don't have to go far in here to find an idea for a game.
-There appears to be very adequate GM support and accompanying (needed, not overblown) crunch for setting a 4e Realms campaign on the right track. I think it has the 3e Realms beat on this note.
-God, I loved the cartography in the 3e campaign setting. Unfortunately, as Martin Ralya pointed out in his 4e Realms review, the map in the 4e setting is sub-par. Bluntly, compared to the 3e map, this is a poorly-defined, poorly-colored, uninspirational miscue.
-Perhaps in the most inadvertently hilarious part of the new edition, the barely-there index is mentioned not as a "comprehensive reference", but as a "source of inspiration". I didn't believe this until I saw it. Having a crappy index and trying to pass it off as a jumping board for ideas is pretty damned novel, I'll give them that. Hell, why not have a map showing only Cormyr, Sembia, and the Moonshaes separated by wide blank spaces and say "Let Thy Imagination Run Free Within Ye!"?
-The cultural aspect of previous editions is largely lacking. Although there are plenty of descriptions of places and people, few stray appreciably from basic stats and numbers. This is a bit of a downer.
-I know especially with new editions, there's a time and a place to hit the "reset button". But I'm not certain how well some of the changes were done. The biggest event, the Spellplague doesn't seem as mystic or cataclysmic as it does arbitrary. The addition of the Dragonborn has all the calculated subtlety of the addition of Poochie to Itchy & Scratchy. The return of Netheril was interesting, but I found the presentation of the of the setting's "fast-forward" a very mixed bag at best. This is where I wanted (needed, I think) to be sold, and I'm not--yet.
In conclusion, I think a big draw for a lot of the Forgotten Realms fans are the detail in which the Realms are lovingly described. In 4e, we see a move away from that to a less-defined, fuzzier Realms. While some will embrace the change, it and other changes will likely drive other long-time Realms fans barking mad. While there is no shortage of campaign ideas in here (those overview parts of the setting are a great read), I think it'll largely come down to the setting changes, and if players embrace or rebel against them. There's some good stuff in the 4e Realms, and some very good support for a 4th Edition game, but we'll have to hope that point doesn't get lost in the shuffle.