Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Forgotten Realms, Or: Death By Canon

By definition, I am not a canon-loving guy. My games in Greyhawk blend a number of timelines together, and might best be described as being a “bastardized” form of Greyhawk.

So it stands to reason that over the years, I have gone through no small amount of suffering attempting to run a non-canon Forgotten Realms campaign.

Look, the 1st edition Forgotten Realms was fantastic. I’m not really down with later editions or the 4e aberration (aka “Oh Shit! Dragonbornz Is Here!”), but the first edition of the setting really nailed an epic, massive, GM-friendly world with plenty of puttering about to be done.

Sadly, due perhaps to years of popular paperbacks and the innate tendencies of any fandom, Forgotten Realms seems to inspire a particularly virulent strain of canon fiend. I’m talking about the player that interrupts you five times during your initial (and, as it will turn out, final) campaign exposition to inform you the denizens of Silverymoon actually would never do that, or ally with those dwarves, or visit that inn. I actually had one guy cite a book and chapter as to why I was depicting the area around Waterdeep improperly (no mention was given to the fact he was playing a Rune Mage in Rolemaster in the Realms, but I guess that didn't violate any unspoken rules).

I’ve tried being upfront, explaining that everything I do won’t match the exhaustive detailed compiled by hundreds of Realms products. They seem to nod eagerly, ready to forget about this month’s novel and actually do some damn, you know, gaming, in the setting. Yet the first session invariably turns to grief, as they become enraged at my misrepresentation of the true history of Myth Drannor. We aren't talking about me giving Elminster a jetpack here, folks. We are talking about minutiae.

It probably all comes down to what we want out of things; I want a cool setting I can use as an outline or framework for a campaign, they want to use those years accumulating knowledge about a pretend place in a social setting. Or, to be more charitable, they want the EXACT SETTING from their novels. We are at cross-purposes.

Of course, even my beloved Greyhawk has its zealots, but for my money, they cannot compete in numbers or fanaticism to the Realms fans. Which is why if I ever try to run in the Realms again, I’ll have to try it with people who have never even heard of Waterdeep, Bob Salvatore, or a certain emo drow.


Dr-Rotwang said...

Well, I've heard of them all, but don't give a hot damn.

So maybe I should game with you.

Daen Ral Worldbuilder said...

So, how about the realms "with the serial numbers filed off"? I mean, use everything in the grey box - but change the names - Waterdeep can be Deep Port of something - or Erestal (or some other made up name). It's a pretty simple matter to pencil them in (unless you're a collector) the book... A quick redraw of the map (really just changing a few things) and you have all the framework of the Realms - but no player can say you're doing it wrong...

Bonemaster said...

I don't know what's worse, Trekkies or Realmers. Only kidding. Sadly, this is a problem with any popular product. Your going to have know it all purest. This is the main reason that I almost never run a game in a pre-made universe. I also try to avoid games which seem to require some sort of encyclopedia to understand what's going on. If you can't impart to me in 8 pages the general situation of the world, than your doing something wrong. If expect me to know the proper way to address the Fey Court and the only way to know that is have read a certain novel then Epic Fail.

I really don't mean to be down on these people, but I'm with you Zach, I just want to game. I don't need to have a Doctorate in Forgotten Realms History just to play a game.

Zachary The First said...

@Doc: Door’s always open, sir. We already have one Bloomington-area fellow make the trek!

@Daen Ral: That sounds like an interesting (and fun, if a little work-intensive) idea.

@Bonemaster: No, I understand—there are a lot of Realms fans who contribute good things to the hobby. This is just one strain, but unfortunately a pretty prevalent and annoying one.

Lisandro Gaertner said...

Maybe you should try playing in Mystara. Great and diverse world, just like the realms, but very few people read the material.

Sean said...

Hi, my name is Sean, and I'm a continuity nut.

Mostly I fight it by not reading anything that might bother me in the first place. I have a friend that runs the Realms, so I don't read Realms novels or sourcebooks. Also I don't run anything that has more then three or so sourcebooks - I just go nuts keeping everything straight - and god help me if something in one book should conflict with something in another. I won't play or run Star Trek, or Star Wars (Old Republic is OK), or Dresden, or Tolkien. I just say no.

I like Daen Ral's idea. That's all it takes to make me happy. It's not Tantooine it's . . . the desert world of Min. OK.

Another thing that works is the Alternate timeline. If Drow conquered the city of Waterdeep 150 years ago, then I can roll with the little things (like, say Khelben Blackstaff being a Paladin. Why not?) This sort of reasoning has kept the Star Trek franchise alive for the last generation.

anonynos said...

Heh... when I ran FR back in the very early days of 3e for the most part I mostly had the exact opposite problem... /I/ was the realms nut and my players didn't care to a point where they mostly refused to even read any of the realms info... there was one guy who was a bit of a fan and was the only one who ever got any lore reference I threw out there but he wasn't a fanatic.

The Last Rogue said...

To be honest, I like the 4e Realms (minus the Dragonborn, the new continent, the genasi . . )

I feel the blowing it up thing has made it easier to sell my version of the Realms to my players as they are now much more divorced from the setting than they've been in the past.

Questing GM said...

If I'm using FR, I tell my players that this is OUR Realms and they decide THEIR canon.

Go read those novels and that's SOMEONE's canon.


Although I liked that Penny Arcade strip on canon.

Zachary The First said...

@Lisandro: Mystara seems to get short shrift these days. How have your experiences been with it?

@Sean: Were I a continuity nut, I think I would go mad trying to keep up with any product with as much canon as FR has.

@The Last Rogue:

“To be honest, I like the 4e Realms (minus the Dragonborn, the new continent, the genasi . . )”

To me, that’s sort of an “Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?” sort of thing.

But I do see your point. Sometimes having a setting “reset” or blown up can help encourage new participation. Unfortunately, sometimes it can also completely screw a setting over. I’m glad you’ve made it work for you!

@Questing: I have found players who agree with me in principle, but they can’t seem to help themselves later…

1d30 said...

But they have done "resets" in the Forgotten Realms before. I know the Avatar thing was a big deal for the shift to 2E. And then certainly something wonky went on with the 3E maps, as some roads that used to be diagonal now ran straight east-west.

I abandoned the Realms except to steal ideas from it. That's really all it's good for - Undermountain, the Haunted Halls of Eveningstar, the Sea of Fallen Stars, Calimshan, etc. You don't need to keep all the pointless baggage.

1d30 said...

But they have done "resets" in the Forgotten Realms before. I know the Avatar thing was a big deal for the shift to 2E. And then certainly something wonky went on with the 3E maps, as some roads that used to be diagonal now ran straight east-west.

I abandoned the Realms except to steal ideas from it. That's really all it's good for - Undermountain, the Haunted Halls of Eveningstar, the Sea of Fallen Stars, Calimshan, etc. You don't need to keep all the pointless baggage.

clash bowley said...

Bah! I see your puny Forgotten Realmer Canonista and raise you a Traveller Grognard. I see your face has drained of blood. Could it be you know true *fear*?



Zachary The First said...

@1d30: They did indeed. For my money, not a one of the “resets” has been as good as the gray box 1st ed. FR.

@clash: To stare into the eyes of a Traveller Grognard Canonista, yes, that is to know true fear.

Doug Wall said...

More commonly, I've got the opposite problem. I can't get my players to read any of the setting material. No matter how much I want them to. Some of them has claimed that this allows me to mess with published material, but my main thought is that they are simply lazy.

Anthony Emmel said...

Dude, I would love to play in your game!! You had me with Rolemaster . . . in the Realms?!! Count me in. Too bad I'm in Texas. :(

I've always wanted to run some RM in Greyhawk as well. ~sigh~

Age of Fable said...

What's the actual attraction of Forgotten Realms? From what little I've seen it seems very standard Tolkien-y D&D.

Zachary The First said...

@Age of Fable: That is the attraction for some, I think. A richly described world that's full of real-world analogues and capable of epic fantasy. Myself, I prefer Greyhawk for that, but to each their own.

Nachtwulf said...

As any old time Traveller player will know there's a very specific acronym that deals with this sort of thing: IMTU. It stands for "In My Traveller Universe" and it immediately shuts down any canonical arguments there might be.

Now, after many months of considering your problem, I've created a special tool for you. Feel free to use it: IMFRU 8D

I'm very up-front with my players. I usually state at the beginning that although this adventure will be based in the Forgotten Realms (Dark Sun, Call of Cthulhu, Morrow Project, Mutants and Masterminds, etc) that I'm not slavishly holding to canon... in fact, I may piddle all over canon should it suit me. Quoting to me from canonical sources will not sway me in decisions I make, and may bring down the fates upon you... for I am an inflexible and wrathful god, and that perhaps those who chronicled those events were incorrect... since they are simply mortals.

Joking aside, It's really that simple. Tell your players "look, I'm sure that sourcebook/novel/article was cool, but I'm not using it in my game." That's usually more than enough to satisfy a reasonably mature gaming group.

If it becomes a particular, reoccurring issue with a player/players, discuss it privately after the game, but reiterate "This is my game. This is the way I'm going to run it, and I'm sorry if this deviation from canon present an issue for you. Is it something you can overlook so we can get back to enjoying the game? No? Then, I'm real sorry that you won't be playing in this adventure any longer, do you mind if I duplicate your character(s) for the party to have as an NPC until we can find another player(s)?"

Now I'm not advocating absolute inflexibility from you as a GM, after all, any minor detail that doesn't affect your adventure is easily adjusted. I just find that once its established that you're the GM and it's your game, everyone can relax and actually enjoy.

David said...

Despite having been the target of such reactions myself, let me speak for the other side. I can understand how it might be difficult for some players. When told they're playing in a certain universe, they expect that to carry certain meaning. Not knowing when to rely on their preexisting knowledge might be more difficult that not having any knowledge at all (as with an entirely new campaign world).

Anonymous said...

And that's why I love my players... when I do run anything in a previously existing setting (such as the Realms), part of their enjoyment comes in how things differ from their previous knowledge and expectations. Granted, most of what I do these days is all homebrew... but I slip things in that are familiar even then. Again, the unexpected taste of the familiar always gets the chatter going after the session is over.

Game on.