Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Which Thay Are We Talking About Here, Anyway?

Official map of Thay

If you have kept up to date on recent canon events in the Forgotten Realms, you've definitely noticed that what I've been writing about here is very different.  There has been no mention of the Spellplague, the war between the zulkirs, or the destruction of just about everything that Thay was.  If you haven't kept up on the latest for whatever reason, never fear.  In this blog and on my larger D&D site, Thay remains a nation under the zulkirs, Mulhorand still exists in conflict with Unther, and Luskan's Arcane Brotherhood hasn't been reduced to a homeless gang.  The drow gods have not been decimated.  Nor will these things necessarily happen in the Realms I envision, set as they are in the mid to late 1370s DR.

There are a number of reasons why I will continue to develop the Realms from this point, and they are constructive rather than resentful.  I know there was some resistance from many long-time fans against the changes instituted in the 4E Realms, and they had some valid reasons for being disappointed.  But I don't want to dwell on what has now become an old argument, even if I do have my own bones to pick.  I respect the great deal of work that has been poured into the setting over the decades.  I now have more perspective on just how much work is involved since I've been writing on my own book (Drow of Porphyra).  The canon is what it is and won't be changing, but people are free to make the Realms what they need them to be.  And I want to share what I'm building so that others can have more to work with when they create their own games and characters.  

So here are the keys to what Kismet's version of Thay is all about:

Kismet's Thay is progressive, not regressive.  I didn't start playing the 4E or 5E versions of the Realms and then decide to roll them back to some earlier state.  When I first started running D&D in the early 2000s, the campaign setting book's timeline ended in 1372.  My group did some playing in that year, and most of my DMing has been done through the 1370s.  There's been so much to see and do and develop that we haven't advanced far in game time - but we have done a hell of a lot of exploring across Faerun.  Rather than advancing the timeline in a major way, destroying entire regions, or adding new lands out of nowhere (as was done in 4E), I intend to move forward naturally, explore the many areas that could use a lot more detail, and appreciate the places that exist.  That doesn't mean nothing bad will happen, that nothing will be demolished, or that there won't be major events; they just won't fall in line with the official outline.  If that excites you, welcome!  If you are looking for material that will follow the canon, you are still very welcome, but please know that I have no intention of doing so.  

Kismet's Thay does not tarnish the nation simply because of its evil doings.  Much of the materials I've found about Thay seem to be written by someone looking on with disapproval.  This has been the case regardless of edition.  There's a sense that Thayans have little to be proud of besides their magic, since many of them are evil and they are ruled openly by cruel wizards with ruthless reputations.  Bezantur, for instance, is described as a rather ugly and joyless city to visit, if for no other reason than it is a major port for slavery.  It's as though Thayans can have no taste or desire for finer things.  Yet empires in the real world have also been built on slave labor and bloody politics, and they left artworks and locations of great beauty behind.  And evil is not always deemed to be a bad thing so by those for whom it is a native element.  While some organizations have such hazardous methods and goals that they can't maintain nice things, in my designs the Red Wizards isn't necessarily one of them.  There are spots of blight and ugliness in Thay, to be sure, but not nearly as many as foreigners assume.  And they are not always viewed negatively by Thayan folks who were born and raised to understand the world in a different way.  With that in mind...

Kismet's Thay is approached from an insider's perspective.  While written in a third person, purportedly objective manner, it soon becomes clear that official manuals present Thay from an outsider's view (I can't speak to the novels; I haven't read them).  Not all sanctioned books are written that way in every case, but the more evil the focus becomes, the more the distance becomes apparent - and begins to affect the quantity and quality of the information offered.  There are many understandable reasons for this, but when it comes to Thay, it begins to hurt one's understanding and suspension of disbelief.  

The country itself is described as rugged and unpleasant, crawling with the zulkirs' monsters as well as humanoids, with little to offer the citizen.  No country exists quite like that, even if the benefits are only in the citizen's mind or the nation's propaganda.  The enclaves are the closest you can get to a taste of the real Thay, and that's only because they are essentially rated PG-13.  They are tiny slices of the mother country, watered down but just ethnic and exotic enough to enthrall, censored by local laws and only rumored to be corrupt.  Safely muzzled, the enclaves offer bargains and quests to those who are willing to deal with colorful reputations.  They don't explain why Thayans act as they do, think as they do, or are as they are.  They only showcase their wares and some of their attitudes and methods.  

I have had native-born Thayan characters in my imagination telling me all about their ways and people for a few years now.  Going with the insider's view has always granted me a more intricate and rich view of everything Thayan, and I hope to share the rewards.  But because of this perspective...

Kismet's Thay is skewed in Thay's favor and will remain so.  This is not a flaw or an accident but a deliberate and ingrained feature.  I'm not going to focus on writing about Thay from the point of view of characters who are enemies of the state or slaves.  We've already been given ample reasons to hate them.  Instead, I am going to show you the reasons why Thayans love themselves and their society (even as they despise many aspects and people with a fierce passion - but that should come to make sense, as well).  Dissenting characters might be used for future posts, but they will stay in the minority.  This doesn't mean that I will be writing a glorified travel manual that only highlights the best things about the place.  There are numerous weaknesses and failings in Thayan society and they will become apparent to the discerning reader.  I actually hope to show why the country hasn't advanced even further than it has.  But don't expect the narrators to turn into traitors, undergo major alignment changes, or abandon their country.  Even in the darkest hours, they will love their land above all others.  Even so...

Kismet's Thay isn't dedicated to the usual stubborn reactions and strategies.  Thus far, the majority of Thay's history has been taken up by a succession of failed invasion attempts.  The Red Wizards have lashed out at virtually every neighbor they possess and continued to send armies even when those tactics reaped few rewards.  They have expanded their territory but little for so much expense and repetition.  They continued attacking even after they started opening commercial and diplomatic enclaves in foreign cities, until just recently (1371).  To say that it's become a worn-out refrain would be putting it mildly.  While the zulkirs do not always present a united front and hatch their own schemes, they are also supposed to be some of the more intelligent wizards around, and they must present at least something of a united front to keep hold of such a country.  Surely their approaches should show more variety, pizzazz, and learning, and with any luck they will here, when it comes to that.  But no one will be attacking Aglarond in winter any time soon in this blog's contents.

Last but not least, Kismet's Thay is an exercise in fiction, world-building, and imagination - but does not condone the way Thayans live or treat others.  Regardless of my enthusiasm for writing here, I am fully aware that the world I am exploring does not exist.  I would not want to live in such a place, and am well acquainted with the horrors of slavery, oppression, and the rest.  But this is not real life.  This is fantasy of a special sort for folks who are ready for it.  You can enjoy reading about things you would never want to see happen, and that is part of the miracle of art.  So I produce this blog as an adult for adults, for readers who are comfortable with the material and would like to see more of it, and for readers who are ready for the bad guys to win some battles.  While I do not support the many cruel things Thayans take for granted, I am also not going to undercut or condemn them at every turn.  They reap their rewards and punishments, just like everyone else.  The evil have gods on their side, just like the good and neutral in Faerun.  

What Thayans have not had is enough of the spotlight, at least for my taste.  While Waterdeep has been detailed in hundreds of pages across editions, Thay has more than one city worthy of such attention but has received a fraction of the love.  So whether you're looking to understand what it was like before the Spellplague or if your vision of the country is similar to mine, at least now you know what you will find when you visit Kismet's Guide to Thay.

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