Saturday, July 24, 2021

Is Kismet's D&D Canon, and Why Should You Care That It's Not?

Earlier this week, lead D&D rules designer Jeremy Crawford said "if it has not appeared in a book since 2014, we don’t consider it canonical for the games." There are so many reasons for WotC to not want to deal with every piece of Forgotten Realms lore published since 1987: there's too much to track; writers don't have time to research everything and usually don't need to just to make new adventures; writers don't want to be harnessed to so much extra information and all the expectations that come with it; all of the old lore still exists and is available via the DM's Guild, if gamers want to access and use it at their tables (everything's discounted right now for the Christmas in July sale, so you can even stock up); 5e is focused on the present and making it easy for new gamers to dive in; and so on.

But just like that, fresh arguments about canon erupted on social media and reminded me that I've been meaning to write about my relationship with roleplaying canons. I started this post months ago but I didn't get far before feeling disgruntled and stopping. Now seems like the right moment to finish it. So strap in, because I'm going to go back in time and broader in scope so you can understand how I got to my own peace with it.

What's a Canon and Why Do Folks Care about It?

We've all probably dealt with a canon at some point. It likely started in school, when teachers chose traditional books for us to read, or in church, when we were told only certain books and ideas were holy. We might have learned about literary classics in college and seen similar concepts in our favorite fandoms. A canon is a collection of works that are considered the best quality, most noteworthy, and most authoritative. They're deemed original and genuine pieces that are relevant to the present and important for most people to experience. We make these lists for books, films, shows, comics, and more.

Nothing about this is new; we've been doing it for thousands of years. And there's something to be said for having a canon. If people study the same sources, they'll be able to discuss them easily; they'll understand each others' references because they share the same knowledge base. Some canon works have many merits of their own and are unique experiences. Some creators seem to know their material better than others, maintain a consistent view and level of quality, and have a unique style others haven't been able to match. A lot of effort is put into creating these works, and that effort is worth recognizing.

But there are many problems with an established canon. For starters, who decides what's best, and by which standards? Much of the time, a canon is agreed upon by a group of fans and then upheld as the standard for everyone, without knowing who started the trend. How much do biases play a part in accepting and rejecting new works? If white men have usually been viewed as proper authority figures with the credentials to produce and be heard, how has that impacted other groups of people who create in similar ways? Are new materials really "worse" than the classics, or are they simply different and being rejected out of hand? As a person with a Master's in English literature, I could go on about troubles canon all day. Suffice to say, I've only scratched the surface. 

Tabletop roleplaying games that develop unique settings often have their own canons. Fans are inclined to accept materials that are published by the original gaming company as the best; everything else is somehow inferior. Fans might also deem certain writers/game designers as the only people who can speak with authority on a game's setting in a general sense. Sure, GMs can do whatever they want at their own tables, but only this company or this writer should be heeded by everyone who plays in that setting.

Roleplaying Canons and Me: A Brief History

Looking back on it now, I suppose it's no surprise that I was drawn to the tabletop games that I've enjoyed most. I mean, I considered majoring in history because of how much I always loved it. As a very young girl, I wanted to grow up to be an archaeologist (okay, I wanted to be whip-wielding Indiana Jones, not just any old archaeologist, but taking a class in college and learning about the painstaking nature of real archaeology finally burst that bubble). So I ended up being sucked in by games laden with histories (and canons) of their own.

I first encountered a canon in gaming with the very first tabletop game I played - Vampire: the Masquerade. The classic World of Darkness had a "metaplot" because official books established fictional supernatural events; many fans accepted these details as valid for everyone who played any of the WoD game lines. Since you could set a chronicle anywhere in the world, the history of the WoD was the only thing fans were likely to have in common. Even though some events were presented by characters who were unstable or openly biased, some gamers insisted that everything in the official books was true for all. And I can see why, since White Wolf writers built on what was already established and seemed to take it seriously. The end result was usually pretty convincing.

I admit, I liked things about the metaplot. I knew parts of it by heart and had fun discussing it with others, but I never felt beholden to it. I used what suited me and ditched the rest. My stance didn't usually lead to arguments because the games I played in were centered in the present day, and the past wasn't usually a major issue. Other gamers, however, felt constricted by it and came to hate it (and the rigid attitudes of fellow gamers probably played a major role in that). So I wasn't surprised that when the classic WoD was retired and the new WoD was unveiled, the metaplot was one of the first things left behind. (What I said in this old post about what we can learn from metaplots still holds true.) Eventually, I got on board with the new system and learned to live without a metaplot. 

Then I discovered the Forgotten Realms. By the time I played the Baldur's Gate games in the late 90s, the Realms had over a decade of lore developed across game supplements, novels, and video games. I fell in love with what I read in the Baldur's Gate series and was inspired to finally try running a tabletop game. I got my hands on the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting book for 3rd edition and found an amazing work that summarized a great deal of lore while establishing the present day.

But then I had choices to make - the same choices that anyone who wants to run the Realms faces early on, namely: Where and in which year should I begin? How much of the lore do I want or need for my game? Do I try to track down lots of books and binge-read them so I can get all the details (because dear gods, the 2nd edition FR game supplements have more frills than a Victorian house)? How do I insert my own views into so much material? My players didn't know much about the setting, so I didn't have to worry about offending their sensibilities, but other DMs may struggle to convince players to accept their visions. The Realms has so much history and detail, in fact, that some gamers feel paralyzed or are instantly repelled.

But I didn't sweat it. I was used to picking and choosing what I wanted by then; the WoD had given me plenty of practice. I stuck with the books I had because there was no way I was going to be able to catch up on everything. I didn't want to put off my campaign so I could become a Realms scholar first - I wanted to run things my way right away. Eventually, when later 3.5 edition books added new events, I realized they weren't entirely to my tastes, so I just didn't allow them into my canon. I took what I could use from new books and left the rest to those who enjoyed it. I had far more problems with 4th edition in general and development of the Realms in particular; I wasn't interested in Realms-wide upheaval and moving so far into the future, among other things. 

So I didn't update my canon with most of that material. I kept advancing my games during play as I desired and in accordance with player character choices. Sometimes my players would find out about developments in the books and complain about them to me. It was nice to know they preferred our Realms and backed my choices. Since we were all having fun, I didn't see the need to conform to anyone else's dictates about how we should run or play.

My Websites Aren't Official Canon, But They Can Be Part of Your Canon

All of this brings me to my website, Kismet's Dungeons and Dragons, which is now venerable, in internet terms. I created it so I could share things I made for my first campaign, which I started by creating my own small city. I placed it on a part of the map that was unclaimed (although later books put the town of Rivermoot in that spot). I used some of what I read in the books to weave it into the region and tie it to other locations but let it be its own place. I inserted my own major Realms event in the form of the main plot. I looked up details about locations the PCs were going to visit beforehand and used whatever seemed to make the most sense and would be of most interest. Some places, I respun almost entirely; other places didn't have many established details to begin with, so I was encouraged to fill in the blanks.

Eventually, this led to me to choose Thay as the setting for my first evil campaign. I read much of the 3rd edition material about it but was left unsatisfied, so I went diving into 2nd edition books but found more of the same. Such a powerful country - a whole country with embassies amidst much smaller kingdoms - seemed half empty, and some of what was written about it didn't jive with its incredible successes. A nation that threw off the yoke of theocracy and declared independence from Mulhorand to do things their way didn't just sound bad, it also sounded badass. A ruling class made up of devious wizards was fascinating; their constant, thoughtless assaults on nearby kingdoms didn't make much sense. On one hand, they were portrayed as a slave-trading powerhouse that prospered greatly from slave-made goods, so much that kingdoms would trade with them even though they hated slavery. In the next breath, they were shown as treating all slaves horribly all the time and killing them wantonly. 

It seemed Thay was written from an outsider's view of the nation and presented to justify making them villains everyone would hate and which would be relatively easy to defeat, because they would sabotage themselves and each other. And that's a valid way to write an evil nation. It encourages heroism, reduces moral complexity, and lets players know who their enemies are quickly. It allows for victories that only go so far because you're not just fighting one Thayan, but a country with corrupt institutions. And it likely leads to less outrage from readers, since Thay touches on so many sensitive and unpleasant topics (necromancy, slavery, etc.). 4th edition developments essentially destroyed Thay as it was, breaking the nation apart and dividing the Red Wizards. 

But I wanted to get to know Thay as it was in the 1370s, so I dove into expanding and deepening my view of it. I started with the basics in the lore but spun my own details from that framework. I didn't usually go out of my way to distinguish what was in the books from what I added because I added so much, and because my site has always been presented as my own view of things as a DM. I contributed to some game books for third party companies over the years, but I've never worked for WotC or pretended to. 

Still, a number of times over the decades, I've stumbled across discussions that mention material on my D&D web site (and this blog) and ask if it's canon. This has usually been the case with people who were searching for more details about Thay and found my writings. These seekers haven't asked me about it directly; they've asked in forums with other gamers who might know the lore better than they do. And most of the time, someone has answered that my site isn't canon, and the person who inquired promptly gave up on their desire to use what they found. I haven't chimed in on these forums for a number of reasons: the seekers got the answers they asked for, and my stuff isn't approved or published by any gaming company (and therefore isn't canon in most people's eyes). 

The Canon and You

What I've wanted to say about the matter is simply this: You ultimately decide what's canon for yourself (and, if you're the DM, your group). Gaming companies can publish supplements and comics and other media all year long, but they don't matter until you deem them worthy of your table. One person will never be able to find, consume, and use everything that's published for the Forgotten Realms or any other setting with so much history (in-universe and in real life). Even if you try, you'll never remember and use it all. That's the nature of the beast and being human. You're going to have to choose - so choose wisely.

You can certainly accept what's officially published if you want to, for your own reasons. It could be great quality material with a lot of thought, effort, and playtesting behind it. It could be exactly what you want and need, and fall in line with your instincts and rationale. It may help you connect with other gamers who only consider official materials to be valid by default. But you don't have to accept it in whole or in part, and accepting material produced by others doesn't mean you're disrespecting the official creators or the history of the lore. It just means that you're adding what you want to your canon.

And if the material I've produced seems consistent, sensible, expansive, helpful, and inspiring - and if you can't tell the difference between what I've written and what's been written by folks at TSR and WotC over the decades - then why wouldn't you use it? Why couldn't it be part of your canon? What would it really hurt for you to make it part of your world?

I get it: Players can be picky. They might argue if you use something that isn't officially produced - but you should get what you want out of the game, too. But compromise shouldn't be off the table, and it's not like players can't read what I've written; my site's been online for about 20 years. I understand that there's only so much you can allow into your sphere of awareness. There are already too many books to keep track of, and you have to draw the line somewhere. But in a hobby dedicated to imagination, why reject material you like and can use just because the people who made it weren't paid by a particular company to do so? Because this isn't just about my site - there's a wide world of great stuff that's been lovingly made by fans, which is part of why the DM's Guild and other sites like it exist in the first place. If official game companies can recognize the talent not under their purview enough to create licenses so others can offer their hard work, you should be willing and able to consider that others have what it takes to make worthy entries to the lore.

Whatever you decide to reject or include, really think about it first. Make sure it serves your needs and desires, and be ready to own your choices. Don't reject it the moment you see it's not official; analyze it based on its own merits. Because at the end of the day, your hobby is yours, and there have never been more ways to find great work outside of official production lines.

And at the end of the day, I'm here to create my own canon, present it in the hopes that it helps others, and often to cover what gaming companies don't or won't. I love the lore, I appreciate the efforts of game designers, and I respect the history of the hobby, but I'm here to do my own thing because I love it, not because I'm on a particular company's payroll. I write with authority because I've chosen to claim it - and I want every game to be able to claim their authority, over the canon and the rest of their experience.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Ranks of the Red Wizards Video

 Are you looking for an easy-to-watch video about the ranks of the Red Wizards? Would you like to see information about the Red Wizards that's up to date with the current timeline (post-Spellplague)? Forgotten Realms History has your back! They incorporated material from this guide with the goal of giving quick descriptions of Thay's hierarchies and explaining how things are in 5th edition's Forgotten Realms. 

It's an entertaining watch and gives a nice overview while also providing nice visuals, clear voice work, and nicely accurate closed captions.

I'd meant to share this video here many times before but got sidetracked (my apologies!). I was very pleased to see that what I'd developed was of use to other gamers. I was also glad for this kind of overview, which is just over 6 minutes long and easy to follow. Thank you, FRH!

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Thay's Slave Trade: An Insider's Perspective

This post is an in-character overview of how slavery is conducted in Thay at its height, and after hundreds of years of supporting the ownership of other sentient people. It's offered as an inside view of how many Thayans see and participate in the practice, which can be helpful when building Thayan characters. Whether they are commoners, nobles, or slaves, everyone in the country will be faced with such views and have to respond to them. If you want ample reasons to despise Thay more, feel free to keep reading. If any of this already upsets you, consider passing on this post.

To make it abundantly clear, this post does not represent my views or feelings in any way; quite the opposite. I hate slavery in all forms with all I have, and believe that we all should. Few things have done as much harm to humanity as the slave trade. However, this is a work of fiction, and I hold imagination in a special place. I firmly believe we can explore things we despise in our minds, our stories, and our games without condoning them in real life. We might even understand these wrongs further - and how to combat them - by doing so.

What you will read below is a twisted perspective that seeks to justify grave crimes and invalidate ethical or humane concerns. These justifications are usually presented as part of national mythology and social rules. In this case, they're presented as a coming-of-age instruction manual to a younger noble who's expected to toe the party line, so to speak. The character speaking, Tari Govannon, has been reared with these views, and has benefited from her station as a noble and from slave ownership, her entire life. Part of the horror of this work is how completely she buys into this worldview. Another horror is that she's teaching it to the next generation, hoping young Salia Valgon will approve. 

It's even worse to know that, given her own warped perspective, Salia probably will.

From the Pen of Tari Govannon

My Dear Salia

Now that we are officially cousins, and now that you are on the verge of womanhood, you should learn about a cornerstone of our country's history, present, and future: the slave trade. You have grown up surrounded by slaves of every description, so you might think you already understand all you need to know. But soon, you will be given permission to pick your first personal slaves, and everything about their lives will be up to you. Eventually, you may want to replace them, but how will you know where to find what you're looking for? And someday, you will be sent abroad to find the best slaves for our house first-hand. But do you even know why we do any of this?

The answer is: probably not, because we take it for granted that every Thayan understands what's at stake. But people will take advantage of your ignorance when you're in other lands. They will try to twist the truth and sway you to their side, against your own kin. And they will never accept you as one of their own, no matter what they say. As soon as they are done using you to sabotage us, they will turn on you, and you will either end up dead or in prison for the rest of your life. I would not see that happen. We're better than that, and we are certainly going to be smarter.

So, let's begin with the broad view: Slavery in Thay is a year-round industry. Generally, slave-hunting begins across Faerun in the spring, since more people are on the move and in need of coin after the harshness of winter. (Or at least, the harshness of winter in other regions; our magical weather net saves us from that drudgery.) Caravans, ships, and other mundane means are used first and foremost to gather our servants, which are sent back to Thay through the fall. Winter does not stop our efforts, but it does slow them down on this plane. It's bad enough that Talos hates us and attacks our shipments whenever he can; there is no reason to battle the cold in other lands when we can just wait for the warmer seasons to come around again.  

The whole point of having slaves is to make our lives more comfortable, but that doesn't mean we do not work for our comforts. You have to make some moves to get the best out of this world. But I know you might be wondering why we expend so much effort, when we could just use magic instead. The simple reason is that half the time, we don't have to do more than show up.

Tried and True

Many kingdoms make a big production about outlawing slavery, but their people still contact us with leads. Some of these informants are desperate in one way or another, and we can help them. To a nobody in need of an expensive cure, we offer magical healing; to an official under pressure to make undesirables go away, we offer a solution. Others have grudges they want to take out on their neighbors, and that is their business. In the end, debtors, prisoners, beggars, and orphans are all easy targets, but remote villages and farmsteads work, as well. Never forget: a good portion of our slaves come from "good" and "neutral" lands where the locals sold each other out for a bag of gold or cache of magic items. They are a reliable avenue of opportunity; all we need do is wait. And no amount of self-righteous denial can undo that fact.

Spells are often used to subdue, secure, and transport targets, but selectively. We don't want to kill our prizes before we have the chance to profit from them, after all. Contrary to rumors, however, portals are rarely employed, even though they would bypass most threats. Why wouldn't the Red Wizards push for such an advantage to be used at every opportunity? For many reasons. One is a matter of history and pride: Thousands of years ago, Imaskar relied on portals to gather hundreds of thousands of slaves, but doing so was far too easy. They were able to gather more than they could handle, and then they blocked communication with their gods, which eventually led to their downfall. We are not interested in making the same mistakes of the Imaskari artificers before us.

On a more practical level, the pursuit of slaves keeps us busy and sharp, but focused outward. Rivalries and competition exist, but schemes are difficult to carry out when we are spread across Faerun and using different methods. In the early days after we gained independence, there was a lot of civil strife as families battled for power in the new Thay. No one will tell you this out loud, but it is a truth I have seen all my life, and it seems to be used for our benefit: Engaging nobles in the slave trade keeps us from getting lazy or tearing each other apart. 

It also shows us why we should be proud and present a united front to the world. You will see the conditions of other lands - the weakness, the poverty, and the simpering simplicity. Quaint notions of what is good for all strangle innovation and progress. We have many laws and rules, and some of them are necessary to keep fools from killing us all, but we allow for survival of the fittest. We do not coddle each other. We earn what we deserve, and we know what we deserve. So when we are outside of Thay, we present a united front and show our lessers how it should be done. We are already suspected and disliked by foreigners just for being who we are and having everything we've gained. If we don't at least pretend to get along, we will not make it back home. Expect to be punished harshly for infighting, and avoid it at all costs. Because in the end, we are working for the same goals.

One of the reasons why we have been so successful is because we use what is already present and give it their own twist, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. For instance, we resort to piracy regularly, but we don't do so openly. Although we have a noble house that maintains proud pirate traditions and connections, House Ankara has been given orders by the Zulkirs to keep any Thayan involvement quiet. As a result, seafaring nobles often work with unaligned pirates or disguise our ships as everyday vessels from other kingdoms. Through our whisper networks, we spread misinformation that makes sorting out the truth a difficult endeavor, even through spells. After all, someone can't tell you the truth if they they do not know it to begin with.

We also see opportunity in every tragedy. We have been known to show up after wars, natural disasters, and magical curses to offer vital aid - in exchange for a certain number of slaves, of course. We let the locals agonize over who is sent with us; we only step in if violence threatens their profits. We give help to those in need and simply ask for what the survivors have to offer in exchange. You could say that we work to keep the peace. The price we ask is small compared to everything we do for strangers in awful circumstances.

Innovations in Tyranny

When we finally felt the need to innovate, we struck gold. The embassies we have arranged across Faerun are another robust source of slaves, whether they wish to be or not. Officially, all enclaves must be allowed to accept slaves as payment; this is part of the basic agreement with a host city. In reality, slaves are rarely used as currency in "good" or "neutral" lands unless the person is a willing adult or a convicted criminal. In a few locations, anyone can sell anyone else, provided they can secure and transport their prisoners. But if slavery is heavily policed and strictly forbidden in the surrounding kingdom, an enclave won't usually waste time trying to sell slaves there.

In every case, we appear to follow and respect local precedent to the letter. Wherever slavery is allowed, House Zurn is in charge of intake and presents a kinder face to the public, keeping most slaves out of sight and only showing them in decent shape. Wherever it is forbidden, it's kept out of the enclaves. In practice, this means that visiting Thayans will hold meetings elsewhere, work through proxies, and operate in secret so an enclave has plausible deniability.

Any error that compromises an enclave's stability - especially its treaty with a host city - will lead to a rash of particularly grisly executions. Anyone responsible will be hunted, found, and delivered back to the motherland to meet their fate. And while lesser conspirators will be slain first (and quite publicly), whoever should have been watching them will be next - and their deaths might be worse. We nobles are usually punished in private, but this is one of the few exceptions, so executioners tend to make a particularly brutal show of disapproval.

In more recent years, House Dasselath has gained prominence by taking slaves from different planes during the leaner winter months. They have access to portals to many other places, including the City of Doors. They barter openly where they can and lead assault strikes where they can't. Since they are only one noble house, however, they often have to ally with others to get the manpower they need. They also refrain from slave-hunting during spring and summer, when their contribution is less likely to be noticed. During those seasons, they maintain connections, gather capital, and harvest information to plan their next moves.

Allies and Ringleaders

The lion's share of Thayan slavery is carried out by merchants, poachers, and pirates. This is one route for our commoners to become wealthy and respected, and a good number of them participate. Not everyone involved is Thayan, however, and some are not even aware of who they really serve - but those in the know are richly rewarded for their efforts.

The highest levels of power in the slave trade are reserved for Thayan nobility, for a number of reasons. It's not just because we can't trust foreigners or the lower classes to be loyal or competent (although we certainly can't). It's because being in charge of every major endeavor is how those in power stay in power. The real capital in the country lies with the noble houses, the Red Wizards, the Zulkirs, and the Guild of Foreign Trade, so the industry can't move forward without our support. And since we are the primary beneficiaries of the system, the houses are the only entities allowed to buy and own slaves en masse.

This is yet another way Thay has distinguished itself from Mulhorand. In our former country, slaves are the property of the temples. Mulan families and organizations can use and transport them, but only with permission. Clergy decide who else might be lent slaves, how many, and for how long. Anyone who draws the ire of a local temple can expect to have some of their slaves repossessed. In this way, the theocracy is maintained and every slave owner is indebted to the temples. 

So in Thay, the situation is reversed: only noble houses, the Red Wizards, and the Zulkirs can own as many slaves as we'd like. Temples are forbidden from owning anyone and must rely on the faithful for their laborers; guilds and most other groups can borrow slaves from patrons for periods of time. The numbers of slaves they employ are watched carefully, and if these groups get too aggressive, they can expect to lose a significant portion of their labor force. Individual citizens can own up to 5; individual nobles can own as many as 15.

This is why no matter who appears to be in charge of slave trading, once you go high enough up the food chain, you will find a Thayan noble who really calls the shots. Since we use magic, proxies, and other means of secrecy, however, it can be difficult to find or prove our involvement. And since most Red Wizards don't bother supervising this enterprise, you might use this path to power, if you choose. Magic is nice, but it is not required to lead most of these operations. 

House Canos and Kul, which specialize (and compete) in shipping, are vital to this process, along with House Ankara, which is dedicated to piracy. House Darnak's caravans are essential, and House Volkos' diplomats have also come in handy. House Kallos usually smuggles objects and forbidden goods into other lands, but has also helped to smuggle living cargo back home. House Focar and Thullos both range far and wide as explorers, and they find their share of prisoners. House Lectos and Mishkov are usually locked in vicious competition to find and tame the most impressive exotic beasts, but when they hunt outside of Thay, they compete to find the most slaves, as well. Houes Qarto and Rhaenys offer trained mercenaries to any other house or Thayan enterprise, and their members are all over the slave trade.

Several other noble houses are actively involved in the hunt for new slaves: Metron, Xeraston, and our own House Valgon. One reason for this is because our houses teach slaves special skills so they can create specialty products. While House Metron has taught alcohol brewing since ancient times, Xeraston and Valgon are young houses that focus on forging and courtesans. Each house is looking for people who already have skills or traits they can build on, but the most promising are usually sold before they reach Thay's heart. We have all had better luck tracking down our own slaves, and as you know, House Valgon's exploits abroad have also garnered grudging respect back home. Never forget that doing what your rivals don't expect of you can reap great rewards.

Closing Thoughts

Now that you know how widespread and intricate our system is, I hope you appreciate how much it takes to bring slaves to our markets and keep them doing the dirty, menial jobs that keep our nation strong. I hope you see the house's slaves in a new light and consider the value of your own property someday. When you see guard patrols keeping the rabble in line, consider that they are securing our investment. When you notice groups of slaves being transported to new tharchs, realize that this is how we maintain our power. And if you hear that spies are conspiring to sabotage a shipment, or hear rumors about runaway slaves, I hope you will consider it your duty as a Thayan noble to crush their efforts relentlessly. Because that is what we do to those who would steal from us.

Cousin Zelsea can teach you the finer points of pricing, bargaining, buying and selling at our markets. While I can do well in such endeavors, she has many decades of experience more than I, and as your cousin Augustus says, she has an abacus instead of a heart and knows the worth of everyone she sees, down to the last copper piece. In short, I bow to her expertise.

You would do well to find the right opportunity to show off this new knowledge to my husband. Augustus is always looking for evidence that your mind is being sharpened, as well as your body, and learning the art of tyranny is sacred to those who serve the glory of Bane. He is, after all, tyranny personified, and has no shame in it. Follow that example: whatever you are, be it completely and unabashedly.

I am ever at your service and watching for your best interests.


Tari Valgon, née Govannon

Saturday, March 13, 2021

A Missed Opportunity in Forgotten Realms Design

It occurred to me this morning, rather out of the blue, that 4th edition was a huge missed opportunity for necessary development in the Forgotten Realms. Now, it's no secret that I dislike the official decisions about Faerun during 4th ed. and the rationale for making them. My version of the Realms (in my games and on my sites) ignores those developments entirely, and I don't own the books. This isn't because I'm behind; it's because after serious deliberation, I opted out. 

But that's not important right now.

What's important is that we're still feeling the effects of what wasn't done to the Realms during 4th ed., but in a subtle way that's difficult to recognize. The changes that were made have been largely incorporated into 5e materials, but there have also been efforts to roll some of them back (like undoing many geographical changes of the Spellplague and returning some gods that had been weeded out). By and large, though, Faerun trundles on, much as it had before, with many of the same elements. But the elephant in the room is made up of old problems that could have been addressed, but remain unresolved.

The 4th edition design philosophy of "points of light" (small bastions of civilization in wild, dangerous regions) wasn't needed in Faerun, where gamers went to experience different fantasy kingdoms at various levels of advancement, including higher levels of organization. The aim to tear down Realms history so it wouldn't intimidate new gamers ran counter to the love of lore that kept people in the setting for decades. Sweeping "Realms-shaking events" weren't needed to make Faerun exciting again; there was already plenty going on in that area of the world. 

It seems like big shifts in lore are now S.O.P. when a new edition comes out, so some of what happened may have been inevitable. But where these design choices were truly needed was in the rest of Toril.

Behold the world in which Faerun rests: 

Map of Toril from the 3rd edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting by Wizards of the Coast

Although it's easy to forget, Faerun is just one slice of one continent - and a small slice, at that. There's a whole world out there, and only some of it has been developed before. Once upon a time in 2nd edition, other continents were their own settings: Al-Qadim, Oriental Adventures, and Maztica. They were largely products of the 1990s, when a number of popular game materials (not just in D&D) were based on real-world ethnicities and cultures that had been remixed and presented in a fantasy format. D&D's great competitor during the 90s, the World of Darkness, relied heavily on real-world stereotypes for some basic character types, and while some weren't comfortable with it, there wasn't much blowback at the time. After all, that's just how it was, and all the cool kids were doing it.

But the present day isn't the 1990s, and in some important ways, that's a good thing. Over the last 20 to 30 years, we've heard from various groups of gamers, including those who've seen their cultures loosely pasted onto game products. We've seen that stereotypes can be off-putting to people who would otherwise be comfortable, welcome members of the community. And we've learned that the old approach isn't necessary moving forward. Yes, gaming development often starts with stereotypes because they're patterns we know well and can call upon quickly. But there's no reason to leave those stereotypes in place or to rely heavily on real-world equivalents, and there's a lot to be gained if we don't. 

Fantasy tabletop games are fantasy and deserve to be unique, in their own right. That doesn't mean we can get away from reality entirely; we base what we know on what we've seen. But designers can look deeper into the decisions they make and create more exciting things by going against common expectations regularly. They might start with stereotypes, but they don't have to maintain them. We can all throw more imagination into the blender and mix everything further, not just to see what happens but to respect everyone who might be - or could end up at - the table. 

But this hasn't happened with Faerun's 3 sister settings. For the most part, they've been left to gather dust since 2nd edition, although Oriental Adventures (itself a problematic title) was given a 3rd edition treatment. Each setting still has some fans and is included in Forgotten Realms wikis; they're just frozen in time. The older books are available for purchase via DriveThruRPG, but the disclaimers are some of the only new things about them. For the most part, they've been like an embarrassing family secret that only some family members discuss (and only with others they believe will agree with them). 

On one hand, I can understand why. It would take a prodigious amount of work to update them, and the gaming community explodes into nasty name-calling whenever diversity comes up. "Censorship" and "cancel culture" would no doubt become the buzzwords of the day, and nobody wants to deal with vitriol from customers every day at work. The good people at WotC don't need to deal with the rage that would result, which means the settings will probably remain like vestigial limbs, awkward and without much use.

But it didn't have to be this way. In fact, 4th edition's entire approach would have provided everything needed to solve these issues. The very map of Faerun was changed during the Sundering, with entire countries like Halruaa moving to other planes. Something this could have been done with Kara-Tur, Zakhara, and/or Maztica, if one was looking for the quickest route to resolving them. This doesn't mean each continent needed to be lost, leaving gaping holes in the map of Toril; they could have been replaced by continents from other worlds, or even demiplanes. 

The "points of light" approach could have been employed instead to transform these regions in major ways, while retaining some of the original material. This could have also been used to inject more fantasy elements and move away from real-world stereotypes. Tearing away sections of history could have been helpful for reforging these settings, as well. Updated mechanics could have been used those who wanted to update their old games to the newer edition. Fans who might have been upset by all the changes could have relied on older books for lore and newer ones for crunch, rather like some of us did did after 4th ed. tore up Faerun.

And there was also the possibility of taking one of the unknown continents of Toril and making something great there. 4th edition designers certainly wanted to keep Forgotten Realms players onboard and were bound to handle Faerun in some way, but they didn't have to stick only with Faerun. Imagine it: "Want to adventure someplace new, but still be able to sail to Waterdeep? Here are modules about the X continent, which was protected by a magic barrier for thousands of years. Those in Faerun recently felt the shockwave when the barrier fell - but what's happened to the peoples who lived there? Why was there a barrier in the first place? What kind of legacy can the PCs make by exploring where no one from Faerun has been before?" 

I understand that hindsight is 2020 (ugh, that saying just doesn't feel right after having survived what 2020 was), and many variables go into design choices and philosophies. I respect everyone who worked hard to keep D&D and the Forgotten Realms going; I don't have to agree with all of their decisions to respect designers who were doing their best. Of course, dealing with these old settings wouldn't have been easy, and designers would have run the risk of being crucified either way - but under the banner of updating Toril for a new edition, the Realms could have truly moved forward and some of the explosive reactions could have been reduced to smoke. And it will be awhile before such a golden opportunity comes around again.

Meanwhile, the new Vampire: the Masquerade is showing how these efforts can be made with care and many fans are showing how such efforts can be received with support and gratitude. And WotC, via D&D, seems to be trying to find ways to shift course toward more inclusiveness in the middle of 5th edition, regardless of the waves of outrage that batter their stalwart ship. In that charted course, I am certainly on board.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The Town of Rathor

The tharch of Gauros, updated to show created settlements


Alignment: CN
Races: Rashemi, significant half elf population, half elves are commons slaves
Classes: Druids predominate, rangers common, rogues and experts common
Temples: Beshaba, Malar, Shar, Talona
Shrines: Auril, Geb (open secret), Shaundakul
Age: Recent
Reputation: Discounted
Virtue: Industry
Vice: Vanity
Recent Event: Attacked
Desires: Recognition
Security: Top Notch
Access: Often Visited
Repair: Basic
Impression: Fuming
Sanitation: Comfortable
Lighting: Decent
Streets: Dirt

Rathor is a small town of woodsmen and miners nestled at the base of the foothills of the Sunrise Mountains. What maps do not tend to show are the forests which cover the foothills and provide much of the town's livelihood. There are two reasons for this: first, maps are not made with intimate knowledge of Thay (and are often seeded with false information), and second, because Rathor and its environs are largely forgotten on the country's stage. On one hand, the inhabitants are glad to be away from political nonsense, but on the other hand, they secretly crave recognition for all they contribute. For better or worse, they may soon get it.

Normally, Rathor receives many visitors for trade, so it is set up with more inns than one might expect. They also welcome the druids and rangers who frequent the region, however, so they are mindful of the land when they build anything. Streets have not been paved and the town has carefully developed away from the treeline. The wooden walls are treated with fire-resistant alchemical pastes. Waste is carried by slaves to central vats and then disposed of in batch lots, by magic or creatures. Food animals are used down to their smallest components and composting is mandated. Magical lights are set close to the forest rather than fires, and only trees marked by druids are logged (and are swiftly replaced). This makes Rathor a more pleasant place than it might be otherwise.

The presence (and protection) of druids and rangers is relatively rare in Thay; this is one of the few places they are powerful, well away from the city streets of sprawling metropolises like Eltabbar. The town also has a higher population of elves than elsewhere, particularly wood elves; they have been sent for specifically to benefit the forests. Elves who think they will have an easier time escaping soon meet defeat in the woods, where the druids are not kind, and in the steep, unforgiving mountains. Slaves in Rathor are worked hard and given the more unpleasant tasks, but the townsfolk all work hard, so they do not tend to outright abuse slaves who perform well. Justice in Rathor is swift and harsh for all, with duels to the death, being hunted by beasts of Malar, and being fed to wicker men being common sentences.

Once each year, the temple of Malar hosts a High Hunt. Slaves who wish to participate are hunted in the forests and hunted for the next night and day. They are not forced to do so, generally, because it is a challenge of their will. Those who survive win their freedom. Needless to say, few have ever succeeded. One who did was Vesdan, an elven woodsman who hid his druidic magic. Upon winning the hunt, he left Thay - but to everyone's surprise, he returned to Rathos and married a local Rashemi woman, taking her surname of Szollos. His daughter Lucindiya was born free and developed skill as a wizard. Although he was often scorned, Vesdan worked in the town's defense and won some begrudging respect.

Recently, the tharchioness Azhir Kren fell in battle, trying one last time to strike at Rashemen. There was no clear successor and a number of contenders arose to take her place, throwing Gauros into civil unrest. Attacks from strange Underdark creatures were on the rise, but all anyone seemed to care about was the power vacuum. It was then that Vesdan Szollos threw his hat into the race and petitioned the temple of Malar in Denzar to end the stalemate. He knew this would outrage the populace and wagered that it would get them to work toward a conclusion, and he was right. A Battle of the Tharchions was arranged and overseen by the temple on the plains near Rathor. The various contenders gathered and moved their forces, not against each other, but against hordes from the Underdark that were driven upward.

When all was said and done, Vesdan Szollos had the most - and most impressive -  victories and was declared tharchion. He is the first and only non-Mulan tharchion, and although he moved to Denzar shortly after to take up office, he has brought outside attention to Rathor for the first time in many years. What this will mean for the town has yet to be seen, but if it is going to make a name for itself, the time is now.