Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Untimely Reviews: Forgotten Realms Boxed Set (AD&D 2nd Edition)

It's a bit of an ugly duckling, but don't judge a boxed set by its cover alone.

This post is based on some comments I left on YouTube after watching Abraham Zetina's detailed video review of the AD&D 2nd edition Forgotten Realms boxed set (of all things):

I found this review of Zetina's after reading Joseph Bloch of BRW games' blog post about a more recent review by Zetina of Bloch's own Adventures Dark & Deep series of books.

Watching Zetina's detailed video review got me thinking about this particular version of the Forgotten Realms campaign, and how it compared to a lot of other gaming products on the 1980s and 1990s put out by TSR. I am not really a fan of the Realms, for many of the reasons that are commonly cited (too generic, too many uber-powerful NPCs, too many intrusive and implausible meta-plots, etc.), but this Forgotten Realms campaign set is probably the best one TSR / Wizards has produced, in part because of the breadth and depth of the information presented, as noted by Zetina in his review.

In particular, this boxed set provides detailed information about Shadowdale and its surrounds, including descriptions of the buildings and NPCs of Shadowdale, and a nearby dungeon and associated "adventure". There is enough information in the boxed set to start a campaign set in Shadowdale, without requiring much additional work or design by the referee. This may not seem very impressive, especially in the light of the much earlier Judges Guild products which accomplished a similar feat with respect to the City State of the Invincible Overlord and the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, but in fact, as many in the OSR have pointed out over the years, hardly any of the old TSR campaign settings included the real nuts and bolts of a D&D campaign--one or more dungeons, a wilderness, and a home base. All of this work was generally left to the poor, put-upon referee. 

This is true, for example, of both the better-known "Grey Box" 1st edition AD&D Forgotten Realms boxed set, and for that matter of the 3rd edition D&D Forgotten Realms campaign book. It is also true of all of the old AD&D campaign settings that I can think of--Greyhawk, Dragonlance, Time of the Dragon, Dark Sun, Planescape, even Lankhmar to a certain extent--and of many or most of Wizards of the Coast's campaign settings for 3rd and 4th edition D&D. These all provided "big picture" guides to their respective setting, but giving barely any practical advice or info for actually starting a campaign--a local wilderness map with keyed encounters, a local dungeon or two with maps and keys, a local town or neighborhood with a detailed map and key, etc.  

Of course, there are many limitations to the AD&D 2nd edition Forgotten Realms campaign setting, including the often awkwardly execrable illustration (discussed, with examples, by Zetina), and the lack of coherence and distinctiveness of the Realms themselves as a campaign setting. But, pound for pound and dollar for dollar, I think this boxed set provides more actual game-able content than most of the other official TSR or WotC campaign settings, and it has many other nice details, such as: illustrations of the symbols and heraldry for gods, towns, kingdoms, adventuring groups, etc.; the old alphabets for the Espruar (Elvish) and Dethek (Dwarfish); illustrations of the various orders of priests in the Realms; and detailed maps of the major cities of the Realms. In some respects, then, it is an overlooked gem (or at least a semiprecious stone :) ) of old-school AD&D, and more useful as a campaign setting than its more famous and beloved 1st edition counterpart (which, admittedly, does have much better art, or perhaps I should say, much less awful art, and in general a whole lot of charm, as the Gentleman Gamer pointed out in his video review of the same). 

This is what old-school charm looks like. (It is a very evocative painting, by the inimitable, late, lamented Keith Parkinson, who did a lot of great work for the 1st edition Realms.)