It is time.
My introduction to this campaign setting came long before I ever discovered its inclusion in the universe of digital gaming and the popular franchises young gamers today might recognize. Games series like Dark Sun, Baulder's Gate, Icewind Dale, and Neverwinter - just to name a few. Lest I give Bioware all the credit, it's important to remember that just as many games in the Forgotten Realms setting were made before the first Baulder's Gate than after it, with publishers like Westwood Studios and SSI (Strategic Simulations, Inc.)
Surprisingly enough, my introduction to Toril and the world of Faerun didn't happen through a video game - and didn't come from gaming at all actually. Not even through the widely popularized 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons table-top game system: AD&D.
So where, you might be asking did I learn about this iconic game setting if not in the wide world of gaming?
Fantasy Fiction Novels
After reading my very first fantasy fiction novel with J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit - back when I was probably much shorter than one - a whole new world of possibilities opened up for me. I hungrily consumed the author's classic Lord of the Rings trilogy and then-unaware of his lesser known works, found myself at a dead end.
I desperately wanted to explore more of this thing called "fantasy", so I took a stroll down to my local library and was surprised to find an entire section (albeit quite small at the time) dedicated to Science Fiction and Fantasy. I scanned over titles and inspected the coolest looking book covers, trying to find something similar but different than what I'd already read from Tolkien. That was when I saw this:
The artwork immediately drew me in. There were plenty of book covers with dwarves and elves on them; but I thought to myself: "Who - or more accurately: What, was this white-haired, black-skinned being standing in the background?" As I flipped the tome over and read the back cover, that was when I got completely hooked:
"Yer eyes'll shine when ye see the rivers runnin' silver in Mithril Hall!"
Bruenor the dwarf, Wulfgar the barbarian, Regis the halfling, and Drizzt the dark elf fight monsters and magic on their way to Mithril Hall, the centuries-old birthplace of Bruenor and his dwarven ancestors.
Faced with racism, Drizzt contemplates returning to the lightless underworld city and murderous lifestyle he abandoned. Wulfgar begins to overcome his tribe's aversion for magic. And Regis runs from a deadly assassin, who, allied with evil wizards, is bent on the companions' destruction. all of Bruenor's dreams, and the survival of his party, hinge upon the actions of one brave young woman.
Streams of Silver is R.A. Salvatore's second book in the Icewind Dale Trilogy, based on the FORGOTTEN REALMS fantasy setting.
More importantly than discovering a cool new fantasy race of "dark elves" or a cast of intriguing characters that begged a formal introduction, I was drawn by something more profound and even more interesting. Even today it still surprises me how sharply I resonated with these things at such a young age.
Real Human Concerns
Racism? The fate of all resting in the hands of a woman?
Those things piqued my curiosity greatly. (I should note here that my interest in an important female lead has everything to do with me growing up in a single-parent household and a mother raising three children on her own; an ultimate super-heroine.) I found myself staring at a fun little fantasy book that suddenly had much deeper implications.
How would the author handle racism? What would be the end result? What about the young brave woman? Will she come through, or will she need help? What happens? What will I think when I finally come to the conclusion?
Of course, none of those questions floated through my head quite so literally. But as I look back and analyze my decision to pick it up - now I understand why I went home with that book in my backpack and not any of the others. At first glance, it appears as simple as Salvatore's teaser preview on the back (and perhaps also in small part to his cover artist's work on the front).
In reality? It was so much more...
The Tip of the Iceberg
After reading through that book and getting my first taste of Drizzt and his Companions, I began to see things through a very different perspective. I began to realize that all this fantasy stuff was much more than just a splash of entertainment. There was a larger story being told on a much grander scale than I ever could have imagined. There was a vast and deep ocean below, full of discoveries to be made; not superficial characters and plot twists - but revolutionary truths I wanted - no, rather, I was compelled to explore.
The words on the page were cut to the core of my conscience, making me question my own motives and desires as I read each and every one of Drizzt's many monologues. Merely a few pages long each (if that) they made me question not only who this rogue Drow was but - but who I was; and thus who I was in relation to the wide world around me.
Perhaps I could attribute it to my age, not yet even a teenager, but still deeply in the throes of adolescence and that weird and indecipherable time when a boy begins to become a man. I was at a crossroads in my own life - standing in the middle of a potentially limitless fantasy universe that served as a perfect parallel to the very confusing adult world that I was just beginning to discover.
("Drizzt Do'Urden"- Artwork by Akizhao whose page you can check out on DeviantArt - go give her some love! )
More Than Just a Good Read
The Forgotten Realms setting is much more than just a simple D&D campaign or the bedrock for a bunch of interesting computer and console games. It is an epic and evolving realm of fantastic heroes and heroines with plenty of antagonistic villains to keep challenging them and shaking them to their core. Through its stories, I could see them battle-tested and understand more about what made them who they were.
Through that, I was able to understand some of who I was - or at least, who I wanted to become.
The Forgotten Realms was a home away from home for me. It was a parallel universe I could portal into whenever I wanted and learn and grow as an individual... and it was spectacular.
The interesting bit to me, looking back, is that I wasn't anti-social. I had plenty of real-life friends. I was active at school (and outside of it with sports, and other extra-curricular activities), yet still I dove into these fantasy books - often trading time spent on all of the above to sit with my nose (or more aptly - my heart and mind) stuffed in a book.
The Plot Thickens
As I continued to read (expanding from Salvatore's work to Ed Greenwood, Elaine Cunningham, and the two Richards - Buyers and Baker) I discovered that it wasn't just the authors alone, but also the intriguing world they were writing in. Still to this day, after having read plenty of fantasy novels that aren't set in the Forgotten Realms, I recognize that there is something truly unique about that place and the people who write in it.
Yet as I grew and flitted around the gaming universe, spending more time than I am willing to admit delving into RPGs, MMOs, FPSs, RTSs, MOBAs and all other manner of gaming genres... I have come to realize that the Forgotten Realms is foreign to far more people than it is familiar.
That, despite many of people these foreigners I've talked to having actually played games set in the realm of Faerun without even realizing it!
Looking at the tragedy before me, I realize now that the time has come to start sharing the wonder. It's time that the wide world of gamers out there learn a thing or two about the Forgotten Realms, and hopefully enhance your experience with future games in the setting.
And maybe, just maybe, get some of you hooked on the awe-inspiring lore and story-craft stored in dozens upon dozens of epic novels out there waiting to be picked up again. Considering how many of those works are now sold in sets (and likely easily found at your local library), there really isn't anything holding you back.
I'll also be spotlighting several games throughout this journey that highlight different elements of the Forgotten Realms setting and how it has evolved over the decades.
I hope you're looking forward to the journey as much as I am. Join me next time as we begin to explore one of the most detailed and comprehensive fantasy fiction worlds ever created.
(to be continued...)
[If you're familiar with the Forgotten Realms universe, comment below with your own experience or first encounter - whether you're a long time fan, or perhaps just recently acquainted with the world.]
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