Saturday, April 2, 2011

[Gray Box Project] Cyclopedia of the Realms: Introduction

These things also I have observed: that knowledge of our world is to be nurtured like a precious flower, for it is the most precious thing we have. Wherefore guard the word written and heed words unwritten - and set them down ere they fade... Learn then, well, the arts of reading, writing, and listening true, and they will lead you to the greatest art of all: understanding. - Alaundo of Candlekeep
And if you're reading--as leisure--something you'd rather not read, you're not going to remember it. So if, as a GM, I actually need to remember that Squealhalla is the capital of Gullgorgica, I'm screwed. - Zak S.
The first quote above is from the very first page of the Cyclopedia of the Realms, the setting guide contained in the Forgotten Realms Gray Box. The second quote is from a post this series inspired by the inimitable Zak of Playing D&D With Porn Stars fame. As usual, Zak's whole post is very much worth a read, but that quote pretty much sums up my feelings on the material contained in the Gray Box, feelings backed up by the Box itself as, presumably, the very first thing you'll read as soon as you crack open the box's first book all but explicitly states, "there's a bunch of information in here, and you'd best be memorizin' that shit." So important is this point, in fact, that the Candlekeep quote is there all by itself, in big bold letters boxed in by an elaborate frame. You get the feeling you're supposed to cut it out and mount it on your wall above your official Dungeon Master's Desk.

"Goddammit, where the hell is Scornubel?"
In many ways, the Gray Box seems like the archetypal Campaign Setting Boxed Set (TM) that Zak's talking about. Previous iterations of published campaigns came in varying degrees of sketchiness, from near-incomprehensible to broad-brush outlines. Of note, though, is the fact that right at the outset of the Cyclopedia's one-page Introduction, in the first paragraph, we see this:
This tome and the cyclopedia it contains...should allow the creation of an individual campaign setting using this world. (emphasis added)
 So at this point at least there's still some lip service being paid to the idea that this is ultimately a toolkit for creating your own homebrew rather than someone else's sandbox to play in. "We'll give you a bunch of place names and NPCs to make use of, but ultimately it's still your campaign, amigo. Take what you will and ignore or make up the rest." Very well, I'm taking that to heart.

Of course, the very next paragraph starts narrowing our horizons somewhat:
The Forgotten Realms are a world very similar to the Earth of the 13th and 14th centuries.
A little further down the page, this is further elucidated:
The people of these realms (including man, dwarf, elf, gnome, and halfling) are similar in mindset and advancement to the men of the 13th century.
Someone might want to tell Elminster (purported author of this Introduction, as I'll get to momentarily) that the population of Earth in the 13th century was somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 million and they certainly all didn't share the same mindset or advancements. Of course, what Elminster Greenwood meant to say was "13th-century Europe." That's a pretty sweeping generalization as it is; but the omission of "Europe" from the above passages has got my mind thinking in subversive ways. Time to hit up Wikipedia and my historical atlases and see what Asia, Africa, and other locales were looking like the 13th century in terms of mindset and advancement. I'd love to do something with "my" Realms that wasn't just standard pseudo-medieval European fare, or said fare but with a bit of a twist.

Further inspiration can be gleaned from the Introduction's discussion of the state of the world: city states are the most common polity; civilization in general is relatively new, and yet there is ample evidence of past civilizations long vanished and forgotten; literacy is "on the rise" and there's even a nascent printing industry in Waterdeep ("the greatest City of the North"). Also, "[f]aith, while not as dominant as in Europe of this period, is a major force in the lives of the people."

This is sounding more and more like certain parts of medieval Asia rather than Europe. Interesting.

The Introduciton goes on to spill quite a bit of ink on the presence of magic in the world. In essence, the biggest impact magic has is its affect on the environment.
A great sandy waste has been moving further south in the heart of the Realms, matched by a sheet of ice, equally relentless, to its east. Neither of these may be the fault of nature alone, but the meddling of spell-casters, human or otherwise.
That's a nifty setting hook, to be sure. Perhaps the respective wastes surround gates leading to the Elemental Planes of Fire and Air? Maybe one (or both?) are the result of some strange curse or metaphysical disease, like The Nothing in The Neverending Story?

There's a paragraph on the assumed role of PCs in the campaign setting as well:
It is a time of heroes, when one man of pure heart (or with a powerful artifact) may hold his own against enemy hordes, where legions of evil forces may muster and by destroyed by the actions of a few, where the nations rise and fall on magical tides which mere men control.
Epic stuff indeed. Like something out of the Mahabharata. I seem to remember a Dragon article on Indian arms and armor - maybe I should check that out too...

Oh yes, this feels very right indeed.
The final bit of the Introduction introduces everyone's favorite Gandalf ripoff, Elminster of Shadowdale, purported author of this Introduction, as mentioned above. Here is trotted out the standard "nothing within these pages is false, but not all of it may be true" canard that seems to be so popular among authors who choose to present their worlds through the voice of a character in that world. I've never fully grasped the point of this dodge. On the one hand, it's a nice built-in defense against canon lawyers. But it also seems more than a bit disingenuous - I mean, it's your world, Ed, so isn't everything you say about it inherently true? Who's to say otherwise? Oh, right: me.

Next up in the series: a look at how the Cyclopedia is split up and diving into the nitty-gritty of the setting's calendar, languages, and currency (aka the things your PCs are most likely to care about).
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