After the one-page Introduction, the Cyclopedia continues on to outline what all we're looking at in terms of box content and organization. This section, although short, provides some interesting tidbits. Place names, for example: Thay; the Spine of the World Mountains; the Jungles of Chult. Good, pulpy stuff there.
Another interesting feature of the box contents discussed here are the two clear plastic hexagon overlays. Basically, the poster maps that come with the set are drawn without a grid themselves. The idea is you use the plastic overlay to lay down a hex grid as needed. It's an interesting idea, albeit one that views hexes as good simply for measuring distance and travel time as opposed to creating keyed hexes for hex-crawl-type sandboxes. I like the gimmick, but I can see why it never caught on.
(Hmm, now that I'm thinking about it, it might be fun to play around with Hexographer to create a hexcrawl map of a portion of the Realms...)
Speaking of maps, a couple of the Gray Box's more annoying caveats are introduced in this section:
These maps have been drawn with that information available to our representative in the Realms, Elminster the Sage, and represents what is known of those lands from the mindset of the Dalelands and Cormyr....As more of the world is fully explored, more maps of this and [sic] scale will be made available for use in Realms-related products.The books are full of talk about the coming line of "Realms-related products" - at least TSR was upfront about its marketing plans, eh? In a time when game lines with never-ending supplement grinders are largely spit upon, it's funny to be reminded of a time when the idea of promising to release an avalanche of supplementary product was seen as a good marketing move!
At any rate, the really annoying bit about that quote is the "durr, our maps are based on scattered, unreliable reports, so they're subject to change, durr" bullshit. I mean, what's the point? My cynical side says it's TSR covering their butts so they can feel free to radically alter parts of the setting at a later date (as they in fact did). On the other hand, it also opens up individual DMs to feel free to customize their own distant corners of the Realms, free from the worry of a know-it-all player trying to pull the "actually, it's really supposed to be like this" line. "Nah, turns out Elminster was misinformed," replies our wily DM.
At any rate, we are then informed that the Cyclopedia functions as the "fluff" part of the boxed set, the other book (The DM's Sourcebook of the Realms) providing the rules-specific crunch. This is a very cool approach, actually. It means I could use just the Cyclopedia as a systemless reference to run the Realms using pretty much any system I'd like (as I'm sure more than a few folks have done).
Another nifty feature of the Cyclopedia is explained here: each of the alphabetical entries is split up into three sections. The "At A Glance" section is basically what a group of PCs would immediately note about the location or subject under consideration. "Elminster's Notes" presents in-character "insider information" relating to the subject: "all manner of details, notes, gossip, legends, tales, and other general information...". Finally, "Game Information" presents "further explanation for the AD&D game player" - stuff like a ruler's level or the number of guards in a typical City Watch patrol, and so forth. Some entries, the text notes, will also feature accompanying maps or diagrams as necessary.
I like this format very much. The "At A Glance" section is easily referenced in play or during adventure design to provide a thumbnail sketch of the subject. I could easily see "Elminster's Notes" being cribbed liberally, divvied up and placed into the mouths of various NPC expository sources. And I like all the game info (such as is contained in this book) collected into one spot. Easy, elegant, accessible.
The Realms of Bronze
Not a whole lot in this section that needs changing to fit my re-working of the Realms. The place names cited at the outset of this post, in particular, seem to fit a Bronze Age vibe more closely than quasi-medieval, in my opinion.
Of course, as I work out my maps and cultures I will make damn sure that they're authoritative - none of this mamby-pamby nonsense about inaccurate maps in my Realms, thank you very much!