Saturday, January 4, 2014

[Gray Box Project] Cracking the Box Open Again


Almost three years ago, I started a project. The idea was to take the classic 1987 "Gray Box" edition of the Forgotten Realms - the first product to describe the setting in any detail - and do a close reading of it. Close readings were kind of a thing on the OSR blogosphere at the time. The idea is to forget everything you know or think you know about a particular published product and look at it purely from what that's product's source document has to say. It's often surprising what insights come out of these close readings, and I wanted to do one for the Realms, a setting towards which I have long nurtured an extremely ambivalent attitude.

The series was already beginning to yield dividends when I let it go into hibernation. Not to get into excuses, but 2011 was a pretty hectic year both on a personal level and in terms of my gaming hobby, and I found I didn't have as much time and energy to devote to the project as I'd anticipated. But more importantly, I simply wasn't running any D&D at the time, much less anything set in the Realms. Without that practical foundation, I found my close reading was drifting into realms of theoretical wankery, most manifest in my decision to adapt the Realms as I went along to a Bronze Age tech level.

Now, I'm not saying that that's necessarily a bad idea, and if someone wants to take up that torch and run with it, then by all means be my guest. But it was quickly getting away from the original concept of doing a close reading. I needed to be evaluating the setting on its own merits.

Since 2011, I've been able to reconnect via Google+ Hangouts with my old friends/gaming group from high school and college, the guys with whom I adventured in the Realms the most. This past week, being in between campaigns and as we were tossing around ideas of what to play next, I suggested we do a Realms campaign using the Gray Box setting. The idea was adopted, and so, armed with a practical foundation for my ventures, I figured I'd resurrect this long-dormant project.

All the posts thus far have been collated in their own page here. For new-comers and those needing a refresher, I'm reproducing the first post below. Expect more posts to follow on what I hope will be at least a semi-regular basis starting this week.

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"Returning to the Realms"
Originally posted March 20, 2011

When it comes to (A)D&D game worlds, few are as guaranteed to elicit extreme opinions as the Forgotten Realms. I myself have a typically ambivalent relationship with the setting. I'd say the majority of my D&D gaming as both player and DM has been in the Realms, but it was never a favorite of mine. For a variety of reasons, the Realms never made their way into my heart, and I've spent a lot of time working on personal game worlds that would address my interests more directly. And yet...

The Realms presented in the first Gray Box, released in 1987, are radically different from the Realms of the 2e to 3e era (to say nothing of what's happened to the setting since 4e came out...). Now that I have Pendragon and Dragon Warriors to tap my long-held desire for a fantasy setting that hews closer to folklore and faerie tales, and in light of my realization last year that I'll always be a Silver/Bronze Age DM despite my dabbling in OSR tropes over the past couple years, I've been giving some thought to establishing a de-facto game world for vanilla D&D.

For some years, I was hoping the Wilderlands would be that setting, but alas it is not to be. As much as I love the setting, I've found myself unable to fully engage with it as a DM. Nor has it been a great success with my players, who likewise find the setting a bit too old school in their sensibilities. I've tinkered with the idea of remaking the Wilderlands into something that works better for our collective interests, but I realized I'd end up rewriting most of the setting if I did so.

It was at this point that my mind starting turning back to the Realms. I haven't done any gaming in that setting in well over 10 years, but if I was going to be tinkering with and rewriting a setting, maybe they would suit my needs more closely. Perhaps it was time to give it a fresh look? One eBay auction later, I was in possession of the Gray Box, the first public version of the Realms. It was the first version of the Realms I experienced as well, and it seemed a good place to return. Yet I'm under no illusions that my old issues with the Realms have magically gone away. There will be much tinkering, oh yes...

And so was born this new series: the Gray Box Project. In the mold of Sham's D&D Cover to Cover or Jeff's similar Arduin Grimoire project, I intend to devote a series of posts to a very close and literal reading of the Forgotten Realms Gray Box. In so doing, my intention is to unlearn all of the non-Gray Box setting detail that's accumulated since its release, thereby forming a baseline for my own interpretation of the Realms. I will be looking for what is unsaid or implied as much as what is stated directly.

As I engage in the close reading, I will also use the posts as a sounding board for ideas on how to make the Realms my own. Nothing about the setting will be held sacred or canonical and everything's on the table for potential changes. By the end of the series, I hope to have both a more in-depth understanding of and appreciation for the Forgotten Realms as originally envisioned as well as a highly personalized version of the Realms for me to use as my D&D sandbox setting.
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