Since I just went on a compulsive buying spree to re-acquire what I consider the three best Forgotten Realms products ever made (the gray box, FR1, Ruins of Undermountain), I figured this was as good a time as any to tackle this one.
Many "old-school" D&D fans hate the Realms. Many love them. More than anything else, I believe that most are chronically torn between both extremes. I know I am.
This definitely isn't the case for other TSR campaign settings. I flat-out dislike the Dragonlance line. Period. It's refreshingly cut-and-dried.
Yet, for me, the early FR products and magazine articles violently resist this kind of easy assessment. They're so damn good that they flat-out refuse to be dismissed, no matter how much most of the Realms material released in the last quarter century makes you viscerally want to do just that.
Looking at these products, you come to one conclusion right off: The Forgotten Realms, so much as they are worth anything, are synonymous with Ed Greenwood. This identification is, to me, even stronger than the one linking the World of Greyhawk with its creator Gary Gygax. Gygax's work on Greyhawk will always be iconic, but I can think of many more individuals who made almost equally wonderful contributions in all those legendary modules: Rob Kuntz, of course, but also Len Lakofka, Allan Hammack, etc.
When it comes to the Realms, though, I can't honestly list a single must-have product that doesn't credit Greenwood as the lead writer/designer.
Surely, the man has his annoying quirks, even at his best. For one, he consistantly urges the DM to utilize super high-level NPCs to keep "rampaging", "out-of-control" PCs "in-line." In other words, to prevent them from making any significant changes to "his" world. This is profoundly wrongheaded, to say the very least, but easily ignored. And then there's Elminster. A lot of people say he didn't get "really bad" until the novels and whatnot, but I always hated the guy, with his smug attitude and cheesy Olde English.
But when he's good, he's good! Ruins of Undermountain, for example, is probably as close to a true published megadungeon as we'll ever see. Recent online debate on whether "published megadungeon" is an oxymoron or not aside, I think that if you cross-reference Undermountain with Philotomy Jurament's later popular piece on "The Dungeon as Mythical Underworld", the comparison is favorable indeed.
Fact is, if you take the three products I mentioned above and ignore some of Greenwood's less sound refereeing advice, you can easily have yourself a most excellent old-school campaign. I can only imagine (and envy!) the wealth of source material that a Greyhawk campaign DM would have to draw on if Gygax had ever released resources on Greyhawk City and Castle Greyhawk that were as well-done as FR1 and Ruins of Undermountain, respectively.
It's too bad about what happened later, but the strength of these early works will likely be enough to maintain this love/hate tug-of-war within me for a long time to come.
I'm not sure if I'd have it any other way.
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