The Cold Lands of the Unapproachable East

I know I shouldn’t…

So many campaign ideas, so little time. Actually, I have lots of time, I just like tinkering with new ideas so much I rarely really commit to seeing them through.

Back in November, I had taken the time to sit down and actually fully read through the original 1st edition Campaign Set for Forgotten Realms. And I found the world presented in it to really be much more inspiring and exciting in how it provides hooks for the GM to work with, in contrast to the bloated mess of pastoral quaintness and cartoony heroics it balooned into over the years and decades that followed. The first edition Campaign Set and sourcebook are really quite sparse on specific details, but that’s precisely what makes them useful tools for a GM to create a campaign, rather than big piles of homework you have to read and memorize to run your campaign correctly. Back then I was tinkering with some ideas to run another campaign in the Savage Frontier of the northern Sword Coast, but when it came to actually creating adventure content for players to play with, I found it somewhat lacking in actual stuff to do. All the stuff that I thought was really cool about the area seemed like it would be good for higher level parties, but I couldn’t really think about anything interesting to for a group of fresh explorers coming into the area for the first time, and so lost interest in the idea pretty quickly.

But reading the entire Campaign Set did also get me interested again in the Northeast region of Faerûn. And of all the campaign sourcebooks I ever had, the Unapproachable East for 3rd edition is a strong contender for my favorite sourcebook ever. I’ve loved it since I first got it when it came out, and it’s one of the few books I’ve kept around the entire time since getting rid of the big pile of D&D crap I had gathered over the years. But I never actually got around to use it and run any adventures in that part of the Forgotten Realms. Preparing myself for the worst, I checked the inside cover today. This book came out in 2003! I’ve never got around to use this setting in 19 years. I mean, I still got decades of campaigns ahead of me, but it’s really getting time to finally do this!

The area I am eyes covers the regions called the Unapproachable East, the Cold Lands, and the Bloodstone Lands in various sources from different editions. There are Aglarond, Damara, the Great Vale, Impiltur, Narfell, Rashemen, Thayy, and Thesk. There are good reasons why one could also include Vaasa and the Vast as being in this part of the world, but I think they are much more culturally oriented towards the Moonsea and Sembia and you have to make the cut somewhere.

Two thousand years ago, most of this area except for Aglarond and most of Thay made up the territory of the ancient Demonbinders of Narfell. To the East lay the lands of their great rivals of Raumathar, and after centuries of war the to civilizations completely destroyed each other with their dark sorcerous magic. Civilization never really returned to these lands in the centuries that followed and nearly all major settlements in this part of the world are found on the shores of the Sea of Fallen Stars and southern Thay.

Based on the map and the description of the peoples, I interpret this region as being stongly influenced by Southeast Europe around the Black Sea and Caspian Sea and the Carpathian and Caucasus Mountains. The Rashemi are a vague blend of Norse and Slavic influences, which actually does resemble the Rus who lived along the Dneipr in the Middle Ages. And the Nar tribes in the very north have some resemblance to Tartars. And the Endless Wastes to the east of the region are an explicit stand-in for the Eurasian Steppe, at one point having a big Mongol Horde adventure based around it. Staying with these cultural and geographic influences, I think it would be interesting to base the Great Dale on Lithuania, and the port cities of Impiltur or German merchant settlements on the Baltic Sea. The big elephant in the room is of course Thay. I think the best source for influences for Thay would actually be Persia, but I don’t really want to have a campaign in which the single Iranian nation is the evil empire threatening all their European neighbors. But instead I think it could be really cool to present Thay as an evil magocratic version of Byzantium. Not quite 100% sure how that would look like, but I think it sounds really quite fun.

The main media influence that pops to my mind when imagining this setting is The 13th Warrior. And you can never go wrong with this one! It is the most pure essence of oldschool D&D you’ll ever see on film. I also imagine it in ways very similar to my mental image of most of the Elric stories I’ve read, but I think they are pretty sparse on environment descriptions so other people might be imagining something very different. While I was looking at the cropped out map above for a long while, I was starting to see the vague outlines of Skyrim. Which I think actually fits perfectly as a reference point. I can absolutely see Whiterun as Thesk and Falkreath as the Great Vale. Solitude would work as a city in Impiltur and Riften as Telflamm. Wight infested Nord tombs would be perfect as the graves of Nar sorcerers, with Dragon Priests taking the role of undead Nar demonbinders. Oh, and the Companions are totally a Rashemi berserker lodge. And Red Wizards are like Thalmor, just saying.

To sum it up, my interpretation of this setting is The 13th Warrior in Skyrim on the Dneipr.

Even though I don’t want to set up this campaign as an oldschool hexcrawl, I also really don’t want to go back to the dark days of writing the players a big epic fantasy novel to act out. It still has to be a sandbox. While I was somewhat lost regarding what a new party of low level PCs could be doing in The Savage Frontier, I think this part of the Realms actually has some really good potential as a setting for just roaming around and exploring while having run-ins with the locals along the way. I wasn’t really sure what to do with ruins of ancient Illefarn in the great river valleys of the North that have been farmland for thousands of years. But the East comes across to me as a region that is much more remote and drastically less populated. Once you leave the coastal port cities behind, you’re out in the wilderness. And once you step off the few big trade roads, there’s no telling what you might run into. Even though they are long gone, the remains of ancient Narfell looms over everything. The source material conveniently describes a typical Nar ruin as small squat fortifications on the surface with massive labyrinths of underground tunnels beneath them, many of which still hold captured demons. With a great land that was never really resettled, these are perfect for extensive dungeon exploration. And as I mentioned above, old tombs of Nar sorcerers also fit in very well. In addition to that, there’s lots of marshes and swamps (though not shown on the map) and dark forests for hags and mysterious druids.

One thing that I noticed in the 1st edtion Campaign Set is how greatly focused on just humans Forgotten Realms originally was. In the East this is even more the case. Except for Aglarond, there’s never been any elven civilzations in this part of the world. There are a few small dwarf kingdoms in the Earthspur Mountains on the very western edge of the area that I defined, but that’s basically it. There is a population of half-elves deep in the forests of Aglarond that is culturally separate from the human cities on the coast, and there is mention of a few halflings having migrated to the port cities of Impiltur, but that’s the extend of nonhuman peoples in the area. The only exception being several tribes of gnolls who have been serving as mercenaries in the armies of Thay for many generations. There’s not even really mentions of orcs, except for some settled down Zhentarim mercenaries that arrived later in the official timeline (that I am ignoring). While I generally like the idea, having at least some nonhuman people to clash with is always a nice change. Not much mentioned in the sources, but a perfect fit in my opinion are ogers, trolls, and giants. A land of cold plains seems like just the place where you would find fog giants, my favorite kind of giant that I actually never had an opportunity to use. The Sea of Fallen Stars is well known as being home to Sahuagin. I’ve never really seen anything noteworthy done with them, so I think they would be really cool to use as enemies in adventures on the coast. I guess you can never go wrong with goblins either. You can always believe that they are around somewhere without ever deserving explicit mention. Since any kind of reptile people would feel out of place, and chitines are culturally connected to drow, which I really don’t want to have in this campaign, I was thinking of what other kind of cool pulpy humanoids might work here. And I think bullywugs could actually make for really cool main monstrous humanoids in this setting. Not quite as popular and famous as snake-men, ape-man, and mushroom-men, frog-men are still classic pulp monsters. You just have to present them right. I think in more recent material, bullywugs have often been interpreted as particularly goofy looking goblins. But in their earlier incarnations they had stats basically matching orcs. Frog-orcs who are hiding in the swampy waters and attack with big mouths full of spiky teetch feel like awesome humanoid enemies to me.

Where is the Love?

Flipping through the old 2nd edition Forgotten Realms book again, I was wondering who the artists were that made some of the illustrations in the books. While they are listed in the credits, there’s no attribution to specific images. I wasn’t able to find anything, and thinking about where you might possibly find someone who could know, I checked Discord, and to my surprise, discovered that there isn’t a single Forgotten Realms centered server. At least no public one. I would have thought that there’s at least one with a couple of thousand 5th edition players, but no such thing.

And now that I am thinking about it, I don’t recall ever seeing any forums or fan sites with a focus on the classic Forgotten Realms of AD&D. Which I find strange, because from what I remember, the setting was really huge in the 90s and the 2000s. The 5th edition “version” of the setting doesn’t even deserve the description of an empty shell. There’s only the Sword Coast and Chult, that’s it. And with the mind-boggling timeline advance of 4th edition, and then the quiet abandonment of the newly introduced replacement content, there really isn’t much left of a world in current products.

But that’s still more than the other AD&D campaign settings have been getting. Dark Sun had a short revival in 4th edition, but that’s it. What is surprising me is that there still seems to be a lot of fond love for Spelljammer, Dragonlance, and Dark Sun, and of course Greyhawk, but the original classic Forgotten Realms setting seems very much forgotten. Maybe it’s because the setting has never actually gone away, but still has its rotten corpse paraded around regularly? Perhaps it’s the fact that there hasn’t been any material for the other setting in some 25 years, that people who have some interest in them are thinking back to the stuff that was around in the 90s. You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become The Simpsons.

My favorite Monster Manual

I wrote about the Monsters of Faerûn book for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition from 2001 before in my Fantasy Safari series. At 96 pages, it is to my knowledge the shortest and also only softcover monster book that was released by WotC. It followed the original Monster Manual for 3rd edition and would be succeeded by five more full sized books for that edition. A while back I was asking around in some places about how often GMs have actually been using creatures from the additional monster books beyond the main Monster Manual, and everything I could gather from the replies strongly pointed towards “barely”. These books are fun to read, but at the end of the day, people clearly seem to continue to strongly stick towards the established critters that have been in regular rotation for over 40 years now. But even in that light, Monsters of Faerûn seems to stand out as even more obscure than the other monster books, quite possibly because it’s much smaller and because the title indicates that it’s a setting specific book for the Forgotten Realms. Which is not actually the case. There are a few creatures in it that are specific to factions in Faerûn, but these of course work just as well anywhere else, and the majority are simply somewhat popular D&D monsters that had not made it into the Monster Manual.

Since I started with D&D right when 3rd edition came out (I remember deciding to wait a few more weeks instead of getting the 2nd edition books), and as such this was my second monster book ever. That might have had some impact on how memorable it was too me. But I had also been introduced to D&D by playing Baldur’s Gate, and that game had a few creatures in it that were not in the MM, but in this book. Even though I don’t recall using much, if anything from this book back when I ran 3rd edition games, but it always excited me every time I was thinking about it again, or picked it up for another read. This has so many creatures that I always wanted to use some day.

When I started working on the Shattered Empire setting two months ago, I didn’t deliberately plan to do it, but I recently realized that a lot of these “I want to use them one day” monsters ended up on the monster list of the setting, even though I got their stats from 5th edition books. I admit to not actually having read those. I’m only using the stat blocks, going with my preconceptions of what these creatures are from the last 20 years.

Aaracockra are a quick and dirty reskin job to get harpies without the enchanting song ability, that really belongs to sirens.

Air Genasi more or less make an appearance as the Kuri people, though they are actually using the stats for high elves as PCs.

Chitines have always fascinated me, even though their image in this book isn’t very good. Small primitive humanoids with six long spidery arms that crawl along the walls and ceilings of caves. What’s not to love about these creepy crawlies, which I think make a good alternative to the regular goblin and kobold fare.

Choldriths are the elf-faced spiders that often rule over chitines as their priests. It’s a different take on the general idea of driders, but since my setting doesn’t have any drow either, I think these make for a better alternative.

Cursts are a bit like ghouls or revenants. They are under a curse that always regenerates them into their undead form over the course of days and have gone somewhat mad from the torment of their unliving existence. The only way to actually kill them is to break the curse that is on them. But mostly I just think the picture kicks ass.

The Dark Tree is just a classic of fantasy. Never an A-list monster, but always around. The image in this book is really goofy, but I’ve always been hugely inspired by this one of a different monster that’s still the same basic idea.

From Manual of the Planes

Dread Warriors are really just beefed up zombies kept in better shape and with some intelligence remaining to make them more useful soldiers for necromancers. Nothing that spectacular, but I like to use them as corpses animated by low-intelligence demonic spirits.

Earth Genasi, like the air genasi, appear in my my setting as one of the civilize people. Though again, I am using the goliath stats for PCs instead.

Fey’ri are a specific bloodline of high elf tieflings from the Forgotten Realms, with some cool backstory of being the last remnants of an old noble house that made pacts with demons. Again, it was really an image from another book that sold me on these guys, but they appeared in this one first. They appear in the Six Lands as the asura, with somewhat different stats, but it’s really pretty much the same guys.

From Races of Faerûn

Gibberlings are basically the first monster you encounter in Baldur’s Gate, and there’s a lot of them in that game! Which had me a bit surprised to later learn that they pretty much don’t seem to appear anywhere else. But they are in this book, and I still love these little screetching guys as low level enemies.

Green Warders are a bit lame, actually. They are elf shaped shrubs who were used as guardians by the elves of Myth Drannor. But they have magic powers to cast alarm, confusion, and sleep in addition to attacking with their claws, and I think make a decent base to make custom spriggans. The leafy boy type, not the size changing goblins.

The Helmed Horror is another memorable monster from Baldur’s Gate. Basically it’s animated armor that’s been beefed up to a serious juggernaut with a big magic sword. These are clearly my favorites among the menagerie of golems. Badass image doesn’t hurt either.

Quaggoths are albino humanoid bear-apes that live underground. There really isn’t much more to them. But I think they’ve still been really underused as one of the underdark races as they add some nice variety. Why are there bear-men living deep underground among the fish-men, spider-things, and squid-thingies? No idea, but I just think they’re neat.

There’s a good more cool monsters in Monsters of Faerûn, these are just the ones that are featuring prominently in the worldbuilding for the Shattered Empire. But there’s also aballins, baneguards, beasts of Malar, darkenbeasts, deep dragons, firenewts, ghaunadans, phaerlin giants, and draegloths, which are all really cool as well, though not really fitting into the world I am creating. And I really love most of the art in this book, though that might to a good degree me being biased from my strong first impression. Though I still think it’s overall a much more memorable monster book than the actual Monster Manual that preceded it.

References for the Shattered Empire

This version of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting was the first one I got when I started learning Dungeons & Dragons when the 3rd edition came out in 2000. While I still think the 1st edition version is the better campaign setting, this one of course had a huge impact on me. It has an interesting art style that I don’t recall seeing anywhere else and that colored my first perception of what the Forgotten Realms look like outside of the videogames that were around at the time. It’s a bit quaint, but it doesn’t have quite the renfairification that is bugging me about later 2nd edition material. The books released for 3rd edition of course had a completely different style, making me soon forget about the aesthetic that is presented here. But now I am feeling like trying to recapture some of the overall feel for a fantasy world that I got from this box.

Unapproachable East might perhaps be the best of all the sourcebooks for 3rd edition that was released, and I think it comes as a pretty solid second in my own personal favorite setting sourcebooks, right after The Savage Frontier for 1st edition. In addition to a really good combination of character options, regional information, factions, and adventure hooks, this book does an excellent job with the art direction. It gives the area it covers a very distinctive feel, and I am more than happy to mercilessly butcher the sections about Rashemen, Narfell, the Great Vale, and Thesk for parts. I think this book easily ranks as the number one source for reference material for the Shattered Empire.

As a kid, I’ve been growing up on fairy tales and seen lots of kids’ shows that you’d clearly classify as fantasy, but I never really had high fantasy on the radar as a wider genre. I’ve read The Lord of the Rings once, thought it was nice, and never thought about looking for more of that kind. When I got into playing videogames, the games magazines I read had plenty of both fantasy games and roleplaying games, but I think I never actually read any articles covering them. I was only into sci-fi stuff and some historical RTSs and economy sims. I got Baldur’s Gate for the sole reason that I was terribly bored in the summer of 1999 and looked up the highest rated games in my old magazines to find something that might be worth getting to entertain me for a few weeks. And the ratings for Baldur’s Gate were through the roof, which made me actually read a CRPG review for the first time. It sounded interesting, mentioned how much easier it was to get into than other RPGs at the time, and so I got on my bike and here I am 23 years later.

Overall, the setting that is presented in Baldur’s Gate is quite pastoral and sub-urban in many places, with the dreaded renfairification of the Forgotten Realms in full swing by that point. But I still really love the look and feel of some of the more remote areas, particularly the Nashkel Mine and Cloakwood Mine, Firewine Bridge, and Balduran’s Isle. I’m totally gonna rip off those places without any mercy or shame.

Icewind Dale is a rather different beast from Baldur’s Gate, and while the graphics and interface is essentially the same, it has a very distinctive look and completely different atmosphere. This one is probably going to have a much greater impact on the Shattered Empire as a whole. Kuldahar, Kresselack’s Tomb, the Dragon’s Eye, and the Broken Hand still remain some of my favorite sites in fantasy as a whole.

The Fellowship of the Ring came out right at the time when I had just been playing Icewind Dale and started getting into Dungeons & Dragons and the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, and as such had a big impact on my lasting perception of fantasy. What a glorious time to be alive. (And also 16, I’m sure that’s entirely coincidental.) In hindsight, I think the second movie is only okay, and the third one is actually kinda bad. But this one I still really like. Particularly the parts in Bree and the journey that follows, and then again the travel to and eventually through Moria, which all stand very prominent in my imagiation for what the Shattered Empire looks and feels like. The parts with the elves are a bit too fancy and dreamy for the style I want to aim at, but overall this really is one of my secondary reference sources.

Some years ago, oldschool D&D fans seem to have come to the collective conclusion that The 13th Warrior is the most D&D movie ever made. And I am in full agreement. The investigation of the raided farms, the night attack on the king’s hall, and then of course the great assault on the cave lair of the savages is all prime high adventure material. If there is any good point to strive to make something more “cinematic” in an RPG, this movie should be the gold standard. I really don’t want to return again to “that Northern Thing” with the Shattered Empire, and I really had enough viking stuff to last me for a lifetime, but I think the great inspirations in this movie work just as fine outside of a Germanic reference frame.

Thief Dark ProjectThief came out two weeks before Baldur’s Gate (around the same time as Half-Life and Metal Gear Solid), but while it was a game that I knew was hugely popular, I only got around to play it a few years later, I believe. Which puts it in that same timeframe when I dived into several of the other works mentioned above. This game is just amazing. The only things I can really think of that I’m just straight up ripping of are the Pagans, Victoria, and the Trickster, but the whole game is constantly popping into my mind when thinking about evoking a certain style with the Shattered Empire. It’s probably going to become more important once I start working on the coastal cities inspired by Westgate and Telflamm from the Forgotten Realms, and their supernatural thieves’ guilds.

I was a bit undecided if I should include Skyrim in this list, but I think it’s probably the best representation for the influence of The Elder Scrolls as a whole on the setting. While I’ll always maintain that Morrowind is the better game as a whole, I think I actually played Skyrim a great deal more, and it influenced my mental image of various of the aspects of the world to a much greater extend. There’s plenty about Skyrim that can easily be ripped off for the Shattered Empire. The overall architecture of Nord houses and tombs fits very well with my image for the Kuri inhabiting the northern lands of Venlat (which I lifted straight out of my Kaendor setting as they are, since I never got to use them in any campaigns). The Kuri themselves have several influences from the ancient Falmer, and I’ve pretty much copy pasted both Orsimer and Khajiit to inhabit my setting. One very important thing where I’m stealing shamelessly are various of the Daedra. Azura, Hircine, Nocturnal, and Harmaeus Mora are gods in the Six Lands with only superficial changes, as is Kynareth, who is one of the references for the major deity Idain.

Since I first played the second game, the first Witcher game has always been for me “that weird, janky one”. The effort is appreciated and the talent clearly visible, but in dire need for a lot more experience and polish. But now that I am thinking about the style I want to evoke with the Shattered Empire, this one game in particular from all the Witcher works is the one that I think I want to draw from. This game looks very grey, with flat lighting and few environmental effects, which makes most of the world it is set in feel rather dull, and the stiff character animations don’t help. But now in the context of the setting I am envisioning, that actually feels a lot more appropriate than the more vibrant colors, stunning environments, and more cinematic presentation of later games. Kaer Moren, the Swamp, and Lake Vizima in particular stand out to me as places that are quite evocative for what I have in mind. The society and culture of the Witcher has always been deliberately anachronistic, with pretty much every character being written with a late 20th century mindest, even though the world is supposedly very medieval. That’s completely different from the kind of society and people I am aiming for, but I still think that the dispassionate calculation and resigned acceptance of bad circumstances that many characters in the series display could also be a useful aspect to draw from.

Bloodborne influences the setting only indirectly, but in very important ways. Playing this game again recently and reflecting on the similarities between its magic system and warlocks in the 5th edition of D&D was what originally gave me the idea to start working on a new setting from scratch. The strange eldritch beings and their relationships with various human characters in the backstory of the game are a major source of inspiration for the nature of the supernatural in the Six Lands. The Kin of Bloodborne and the Daedra of Skyrim are the main reference points for demons.

How the map of Faerûn changed over time

A discussion came up about how much the map of the Forgotten Realms was changed in size over the various editions, and I sat down to finally get a definitive answer to that.

As far as I can tell, the maps for 1st and 2nd edition are identical. The 2nd edition map perfectly overlaps all the outlines of the original, just prettied up to make it look more appealing. (An attempt was made.)

Working only with image files, getting the scale for the 1st edition map right took a bit of work. The Campaign Set and The Savage Frontier mention in the text the distances between various locations. Of these 11 given distances, two are completely off from all the others and as such I discarded them. The remaining nine were all in pretty close agreement and I went with the average of those to scale the image to the same scale as the other three.

Making four overlayed layers into a comprehensible image would be an insane amount of work, so I have limited myself to a number of reference points and connected them with lines, which gives us this illustration.

As can be seen here, 3rd edition both scaled down and squished the map significantly. Even with all the major overhauls of the setting in 4th edition, the overall geography remained effectively untouched. In 5th edition, it appears they returned the overall shape of the landscape to its original form, but not its original size. Luskan and Sundabar have moved further North, but if you tilt it a bit, the distances between Baldur’s Gate, Atkatla, Westgate, and Zhentil Keep have not really changed at all.

Unfortunately, 5th edition only has a map for the Northwest quarter of Faerûn, but the changes that 3rd edition made to the rest of the map are also pretty  wild.

Visualizing populations

While considering what I would put on a map of the Savage Frontier that I would hand out to players to show the information available to their characters, I was using this original map of the North to mark which sites I wanted to include. I thought about using different sized circles for villages, towns, and major cities, and on a whim made the circles proportional to their population. (Square root of the population equals circle diameter.)

I had not expected it to come out like this. Of course, Waterdeep would be huge, but even with having seen the numbers for all the town many times over the last week, I did not anticipate this distribution of people. I had assumed that the inland road from Waterdeep to Mirabar would be the main area of population with all the black dots on the map, but aside from Yartar and Triboar, they are only tiny specks. In contrast to that, the three Rauvin cities Sundabar, Silverymoon, and Everlund really are one of the main concentrations of people in the region.

Looking at it like this, I think doing this little exercise could be really useful to get a first impression of a region when you read up on it. Actually, this area is the campaign setting I am most familiar with out off all that I know, and I still got surprised 20 years later.

Some other interesting things while I’m talking about this map. Back in 1st edition, the North Was way bigger than it has since 3rd edition. Distances have been shrunk to about 75% their original size, which reduces the total area of the region pretty much by half. Also at some point, the population numbers for Sundabar and Silverymoon got flipped around. Originally, Sundabar had a 30% larger population than Silverymoon. But with Silverymoon being more glamorous, they probably wanted to make it the shining capital of the far north. I think it being the smaller one, and the more industrial Sundabar being the larger one is actually more interesting. And did you know that  the people living on the Rauvin river are the last remnant of the Netherese? Somehow that detail never occurred to me all the many times I was reading 3rd edition material on the region.