The 7 Regions of the Savage Frontier

Even with the maps of this region certainly being the fantasy map I’ve been studying the most throughout my life, I was surprised at what details you can discover while drawing a copy of it by hand and thinking about the implications they could have for the various settlements and the people who inhabit them.

Volo’s Guide to the North divides the North into a set of five sub-regions, which I largely agree with as being an obvious system or organize the primary landscapes and patterns of settlement. I would make some changes to the specific boundaries, split the Coast into two separate regions, and also consider the islands of the Trackless Sea an additional region to be counted as part of the Savage Frontier.
Concentrating only on the human and dwarven settlements, my classification looks like this:

As mentioned and not shown on this map, the first very distinctive region is the Islands of the Trackless Sea. While geographically removed by some distance, Luskan, Neverwinter, and Waterdeep are the closest major ports on the mainland and the Northmen sailors of the islands are very important players in the maritime trade and warfare of the northern Sword Coast. The most important island by far is Ruathym, followed by the Gundarlun, Tuern, the Purple Rocks, and the Ice Peak. These are sub-arctic island similar to Iceland, the Faroes, the Shettlands, and the Orkneys with a very much Viking inspired culture.

Next is the Frozenfar, which Volo defined as the towns north of Luskan, but I think should consider this largest port in the far north as well. Besides Luskan, important towns are the great mining city Mirabar in the Spine of the World, the dwarven city Ironmaster, Fireshear, and the Ten Towns of Icewind Dale. Aside from sizable numbers of dwarves, the population here consists mostly of the same Northmen who are native to the Isles of the Trackless Sea. It is also the main hunting grounds of the Black Raven and Grey Wolf tribes of the Uthgardt barbarians. I do not believe that there is any meaningful agriculture happening in these parts and so food will primarily come from fishing in the sea and rivers and from raising sheep. With Mirabar, Ironmaster, and Fireshear being major mining towns, they probably trade much of their metal exports for food from cities further south. While the port of Luskan is certainly more famous, it’s population of 16,000 people is significantly exceeded by the 23,000 of Mirabar.

Continuing south, we come to the region that I uninspiringly call the Neverwinter Coast, following the Neverwinter Woods and surrounding the city of Neverwinter on the Neverwinter River. Aside from Neverwinter with a population of 17,000 people, it also includes Leilon to the south with 3,000 people, and the village Port Llast. The village got its name from being the northernmost human port on the Sword Coast at a time when the site of Luskan was controlled by orcs. Neverwinter is also always giving the impression of being much more similar to Waterdeep and Baldur’s Gate than to neighboring Luskan, which makes me believe that it’s population is more closely related to the people of the South and that the Frozenfar region was settled by Northmen from the islands at a later point. This is the primary reason of why I consider this part of the coast to be a distinctively separate region from Luskan. Being flanked by the Neverwinter Wood instead of the Spine of the World, I also think that this region has much more of a logging industry than mining. The famously mild climate along the warm Neverwinter River also allows for agriculture of a type that isn’t possible in the lands further north.

Further down lies Waterdeep. While also part of the Sword Coast, the large Mere of Dead Men and the Sword Mountains create a large gap of rugged wilderness between the city and Leilon on the Neverwinter Coast. The city itself is one of the great oddities of the Realms. Despite being rather remote and isolated from the Heartlands and the very last outpost of what could generously be considered the civilized world, Waterdeep is widely considered to be the largest city north of the Sea of Fallen Stars with a population of over 100,000 people. The reason for the city’s prosperity is that all the trade from the Savage Frontier has to go through it’s port. Even most caravans traveling south along the road through Daggerford have to pass through it. How far the Waterdeep region stretches to the North is very debatable. There are good reasons to count Goldenfields, Rassalantar, Amphail, and the Bargewright Inn as being part of the Dessarin Valley, but their proximity to Waterdeep surely makes them economically and culturally much more oriented towards the great city than to distant Yartar and Nesme. Their proximity to the coast should also result in much milder winters than the rest of the North is seeing, allowing for a more efficient growing of grain and other crops. I see this region as being a northern outpost of the Western Heartlands and settled by people from that region.

Going up the great river towards the North, we have the Dessarin and Surbrin River Valley. These are part of the great water transport system that connects most of the interior Savage Frontier. The main settlements in this region are Yartar and Nesme with both a population of only 6,000 people. Next comes Triboar with 2,500 people and after that it’s really only a scattering of villages of various sizes. With maps showing the area mostly as just blank land, my interpretation of the landscape is that of the northern parts of the North American Prairies. With Greenwood being Canadian and TSR being located in Wisconsin, it seem likely that this is what the creators had in mind. The Savage Frontier has a map that clearly shows that this is cattle county. Endless expanses of grass from horizon to horizon is perfect for raising grazers, which make for a great food source to feed this otherwise harsh and inhospitable land. You’ll be seeing enough beef and cheese to last you for a substantial part of your remaining life. As with most of the coasts, I see this region as being settled primarily by people from the Western Heartlands. The plains east of Yartar are the lands of the Elk tribe, while those between Neverwinter Wood and the Evermoors are home to the Griffon tribe. Both are widely considered to be among the most hostile tribes towards the other peoples of the North. I expect there to be a lot of cattle rustling going on around these parts.

On the other side of the Evermoors lies the flow of the Rauvin River, which Volo calls the Interior. The Rauvin connects the cities Silverymoon, Everlund, and Sundabar, and an old dwarven road continues further east to the great dwarven stronghold Citadel Adbar of King Harbromm, the last true dwarven king north of the Sea of Fallen Stars. This region is dominated mountains, hills, and various forests and should experience brutal winters, but also potentially quite hot summers with warm winds blowing from the Anauroch desert. While this land does not seem well suited for any kind of agriculture, it is still home to many of the region’s largest cities. Sundabar at 36,000 people (including many half-elves and dwarves), Silverymoon at 26,000 people, Citadel Adbar at 14,000 people, and Everlund at 12,000 people. The Moonwood and Cold Wood to the north are the home of the Black Lion and Red Tiger tribes, and the northern edges of the High Forest to the south are the territory of the Tree Ghost and greatly feared Blue Bear Tribe.
The humans inhabiting these remote city are distinctively different from both the Northmen and the people from the Western Heartlands. Like the Uthgardt barbarians, they are one of the surviving peoples from the ancient magical empire of Lost Netheril, as seen quite easily by their black hair. Other than legendary Halruaa many thousands of miles in the far away South, Silverymoon is the last heir of the great magic of Netheril. (It bothers me that this region has no apparent food source to supply four major cities. This is something for which something needs to be cobbled up together at some later point.)

Finally, there is the Delimbyr Valley south of the High Forest. The river itself continues north for several hundred more miles, but the lands between the High Forest and the Greypeak Mountains is barely explored wilderness uninhabited by humans or dwarves. The lower Delimbyr valley is even more sparsely populated than the Dessarin valley, with the largest settlements being Loudwater with a population of 4,000 and Llork with a population of 2,300. There has been some mining going on in the Greypeak mountains, but this has been in decline since the dwarves of the region have increasingly come into conflict with the Zhentarim. The economy of the Delimbyr depends almost entirely on trade caravans from Zhentil Keep that go all the way from the Moonsea around the southern edges of the Anauroch desert and towards Waterdeep. Llork has essentially become a Zhentarim town over the years and more of a caravan stop than a mining town. The location of Loudwater close to the High Forest and Southwood makes it a good candidate for logging, especially for the shipyards of Waterdeep, and the lower parts of the valley should be suitable for both cattle raising as in the Dessarin Valley and growing crops as in the vicinity of Waterdeep. Like the people of the Surbrin river to the North, the native inhabitants of Llork and Loudwater have the dark hair of Netherese descendants, but no other signs of that great ancient civilization still exist. As one moves down the river to the west, these native people begin to blend together with the new settlers from the South.

The Sinister Machinations of the Kraken Society

Part 2 in my series about expanding on the original The Savage Frontier setting.

The Kranken Society is one of the main groups of villains described in The Savage Frontier, alongside the Hosttower of the Arcane, the Knights of the Shield, and the Zhentarim. However, their description and particularly their short-term goals and activities are kept very vague and unclear. We are only told that they are very secretive and trade in information, and that their real purpose is to collect and provide information about the surface to the Kraken of the Purple Rocks, which is plotting to establish an empire of its own in the depths of the Sea of Swords. While later editions spend much greater amounts of words on their descriptions of the Kraken Society, they never actually provided any more information on what its agents actually do that would get them into conflict with parties of adventurers. Gathering and selling information is not particularly villainous or a threat to the whole region. But as it turns out, as with so many things in The Savage Frontier, there is a lot of great potential for memorable villains once you comb through all the pieces of information and start connecting the dots.

The founder and leader of the Kraken Society is the ancient Kraken Slarkrethel, which discovered the ancient ruined city of Ascarle deep in the frozen waters of the Trackless Sea, off the shores of a small and remote group of islands known as the Purple Rocks. Later sources reveal that in the ruins, the Kraken discovered ancient magical secrets that inspired in it the dream of conquering for itself a great aquatic empire beneath the waves. Since nothing about that contradicts the statements in The Savage Frontier or reduced the possibilities for adventure, and gives us a bit more to work with, there is no reason to use that for this interpretation of the original setting. How the Kraken’s underwater conquests would bring it into conflict with the coastal port cities like Baldur’s Gate, Waterdeep, Neverwinter, and Luskan and the island of Ruathym is not exactly clear, but this is given as the reason for why it established a great network of spies and informants across the surface lands. Before it risks to expose itself by launching its conquests of the undersea races, it is biding its time learning as much about any potential rivals that might try to oppose it.

The first target of the Kraken were the small fishing villages on the Purple Rocks right outside its new lair in the ruins of Ascarle. Here are the headquarters of the Kraken Society, and its agents are effectively in control of the islands, their remoteness and isolation allowing them to keep their activities secret from the rest of the world. On the mainland, the main base of operation of the Kraken Society is in the small towns of Yartar and Triboar in the Surbrin Valley. For an organization created with the purpose of gathering information about the major naval powers on the coast, establishing their main foothold some 200 miles away from the sea and far from any major city seems a very odd choice. But the collection of information is only one of the tasks of the Kraken’s agents, and the specific location of Yartar actually opens up the door for much more sinister activities.

Surroundings of Yartar. Click to embiggen.

Yartar is located on the banks of the Surbrin river where it flows into the Dessarin that continues all the way south to Waterdeep. Through the Surbrin and further up the water through the Rauvin, boats and barges can travel to Nesme, Mithril Hall, Silverymoon, Everlund, and eventually Sundabar, from where the road leads to the city of the last dwarven king in the North, Citadel Adbar. From Yartar, an overland route extends east towards Everlund, and to the west a road leads to the great highway from Mirabar to Waterdeep. Yartar may not be a large town and located seemingly in the middle of nowhere, far from any centers of powers, but it is the main hub of all trade that is passing through the Savage Frontier. If for some reason the port cities were unable to transport supplies and soldiers on ships up and down the Sword Coast, because of a powerful enemy in the water attacking and sinking any ships that leave port, the highway from Mirabar to Waterdeep and the Dessarin would become the fallback route of transportation, far away from the sea and beyond the reach of the creatures of the deeps.

In the event of a war between the Kraken of the Purple Rocks and the port cities of the Sword Coast, the Dessarin valley would become the new lifeline for the surface dwellers. But the tentacles of the Kraken are numerous and reach far, and it already has its agents in place to cut Luskan and Waterdeep off from the interior of the North.

The agents of the Kraken Society are collecting information for their master about what is going on the surface. But they don’t simply keep everything they learn to themselves, they also trade in it. And while the common agents who know nothing about the true nature of either their society or its master use their knowledge to gain personal wealth and power – as much as there is to get in such a remote backwater – the leaders are trading information for more information. Specifically such information about who could possibly a threat to the conquests of the Kraken and who would be in position to interfere with or undermine any resistance, and of course any information that could be used to blackmail them into compliance once the day will come.

For the time being, the Kraken Society continues to lay low. Agents use information they come across to extort money and personal favors while keeping their hands of people who could potentially threaten their operations, such as the Harpers or the lords of the powerful cities. However, should someone start prying into their activities or take notice of the true extend of their operations, they will resort to assassination to deal with the situation quickly and quietly. And while the leaders of the society in Yartar are waiting for the day when their master commands them to strike at the cities of the Lords’ Alliance where it will hurt their ability to interfere with the Kraken’s conquests the most, they are actively engineering seemingly unrelated and minor conflicts to steer more victims into their debt and ensnare them in their tentacles.

Oldschool Orcs and Horrible Hordes

When looking at fiction from the 80s, you often run into things that make you think “yeah, we probably wouldn’t do it that way anymore”. It’s not even that the core ideas have to be actively offensive, but just that there are much better ways to handle the presentation. Sometimes just a bit of recontextualization or the adding of a few nuanced details can make a big difference in going from stereotype back to archetype. In my current attempt to set up a big lavish campaign using the 1987 Forgotten Realms Grey Box amd the 1988 The Savage Frontier sourcebook that sticks true to the material with only expanding but not overwriting the texts, I’ve been coming across a number of things that I mentally highlighted as requiring a special touch to put them into a less dodgey looking light. Mostly it’s stuff that really just needs to be seen in its full context to take the edge of the initial dubious perception, but there is one thing that requires some real heavy work to salvage.

The primitive sub-human hordes of savages that descend on the god-fearing civilized people to murder indiscriminately and burn and plunder because it is in their nature and they lack the mental capacity to stop being evil.

Yes, orcs are fantasy monster. They are not real and don’t have any actual physical similarities with real human populations. But they are still just the same age old stereotype that has been used to demonize and villify whatever foreigners or even local minorities a people is in conflict with or just happens to make a convenient scapegoat and victim for exploitation. What do we gain by adding a monster to our fantasy worlds for which this isn’t a racist stereotype but actually the objective truth? What interesting and meaningful stories do we proeuce by having an endless supply of creatures that are just like people in every way, except that we are totally in the right to kill them by the hundreds with no questions having to be asked? Do we want to play out the things horrible racists thought should be done to other people based on their circumstances of birth?

No. There just is no way to twist and turn this to make it into something that is entertaining and fun, or at least rewarding or interesting to play. The primitive subhumans who are always to be killed on sight because their nature and limited intellect makes it impossible for them not to be evil is unsalvagable.

But in the world that is described in The Savage Frontier, the large populations of orcs and their numerous bands of raiders are a very prominent and integral component of the history, culture, and currently power relationships of the entire region. Simply removing the orcs in their entirety would be a deep cutting change to the whole setting that would already end the ambition to find out how much fun and depth can be gained from the old setting before it underwent several big retcons and dramatic style changes. The other quick and easy option is to simply make the orcs people like any other, with free will, a deep culture, and a multi-faceted society with many individual expressions. With good people and bad people, and a majority who just want to live their lives in peace like everyone else. Like we see for example in the later Elder Scrolls or WarCraft games. And this is exactly how I see the human Uthgardt barbarian tribes as something that can be handled without any cringe or allusions to old stereotypes and propaganda. But the orcs that are described in the material are very much distinguished as something else entirely. Giving them the same treatment would result in the two populations being kind of redundant, and I also feel like it wouldn’t allow the orcs to play their intended role. This has been something I have been pondering a lot for the last two weeks. Eventually I just asked the good people of the Enworld forum if they had any thoughts on this, and after a few first reflexive protests of blasphemy for even considering the question, I was given a couple of really good pointers.

First of all, we of course have to ask what is actually established about orcs at this point in the history of both the game and the setting. In the 1st edition Monstrous Manual, orcs are Lawful Evil, not Chaotic Evil. I generally think alignment for indovodual player characters is really stupid, but for monsters it can be a useful guideline for what the creator had in mind regarding their overall society and general behavior. The next thing is that the Intelligence for orcs is given as “average (low)”. This indicates a leaning towards slightly below average, but overall they generally as smart as humans, dwarves, and halflings. Already we see here that orcs are not presented as dumb brute barbarians. We also see that in the depictions of orcs from that period of D&D. Violent and evil, with armor that looks dark and shaggy, yes. But still an army that knows what it is doing. These are people who are aware of their actions, not purely controlled by animal instincts. The first thing I would do with orcs and their place in the setting is to present them as marauding armies who are feared for their organized raids, not just wild packs of roaring predators that hack down everything in their past. NPCs within the game world may still talk about them like that because of their racist prejudices, but in encounters with orcs the players should see them look and act more like lawful soldiers of an intelligent people.

Going through all the paragraphs mentioning orcs in both of the two sources I am working with, one thing that stood out is that the history of the orcs is deeply interwoven with the history of the dwarves. You can’t really study one without studying the other. As the 1st edition sources say very explicitly in numerous places, the dwarves and the orcs have been in a war for extinction for thousands of years. And the dwarves know that they have lost. In this version of the Realms, there is only a single dwarven king in all of the north, holding the last major dwarven city. And it’s not the last heroic stronghold where all dwarvenkind is rallying to turn the tide and return their people to glory. Most dwarves have accepted that it is over and that their only two remaining options are to settle as a minority in human populations or to seal the doors of their mountain holds and wait out the end of their civilization in dignity. With the big sanitization of the setting with the 2nd edition, the dwarves to take back two of their old cities and strive towards rebuilding their past glory, but the original version of the Realms had none of that. The sources mention quite frequently that the major orc settlements are inside old dwarven cities. The Citadel of Many Arrows right outside the gates of Silverymoon and Sundabar being the only one described, but with many more high up and deep below the mountains clearly implied. There even is a mention of competition over the same resources in their common homelands, but nothing more detailed is given about that.

One really good pointer someone gave me for thinking about the regular hordes of orc raiders descending into the lowlands like migratory locusts that consume the landscapes they are passing through. Coming out in large numbers from nowhere to feed and then seemingly disappearing again for several years. While that does have the old association of people with vermin, thinking about the food supply of the orc populations is a great starting point for giving them more depth. While there are large orc tribes in the High Forest and the Evermoors, the largest populations are in the Spine of the World, the Ice Mountains, and the Grey Peaks. All places with very limited food sources. And when considering fictional societies, it’s always a good start to ask “What do they eat?”

The first source of food when thinking of orcs is of course hunting for meat. Living undergound in the mountains while being snowed in means that the orcs will need a lot of food stored for the winter and will have a large demand for fresh food as soon as it is possible to come out and move around again. Both are good reasons to have huge hunting expeditions going considerable long distances to find enough prey to feed the many tens of thousands of people back home. This could be the main driving factor for large numbers of orc warriors descending from the mountains all at once on a regular basis. Not to wantonly destroy farms and murder everyone they come across, or to satisfy their endless craving for gold, but to collect and return home with food. A great alternative to hunting deer is of course to just steal some cows. Lots of meat that stays fresh until you reach home and that even has the dignity of walking on its own legs. And the Surbrin and Dessarin valley (and to a lesser extent the lower Delimbyr valley) are described as being big cattle raising areas. While agriculture isn’t that big in these northern lands, the sparsely populated prairies are pefect for raising cattle. And as such, perfect for rustling cattle as well. And of along the way you come across poorly defended barns full of sacks with grain and flour, that’s an opportunity no orc could pass on.

Thinking of the orcs in their mountains had me think of the Vikings from Norway and Iceland. An important factor in their raids was that their own agriculture was pretty awful and as a result their economy not much to speak of either. With little surplus of their own to trade, buying nice things from other peoples was not much of an option. If you want to bring some nice gold necklace or expensive fabrics for making clothes for the lady back home buy you have no money, just steal that shit from others! Or steal their money and use that to buy expensive stuff from merchants. I think that if we think of constantly raiding bands of orcs more like viking raiders who are in it for the plunder instead of a rabbid horde out for blood and carnage, we have a much better basis to consider orcs as NPCs instead of hungry monsters. Of course, this makes little difference for the human farmers or dwarven soldiers who suffer an attack from a roving orc army. As mentioned above, there is nothing wrong with the image of mindless murder machines existing among the NPC population. It’s just that as a GM who plays orcs when players interact with them, there should be more complexity given to them than that.

While players are unlikely to ever see them, the old conquered dwarven fortresses and vast cave systems in the mountains make for a good explanation for why we always only get to see lawful evil warriors. You can’t just have a whole society only of warriors. But the orc raiders we get to see are not at all representative of orc society, no more than a viking longship tells us about life in a Norwegian village. All the things that are said about orcs in the source texts might be true. But those are statements about orc armies and raiding parties. They are not statements about orc society.

Can a whole species and society truly be evil and perists over many generations? That seems hard to believe. Can all marauding bandits be evil? Duh, of course they can. That kind of comes with the job description.

Finally, there is an idea that apparently originates from the writers of a 5th edition monster books. While individual orcs might be intelligent beings with the capacity to consider their actions and exercise free will, orc society as a whole is not free to choose its own way. More so than maybe any other people other than the drow, the orcs are a society that is directly under the hand of a single despotic god. Gruumsh is not just some distant creator of the orcs in times immemorial, he is the ruler and master of the whole orc species. Not in the way of direct supernatural control of the mind of every individual orc, but all orc tribes are part of a single universal hierarchy with Gruumsh at the top. Through his shamans, Gruumsh gives direct orders to all the orc kings and chiefs who in the end are obliged to execute his will and his plans for the people. And when the ultimate dictator at the top is a god, there is little room for resistance and no hope of revolution. In this context we can very well imagine that orcs are physically capable of chosing different ways to live, but it’s the hand of their god that keeps them on their paths and that crushes even the thought that existence for the orcs could be different. This doesn’t make the actions of any orc less evil, but it provides a basis for why we never see orc tribes choosing a different life. Orcs who consider different choices probably appear regularly, but in orc society under the rule of Gruumsh, these can be crushed effectively without their thoughts reaching other ears.

So, in closing, I do believe that the situation is not hopeless. The amount of additional work is quite significant, but I believe that it is indeed possible to have orcs in the Savage Frontier, in the role they were intended, in ways that are not wildly implausible and offensive to sensibilites, only by adding to the established material and without removing or rewriting any of it. Would I go through all this trouble to make an orc horde work in a new setting I create? Absolutely not. I really don’t think it’s worth it to have a great race of evil as a regular enemy if going with actual humans can create much more interesting and nuanced situations and conflicts. But my fascination with this old setting and my dream to really make it shine with all the great potential that was thrown out so early in its existence to be replaced with cozy mush makes it seem worthwhile for me to invest this sweat and blood into this effort.

Return to The Savage Frontier

Forgotten Realms Campaign Set

As I might have mentioned in my recent posts, the Forgotten Realms bug has bitten me again. In particular the world presented in the AD&D 1st edition Grey Box and The Savage Frontier. This is the setting of Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights, which were two my first fantasy games, and a few years later I was one of the GMs and level designers of a huge German NWN server network that ran for several years and set in the same region. It really was my first campaign setting and I lived and breathed that stuff for several years during my whole time as a 3rd edition GM. I pretty much lost interest in it after that and eventually went into homebrewing my own settings, but every couple of years, I remember that little The Savage Frontier book, that I earlier had dismissed as being entirely superseded by the much superior The North box and the Silver Marches book, and think of all the cool ideas that were lost in the later versions and I never got to use in the adventures I ran. While I currently have a new homebrew setting in the fire and another one in the drawer to work on any time the fancy strikes me, I also really just want to start a new campaign in the new year and go out to take the OSE Advanced rules for a spin. And The Savage Frontier is looking as attractive as it always does.

The Savage Frontier

FR6: The Savage Frontier is one of 12 expansions for the original Grey Box campaign set. I think it’s Janelle Jaquays’ greatest work and possibly the best campaign setting sourcebook released for any RPG. Like all the books in the FR series, this one is really thin. Only 64 pages plus a really cool map of the entire region, which I used as the basis for my own giant hexmap. But this thing is just packed with content. One way in which it accomplishes that is that it is entirely setting description. There are no pages spend on new character options, spells, magic items, or monsters. This is all content for GMs to use as starting points for creating their own adventures. The amount of information that is provided on each subject that is covered is usually very sparse. Neverwinter gets a third of a page in total and Sundabar half of that. In contrast to that, The North box has lavish descriptions of various inns and taverns in every town and village. But looking back at it now, those descriptions didn’t actually give you anything that could be used to create adventurers for PCs. I guess that’s where the weird “laughing people around a table” trend started for D&D.

Baldur’s Gate

Dungeon descriptions are just as sparse and in many cases you don’t get anything more than a name and the reason why it has that name. That can seem quite underwhelming and not that helpful, but what The Savage Frontier is made for is to give you ideas to start of creation of your own game content. You’re not meant to discover the Forgotten Realms that have already been made for you, but to create your own version based on the provided seeds and stepping stones. And the stuff here is just really inspiring.

Icewind Dale

My plan for the campaign is to take the Forgotten Realms just as they are presented in these two sources and expand on what is on the page, without referring to any information from later sources that overwrite, contradict, or are thematically mismatched with what was established in 1988. I put the villages of Mornbryn’s Shield and Uluvin on my map because they don’t contradict or subtract anything from the original sources, but it is still the year 1357 with Hellgate Keep and the Blue Bear tribe, a massive orc stronghold right outside Silverymoon and Sundabar, Bane, Bhaal, and Myrkul, and all that other awesome metal shit! Also, the North is truly a Savage Frontier! It is a region that has been settled by humans from the South only fairly recently and outside of Waterdeep there is only a sparse scattering of homesteads raising cattle, sheep, and horses on the prairies. The elves are long gone. All that remains are a few stragglers occasionally showing up in human cities. The dwarves are still hanging on, but only barely. King Harbromm of Citadel Adbar is the last dwarven king in the North. They all know that the days of their people are over and that they are the last survivors of a great civilization who are left with the only two choices of fleeing to human cities or isolating themselves completely from the outer world in their greatly diminished underground strongholds.

The Fellowship of the Ring

The concept for the campaign is that the players start out as a (recently) established adventurer company. As laid out and explained in great detail in the Grey Box, adventurers in the Forgotten Realms are very much like mercenary companies roaming from town to town in search for work. Not single wanderers who just happen to be in the same backwater tavern when the plot hook comes crashing through the door. It also makes sense when you take into consideration how the rules for 1st edition were designed and the game presented. A party does not consists of 3 to 4 PCs, but of 10 to 15 PCs, henchmen, and hirelings with a whole baggage train of supplies. I’ve found that with this context, the whole setting makes a lot more sense. Individuals roaming around, hoping that someone is in need of a weird stranger to rescue Lassie from the well never felt really believable to me. But small armies for hire in a huge and sparsely populated wilderness where the next Lord’s knights are weeks away? I can see that being an actual career option.

The 13th Warrior

My idea for adventures is to have essentially miniature sandboxes. The players hear that a town has been suffering from an ongoing threat from barbarians, orcs, monsters from the wilderness, or a strange curse and set out to offer the locals their services to protect them for a fee. It is then up to the party to go explore the surrounding woods and marshes to find the source of the threat and deal with it. They either can make a contract to find and kill a specific monster that is terrorizing the town, or to simply guard the town and patrol the nearby area until the townsfolk think it’s safe enough to not extend the contract for another week or month. I think this is a great setup to combine wilderness exploration and dungeon crawling and have the players discover all kinds of lairs, strange spirits, and odd hermits, while at the same time leaving it entirely in their hands where they want to go and how they want to respond to the things they encounter. No need to script any events with predetermined outcomes. Like any West Marches campaign, this also makes the game very flexible, with the game being able to continue with whatever players are present on that day. The characters of players not playing that day would be staying back guarding the town while the party is out on patrol or hunting.

Thief Dark Project
Thief

I first got into the setting around 2002, a few years after I’ve first started playing, and was still regularly playing Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Thief. It was also right after the Lord of the Rings movies had come out. All of which obviously had a huge impact on how I was imagining all those things I was reading about. And which I am using now extensively to scrounge for ideas for the new campaign. The Savage Frontier does not mention gnolls existing in the region. But the gnolls in Baldur’s Gate are extremely cool, way cooler than the mad cackling idiots that appear in more recent D&D material. And of course Kuldahar, the Severed Hand, and the Dragon’s Eye from Icewind Dale are just totally awesome.

Skyrim

I don’t recall when I first watched The 13th Warrior, but that movie is as oldschool D&D as it can possibly get. And it’s vikings, so a perfect fit for the North. They are perhaps my own ideal archetype for what an adventuring company should be like. And the dungeon at the end is a thousand times cooler than straight 10-foot wide stone corridors and square rooms. Skyrim of course came out many years after all these other works. But I still think it’s very much in the same general style as the Savage Frontier. There’s a couple of cool dungeons and caves and other interesting stuff. Again, the sources don’t say if there are any Mammoths in the North, but there very much could be. And pairing them up with stone giants? Yes please!

The early Forgotten Realms look

I first got into Forgotten Realms, RPGs, and even just fantasy in general for the first time with Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale, at an age where anything you’re really into probably is going to stick with you forever. Eventually I did cool down significantly on the Forgotten Realms as a good setting for playing campaigns in, and once I threw out 3rd edition and Pathfinder and got interested in B/X, I actually got actively annoyed at how silly and bloated Faerûn had become, and aware of how cloyingly cutesy and twee those 2nd edition sources had been. But a year ago I had decided to sit down with the original AD&D 1st edition Grey Box and some of the FR-series sourcebook and really read them front to back to find the world that was actually originally presented, before the many many retcons of 2nd and 3rd edition.

It’s much smaller and also a much better setting for adventures, with a very different style of fantasy than what D&D has been for the last 20 years. I actually really want to run a big OSE campaign in it now. And I was thinking earlier today what I feel the original Forgotten Realms should look like, and what illustrations I could use to set the tone for players only familiar with the Forgotten Realms of today.

And the answer is Keith Parkinson. Just straight up Keith Parkinson. (click to embiggen)

There are many great Jeff Easley paintings as well, but I think the depth of the background landscape that Parkinson regularly did adds a lot more to the feel of a large and wild world. I also get an impression that the visual designers of both Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale took very big inspiration from Parkinson’s illustrations, which makes them feel more right and on spot for me.