Random thoughts on alchemy and sandbox campaigns

With the top level worlduilding for the Shattered Empire having reached a pretty concrete and solid stage, I’ve started turning back to thinking about specific details for an actual sandbox campaign set somewhere in this world. And while discussing some ideas, we happened to talk about players spending the money they get from all the dungeon crawling, travelling merchants as random wilderness encounters, and how generic magic weapons are boring compared to setting up your gear to fight a specific monster. It got me thinking about how the Witcher games don’t let you drink potions or put poison on your weapon while a monster is trying to claw your eyes out. You got to do your alchemical preparations before you step into the monster’s lair, perhaps even brewing up some special brews you didn’t normally keep stocked in your inventory.

And that discussion gave me an idea: Let’s have alchemical ingredients that can be used to create potions to help fight specific monsters, but these ingredients are hard to get and can each be used for a number of different potions.

Usually in videogames with crafting systems, you have basic ingredients that you can pick up from defeated enemies or growing in the environment in practically infinite amounts, and special ingredients that are only dropped from a single monster in the whole game to make one specific item, or make you choose one of two possible items that can be made with it. For the record, I hate crafting in videogames. It’s mostly a pointless waste of time that clogs up inventory space to drown you in junk that is worse than stuff you find. And I think one of the main flaws with these mechanics is the way they treat the ingredients.

But let’s approach this differently to make it something that is narratively meaningful and doesn’t turn into a convoluted minigame. The really badic ingredient, which are dirt cheap and just grow everywhere in the environment, are not even worth tracking. They have negligible costs and require no effort to acquire. And to make the special ingredients much more interesting and meaningful, make them both limited and expensive and make them useful for multiple different things. Letting the players fight a monster and take ingredient A from it, which they can turn into item X is really just a different way for giving them item X from the monster’s treasure. But say instead that there are maybe a dozen of the monster in the whole sandbox and the players might end up with anywhere from 0 to 12 of ingredient A, depending on how they explore the world and interact with the creatures, and that each of the ingredients can be used to make item X, Y, or Z. If these items they can make have limited uses that mostly shine in quite specific situations, the players will have to make a choicd if they want to use the three ingredients they have to make one of each item, three of the same item, or two of one and one of another. Since they don’t know what situations they will be dealing in the future, the correct answer is to keep them stored and make whatever item is needed, once they know it is needed. This adds a few additional scenes to adventures in which the PCs are making specific preparations for the adventure ahead, based on the information they have of what they arw getting into. That’s always great to make a world become more alive and present.

But also, you can make these ingredients available in small quantities for high prices at merchants. If it’s travelling merchants, it’s going to be a one-time offer as well. If the objects that can be made are sufficiently strong and have appropriately limited uses before they are used up, then these ingredients might be worth quite a lot to the players. And asking to take a look at the alchemy chest of each merchant they encounter can be a highlight of each shoping trip.

Buying the ingredient isn’t the same as buying the final item. There’s still alchemical work to be done. If it’s something that takes longer, it can be useful to employ an alchemist, especially when this kind of work comes up regularly. Which also costs money. And that alchemist is going to need a lab. Don’t let him do that stuff over a campfire with a little box of alchemy supplies. A proper lab best fits into a permanent base, which can be a much bigger source of expense for the party.

I’ve not done any work yet on either ingredients that could be found on adventures or be one-time offers by travelling merchants, or the kinds of items that could be made with them. But I think it’s a really interesting direction to follow that could potentially add a lot to sandbox campaigns.

The Pencil is mightier than the Board

You know all these kids these days, with their battle maps, miniatures, and VTTs? I think it’s one of the worst aspects in which RPGs have gone into the completely wrong as they developed, following right behind the total mistake of adventure paths, campaign books, and “telling a story” (the curse of Dragonlance).

It’s gonna be this kind of post.

Now I am not that old. I actually played way more videogames than I’ve run RPGs in my life, and been doing it for much longer. Baldur’s Gate was my first introduction to D&D, and in my early days as a GM I spend way more time as one of the admins on a German Neverwinter Nights server than playing at a table with my first group. It’s not that I am opposed to any of that on principle. But in my opinion, when it comes to playing an RPG with character sheets and dice, and having a thinking GM running the show, all this stuff like highly detailed battlemaps and fancy looking tokens don’t actually work as visual aids, but instead are serious distractions from the game.

This also doesn’t have anything to do with 5th edition or how kids these days are playing the game. The whole issue goes back to at least the launch of 3rd edition over two decades ago, when the game was designed from the ground up to revolve around position markers on a square grid. (Which was a really strong incentive to entice players to give the publisher more money for miniatures, which were already a money printing machine for Warhammer at that point.) But it seems to me that even with 5th edition significantly cutting back on that as the game mechanics are concerned, all the tools available to make very impressive looking maps yourself, various brands of plastic dungeon floors and walls being around, and the ease with which people can show of images of all swag (I know, “old man”…) seem to have made all this stuff much more prominent.

But my stance is that all this superfluous stuff does not make your campaigns better, but instead detracts from them. It might very well be that this perception is impacted significantly by how ADD affects the brain processes information, but to me, highly detailed battlemaps or fancy toy soldiers don’t inspire my imagination. Instead, they lead to a greater abstraction and create distance and detachment from the scene. I am very much in favor of running adventures with basically an empty table. To me, the table is a surface to roll dice and put your papers down to write. Indoor maps can – and should – be nothing more than a simple sketch to communicate the general layout of the area when explaining it verbally woul be too cumbersome, and regional maps are best handled as props in the form of sheets on paper that look like someone in the game world drew them by hand.

Ingame map from Thief.

The less visual input you get from stuff that is on the table, the more the mind is encouraged to create an environment in your head that reflects the details in the GM’s description of what you see. At least in my own personal experience, when you shove tokens around on a square grid, you start perceiving the encounter as a logic puzzle that is to be solved by computing an optimal sequence of moves.

Something like this looks very fancy and perhaps even evocative. When you first look at it, you might even start imagining for a moment what the place would look like if you were a person stepping into it through a door. But as the encounter progresses, all of that color that hints at an environment starts to fade away, and the only thing you really keep seeing is the grid lines and the barriers that block ranged attacks and spells. Because those lines are what is relevant information if you play like that. The grind lines are the signals, while the colors that hint at a stunning and memorable environment are  only noise.

To take the most extreme case, who ever imagines the battlefield, hordes of peasant levies, mounted knights, and war elephants that are represented on a chess board? It doesn’t happen. They are simply a grid on a board and abstract tokens that can be moved within certain rules. And even when you have the action of a fantasy RPG being connected to a non-mechanical story, I see this mental process of abstraction happen all the time. In an RPG, encounters should be scenes. They should not be logic puzzles. Or as someone phrased it many years ago, “don’t look for solutions to obstacles on your character sheet”. That’s not what RPGs are supposed to be for. That’s not where their amazing unique potential lies.

Moving tokens around on a terrain map is something that goes back to wargaming before roleplaying games were ever a thing, so it’s not like there ever was a moment in which they were introduced. But wargames have a completely different intention to RPGs. Their whole point is to be an abstraction and a simulation, to play out  how battles might have turned out differently if certain tactical decisions had been made. Making things more objective was the goal for both military planners and armchair generals. Imagining yourself as an officer on a hill talking with messengers delivering reports and orders was never the goal. But that’s exactly what fantasy RPGs are about.  To imagine yourself stepping through great ancient gates, or descending down a damp stone staircase into the darkness. To see vague forms slithering in the shadows and staring into the face of a demon as it rises from a burning pit. Putting a toy demon on a square grid just doesn’t deliver that.

There are many situations where less is more. And less visual aids means a more vivid imagination. (If the GM is doing a decent job with descriptions, but that’s a different story.)

Another thing that keeps happening to me is that any time I work on a new world map, I always get fed up with whatever shiny map making program I have and keep going back to go grab a pencil and some graph paper. Not quite sure why, but the process of designing environments always goes so much better and faster by just using a pencil. I guess in some part, it might be because of the limitations of the tools. There is no choice of colors or different line strength. Putting down a line is really easy, as is adjusting one. And there is no temptation to make everything right and good looking the first time so you don’t need to redo it all later, because you know the result will be a smudgy mess and making a nice handout to show the players has to wait until all the placement decisions are locked in. I’m not even hyperbolic when I say designing maps is probably 10 times faster on paper than doing it on a computer.

Fool me once…

As it turns out, I’ll be returning to work from hibernation this year in February and not in March, as I had expected. And I’ll not be moving into a new place until early March at the earliest, quite possibly in April. So the next two months aren’t going to be quite as chill as expected and I’ll won’t be settled in until we’ll be full deep into the planting season. This means my original plan to get a new campaign started and established after Christmas will have to be pushed back to probably somewhere in May, as I don’t want to start a  campaign for four weeks and then potentially disappear from the face of the Earth for a couple of months. (Once the plants arrive in the stores, our work for the year is mostly done, so off-season starts for us in May.)

This also means that I can spend the whole of this month on further elaborate campaign prep, and expand on it in whatever idle time I’ll be finding in spring. And one thing that has been on my mind recently is that despite my previous experiences in the campaign from one year ago, Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition might not be all that bad.

At the end of the Inixon campaign, I talked with the players, who mostly were GMs themselves with much more experience with the system than me, and while they mostly agreed with the issues I had spotted in the rules, their opinion was that these things are fixable without too much trouble by picking a few of the variant rules and changing the approach to handling certain things. I had similar conversations again twice last months about where I had been dissatisfied with how the game handled, and again the responses I got was generally that my observations are correct, but that the game doesn’t have to be run that way and play quite differently if you don’t.

The main issue I had with the system was that PCs have a lot of fancy toys to play with quite early on. Many of these cool powers are related to combat, and seeing how excited the players were about getting them, I wanted to give them opportunities to actually get some use out of them. Unfortunately, these fights made them advance to new levels and get new shinier toys before they really got much chance to play with their old ones in interesting and creative ways. I really didn’t want the players to sit on the cool new powers they were clearly excited about and not being able to use them, and as a result things somewhat escalated into a series of battles with little inbetween. Eventually I decided that there was a good point in the story to wrap up the campaign around the time the PCs would have reached 6th level, instead of continuing into a fully open-world exploration of the Isle of Dread.

The obvious answer to this issue is of course to just give the players fewer XP. But I think in hindsight the issue wasn’t so much the specific XP awards, but that throughout my now 20 years of running D&D, a pace of having characters gain a new level about every 4 game sessions or so had always worked very well in 3rd edition, Pathfinder, and oldschool games. And that’s just the pace that I had kept with the Inixon campaign. Not sure if that’s really the case or a change in my perception as I change my style as GM, but to me it really feels like characters in 5th edition get a lot more new powers with each new level than I was used to. And certainly as compared to B/X, of course. It also was the first time I really wanted to use the approach to not have the players wait until higher levels to get cool magic items with interesting powers, and be more generous with magic treasure that has minor and situational powers. It doesn’t increase the power level of the party that much, but it absolutely adds to the amount of cool toys that the players have at their disposal and are eager to try out. With all that in mind, aiming to let PCs level up about every 4 game sessions really seems to fast. Better seems to aim for 6, or maybe even 8 game sessions on average. I think that should be a good start to address my main dissatisfaction I had with the game.

Somewhat related to that was another issue I had with dungeons. The campaign had started with Against the Cult of the Reptile God, which really does provide a solid reference for why this dungeon exists and what the inhabitants want with it. That went really well. This was followed by a fantastic unstructured stay in a pirate town, in which the one part I wasn’t happy with was the dungeon from Escape from Meenlock Prison. It was okay, but I felt it turned into kind of a slog. Eventually we got to Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and I really had no clue what to do with it but to put some ruined mansions down and fill them with hostile monsters. The game kind of implies it wants me to do dungeons with cool encounters, but it also isn’t letting me know how to actually do that, and I just got frustrated with it and decided not to go into The Isle of Dread after that. I felt that I just don’t get the whole point about dungeons other than being series of monster fights. However, in the past year after that, I learned a huge deal about classic dungeon crawling and what that is all about. The Basic/Expert exploration system is a fantastic campaign structure with an actual solid 30-minute-gameplay-loop, that 5th edition (and really all D&D starting with 2nd edition) seriously lacks.

And there’s a couple of things about 5th edition that I really like. I’m a big warlock fanboy, especially after having two of them in the Inixon campaign, and I am seeing so much worldbuilding potential with this class as the supernatural and weird is concerned, and for all the adventures that can come out of it. I also think that the druid circles of the land are quite a nice element that I’d love to play with. I had pondered the idea of a setting in which warlock magic is the only way mortals can access supernatural powers, which seems really fun, though probably doesn’t get too much cheer from players. But considering my previous ideas for the Shattered Empire, a campaign with only warlocks, druids, and bards as spellcasters sounds like something that could be really cool for a very-early Medieval campaign drawing on central-eastern Europe as reference.

So I am willing to give the system another try, with the following adjustments:

  • Characters gain XP by milestones, with the default type of milestone being the return of a treasure back to civilization. The amount of XP depending on the value of the treasure, and the obstacles standing in the way being appropriately difficult. My aim is to provide treasures that let characters gain a level every 6 to 8 game sessions or so.
  • A short rest takes a full night of rest, and a long rest requires taking a week off in a town, castle, or similarly secured and hospitable place. In practice this means going without a long rest for each whole adventure. This means druid spells that provide food, water, and similar ways to make wilderness travel easier for each day won’t be able to cover the whole trip. Similarly healing spells have to be rationed for the whole adventure. Having friendly sanctuaries in the wilderness will be a huge benefit, which is one of the really cool concepts I’ve encountered in The One Ring.
  • Encumbrance is done by inventory slots and not by weight, which makes it trivial to track instead of a big nuisance.
  • The Encounter syste, from B/X gets imported just as it is, with wandering monster checks, reaction rolls, morale, and all of that.
  • Initiative is done by sides instead of initiative counts, which is always a huge reduction in my personal mental workload and speeds up play considerably as it cuts down greatly on players taking time to consider their next move at the start of their turn.

I am still somewhat cautious about the idea, but I think it can only turn out better then the Inixon campaign. And that one was by far the best one I’ve ever run.

Why do I never see links to All Dead Generations?

Looking back, the prime days of OSR lie now a decade behind us, and while a number of people are still around, occasionally sharing some new thought or insight every couple of months, very little of any meaningful significance is added to the discourse of B/X and AD&D that hasn’t been thoroughly examined years ago.

But one thing still does stand out that really brings something new (back) to the table that has significant value to help understanding how those old games tick and how you can make them really work without existing experience going back to the 80s. Which is Gus L’s “new” site All Dead Generations. This is an excellent resource I never really see mentioned anywhere.

When I finished my D&D 5th edition campaign a year ago, one of the realizations that I gained from it was that I just didn’t get the concept of dungeons. What a dungeon is is obvious, but I never understood how going from room to room filled with monsters and random crack-wizard puzzle-devices was supposed to be fun for anyone involved. As someone who got into D&D in the last days of 2nd edition, when the 90s Metaplot craze was still in full swing, fighting monsters in rooms never seemed like something that contributes to the plot of an adventure or a campaign. And it doesn’t. That’s one of the key things to take away from the many long pages of All Dead Generations. Thinking about a plot when going into a dungeon to explore is already the completely wrong approach. I never figured out how to make it work in 20 years, because that’s never how it was supposed to work. Dungeons & Dragons under WotC has been a cargo cult game, that emulates mechanics from the 70s and early 80s because they’ve seen these things being a major part of D&D, but with no apparent understanding of what they are for and how they work.

All Dead Generations has been a massive eye opener for me and got me super excited about an all dungeon crawl campaign just after I had given up on using dungeons in my games entirely. It’s a fantastic read for anyone who wants to understand how B/X is actually supposed to be played. And yet, nobody seems to be talking about it. I guess partly because there are few people still around who could talk about it, but to do so they’d also need to hear about it in the first place.

So here’s a big shout out to Gus. Which is a bit weird from a marginal nobody like me to one of the well known big guys of oldschool RPGs, but it is what it is. Go check out All Dead Generations.

In what god’s name?!

I’ve been running and playing fantasy RPGs for over 20 years, and I am pretty certain that not once have I seen any specific god being relevant at any point. I’ve had some clerics that had slightly customized their spell selection and armaments to reflect a certain theme, but faith and beliefs have never appeared in any game in any form.

There’s a couple of deities from various fantasy settings that I find really quite neat and want to blatantly rip off in the Shattered Empire, but how do you make them relevant? Here I once again find my original mission statement extremely useful: “Create content that dirrectly supports classic dungeon crawling adventures.” The question here should not be how I can make the gods so that they will be interesting to the players and make them want to make them part of their characters. The question should be what function gods can serve in the exploration of a dungeon? I want to step away from making stuff that is just interesting, and instead create content that is functional. Now one of tbe aspects I had already determined earlier is that I want to keep the goods ambiguous and distant, so that people in the world can wonder how much difference worshiping the gods and performing the rituals actually makes, if any. That doesn’t have to be set in stone and can still be changed if something better comes along, but I want to see where I can go with that.

Gods in the Dungeon

The main mode of play in classic dungeon crawling is being in the dungeon, or on the path to the dungeon, and exploring the environment ahead. Can we include the gods in this? And as it turns out, yes we can. The gods worshipped by the people now are largely the same as the ones worshiped in the Shattered Empire. The empire was ruled by sorcerers, and sorcerers are regarded as something contradicting with worshiping gods, but the empire didn’t last that long and the people had been worshiping their gods long before that. When they build all their great strongholds and secret vaults and crypts during the wars of the successors, the people would have included the gods in the decorations and protections of the new constructions. The walls and doors of dungeons can be covered in religious iconography and symbols, and these dpictions can actually contribute greatly to provide insights into the places the players are exploring. With perhaps a dozen or so common gods, players can essily learn and remember their names, symbols, andprimary aspects, if they become relevant during play with sufficient frequency. Identifying the symbols of a specific god can help understanding the original purpose of an area and the potential dangers that could be encountered inside. Possibly even provide hints on how to deal with any obstacles that might be discovered. It’s not necessary to give the players homework to learn and recite all the gods of a new setting. Simply allowing the players to ask a priest or sage the next time they are in town, and getting some useful hints in return will already be contributing to make the gods feel like an actual part of the world.

Gods outside the Dungeon

But even once we’re outside of dungeons, we still can look for ways in which gods can become relevant for the players in play. Between adventures, parties will regularly return to towns to restock on supplies, get their hands on new tools they discovered they need, and to try fixing permanent problems that resulted from events in the dungeons. Typically, the main place to see for the later is a local temple where a friendly priest can treat all the forms of long-lasting damage that characters can suffer. Typically, you’re adventure town has one temple that can deal with all issues up to a certain spell level based on the level of the temple’s cleric. But what generally makes no difference is the god of the temple. All clerics can cast the same basic spells, so temples of forging, agriculture, and smithing can all provide the same services  as long as their clerics are of the same level.

But what if not? As I mentioned earlier, my plan is to not have clerics as a character class and not have the priests in temples be actual spellcasters. But the world does have sacred shrines where certain supernatural events happen that are attributed to the direct interventions of the gods. For example, it’s not the priest tending to a healing spring that can cure wounds, but the spring itself. The Companion Set introduced relics for elves, dwarves, and halflings, to give these peoples without cleric access to some cleric spells in their towns. That’s a brilliant idea and would even work just as well to remove clerics completely from the setting. But the relics as presented all produce the same  asic effects. Cure serious woundscure blindness, cure disease, identify magic items, and turn undead. What if instead we reduce the powers of each sanctuary to only two or three spells, which are all specific to one deity? This means tnat you can’t just go to the next temple and get what you need, regardless of whose god temple it is. Instead, for specific services, players first need to identify which god’s help they require, and then go searching for a site sacred to that god where miracles are made to happen. This can easily turn into small side adventures to have certain curses lifted, or to acquire special weapons to deal with a specific threat. This should give the gods a much bigger role in the minds of players, compared to grabbing a few health potion from the temple between restocking their rations at the market and selling 10 rusts daggers at the blacksmiths’s.

How well will this work in practice? I don’t know. But I am sure featuring divine symbols as useful clues in dungeons and making the services in temples specific to the gods will make them much more meaningful than in a typical D&D campaign.

The Forgotten Forgotten Realms

Playing Baldur’s Gate back in 1999 was really my first introduction to fantasy. My childhood had been full of medieval and fairy tale stuff, and I even had read The Lord of the Rings, but I merely thought it was neat and it was very much a one off thing for me. There were plenty of fantasy videogames around before that, but I never gave them a second look and was all into sci-fi stuff. Baldur’s Gate was what really opened  the gate to high fantasy as a genre and a major hobby. As such, Forgotten Realms dominated my early years of getting into RPGs. Back in the early 2000s, I had a very considerable of Forgotten Realms sourcebooks, both 3rd edition and 2nd edition. I was so much into The North, as was every other D&D fan around me at the time, that I even got the 1st edition The Savage Frontier to get every bit of existing material on the region, but found it very disappointing since at 64 pages it barely seemed to pass as a leaflet.

Looking back at more than 20 years now, my love for the setting didn’t actually last that long. By the time 3rd edition ended, I had already very much moved on and sneered at whatever passed as the 4th edition version of the setting only out of snobbery. All that dungeon punk stuff that spread through the revised 3rd edition also made it into later Forgotten Realms books, and that just didn’t feel right to me, whose first references had been Baldur’s Gate and the 2nd edition campaign setting box. And even that version of the Forgotten Realm had lost its spark, coming across as overly quaint and cozy.

It was only much, much later, I think when I started getting interested in classic oldschool D&D, that I first got somewhat curious about the very first incarnation of the Forgotten Realms. At some point I directly compared the 2nd edition The North box with the 1st edition The Savage Frontier, and one thing that stood out to me that the new edition had killed off all the most interesting threats from the older version. Everyone slightly interested in the history of the setting knows that in 2nd edition they killed off all the cool evil edgelord gods. But it actually went much further than that. The demons in Hellgate Keep, the cursed adventurers in the Stronghold of the Nine, the Blue Bear barbarians who are manipulated by a disguised night hag, the orcs in the Citadel of Many Arrows, the mind flayer in the Ruins of Dekanter. The box even dedicates a paragraph with its own heading to The One, which informs us that he’s just not around anymore. Why even tell us about an interesting setting element that is not even part of the setting anymore?

I had been thinking occasionally about running a campaign in The Savage Frontier as it was originally presented, but I had hesitated for a very long until I got into 5th edition last year (and didn’t like it) and I never had any desire to actually try to run a campaign using the AD&D rules. I quite fell in love with B/X, but that game doesn’t have the bard, druid, and ranger classes, whose absence I think would really change the feel of the campaign. But recently I started taking a look at the Advanced rules for OSE and that stuff looks exactly like the perfect way to run an AD&D setting without all the AD&D mechanics. And being in a bit of a lull with my homebrew setting and not quite sure how I want to revamp it before I take it on another run, the idea to finally give that Savage Frontier campaign a shot came to my mind very quickly.

The idea I have is to run a campaign in the 1st edition version of the Forgotten Realms, ignoring all material that was released later, and simply taking the Forgotten Realms Campaign Set Grey Box and The Savage Frontier at their word. Of course, there would be a lot of blanks to fill in, since both sources are very sparse on specific details. The Grey Box only has about half a page on Waterdeep and Neverwinter, and The Savage Frontier has a total length of 64 pages. But as I can’t emphasize enough, the density of inspiring material is fantastic. It’s another Jaquays classic.

Having picked up the old setting again and going through it with an eye on how the original presentation of the setting differs from what was presented later on, I quickly noticed that it’s actually a really different place. The introduction of the Grey Box, we are informed, by I assume Ed Greenwood himself, that the Forgotten Realms are a world similar to Europe in the 13th and 14th century. I fully understand if this means nothing to anyone who isn’t a serious medieval history nerd, but right out of the door, this is a big one. 13th and 14th century is a completely different reference frame from what we’re actually seeing in the 2nd edition material. This is the time of seventh and eighth crusades, the Mongol conquests, the beginning of the Hundred Years War, the founding of the Hanseatic League and the Teutonic Order, and the conquest of the pagan Balts an Prussians. In contrast to that, the 2nd edition setting is much more in the style of Shakespeare and the English Civil War without guns, which places the reference time frame into the 17th or even 18th century. I don’t know how well the writers of the Grey Box were familiar with medieval Europe or how good available material in public libraries would have been in the mid 80s, so there really is no way to tell how much weight should be given to that claim and how much of a shift there really was in the minds of the people working on the 2nd edition boxes. But as I said, my idea is to take these sources as literal and attempt to use the material as it is presented, not as it has later become commonly interpreted. This already changes my perception of the world noticeably.

The same introduction also tells us that the contemporary civilizations are fairly new, and most of the land of the Forgotten Realms has until recently been uninhabited wilderness. From the perspective of a 21st century armchair historian that sounds rather implausible, given that a 13th century level society doesn’t spontaneously crawl out of caves and tree hollows, but I am still willing to make the effort to interpret the intended purpose of that statement. Maybe we can assume that some already existing advanced cultures in some core regions of the Realms have spread their knowledge to various barbaric societies beyond their borders over the last couple of centuries, similar to how the Romans interacted with the various Iron Age societies of central Europe. But to the writers’ credit, it is stated specifically that civilization primarily consists of independent city states. And true kingdoms like Cormyr are actually rather rare. At the end of the day, it’s fantasy, and there is no long detailed timeline of historic events to further scrutinize. What matters at the end of the day is that we have a tech-level and local social structures resembling the 13th century, and that people live in city states scattered across a vast wilderness. And it really is vast. The Savage Frontier itself is the size of the American Northwest, British Columbia, and southern Alaska, which I also think are the intended reference for the geography and environment of the region.

In The Savage Frontier, some more details are given on the demihuman and humanoid race that inhabit the North. Like the setup in Gygax’ game rules and Greyhawk setting, it’s made quite clear that is a setting not just predominantly, but nearly exclusively inhabited by humans. I’ve always envisioned the North as a region where elves and dwarves still have one of their strongest presences, but the actual presence described here is extremely slow. Dwarves really only have one major city, the Citadel Adbar, which is on the very edge of the map, in the most remote corner possible that you could find. And in this case, “city” refers to 14,000 dwarves, which puts it behind such famous metropolitan center as Luskan and Mirabar. The only other significant dwarves settlement is the mining town Ironmaster near Icewind Dale, which hardcore fans might remember having seen on the maps, but probably never heard anything about either. Citadel Felbar is still the Keep of Many Arrows, and at this point Bruenor Battlehammer is still only planning to reclaim the abandoned ruins of Mithril Hall. For the elves it looks even bleaker. For all intends and purposes, the elves of the North are gone. Their only significant presence is a clan of “elderly” elves in Ardeep Forest outside of Waterdeep. The description of Silverymoon mentions that it’s such a magical city that you can even meet elves there, a statement that is even deserving an exclamation mark! Gnomes are mentioned once by stating that there aren’t any in the North. Halflings are, but not much more is said about them other than that they are rare because they don’t like the bad weather. A personal guesstimate by me about relative populations in the North would be 93% humans, 3% half-elves, 2% dwarves, 1% elves, and 1% halflings.

Considering again that the Forgotten Realms as a whole are described as a fairly desolate place were most places have been settled only recently, it really makes to call the North “the Savage Frontier”. This place is really remote and even more sparsely settled than most other regions. To me, this is just shouting “wilderness campaigns”. One thing, that I am sure is very deliberate, is that it seems that the majority of ruins that are listed and described, are clearly stated as being former elven or dwarven strongholds. The history of the North is quite vague, but it appears to establish that the disappearance of the majority of elves from the region took place over 6,000 years ago. The prime of the dwarven kingdom was 2,000 years ago. That means those ruins are all incredibly ancient, and with no elven society remaining in the region, their true histories would be completely unknown. They are not simply known old ruins that have dangerous tunnels beneath them. Most ruins in the region would probably be ancient stones of which nobody has any shred of knowledge what they once were. That paints a very different picture than I always had about the “famous” ruins of the Forgotten Realms. With the current human civilizations being quite new, it is very likely that many of these ruins have not been seen by anyone for thousands of years.

Regarding humanoids, orcs get a good number of mentions and are described as having a significant presence in the northern mountains. Goblins are mentioned, but no real details given about them, and gnolls, kobolds, and kuo-toa aren’t mentioned at all. There is a single mention of a mind flayer, but actually several on beholders. Not quite sure what to make of that. That could indicate that humanoid monsters other than orcs don’t have a meaningful presence in the region, but it is also quite likely that they simply don’t get mentions because they are assumed to be generic dungeon critters.