The Savage Frontier – Hexmap of the North

Probably my most commented post on this site has been the hexmap of the Savage Frontier that I made nine years ago. I’ve always been very happy with it, but with a recent interest of starting a new campaign in the region, I’ve been thinking that I could do a lot better now. And here it is.

180 x 100 hexes
5220 x 3200 pixels

The map is directly based on the map from the 1st edition sourcebook FR6: The Savage Frontier, with some additional markers from the 2nd edition The North box. This map uses a 6-mile hex grid over the original AD&D maps. 3rd and 4th edition Forgotten Realms uses considerably altered maps, so distances won’t match exactly with any of those sources. 5th edition maps of the Sword Coast seem to have returned to the original AD&D map shapes but slightly scaled down. Treating the hexes as 5 miles across should get very close to matching the distances of 5th edition sources.

This map comes in three versions. The GM map, which includes all the map markers and labels; the player version, which includes only those places that would be commonly shown on maps the PCs would have access to; and a blank map without any markers or text.

The Savage Frontier – GM Map

The Savage Frontier – Player Map

The Savage Frontier – blank map

The idea behind the three versions is that GMs can easily make their own custom maps showing the area relevant to their campaign or adventure and only include the places that the PCs in their campaign would know about. To make your own custom version, simply open the GM map and the blank map in GIMP, Photoshop, or a similar image editing program, with the blank map covering up the GM map below. Then make the blank map on top partly transparent and simply use the select tool and delete key to make holes through which the labels and text you want are visible. Then set the opacity back to 100% and export the map as a new file. You can then crop the new map file to only the area that you need to make it easier to handle or print out, or do whatever you want with it. Or you can take the blank map and draw whatever icons and text that you want. I would share the original .xcf file, but it’s over 200 MB in size, which is rather impractical.

Use the way in whatever way you like. All I ask for is a link to this page with the original files if you post or upload it somewhere else.

Ay, where all the Secret Societies at?

Just wrote this to revive an old discussion on Enworld and thought it actually fits really well to post here:

I’ve been thinking about possible new Forgotten Realms campaigns several times this year. And while I often get quite excited about seeing adventures in many of these interesting places and with these interesting organizations, I’ve typically run very quickly into the same problem that I can’t really think of anything interesting for the players to do.

Say you have a group of PCs arrive in Daggerford or step of the boat in Telflamm, what’s next? Going into some nearby dungeons to get their footing is of course always an option. The very first Forgotten Realms adventure Under Illefarn does exactly that. Classic Dungeon Crawling to hunt for treasure works as a campaign, but when you look at a world like Forgotten Realms with these huge fancy maps and all the colorful cities on it, I think that would feel underwhelming and like not making proper use of the setting.

Another option that became very popular especially during the 90s is the now also classic approach of “Local mayor/sage/priest calls for heroes to fight a dangerous evil and sends the PCs to an increasingly dangerous series of dungeons until they get to the main villain’s lair”. Again, this works. And I think 20 years ago, that would have been absolutely perfect for me as either a GM or a player.

But now I find such campaigns insufficient and unsatisfying. A campaign should be about the PCs dealing with the consequences of their successes and failures, giving meaning to their wise decisions and wrong calls. Taking the players by the hand to get them introduced to the starting area is not a bad thing, and often actually much better than dropping them off in a tavern to fend for themselves. But very soon, the players should be able to decide on their own what things they want to pursue, which NPCs to pursue for closer cooperation, and which NPCs’ activities they want to interfere with. And it seems to me that of all the available material that exists for the setting, there is very little that is directly useful in this regard.

Thinking about this again today, I was having the thought that perhaps the issue here lies in the fact that pretty much all the organizations and factions that would gladly do harm to the good people of civilization happen to be secret societies with fairly nebulous goals. The vast majority of threats are conspiracies, and the whole point of conspiring is to not only keep the plan secret from outsiders, but to also hide the fact that there is any kind of plan in the works to begin with.

To be aware that something shifty is going on, you already have to be in the game. And the generic aspiring adventurers who just stepped off the proverbial boat happen to be completely oblivious to the local power structures and unspoken rules, and have no connections who trust them with sensitive information. I think that’s exactly the issue that has made the Forgotten Realms such a difficult beast to tackle since I started looking for more than Elminster Fetch Quests and Kill The Orcs Because They Are Orcs. There is a mismatch of what the PCs are supposed to be and what is the most interesting feature of the setting. Which isn’t unique to Forgotten Realms, of course. The exact same thing has always been plaguing Vampire: The Masquerade, and it is quite similar to why Planescape is way more fun to read than creating adventures for it.

There is an opinion that has thankfully become a lot more common in campaign setting creation circles in recent years that a good campaign setting begins with identifying the kind of adventures that are going to take place in actual campaigns that are being played. Once you have figured out what the PCs will be doing you can define what PCs in this world will be. And then you can develop all the content regarding factions, cultures, history, and so on tailored to be in support of that play style. I don’t want to give Forgotten Realms too much crap on this as a big failure in worldbuilding. The setting was officially released as a D&D setting in 1987, just three years after Dragonlance had completely rewritten the entire paradigm for what a great D&D campaign is meant to be. Go to dungeons and kill villains while every step is directed to you by a powerful NPC who explains what’s going on probably was just what people wanted to see.

As was the style at the time.

Unforgotten Realms

Over the last couple of years, I’ve come around to the opinion that Forgotten Realms was actually a good setting. Back in 1st edition. Things clearly took a wrong turn with 2nd edition when it went all ultra-twee, and the setting got brutally mangled in the general D&D design overhaul of 3.5e. And then it got all blown to gory chunks in 4th edition and only continues to exist as the background for big adventure books without ever having gotten a new update through setting books.

Now, obviously, there is absolutely nothing at all to indicate that the next edition of D&D will somehow include a revision of the Forgotten Realms that salvages what was originally great about it.

But if I were to make the decisions for future Forgotten Realms sourcebooks…

This is what I think should be done:

Since generic default D&D has pretty much been Forgotten Realms for the last 35 years, there really isn’t any need to have a player book that covers the setting specific races, classes, and magic types of the setting. Just use the PHB content as is. Setting specific material should be covered in three regional books: “Sword Coast”, “Heartlands”, and “Unapproachable East”.  I think this would cover everything that 98% of all Forgotten Realms fans would care for. I am not saying that nobody has ever played a campaign set in Tethyr or Mulhorand, and in some four decades it surely must have happened once or twice. And while I would actually predict a big outcry that there need to be two or three more books to cover the rest of Faerûn and that those books might even sell somewhat, I would think that barely anyone would ever actually use them to run campaigns. Just have a page in the Sword Coast book dedicated to “Lands of the South” with information on how to make and run NPC merchants from Amn or Calimshan that are visiting ports in Baldur’s Gate or Waterdeep.

I personally think the three books should also describe the regions as they were before the Times of Troubles, but I have no clue how I would try to pitch that to the bosses to get an okay for it. It absolutely would hurt sales. But it really should not be set any later than the point described in the 3rd edition FRCS. The metaplot just got really dumb after that.

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 eying 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, Thay, 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, but 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.