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.

Visualizing populations

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

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

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

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

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 collection 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 just 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 and 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.

Forest of High Adventure sandbox campaign

The Forgotten Realms were my first campaign setting back when I first got into RPGs and while I eventually got put off by its kitchen sink approach I still have some fondness for The North. The North is maybe 5% of the area of Faerûn but can stand as a complete setting on its own. The Sword Coast has become the default region for Forgotten Realms material and I believe the de facto officially supported region in 5th Edition for good reasons. While I don’t have a strong yearning to revisit this setting, I am still very fond of the High Forest in particular. I really got into RPGs when I played on a Neverwinter Nights server set on the eastern edge of the High Forest and eventually became one of the GMs and senior level designers. And my first steps into worldbuilding began with an attempt to take the hinted at past of this region and expand it into a proper playable setting. Eventually I dropped the connection to the Forgotten Realms entirely and now over a decade later it led to the Ancient Lands in its current state. But I always was a bit disappointed that I never got to run a campaign that goes really deep inside the forest and has the players explore its ancient mysteries.

I had planned to start a new Ancient Lands campaign next winter, but by now “next winter” has become “this winter” and its going to be delayed until next spring. And with still a good amount of time ahead, I still have not entirely commited to what I am going to run. Earlier this week I read a great recent post by the Angry GM about making wilderness travel more fun. And though I had last planned to do something simple and episodic, it put the sandbox bug back into my ear. I had written about a workable travel system for pointcrawling in the wilderness a while back which is quite similar, but as usual Angry made a great improvement over it by making it work without prepared precise maps. A pointmap was to be a compromise over a hexmap, but being able to track travel times and random encounters without a highly detailed map is even better. And unlike with a pointmap it’s really easy to handle a party getting lost.

In previous attempts to make a sandbox I found it very efficient to simply grab a bunch of old modules that fit the theme and put them all together on a map. One that came to mind was Hellgate Keep, which is set on the edge of the High Forest. And that got me the idea to use the whole High Forest chapter from The Savage Frontier as the base for my sandbox. It’s the original inspiration for my Ancient Lands setting and as such pretty much everything from it fits perfectly into it. While the North in later publications is a nice place, I think the original version from The Savage Frontier is by far the coolest. It’s classic 80s Jaquays goodness that still has a nice lingering Judges Guild smell. I am not exactly sure why, but the next time the region was described all the best places where destroyed and the most interesting characters dead. And a lot of it is great sandbox material:

    • Hellgate Keep: An old elven fortress city overrun by demons and their half-demon and undead minions. It’s not just a dungeon but a city, and one way too powerful to assault head on. Not really suited for a dungeon crawl but in a sandbox it can get a lot more interesting to visit.
    • Nameless Dungeon: This ruin of an underground stronghold has been closed off and put under heavy guard by elves after adventurers found some magic weapons and armor there. Later books provided an explanation for this odd behavior by making it the long forgotten prison of elven sorcerers who had consorted with demons to usurp the throne of an ancient realm. And now they are waking up and some have already escaped into the forest. I really quite like this one.
    • Blue Bear Tribe: This barbarian tribe has fallen under the control of their evil shaman who is a disguised hag in league with the demons of Hellgate Keep. They were banished from their ancestral shrine by its spirits for their evil ways and are unable to find it again.
    • Tree Ghost Tribe and Grandfather Tree: Some of the Blue Bear tribesmen have split of from their kin and renounced their evil ways. They hope to become worthy again in the eyes of the spirits and rediscover the location of the giant magical tree that they worship.
    • Star Mounts, Endless Caverns, and Stronghold of the Nine: The Star Mounts are a mountain range of incredible hight and somewhere below them are the Endless Caverns that lead into the Underdark and hold the bones of a huge dragon whose treasures have never been found. Not far away is the Stronghold of the Nine, the base of a group of famous heroe who have been turned mad by an evil artifact they discovered and begun to turn the castle into a battlefield fighting each other.
    • Citadel of the Mist: A magic castle that is home to a powerful sorcerer who is one of the main opponents of Hellgate Keep and ally of the treants that live in the nearby forests.
    • Lost Peaks: Mountains that are said to hold the Fountains of Memory that show visions of the past.
    • Dire Woods: A strange part of the forest that is much larger on the inside than the outside and somewhere near its center lies the ancient city Karse, which holds the giant undead heart of a demigod sorcerer.
    • Ruins of Decanter: An old mine that is crawling with monsters created by sorcerers of old and left to their own devices, but recently an illithid known as the Beast Lord is bringing them under his control.

There are also some other places in the Savage Frontier that can easily be transported into the High Forest and fit very well into it.

  • Cave of the Great Worm: This huge cave is home to a tribe of barbarians who are led by an ancient benevolent giant reptile. Would fit well into the Star Mounts.
  • Gauntlgrym: An ancient dwarven city that was famous for its wealth but was lost for unknown reasons. It supposedly can be reached from the Cave of the Great Worm and would be well placed under the Star Mounts so it can be reached through the Endless Caverns as well. I say its mysterious fate is something inspired by the Dead Trenches from Dragon Age and Dead Space!
  • Lonely Tower: A tall tower with no visible doors and windows standing in a huge circular clearing in which no plants grow. It’s the home of a alchemist sorcerer from another world.

That’s a lot of great sandbox material, but to make my work easier I also want to add some classic modules that make for great additions.

  • Against the Cult of the Reptile God: I’ll make it Against the Cult of the Succubus Princess and it should provide a great introduction for the demonic forces of Hellgate Keep.
  • Hellgate Keep: This module describes the keep after its destruction but provides a lot of information on how it looked and what was going on when it was still there. It includes the half-demons Kaanyr Vhok, Aliisza, and Sarya Dlardrageth, who all could be interesting NPCs.
  • The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun: I love this thing. I’ve wanted to run this for a long time and always felt that it would work best if the players have no idea what kind of crazy awaits them beyond the empty gate of this black ziggurat. It’s perfect as a random location that is spotted in the distance as the party is travelling through the wilderness on their way to somewhere.
  • Rahasia: This one lends itself very well to be adapted to tie in with the Nameless Dungeon. Instead of a chaotic priest randomly finding the spirits of three elven witches in a temple, it can be one escaped half-demon from the Nameless Dungeon trying to resurrect his daughters who were killed in the uprising and whose spirits he stored in the basement of his mansion before he was captured and imprisoned. Or he’s a loyal minion who is resurrecting his mistresses who had a somewhat flawed plan to avoid falling into the hands of the attacking elves.
  • Escape from Meenlock Prison: I had so much fun the first time I ran it and meenlocks make for great creepy fey monsters.
  • Sons of Gruumsh: A straightforward but interestingly build dungeon that is occupied by three warlords believed to be blessed by their god. Would make great opponents for the tanarruk of Hellgate Keep.

Additional ideas include making Gauntlgrym inhabited by derro who are descendants of the original inhabitants and making the local orc tribes enemies of Hellgate Keep who want to take revenge for their people being taken to create the demonic tanarruk. Good factions are the key to a great sandbox and there are already a good dozen of them with none of them necessarily attacking the party on sight but all of them having lots of enemies and potential allies.

So much material and I’ve not really lifted a finger yet. This is about four hours of thinking what existing material I can use to make my own sandbox. I am still going to make this an Ancient Lands campaign, but I think most changes will be primarily cosmetic. There are different gods and races aren’t exactly the same, but overall I think it will be still very recognizably the High Forest.