Oh, God, I hope there's not going to be a test after this. It's so dense. I've got 15 pages of notes for 128 pages of book, probably my biggest ratio yet. And even with all that, I'm certain that I've already forgotten like 75% of it.
Okay, quick pop quiz - how many of the 15 -dales from the Dalelands can I remember without looking at my notes:
Daggerdale/Merrydale - I remember that one because it was really on the nose. The dark wizards started moving in and they changed the name.
Shadowdale - This one's a freebie, the second book in the boxed set is all about it.
Deepdale - Shit. I'm three in and already guessing.
S-dale - Aw, I liked this one. It tried to take over the other -dales, but nearby kingdoms intervened and helped the -dales unite against it, causing it to lose its place on the Council of Dales. But I can't, for the life of me, remember the name. It started with an "S," though. Stressedale? Sassedale? I got nothing.
Anchordale - another politically interesting one. A -dale with a big ol' army, but they only genocided one of the other -dales a generation ago - now, they're not interested in conquest anymore.
And, um . . . that's it. That's all I can remember from the first chapter of this book.
So let's go back to the list and see how I did. . . I got 2! Out of 15. "Deepdale" should have been "Deepingdale." "S-dale" did, indeed, start with S, but neither of my guesses was close. It's actually Scardale. Turns out I was mixing it up with Sessrendale (the one that got destroyed by Archendale - not Anchordale - and maybe they deserved it because the pretext for the invasion was dark magic of the sort that definitely exists in the Realms, but maybe didn't actually exist in that particular -dale).
There's part of me that wants to blame this book for me not remembering it better, but truthfully, I'm just getting old. I didn't even remember the part about elves riding giant butterflies until I consulted my notes. I mean, can you imagine, having that kind of imagery just completely slip your mind? Then again, I have been sleeping on an air mattress the last few days and that has taken a toll on my baseline energy level . . .
Except, I remembered the other elves. The ones who rode giant eagles. I remember thinking, "oh, you're taking something from Tolkien and using it in an extremely superficial way."
I'll admit, there may be some confirmation bias at work here. This is actually the first Forgotten Realms book I've read cover to cover. In years past, I'd do little more than raid the supplements for unusual feats, spells, or prestige classes. I'd do this mainly because I'd somehow gotten the impression that the Realms were, in fact, a superficial Tolkien ripoff, or, at best, the most straightforward possible interpretation of the D&D implied setting, but loaded down with a ton of interchangeable proper nouns.
And look, there's some of that at work here, no doubt, but I have no idea where young me got these prejudices, because mostly what Forgotten Realms has been so far is an exercise in worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding.
The key revelation came after I finished reading the chapter about The Vast. See, The Vast interested me because it could very nearly (but not really) be read as a critique of the way D&D treats its humanoid species. See, the area known as "the Vast" is actually quite modest in size, because the name doesn't derive from the English word "vast," but rather from "Vastar," the ancient kingdom of the orcs. Centuries ago, Vastar was conquered by the dwarves who subsequently imported human settlers to fight a never-ending orcish insurgency. Eventually, the dwarves themselves were forced to retreat, but the humans remained behind to continue the war and "the orcs today are contained, if not conquered."
This chapter was not ironic in any way. When it said "the good guys (meaning the merchants, adventurers, and civilized peoples) seem to triumph more often than not" it was not being sarcastic. They were writing from a perspective where they could just say "orcs bad" and nobody would question it. Except that I started questioning it. "Goblinoids" had so far been completely dull, but this was potentially interesting. Unrealized potential, but potential nonetheless. So I thought, "hey, there are three more editions of this, maybe I'll peak ahead and see if later writers improved this."
As far as I can tell, they didn't. But in the course of searching the internet, I found the original Forgotten Realms map, the one that was hand-drawn and taped together. That was the most interesting part of the boxed set so far, but beyond my backhanded sniping, it also provided the main clue as to Forgotten Realms is all about - this is a book that is all about filling in that map. There are 15 -dales, each with its own half-page entry, not because someone had 15 really good ideas for unique fantasy locations, but because there were 15 dales on the map. You have a checklist and you work your way down it, checking off names with the best idea you have at the time. Sometimes that means your elves ride butterflies and sometimes it means they ride eagles.
The clearest example of this is the country of Sembia. Its "Locations of Interest" section began with a couple of the most remarkable rpg paragraphs I've ever read:
The original concept of Sembia was an open territory that DMs could play with to their heart's content, setting down their own designed cities as Ordulin and Selgaunt, untroubled by changes in the outer Realms brought on from TSR novels and game products. The requirements of growing campaign world (particularly the Tuigan invasion) showed us that we had to give some level of detail to the area. While those who had not developed Sembia were not offended, those who had placed their own cities there were outraged, and I [Jeff Grubb] received a number of angry comments and amazing letters (my favorite was the adventuring group that took over Sembia and attempted to build the "Great Sembian Peace Wall").Long quote, but I simply could not single out an excerpt. I mean, I'm kind of mortified that Jeff Grubb had to deal with those entitled nerds, but to be fair, TSR did say that they would not do the thing, and then they went ahead and did the thing. But the main reason this passage stood out to me is that it's rare for a book to be so upfront about the politics of the design process. It's also rare for something like this to even come up. In my experience, if a game wants to leave a portion of the world open for GMs to build, they just leave a blank space on the map. But in Forgotten Realms, the map doesn't have any blank spaces.
With the redesign of this boxed set, those elements which have been added have been summarized here. Those areas we have not gone into, in particular the smaller cities of Surd, Tulbegh, Mulhessen, Kulta, Huddagh, and Saerb are left open for DMs to develop (or not develop) at their leisure, with only the briefest mention here. And while (being now older and wiser) this designer cannot promise that no TSR designer, editor, author, or other worthy will not attempt to further develop Sembia, we will try to keep such interloping to a minimum. Sigh.
It's a meticulous, industrious style of wordbuilding and I admire the hell out of it. It's also terribly inconsistent. There are a lot of inspired ideas. I've got 15 pages of notes, and there are probably at least two interesting fantasy concept on every page. But there's also a lot of filler. I think if you want to see it in the best possible light, you've got to think of the Realms as a setting where you're never more than a day or two away from some kind of Dungeons and Dragons bullshit. They even make the same silly "this location is remarkable because it doesn't feature any ancient dungeons or fantasy creatures" joke on two separate occasions.
Oh, and I haven't even talked about the non-Faerun parts of the map. They get almost no detail here in this book, but that doesn't mean that they aren't embarrassing. I don't ever really want to go into it. There are three other continents on Toril and they are quite transparently East Asia (Kara-Tur), Central America (Maztica), and Arabia (Zakhara) and are described in the most on-the-nose stereotypical terms imaginable. They are "mystical," "savage," and "alien." You've even got talk about trade with Maztica exposing Faerun to never-before-seen vegetables.
The most ridiculous part of this all is that Faerun already had an Arabia-analogue, the Empires of Sands. The book reassures us that even though the cultures seem similar, there is an important difference. The Empires are "part of the 'normal' Realms" - emphasis original - and are "exotic, but not exotic enough to hurt."
Holy shit, that's a rough line to read.
I've still got two books in this boxed set left to go, so I'm going to hold off on a final judgement. As a standalone book A Grand Tour of the Realms is like sitting down to a fully-laden banquet where the chef only had time to cook half the food so you pretty much just have to grab a fork and take your chances.