Reading this boxed set got me contemplating a strange (and strangely difficult) question: why not Forgotten Realms? So much of my time with these books, I've been incredibly bored, but there's nothing about the subject matter that I'd single out as especially boring.
Like, there's this section in Shadowdale that's just three pages of describing local farms. There's not a single plothook among them, a typical example being:
Elma Bestil's FarmAnd that seems like a good candidate for a boring part of the book, because there are sixteen more of these entries, all similarly inconsequential. But they didn't bother me. If anything, they made me wish for more and pettier local gossip. It's a small town, and if you tell me who's fucking who (both literally and metaphorically), I'll go ahead and make that the basis of my campaign.
Borst Bestil, Elma's husband, died in the Second Battle of Shadowdale, leaving her alone in the world. Refusing the offer of her brother-in-law Hyne to move in with her, she manages the farm on her own. Self-reliant and capable, she has made the farm much more profitable than Borst ever did on his own. She is helped by three full-time hired hands - Moran, Guentar, and Breegar - but also hires on additional women and men for the harvest.
And the sidebar where you explain the state of Faerun's grain milling technology, the common pricing for milling services, and the fact that, ever since Shadowdale's old miller was revealed to be a spy for an international criminal syndicate, the local Lord has been saddled with keeping the mill running while trying to find a replacement (something the farmers are not eager to have happen, because the old miller had a monopoly, ever since that hipster Elminster moved into the old windmill), and that's just . . . perfection. Tell me more of the marginal economic livelihood of small-holding farmers and the politics of their supply chains. Absolutely nothing you've got going on in the dungeon is going to be more interesting than that. . .
But, of course, with that kind of attitude, how on Earth can I complain about descriptions of gods and monsters, heroes and adventurers, and the deadly trials that confront them? You want to tell me of the mysterious cult of sorcerers who worship dragons and use obscene rituals to bring them back from the dead with the fell powers of the underworld in order to effect a conquest of all the nations of Faerun . . . yawn, let's get back to talking about whether the proper rate for grain milling is twelve-and-a-half or fourteen-and-a-quarter percent. Let's not kid ourselves here.
I have to at least entertain the idea that I'm the problem. I'm in the last stages of a move that's been going on for a month now, and it's entirely possible that I've been nodding off mid-sentence for entirely unrelated reasons and am merely confabulating the "boringness" of Forgotten Realms to explain it.
On the other hand, I'm not the one who decided to publish a timeline of my game setting and have half the entries be some variant of "1199 The Year of the Baldric."
I think the key insight comes from the Introduction by Ed Greenwood - The Forgotten Realms setting got its start in 1967, a decade before the release of Dungeons and Dragons. It was turned into a D&D campaign setting even before campaign settings were solidified as a concept. So much of what's going on in these books seems . . . obvious, and the reason for that is because this is literally one of the first things people thought to do with the D&D rules.
AD&D 2nd edition was my first roleplaying game. It's also the edition that made Forgotten Realms into its default setting. In a way, I've been mixed up with the Realms for as long as I've been gaming. Though another way of looking at it is that Forgotten Realms is the first setting I ran away from. It was my dissatisfaction with this particular brand of fantasy that drove me to Dark Sun, and eventually The World of Darkness and beyond.
These books have a lot to recommend them. The adventure that makes up the last half of Shadowdale is about a Drow conspiracy to kidnap dwarfs and magically transform them into rampaging monsters, and there's a moment near the end that forces you to directly confront the truth about where these treasure hordes are coming from (basically, you have a bunch of captive dwarfs you recently freed and a big pile of coins and equipment collected by their captors, and if you hit all the right adventure milestones, the connection between the two is 100% obvious). It's a solid story, but . . .
. . . It takes itself for granted. Does that make sense? Like, if I'm trying to pitch you a plot that consists of a sinister cabal that kidnaps people, takes them to an underground laboratory, and forces them to undergo a horrifying transformation, then that's a pretty strong start. As far as villain plans go, it's got a lot of potential. If I were to flesh it out, I could go a lot of different ways with it - the body horror that comes with being remade by magic; the personal horror of committing terrible deeds at another's command; the arrogance of a villain who completely objectifies and degrades his victims; the economic, political, and cultural motives that could drive such an atrocity. There's a lot to work with.
What you probably wouldn't do is bury it all in a big hole and then have the main characters just stumble onto it five minutes before it's resolved. That's only slightly an exaggeration. The adventure has 10 parts, including an introduction and an epilogue, and you first encounter the main plot in part 9. You find the dwarfs in encounter 9B and you first meet and then beat the perpetrator in encounter 9E. The whole story happens in the space of 4 encounters. That's not enough time.
What's going on is that you're exploring a dungeon, because you're adventurers and that's what you do, and as a nice little bonus, right before you're ready to leave you learn that the dungeon had a reason to exist.
I suspect that it's a side effect of Forgotten Realms being one of the first on the scene. It never feels the need to stake out a niche, it just kind of assumes that it's enough to simply show up. Why should we play in the Forgotten Realms? What do you mean? It's a fantasy setting where you can explore dungeons and fight dragons? What more of an inducement are you looking for?
I also think the fact that this is the second edition might have something to do with it. This is not a campaign setting that wastes a lot of time angsting over whether people are going to care about a fantasy world with magic and monsters and heroes. And since it has the impeccable pedigree, it also doesn't worry about whether people are going to care about yet another fantasy world with magic and monsters and heroes. It's the most perfectly self-assured game setting I've ever read. It's up to all those other fantasy worlds to justify their existence, given the fact that Forgotten Realms already exists.
I don't know. Maybe I should just respect that. Maybe it's weird that I'm just reading this book for the first time after being in the hobby for 20 years. Maybe the reason it's the most popular setting in all of roleplaying is because being "the world where Dungeons and Dragons happens" is enough for most people. Not everyone is so jaded that "a magical land of ethereal elves and doughty dwarves and mysterious mages against the backdrop of a vaguely medieval-European culture" is somehow insufficient.
I guess my conclusion is that this is bedrock D&D, and as a resource for playing bedrock D&D, it gives you a lot to work with. The main selling point of the Realms is that they are big and detailed, and this is a boxed set that feels big and detailed. It's not going to expand your ideas about what the fantasy genre can accomplish, but you're also in no danger of stumbling across a rogue idea that "doesn't feel like traditional fantasy." I can't say that I'm personally thrilled by a setting that plays it so safe, but maybe "thrilling to the guy who reads 100 rpg books a year" isn't a universal selling point.
Ukss Contribution: It's all about the local mills, baby. The water-driven mill in Shadowdale is powered by a stream called "The Duck Race." Adorable as hell.