Friday, October 03, 2008

The Forgotten Realms in 4th Edition

Every change to a new edition of an RPG generates a lot of controversy in the fan community. Perhaps the most controversial changes to come with 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons have been the changes to the Forgotten Realms.

While I sympathize with fans who feel the changes were too much, I not only disagree with them, but I think that the changes didn't go far enough.

The Forgotten Realms were created for 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and have always had a 1st Edition mindset. They were created using the 1st Edition rules as a foundation and asking the question "if these rules were the laws of reality, what would the world look like." When they made the change to 2nd Edition AD&D they put the realms through a series of cataclysmic changes in order to explain the changes made in the rules, because they recognized that the rules defined the setting for the Forgotten Realms.

Now, with 4th Edition, they decided to do something similar. If it took a cataclysm to make the relatively minor change from 1st to 2nd, it was going to take something even greater to make the change from 3rd to 4th seeing as how the changes to the rules were so much greater. That's why we get a world where entire continents have been replaced, civilizations have fallen and risen, and the timeline has been advanced 100 years.

The problem is that they didn't go far enough. The 4th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide lists nine assumptions about the world. One of those assumptions is that "Adventurers Are Exceptional." That has never been true in the Forgotten Realms. Adventurers in the Realms are so common place that countries like Cormyr have laws and regulations specifically to deal with them, and sometimes construct national policy based on the presence of adventurers and what they are likely to do. This was true before, and it's still true even after the 4th Edition updates.

The Forgotten Realms does meet the other eight assumptions, and the DMG talks about altering core assumptions, but to allow the first fully supported setting in the new edition to break what is arguably the most important of the core world assumptions was a mistake.

The "Adventurers Are Exceptional" assumption is what most sets 4th Edition apart from its earlier incarnations. Playing in the Forgotten Realms of previous editions, players didn't usually feel that their actions made much of an impression on the big picture. There was always someone more powerful just around the corner. This meant that either the players never dealt with significant threats, or else there had to be a reason why Elminster, or one of hundreds of other powerful adventurers, wasn't already dealing with it.

While 4th edition has done away with a large number of the more powerful NPCs, and reduced the power of some of those that remain, it still retains the idea that adventurers are everywhere, and therefore not really that exceptional.

I think they had their reasons for doing this. The first is that they probably agree that the "Adventurers Are Exceptional" assumption is the biggest change from previous editions, and by putting out the Forgotten Realms without that assumption they hoped to provide a setting that was a little more familiar to those coming from previous editions. The second reason is that the Forgotten Realms are the setting for the first "living" campaign for 4th Edition put on by the RPGA. The living campaigns, by necessity, assume that adventurers are relatively common. They have to in order to accept that hundreds, or even thousands, of players across the US and the world are all playing characters in the same shared campaign.

Still, I would rather have seen a setting that more fully encompassed the core setting assumptions at the heart of 4th Edition, and I fear that by not doing so the design teams could lose sight of some of those assumptions. That would be a real shame.

1 comment:

featurecreep said...

The living campaign reminds me a bit of the Infiniverse back in Torg days. Except, you know, in a game that people outside our old gaming group have heard of.

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