|"TSR Jam" by Todd Lockwood|
This was intended to be the meat and potatoes of this blog ... if I ever pick my brain off the floor and gather any momentum in writing half the things I want to.
I've dabble in a bunch of gameworlds over the years from Dark Sun to Ravenloft to Planescape to Eberron to a veritable library of settings during the d20 boom to Golarion and beyond.
As in previous posts, there's a short answer to the question: The Forgotten Realms.
Why the Forgotten Realms? Some people hate the Realms (and I mean red hot, teeth-gnashing, it killed their mothers, violated their fathers, shoved a puppy up their kitten's rear, while yammering too loudly on a phone in a foreign language and breathing second-hand smoke into an orphanage kind of hate). It (merely) doesn't work for others, some find it okay and nothing special. Some, like myself, love it despite its noted shortcomings and recent upheavals.
Then what about the Forgotten Realms makes it my favorite setting? Let's gloss over the novels and related characters and the preponderance on big Realms Shaking Events (RSEs, even the authors and design team has adopted the term, it's that prevalent). Let's take it as a setting presented in most of its gaming sourcebooks and in its articles (often by its creator).
To me it feels like home or a place I wouldn't mind living in, therefore a place I see my character living in and a place worth fighting for. Other settings often try too hard to establish these goodly places, makes them boring or too mushy. Others do this then slathers on layers of corruption and intrigue to the point where the good guys are worse than the bad guys. Others don't bother at all and revel in their supposed grim-dark. FR gets the balance right, nice places are threatened (both from without and within, don't mistake lack of extremes for lack of complexity), but there's a chance to make a difference.
I've heard the setting described as a typical Tolkienesque setting at its core that expands into a rather Howardesque or more accurately Leiberesque periphery and these areas get even more dangerous, exotic, and weird. I find that's pretty accurate. The world is not without its horrors, of both mortal/human and immortal/inhuman varieties. There is never a lack of things or people who will make your day a terrible day. There are plenty of troubles large and small, it's a setting that lives because there is no single monolithic trend but lots of factions, peoples, religions, cultists, individuals out for themselves.
It has a suitable juxtaposition of safe and unsafe that established a natural 'points of light' setting, which the 4E version missed entirely and scrapped in favor of its own take on the setup. It's also not just this binary black and white world as so often explained in summary. I once read a brief blurb by Ed Greenwood on the fate of one Halruaan wizard and I came away realizing the setting at times has a cold gray callousness that few settings can manage to capture even on their best examples.
It's not just a place, it's a set of characters (not just the Chosen or the pantheon either). In a couple of paragraphs, Ed showed humans not thinking or acting like humans we know would act in this modern day and age, but they sure as heck sound like what humans would act like given the same circumstances. The Realms became real in that instance and there are many instances like it throughout Realmslore. Ignore the marketing (the events and some of the novels), there's a sharp gem of a setting past the facade.
Forget other settings espousing their ambiguous pulpiness, their harsh pseudo-medieval grittiness, their cool fantasy punkiness, their hard-rated adult maturity, or whatever zeitgeist they've latched onto. The Realms doesn't say what it's about, the Realms shows it. The setting is pure sword and sorcery goodness albeit its own take on the genre.