Saturday, February 10, 2024

D&D is Not the Forgotten Realms


I recently watched the D&D movie, despite having sworn never to see it.  And it's actually a pretty decent movie.  It's got some good laughs and an interesting story.  It entertained me, and so fulfilled its only purpose.

from the original 1980s D&D cartoon
If you knew nothing about D&D, you might still know it's a game that nerds play on a table with pens, paper, dice, tiny statues, and tons and tons of rulebooks.  So you might wonder how a game with pens, paper, dice, statues, and rulebooks could be turned into a movie.  And if you think about it, you might come up with a few obvious ways to do this.

The most obvious is a fantasy-themed Jumanji.  Some kids start playing D&D and get sucked into their own game world and have to battle skeletons and dragons with swords and spells.  There was an early 1980s Saturday morning cartoon based on that premise.  But that isn't what the movie is about.

Another might be something like a dice-rolling Scott Pilgrim, where the characters are governed by the rules of the game world.  They roll dice when they attempt feats, either literally rolling one or the screen displaying a die above each character's head.  When they swing a sword, damage and HP meters show up, then experience points tick up.  There are several popular web comics built on this premise.  But that also isn't what the movie is about.

It's obvious how to make a movie about a videogame like Halo, which has a single-player mode that is effectively an interactive story.  Just make a movie about that story.  But D&D doesn't have a single-player mode.  By default and design, the story is controlled by the players and created as they play.  There is no single story known by all the fans, but thousands of stories only known at individual tables.  So what story can you make a movie about, that will make this distinguishable from a generic fantasy film?  (Remember: you didn't pay that money for the licensing rights to make a generic fantasy)

Closely associated with D&D (both the hobby and brand) is a fictional world called The Forgotten Realms.  This was a campaign setting created by a man named Ed Greenwood and originally published serially as in-world excerpts from the writings of a wizard named Elminster published in Dragon magazine.  This campaign setting became popular, in large part because it was very developed and offered for free.  Any DM could use details from the Forgotten Realms to fill in details of his own world.  Also in large part, the setting expanded on the details of the rules, making cosmic sense of things like the nine-point alignment system or cleric's raise dead spells.

At a certain point, Ed Greenwood sold the rights for Forgotten Realms to TSR for $5000, plus the promise that the rights return to him if they ever stop publishing works set in the world.  It was in effect the dad helping his son pack off for college.  The world he invented had grown, and he wanted to see his world became as great as it could be.  You can hear more of the story at this interview of Ed Greenwood by D&D historian Ben Riggs.

Ever since the rights transferred to TSR, Forgotten Realms became the default campaign setting of D&D.  The other original IP pertaining to D&D was mixed and merged into Forgotten Realms.  The rules will assume Forgotten Realms, and mention people, places, or objects of the Forgotten Realms as examples.  The explanations of cleric abilities in the rulebooks will refer to deities from the Forgotten Realms.  It is always assumed you are playing in the Forgotten Realms, unless you explicitly state otherwise.

The Forgotten Realms gave more than a default setting, it gave cultural touch points for players across groups to talk about.  And for TSR to merchandize.  The Hand of Vecna.  Dri'izt.  Neverwinter.  The Underdark.  Beholders.

This is essentially what the movie is "about."  It's a generic fantasy story, the kind that might have been someone's actual campaign idea, but it is set within the world of Forgotten Realms and mixes in D&D IP.  It is distinguished from a generic fantasy story because the movie gets to call the city Neverwinter, the paladins Harpers, the dragon Themberchaud, the brain monsters Intellect Devourers, and the creepy necromancers Red Wizards of Thay.  Those are all words meaning nothing to a normie, but at once recognizable to someone who has been playing for a while.

Ed Greenwood wanted to see his world grow, and he got to see it rendered in a billion-dollar movie.

What Ed Greenwood did is fantastic.  He thought out a world for his game, he reasoned through things like how the world would influence his game rules, he fleshed out details of a hundred interesting locations for adventures, and gave it all away for the hobby to enjoy.

I love what he did.  That said... I don't really like the Forgotten Realms.  No disrespect to him or his campaign intended.

I got into D&D from oldschool books my dad had purchased in the early 80s, which all predate the purchase of Forgotten Realms.  The implied settings in the early books are Blackmoor and Greyhawk (originally regions on a fantasy wargame map), or else literally the worlds of stories, such as Hyperborea, Lankhmar, Pelucidar, or just King Arthur's Britain.  The worlds I envisioned for the game were always so much less concrete, and less civilized, than the Forgotten Realms.  The notion of every town having a wizard, every cleric capable of miraculous healing, elves living next to hobbits and dwarves in the same village, and a friendly magic weapon store at every corner, just doesn't appeal to me.

Much of that may be from the later commodification of the world for profit, in particular churning out novelizations set in the world.

So when I've read sections of the rules talking about "the planes" and "the gods" and "artifacts of the world", I've always understood (correctly) that those are simply suggestions to help the DM save time.  Those aren't part of the game, unless the DM uses them.  You are free to use Forgotten Realms, but never required to.

But a lot of people don't get that.  The deliberate ambiguity from TSR and later Wizards of the Coast to mingle the setting and the rules doesn't help.  Also the RAW-literalism of people in my generation doesn't help.  To many the hobby, the game, and Ed Greenwood's homebrew setting are all equivalent.

The D&D movie would be better called a Forgotten Realms movie, because that's really what it is.  Arguably the main reason it isn't called that is marketability.  The Forgotten Realms has been so thoroughly merged into the rules by this point, many major fans of the Forgotten Realms wouldn't even know the game world is called that.

I remember a time, when popular D&D channels on youtube would talk about how to plan worlds, build your own pantheon, draw out areas.  But as time went on, things became more narrow.  Today, the popular D&D channels are largely dedicated to explaining the world that exists in the rule book.  I remember seeing one channel with videos named, for instance, "The most powerful god in D&D."  

The most powerful god in D&D is the one your DM says is the most powerful.  Period.

I would personally like if everyone went back to regarding the Forgotten Realms as one available, highly-developed possible game setting, with the default setting of the game becoming a 100mi by 100mi section of largely uninhabited countryside with a few garrisons and a small town to the lower right corner.  In this new default setting, no one knows what magic is, or which gods are real, what the planes are, what happens when you die, how magic works... most people don't even believe that elves exist.  The details of all of this should be filled in by the players (mainly the DM), and if the DM wants to fill them in with content from Forgotten Realms then that is his God-given right as the DM.

The original DMG was essentially a how-to book for designing a world from scratch, with tons of random tables to roll on to help you populate the world with new and interesting encounters.  In these old books, there was no world if you didn't make the world first.

That's what I'd like to see make a return.

Unfortunately, you can't make that into merchandise.  Or into a movie.  And you can't easily code it into a virtual tabletop. So it won't be the direction of the game.  At least not until WOTC tanks it and has to sell off the rights to someone else.