I was trying to figure out how to write about my experience reading about the Forgotten Realms for an upcoming BW campaign with as geeky a metaphor as possible in order to compare my experience reading The Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide and Waterdeep & the North. The FRCG is a supplement for Dungeons and Dragons Third Edition and W&tN is a supplement for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (often mentioned as 1st edition AD&D). Looking at Waterdeep is, in a way, looking at D&D during the time when I have been a gamer. Here it is, as geeky a metaphor as I could come up with, comparing the reading of these two books by describing visiting the Forgotten Realms’ two finest wizards.
The Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide
It doesn’t matter why you show up at Khelben Blackstaff’s tower in the sprawling metropolis of Waterdeep, you will have to wait for a while. Tea is served because serving tea is correct and civilized and said tea is adequate. The tower is resplendent, perhaps showing signs of being bigger on the inside than on the outside. It is the very picture of a resplendent wizard’s tower, as if Kelben put it together and arranged the furniture, put the tapestries on the wall and placed the scrolls on the shelves just so visitors would get what they expected when they entered.
When Khelben shows up he stands after you sit down, clutching his staff, staring at you with dark eyes, considering your problems with perfect posture. Sometimes he appears to be looking past you, as if he is considering an issue that doesn’t pertain to your problems directly but could have an effect. When he offers sage advice, his words are clipped, short and you get the feeling that you are being manipulated even as he get’s the information across. The words are clipped but they just keep coming. When you are done, there is so much content that it is hard to know where to begin. Before you can ask questions concerning his wizardly answers, he bids you a good day and the servants politely escort you from the tower.
Now you are on the streets of Waterdeep, and your senses are overwhelmed. You can try to remember what the Blackstaff told you but the streets are laying siege to your mind with noise. Some of it is even inspiring but so much of it is just blurry. That is the thing about standing in the city of Waterdeep while considering a wizard’s advice…there’s just too much to think about, so much to consider, so much you are asked to ignore in order to get to and digest the wisdom.
Waterdeep and the North
Elminster’s tower is a well kept, old windmill in Shadowdale. The locals smile and shake their heads when you tell them that you are going up the hill to consult with the Sage of Shadowdale. The door is slightly ajar, he knew you were coming but you aren’t sure how that could be possible. The place is a mess and you want to believe that there is a pattern in this mess, that Elminster is more than an old man living alone in an untidy windmill, that he is in fact the most powerful wizard in the Realms and that in his mess are methods. The place has its mess but it is still pleasant. One easily feels at home here.
He smiles when you walk in and points to the guest pipe on the mantel, offering it with a nod, puffing his own pipe and blowing smoke out his nose. If you want tea he points , showing you the pantry where the tea-makings are kept. The tea is quaint, picked locally, nothing fancy but still pleasant. When the conversation is over, Elminster is just gone, disappearing while you sip at your tea, off to aid someone, off to his own adventure.
It might not feel like he gave you enough, as if you need more but there is enough in his advice and when you are done, you might find you never needed more. There is advice you didn’t need but overall it is sparse, a taste, something leaving you looking for more answers. Elminster, at this point, doesn’t believe you will ever see each other again. He expects you to come to your own conclusions.
I will write more about our journey into the realms later, in terms more concrete later.
That’s really cute. Well done, sir. 🙂
Look forward to hearing more about BWerised Forgotten Realms.
And let’s tip the hat for a moment to Waterdeep and the North’s most memorable contribution to D&D: goddamn *beholder crimelords*.
Yeah, my next post about the Realms will be a more in depth post about Waterdeep & the North. The book fascinates me. At times I was cheering and at other points I was jeering.
I’d love to sit down with Ed Greenwood and just talk about the book a bit at some point.
Maybe it is nearly a logical consequence of a setting that so many players just know casually – I think of the demographic territory claimed by the Baldur’s Gate franchise alone, but the top-down, cosmological scope of the FR is so widely known it’s hard for writers, GMs, or players to forget it – and I think it filters on down to the NPC and (often PC) populace in a diffuse but perceptible way; on the other hand, with homebrew settings or even less familiar commercial or literary ones, even the GM tends to be building up from “pig-ignorant.”
Maybe I am living entirely in my own head to think that peasants in Daggerford, or wherever, have a sense of the properties of deities and so on. Published NPC dialog seemed to give that sense though.
In the Fasti, Ovid notes a site, and a God, saying “They say ‘Summanus,’ whoever that may be, is enshrined there.” After Baldur’s Gate II, I have never played with a habitual gamer who didn’t know who “Amaunator,” an extinct god, was.
Perils of brand recognition.
I think ascribing an explicit “great game” life philosophy to the natives could create some good interactions. One day it might be interesting to use BW or another a similarly gritty system and a book like Waterdeep as the basis for a campaign where the Realms as published are the accepted view of reality, but the temples are shams passing petty wizardry off as miracles, the healing motions at the adventurer’s markets are snake oil, and the published descriptions of Cormyr or Rashemen are in currency, but that their relation to reality ranges from comparable to Herodotus at best, more commonly on the order of Mandeville.
Certainly you’d still have a fantasy setting, but in a sentence “Low fantasy that the peasants and rubes all assume to be high fantasy.” The difference wouldn’t be so apparent growing up in a little hamlet with only the cows, a “Volo’s Guide,” and your dreams for company, but the Splendors of the City of Splendors being a little different than what you’d read about could kick off a campaign with the kind of “anything could happen” mentality that it’s sometimes harder to find the more RPGs you play.
Burning Wheel, which, admittedly, I have only read, not played, isn’t what I’d immediately think of for such an urbane setting. But I don’t see why it *wouldn’t* work. And maybe Waterdeep is not necessarily as urbane as I’ve been lead to believe.
I’m not sure I ever actually owned “Waterdeep and the North.” I did have “Savage Frontier,” which, from the hand of Paul Jaquays had a very different tone that any of the other FR game books I’ve read. Waterdeep comes in its impression from vaguely remembered as a player in high-school campaigns. GMing in the Realms just to keep the same characters in the mix, I always went off the map.
Even at its most basic, some of the byzantine cultural fillips such as the masks of the town oligarchs feel like the marks left by the spilled drinks of games past; the secret identity of the PC most afraid of the “real enemy” lurking behind his worst rivals – the GM.
With Burning Wheel PCs, I wonder, will there be a palpable conflict between the people of Waterdeep who view life as a “great game” or magical pattern, and PCs who embody life as more desperate and teutonic?
As an aside, even having heard Ed Greenwood’s “Elminster” voice, I can’t help but hear it as Sean Connery, or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say “as Colonel Horace Gentleman.”
I really like the masked lords. They became the kind of cornerstone of the game.
“With Burning Wheel PCs, I wonder, will there be a palpable conflict between the people of Waterdeep who view life as a “great game” or magical pattern, and PCs who embody life as more desperate and teutonic?”
I never got the idea that Waterdahavians viewed life as a “great game” – does that idea come from somewhere? It is nifty.
I can’t wait to write a post about the supplement W&tN. There are D&Disms in there that I find really fascinating.
Having played BW, I think it’d be my first choice for urban fantasy, especially with only one or two players. I mean, if the game were explicitly focused on PC-controlled organizations I might go with REIGN, or if I had a larger group looking for something with a fantasy action-movie feel I’d grab 4e… but BW would be the sort of thing where every move the PCs made could end with dreams broken or blood spattered on the walls of dank alleys.
As far as urbane, I think the Duel of Wits system would give all those interactions in which drawing steel is gauche (or fatal) the kind of teeth they deserve. And you could even use them for public opinion/propaganda conflicts.
All of which sounds hot as hell to me. 🙂
You’re right – in that light it fits very well. My first impression of duel of wits was close to “And then Grettir spoke the following stanza,” but it is just as much the agent at a masque, isn’t it?
Yeah, Savage Frontier is a weird little thing. Like you say, it’s tone is totally different from the rest of the Realms stuff.
When I first got it I hated the slightly more tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top feel, but now I find myself rather charmed by it. It’s even more about throwing cool snippets at the GM to see what sticks than WatN. There’s a random encounter table in there where one of the events is two flying castles pass overhead, locked in magical battle. No explanation, no elaboration; just that. You rolled a 5? Right. Flying castles. Magic warfare. Go.
I was very taken with 3rd edition’s Silver Marches supplement, too, which made the North into a sort of Old West frontier. Suddenly it made me realise that D&D and Wild West vibes mixed really well, and I ran a brief game set in Deadsnows: a goldrush town plagued by orcs, rowdy swordsslingers, and old curses as a result. The week after I ran the first session a little show called Deadwood started on HBO. Weird how things work out.
But of all the Realms, Rashemen has my heart. With its bone-deep snows and old winds, its masked witches and their bargains with wild powers, the vodka-swilling warriors sworn to them and the rival berserker lodges they belong to. Fantastic stuff. I would Burning Wheel the crap out of that, given half a chance.