My weekly Dungeons & Dragons group recently wrapped up our latest campaign, a cyberpunk fantasy inspired by Shadowrun. We’re getting organized for the next one, and I’m already excited to play. This time we’re going to be going through Descent into Avernus, a story from the Forgotten Realms.

Realms Forgotten

I’ve been playing D&D for a long time now, both as a dungeon master and as a player, but most of that has been spent exploring homebrewed settings. I enjoy the freedom and flexibility of a custom-made world, and it’s always fun to see what my friends and I create as a group. That said, I loved the Dragonlance campaign I played in a few years ago, and I think Ebberon is really cool, so I understand the appeal of a pre-built world.

When I get right down to it, though, I’m not all that familiar with Faerûn. My knowledge of the setting is mostly limited to what I’ve been able to glean from board games like Lords of Waterdeep or Tyrants of the Underdark, and the Adventures in the Forgotten Realms Magic set. I do know a bit more about the Underdark thanks to a friend of mine who loves the drow, but that’s about it. A month ago I couldn’t even point to Baldur’s Gate on a map… which worried me, considering that’s where we’re starting our campaign!

Vaguely Familiar

Working on the backstory for my new character, I started picking through various rulebooks and the Forgotten Realms wiki for inspiration. As I looked at the Sword Coast for a suitable home town for my character, I quickly discovered the rich geography, politics and history of the setting. I shouldn’t have been surprised, considering how long Faerûn has been around, and how many books have been written about it, but nevertheless, there I was with an entire world in front of me that I’d never explored before.

I was overwhelmed. It was like stepping into a store filled with unfamiliar products, or going to a party where you didn’t know anyone. It was a surprising comforting, then, to find some names I recognized because of their Magic cards, like Bruenor Battlehammer, the Lost Mine of Phandelver and the The Blackstaff of Waterdeep. Even if I didn’t know anything about them, I could still latch onto that sliver of recognition as I found my footing. It gave me an anchor I could fall back on, and kept me from feeling quite so lost.

Fill In the Blanks

As I read more, I began to appreciate how detailed the Forgotten Realms is, while remaining very open-ended. It strikes a remarkable balance between a fleshed-out universe and an open sandbox; I would best describe it as “a world of plot hooks,” filled with enough information to give players and DMs something to work with, but leaving plenty of room for them to add their own details.

For instance, the character I made for the new campaign is a scholar who reads a lot of fiction. I wanted to find a some in-universe books she would have read so I’d have something to nervously babble about if the opportunity came up. I was overjoyed to discover that there’s a list of titles in Candlekeep library, complete with authors, years penned and what genre the book is. With a few exceptions, though, the specific contents of each tome is left vague.

Take Seasons in the Heartlands; I decided to make it my character’s favourite book. We know it was written by a scholar from Cormyr named Chelm Vandor, and that it’s apparently a classic work of fiction penned some time before 1367DR. That’s it. In my imagination it’s a grand epic along the lines of Le Morte d’Arthur or The Lord of the Rings, but it could just as easily have been something like Pride and Prejudice or Anne of Green Gables. Regardless, the lack of specifics means I get to invent the plot and characters for it, and can delve into as much minutiae as I want. It’s a work of fiction, so it won’t have any bearing on the campaign, but figuring out the story lets me get into my character’s head a bit more, and gives me an opportunity to stretch my creative muscles. I might even write a couple of passages for my sorceress to quote!

Sets and Settings

The more I interact with the Forgotten Realms, the more I realize just how well it works for Magic: The Gathering. In a Magic set, we get the names of places, people and important items, but not much else. The art and flavour text provide a little bit of information, and the mechanics do a lot to teach us about a world, but the bulk of the setting is left up to our imagination. We might get a bit more detail from short stories or maps, but not always, and usually not much.

Of course, this also means that with a little bit of fleshing out, most Magic planes make for good D&D settings. It’s one of the reasons why the Magic themed sourcebooks work so well, whether that’s the Mythic Odysseys of Theros, the Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica, the upcoming Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos, or even the old Plane Shift .pdfs. Heck, you can even use random Magic cards as plot hooks, and it’ll go pretty well!

Magic has a wide swath of details to work from, but most of it is pretty surface-level stuff. It’s just enough to get a feel for the plane and to get excited about exploring it. Exactly like the Forgotten Realms.

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