The Forgotten Realms – the default setting for the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game – form one of the largest, most detailed and most popular fantasy worlds ever created. It is the brainchild of Canadian writer Ed Greenwood who started developing it as a setting for fantasy stories when he was just eight years old. Ten years later he began running D&D campaigns set in the same world, and also began writing articles for Dragon Magazine. The first mention of the Realms in-print came in 1978. Over the next eight years Greenwood became a popular writer of articles for the magazine and he included plenty of hints about his own campaign world in the process.
In 1986 TSR, Inc., the publishers of D&D, were looking for a new setting. The Dragonlance setting had been an enormous success, but the feeling was that the continent of Ansalon was too small to serve as a setting for lots of stories. D&D creator Gary Gygax was also in the middle of his painful departure from TSR, which made the future use of his World of Greyhawk setting questionable. D&D needed a new “base” world.
TSR editor Jeff Grubb contacted Greenwood and asked exactly how much of the Realms had he actually created? Greenwood’s reply was, “lots.” Soon boxes were arriving at TSR HQ in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin by the score. Each box was packed full of notes, handwritten and typed, featuring information on hundreds of characters and cities, dozens of countries and countless new monsters, factions and magical items. Greenwood’s map of the main continent was divided across dozens of A4 sheets of paper which were painstakingly reassembled in the main TSR office, taking up almost every inch of free floor space. Greenwood’s map of the setting’s signature city, Waterdeep, was even larger and detailed and named almost every building. This was the Tolkien school of in-depth worldbuilding taken and expanded and applied to a continent several times the size of Middle-earth.
The slightly awed TSR bought the rights to the setting and began released it to the public in 1987. The first release was a novel, Darkwalker on Moonshae by Douglas Niles, followed by the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, or the “Big Grey Box” as it became infamously known. The Grey Box sold over 100,000 copies in short order, a staggering number for an RPG supplement. Ed Greenwood provided his own novel, Spellfire, and a few months later another book was published by a first-time novelist named R.A. “Bob” Salvatore. The Crystal Shard introduced the character Drizzt Do’Urden, a dark elven ranger seeking to atone for the sins of his entire race, and a fantasy publishing legend was born. To date, more than 30 million Drizzt novels have been sold by themselves.
The Realms grew and expanded. The continent of Kara-Tur, previously developed in 1985 for the Oriental Adventures sourcebook, was bolted to the eastern side of the Realms (with Greenwood’s blessing). The western continent of Maztica and the southern continent of Zakhara were explored in further boxed sets. Dozens of adventures and supplements explored the gods, power groups and races of the Realms in remarkable detail. In 1989 the Realms made the transition to D&D 2nd Edition through an epic campaign known as the Time of Troubles, or Avatar Wars, the first of many “Realms-shaking events” that unified a setting noted for its expanse and scope.
The setting expanded to a successful comics run and also a line of well-received video games, such as Curse of the Azure Bonds. However, it was the epic dungeon-crawler Eye of the Beholder (1991) that became a major crossover hit with general gamers and expanded the audience even further.
D&D and the Realms ran into a major problem with the collapse of TSR in 1997, during which time it was briefly possible that both would disappear altogether. However, Wizards of the Coast stepped in and bought both the game and the setting. This led to a creative renaissance for the setting, spearheaded by the hugely popular video game Baldur’s Gate (1998), the first RPG to be released by BioWare. D&D 3rd Edition arrived in 2000 and was followed by the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting book in 2001, one of the most handsome RPG books ever published. Over the next seven years the Realms continued to peak in popularity, with more video games such as Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights contributing to its success.
In 2008 D&D launched its 4th edition, but the surprising decision was made to effectively destroy the Realms, turning it into a kind of post-apocalyptic, high-concept setting. The decision was vehemently rejected by the overwhelming majority of Realms fans; sales of the 4th Edition D&D and Forgotten Realms material were disappointing and the setting spent several years in the doldrums until 2014, when Wizards of the Coast launched D&D 5th Edition. A streamlined, back-to-basics version of the game, it proved an immediate, huge hit. Even more notable was that, for the very first time, the Forgotten Realms was now the default setting for the D&D game. The new setting rolled back most of the disastrous changes from 4th Edition and restored some faith and popularity in the setting.
There are still some worlds left unconquered. A Forgotten Realms movie is in development for release in 2021 or 2022, and Larian Studios are working to relaunch the video game line with the eagerly-awaited Baldur’s Gate III. After a short hiatus, the novel line has been relaunched by R.A. Salvatore with a new run of Drizzt books, although there seem to be no plans for more material at the moment. And, watching over it all, remains Ed Greenwood, who still insists he has far more unpublished notes and setting material than has ever been seen formal print. On that basis, the Realms will be around for a long time to come.
Mapping the Realms
Greenwood’s original map of the Realms focused on the continent of Faerûn, extending west to the island of Evermeet; south to the jungles of Chult and the island of Nimbral beyond; east to Semphar and the Horse Plains; and north to the towering Spine of the World mountain range and the Endless Ice Sea beyond. He had little notion of what lay elsewhere in the world, except for a huge island chain to the north-west called Anchôromé.
Other writers and editors soon expanded the setting. The 1985 Oriental Adventures book by Dave “Zeb” Cook had detailed an Asia-like land called Kara-Tur. This was retconned (and shrunk in the process) into the eastern half of the continent in the Kara-Tur: The Eastern Realms boxed set (1988). In 1990 the Horde boxed set explored the Tuigan plains which linked the two subcontinents. In 1991, the Maztica Campaign Set added a new continent far to the west of Faerûn. In 1992 the Al-Qadim sub-setting was launched, detailing the lands of Zakhara to the south of Faerûn.
Through all of these boxed sets, adventures and campaign guides, maps were a constant feature. Not just maps of the continents and landmasses, but maps of individual countries, cities, streets and even individual buildings. The City System (1988) set contains a colossal map of Waterdeep which is too big to fit inside most average-sized homes, and names virtually every building in the city. The Forgotten Realms is almost certainly the most heavily-mapped fantasy world in existence, with literally thousands of maps existing of its various locations.
Despite that, a full, canonical world map of the entire planet of Abeir-toril had to wait until the release of the Forgotten Realms Interactive Atlas (1999) on CD-ROM. The atlas featured almost every single map from every single Realms product ever released plus lots of new ones, and also a complete world map which added multiple new continents to the planet. Ed Greenwood would later reveal some new information on these continents, but, twenty years later, they have still received scant development compared to the originals.
A New Map of Toril
My new map of Toril depicts the planet as it stood between the 2nd and 3rd Editions of the setting. When 3rd Edition setting was released in 2001, the map-makers chose to shrink the main continent of Faerûn to remove empty space in the south; given that Faerûn was never the biggest fantasy continent in the first place, sometimes straining credulity given how packed it was, this was unnecessary and was eventually reversed in 5th Edition.
4th Edition, much more controversially, blew up the continent in a magical catastrophe known as the Spellplague and completely reshaped it. Fortunately, most of these changes were promptly abandoned in 5th Edition, which restored the continent to its former glory.
To create this map, I used a base model from my twenty-year-old copy of the Forgotten Realms Interactive Atlas (this also inspired some colour choices, particularly for the mountains) and information from canon sources and from some of the better fan maps out there. A more detailed map of Faerûn will – hopefully! – follow, although it will be considerable work.
The World of Abeir-toril
The world of the Forgotten Realms is an Earth-sized planet called Abeir-toril, “Cradle of Life” in Auld Wyrmish. Toril is the third of eight planets in its star system, and it possesses one large satellite, Selûne, and dozens of smaller satellites, asteroid-sized bodies called the Tears of Selûne.
Toril is divided between one very large continental landmass, almost big enough to qualify as a supercontinent, and three other continent-sized bodies. Five large island-continents and thousands of smaller continents are also known to exist.
The main continental landmass is divided into three lesser continents or subcontinents:
- Faerûn is located in the west of this landmass, running from the Endless Ice Sea to the Great Sea and from the Trackless Sea to the Tuigan Plains (or Hordelands) in the east. Faerûn is the original and principle setting for the Forgotten Realms campaign and by far the area of the planet with the most development. Faerûn vaguely resembles Europe and the Near and Middle-East in the medieval period, with the landlocked Sea of Fallen Stars serving as a Mediterranean analogue.
- Kara-Tur is located to the east of Faerûn and is the home of the mostly-defunct Oriental Adventures and Living Jungle sub-settings. It is an Asian-inspired land of vast empires, huge cities and adventure. Kara-Tur is the home of the largest nation on Toril, the Shou Lung Empire, and the tallest mountain range, the Yehimal, which is even taller than the Himalayas.
- Zakhara, the Land of Fate, lies south of Faerûn and south-west of Kara-Tur. The home of the Al-Qadim sub-setting, it is a land of vast, boiling deserts and cities clustered around oases and bays. Zakhara is inspired by the mythology of Arabia. The largest single city on the planet, Golden Huzuz, can be found in Zakhara.
In addition, several other continents can be found elsewhere in the world:
- Maztica, the True World, lies to the west of Faerûn across the Trackless Sea. It is inspired by Aztec and Mayan mythology and consists of jungles, volcanoes and deserts. North of Maztica lies a land of open plains more reminiscent of the American West, although this area has not been explored much in canon materials.
- Katashaka lies to the south of Maztica and consists of steaming, hot jungles inhabited by various hostile lizardfolk. Katashaka seems to have been inspired by South America, but it has received relatively little development so far.
- Ossë is a large landmass lying to the east of Kara-Tur. It is quite hot, sparsely-populated and has not yet been explored in detail in any canon materials. Based on the limited information available, it appears to be a supersized version of Australia.
There are numerous islands of note in the world, the most famous of which are Evermeet, the home of the elves located far across the Trackless Sea; the Moonshae Isles off the coast of Faerûn; Lantan, the land of engineers and tinkerers; Nimbral, the mysterious Sea-Haven; the islands of Anchôromé off the coast of Maztica; Wa and Kozakura off the coast of Kara-Tur; and the large island-continents of Myrmidune, Tabaxiland, Aurune and Braaklosia, about which relatively little has been revealed.
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