21 years ago, I broke the shrinkwrap on a slim (but wiry) campaign box set from TSR (The Game Wizards, don'cha know), and dived head-first into the Forgotten Realms for the first time. And was completely absorbed in a way that other, arguably more useful pursuits (say, schoolwork) never quite managed. Greenwood and Grubb painted a hell of a picture with that first effort - the majority of the location entries were (at most) a single column, spare on game rules, absolutely dripping with flavor. Broad strokes, but what a set of lines to paint between.
Thing is, I never really felt like I could do it justice. Lotta reasons - first of which being, I was friggin' 12, and I just didn't have the knowledge of pseudo-medieval living, the depth of pulp sword and sorcery reading, or the organizational skills to make it stick. I'll be honest, starting off with 2nd edition AD&D didn't help - as a budding DM, all the handwringing and finger-wagging in the PHB and DMG made me afraid to flex my muscles, and Dragon in the early 90s only reinforced that. I had one regular player, a little brother who'd make it through half a session at best, and a revolving door of confused try-onces - and that doth not a campaign make. A series of abortive attempts and false starts was all I could manage until several years on down the road.
At 16 or so, I managed to hook up with a few folks who had some idea what was going on, and we strung a few games in a row here and there - but we'd usually only make it through half the session before the ambient level of booze and other assorted brainfoods reached critical mass and things would either drift gently apart, or (just as often) simply explode. Again, not really conducive to campaign play, and pretty soon bands and girls began to look like more attractive wastes of my time. (This was due, in no small part, to the rise of Vampire: The Masquerade, which began to fill the game stores with the same kind of people my punk rock friends and I would run out of Harvard Square on the regular - but, really, this was just another nail in the coffin.)
So, somewhere around 22, 23, I start getting the itch again, only now there's a new ruleset out? I'll admit: For a returning player, d20 looked pretty good. A lot of what WotC was doing, I had been doing anyway, when I hung up the screen (spontaneous casting, full hp at first, etc - common enough homebrew solutions for small parties and new players). The rest looked good on paper - and, hey, there's a new Forgotten Realms campaign set, too! Keep in mind, I lost, oh, every damn thing I owned, around age 19 (long story - sleazy, ex-cop slum-mongering landlord, no money and less sense, got every last thing sold out from under me, and too far into the bottle to do anything about it - nice to know I can survive something like that, but I wouldn't recommend it), so with my old collection gone, new books were more than welcome.
I ran two yearlong Realms campaigns under the yoke of d20, and - besides learning the hard way how d20 D&D collapses under its own weight past 5th level - I was just drowning in canon. 15 years of actual game material floating around, metric tons of novel plots shoved into the corebook with no structural support, and it was just a goddamn nightmare. But there's this thing that happens to Realms fans - you start to buy the "one Realms" line, start worrying about how your game looks to people who suck down every last drop of game fiction (note that these people were never really AT my table), and next thing you know, you're paralyzed. I eventually closed the book on the campaign, the ruleset, and the world, and dove feetfirst into Garweeze Wurld and HackMaster. (This quickly led to Greyhawk and several years of exploring puritanical, by-the-book Gygaxian AD&D - tip of the hat to many, many tireless Dragonsfoot posters. You guys argue about this shit so I don't have to.)
Of late, things had slowed down a bit, gaming-wise, what with me being in school and everything. Happens. Then last week, I actually got a chance to sit down and PLAY. Like, as a player. (That shit never happens.) Had a blast, survived the session with a 1hp magic-user, good times. And at the end, I tried something I don't usually do - pitched a game, with nothing prepped to run. Just, "what do YOU guys want to play?" And, what do you know, the answer came back "Forgotten Realms." Well, shit, twist my arm, why don'cha?
So I've come full circle - and it's like opening the old Grey Box all over again. I'm paring things right to the bone, and then going from there. First edition rules, with liberal doses of 2e spice. (Specialty priests, expanded spell lists, customize-able thief skills, and a single-class bard.) The world as it's presented in the original boxed set, with the first handful of 1e supplements for color - no novel plots shoehorned in, no 90s-style moralizing, no shiny happy mages holding hands. No having my hands tied by two decades of canon - and, lets face it, there's only a handful of stuff past '93 or so that was worth a shit, anyway. A couple late AD&D FR designers "got it", but that's the exception rather than the rule. The most usable of the late 90s FR stuff amounted to a copy-paste of the original material with the wordcount padded out, bigger print, margin art sprinkled about, and (as near as I can tell), rolling d6 to add levels to every NPC. Not really worth my time, thanks.
So it's back to the Grey Box ("FR0"), FR1 Waterdeep and the North, FR5 The Savage Frontier, and The Ruins of Undermountain. Heady stuff. I'm running the guys through N5 Under Illefarn (the first - sort of, depending on how you score it - FR module, by Steve Perrin, who also contributed the excellent FR6 Dreams of the Red Wizards), which'll get'em just to the point where they can start dipping their toes into Undermountain. (The Big One, at least for the Realms - been waiting a good couple decades to get some real use outta that beast.) I've got the City System maps of Waterdeep (10, count'em, 10 poster-sized maps, with the Jewel of the North zoomed in to the building-and-street-name level), and I've been shamelessly marking them up, making the 'Deep my own. Same for Undermountain - I'll admit, a little piece of my inner collector died when I first took pencil to that pristine map, but I quickly warmed to the task, and it's shaping up nicely. (They're not gonna know what hit'em.)
A few newer bits got in, I'll admit - mainly the deity books. Faiths & Avatars, Demihuman Deities, and Powers & Pantheons - great stuff, head and shoulders above most late 2e material. (Eric Boyd gets it.) And I've been picking through the later dungeon modules set in The North for usable material - although, they did have an unfortunate tendency to give you the location stuff as it is once somebody cooler has already come along and done everything. (Finally detailing the dungeon under Hellgate Keep - AFTER THEY BLEW IT UP. Really, guys?) And I wouldn't do without Brian James' Grand History of the Realms - entirely more useful than any WotC Realms product has any right to be. (Gotta ignore a few things in there, like the kobold=dragon nonsense and entirely too much Shade stuff, but Brian did a hell of a job with this. So much so that, rather than C&Ding the web version out of existence, Wizards bought it from him.) Having a coherent timeline handy (especially for a region so drenched in eldritch prehistory as The North) can't be beat.
And we kicked it off tonight. 4 PCs, 4 0-level schlubs in tow, and they made it through their first Daggerford militia assignment with only a single redshirt casualty. The guys had a blast, and they're even enduring the whole "militia" schtick with some patience (playing soldier might be a bit confining, but if it gets'em action and loot, they'll sit still for it). They've already got their sights set on Undermountain, though - honestly, from my guys, I wouldn't expect any less.
Feels good, man.