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Follow-up to my question here which was based on the wrong premise that there is a single world for the entirety of DnD. Thanks to that question I was able to boil my issue down to the Forgotten Realms - as that is what my limited experience covers (mostly the Sword Cost as seen in the Baldur's Gate video game series) and because it seems to be the longest-standing and still supported "default" world.

The core issue, though, remains the same:

  • Apart from me no-one at our table has the slightest idea of the Forgotten Realms. And I'm not meaning having full insights into every aspect of the magical, theological, ecclesiastical, interplanary and mundane goings on - but even just a general "feel" to it, that would be necessary to create believable characters acting in front of this backdrop.
  • Our other players have raised some concerns that this lack of knowhow makes it quite difficult for them to get interested in the system and invested in new characters and a new campaign.

How can our playgroup quickly get a "feel" for the Forgotten Realms in order to kickstart a new campaign?

All of us have years and years of RPG experience, but--alas--limited time. Thus: bonus points for solutions that don't ask us to read 500 page novels. ;)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you read any of the .... looks like well over 300 Forgotten Realms novels and short story collections? \$\endgroup\$ – Davo Feb 27 at 16:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Davo I have not. I'm actually interested, but wouldn't even know where to start (300 novels!). And while certainly a good way to get insight into a world, reading books is probably too time consuming to realistically get my players to do it. \$\endgroup\$ – fgysin reinstate Monica Feb 27 at 16:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you both the GM and the one member of the group with some knowledge of the setting? \$\endgroup\$ – Novak Feb 27 at 17:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Novak, for now, yes. \$\endgroup\$ – fgysin reinstate Monica Mar 2 at 6:45
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This is probably not the best approach, but it’s certainly an approach, that worked well for my group.

Consider going off the beaten path

I recently played a game set in the Forgotten Realms, under a DM who knew them well, with a group who knew FR by reputation more than anything else (that is, all of us were avid D&D players but had never taken much interest in FR). His solution to this was to set our game in the “Unapproachable East,” and even beyond that—that is, we were literally off the map, going by most maps of Faerûn. (Faerûn is the continent that most Forgotten Realms campaigns focus on—for example, the Sword Coast is Faerûn’s north-west coast. We were in the south-east.)

Because most Forgotten Realms games aren’t set there, there’s less material out there about the Unapproachable East. You might (or might not) look up the book entitled Unapproachable East, which is for the 3.5e edition of D&D—you couldn’t use the stats, feats, and other mechanical bits, but you could read up about stuff. Or not, as you are comfortable. There’s also a bunch online. There is little actual consequence for “getting it wrong,” and often customizing the game world will make it so much better for your group anyway.

And to help out the players, we all played characters who hailed from Faerûn, and had traveled east for our own reasons. So we did’t have to know anything about the Unapproachable East—the region is called that because people from Faerûn don’t often go there and don’t know much of anything about it. Our characters could be as ignorant as we were. We each learned a bit about Faerûn as pertinant to our characters, but for example, I played a halfling, so I learned a bit about the halfling country of Luiren—but to this day I don’t really know much of anything about the Sword Coast beyond where you can find it on the map. My wife, who played with us (in only her second D&D campaign) and had a character from that area, knows more about it than I do.

This approach allows the DM to focus on an area that isn’t as fleshed out, making there less to learn (but still enough information to not have to make up everything wholesale—there are maps of the region and descriptions of its peoples, places, and so on). It allows the players to remain as ignorant of that region as their characters would be, and it allows them to dig into the lore of Faerûn only as deeply as they wish to, for their own characters. Breaking things up into chunks like that can help.

The downsides are that less details means less for the DM to rely on, and more for the DM to do themselves, and that players maybe never learn as much about Faerûn—like I said, I still don’t know much about the Sword Coast or other areas of Faerûn. But the campaign was only recently and hasn’t had a follow-up, so perhaps in future campaigns we will delve more deeply into Faerûn itself.

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    \$\begingroup\$ When I DM, I normally set my campaigns in a place inspired by the Forgotten Realms. It means I don't have to make everything up myself and gives my players some background idea of what the setting is...but it means I'm free to ad lib and the players don't have much room to correct me if I get something wrong because they never know if I changed it on purpose or just forgot... \$\endgroup\$ – TimothyAWiseman Feb 27 at 17:19
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Skim the Wiki

The Forgotten Realms Wiki probably has tons more info than you really need, but being a wiki, you can focus on the information that's relevant to you and your party and skip the rest until you need it.

As examples:

There's a ton of information on the geography of the world, but to start you probably only really need to look at Faerun, and even there, maybe just the area you plan to start in and surrounding environs.

History is similar, the coverage is pretty in depth, but you likely only need to read "recent" history to get an idea of the current politic scheme.

You might want to dig into the pantheon of Faerun fairly closely if someone is planning on playing a Divine caster of some sort, but if not you can probably safely skip it.

Another benefit to this approach is each player can investigate what interests them as time and interest permits. You should decide ahead of time (session zero?!) exactly how close you want to hew to canon, my suggestion would be not sweat it overly much since you're all coming in fairly cold.

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The Sword Coast is ultimately a kitchen-sink fantasy setting based on traditional euro-centric tropes and myths.

Setting Information as a Player

Part of the Sword Coast's enduring draw is that players tend to need little a priori knowledge to jump into the setting and anyone who is familiar with fantasy tropes knows enough to try their hand at running the world (as opposed to Dark Sun or Eberron). As a result, different adventures set on the Sword Coast, (say, the Starter Set's Lost Mines of Phandelver or the latest adventure, Baldur's Gate: Descent into Avernus) can "feel" wildly different to the players.

This means that being prepared for any adventure or canon NPC is basically unfeasible. With conflicting edition lore, hundreds of novels, all the video games, uncountable live play streams... all of which might be—but probably aren't—relevant to the campaign you will play, it's understandable your table is overwhelmed.

Players really can't prepare well without a Session 0 of some form.

Aiding Players as a DM

The DM should know the campaign themes though. And with that, there are a number of resources the DM might offer their players. Many of the Fifth Edition adventures have handouts of differing lengths that can quickly orient players to specific areas. Waterdeep: Dragon Heist has some of my favorite.

  • The Waterdeep Enchiridion is a fairly detailed overview (yes, I know what I typed) for the city that isn't specific to the module. That's a fairly beefy handout and when I run games for new players, it's a bit much. Passing it around might help your table though. You can find a PDF of just this chapter.
  • What I normally use from Dragon Heist for Session 0 is the city map, Code Legal, and a 2 minute history of city events that might be important to the campaign. I do this for any Waterdeep adventure, not just the published module the material is from. This typically captures the feel pretty well since it introduces key leaders, government structure, high fantasy creatures, and how the players can expect to interact on a social level with all of the above. I use a similar structure for any new city/setting and largely let players direct the conversation from there.

Having said that, if you are running a game with significant political intrigue, you're players will need information on all the factions more than an area map. If you are running the Starter Set, they really only need to experience the first encounter and talk to a few NPCs in Phandalin.

That is to say, each campaign should be tailored to a few important reference points that the DM can share with the players.

My Recommendation for New DMs

Assuming the DM is also new to the Sword Coast (and D&D), I highly recommend the Fifth Edition Starter Set. It comes with everything you need to get a feel for the game including rules, pre-generated player characters, how to generate more PCs, setting information, maps, faction overviews, descriptive text, monster stats... all in two pamphlets (one for all the players and one for only the DM) that are fairly easy to pick up and read. You don't say where you are, but in the United States, the set can be easily found for under $15.

If you want more lore and less gameplay, the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide is a quick way to hit the ground running. Personally, I would stick to a specific city, like Waterdeep, that is more relevant to the initial adventure you want to try running.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Similar to W:DH, Baldur's Gate: Descent into Avernus has a "Baldur's Gate Gazetteer" chapter with a detailed overview of the various parts of the city, its past and present, and notable factions and individuals. (The same chapter also includes the new Faceless background, as well as variant features for existing backgrounds, and a "Dark Secrets" mechanic for character creation in which the party is collectively involved in keeping some dark secret that at least one NPC in the adventure knows.) \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 28 at 6:43
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Forgotten Realms is an amazingly rich setting and it takes some time to get familiar with its lore. When I started way back in 90s, my friends lent me the sourcebook Forgotten Realms Adventures and I can honestly tell you that for me to understand the entire book, I had to read it over and over after many years of gaming.

Yet the 5e of the game is constructed in a very concise manner with the number of books published every year staying around 2-3 per year. So we can simply say that the 5e Player's Handbook and the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide should give you all the flavor you need, these books are meant to provide concise introduction to newcomers.

But if you find these to be too much reading, you might prefer to watch instead. On youtube, there are channels that you can find by searching for "forgotten realms lore". Amongst these videos, the following official D&D Beyond video from 2017 specifically aims to be the first introduction to FR: "What are The Forgotten Realms of Dungeons and Dragons?" While it is not probably enough for you to get the flavor, it can work as a starting point.

Finally, I can add that I find its core flavor to be a magic-rich and polytheistic Lord of the Rings. I have recently started DMing a newcomer group and they were able to define their characters simply by taking LotR characters as templates: rangers like Aragorn, fighters like Boromir, elves, dwarves and halflings (similar to hobbits). The amount of magic is higher and spells are more structured (Vancian wizards), but they will get used to spells gradually.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Amazingly rich" is certainly one way to put it. A less charitable person might call it "overcrowded"... \$\endgroup\$ – Carcer Feb 27 at 17:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Carcer As I look at the map, I wonder sometimes at the scale ... \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 27 at 20:01

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