A perennial question posed to me is why the name “Forgotten Realms”? Did it come from some clever brand manager at TSR, or—?
The short answer to the second question is: no, it came from me. There were no such things as “brand managers” fifty years ago; the word “brand” didn’t yet have the connotation it does today, and then and now, “Forgotten” is quite likely not something anyone wanting to push a product would label it.
I named my world thus, at the tender age of seven when I was writing it just for my own entertainment, because I thought of it as linked to our real world, and that there was formerly lots of traffic back and forth between the two worlds, but the ways between them have now largely been “forgotten” by inhabitants of both.
So on Earth we have lots of legends of dragons and wyverns and vampires and such because there used to be quite a few of them among us, coming through magical gates that whisked someone between one world and another (or as the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons® would put it, alternate Prime Material Planes). I wrote a long article for Dragon® Magazine (or as it was known back then, The Dragon, a much better name) that was published in issue #37, all about various types of gates and how they operate and/or are trapped, drawing on examples from many fantasy and sf books, but back when I’d been writing about Mirt the Moneylender fleeing foes from port to port along the Sword Coast for a year, I decided that the world that held that coast and Mirt (and stretched out in all directions for vast distances) was honeycombed with gates—most of them ancient, and created by mighty human archwizards or high elven mages of old, who in these later times had lost the knowledge and power of how to craft new ones without long, difficult, and dangerous rituals that sacrificed the life of one of the casters involved (their bodies vaporized and they became the gate). Some gates had been destroyed, or were operating in a feeble, dangerous manner that harmed or killed or involuntarily transformed those who dared to use them, some has been made to be used only when “turned on” by the right conditions (a pass-phrase uttered when moonlight touched a gate, by someone close enough to it who was carrying this particular enchanted talisman), and some were there but simply—forgotten. That is, they were working, but no one knew of their precise location or of their presence at all, so an unwitting wayfarer could plunge through one at a single step, and find themselves in a new and different world. Or halfway across the same Forgotten Realms®.
I decided that the Realms would be linked to the fantasy settings of books I loved by a few “direct” gates, but mostly by gates that took wayfarers to a “middle ground” setting, borrowed from the classic fantasies of William Morris: The Wood Between The Worlds (featured in a novel of the same name): a seemingly endless, towering and moss-girt wild forest riddled with unseen gates—between these two trees, or in the air above this puddle or stump if one crosses over it moving in just the right direction, or in the air above this rock, and so on.
A forest full of prowling predatory wildlife, and (to borrow from the World of Tiers books of Philip José Farmer) dangerous beings or cabals/secret societies of humans “in the know,” who knew all about the gates and tried to control who used them, usually by killing or in rare circumstances recruiting anyone who blundered through one).
Why do this? Well, I was fascinated by the sort of fantasy stories where someone from our world is plunged into a fantastic setting, or someone from a fantastic setting finds themselves in our world (A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court or the early Oz books are classic examples of the first, though I’m far more fond of Andy Offutt’s Messenger of Zhuvastou and Christopher Stasheff’s The Warlock In Spite Of Himself, and for the second, recall the witch rampaging through the streets of London in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia novel The Magician’s Nephew), and gates gave me the chance to set up such stories. (Tales I’d still like to do, by the way, both on an adult level, where the clashes of very different cultures can be explored, and as childrens’ fiction, where young kids find themselves in the Realms, or vice versa. Yet I’ve learned over the years that one has only so much time in life, and there are so many stories to be told . . .)
When TSR began to publish the Realms as a game setting, they were facing a determined pushback from religious groups (or as Jim Ward of TSR referred to them, “Angry Mothers From Heck”) who branded D&D® as Satanism or witchcraft, an evil pastime that seduced innocent young teenagers into the service of the devil, and led to teenagers in the real world exploring storm sewers or tunnels and getting themselves killed.
So, whether those who desired to burn D&D® at the stake were ridiculous or not, it was deemed best to not hand them fuel for their fires, and the “Forgotten Realms® are connected to our real world” was quietly omitted from the published Realms products, leaving just the “cool name” (as one TSR vice-president termed it) and not the reason behind that name. In short, the connection between our real world and the Realms was—Forgotten.