Secrets of the Realms
It’s no secret to any of my players, nor to most of my readers, that I love intrigue. Of two sorts: the scheming and manipulation that happens in front of our eyes, in the here and now (and encourages delicious speculation as to what will happen in the future—of the sort currently indulged in by, say, fans of the Game of Thrones television show who haven’t read the novels the series is based on), and the revelations of long-hidden secrets, often spurred by events that are the culmination of plans or feuds set in motion long ago.
In a fictional series—such as, for example, Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, a great favourite of mine—a reader can learn secret after secret as a point-of-view character does, and be caught up by what might happen. As Roger’s early Amber books were published, my best friend and I bought them, and then rushed home to reread all of the previous ones in order before we allowed ourselves to open the new one and see how the story continued.
That sort of gripping fascination is harder to achieve in a setting that has many stories, many point-of-view characters, and a broad variety of settings and races and cultures, and when the setting is home to roleplaying gaming (where statistics and full explanations are the order of the day, and keeping secrets for long is hard) for any length of time, secrets tend to get revealed.
Nevertheless, the Realms still holds many secrets yet to be revealed, in part because of the directions and forms in which the published setting unfolded, and in part because of my Rule of Three: “For every loose end you tie off, create three new ones.” So as writers and game designers provided explanatory lore that tied off those loose ends, most of them were busily creating new ones. Providing endless new story hooks, or “breathing room” for individual DM creativity and reader speculation.
There have always been readers who don’t play D&D® but buy every Realms game product and enjoy them as fiction, as guidebooks to the imaginary setting that enlighten them in the same way generations of readers have devoured the appendices at the end of The Lord Of The Rings.
So I put new secrets in, every time I can. I love secret societies and hidden pacts, and the Realms is chock-full of manipulative characters (Elminster, for example, or the Harpers) who operate behind the scenes as often as they stride about in public and speak loudly. “Everyone loves a mystery” is a truism; what people don’t like is feeling all at sea, beset by treachery and deceit and lurking danger on all sides. So the trick is, as in so many things, to find the balance.
One of the ways I do this is to keep mysteries self-contained. Family mysteries, for instance—and when you have nobles being haughty and eccentric and sometimes treasonous, in Waterdeep or Cormyr or elsewhere, and inheritance and legitimacy are the cornerstones of what it is to be noble or royal, it’s almost overly obvious that nigh every noble family should have its secrets large and small, usually kept hidden from outsiders, that are very important to members of a given family. And by “very important” I mean can well lead to murder, impostors running around, civil wars, and lesser but not less interesting deceptions. There’s a reason that mistaken identities and the finer points of family inheritance were old, stock ideas even in Shakespeare’s day—most of us can’t get enough of them.
For one thing, secrets and the conflicts that arise around them allow storytellers to show us characters making moral choices, and for Dungeon Masters® to push player characters into situations where players must make moral choices on behalf of their characters. Which is the essence of engagement in life or in the imaginary life of a story, and grips us by forcibly adding weight and meaning. Once we choose, we care.
None of this is news, or will come as brilliant revelation to most roleplayers or longtime fiction readers, but rather than spoil the fun of reading and playing in the Realms by simply revealing some of the secrets I’ve slipped into the setting, I prefer to underscore my motive for the secrecy, and just hint at where some secrets remain to be found.
One cliché, in a magic-heavy setting like the Realms, is to have magic items or artifacts (which in D&D® terms doesn’t mean “something unearthed in an archeological dig” but rather a “super-powerful magic item with a legendary history and often purpose”) that have functions or destinies or purposes as yet unfulfilled. I don’t happen to be a fan of destiny, because it reduces heroism (if Xoblob the Tentacled is destined to rule Aumador, then Xoblob is simply a pawn following a script, wittingly or unwittingly, and so Xoblob’s moral choices are meaningless and Xoblob is neither to be praised or blamed for life events that lead inevitably to ruling Aumador). I’m well aware that philosophers can pick holes in that logic, but am uninterested in debating them; what matters when we’re reading a story or caught up in roleplaying it is how we feel, and I feel that an ironclad destiny just leeches the freedom and therefore the fun out of adventure, stripping it of that “breathing room” (elbow room, if you prefer). Unless, that is, there’s some mystery involved in the destiny, as in “the rightful one shall gain the throne,” so everyone with any ambitions or who just happens to be in the right place at the wrong time could be “the rightful one,” and moral choice and freedom and the spirit of adventure are all back in play again.
So embrace mystery—or rather, mysteries large and small. Nor knowing everything about the Realms is not just inevitable—it’s what puts a lot of fun into your every contact with the Realms. After all, why not go take another look around that corner, or inside that creepy-looking castle? You never know what’ll happen—and that’s just the point, which is why the tagline for a successful state lottery for some years has been: “Because hey, you never know.”
So it’s enough to accept that there are many mysteries, and always will be. Some of the mysteries of the Realms include what long-term plan has Ioulaum set in motion and is awaiting the culmination of; which reigning Obarskyr was an impostor, and why; which of the Chosen faked their own death and began an utterly new life—which continues, thus far—with Mystra’s private blessing; where Rowen Cormaeril went and what he got up to after the events of Death Of The Dragon; what long-term plan was hatched by one of the awakened clones of Manshoon that caused several beholder allies of the Zhentarim and a handful of powerful Zhent priests to depart the organization and go underground, where they remain; who aided Elminster behind the scenes at the end of The Herald aside from the characters shown to be onstage; and what “Great Magic of Azuth” did that god hide away at Mystra’s command, why, and what has become of it since the Spellplague loosed it into the world again.
And that’s just a handful, for starters . . .