Here Be Dragons
One of the great “untold tales” of the Realms is the mainly hidden, largely confused (one of my players teasingly referred to it as an “ongoing debacle”) matter of my trying to accommodate (same player’s term: “shoehorn”) all of the various sentient races in the D&D® game into the Realms, without having them, logically, dominating the scene (instead of the humanocentric game Gary Gygax laid before us all). Why weren’t the giants ruling everything? Or the warlike, fecund, countless orcs?
When I started adapting the Realms to a D&D® setting, I had to think about all of those things. Largely on my own, because I was too young and penniless then to jaunt off to GenCon every year (though I did get to GenCon 8, then 13, and then 17 and every year since), which was my only chance to shyly ask questions of Gary Gygax or Frank Mentzer or anyone I knew from their nametag to be someone important at TSR (hint to the shy that probably won’t work these days: most of said “someones important” were guys, in those days, and guys need to use urinals occasionally, so if you time it right, you have a captive audience to hear one quick question from you, as you stand at the next urinal; nothing too startling, mind, unless you want to get sprayed).
So, where were the giants? And, oh, yes, those intelligent, large, powerful, hungry dragons, too? Where do they hang out?
Oh, I get that hill giants are a bit dim-witted and wander doing the hunting and gathering (but mainly hunting, trusty club in hand) thing, which means they can be just about anywhere, but if giants are intelligent and fierce—especially the frost and fire types—and big, where the heck are they?
I helped a friend concoct a kingdom for his fledgling D&D® games. Although it was a human kingdom, we installed a giant as king, large royal family and all—but it didn’t seem to me, once play started to unfold, as if King Horaungh really was a giant. As in, any different from a really, really tall man with a deep booming voice.
In short, there was no giant culture in that game at all. No feeling of “other,” nothing to interest inquisitive players.
So for the Realms, I tried something different. I was already, for my own personal campaign play purposes, expanding something I’d started with those early Mirt short stories: going to distant areas on the map and planting little heraldic badges of my devising (which became the badge of the new place in question, or at least a trading coster based there) and saying things like, “Right. This badge is for Var the Golden, and merchants from Var the Golden look like this (build, skin and hair hue, customary dress), and when far from home, they usually want to buy X, Y, and Z, and they customarily have A, B, and C to sell.” (After all, PC adventurers have this habit of ending up in caravan wagons and rifling through the contents—or stowing away in the holds of ships—and it’s nice to know what’s in all of those casks and crates. Sometimes, it becomes rapidly necessary to know what’s inside them.)
So, why not go a little farther out, and plonk the realms of various races in those “fringes of the map” areas? The frost giants were easy, because Gary was already showing the way. Glacial drift, here I come, now where did I put my glaciers? I know they were around here somewhere . . .
(Just kidding. I did get taught geography by teachers and later profs who knew what they were doing.)
So the great distances from places like Waterdeep and the Dales, where D&D® play in the “home” Realms campaign was unfolding, could account for why these non-humans hadn’t stomped through the human kingdoms and cities long before the PCs were born.
And we definitely needed huge plains/steppes for gi-normous herds of meat on the hoof to roam freely, in such abundance that those hungry dragons could swoop down whenever they awakened from their long sleeps (they’ve got to have those long sleeps, or the Realms would have been eaten bare long ago and they’d be busily eating each other down to the last terrible few!) and dine. Like whales opening their mouths and plowing through plankton and krill . . .
Ahem. Where was I? Oh, yes. Putting races into the Realms so they wouldn’t logically have already come to dominate the areas where play was beginning—and they were rare or mere legends or seen once every few decades.
A close look at the original Realms maps will find little notes about who dwelt where. Sossal, land of the Fossergrim, for instance. North of the Moonsea was Thar, land of the “beast-men,” which was the olden days Dragonreach human term for ogres, and north of Thar was Mount Gaethluntar (“home of the flind”); in this case, these presences worked perfectly for the local character I wanted—which was to make mining the rich metallic ore lodes up there difficult and dangerous, and the metal therefore very valuable, and Zhentil Keep and the other northern Moonsea cities wealthy and important. One Realms element that vanished from the published version to make way for Kara-Tur was a mountainous region where many dragons lived, east beyond Raurin.
This “where do they dwell” thing wasn’t just my problem. I recall Troy Denning sitting down with me in the TSR games library to go over the Realms maps and make very sure of the best places he could locate giants for the trilogy of novels he was then writing. And I was delighted when one of my “distant spot on the map” ideas (a realm of monsters, ruled by monsters) made it into the published Realms (Veldorn).
The Sword Coast presented me with a similar problem: I wanted it to be adventuring territory, and rich in timber, flowing water (mills and power), and mineral resources but sparsely settled by humans. I hit upon the idea of orcs (and goblins) infesting the cavern-riddled mountains, and dominating other races in the area like dwarves and gnomes and hobgoblins and bugbears through sheer numbers, and breeding like rabbits until they are simply too many of them for the available food and living space, so they boil out of their mountain homes and sweep south in huge unruly migrating raiding armies, pillaging and slaughtering and foraging until they are all dead or scattered all over more southerly Heartlands areas, warmer and more food-rich and prey-abundant areas that become their new homes. Yes, these are the infamous orc hordes. A nifty concept, I thought—and I still regret that no one ever did an epic, sweeping novel following one of them from formation to final destruction. (Showing us orc culture along the way.)
I’m still detailing draconic politics, and the complicated overlapping demesnes of dragons in the Realms (the Sword Coast domains got mapped for my Wyrms of the North columns, but that still leaves a lot of land area, even just in “known” Faerûn, not yet described). Yet perhaps it’s best that much of this infilling never gets finished, and leaves individual DMs and prose storytellers that much more freedom. That way, we all get more splendid stories, either our own or shared.
Image borrowed from “The Races of Faerun” ©Wizards of the Coast