Ever wanted to run D&D in the Forgotten Realms but have no idea where to start? Here are our tips for running D&D in an established setting!
Running D&D in an Established Setting
Trying to run a game in a setting that has been in publication for more than 20 years can be intimidating. Still, if you can overcome your anxieties, running a game in an established setting has many benefits — not the least of which being that there are reference materials to answer any question you might possibly have!
Nearly every official adventure published for Fifth Edition takes place in the Forgotten Realms. If you’re at all interested in running any of these games, you need to know how to run a game in an established setting. So here are our tips!
1. Dip Your Toes In — But Don't Drown!
If you’re running a game in a world that is new to you, the first thing you want to do is get acquainted with it. This can seem like a daunting task if you feel like you have to know everything. Luckily, you don’t! You only need to know the big picture stuff – the overview – and then what is immediately relevant to your game and the adventure. Everything else you can look up – or make up – as you go along.
In other words — you want to dip your toes into the water, but don’t fall in so deep you drown. That’s not necessary.
So, if you’re running a game in the Forgotten Realms, you’ll wanna know what the continent is called, roughly how religion works, how advanced technology is, how prevalent magic is, and maybe some of the biggest historical events that might be relevant, and then that’s about it. All of which you can pretty much read up on in an hour or so or by watching a few videos on YouTube — like the one directly above! (You can also view the video later here.)
The only details you’ll need to know are what will come into play in the game. If a faction is coming up, read up a bit on that. Learn a bit about the town or region the party is starting in, so you know what’s up. The good thing about a published setting with a rich history, such as the Forgotten Realms, is that you can basically google anything and you’ll find readily available answers and information.
2. Use Lore as Inspiration — Not Docterine
And that brings us to the second point: any information you find about the setting should be viewed as inspiration, not doctrine. At the end of the day, it’s your game and your world. You decide. So instead of feeling bound by a rich tapestry of lore, that you may not even know about – which is just a stressful situation to be in — try to think of all that information as inspiration instead.
Say you’re planning a sidequest for the adventure, where you want to insert a cool dungeon crawl you found somewhere — such as on our Patreon — but you need a way to set it up. Instead of conjuring up a whole new town and NPCs on your own, zoom in on the map of the region where the characters are and find a town there. You can find a map of Faerun (the material world of the Forgotten Realms) for free on the D&D official website.
When you’ve found a town, figure out what is already written about it. Oh, it’s an old village that was raided by orcs 50 years ago and rebuilt later? There were some cultists a decade ago that were vanquished? Well, maybe the sidequest you’re inserting can be tied to either of those historical events – the dungeon holds an item that was hidden during the orcs’ raid or by the cultists before they were eradicated.
You’ll also likely find some NPC names, and tavern and shop names, which you can freely use. Again, you don’t have to be precise, so if you think Monty Halfbend is a half-orc and not a half-elf, or The Swirling Dragon Tavern would work better as an expensive inn, well, that’s up to you. Just let those names and tidbits of information inspire you. And if you think the town should also have a temple, you add that in. Little, if anything, is set in stone when it comes to D&D, and unless you’re trying to remove or replace an iconic venue in a large city, there’s nothing you can change that will break the game.
I know that for me, working in this way is much quicker than when I have to flesh everything out on my own.
3. Manage Expectations — For Players & Yourself!
All the work you’ve done making the established setting work for you will come for naught unless you make sure that you and your players are on the same page. This means making sure that the players understand that it is your world, even if it is an established setting. You’re not writing canonically accurate fiction in a shared universe – you’re running a game of Dungeons & Dragons.
This is especially necessary when you have players who have played in that setting before – and doubly so if they know more about it than you do. Sit them down, either at session 0 or just whenever you need to, and explain to them that this will not be the setting as they’ve experienced it in another DM’s game, in a video game, or as they’ve read about it in books – it is your setting.
Your players should enter your setting as a blank slate, taking everything at face value, and forget everything they know about the setting – unless it’s something you’ve told them. Your Waterdeep may not be ruled by a council of hidden lords, but a mayor or Vecna may be, in your game, not an evil undead lich trying to attain godhood, but a respected, if misguided, antihero. They make assumptions at their own peril.
Now, it is obviously impossible not to let meta-knowledge seep in somehow – which is why it’s essential that you tell them that while they shouldn’t assume they know anything, they are always welcome to ask. So if the characters encounter a red wizard of Thay, the player who’s had experience with those before shouldn’t just assume that red wizards are always evil or bad. Still, they’re welcome to ask: “What does my character know about the red wizards?” or “Does my character know that the Red Wizards are evil?”.
And while that last question would probably be struck down in court for being “leading,” I’d let it slide, allow them a History check, and, depending on their answer, tell them what their character knows about the red wizards.
If the players forget to ask, you can even opt to step in and tell them, if you can sense that they’re making assumptions about the world that aren’t necessarily true. “Remember, this is my version of the setting. Your character has no reason to believe that Red Wizards are evil. In fact, they may be a completely different organization in my game.”
Managing expectations can be difficult, but the trick is to do it early and do it often. The more you feel in control of the setting, the easier it is for you to both prepare and improvise games in it.
To paraphrase an often over-quoted pirate: An established setting is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules. You can use the Forgotten Realms lore as a framework to build your own game world upon so that you don’t put yourself in a position where you have to try and come up with every single aspect of history, culture, or geography. That said, you also are not beholden to what the lore says. You have the freedom — and really, the obligation — to change what you need to so that your game runs smoothly and with the most amount of fun and excitement possible.