Baby's First RPG
With a slight Dragon Quest prelude, my roleplaying teeth were cut on the 2e Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting boxed set. It was and is a terrible setting. There were a few things I liked. The adventure portion was all right. It had exploration, infiltration, weird shit, and best of all, an evil plan to foil. The pictures of NPCs were very shi-shi, too.
An Exercise In Bland, Derivative Drivel
Unfortunately, it also acclimated the player to the bland, derivative Realms setting. Beyond the cheesy, instantly cliched characters, the indecisively vast pantheon, and the novel-cum-game profit model, it committed an unforgivable sin. It failed to convince me, even at age thirteen, that there was really a place where the players could be heroes. As best I could tell, the big guys had it under control.
And the big guys, oy. It felt like there was some kind of weird adventurer class struggle going on. Elminster would make cameos in published modules so you could brush shoulders with people that actually matter in the campaign world. Never mind that Elminster is the most obvious fantasy character cliche in existence. And never mind that the character it ripped off was pretty tepid, too. If Gandalf was a stately nod toward Merlin, then Elminster is a burning paper bag left on Gandalf's front porch.
Worse and Worse
Since then, the situation has worsened. Campaign settings don't update well. Every edition, the Realms has had some lame catastrophe occur to justify whatever changes the game designers would make, and more schlock would get plastered onto the earlier layers of schlock. The Time of Troubles was like a bad Neil Gaiman novel, and the more recent 4e moon magic crap is even worse. Just another excuse to showcase novels about drow and half-dragons, cat people and dinosaur people. Give it a rest, dudes.
I have played in other peoples' well-meaning attempts to run Realms campaigns. They have been festooned with chaotic good drow, thinly veiled attempts on the part of the DMs to insert their own characters into the Realms metaplot, and otherwise were complete let-downs. This is less a commentary on the Realms, than a commentary on the kind of people that the Realms attracts.
Part of the problem with the Realms is that they don't have a unifying theme. Or if they do, I'm completely mystified about what it could be. Dark Sun had ecological and liberty-related themes. Planescape had philosophical struggle. Even Spelljammer had exploration. If I had to sum up the theme of the Realms in a few words, and I had to use words with more than four letters, I'd probably call it "excess by design."
The sole joy for me to find in the Realms is pushing the envelope and misusing the setting to scandalize people that actually like it. A good example: Dark-skinned elves that murder and attack the surface? Well let me tell you, my Sun Elf knew just how to deal with that sort of criminal. I got to roleplay a lynching!