Chris Perkins interview: Dungeons & Dragons, The Sundering and shared worlds

JP chats to Dungeons & Dragons' world building lead about the latest big event in the Forgotten Realms

Dungeons & Dragons celebrated its 40th anniversary earlier this year. The anniversary coincides with the release of the Fifth Edition of the venerable role-playing game and the revamp of one of its most popular world settings, the Forgotten Realms. If you are a fan of heroic fantasy novels − even if you are not a Dungeons & Dragons gamer − chances are you are familiar with the Forgotten Realms novels.

Dungeons & Dragons gaming can take place in a number of worlds, which are all part of a vast multiverse. When I started playing the game in my teens, the world of Greyhawk was all the rage in Dungeons & Dragons gaming. But then I read an article by Ed Greenwood in Dragon Magazine, on a world he baptized the Forgotten Realms and it captured my imagination like no other world since Tolkien’s Middle Earth. So when the first novels taking place in that world started coming out in the 80s, I was immediately hooked. There are other famous settings that have been used for the game, like Eberron and Krynn, and that have also captured the imagination of players and readers alike in novel form, but arguably no setting has been as popular in novel form as the Forgotten Realms with hundreds of novels and short stories anthologies published so far.

While some critics are not too fond of shared universe novel series (including the Star Wars Expended Universe, World of Warcraft, and numerous others), the Forgotten Realms series has been going strong since 1987 with the release of its first novel, Walker On Moonshae by Douglas Niles. The next year saw the release of the second book in the series, The Crystal Shard, a phenomenal success that launched the writing career of multiple NY Times bestseller R. A. Salvatore, the creator of Drizzt Do’Urden, one of the most celebrated characters in fantasy.

While the Dungeons & Dragons game itself was experiencing a rebirth of sort with the release of its Fifth Edition, the Forgotten Realms was also going through a world-shaking event called The Sundering. The event kicked off a collaborative book series by six of the Forgotten Realms’ most celebrated writers, namely R. A. Salvatore (author of over 26 Drizzt novels), Paul S. Kemp (author of the Erevis Cale trilogy), Erin M. Evans (author of the Brimstone Angel books), Richard Lee Byers (author of the Haunted Lands and Brotherhood Of The Griffon series), Troy Denning (co-author of the Avatar trilogy), and Ed Greenwood (creator of the Forgotten Realms and of its most celebrated resident, Elminster). The first book, The Companion, by R. A. Salvatore, was released last summer. It was quickly followed every other month by the remaining entries in the series: The Godborn, by Paul S. Kemp; The Adversary, by Erin M. Evans; The Reaver, by Richard Lee Byers; The Sentinel by Troy Denning; and finally The Herald, by Ed Greenwood.

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During The Sundering authors panel at Gen Con in 2013, R. A. Salvatore mentioned that The Sundering led to the return of the Realms to a place of adventure and joy. While the book series had been going strong for almost thirty years, some felt that the Forgotten Realms needed freshening up. Interestingly enough, instead of opting for a reboot, which seems to be the trend nowadays, Wizards of the Coast decided to keep the history and lore of the Forgotten Realms intact and opted for a “Realms-shaking event” that saw the return of some fan favorite characters despite the decades-long jump in the timeline. It would be too lengthy to discuss all six books in the series here, but Den of Geek had the opportunity to chat with Chris Perkins, Dungeons & Dragons Story/World-Building Lead, about the decisions and events leading to The Sundering and the book series in general.

A lot of shared universe settings (Star Trek, the Star Wars Expanded Universe, DC Comics’ New 52, etc.) are getting rebooted nowadays, but some fans are not too crazy about the idea of rebooting old favorites. A good example is the decision by Disney to reboot the Star Wars Expanded Universe, which has angered fans who had been reading Star Wars novels for some 30 years. The Sundering is something of a reboot of the Forgotten Realms, but unlike the Star Wars EU, you’ve kept the history of the Realms intact. What led to that decision? What was the process like, and how do you manage all that history and continuity, especially considering the number of authors who contribute to the series?

We know that every Realms fan has favourite characters, conflicts, and moments in history. We didn’t want to undo or overwrite something that might be a fan’s favourite part of the setting. Our guiding principle is to embrace the past and not pass judgment or rewrite history. We’d rather let the fans tell us what they like about the Realms and focus on those elements going forward.

Each story that we tell in the Forgotten Realms (and every edition of the D&D TRPG) adds something new to the setting. Some world-shaking events, such as the Time of Troubles and the Spellplague, are particularly controversial and polarizing. Whether we like them or not, they are very much a part of the Forgotten Realms, and in no way do these events impact our ability to tell great stories going forward.

Preserving continuity is an ongoing challenge, but we’re fortunate to have a group of writers who talk to one another and who are well versed in Realms lore. They’re very good at internalizing canonical elements that are important for the stories they want to tell. If a writer comes across a continuity issue, we have consultants who are Realms experts to help iron things out.

Elminster, Drizzt, and Farideh are the existing characters that were selected to make the jump in time to The Sundering. Prior to The Sundering, The Spellplague had also ushered in a 100-year jump in the novel series. That’s a long time for some of the characters that are not as long-lived as Drizzt or who don’t benefit from magically enhanced lifespans, like Elminster. Some favourite characters will have died, undoubtedly, but will we possibly see the return of other familiar faces and old favourite characters in future novels?

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The time jump that accompanied the Spellplague allowed us to tell some interesting stories, such as Drizzt Do’Urden’s pain and isolation in the wake of losing his beloved companions. Fortunately, in a magical world, it’s possible to restore that which was lost. I liked how R. A. Salvatore’s The Companions handled the return of Bruenor, Wulfgar, Regis, and Cattie-brie. Jim Zub’s new Legends of Baldur’s Gate comic series brilliantly tackles the return of Minsc and Boo. Time has also allowed us to revive the Harpers, the Zhentarim, and other popular elements of the Forgotten Realms setting. Other familiar faces will undoubtedly return as well.

During the Gen Con 2013 Sundering authors’ panel, James Watts mentioned an upcoming Sundering tie-in comic book, but I haven’t seen it on the shelves yet. With the upcoming Legends of Baldur’s Gate comic from IDW, can we expect to see more Forgotten Realms stories in comic book format?

While I can’t comment on products that have not released, we hope that the success of the Legends of Baldur’s Gate comic will pave the way for future comics featuring great Realms characters and big stories.

R. A. Salvatore and Erin M. Evans have already published some post-Sundering Forgotten Realms novels and they have more on the way. Can you tell us about other Forgotten Realms novels in the pipe?

Our authors have trajectories in mind for their characters, and I won’t spoil any of the surprises they have in store for fans. As we move forward, we will try to build overarching stories that fans can experience across multiple platforms, including novels. For example, our current story is Tyranny of Dragons, and while it mostly plays out in RPG adventures, comics, and the Neverwinter MMO, you’ll see a few nods to Tyranny of Dragons in upcoming novels as well.

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Our novelists are part of the story-planning process, and we’ll be relying on them to help us “break” and tell those stories, or parts thereof.

What’s the challenge of making the Forgotten Realms appealing to new gamers? Do you expect the Fifth Edition to bring more readers to the novels, or vice-versa, or a bit of both?

The Forgotten Realms remains one of the most popular worlds in the D&D multiverse, and many of our future stories will be based there. Our challenge is to tell stories that make fans want to visit the Realms and stay a while, regardless of whether they experience the story through novels, comics, RPG adventures, video games, or some other mechanism. We hope that the Tyranny of Dragons story and future stories set in the Realms are so good that fans can enjoy exploring the Realms and not feel burdened by its history or legacy. One of the great strengths of the Realms has always been that a million stories can take place there. That’s an appealing idea, but we need to show, not tell. Tyranny of Dragons and other stories are our way of doing just that.

Some critics have said unkind words about shared world fiction, yet the Forgotten Realms novels have been coming out for almost three decades now. They have launched the careers of several respected authors, and they have created characters that have become staples of the fantasy genre. Why do you think some critics have such dim views of the genre?

I think it comes down to personal taste. Some folks have a dim view of modern art, but it’s still art, just as some folks are unhappy that people are writing stories based on the Cthulhu mythos years after Lovecraft’s death.

When you write shared world fiction, you’re adding something new to someone else’s creation, rather than creating something that’s all your own. It’s easy to overlook how rewarding it can be to write or read a story that leverages the core elements of an established world. Curiously, the criticism leveled at shared-world novels rarely carries over to shared-world television. Serialized television shows usually have multiple writers, making them shared world fiction, and yet they are rarely criticized for being such.

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R. A. Salvatore called The Sundering the reversal of the Realms to a place of adventure and joy. Do you feel that the Realms prior to The Sundering had become too dark? Did that have an impact on the popularity of the novels series?

The Spellplague was certainly a dark time for Drizzt Do’Urden. However, Drizzt is just one character, and the Realms is a big place. I wouldn’t say that the Realms as a whole had become too dark. I would say that the Realms had become unsettled, to the extent that fans weren’t as comfortable with the world as they used to be. We lost the fans’ confidence in our stewardship of the setting. By reintroducing familiar elements and focusing on the things that made people fall in love with the Realms in the first place, we’re gradually showing fans that the things they like most about the world are back.

Should readers being introduced to the Forgotten Realms through The Sundering series go back and read some other books before reading the new ones?

I don’t think reading the older books is a requirement, but it can be helpful and rewarding. Case in point, there are over twenty-five Drizzt novels, and some of the most character-defining moments happen in the early novels. Similarly, there are iconic Realms characters that haven’t appeared recently that are worth discovering.

What’s happening in the other Dungeons & Dragons realms (Eberron, Krynn, etc.) while The Sundering is happening? A few years ago, Wizards of the Coast released the Abyssal Plague series that tied-in three different realms. Can we expect to see more “crossovers”?

In the coming years, we hope to visit several of our established worlds and see what’s happening there. One of the great things about D&D is that these worlds all exist in the same multiverse, allowing us to travel from one world to another as story and opportunity allows. While I can’t speak to any specific crossover plans, I can say that we’re open to the possibility, if the right story comes along.

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In closing − and totally unrelated to The Sundering − thousands of fans are dying to know: Can readers expect a return to the world of Dragonlance in the foreseeable future?

Anything is possible, but I can’t offer any predictions at this time. We’ll visit Krynn again when the stars align and we have the perfect Dragonlance story to tell.

Thank you very much!

The Sundering has concluded now with the release of Ed Greenwood’s The Herald earlier this summer. As far as what happens next, R. A. Salvatore is hard at work on the Companions Codex series, having already released the first two books in the series, Night of the Hunter, and Rise of the King; and Erin M. Evans released Fire in the Blood this month, continuing the storyline of her character, the Tiefling warlock Farideh.

Wizards of the Coast has not announced any new Forgotten Realms books for 2015 and beyond yet. But given the success of The Sundering, fans can look forward to more Forgotten Realms adventures in the future.