One of the worst parts of the Realms setting (given the information we used to play) is that it suffers from a D&D mentality. If we go by the monster manual and the encounter tables, this is a dangerous world filled with monsters, raiding tribes, dragons, wild beasts, dark elves, demons (in AD&D, not 2nd Edition), and undead. You are likely to encounter a monster a mile out of town.
Then, we will see maps of towns with no defenses, moats, or walls around them, like they were pastoral villages in ancient France. And we will have massive cities with no history of warfare, no enemies nearby, surrounded by multiple layers of walls. Massive navies and armies with no enemies.
The concentric walls and towers make excellent fantasy maps!
Or they don't? Did we need them? Are there monsters here or not? Do we have enemies?
D&D sometimes brings out all the tropes of fantasy worlds and leans hard on pageantry and flash, often not backed up by reality. We put walls around towns that never needed them because of needing walls on the map! Towers too! Giant high towers overlooking farms! Well, they look fantastic in the art? No, we never used them. But we need towers.
Nobody in the town knows why the towers or walls are there.
Small towns, 50 miles away from major cities, look like small New England towns strung out along roads. No defenses. No fort to run to should the city be attacked. Just houses and farms as usual. We don't see anything from the monster manual around here; why do you ask?
The danger level of the setting can't make up its mind. Sometimes, it contradicts the history (if you can find it). The boxed set above sheds a little light on the historical record, and the entries for cities rarely mention wars or military campaigns. Mind you, this was the only information we were playing with. No novels, no 3.5 guides, no modules - just the boxed set above.
Again, hindsight today gives us a lot more. But we never had it.
Not every village in ancient England had defenses, but we are in a swords & sorcery world. Dragons are real here. Armies of orcs that worship demons and raid civilization exist. The dead can walk the land. To be honest, this was a problem with our first B/X game back in 1978. We saw a few maps and went, hey, that's cool! A small town with a few farms around them!
The original boxed set never emphasized that the kingdoms in the world ever fought any wars or had natural enemies or alliances. Everything was just 'there,' which is how we took things. Mystara is a little like this, too, very sandboxed and peaceful (at least until the last modules with the war came out). I recall one of the authors of the FR setting saying Canada was what the world was modeled after, sort of a loose collection of places and peoples that mostly got along and lived in relative peace (until the next world-shaking event).
Truth be told, FR was more about the books than the world design. It is a good setting, just not compelling for us on a low level of danger and survival. And remember, all we had was the first boxed set. It would have been very different if this was our first world today.
Greyhawk wasn't like this and is arguably the better AD&D setting overall. This place had kingdoms with alignments, which was cool since you knew who hated who. A lawful good domain next to a lawful evil one was not getting along; the border was likely fortified, and the towns along the border were defended well. A chaotic evil kingdom had plenty of monsters wandering the countryside. Places in good kingdoms far away from evil areas would be lightly defended, but still, this is an AD&D world, and there would always be defenses.
Kingdom alignments are a must for world-building. I know; someone finally says this after every major game is eliminating alignment as a concept.
Without alignment, it is not D&D.
Greyhawk is still the gold standard of AD&D settings. In D&D 3.0, seeing it featured as the default setting was terrific. And 3.5 crept back into pulling in the Realms and other places. By 4E, everything was abandoned for a planar-focused nebulous setting (that we initially loved), and weak "kewl rad" sourcebooks came out to destroy every world (except Greyhawk, which was a blessing in disguise).
The shift towards novels and storytelling changed the entire course of D&D, and you see that shift towards "story gaming" to this day, even to the point where player protections are so extreme in 5E that no one can die.
The only thing FR had going for it were those novels and characters. They became pop culture icons and the hated GMNPCs of the world. The company went bankrupt, and that entire legacy was squandered when we could have had movies and films with that lore and those characters. Greyhawk was made for AD&D, and the Realms was created for novels.
Then again, without a Dragon magazine subscription, knowing Greyhawk's history was inaccessible before the boxed set's release at the end of the 1980s. By then, we had moved on. We did not have the Internet back then! What we could find in the Waldenbooks at the mall was what we had.
The 3.5 Forgotten Realms hardcover is better, but it only has six pages of history. Still, I need more than this. When this came out in the 2000s, we were far from anything D&D.
Ed Greenwood runs a Patreon for Realms fans - join that; I need to shout him out since he does amazing YouTube videos, too. He is a treasure, and we should enjoy him today and not regret this later.
Without history and conflict, the Realms as a campaign setting died for us. It was too peaceful and happy kumbaya, and the world lacked ancient mysteries and fallen empires. There weren't threats from monster hordes and dragons. If they were there, we never knew about them. Later, video games would change all this because who wants to play in a dull world?
Other worlds were more compelling. Warhammer FRP was fantastic; it was full of armies, chaos, hardened defenses of civilization, and conflicts.
The Realms ended for us as a destroyed 4E setting nobody ever visited. A bunch of GMNPCs lived there and stared at the massive hole in the ground that was the Underdark. The Dragonborn and Eladrin showed up inexplicably. Still, the default 4E assumption was that you started your planar adventures at level 10, so all 4E settings felt like glorified MMO "starting zones" where the tutorials happen.
The 'rule of cool' flashy, often nonsensical fantasy art that defined the 2010s destroyed the old school and most old school settings because they needed to adopt the fresh, hip, new style. Today, the whole 'rule of cool' art is problematic, so we are left with overly safe 'Scholastic fantasy art' that is bland, with most people looking bored or high as they stand alone on a page in a white void.
The Harry Potter books killed 1970s fantasy. Everything we see today comes from that sterile, sexless, cosmopolitan, overly magic, anti-religious, and war-free place.
Part of me wants to revisit the Realms using one of the new Open 5E systems or even GURPS, and then another part just doesn't care anymore because I know there isn't much there. I would have to drastically change the world to a more violent and conflict-ridden one, with the ruins of lost civilizations and empires. These worlds aren't even made for major wars or monster invasions, and the last time they did one, it wrecked the setting more (Greyhawk Wars, 1990s).
But if I am going to do that much work, I will just make my own world.
I go back to the reason I play GURPS. If I have to fight a setting or game to fix it, I will find one that lets me do what I want and build from there. And the changes that modern creators do to these worlds are more done out of spite than love. They see themselves as "fixing it" like some sort of repair expert, but they will never be a world creator. They will never be allowed to build worlds by their masters. So that hate gets transferred to the things they are told to work on, and they have to prove they are better than what a true creative mind built.
I keep asking myself, where are the worlds from this generation of creators? The answers are in the indies and never with the big IP holders. But I can't hold people at these big companies at fault for ruining these worlds; they are in a crappy situation - they fantasized about working for a 'dream creator' company, and when they are in, they find out it is the 'dream killer.'
I have been there. You resent every day. And you end up hating your dreams since they cause you pain.
It is easier and more satisfying to just create my own world myself.
Why would I play in a wrecked setting? Nostalgia isn't enough.