When it comes to Dungeons and Dragons, most of the official prewritten adventures are set in the Forgotten Realms. It has become the default setting for Wizards of the Coast's iconic fantasy TTRPG. This is for good reason since the adventures are packed with heroic stakes. Stop a rampaging group of giants. Prevent a cult from resurrecting their dragon god. Bring back a city that has fallen into the Nine Hells. The list goes on.
But the latest adventure created by Matthew Whitby, Scott McClintock, and edited by Robert Reeve and Laura Hirsbrunner asks a terrifying question: what if all of these heroic adventures ended badly? The parties of heroes failed and the antagonists of those respective adventures all succeeded in their ultimate goals. Furthermore, what if all of these schemes succeeded all at once? Hence, the release of what can charitably be called D&D's “darkest timeline” material, The Doomed Forgotten Realms.
What is fascinating about The Doomed Forgotten Realms is that it does a great job of making its unique version of history accessible. The opening pages includes a timeline of events, citing the various adventures and the events that spun out from them. Some of these are straightforward. Thanks to the war effort of Zariel's devil legions from Descent Into Avernus, Baldur's Gate has now been turned into a stronghold for the Nine Hells, referred to now as Helldoor's Gate. With no one to prevent the schemes found in Out of The Abyss, the demon lords have broken out into the material plane. Since no adventurers stopped the Cult of the Dragon from freeing Tiamat, the five-headed dragon god has now fully returned. The entire North is now cast in perpetual winter thanks to the undeterred events of Rime of the Frostmaiden. If you aren't completely versed in the lore of Dungeons and Dragons, this is just background detail, but if you are it is a glimpse into what would happen if heroes failed.
There is still some delightful creative license to be found in The Doomed Forgotten Realms. Some of it makes sense from a worldbuilding perspective. For example, due to both demons and devils having territory in the Material Plane, their ongoing Blood War has simply changed venues. Others feel more like consolidation such as the various cults from Princes of the Apocalypse banding together as The Cult of the Elder Elemental Eye.
In fact, what makes The Doomed Forgotten Realms work so well is that all of these various villains haven't banded together into a pantheon of ultimate evil. They are still scheming and planning to screw each other over. Rather than it being one overwhelming singular land of unrelenting misery, it's a series of cruel fiefdoms. If you want to survive, you must play by their rules. In fact, to represent this turbulent shifting of alliances, The Doomed Forgotten Realms even reintroduces the reputation system from Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. Reeve explains it as such,
Some of the best drama in post-apocalyptic media like The Walking Dead or Y: the Last Man comes from seeing how different communities make compromises to survive. So the Cult of the Elder Elemental Eye’s terraformed a paradise, but if you don’t have aptitude with earth, fire, air, or water, you aren’t allowed in. The Cult of the Dragon might protect you, but only as long as you keep bringing spoils of war to add to the troves. Do you think you can reform these factions? Or do you get corrupted by power and security as you climb the ranks?
But arguably the greatest bit of creative license can be seen on the cover of this adventure: an ascended God version of Vecna with his left eye and left hand restored. If you are not too versed in the importance of this character, he embodies the danger and temptation of liches in Dungeons and Dragons. In pure technical terms, Vecna's return in this world is due to a retcon: Acererak's Soulmonger from Tomb of Annihilation was used to fully restore The Whispered One to the Material Plane after his destruction – and according to certain people the entire cosmos of Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition – in the adventure Die, Vecna, Die!. But Whitby mentioned the idea that Vecna as the one pulling the strings behind the scenes, orchestrating this entire terrible scenario, helps tie all of the disparate adventures together.
Which did invite a question for The Doomed Forgotten Realms: how exactly do you put stats to such overwhelming threats? There are a few characters that do have official statblocks from their official adventures like The Fallen Angel Zariel and Tiamat. But how exactly do you represent Tharizdun, Creator of The Abyss, freed by The Cult of the Elder Elemental Eye? Furthermore, how do you represent a fully powered Vecna? Even Wizards of the Coast's official 5e statblock for Vecna is him decidedly not at his full power.
The team's ultimate answer is simple: they didn't. It might sound ridiculous, forcing Dungeon Masters to make stuff up for their group. It can even be seen as lazy since the material even includes adventure hooks for an adventuring party level 17-20 but not a lot in terms of original monster statblocks. Reeve's explanation for this seeming oversight was to cite a certain D&D horror supplement.
One of the ways Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft made monsters scary and mysterious was by leaving out stat blocks! I personally hate it when gods have stat blocks. I don’t want a definitive answer to “Can god make a rock so big he can’t lift it?” Leaving out stat blocks gives Dungeon Masters so much narrative freedom to do what feels right. You know the scope and scale of this God of Death’s power, so now you don’t read his stat block and say, “oh I can’t do that; it’s not on his sheet.”
In a way, this is freeing. While having stats and the like are helpful for giving a credible threat, putting stats to a god can fundamentally change the scale of an adventure. But if a group does want to go toe-to-toe, it might lead to more dynamic scenarios if the DM simply keeps some story twists and fiats up their sleeve while cheekily using the Damage Severity By Level chart to keep the threats tangible.
But, despite how bad everything has become, this is still a setting in Dungeons and Dragons. At its core, D&D is still a heroic fantasy where adventurers conquer impossible odds. The Doomed Forgotten Realms recognizes this while also addressing just how much this version of the world has altered things. This is represented by brand new subclasses that push players towards darker or more ruthless playstyles. These include Circle of the Nine, a Druid subclass where you twist the earth into infernal terrors, punishing the corrupt as the Nine Hells are designed to do. Reeve mentioned that this subclass was one he loved working on. There is also Zhentilar's Finest, a Fighter subclass where you use fear and intimidation to break the will and resolve of those you face; an extension of the “Might Makes Right” attitude of the Zhentarim. Wizards can even adopt the School of Secrets, a philosophy of magic shared by Vecna.
But a personal highlight has to be the Spell Slayer, a Rogue subclass dedicated to defending against and destroying spellcasters. Whitby himself mentioned his love for this take on the Rogue, stating:
It felt natural for when a world is ruled by liches or evil wizards, that adventurers would dedicate their skills to trying to take spell casters down. But what's great about tying the subclasses into the world's lore is that characters can start by harnessing these dubious powers, but there is nothing stopping them from using them for good (or well, the lesser of evils).
The Doomed Forgotten Realms is available right now on Dms Guild for $8.99.