So everyone knows that there are multiple high level personalities in the Forgotten Realms. Many of us feel that those long lists of people in the setting books are slightly intimidating. Is there any space for the stories of my character?
I decided to sum the level of the named personalities in the grey box for Forgotten Realms, FR1 Waterdeep and FR5 The Savage Frontier (all for 1st ed. AD&D) and see what the average level is of them. It might give you a hint of what might be the best books to use, and if FR is a place for your heroes to make their mark. The results are interesting.
Grey Box - 9What do you say about that? Considering the box is detailing a significant part of a whole continent, it's not surprising to have a few level 26 individuals in there. But, the average lands right in the sweet spot for "name level", which kind of makes sense if these are the people who are significant enough to stand out. They have begun to make their mark in the world, which with player characters happens at "name level". Maybe FR is not so filled with demigods after all?
Waterdeep - 6.5
Savage Frontier - 13.333
Lets then look at the metropolis, Waterdeep. Considering this is the most densely populated place in the realms, you would imagine this is a place you are quite likely to find those big wigs. Interestingly, there are some character in the upper teens, but not as many as I expected. The movers and shakers are described in vague terms, and the so called "Lords of Waterdeep" are actually secret, which makes it easy to slip in a player character or two in there.
Then, finally, we have Paul Jaquays. While I have a healthy amount of respect for the man as a dungeon designer, I think I know where I don't like his world building. In the Savage Frontier we have him fleshing out the wilds around Waterdeep and he adds a few high level personalities. By adding in his marvellous The Enchanted Wood adventure material for DragonQuest (which I happen to have an extra copy of, if anyone is interested), he manages to up the epic feel quite a bit. I remember someone posted that they felt FR5 was a bit much, when a section about random events mentioned two flying castles with dragons crawling over them passing overhead, locked in a wizardly duel. I think I agree. This book adds way to much. In my FR I think I will pass on it, however much I like Jaquays' dungeons.
I don't have many more of the earliest FR books for 1st ed. Since Ed Greenwood wrote the one on the Red Wizards, and they are all over the Grey Box as the big evil force, I feel tempted to to a similar analysis of that one. I have Moonshae, but it feels a bit separated from the rest of the world.
So, while it seems like the reputation FR has of a myriad of high powered NPCs is not totally unfounded, I think it is not found in all the sources. Personally I can't stand game novels, and I have stayed away from most of the 2nd ed. source books as well, since most of those are written after the novels started to flow out of TSR. If those are ignored, and some source books are screened, I think there are space left in the Forgotten Realms for your heroes.
A campaign which uses the Grey Box as a basis, adds Waterdeep and takes that Old West feel, might be a "Greenwood-ian" realms, and one wherein your adventures might not only fit, but also make an impact on the world. That's how I would run it.