The Forgotten Realms are the most popular setting for Dungeons and Dragons, home to almost 300 novels in addition to the countless associated tabletop role-playing materials, video games, and comic books. There’s no fantasy setting with more information on it, anywhere.
That can seem daunting, but most of the books are designed to be stand-alone, or in a smaller series. There are a few major upheavals to the setting but even those rarely affect the stand-alone nature of the books too much.
But where to start?
Don’t worry. I’m here to help. Keep reading for the best jumping in points for The Forgotten Realms.
The Dark Elf Trilogy by R.A. Salvatore
R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt is by far the setting’s most popular character. The drow with the soul of a ranger was originally meant to be a sidekick and mentor to Wulfgar, the young barbarian that Salvatore had originally conceived of as the protagonist. But it didn’t take long before Drizzt became the protagonist, and he was never better than in this trilogy exploring his history in his homeland of Menzoberranzan, his exile in the Underdark, and his sojourn among the surface races.
Songs and Swords by Elaine Cunningham
Ed Greenwood, creator of the Forgotten Realms, had this to say about Cunningham’s books:
“When I first read Elaine Cunningham’s first Realms novel, ELFSHADOW, I thought: this lady has been reading my mind. This IS Waterdeep; she’s seeing it through my mind’s eye! It’s PERFECT!”
Elaine Cunningham has always felt like The Realms’ secret weapon. She never got the fame that Salvatore achieved, but her books were always some of the best.
Songs and Swords follows Arilyn Moonblade, a half-elf who despite her low birth was capable of wielding the powerful elven Moonblade, and the fop Danilo Thann. Thann is secretly a brilliant bard, but he puts on the role of a dilettante and a fool so that people let their guard down around him. Rounding out the group is Elaith Craulnober, a crime lord elf whose downfall was directly related to being rejected by his own moonblade. Cunningham injects real pathos and humour from these characters, better than anyone else writing in the setting.
The Harpers by Troy Denning, Elaine Cunningham, Jean Rabe, and more
The longest series in the Forgotten Realms follows the Harpers, a secret organization dedicated to freedom, foiling the plans of the Zhentarim, and preserving ancient art and lore. They are, at their core, a very easy way to put a Dungeons and Dragons party together in the setting.
These books were largely stand-alone. The Ring of Winter followed one Artus Cimber as he investigated the dinosaur-infested land of Chult to find the artifact The Ring of Winter capable of creating endless, magical ice. Crown of Fire followed a woman named Shandril with a strange kind of magic almost unheard of. Thornhold, the final book in the series, explored the prejudices of paladins and how easy it is to weaponize.
The Avatar Series by Scott Ciencin, Troy Denning, and James Lowder
The first major plot-line of the Forgotten Realms was the Time of Troubles, when the gods were forcibly turned mortal and reality itself shifted. Priests lost their powers and wizards’ spells no longer functioned reliably.
Originally this was a trilogy written by Scott Ciencin and Troy Denning under the joint pen name Richard Awlinson. While the original trilogy had some great moments, it also had some haphazard plotting. It’s hard to up the stakes in a plot once you’ve declared reality itself isn’t working.
That said, the two follow-up sequels, Prince of Lies and Crucible: The Trial of Cyric the Mad, were exemplary. They followed the new political balance of the gods after the Time of Troubles, and how the gods would manipulate mortals and each other to improve their own standing. It was a kind of story I’ve never read elsewhere, the kind of story that only works in this kind of grand setting.
The Cleric Quintet by R.A. Salvatore
While Salvatore is best known for Drizzt, his Cleric Quintet even better. It follows the young priest of the god of knowledge, Cadderly Bonaduce, as he foils the plots of Castle Trinity and goes from being a curious, well-meaning skeptic to the most devout priest.
There’s a fantastic romance between Cadderly and the monk Danica, and some solid comedy with the Bouldershoulder brothers, dwarven cooks who tag along with Cadderly. But the real core of this book is Cadderly’s arc as he goes from hapless innocent to one of the most powerful priests in the Forgotten Realms.
The Moonshae Trilogy by Douglas Niles
The first book in the Moonshae series by Douglas Niles was the first Forgotten Realms novel. In fact, R.A. Salvatore had originally pitched his own book in the Moonshae Isles, but once he found out they were being used, changed his to Icewind Dale.
The Moonshae series feels closest to the epic fantasy series of the time period. Well-meaning nobles fight valiantly against encroaching evil. Druidic nature magic is a last desperate hope. Much of the Forgotten Realms novels have a very pulp, sword and sorcery vibe to them, and this is one of very few exceptions.
There was also a sequel series, taking place a generation later, called Druidhome, that maintained a very similar tone.
Once Around the Realms by Brian Thomsen
Many of the RPG books involving the Forgotten Realms include Volo, world-traveling explorer. Well, this romp of a novel features him being cursed to go around the Realms with an annoying thespian companion who bears a striking resemblance to another author of Forgotten Realms novels. The breakneck pace means there’s always something fun happening, from playing magical sports the dragon-filled Chult to uncovering doppleganger plots.
The Lost Library of Cormanthyr by Mel Odom
This is basically Indiana Jones in a magical world, and it is exactly as fun as that sounds. A human explorer attempts to discover the secrets of an ancient elven library. Globe-trotting, perusing ancient texts, and a non-stop plot make this book fly by.
Realms of Infamy edited by James Lowder
The Forgotten Realms has plenty of anthologies, and Realms of Infamy, the second, is the strongest of them. It takes the numerous villains who make up the fabric of the setting and shows us their point of view. The Salvatore story explains how Artemis Entreri became such a high-ranking assassin at such a young age, while the Cunningham shows Elaith Craulnober, the elven crime lord, accepting his fate but hoping for a better future.
Elminster: The Making of A Mage by Ed Greenwood
Ed Greenwood created the Forgotten Realms, so it feels right that he should get the final spot on this list. Elminster is the only character who comes even close in notoriety from the Forgotten Realms to Drizzt. He’s the Chosen of Mystra, goddess of magic, one of the most important Harpers, and the person who knows just how to nudge fledgling heroes in the right direction. The Making of A Mage shows his early life and explores how he became the Archmage of the Realms.
Want to know where to dive into other major SFF worlds and books? Check out more of our Where to Start Reading series.