Published on June 13th, 2014 | by Luke Turpeinen0
Top 5 Dungeons & Dragons Settings
Since its debut in the 70s, Dungeons & Dragons has produced adventures that cover an amazing array of different fantasy worlds. TSR, and now WotC, were/are in the business of making interesting fantasy settings to play around in, and they’ve succeeded many times. Depending how you count them, D&D has had at least 25 campaign settings, which have included everything from gritty sword and sorcery to mystical not-space pirates and more. These are the five official D&D settings that I feel stand out above the rest.
Debut: 2004 WotC
Official Publications: D&D 3rd Edition, D&D 4th Edition
Of all the more traditionally high fantasy settings that has been published under the D&D banner, I feel that Eberron is the most interesting. It was created as an entry for a contest to become the next big D&D setting. One of the things that made Eberron stand out was that it ignored a more medieval time period and instead presented a world of varied development, roughly analogous to the late 19th century. There is a lightning rail, there are zeppelin-like elementally powered airships, but there are also undiscovered ancient lands as well as people who live very differently from the western nations. Eberron does this all without being heavy handed in its metaphors, and as the conflicts all necessarily involve the fantastic or magical, they are really easy to hang your group’s stories onto.
“Okay, that’s great and all, but what makes this thing exciting and fun?” I hear you asking. Georgian era high fantasy with D&D’s pulp elements pulled forward is my main reason for liking it. There are also a bunch of great set pieces: How about an entire continent full of ruins from an ancient civilization and their magical secrets? There are cyberpunk style mega-corporations called Dragonmarked Houses that are ruled by an extended family or clan, some of whom get magic powers thematic to the House. Sharn is a city built on a magic anti-gravity node that allows medieval style stone structures like skyscrapers. Eberron has magic-robots made for war who become a self-aware species. There are elementally powered airships, hover boards, and a written scenario where you defend your airship from gnolls archers on hover boards. The setting’s got a lot going for it.
Books that stand out: I really enjoyed the 4th edition Campaign Setting, though I know many who thought it watered down ideas from the 3rd edition book. Out of the 3rd edition supplements only Five Nations (about the “industrialized” nations) and Sharn: City of Towers really stood out, but they’re both great tools. Also check out Kieth Baker, the setting’s original author, talk about Eberron on his blog.
Debut: 1991 TSR, 2010 WotC
Official Publications: AD&D 2nd Edition, D&D 4th Edition
If Conan were a D&D setting, he’d be Dark Sun. Set in a post-apocalyptic desert fantasy world, Dark Sun was possibly the most bleak setting TSR ever made. The wizards of the world figured out a way to suck life out of plants to fuel their powers and the eventual arms race left the world dry and barren. In addition, all of the world’s hard metals have been used or destroyed, leaving the people of Athas without the means to make better tools in the absence of magic. On top of all of this, the city states that have survived are ruled by mysterious arcane beings known as Dragon Kings, many of whom used to be mortal sorcerers, but are now something more. In Dark Sun your characters get no breaks, there is no safe zone and death is ever present.
Dark Sun takes some liberties with the traditional D&D races. For example, elves are nomadic and known for their distance running, halflings are cannibalistic and terrorize what’s left of the wooded areas. Each of the Dragon Kings (fascist rulers of the only remnants of civilization that remain) is moderately themed after a real world historical era, but this is set dressing- no actual references to history exist. The setting also had one of the better instances of TSR art direction. Brom was the primary artist for the line, with his S&M style gothic fantasy paintings used for the brutal, primalistic style of the setting. Just by looking at the art one is able to get an idea for the mood they want to set.
Books that stand out: The 4th edition campaign setting guide is the best way to get a solid overview of the setting. While the art doesn’t have anything by Brom or rk post (which is truly tragic), the info there is condensed and has had most of the silly things taken out. If you get the older books, it’ll be mostly for the art.
Debut: 1989 TSR
Official Publications: AD&D 2nd Edition, Dungeon Magazine #92
Spelljammer is a cross between Vernian space voyages and the Age of Sail, with magical ships sailing the Astral Sea to find adventure. The wacky cultures and creatures have become infamous, from the imperial hippopotamus people to the miniature giant space hamsters, Spelljammer’s camp level is VERY high. At the same time there are a lot of cool visuals to hang a story on. In a lot of ways Spelljammer could be compared to original series Star Trek (or the fifth Star Trek movie), except with fantasy races instead of Klingons.
The general premise of a Spelljammer story is that your group has a ship that flies through the
Luminiferous Aether Astral Sea and you go on adventures much like those in pirate fiction. Denizens of the Far Realms exist in high concentrations here, creatures such as Mind Flayers, Beholders and Githyanki/Githzerai are common place. It’s also possible to travel between different D&D settings like Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance, or you can go places more exotic like The Nine Hells, Pandemonium, Elysium and The Happy Hunting Grounds. Swashbuckling action, alien races, magical technology, finding god-like beings beyond the asteroid barrier- all of these elements make Spelljammer great.
Books that stand out: Manual of the Planes in any edition will give you a lot of useful tools for your campaign, as will the Spelljammer main book. If you want something more modern, I’d suggest The Plane Above: Secrets of the Astral Sea for 4th edition. It is essentially 4th edition’s nod to Spelljammer without officially resurrecting the setting, and it’s really well done. Otherwise, the original box set .PDFs are available legitimately on DriveThruRPG.
Debut: 1987 TSR
Official Publications: AD&D 2nd Edition, D&D 3rd Edition, D&D 4th Edition
Neverwinter has a unique place in the history of Dungeons & Dragons settings. Originally mentioned in an off-hand manner in the first Forgotten Realms setting guide, it has become the setting of some of D&D’s most famous novels and video games. The dark elf Drizzt adventures nearby in R. A. Salvatore’s popular books, Neverwinter Nights was the first graphical MMO ever made, and its sequels would propel the small game studio BioWare into the big leagues of video games.
Situated in the northwest corner of the world of the Forgotten Realms, Neverwinter is mostly unattached to the rest of the Forgotten Realms (something I am eternally grateful for). Despite being part of a larger and arguably more popular campaign setting, Neverwinter has done a great job at distinguishing itself as its own entity. Part of this is because of its focus on one city and its surroundings. While the other games in this list have tons of magical cities of various types and themes that really spur on multitudes of ideas, sometimes the details get lost. It’s hard to really get what the cities in Eberron are like because only one of them (Sharn) ever gets its own source book. Neverwinter, through all of its various media, presents a fully fleshed out urban environment with detailed groups vying for control over their immediate area.
In some ways this focus on one city limits the potential scope of the game. Instead of being international super hero spies during a magical world war, like in Eberron, Neverwinter characters tend to be middle class citizens with defined political affiliations with an interest in shaping the city’s geo-political make up. While some may balk at this (they certainly did when BioWare tried this approach in Dragon Age 2), I find this approach much more appealing than a disconnected epic adventure. When the stakes are lower they are much more relatable. I know the frustration I feel when I vote for a city measure and it doesn’t pass, and I can relate to a group of adventurers who decide to throw their lot in with one group or another in hopes of changing their home for the better.
Books that stand out: The only book you ever need for Neverwinter is the 4th edition campaign setting. While Neverwinter has been mentioned since 1987, there hasn’t ever been an official campaign guide until then. As additional resources I’d also look at wikis for all of the games set in the series, if you’re interested in continuity. Otherwise, the 4th edition book focuses not on history so much as what you should be doing in the city. It is all about the different factions in town, why they’re there, what their goals are and how they mean to achieve them. As far as I’m concerned there has never been a better city-book for a setting ever written.
Debut: 2008 WotC
Official Publications: D&D 4th Edition
Also known as “Points of Light” or “the 4th Edition Implied Setting”, this is the main setting as presented by the 4th Edition D&D books. The name Nentir Vale comes from the first books published in the new line, where it is the name for the lands surrounding the default level one town of Fallcrest, in the back of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
The Nentir Vale is essentially a post-post-apocalyptic fantasy setting. Whereas Dark Sun is inspired by Mad Max and other brutal post-apoc settings, Nentir Vale explores what happens after that, once the world has mended but before civilization has made a come back. Towns and villages are more common than cities and empires, roads are in disrepair and travelers are often waylaid by bandits, gnolls or worse. There is no long-distance communication and little in the way of organized trade, especially over long distances, meaning each community has to be self-sufficient. Add on to that the numerous ruins of bygone civilizations, a healthy monster population as well as the close influence of the realm of the fae and the realm of shadow, and well, there’s a lot to do.
The Nentir Vale is another kitchen sink setting, but it approaches it in a very understated manner. A lot of the setting is toolkit in nature, allowing you to take the things you like and leave the rest easily. The setting is not truly post-apocalyptic or default high-fantasy, though it does both well. Done properly, the 4th Edition implied setting can be the perfect starting point for low level, low powered characters. That’s not to say that it’s bad for higher level characters though- through introducing the Feywild and the Shadowfell there are many opportunities to up the magic ante in your game. As the edition went on, the writers kept adding bits of older D&D ideas to the setting- including references to Ravenloft, Planescape and Spelljammer. Neither of those games got a full setting write up for the edition, but their main conceits were incorporated into the game itself.
Books that stand out: While technically I could say all of 4th edition that isn’t another campaign book, that wouldn’t be very helpful. The setting’s great back story gets a lot of depth in the Player’s Handbook Races series (Tiefling and Dragonborn were the only ones made), and the Nentir Vale gets a short write up at the back of the first Dungeon Master’s Guide. Most of the other fluff for the implied setting came with access to the Dragon/Dungeon e-zines. If you’re looking for a decent summary though, check out this great website resource.
Your favorite setting not on this list? You want to make a case for Ravenloft, Planescape or Greyhawk? Feel free to do so in the comments below!