Let's Talk About Campaign Settings IV: What Can We Learn For Our Own Settings?

Previous Posts


First off, I made a few absolutely shameful omissions in talking about OSR settings last time. I totally forgot to give a shout out to +Mateo Diaz Torres and the Pernicious Albion setting, which is just awful, since I'm helping with layout on its upcoming publication. Really, it's fantastic stuff. I also neglected to mention +Courtney Campbell 's Numenhalla or upcoming Perdition settings, even though I've read lots of Numenhalla posts for megadungeon inspiration, and Perdition sounds like it will be pretty rocking. Finally, in the published space, I forgot to direct your attention to the very fine Red Tide by +Kevin Crawford . As with all of his stuff, it is chock full of material that has its own strong flavor, but is easily modified to any genre or setting. Go check all of those out if you aren't already familiar.

So, now that we have my foolishness out of the way, let's get back to the topic at hand. We’ve gone through the second edition campaign settings and a handful of OSR settings and figured out what makes them compelling (or at least, elements of what makes them compelling). So now I want to take the descriptive stuff we’ve identified and turn it into prescriptive advice on how to create a campaign setting that grabs people.

What to Do

Have a Strong Guiding Aesthetic: A lot of what made the 2E settings great boils down to having a really clear aesthetic and communicating it effectively. The theme, art direction, and even focusing play on different things all revolve around the setting doing something to your imagination that standard D&D doesn’t do. Dark Sun lives in a different part of my brain than orcs and goblins and such like. It evokes a different emotional response and encourages different adventures and different player decisions to fit into this different aesthetic. This point is at once the most obvious and probably the hardest to follow well.

I think the way to make this advice practical is to use the different lenses we identified in previous posts, but consciously think about how to link them. Does your setting have a theme? What about some distinctly different play style? Art and art direction? Look at these separately, but then come back to “what ties all of these together?” It’s hard to articulate, but I think you can probably go pretty far with “do these go together?”  Trust your tastes.

Use the Right Mechanics: So, I struggled a bit here with the right wording, but the idea is that you need some mechanical differentiation, but not a whole new game. In the Clone-crowded world of the OSR, it might be difficult to select an official rule system with which to be compatible, but the good news is that most OSR folks are well aware of the inter-operability of the wide variety of clones and rules sets. So honestly, if most of your mechanics can slot into “basically D&D” you’ll be alright.

When I say “the Right Mechanics” I mean that you need some rules that reinforce the aesthetic you’ve developed (like a Crab People Race/Class for Yoon-Suin), but that aren’t so wild and involved that you’re pitching a whole new game. I suspect there are a couple of dials and knobs you can play around with here. For example, you can probably include a lot more new DM-facing rules than player-facing rules, because DMs are crazy people who hoard rules like Scrooge McDuck does coins. Likewise, the more central a thing is to answering “what’s new and exciting about this setting?”, the more you can probably introduce new rules. Super involved social conflict rules would make sense in a world of exaggerated courtly intrigue, but would be annoying extra-fiddliness in a world of large scale military command.

Make the World a Canvas: You’ll note that I didn’t say a blank canvas. The idea here is that you want DMs and players to feel like they make a difference on the world. Or at a minimum that if they aren’t going to change the world, they’ll have agency to make their own decisions that matter. The difficulty is in striking a balance between details that give people something to latch onto and drowning them in padding that feels like a straight jacket. One traditional approach is to just go sparse. To make up for the sparseness, many settings spread out and give you a lot of minimal details over a wide area. This bigness is one way to leave lots of blank space for DMs to exercise their creativity and for players to make their mark on. I imagine you can still make a world that feels open to player agency with lots of tightly packed detail, but it might be harder.

In the comments on the second post, +George S Hammond  asked a question that made me think harder about the distinction between "stuff" in the world and people and events in the world, and why detail in one is more likely to be better than in the other. What I realized is that places, things, and cultures in the world are much less likely to impact the agency of PCs than people or events. The worst risk they run is being boring or overly detailed. People and events, though, they act on PCs, rather than being static things on which the PCs can act. So it's certainly not that you shouldn't have people or events, it's just that they have a higher risk of constraining PC agency, and so should be used with care.

So, for the events and people of the world, I think that settings do better to limit themselves to history and the current state and to strictly avoid intentions and what “will” happen. Getting into plans and intentions for NPCs and factions is probably better handled in adventures, where the players’ involvement is assumed, and changes to the NPCs’ plans are expected. I think that the creators of a lot of settings have felt the need to fill it in with a bunch of proto-adventures. This makes sense on first blush, but I think creators do better to instead focus on making an interesting world full of interesting stuff chock full of potential without committing any of it to a particular expected course of interesting events. Rather than intentions, I'd argue it's best to prepare interests for NPCs. Not the actions the NPC will take, but rather the things that they want. That way, how those interests translate into action, and more importantly, how that action interacts with the PCs, is more flexible and more in the hands of the GM and the party.

Get Your Jam On: As an independent creator, you are in a unique position to get the best of “jamming” and ignore the evils of “design by committee”. You have access to blogs, Google+, Fora, and an enormous back catalog of inspirational material. So you can pull in good ideas from other people, bounce your own ideas off of other people and see how they come back different, and even solicit entirely new contributions. On the other hand, you’re running your own show, so you don’t have to worry about corporate telling you what they think will sell best or Steve over in accounting saying that you can’t afford that art you love. All of the access to multiple creative minds, none of the obligation to water down your vision.

What to Avoid

Padding: This one is easy to say, but hard to do. The only real guideline to what you should include and what you should cut out is taste, but there are a few questions you can ask yourself when casting a critical eye over your work: Does this contribute to the central aesthetic? Is this new or different in some way? Can I find almost exactly the same thing somewhere else? Can smart readers figure this out/make their own decision? Is it something that players are likely to find out and act on? If not, is it something that will excite the DM enough to come up with things that the players will find out and act on? Is it something that provides players with choices? Does this enhance or detract from player agency?

Essentially, you should try to filter every sentence you write through the guidelines to a good and interesting campaign setting. I have found in my own editing work that it usually pays to be harsher than you think necessary and cut out more than you think you can. I always just remind myself that I’m writing for a smart audience, and if something is unclear or mysterious, DMs are good at making stuff up to fill in gaps.

Calling Adventure Hooks Setting: This one is more of a hunch of mine I’ve come to while writing this series, but I think I’m on to something. For the reasons outlined above, adventure hooks imply a certain presumption on the DM’s prep, and even a bit of presumption on the player’s agency. I think including adventure hooks in a setting is fine - provided they’re clearly labeled and separate from “this is how the world is”. But when you start presenting the world as a series of “when the players do this, then X happens. . .” style prompts, it stops being a campaign setting and starts turning into just a campaign.

Over-Specialization of Rules: This one is another balancing act with elements you definitely do want. You just don’t want to effectively write a new game tied to your setting that shares certain basic similarities with D&D. I mean, unless writing a new game is what you want to do. But if you want to take advantage of the learnings from this series to write a setting, then only keep those new/changed rules that do the most to advance your desired aesthetic.


Writing a campaign setting that anyone actually wants to read, much less run a game in, is a pretty tall order. The kinds of people who might even be interested in an OSR campaign setting are also very often the kinds of people who would rather make up their own world. To make it worse, setting ideas tend to be less portable than new mechanics: I can tack Gus’s exhaustion rules onto Small But Vicious Dog much more easily than I can figure out how to incorporate the Passenger Class or the Ship Spirits into Warhammer’s Old World.

That being said, I think there’s a place for it. In the last three years that I’ve closely followed OSR stuff, I’ve seen a hell of a lot of discussion and innovation around rules. I’ve also seen a hell of a lot of creativity around settings, but it’s been in a less shareable way than the rules stuff. That’s really what this series is about: how can we figure out a way to share the messy, “fluffy” side of our creativity as easily and successfully as we’ve shared rules and adventures and tools. If this has been at all helpful to you, I can’t wait to see what you make.

Let's Talk About Campaign Settings III: OSR Settings

[UPDATE 1/6/21: I no longer support spending money on products that benefit Zak S, or giving him positive attention and connection. The short version is that I find credible claims that he has engaged in unacceptable behavior and not made up for it. For more detail, see here for the core of the accusations. To get Zak's side of things, he maintains this separate blog from his main one to post updates on the legal status of these complaints. 
Please consider these claims and make your own decision on their validity, and the implications thereof, before either supporting or shunning Zak.]

Previous Posts


Due to my own proclivities, when it comes to more recent settings, I’m going to narrow what I focus on to the OSR, and at that, only those I know something about. I know that I must be missing some great stuff (Strange Stars comes to mind). So, if anybody knows about other OSR campaign settings or even high quality non-OSR stuff, I’d love to hear about it.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at some good OSR stuff that’s out there and see what they have of the good, bad, and mixed characteristics we identified for the 2E settings, and try to determine if those characteristics are important to new(er) OSR settings.

Published Settings

There aren’t that many published OSR campaign settings, at least that I know about. Several products hint at their own worlds (like Dwimmermount or Fire on the Velvet Horizon), but in those, the focus tends to be somewhere else, and the world that holds it is more of an added bonus. That being said, there are a few I want to look at.

Yoon-Suin: Yoon-Suin is the long awaited work from +David McGrogan  at Monsters and Manuals. It hits pretty much all of the positives we outlined for a setting above: it has a super strong theme/genuinely distinct setting, very high quality art and a strong visual identity, and it provides some setting-specific rules without being so changed as to be its own whole new game. The only thing I’m not sure it has is Play About Different Things - I haven’t looked into the final product in enough depth to know how much it changes the basic experience of play, but from what I remember in the blog posts about its creation, play was meant to allow for traditional dungeon exploration, wilderness exploration, as well as city based intrigue. It definitely avoids being “frozen” by presenting random tables rather than “one true answers” about the setting, and it definitely avoids moralizing.

Padding? I don’t think so, but it certainly is big. From what I’ve skimmed/remember from the blog, it’s all got a rather good cool-stuff to number of words ratio. It’s just that there’s a hell of a lot of cool stuff, so there’s a ton of words. I don’t think anyone else seriously jammed on it with David, it doesn’t work within the 2E constraints (and very few D&D constraints), and while it provides some rough and ready NPCs and events, it avoids highly detailed ones (Again, I think so. I might be missing something new to the final book).

Vornheim/Red & Pleasant Land: So maybe these should properly be two separate settings, since Red & Pleasant Land is only sort of technically the same world as Vornheim, and both products aim at pretty different feels and game support. That being said, +Zak Smith 's philosophy is loud and clear through both of them, so I think treating them together makes a fair amount of sense.

Being produced by a professional artist, obviously both of these have high quality art and strong art direction. Padding is pretty much Zak’s arch nemesis, so not much of that to be found. Play and concept are both pretty genuinely different from regular D&D, and the theme is pretty strong, especially in R&PL. Most of the mechanical distinction in Vornheim is DM-facing, but I think it helps to create a pretty different play experience. R&PL definitely has mechanical stuff to make it play differently from regular D&D and reinforce its theme. Both products have NPCs, places, and events provided in a level of detail that’s useful for play, and both definitely don’t moralize. I’m not sure how much the standard constraints of D&D affected either, but R&PL had it’s share of design constraints (making everything Alice In Wonderland flavored, for example). Other than playing with his group, I don’t know if Zak did much “jamming” on this one, but the general zeitgeist of blogging feedback and G+ interaction probably fed his creative processes to a degree.

Maybe the only possibly sad thing here is that neither of these have the expansive, immersive feel of a bigger setting. As negative as all that padding was, it may have contributed to the old settings feeling big, like a whole world. Neither Vornheim nor R&PL quite do that for me, even though both promise plenty of play, and I know from Zak’s blog that there’s a lot of world out there.

Qelong: Qelong by +Kenneth Hite is an interesting one in that it is explicitly packaged not as a setting, but as an adventure. It just happens to come with a lot of juicy setting elements. It has an extremely strong theme and feels very different from standard D&D, especially when you bring in the mechanical reinforcement of the magic poisoning. The art direction is strong, with a single artist providing consistency, lots of pictures, and all of them high quality. Play is theoretically a standard treasure-motivated wilderness exploration, but the strength of the setting and theme makes it come across rather differently.

There is just about zero padding, and I’ve long admired Qelong for its remarkable efficiency in terms of presenting usable, interesting content with a minimum of material. I haven’t seen any evidence of either the good or bad of working with other creative types and get the impression it was the Kenneth Hite show. No especial “wider world” constraints to work within, but the strong theme and small geographical area seem to have provided the needed constraints to spur some great creativity.

The NPCs and events are all geared towards how they can create interest in play, which is good, but they’re on a specific timeline, which makes sense for the adventure, but perhaps provides less scope for the players to have free rein in deciding where the setting will go. Much like Zak’s material above, the ultra-compact nature of the book and hyper-focus on the usable, interesting adventure that is the main point of the book makes the setting less open/expansive.

Blog Settings

There’s a ton of OSR blogs out there, and almost every one of them has a home setting of its own. So, I’ll be forced to stick to the settings that I know and love from my own blog reading. I’m absolutely positive I’m skipping  over some great ones (Hill Cantons is one I only know the barest bits about, but I hear great things).

HMS Apollyon: This one by +Gus L  over at Dungeon of Signs is one of my favorite OSR Blog campaign settings. It’s got a super strong theme, lots of mechanical differentiation, and strong art direction (Gus himself producing all of the art associated with it that isn’t a pull from online somewhere). The play is pretty standard D&D megadungeon exploration, albeit in a cool version of a megadungeon with its own quirks. One thing we get less of as readers is detailed background events and NPCs - we get glimpses of some of these in play reports, but I don’t think I’ve seen much of that stuff presented as play aids the way Gus has released player material.

Centerra: If +Arnold K.  weren’t so damn creative and interesting, it’d be tempting to label his Centerra posts as falling for the sin of padding. I assert that that temptation is wrong, however, because Arnold’s writing is exactly the sort of imagination fuel that grounds a potential GM’s imagination in the world and provides context to be able to improvise on what the players are doing. I think he accomplishes this trick of being voluminous without being tedious by, well, writing non-mundane interesting things. Even when dealing with matters of culture or society, everything is viewed through a lens of how it could interact with player action or create things for players to do. You know that expansiveness I’ve been mentioning recent stuff lacking? Arnold knocks that out of the park. If I had to pick one candidate for “Most Likely to End Up Like a 2E Setting But Better” it would be Centerra - in a gorgeously illustrated hardcover or boxed set. Man that would rock.

Swordfish Islands: Here’s a setting that I’m very excited to see the final product of. +Jacob Hurst  put the blog together specifically to get it ready for publishing. I’d say that the theme is moderately strong (islandy stuff), but the art direction and art are quite good (Jason’s a professional artist), and there’s a lot going on on the islands in the form of NPCs and events and rivalries, but it’s all presented in a way that emphasizes the dynamic nature of the situation and how it will react to characters. Being tightly geographically constrained, the islands lack “expansiveness”, but they have a depth that gives them the feel of something you could sink your teeth into and play a campaign there. This one is also notable for being one of the few examples where I know for sure the author is working with a creative team of friends, and that the project is at least partially the result of “jamming”.

Corpathium: The rest of +Logan Knight 's world is pretty vague, but his grand, vile capital of Corpathium has some of the best fantasy city building I’ve seen. I don’t think I’d say that Corpathium has a particular “theme”, but it sure does have a strong aesthetic. Logan’s voice comes through very clearly, and everything is very vivid, even when presented tersely in a table. What art there is is great, because it’s Logan’s own stuff, but I wish there were more. What play is about is maybe not as focused as some of these other settings, and mechanical differentiation from the player side is cool but a bit haphazard at this point (disparate blog posts on wizards and clerics and weapon rules and what not). There’s loads of people and places and activities to interact with as players, but almost all of them come in the form of hints and pieces presented in tables, rather than anyone or anything presented as really detailed. For all its vividness, Corpathium lacks some breadth or depth as presented to the world, and I get the impression that the depth is meant to be more emergent from using the tables and crawl rules and the like.

Middenmurk: Here is a world with astounding art direction (and I’m including here +Tom Fitzgerald 's remarkable prose as well as his art). Bonus points in the art direction category for having an entire inspirational tumblr full of good stuff. Tom hints at a richness and expansiveness that I’d love to see, but we only get tantalizing snippets. Everything is lovingly detailed and provides a nice counterpoint to the idea that only laconic things can be beautiful in the OSR. I don’t know if I can say much about mechanical differentiation, as we’ve only gotten bits and pieces of that, but the elf types by level 1 spell rule is a pretty good example. If only there were more of it!

Straits of Anian: Oh man is this stuff good. +Anthony Picaro  completely nails “distinct from regular D&D” and “Mechanical Differentiation”. The mechanical differentiation is light-weight but well placed, making maximum impact for minimal changes. There’s not a lot of detailed NPCs or events, but the gods, myths, monsters, and societies presented give lots of opportunity for interacting with the world. I’m not sure the “things you do in play” are that much different from standard D&D, but the fact that the cultures involved are so different might make that moot. Also, other than phenomenal photos of real life inspirational gear and people and artifacts, there is, sadly, no art and no art direction associated with this. Maybe one day.

New Feierland: A very sketchily presented world, I don’t know if +Trent B  has any plans to ever turn this into an official setting for others’ consumption, but I wanted to mention it because I really enjoy it. Mostly it has evocative flavor and subtle but effective mechanical differentiation, but I sure would love to see it with some great art and more developed action hooks.

Speaking of Campaign Settings: Leon Chain Letter

[UPDATE 1/6/21: I no longer support spending money on products that benefit Zak S, or giving him positive attention and connection. The short version is that I find credible claims that he has engaged in unacceptable behavior and not made up for it. For more detail, see here for the core of the accusations. To get Zak's side of things, he maintains this separate blog from his main one to post updates on the legal status of these complaints. 
Please consider these claims and make your own decision on their validity, and the implications thereof, before either supporting or shunning Zak.]

+Zak Smith had the awesome idea to take Noism's brief setting and add to it, then pass it along. So here's a few additions from me in Green Helvetica.


 stole this county full of D&Dables from Noisms. I've subtracted nothing but have added some bits to it in courier below.

If you like it, I encourage you to now steal it from me and append some more stuff to it in some other font and publish it on your own blog. In a week or two or a few weeks we might have a nicely fleshed-out place.

Here is a crude map--the modern day area overlaid with 6 mile hexes.

County of Leon

Ruled by: Aqable - Count of Leon (Liege: Duke of Brittany)
Vassals: Baron of Morlaix, Baron of Douarnenez, Baron of Plogonnec
Military: 15 Heavy Cavalry (Knights), 50 Light Cavalry, 50 Heavy Infantry, 100 Medium Infantry, 50 Archers.
Income8,828 livres (Total guess--Deep Evan help out?)

Major Towns

Brest (Hex 40)

Population: 800
Major Industries: Fishing, trade

Count of Leon and family.

Ibn Al-Aziz - An Ogre Magi from the Sheikhdom of Catalyud, now a powerful merchant who owns five vessels, with lots of 'shady' contactsand a symbiotic eye still connected to his sister (an ogre witch) overseas

A wizard living in a lighthouse on the edge of town - advisor to the Count and ambiguous ally. The light is actually a hive of fireflies upon which the wizard experiments.

Juliette de Nevers, a dwarfess sage, researching in the old library - secretly a spy? Not actually, more just a concerned citizen worried she's more capable and informed on local threats than her lord. Still--she's suspected.

Circle of druids - headquarters somewhere in the forest, occasionally come to Brest. They gather information with the help of their owls.

Lampaul-Guimiliau (Hex 36)

Population: 200
Major Industries: Lumber, Beekeeping
Personages: Baron of Morlaix - a bachelor lord who seeks a suitable marriage.

Jean-Francois, Master Beekeeper - He cultivates various exotic plants to grant his honeys different flavors and properties, possibly even magical properties to the highest bidders.


            Wizards Tower - lighthouse, on the rocks on the outside of Brest (Hex 40)
            Ibn's Mansion - also on the outside of town, but on the inland side. Built in an exotic foreign style, unwelcome visitors find the place a maze that continually leads back to the room they entered.(40)
            The Castle - where the Count calls home. Built on the site of a Roman provincial headquarters, the catacombs underneath are extensive.(40)
            Old Monastery - housing a library (& Juliette)(40)
            Smuggler's Caves -  ancient cave system, now abandoned - except for monsters - and the smugglers' hoard? The smugglers remain, as skeletal undead. The actual complex somewhat resembles the layout and content Disney's Pirates of the Carribean ride with the revenant creatures still playing out dramas from past lives.(Hex 20)

            Meriadoc's Tomb - burial place of the semi-mythic founder of Brittany, watched over by an order of clerics. The tomb and the clerics' weapons are made of an eerily dense metal.(Hex 14)
            Conomor's Tomb - burial place of an ancient king, now haunted. It is in a swamp--the ghosts are not that of the king, but of his many lovers and victims. A lich is entombed in a bog nearby.
            Tower of Erispoe - once owned by a now extinct noble line, reknowned for the eccentricity. Glass cages are built into the walls, housing exotic reptiles.
            Giant's Cave - not apparently inhabited by a giant, but a clan of ogres. The locals suspect they are connected to the merchant Ibn Al-Aziz but they despise the foreigner.(Hex 49)
            Oessant - island, uninhabited but excellent shelter for raiders. Contains two hidden objects--one blessed, one cursed.(West of Hex 31)
            Witch's Hovel - home of an enchantress. Her features are ever changing--her head bloats into a morbid caricature at whatever woman is most powerful in the county at the time. (Hex 27)
            Castle of Mauclerc - ruined castle, magic treasure inside?There is, but it's in the belly of one of the creatures (or pigs) inside. The wild pigs migrate to and from the castle by a natural causeway exposed at low tide.(Hex 14)

            Adventure Hooks

·       One of Ibn's ships has gone missing and he's certain it's the wreckers in Plogoff, who have caused him trouble before. (It's actually the ogres of the Giant's Cave, but the wreckers are PC-level troublesome dicks--and have treasure. Plogoff is on the coast south of Leon)
·       Juliette de Fevers wants bodyguards to visit the witch with her. They will be alarmed to discover the witch currently wears Juliette's features--because Juliette is sitting on a terrible secret about the Count.
·       A band of gnolls are causing trouble around Morlaix.Their leader communes with the bog lich. (Hex 30) 
·       Pirates spotted around Oessant. They are actually Spanish privateers, including the daughter of a powerful Venetian. Foiling them could result in a full-scale international incident.
·       Druids concerned about a troll. The troll has pustules which burst when struck, expelling poison.
. Pigs are being born with scales like fish.
. The Baron of Douarnenez is rumoured to be negotiating for the return of his food taster from bandits holding him hostage.

                   .  Skeleton warriors around Conomor's Tomb. The bog lich sent them to retrieve an artifact buried with the king which will bring the lich back to life.
                      ·  Troops from the neighboring viscounty have pursued bandits into deep forest (Hex 44) and have begun to seize supplies from locals

Let's Talk About Campaign Settings II: Second Edition Settings Analysis

[UPDATE 1/6/21: I no longer support spending money on products that benefit Zak S, or giving him positive attention and connection. The short version is that I find credible claims that he has engaged in unacceptable behavior and not made up for it. For more detail, see here for the core of the accusations. To get Zak's side of things, he maintains this separate blog from his main one to post updates on the legal status of these complaints. 
Please consider these claims and make your own decision on their validity, and the implications thereof, before either supporting or shunning Zak.]

Previous Posts


I want to start out our trip by taking a detailed look at the poster children of published campaign settings: the 2E boxed sets, and the worlds they detailed.

You’ll notice as we go that I do not much talk about Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, or Dragonlance. It’s not that they aren’t lovely settings, and as +Charles Akins  pointed out to me on Google+, they are far and away the most popular settings in D&D history, what with their novels and game tie ins and representation in later editions and so forth. So why no love from me in this post?

Well, a few reasons. First, those three settings are all pretty close to “standard D&D” in terms of what the world is like, what you do there, and what you can expect. Dragonlance veers a bit away from that, but not a ton. Second, they all predate the explosion of purposely made “Campaign Settings” in second edition and all come across as pretty much “let’s take my home campaign world and clean it up for publication.” Third, and here I’m showing my bias, the kind of D&D stuff being put out that I enjoy these days is mostly OSR stuff. OSR types who make that stuff tend to have fond places in their hearts for Spelljammer, Planescape, Dark Sun, et cetera, and usually less enthusiasm for those settings I’m leaving out. I am interested in figuring out the common thread between “tastes of people who make great stuff” and “what was in these campaign settings” so that I can make great stuff. The stuff that is great in those “standard” settings seems to pretty much just be an accumulation of detail.

So anyway, what I’m going to do here is highlight what was good, bad, and mixed about these settings, with a bit of explanation and some examples. In the next post, we’ll look at settings I know from the OSR and try to use the same good/bad/mixed characteristics we derive for the 2E settings here.

The Good

There’s a few things that I think made the 2E settings so imaginatively “grabby”. I had some help from Google+ folks to come up with these, and I’d be happy to hear any more ideas in the comments. Anyhow, here’s the stuff I’ve identified that made the 2E settings work:

Rules Do Not Equal Setting: +Zak Smith  made the excellent point that D&D was (and is) the most popular RPG of all time. So the mere fact that you could do something new while still using the rules you knew and that were super well supported was a big draw. It made the cost of entry pretty low, and it allowed the settings to build on existing imaginary capital - you already know what a halfling is, so when I tell you that these halflings are cannibals, that has more resonance than if I just say “short people with hairy feet that want to eat you”.

Strong Theme: +Ramanan S  pointed out that for the most part, each setting had a strong central theme. Ravenloft = Gothic Horror. Dark Sun = Harsh Desert Survival. Planescape = Abstract Made Physical. Et cetera. This ties into the above point about being able to “do something different”. These settings had strong “elevator pitches” which made GMs and players want to find out more, to do stuff in a world like that. I have to imagine that such strongly stated themes made the work of any writers and designers and artists easier, as it gave them something clear to work with.

Strong Art Direction & Good Art: Speaking of which, how about that art, huh? I mean, the Planescape boxed set was just about entirely illustrated by Tony Diterlizzi, and for most of the line, he at least did art direction, if not most of the illustration himself. Dark Sun without Brom would be a very different and less resonant thing. I think a lot of these settings hit a sweet spot between the early days of “whatever art we can afford and that fits” and the more recent “we have one, big cohesive brand to maintain here”. Also, "art direction" is possibly a misnomer, since the relationship was more collaborative between artists and writers in the best examples.

Genuine Difference from “Standard D&D”: These settings gave you stuff that really was different from a pseudo-european pseudo-medieval setting full of orcs and goblins. Sure, a lot of the same stuff got ported around (like orcs and goblins), but most of the settings had something different going on. Especially those settings that OSR types hold up these days as “why don’t we have stuff like this anymore?” Planescape, Dark Sun, Ravenloft, even Al-Qadim all give you new kinds of fantasy to get excited about and offer a change of pace to folks feeling jaded with D&D’s traditional flavor.

Play About New Things: Really this is a continuation of the above point, but I think it warranted breaking out. The point above is more about the theme or flavor being enticing or exotic or just new. This one is the fact that once you make a character in this interesting new world and sit down to play, you actually do different things. While dungeons were pretty much assumed in every setting, standard dungeoncrawling was not really presented as the default play style in these new settings. Some settings did this better than others, but all of them at least held out the promise that you weren’t just dungeoncrawling with different clothes on and killing different colored orcs.

Mechanical Differentiation: This one is in a bit of tension with the above Rules Do Not Equal Setting, but I think both contributed to settings “working”. It’s also building on the above two points about difference and new things. The base was D&D, so you didn’t need a whole different game, but there were enough mechanically new bits to make it actually interesting and new. New classes, character races, kits, spells, and so forth supported the different approaches you were supposed to take. I’m not saying they always got this one totally right, but it was there, and I think it contributed to the distinctness of the settings.

Maps: Man I had a ton of fun pouring over the maps that came with the 2E campaign settings, and more than once they led directly to interesting play for my group. There may have been more maps and more detail than was strictly necessary, but they really made the settings feel like “places” in a way that strictly tactical local maps of dungeons and the like don’t.

The Bad

I was actually pleasantly surprised by how few things I could categorize as outright bad with the settings in question. In fact, I only felt like there were two categories that aren’t at least mixed. Those two categories are preetttty big deals, though.

Padding: This is the elephant in the room when we’re praising these settings. Maybe it was writers paid by the word, maybe it was a misguided attempt to write pseudo-fiction, or maybe a belief that if something is not at least X pages, it’s not a real book. I don’t know. What I do know is that all of that good stuff above is weighed down in just loads of extraneous crapadoodle. Mundane details, over explanation, stuff with little possible relevance to adventures or players, snippets of mediocre fiction, the list goes on. It is perhaps unfair to lay too much retroactive blame for this, but we can certainly do better.

Moralizing: After the satanic panic of the 80’s and just the general trend of D&D products more often bought by parents for their kids, 2E ended up with a definite “epic fantasy about good guys versus bad guys” vibe going on. From a recent post by Jeff Grubb, I think that having explicit good guys and bad guys was actually a requirement for settings. That post, by the way, is a pitch for a never-made 2E setting, and provides an excellent window on what went on behind the scenes to give us the settings we’re talking about today. Now, don’t get me wrong: moral underpinnings to stories, being the good guys, smiting evil, these are all good fun. I’m not saying I wish all of these settings were nihilistic moral wastezones. It is more that the kind of simplistic, watered down morality pushed by the settings at this time is kind of boring. Perhaps more importantly, as Zak pointed out long ago, roguish folks can more easily self-direct into adventure, whereas good guys have to be more reactive almost by definition. So overly strong statements of where the evil is and how it should be fought end up robbing the players of agency.

The Mixed

So, there were a number of things I identified as inherent to the presentation of these settings that really seem like coins with two sides. Elements that had both positive and negative aspects. The good news for us looking back is that for many of them it’s comparatively easy to identify what was good and focus on that without bringing in what was bad.

Jamming/Design by Committee: This is an interesting topic that came up in the Google+ discussion that prompted this post (if you can’t see the post, send me a message on G+ and I’ll add you to my circles). Since these settings were the products of teams of designers, writers, artists, et cetera, we end up seeing both the good and the bad sides of creative collaboration. You get people riffing on each other’s ideas, doubtless creating some stuff that was better than the sum of its parts. But then you also get the decision to pull back from more out-there or funky stuff that might be more creative or imaginatively rich.

Constraints of Standard 2E: On the one hand, working within requirements can produce fun creative constraints, like “Okay, we have to have halflings, but what should they be like? How about cannibals!” On the other hand, do Elves really do much for Al-Qadim? What about having the same kind of spellcasting in a world of Gothic Horror as in a cosmopolitan city at the center of the multiverse? Sometimes the requirement to include the “standard” rules/races/classes made for some odd fits.

Detailed NPCs/World Events: So, having interesting people, events, and places is sort of exactly the reason for a campaign setting. On the other hand, when you have pages and pages on super high level NPCs, plus world events/plots with detailed descriptions of how they will unfold, you start getting into some boring railroady stuff. Looking back to our definition of the bad kind of special snowflake setting, I’d say the NPCs, behind the scenes plotlines, and major world events are bad to the degree that they become frozen and are no longer malleable to player interaction or will.

Sheer Depth: The good part of this one is that there was a lot of material to work with. You could comb through a setting until you found something that grabbed you and build an adventure or even a campaign around that. If you took the time to soak it all in, you had a lot of context for when you needed to improvise things that fit the world. On the other hand, that same amount of depth could easily become minutiae, boring and unuseful facts, and stuff with no bearing on play. It could come to feel like homework to really get to know a setting. That’s when you start getting into the padding from above.

Nostalgia: Okay, so sure, some of the appeal for these settings might be that I (and a lot of current OSR folks) “grew up” with them in one sense or another, and we’re looking at these settings through rose colored glasses. So maybe there’s not as much good about them as we think there is. On the other hand, only remembering the gems among the kruft is not a bad thing. I sometimes get the urge to do hyper-concentrated distillations of settings, kind of like I did with Middenheim, but then I realize that is time and energy probably better spent on creating my own stuff.

Next Time

In the next post, I’ll apply these categories to some OSR settings I’m familiar with. There’s not nearly as many published settings, but there’s a plethora of great settings from OSR blogs. Spoiler alert: they tend to display the good qualities identified above while avoiding the bad.

Let's Talk About Campaign Settings I: Introduction

[UPDATE 1/6/21: I no longer support spending money on products that benefit Zak S, or giving him positive attention and connection. The short version is that I find credible claims that he has engaged in unacceptable behavior and not made up for it. For more detail, see here for the core of the accusations. To get Zak's side of things, he maintains this separate blog from his main one to post updates on the legal status of these complaints. 
Please consider these claims and make your own decision on their validity, and the implications thereof, before either supporting or shunning Zak.]

I’ve been thinking about settings recently. I’m not exactly sure why, but going to NTRPG Con this year brought to a boil something that has been simmering in the back of my head for awhile: what makes a campaign setting good and interesting? Why are Planescape, Dark Sun, and Ravenloft beloved even by people who don’t run games in these settings?

What I Want to Do Here

So, I want to take a look at some settings that have done a good job at grabbing people’s attention and sticking in their brain. I think the second edition explosion of campaign settings is a great starting place, because the settings are widely regarded as one of the best things from the 2E era, even from people who were/are not fans of the rules or criticize the direction it turned out TSR was going. I figure if we do some analysis, we might be able to arrive at some better guidelines for producing a good setting than “be creative and only keep the good stuff”.

See, because I’d like to make up a compelling setting, figure out a great way to present it, and then publish it. I don’t want to make it only to sell it, since there’s not likely to be much passion or originality that way, but I think that it’s an area that could use some exploration. If I’ve got an idea what to shoot for and what to avoid, I figure that will help me do a better job.

Setting to the Side the “Special Snowflake” Problem

A quick aside on the “Special Snowflake” issue. I think that Courtney Campbell hits on a lot of the issues that get conflated with having a highly detailed setting in this post. Chris Kutalik spoke in defense of special snowflakes in a couple of places. So, I wanted to clarify my thinking on some things in order to set aside the antipathy to all detailed settings as “special snowflakes” before proceeding.

So, first off, I think that a lot of the charges levied against highly-detailed settings is coming from the point of view of the player. As a player, sure, you might not give a crap about the color of people’s hats or that this village was founded on the site of a great battle 1,000 years ago. But the game master might. The way I see it, campaign settings need to serve two different, but related, purposes: to provide neat things for players to do/interact with, and to fire up the GM’s imagination to make up neat things for players to do/interact with. That 1,000 year old battle might not directly give the players anything, but if it is part of what made that setting stick in the GM’s brain, then it might matter. This isn’t a new argument, of course, I think Zak S. or Jim Raggi talked about adventures needing to be in-play reference as well as things that a GM wants to read and remember, and of course, Patrick Stuart’s excellent observation on art serving to wedge things in your brain comes up too.

The other point, that I think Courtney nailed especially well in his post above is the way that truly “Special Snowflake” settings, in the negative sense, live up to the name by being frozen. Whatever the players do, they can’t change them in a meaningful way, or anything they do is in the shadow of some wider metastory or known fiction. Reading his blog post, it finally clicked what irked me about settings with built-in advancing timelines/stories - it was that it made whatever the players did matter less. Anyway, a certain amount of detail can start to feel like you’re laying down unchangeable canon, so it’s a danger to keep in mind, even if you don’t venture into metaplot or “essential” NPCs.

Where are We Going with this Series?

So, I’ve got some ideas on how I want to talk about campaign settings with the following posts:
Second Edition Settings Analysis: Looking at the awesome settings of the 2E era and what made them so awesome.
Applying the results to OSR Settings: Looking at cool OSR settings and seeing what they have in common with the good stuff from the 2E settings.
What can we learn? Taking what we identified as good and bad from all of the settings in the previous posts and turning them into recommendations for people creating their own settings (including me).