Tuesday 13 October 2009

The Worlds of D&D: Overview

Since its inception in the early 1970s, the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game has attracted millions of fans, both of the game itself and the numerous worlds that were created as settings for its adventures. After the demise of the original publishers, TSR, in 1997 and the sale of the game to Wizards of the Coast, most of those worlds were unceremoniously dumped, including the more quirky and original ones, in favour of the somewhat more traditional and popular 'basic' settings which became the bread and butter of the game's 3rd Edition (2000-2007). The new 4th Edition, launched last year, has proven highly controversial with fans but Wizards have won some support for their decision to resurrect some of the old, classic campaign settings for the new game.

The major D&D campaign settings (not counting one-offs produced for Dragon Magazine) were (in roughly chronological order):

  • Blackmoor (1975), the home setting of co-creator Dave Arneson's games. A generic medieval campaign but with a Renaissance level of technology brought about by the discovery of a crashed spacecraft.
  • Greyhawk (an adventure in 1975 and then a full boxed setting in 1978), the home setting of co-creator Gary Gygax's games. A generic medieval fantasy world, noted for its frequent wars.
  • Mystara, the setting of the D&D Basic game, introduced in 1980. Blackmoor was later retconned into being part of this world. Mystara itself resembles the Earth of some 150 million years ago and is a hollow planet, with a whole other world on its inner surface accessible by tunnels at the poles.
  • Ravenloft, a non-traditional setting invoking a sense of gothic horror and dread. Introduced as a single adventure in 1983, but later expanded to an entire world of darkness (cough), undead races, vampire rulers and general unpleasentness.
  • Dragonlance, introduced in 1984 as D&D's answer to The Lord of the Rings, a world riven by a struggle between good and evil in which the players were heroes out to save the world. Gave rise to the multi-million-selling novels by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.
  • Kara-Tur was created in 1985 as the setting for the Oriental Adventures line of products which introduced martial arts and other eastern ideas to the D&D game. The setting was later retconned into the Forgotten Realms world.
  • Lankhmar (originally published in 1985) is, perhaps surprisingly, one of only two officially licensed D&D settings. Based on Frit Lieber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, it is set on the world of Newhon and principally the city of Lankhmar.
  • Forgotten Realms is the most popular D&D setting. Originally published in 1987, the setting is a high-magic, highly-detailed medieval fantasy world which has become the 'default' D&D setting, despite some changes to the basic D&D rules. The Realms have continuously been in print since 1987, making it most closely-supported setting for the game, and have given rise to the best-selling Dark Elf series of novels by R.A. Salvatore and Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights series of computer games from BioWare and Black Isle/Obsidian.
  • Spelljammer, introduced in 1989, is probably the barmiest D&D setting, featuring sailing ships which can cross the interstellar void to other worlds. A mixture of high magic, medieval weaponry and retro-space opera, the setting was not commercially popular but has legions of diehard fans who liked its craziness.
  • Dark Sun (1991) is sometimes regarded as the most approachable of D&D's 'non-traditional' settings. It is set on the post-apocalyptic world of Athas, where a vast magical war has transformed the planet into a baking desert world gradually being swallowed by a vast sea of silt. Magic as is known elsewhere in the D&D multiverse does not exist, with 'defilers' instead drawing on the life-force of living creatures to create magical effects. There are also no gods, and psionic powers are preferred over magical ones. Despite strong rumours they were considering it, Wizards of the Coast mildly surprised the fanbase when they recently announced that Dark Sun would be resurrected for the new 4th Edition of the game.
  • Al-Qadim (1992) is an Arabian-flavoured D&D setting, featuring genies, scimitars, corsairs, evil viziers and other Arabian Nights-flavoured elements. Set on the continent of Zakhara which was officially located in a remote part of the Forgotten Realms world, Al-Qadim has built up a strong fan following over the years but has been largely ignored since the late 1990s.
  • Masque of the Red Death (1994) is another horror setting which uses the rules laid out in Ravenloft, but rather than the Demiplane of Dread the setting is 'Gothic Earth', an alternate-history version of our own world in the 19th Century incorporating magic and non-human creatures.
  • Planescape (1994) was not a new setting as such, but a setting developed out of the multi-dimensional cosmology that D&D had been using for over a decade and a half by this point. Featuring numerous factions and ideological concepts, the setting attempted to move vigorously away from the traditional elves 'n' orcs of many of the other settings in favour of something new, a setting that challenged many of the underlying ideas of the whole game and forced players to confront the ethical realities of their decisions. The setting also favoured roleplaying over combat. With a unique art style not shared by any other D&D product, the setting was a massive critical and artistic success but proved to be somewhat on the highbrow side of things for most players, and did not sell as well as could be hoped. It was soon discontinued, but later gave rise to one of the single greatest computer roleplaying games ever made, Planescape: Torment.
  • Council of Wyrms (1994) was a very short-lived setting which allowed players to control dragons as player-characters. Despite a strong concept, the limitations of what a dragon can do compared to a human player outside of combat soon presented themselves and there were no expansions, although it was briefly reprinted by Wizards of the Coast in 1999.
  • Birthright (1995) was another 'traditional' cod-fantasy setting, but had a unique spin to it: the players are painted as the rulers of a powerful kingdom or faction, and between quests have to deal with the day-to-day running of their kingdom and its place in the world, fighting wars and dealing with economic factors. Essentially a D&D campaign crossed over with a board game. The split focus proved challenging and the setting was later abandoned, but interestingly some of its ideas, more cohesively presented, have found their way into the two later Song of Ice and Fire roleplaying games by Guardians of Order and Green Ronin.
  • Rokugan (2001) was a second Asian-themed fantasy setting, licensed from the Legends of the Five Rings roleplaying game. It was used in the Oriental Adventures book published for D&D 3rd Edition and several associated adventures, but was not expanded upon, and the licence later reverted to the creators.
  • Eberron (2004) is the newest D&D campaign setting, introduced specifically for 3rd Edition and featuring a traditional world with somewhat more advanced technology than is standard, including magical robots ('warforged') and some elements of industrialisation. The setting has proven fairly popular and is the official setting for the Dungeons and Dragons Online computer game.

At this current time, Wizards of the Coast are continuing to support both Forgotten Realms and Eberron through new products for the 4th Edition of D&D. It has been officially announced that Dark Sun will be resurrected for 2010, with a strong chance that Dragonlance will follow in 2011 and Greyhawk for 2012. Planescape and Ravenloft have been absorbed into the base cosmology of the D&D multiverse and will apparently appear as adventures and as asides in the rulebooks, but probably not as fully-blown campaign settings in the future.

Hopes that Mystara, Spelljammer and Birthright will reappear seem somewhat premature so far, but if the new version of Dark Sun is a big success it is possible we will see other settings revisited. The new 4E business model is also more favourable to these old, less commercially popular settings. In the old days, TSR would release a boxed set featuring the setting and then follow it up with lots of expansions, adventures and novels. The new model instead only has three products released for each setting: a general campaign book, a player's guide and a single adventure. Other material is then released online via the D&D Insider website, based on the sales of the physical books.

Future instalments of this series will visit some of these individual worlds and finds out what made them tick, what made them work (or in some cases fail rather badly) and whether we will see them again in the new edition of the game.


Unknown said...

Great timeline! Thanks for posting. I had no idea there had been so many worlds created.

Unknown said...

Adam, do you currently play in a campaign? If so, which world/edition?

Adam Whitehead said...

Not at this precise moment. Our group tried 4th Edition and didn't respond well to it, but then the group had a bit of a schism over those who wanted to play a level-based system like PATHFINDER or a skill-based system like White Wolf's STORYTELLER (which I am not a fan of at all, although I like other skill-based systems like DEADLANDS), so we compromised by playing ROCK BAND for the last few weeks instead :-)

Historically, I've run numerous 2E and 3E campaigns set in FORGOTTEN REALMS and my own campaign world. We've also played DEADLANDS and ROBOTECH for fairly long periods, and tried out JUDGE DREDD, BABYLON 5 and WHEEL OF TIME for shorter periods. I'm also thinking of running a STARCRAFT game using the ALTERNITY rules.

mischievous2247 said...

Me and my friends tried the 4th world/edition, but couldn't understand the character creation paper. We didn't know how much character features, feats and other abilities we got so we used my 3rd edition.

mischievous2247 said...

Do you new know any where to order or buy Dungeons and Dragons equipment?

mischievous2247 said...

Do you know any where to order or buy Dungeons and Dragons equipment. (srry spelling errors)

Jebus said...

I was never a big roleplayer though I did have a lot of the core 3E material and books just because I loved reading them. I was only ever really into AD&D in the TSR Goldbox series of PC games.

I still have the big collector's box with 5&1/4" discs of Hillsfar, Dragons of Flame, Heroes of the Lance, War of the Lance (one of the best ever turn based strategy games), Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds plus many other gold box and Eye of the Beholder games. Man I loved those AD&D games.

I've also got dozens of FR, DL, RL and DS novels. I've not read them for the past maybe 8 years or so and have always meant to go back and re-read them all as well as collect the new ones but too many other books get in the way...

Ahhh thanks for bringing back the memories Adam.

Anonymous said...

TSR and WotC published other D&D settings worthy of note: Ghostwalk, the Jakandor series of supplements, and historical Earth (including Celts, Rome, Charlemagne, etc.). The Conan modules with Schwarzenegger on the cover were pretty light, but these others were fairly substantial.

mischievous2247 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mischievous2247 said...

Jebus, do you know if there is any D&D games for any console other than the PC?

Adam Whitehead said...

If Jebus doesn't mind me answering, there are two (I think) BALDUR'S GATE games for the PS2, but they are action games and are not based on the D&D rules. KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC 1 and 2 on the X-Box were based on the D20 rules derived from D&D 3rd Edition, and are probably the closest things out there.

The new BioWare game, DRAGON AGE, which is out in a few weeks on PS3 and 360, is a 'spiritual successor' to the BALDUR'S GATE D&D games but uses a different rules system.

Ben said...

Baldur's Gate 2 was ported by fans for Mac. Try here
http://www.pocketplane.net/ and here
Neverwinter Nights 2 was ported by Aspyr for Mac.

BetweenTwoBooks said...

Cool! I used to RP in Greyhawk most of the time and I RPed a few times in Al-Qadim. Brings back good memories... Anyone knows a good hosting site where to play e-mail/forum based RPG online?

Someone Else said...

Now if only we can get a reverse-conversion system to bring 4th Ed. stuff backwards to 3.0 or 3.5 (or a forward conversion from 2nd ed. to 3.0/3.5)

Adam Whitehead said...

There was a downloadable conversion chart released for 2E-3E at the time 3E came out.

4E is just too different. Too many of the basic, underlying principles of the game have been completely changed so no conversion is really possible. The designers themselves said that the games are incompatible and if you wanted to play 4E you had to finish your 3E campaign and retire the characters before rolling up some new ones..