One of the most challenging aspects to the creative process, whether writing fiction or a session for a tabletop role-playing game, is selecting the setting of the story/event. In some instances, the very element or issue addressed, or even a character focused on, helps narrow down this selection process; if you’re writing a story about a Victorian-era superhero, then more likely than not said story will take place during the reign of Queen Victoria, and within a suitable locale during that time. But sometimes, determining where everything occurs helps determine what occurs or whom is encountered. Sometimes that can be an overwhelming decision to make.
As a sole author of a work, like fiction, in many instances you are the sole individual to select or develop a setting for the work, and things go from there. However, when it comes to RPGs, the setting has to appeal not just to the one running the game, but to its players as well. There are several different published and established campaign settings out there for all the various genres and systems of TTRPGs, not to mention the homebrew created worksthat exist as well, so to discuss this issue I’m going to focus solely on published settings for various editions of Dungeons & Dragons, primarily because I’m relatively well-versed in them.
Now, there are means to travel between these various worlds (many of which involving magic of some sort), and such travel serves as the basis for at least three settings/utilities for D&D as it is. But, overall, let’s have a general overview of the various D&D settings available/out there:
- Blackmoor: The personal setting of creator Dave Arneson.
- Greyhawk: The personal setting of creator E. Gary Gygax, which was the official setting of 3.5 ed.
- Dragonlance: The setting that really opened the door for D&D expanding into literature and other media.
- Pelinore: The setting used in the UK publication Imagine.
- Mystara: The default setting for the “Basic” edition of D&D, which was fleshed out to impressive degree. It too had many Earth-like analogs, but included more fantastic whimsy like Hollow World (name says what it is), Red Steel, Thunder Rift and the Savage Coast.
- Forgotten Realms: The personal setting of Ed Greenwood, frequent contributor of Dragon magazine, the current “default” setting for 5th ed. D&D, this world has many Earth-like analogs, including the the lands of the Mongol-like “Horde,” the Asian analog of Kara-Tur, the Arabian analog of Al-Qadim, the New World analog of Maztica, and even the Indochina analog of Malatra.
- Ravenloft: Originally a demiplane(s) of horror, where horror tropes were king, though now it’s part of the Shadowfell, and thus integrated into D&D as part of the overall setting (much as with Spelljammer and Planescape).
- Dark Sun: Post-apocalyptic D&D setting, with psychic abilities.
- Council of Wyrms: A setting where players are dragons. There’s some other elements, but really, that’s its schtick.
- Jakandor: A “campaign arena” which has necromancers versus barbarians.
- Spelljammer: D&D in SPACE! SPACE! SPACE!…
- Planescape: D&D in the spiritual cosmos: Seven Heavens, Asgard, Abyss, Tarterus, Nirvana, Pandemonium, etc. Based in the neutral hub city of Sigil, where everything can come to meet the other without “invading” another’s domain.
- Birthright: More focused on kingdoms and nations clashing, so sort of creeping back to the wargaming roots.
- Eberron: Creation of Keith Baker that won the contest search for a new D&D setting. A high technomagical setting that is based on good old action-paced pulp adventurers, with a backstory that gives off big post WWI-vibes ala the Indiana Jones series.
- Ghostwalk: A setting where the players are the spirits of the dead (presumabily dead adventurers, so it’s adventure after death).
- Mahasarpa: A South Asian-themed setting.
- Nentir Vale: The default setting of 4th edition, which some people do prefer (and whose elements one can see within other works, like Critical Role).
- Radiant Citadel: This central locale connects 15 different and diverse worlds to the central extraplanar hub known as the Radiant Citadel. It’s easily capable of having adventurers visit each world, as well as originate from each world.
- Magic: the Gathering: While it doesn’t cover all of the various settings made over the years, the worlds of Ravnica, Theros and Strixhaven have seen official releases for the game. There have also been previous official article releases in .pdf form for Amonkhet, Dominaria, Innistrad, Ixalan, Kaladesh and Zendikar.
- Licensed Works: And though these are all works created by other creators, they are feasibly “in play” for those who wish to use them for a D&D game: Lankhmar; Conan and Red Sonja; Thieves’ World; Kingdoms of Kalamar; Diablo; Rokugan (Legend of 5 Rings); Exandria (Critical Role); Warcraft.
While Spelljammer is a “setting” of its own, it, like Planescape, is sort of a “macro” setting that technically incorporates everything else. Through the spelljammer ships of Spelljammer or the portals of Planescape, the players can travel to just about any realm that they desire. It also can permit diasporas of beings limited or native to one particular setting to somehow show up in a world they are not naturally found. (The Radiant Citadel could permit this as well, though it’s a bit more focused/limited in scope story-wise).
In essence, there’s plenty of established choices for a group to use for play, as well as canonical options to say “the heck with it” and just hop around the various settings willy-nilly. If you will, the game itself doesn’t require you to commit to just one locale, which has always been true since the start, but there’s clear and easy methods to implement this element that are a featured element of the game, now present in the current edition of the game.
The current version of Spelljammer not only delves into the material established previously, but it even touches upon material from a sci-fi game TSR released long ago: Star Frontiers. Now the ooze-like Plasmoids and gliding simian Hadozee can be used in D&D games alongsize Dark Sun’s insectile Thri-Kreen or the upcoming Dragonlance’s Kender.
One of the key things about role-playing games and other creative works in general is that its all guided imagination: there’s in-universe boundaries and limits to help the seemingly limitless and boundless wonders within make some degree of sense. Otherwise, it may be entertainign chaos, but it won’t be as resonant and endearing as many fictional franchises are.