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Best-written D&D setting materials?

Birtrca

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So, for (yikes) almost 4 years now, I've been running a D&D 5th Ed game for my buddies and wife... and considering I've been at this hobby since I was 10 or 12... I'm beginning to surprise myself with the longevity of this campaign. Really... it's the first 'campaign' I've ever run... and the first I'll likely to run to completion.

And the campaign setting was really easy: Viking-era (i.e. Macbeth) Scotland with the serial numbers filed off, and PC races filling in for the major ethnic groups. The players have enjoyed it. And I've enjoyed researching/writing it, and it's felt increasingly... inspired... as the months have worn on.

So, about 6 more levels I figure, and they'll defeat the big bad. And, as much as one of them is aching to run off and become the 'Holy Tiverian Emperor' in Alamannia, my story will have reached an end.

Anyway: I'd like to write up my setting... in the scheme of things probably just for my own amusement... but this has left me wondering, because I've never read much of D&D setting material (mostly just the core books of 2, 3 and now 5) ... what does this look like when it's done well?

So, in your opinion, what's the best written setting materials for D&D (whatever version)? What's the most evocative, world building stuff you've read? What should I look to for a model of "this is how it's done well"?

Or really... any RPG setting you can point me to as a model for this kind of thing would be welcome.
 

Dromio

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Hmmm, maybe the Tal'dorei setting from Green Ronin? It's a setting book for a setting that's from a home campaign (Matt Mercer's campaign from Critical Role).
 

Usurename

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This is the million dollar question coming from someone who also is considering writing up his own setting. My opinion on this has changed over the years. If you had asked me years ago, I would have pointed to Planescape. But this was from an era when I was reading setting materials more for entertainment than for running a game. Now that I am running a D&D game on the regular, my opinion has shifted quite a bit. While I still like Planescape, too much of it goes against what I consider good design in a setting book. In no particular order, this is what I look for, including good examples of each:

1. Nearly every paragraph should be written with the idea that this will be a setting for running D&D adventures in, and I should be able to flip to a random page and get an adventure hook without thinking about it too hard. I think a lot of the 3.0 and 3.5 setting books were good at this, even setting aside a section explicitly for adventure hooks. To test this out, I just opened up the 3.0 Forgotten Realms book to a random paragraph and got to a description of an ancient dwarven realm survived by a lone kingdom which was once ruled from a Wyrmskull Throne that moved from constituent kingdom to constituent kingdom. I immediately can think of an adventure or even an entire campaign set around locating this throne to restore the glory of this old dwarven realm; the following paragraph lays out how this can happen, describing ancient ruins filled with masterwork dwarven armor, weapons, and even magic items that can be searched. I am honestly not that big of a fan of Forgotten Realms, but it does excel at this. Meanwhile, many of the places and people described in Planescape, while interesting, require you to do a bit of mental gymnastics to get something out of. Also, the book should account for the concerns and assumptions of D&D: how much do things adventurers want cost, who does the healing, where do you go to get trained in each class, etc.

2. The setting should be built on the premise of making the PCs look awesome...at least eventually. This is where 2nd and 3rd edition FR fails, IMO, with powerful NPCs from the novels and elsewhere determining too much of the setting and background. Put in another way, I would ask myself "Is the PCs' story of any DM's campaign going to be the most interesting story told in this setting?" The answer better be yes; save the elaborate histories of other characters and past adventurers for fiction. Eberron, in my opinion, does a great job at this, but I am a biased Eberron fanboy. That setting is premised on the idea that the PCs are exceptional and will quite quickly rise to prominence. This is supported by the low stats given for NPCs, especially the good-aligned ones. This isn't the route all settings should take, but there should definitely be room for low and mid-level PCs to do cool shit. A setting which gives you a delicate situation and immediately has me thinking, "Man, are the PCs going to really mess things up," has accomplished this. Hot Springs Island, if you consider it a setting, works like this.

3. The setting should support multiple play styles, but keep a thematic focus. The first part, I think, explains itself. My current take on the second part is a reader should be able to summarize the setting with the following sentence: "(Adjective) fantasy adventure in a [optional adjective] world of (adjective + noun)." So reading Dark Sun, several such summaries would jump out at you. "Post-apocalyptic fantasy adventure in a sorcery-blasted world of despotic city-states." "Swords and sorcery fantasy adventure in a godless world of savage desperation." This is one thing Planescape also does well.

4. Important things, people, and places should be well indexed and cross-referenced. Ptolus is a good example of this with sidebars giving page numbers to key highlighted terms in the text for those wanting more information.

5. Usability at the table. Organization is key for this; you don't want important information you need in session to be buried under some flowery prose about the tragic love affair of the Dandelion Princess and the Oaken Prince. This is a big one for me these days. Useful charts and resources laid out in easy to find and digestible bits are good for this. The DCC setting book Hubris is a good example, with each region starting with two different kinds of random encounter tables, two pages each: one for sights you may run across that could lead to further adventure, another for creatures. I haven't read it, but Vornheim seems to do a good job at giving you tools to help run a city campaign rather than just give you details on each and every house, such as random dice charts to generate characters and situations and schemes to draw city streets. Yoon-Suin also seems good for this.

6. Modularity and adaptability. I should be able to take stuff from this setting and add it to my own, since DMs like to homebrew. At the same time, the setting should be able to accommodate my own stuff or third party stuff without too much effort. The encounter charts in Hubris above are a good example of stuff that can be repurposed to another campaign world since each region is a different terrain type.

7. Detailed enough for me to run an adventure without much prep, but vague enough to allow me to insert my own details. FR is too detailed, IMO. But most other settings I've mentioned get this.

Sorry if this is so long. Questing Beast did a video recommending more obscure settings from the DIY D&D community and I find I agree with his selections, at least those I have read. Here's a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l4F67RFcW6E&t=27s
 

drrockso20

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personally I'd say the two Wizards Presents preview books for 4e, at least if we're talking official D&D stuff, if we expand that to 3rd Party stuff(especially OSR) than some competition crops up, I'll list some of those later(as it's really late and I need to get some sleep:p:eek:)
 

Gorilla Zod

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You know what my least favourite fantasy setting is? The Forgotten Realms. But the original 1st edition box set - heck, even the 2nd edition version - are two of my favourite settings to read and I have mined them for ideas for years. Might be worth a look.
 

CoreyHaim8myDog

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You know what my least favourite fantasy setting is? The Forgotten Realms. But the original 1st edition box set - heck, even the 2nd edition version - are two of my favourite settings to read and I have mined them for ideas for years. Might be worth a look.
Keith Parkinson's art was also amazing on those.
 

HighGygaxian

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You know what my least favourite fantasy setting is? The Forgotten Realms. But the original 1st edition box set - heck, even the 2nd edition version - are two of my favourite settings to read and I have mined them for ideas for years. Might be worth a look.
I like them and the 3E one.

If you strip[ out the plat books FR is not that bad IMHO. Its when you try and use everything or think you have to the problems start. Earlier FR is better IMHO.

Other good ones.

World of Greyhawk boxed set (1983)

Darksun boxed set (1991). Basically the definitive Darksun

Planescape
(1994) Not really my thing but an impressive effort.

Generally I find metaplot often ruins what you like about the world in the 1st place and the authors tend to do world shaking events, FR being a case in point Dragonlance has basically been ruined, and freelancers messed up Darksun.
 

Voros

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That only if you care on whit what is written in the tie-in novels. Most people have never read them these days.

Al-Qadim is one of the best of the original TSR settings as it is less sprawling.

City of Greyhawk is a great city setting that has recently become available POD via Drivethrurpg. The Skullport supplement is an underrated later FR release that is excellent as well.

I'm very fond of Dark Sun, Planescape and Ravenloft, lots to use in all those settings. Castle Forlorn is probably the best Ravenloft supplement.
 

Eric_Diaz

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My favorite D&D setting is probably Dark Sun. Not sure it is particularly well written, but I enjoy playing it a long while ago.

I am having a hard time remembering anything being well-written TBH...

Well, I dislike Dragonlance, but I think the SAGA edition was a good read.

Hmmm, maybe the Tal'dorei setting from Green Ronin? It's a setting book for a setting that's from a home campaign (Matt Mercer's campaign from Critical Role).
I hope you're right, I bought the book 10 minutes ago on a whim (even after hearing it is awfully vanilla)!
 
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