A Brief Overview of D&D Settings

In the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide, the various D&D settings released over the years were consolidated down to a list of seven. The only one to receive official support is the Forgotten Realms, but the inclusion of the other six suggests some degree of official recognition above and beyond the dozens of other settings that have been included under the D&D brand at various points (fun fact: The exhaustive list of all settings included under the D&D brand at some point includes Azeroth, the World of Warcraft, which received an official Wizards of the Coast d20 adaptation back when “juggernaut” was too feeble a term to describe their dominance over the MMORPG market). This post is going to include a one paragraph explanation of each of these seven settings.

The Forgotten Realms is the setting for four out of five of the seasons of the 5e Adventurer’s League so far, including all hardback adventure paths released under the brand. Just in terms of volume of pre-packaged material available, this one is a clear winner over all contenders. It is a world of high fantasy, which means danger and adventure lurk around pretty much every corner, but the dark lords and evil gods are always temporary threats and the heroes who face them are likewise defined by their own motivation. Unlike some of the worlds we’ll be talking about, there are clearly defined good guys and bad guys, but unlike some of the other worlds we’ll be talking about, party loyalty to good guy or bad guy organizations is not a defining trait for most characters and there is no Emperor of All Evil or President of the United Good Guys. This makes it good for episodic adventure, because you’re under no obligation to explain why various bad guy schemes foiled from one adventure to the next are at all connected to one another. It’s also good for political intrigues without completely abandoning the black and white morality of classic fantasy, because while there are good guys and bad guys, it isn’t at all unthinkable for a good realm to make an alliance of convenience for a bad one.

Greyhawk was the primary setting for both AD&D 1e and 3.0/3.5e D&D, and Pathfinder’s Golarion setting is pretty much just an off-brand Greyhawk. While Greyhawk uses the same 3×3 alignment grid as the rest, Evil and Chaos are much more closely tied to one another, while Law and Good also tend to be aligned. Lawful Evil and Chaotic Good still exist, but most Team Good nations tend to be heavily civilized while most Team Evil nations tend to be chaotic alliances of pillaging monsters rather than evil empires ruled by a dark lord in the model of Palpatine or Sauron. The bonds between nations in Team Good and Team Evil are really thin, though. “Good” nations aren’t necessarily all that good so much as they’re just not blatantly evil and their alliance with one another tends to be largely maintained by the presence of aggressive evil nations nearby. It wouldn’t even be all that weird for two good nations to go to war with one another in Greyhawk. Greyhawk has a clearly evil team, but that is mainly just to provide raiders who players can stab to death while still being the good guys. It’s a swords and sorcery world more in the mold of Conan than King Arthur or Lord of the Rings, which means that the heroes are usually motivated by personal goals like wealth or revenge rather than ideals or loyalty. Greyhawk is a setting built in the mold of 1e AD&D, which listed how much money all the townspeople kept in their houses just in case the party thief wanted to rob them blind between dungeon crawls. It’s also got comparatively quite few elves, dwarves, or halflings, all of whom are minority populations in practically every nation.

Dragonlance is the last of the Big Three most popular D&D settings (ignoring meta-settings like Planescape). The original Dragonlance adventure modules formed the first ever adventure path with a complete arc from beginning to end. I wasn’t around and can’t say for sure, but from looking at release timelines it seems like it was probably the most popular setting for a couple of years in the 80s, after its adventure path made it more prominent than Greyhawk but before Forgotten Realms really took off. Unfortunately, Dragonlance has had almost no new material written for it since the 80s and most of its plot developments during the 90s and 00s were to the detriment of the campaign setting as an actual campaign setting, especially since it for some reason decided to try and compete with Dark Sun (more on that below) with grimdark oppression instead of retaining its monopoly on epic fantasy. This confusion over tone makes it hard to discuss. I’m giving myself a free pass on this first paragraph because Dragonlance dragging its tone all over the place necessitates more explanation than most other settings.

Focusing on the War of the Lance era when Dragonlance was more focused, Dragonlance is an epic fantasy setting in which every last evil creature is a vassal of Draco-Sauron and every last good and noble person is a servant of the light. They don’t always know it, and Team Evil is actually defined by fierce internecine warfare, but every time a sufficiently powerful dark lord arises (and it happens fairly often and frequently due to the direct intervention of Draco-Sauron, the queen of evil gods) all evil creatures will fall in line and stay there until someone unseats the dark lord, and all good and noble people will eventually put aside their differences to fight them. An epic fantasy world like Dragonlance is not a patchwork of dozens of different nations who can be loosely classified as “good” or “evil” based on whether or not we feel guilty for killing their troops and looting their treasuries, it’s a world divided entirely between two clearly defined superpowers and their respective spheres of influence, and when those two superpowers clash, the war is titanic and continent-spanning. Also, Dragonlance does not have orcs, with orcs’ narrative role being largely taken by draconians, who are the hydrox cookie to the dragonborn’s oreo.

Mystara has a lot in common with Greyhawk as a setting. It’s a humanocentric swords and sorcery setting where good nations are primarily defined as not being aggressive, expansionist raiders rather than by any particular merit of their own, and the distinction is largely to define for player characters which nations’ soldiers they don’t have to feel guilty about killing for personal profit. The primary difference between Mystara and Greyhawk is that Mystara was the main vehicle for BECMI and Greyhawk was the main vehicle for AD&D, but since D&D hasn’t maintained two distinct product lines like that for nearly two decades now, this no longer matters. There are differences between the two, but they’re tiny minutia that would take much longer than a paragraph to properly explain.

Birthright isn’t a setting, it’s a mechanic. The idea behind Birthright was that it was a D&D game but it was expected that everyone would either start as or swiftly become a ruler of a realm, and the players would spend a lot of time on realm management and politics. This is a concept that can be applied to any setting and a lot of people who talk about Birthright are actually talking about either the specific mechanics of realm management presented by the splatbook or else just the general concept of realm management games in general, and a lot of people who claim to like Birthright as a setting would be just as happy playing rulers in virtually any other setting. The main place where the realm management mechanics and the setting itself actually inform one another is the concept of bloodlines, where awesome people pass their awesomeness on really reliably by blood because their awesomeness is a result of divine gift and apparently the gods like a legacy. Besides locking PCs into a specific backstory, the main affect of this is that scions of a bloodline can quicken other scions (of their bloodline or others) for a power boost like it’s Highlander. Birthright is mainly cut in the swords and sorcery mold of relative moral ambiguity and humanocentrism, however the moral ambiguity is turned up higher and the humanocentrism is less extreme. Goblins are less hostile towards humans, but elves are less friendly, and you can reasonably make alliances with or against anyone as the ruler of a realm.

Dark Sun is listed as a swords and sorcery setting, but it’s gone so hard into moral greys that I think it deserves to be listed apart from settings like Greyhawk or Mystara. Dark Sun’s whole schtick is that everything sucks, the world is ruined, and what few points of civilization are left in the blasted, lifeless wasteland are ruled over by NPC dictators so powerful that you will pretty much never dislodge them. Arcane magic use has been depleting the life of the world and these priest-kings are sucking up all that’s left while there’s still any at all, and the intense concentration of the stuff turns a fair few of them into dragons. Divine magic is not a thing, and neither are gods at all. There is no team evil because everyone is evil, so talking about “the evil nations” is like talking about “the blue sky.” As opposed to what? Dark Sun is a world designed for morally ambiguous adventures undertaken by morally ambiguous characters, who are probably thieves and quite possibly straight up murderers. It also works well as a vehicle for a bold last stand for justice in a world overrun by evil.

Eberron is the new kid on the block, a setting that only started receiving official support on tail end of 3e. Eberron was reasonably well supported during those few years, however 4e didn’t really support settings at all and 5e has been relatively quite stingy with releases in general and relentlessly focused on the Forgotten Realms when it does release books, so the amount of material available for Eberron is relatively scarce. Eberron is a dungeonpunk setting in which society is generally more advanced due to the abundance of technology-replacing magic, the existence of the gods is up for debate, and sapient constructs are a default player race. Eberron is by far the most modern setting not just in chronology but in design. Different nations have clearly political differences, but they aren’t defined as “good” or “evil,” different religions are actual different religions instead of being two opposing sides in a single pantheon with a single creation myth and a single origin story, there is no conclusive evidence whether gods exist at all and divine magic doesn’t rely on adherence to any established traditions, let alone association with organized religion or worship of specific gods, to function. Eberron also has a very distinct aesthetic and it’s entirely possible to run a good versus evil plot just by taking an existing nation and throwing in a coup by a dark lord, thus giving you a high fantasy or even epic fantasy plot in which you also have magic robots and trains, but the setting works best when exploiting its lack of easy answers for political intrigue. Game of Thrones sells itself so intensely on being super edgy that most people would associate it with the grimdark Dark Sun, but the actual thematic heart of Game of Thrones has more to do with questions of rulership not having any easy answers, and that kind of philosophical question explored through the lens of war and with stakes of hundreds of thousands of lives is more at home in Eberron than any other setting, because Eberron has both the key ingredients for that kind of setting: Heroes who are trying to be good opposed by villains who simply do not give a fuck about the concept of good and evil at all.

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