D&D Solar System Syncretism I: How This Works

This post is pretty self-indulgent, but it’s also 36 hours past when I usually post the Friday article, so I think it’s pretty clear at this stage that it’s either a self-indulgent post most people will skip or a non-existent post that all people have no choice but to skip.

My recent musings on setting syncretism came from a hobby project to combine as many D&D settings as possible into a single solar system, that you can travel between using some kind of Spelljammer-esque space magic. I’m dealing with copyrights held by like eighteen different companies here, so I could never actually release a finished product, but it’s a fun exercise anyway. Some things fit in, others not so much. I’m going to go through the construction of this setting before delivering the final result, so you can sort of look at this as an example of how to syncretize different settings. I’m doing this on a lark and not because I think it’s actually a good idea, which means I’m not applying the usual standards of “this setting is too lame, we’ll have to exclude it completely” that you’d want to get a really good syncretist super setting, but other than that, I stand by these methods.

First of all, let’s look at what we’ve got to deal with: The 5e DMG lists seven official D&D settings, those being Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Greyhawk, Eberron, Mystara, Dark Sun, and Birthright. Not listed but officially supported is Ravenloft, the setting for the Curse of Strahd AP. Supported by previous editions but now not so much as mentioned are Ghostwalk and Council of Wyrms. Also the super-settings Planescape and Spelljammer, but those are obviously mutually exclusive to this single solar system idea, although we will be borrowing elements from them.

Right here we run into an immediate problem: Over half of these settings are very similar. Greyhawk and Mystara have a ton of overlap, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, and Birthright are politically and tonally distinct but culturally and climatologically similar, and even Eberron is more different in the civilization that occupies its landmass than in what that landmass actually is. They’re all temperate mostly-European settings with usually some jungles and deserts tossed in at the edges. Only Dark Sun and Council of Wyrms have an environment that immediately makes you think “yeah, this is a different planet,” although Ghostwalk and Ravenloft have enough weird weather stuff going on that they kind of work as different planets if you squint (and Ghostwalk isn’t anybody’s favorite setting, so if we make it super cold, no one will complain).

Luckily, we’ve got plenty of settings left to build our solar system from, so we can always use these climatologically similar settings as different continents on the same world or, especially for the smaller ones, moons orbiting other worlds. That still means we need to plumb other settings for what our major planets are going to be, however.

There’s several settings officially supported by 5e mechanics not listed in the DMG. Most notably there’s Magic: the Gathering, which itself contains tons of smaller settings: Dominaria, Zendikar, Ulgrotha, Lorwyn/Shadowmoor, Theros, Kamigawa, Alara, Innistrad, Ravnica, Mirrodin, Tarkir, Kaladesh, Amonkhet, and Ixalan. This actually isn’t even exhaustive, but Jesus, look at all those planes. Of these, Ulgrotha and Kamigawa have been sort of soft retconned out. A few years back we got a final list of planes and it didn’t include either of those two, but it also didn’t include Tarkir, Amonkhet, or Ixalan. That’s because Amonkhet and Ixalan weren’t released yet and Tarkir was still playable in tournament formats so it went without saying, but what’s weird is that the list did include Regatha and Vryn, planes which are not currently a thing (we know Vryn is where Jace is from, and there’s lots of magic portals, and…that is all, and Regatha apparently showed up in a novel or something?). So Amonkhet and Ixalan got added to the list even when they still had planes that were just a name on a list with no details. So has that whole list been scrapped and its implicit retcons with it? There’s no telling. In any case, the only planes given any actual mechanics are Zendikar, Dominaria, Amonkhet, Innistrad, Ixalan, Kaladesh, and doubleplus Ravnica which actually got a whole sourcebook and not just a web supplement.

The good news is that these were all intended to be noticeably different from one another, and it shows. Whereas D&D settings all competed to try and be the best at doing the same thing, MtG settings compete to stand out from one another. Zendikar is geologically active in a crazy high fantasy way, Amonkhet, Ixalan, and Ravnica have noticeably different climate and terrain (although Amonkhet’s is very similar to Dark Sun, but luckily contains literally only one city and an indeterminate amount of wasteland, so it’s not super hard to place them on the same planet), Innistrad and Kaladesh have notably different theme even if their geography is pretty standard (though they both have some overlap with Ravenloft and Eberron, respectively), and Dominaria…exists. I’m confident Dominaria has prominence it does only for legacy purposes (its mechanic in the recent Dominaria set was “history,” which means Dominaria being the nostalgia plane has been written into canon). It was the first plane created for Magic: the Gathering, the devs didn’t really have any idea what they were doing, and it shows. It’s tonally disjointed and only really woks as the setting for a time travel campaign, because all of its interesting events are spaced apart by thousands of years of history used to justify totally different political and climatological situations between different blocks in the days before MtG started placing each block in a different plane.

I’ve examined blog posts on the Rabiah scale (a scale used to measure how likely a plane is to be revisited in future sets) to determine which MtG planes have the necessary combination of popularity and creative identity to be worth including. I won’t go into the detail of exactly what the breakpoints were for each and will instead skip to the complete list:

-Dominaria (sigh)

Alara nearly made the cut but just didn’t quite have the right combination of popularity and creative identity, Fiora, Ragatha, Vryn, and Shandalar were disqualified because they were featured only in spin-off material and have no real meat on their bones to tell a story about, Rabiah and Rath were disqualified because they lack a sufficiently strong creative identity to be worth giving room to in a super-setting that can only hold so much, and Ulgrotha, Mercadia, Lorwyn/Shadowmoor, and Kamigawa were disqualified because people hated them. Special mention to Phyrexia, which should technically have been disqualified because of its lack of creative identity, but may end up in the setting anyway because there’s a surprising dearth of volcano planets.

D&D 5e also has a few major third party publishers who use the OGL to push their own settings. Cubicle 7 has Adventures in Middle-Earth, and you can probably guess the details on that one, Kobold Press has Midgard, a central/northern/eastern European themed dark fantasy setting that falls into the Eberron/Innistrad category of “climatologically pretty much the same but does have noticeably different culture and tone,” and Frog God Games has the Lone Lands, which are basically also that. There may be others I’m unaware of. Using Middle-Earth would be absolutely bonkers, but that’s kind of the general vibe we’ve got going here, so why not? It does have the problem of overlap with many other settings, though, since a lot of the setting overlap comes from copying Tolkien.

Finally, we’ve got the d20 compatible systems (AD&D and 4e did not have an OGL and therefore had no 3rd-party systems), and this is where things really go crazy. There’s a few that were basically just third party D&D settings taking advantage of the OGL, like Iron Kingdoms and Lamentations of the Flame Princess and, of course, Pathfinder’s Golarion. There’s a few more that were licensed games taking advantage of the OGL to do less work, like the World of WarCraft tabletop RPG, Diablo II: Diablerie, Conan d20, and the EverQuest tabletop RPG. So Azeroth and Hyboria are, technically, D&D settings.

And then there’s the really crazy ones, the ones where they made a d20 game out of something that has nothing in common with D&D and has no damn reason at all not to have its own system. Conan d20 kind of falls into that category, actually (there’s not really any such thing as a “level 20 warrior” in Conan, just named heroes who are awesome, trash mooks who are not, and named villains who are equally or more awesome to the named heroes).

That’s the tip of the iceberg, though. There’s a couple of different Star Wars d20 games (Saga Edition was the only good one), which definitely can’t fit into our solar system, but you can see how it’d be a good idea – Jedi and bounty hunters are pretty similar to wizards and rogues when you get down to it. There’s a super heroes Mutants and Masterminds d20. There’s a weird west Deadlands d20. There’s an urban horror World of Darkness d20. There’s a dystopian Judge Dredd d20. There’s a Stargate d20, for some reason. If you want to take your D&D 3e or Pathfinder character to Megacity One or to fight the Goa’uld or whatever, you can do that. It will be dumb, but the mechanics are there and the math checks out. In the sense that enemies have saving throws to roll against your spells, at least. The math does not check out in terms of being actually balanced at all.

So that’s step one taken care of: We’ve figured out our raw materials, the settings we are attempting to syncretize together. Fortunately, we are under no obligation to syncretize anything we don’t want to, and an important second step of the synretist process is figuring out what stuff is way too crazy or stupid to be included and cutting it. The sheer insanity of these raw materials helps make the point very clear: Just because we can include Judge Dredd in our D&D super-setting doesn’t mean we should.

So let’s move on to step two: What are we cutting? This is not so much an exhaustive list (the list of what must be cut will fluctuate as we work on the setting) but rather a set of basic criteria for what stuff will end up cut. For starters, though, we are almost guaranteed cutting everything that’s completely insane but snuck in by being d20 compatible from that time between 2000 and 2004-ish when people seemed to think combining the d20 system with literally any IP would print money. Judge Dredd, Mutants and Masterminds, Stargate, World of Darkness, they’re all out because their only connection to D&D is that they are technically mechanically compatible and that only because people foolishly thought that a leveled d20 rollover system was apparently the perfect fit for all source material (most of these should’ve been dicepool systems – for example, World of Darkness, which was already a dicepool system).

With the stuff we’re definitely cutting just because it’s too crazy out of the way, that leaves the bulk of the work for this step, the two major criteria by which settings will be cut unless we can save them. This is stuff where we’d like to have each individual setting but we don’t necessarily want to have every setting all at the same time, for one of two reasons: It’s redundant and we can’t find a way to distinguish it from very similar settings, or the super-setting just actually doesn’t have enough room for everything without violating its premise (in this case, “D&D is a solar system” is our premise and we can’t add extra moons and planets forever).

First up, redundant sets. Mystara, Greyhawk, Birthright, and Conan are redundant to one another. We’ll locate them on the same planet or put some of them on moons if we can, but if we end up with planets that start feeling overstuffed or gas giants with way too many moons even for gas giants (and even Jupiter really only has four moons big enough to hold an entire continent-size setting on them – we don’t need to be directly analogous to the real solar system, of course, but it’s going to be noticeably weird if our gas giants have four times as many continent-size moons on them solely to give home to tons of settings that are mostly the same as each other). Innistrad, Ravenloft, Ghostwalk, Kobold Presses’ Midgard, and Diablo are all pretty redundant to each other as well. Frog God’s Lone Lands could be considered part of the gothic fantasy Ravenloft set or the swords and sorcery Greyhawk set, but it’s definitely redundant to something. Then there’s the big one: The high fantasy western European mega-set that includes Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Golarion, Middle-Earth, World of WarCraft, and EverQuest, and making matters worse, these are barely distinct from the swords and sorcery and gothic fantasy sets already discussed. You could easily make one planet that had Dragonlance, Mystara, and Ravenloft on it (or whatever) and bin all the others amongst all three sets. That’s a lot of settings, several of which might have been someone’s favorite, tossed onto the fire, so we’ll try not to do that, but we’re also going to recognize that the default fate of all of these settings is annihilation.

The Magic: the Gathering worlds represent a conundrum, in that they are part of an easily identifiable set. If you tell people “you can go to Azeroth, but we couldn’t fit Birthright in” the Birthright fans might get angry for their favorite setting being excluded, but the WoW fans won’t be angry that they can’t go to Cerilia (probably we should do that one the other way around, considering the relative appeal of those two settings to people who play tabletop games). If you tell Innistrad fans that they can’t got o Amonkhet because we already had Athas as a desert world and didn’t want another, they will be angry. Their default expectation is that Innistrad characters can go to Amonkhet and Zendikar and probably also places that don’t have any kind of conversion work done for them like Mirrodin/New Phyrexia or Theros. People might be more understanding if we shrug our shoulders and say “you can’t go to Theros because there’s no Plane Shift for it, so we’d have to make our own supplement to support the setting, which is beyond the scope of this project,” but they’re unlikely to accept “you can’t go to Amonkhet because we wanted Dark Sun, didn’t like locating Amonkhet and Dark Sun on the same planet because the gods are in radically different positions from one another in those two settings, and we didn’t want two desert planets,” then the entire Magic: the Gathering fanbase just got casus belli and may give the whole super-setting a miss.

This puts Magic in an all-or-nothing position (or at least an “all plane shifted or nothing” position), which is a problem. On the one hand, Magic gives us one of our two ecumenopoli (Ravnica, the other one is Sigil from Planescape), our only jungle world (Ixalan), and whatever you wanna call Zendikar, which is definitely different from other settings and worth keeping. On the other hand, including those worlds pretty much requires including Innistrad, Amonkhet, and Dominaria. I have personal animus to Dominaria, but even Innistrad and Amonkhet, perfectly good worlds by themselves, jockey for positioning with other settings, and just aren’t as fleshed out as D&D worlds compared to what they’re competing with. As such, all of Magic has the sword of Damocles hanging over them if we can’t find a place for Innistrad, Amonkhet, and (sigh) Dominaria. Vryn and Regatha, as places which are important to major characters’ backstories but have never actually been visited, would be nice to include but aren’t important. If a Jace fan asks “what about Vryn?” I don’t think they’d be too upset if the answer was “what about Vryn?” All of the actual stories about Jace that endeared him to his fans happened after he left, after all.

Step 3: How much do we have room for? Any time you try to do setting syncretism, you’re going to have some of these redundant settings and stories and you have to ask yourself what you’re getting rid of on those grounds. For this specific project, we also have to worry about total space. We don’t have to keep strictly to mimicking the real solar system (although the advantages of allowing people to port whatever pre-existing knowledge of the solar system they have in to make it easier to learn the setting should not be underestimated), but we don’t want to have twelve inner system planets, nor do we want each gas giant to have twelve mostly-redundant moons. I’ve brought up the Dark Sun and Amonkhet question a couple of times, and having Athas be not!Mars while Amonkhet is a moon of not!Jupiter is a perfectly reasonable way to resolve that problem – once. We can’t keep putting straw on that camel’s back forever, though.

Inner system planets and far system dwarf planets should have no more than one or two moons, and should typically not have any (especially the dwarf planets). Outer system gas giants should have no more than five or six moons (large enough to hold a continent anyway), although they should each have at least one. Each of the inner, outer, and far system areas should have no more than four or five planets, gas giants, and dwarf planets, respectively. Moons and dwarf planets generally cannot hold more than a single continent, maybe two if they’re both small and the moon is especially big. Inner system planets can hold more, but still only have room for three or four total continents. Outer system gas giants cannot generally hold settings at all, unless those settings are amenable to being suspended in air somehow. Neptune and Uranus are technically ice giants because water has lots of weird phases depending on pressure and temperature, but for our purposes they are gaseous in that you cannot get out and walk around on them – but they’re also blue, which means putting water planets in their position would be easy for people to understand and would still allow them to use their existing knowledge of the solar system as a shortcut to remembering what order the planets for our super-setting go in.

And since this ballooned into a massive post (but hey, I’m out of article ideas, so whatever), we’re actually going to continue this on Tuesday when I start assigning actual settings to specific locations in the system.

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