Monday, July 3, 2017

Dungeons and Dragons, "My Favorite Setting"

Standard Introduction
            I have been writing about Dungeons and Dragons semi-regularly this year and in the course of writing those I found a 30-day blog challenge.  As I have done those a couple times before it seemed remiss not to jump on this one.
            If you want here is a link to my 30-day challenge on Disney Movies, here is a link to my 30-day challenge on Video Games, and here is a comically out of date 30-day challenge on Movies (it is old and the writing is rubbish).

Day 3- Favorite Game World
            Not to sound too much like an egotistical madman, but the answer is “My own”.  I like being the GG rather than player by a wide margin for just this reason.  I know that I have a lot of derivative ideas, I borrow/steal stuff from other settings, and I make strange pop culture references because I think that having humor to latch onto allows people to remember what the hell is happening.  I still like it.
            I like writing and playing to an audience.  When I have players feeding me ideas I can then build them into the world in interesting ways.  Throwing their concepts into my concepts creates something unique.  But, just banging on about my own world for however many words (and I have a lot of words on that setting, so many that I thought of doing a 30-day blog challenge where I just post stuff from my game world) I feel it is also fun to look at the most common and popular settings and give a bit of a rundown on what I think about them.
            I went a bit nuts with this and ended up making this a long rundown.  This will probably be the longest entry for the entire month.  That being said, feel free to post about your own favorite setting in the comments, post a link to your own blog/website/kickstarter because I like the idea of someone getting a kick out of making a fantasy world.

The Rundown and the “Imaginatives”
            I think a good place to start would be those worlds mentioned in the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide on page 68 “Known Worlds of the Material Plane”.  These are (by implication) the default settings when they crafted the 5e material and I think that judging them will give everyone a good idea of where I am coming from.
            This section about the Material Planes also have a mention of “Heroic Fantasy”, “Sword and Sorcery”, and “Epic Fantasy” which are subgenres in the worlds and I think the distinction might be too subtle for people to pick up on in most cases.  Let me take a swing at that before we get going.
            The best line I can draw between these subgenres (based on looking at which ones get each designation) is to say “Heroic Fantasy” puts its emphasis on powerful individuals, like certain gods, warriors, and wizards that seem to be the crux the whole world moves on.
            “Sword and Sorcery” seems to be more about the world with the characters being smaller moving parts in the greater whole, whenever you would describe a particular dungeon, adventure, or kingdom it would feel more like an “S&S”.
            “Epic Fantasy” is about events, the gods/titans are returning, the Ring of Power has been found, or the Dragonborn has appeared.  The worlds of “Epic Fantasy” are still fun places to explore and the heroes still go on adventures but when you talk about the world you talk about the BIG THING that happened.

            Toril is the world of the Forgotten Realms.  It is classified in the book as “Heroic Fantasy” and I can see why.  When you talk about the Realms you talk about the heroes that at this point are so popular they are almost Fantasy icons beyond being Dungeons and Dragons icons.  Drizzt Do’Urden novels were read by some of my friends before they even knew what DnD was.
            I personally am not a fan of the Realms, I have mentioned that before when I talked about setting.  I get the appeal, I just personally don’t care for it.  To me the Lore is simultaneously as derivative as a line of best fit and dense as neutron star.  Again, I do see the appeal for those of you who like it (Kind of like yesterday’s discussion of “Simple versus Complex”, Realms is too complex for me).

            Oerth is the world of Greyhawk.  It is a “Sword and Sorcery” setting and kind of the default setting of 3e.  Greyhawk is pretty good, it is rather down to Earth, there are some key locations, some important NPC’s, some ongoing events, but really it is the sort of setting that provides what you would expect in order to run a fun game without getting bogged down in too many details.  You are heroes and you go on adventures.
            If there is a complaint to have about this setting is that the world is kind of same-same.  There is no Asian influence at all, there are no conflicting religions (that is to say, all the gods are known and fighting for power, but everyone acknowledges the existence of all the gods and conceptualize their struggles in similar fashion).  Nothing that says you can’t add your own, but I would argue the point of running a default world is that you shouldn’t have to add your own continent worth of material.  This is an ideal campaign world to start with.

            Krynn is the world of Dragonlance.  It is an “Epic Fantasy” setting.  With the Dragons coming back and being a bother as the core defining event that shaped the world.  This is another series that has transitioned from DnD fantasy to just fantasy in a good chunk of the popular consciousness.  My Aunt read these novels but until I mentioned playing Dungeons and Dragons at a family get together, I don’t think she knew the connection between the two.
            As far as I can tell the setting is kind of up my alley.  I like big events and do suggest having a singular big event like a world war or cataclysm being a strong starting point or background for a campaign.  I don’t know if I like how prevalent Dragons are in this (I tend to put more emphasis on the first D in DnD), but again I understand the appeal of this more than the Realms even if it is not exactly my thing.

            Athas is the world of Dark Sun.  This is a “Sword and Sorcery” setting that asks, “Do you like “Mad Max” movies?  Cause this is it.”  A desert world full of gangs, god kings ruling city states, and a general theme of misery as the world is drained of its natural resources to become a husk.  This thing was re-released for 4e and I feel that was a sad, too quick on the draw move for Wizards, if they had the luck to release it alongside “Mad Max: Fury Road” it probably would have captured the nerd passions that (I think) inspired it to begin with.  (I have mentioned this setting before.)
            I am not much of a fan of Dark Sun, but have stolen elements from it.  I feel the need to endorse it in theory though.  Dark Sun is part of a collection of Settings that I refer to as the “Imaginatives”.  Those settings that take the freedom provided by the rules to create worlds that break the mold of typical fantasy.  This is Post-Apocalyptic fantasy something you do not see a lot of (unless you look at how many ruined castles and dungeons that imply the fall of a once Great Empire which led to the current age which is a theme present in basically all DnD).

            Eberron is the world of… Eberron.  To speak of the “Imaginatives” here is another one.  A “Sword and Sorcery” setting that puts the emphasis on Pulp Action.  Akin to old adventure serials this at times feels like a World War II, Noir Espionage, Indiana Jones, and Doc Savage mashed up and spread on a magical cracker.  There is a race of sentient robots that I love (and have talked about before), there are magical trains, there is a lost continent full of ruins to explore.  It has it all.
            I kind of love Eberron because it is not the typical fantasy adventure, but at the same time you can see how it would be the future of any world like Oerth or Krynn as magic became technology and the massive earth shattering events that shaped those worlds cooled.  It feels like an evolution of the genre rather than a clean break like the other 4 “Imaginatives” but the new elements it brings are so cool that I see it as distinct and worthy of consideration for anyone who wants to move in a more exotic direction for their world.

            Aebrynis is the world of the Birthright setting.  This is a “Heroic Fantasy” fantasy setting and I am shocked they even bothered to mention it.  Birthright feels like they reverse engineered the rules for a Turn Based Strategy Computer Game into a tabletop roleplaying game (at least, from what I can read on Wikipedia).  I can see why it won awards, and the mechanics sound interesting, the idea of playing a line of heroes fighting a war is pretty cool, but and this is going to sound dismissive, “It seems like a game different from DnD”.
            Let’s ignore the rules for a second though, and just focus on the world, it is kind of bland.  Which makes sense, when you are introducing new rules you need to keep the other aspects simple so that players can focus on the new rules rather than the exotic lore.  So, what we have is a world that is kind of flat so as not to pull focus from the cool rules system, a rules system that I feel is kind of outside what DnD’s core appeal is.  If you like this setting regardless of the rules that is cool, but I don’t see the appeal from what I can glean online.

            Mystara is the world of Classic Dungeons and Dragons.  This is a “Heroic Fantasy” fantasy setting as many of the movers and shakers seem to be the immortal heroes that ascended in the distant past.  That being said Mystara has cool elements, even if it has the ugliest logo in the history of DnD.
            This world has plenty of stuff to lift out, like the Hollow World and the Savage Coast, but that is also kind of why it isn’t great.  Mystara is a patchwork of ideas, and that is by design, but as a result it feels less cohesive.
            If Mystara had been built with all of its good ideas there from the start and everything mixed together to create a greater whole I would perhaps love this setting for all of the weirdness, but in its current state it feels more like a typical setting with weird elements in it, rather than a cool setting.  The Hollow World concept is so interesting that had that concept been its own thing, I would have made my “Imaginatives” a list of 5 rather than 4.

Look at how much better this logo is.
Can you believe they ever when with that ugly looking "M"?
             Surprisingly there are several settings I would consider much more iconic to Dungeons and Dragons than Birthright that were not mentioned in the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide, I am going to talk about them too just to emphasize that I kind of like them a bit MORE than the ones they did mention.

            The Wild Space of the Spelljammer setting.  This is a “Sword and Sorcery” setting, but in the most fantastic place possible, space.  There are spaceships in this and all of them look and feel different from one another in ways that make them feel magical.
            The idea behind how the spaceships move, the nature of solar systems, and worlds that turn within them is described as Ptolemaic.  And that shit is a trip.  I actually love the idea of this setting and was shocked to learn it is not more well regarded as one of the most extreme settings when it comes to creativity and exploration.  The emphasis in on the world(s) rather than on specific characters and events and just the idea of there being world(S) is fascinating.
            You can probably guess that this is another “Imaginative”.  It is so exotic, so expansive, and allows for the integration of ideas so outside the genre that it feels leaps apart from the other settings in terms of look and feel when played properly.  When they announced 5e I was surprised this was not announced as one of the first big settings to be published.  Illustrating how different they wanted to make 5e from 4e (which I remind, HAD NO SETTING to go with its release).

            The City of Sigil home base for the Planescape setting.  This is setting has more or less been upgraded to default, but in such a way that it is always in the background.  Sigil is such a cool and strange set piece by itself and I like that they established it as a major stopping point in any given multi-verse trip.  It is a city that lines the inside of a ring that floats at the top of an infinitely high tower in the Outlands of reality.  That sentence sounds like something out of aphasic poetry.
            The premise of the game was to allow players to travel between dimensions “Sliders” style to have adventures in many different worlds.  I have used this concept in a “Mutants and Masterminds” game back in the day because I thought players would like to meet and fight with various known superhero properties, and the idea makes sense for DnD, you could even say it is the logical setting with which to push an integration of DnD with the worlds of Magic the Gathering (settings that go inexplicably unmentioned in the books).
            You would figure that this would be the other “Imaginative” but oddly no.  Sigil and Planescape are basically every setting, which is big, but elements like the multiverse and portals to other worlds exist all over DnD; Planescape is imaginative in that it connects everything else, and has a cool set piece, but is not in and of itself super exotic in the context of DnD.  When Planescape is its most imaginative is when it is visiting individual worlds that feel cool by themselves (I may not be making much sense, apologies if I am being unclear).  Much like the Hollow World of Mystara it has cool things, but they are too disparate.

            The Demi-Plane of Dread home to the Ravenloft setting.  This is more of a “Gothic Horror” type setting which distinguishes it from the other worlds a great deal, mostly because it is the only setting that has that designation.  I think Ravenloft gets a short shift.  While they do love the main villain, Strahd Von Zarovich, and Wizards of the Coast keep releasing the one iconic adventure from the setting in each edition, the full-on setting doesn’t seem to get the limelight.  Doubly weird because of how many people were brought into fantasy by Vampire fiction, I guess they figured not to bother competing with White Wolf Gaming for all horror RPG business.
            Maybe if Universal’s new Tom Cruise’s “The Mummy” had been a real success and it looked like the Dark Universe was going to be a pop culture thing, Ravenloft would be getting more love, as is I think it will remain the moody standoffish child of the DnD franchise.
            Ravenloft is the last my “Imaginatives”.  Gothic Horror is such a break from everything else, especially when the look and feel of a world cloaked in mist that it is an example of what can be done by pulling the rules out of their comfort zone.  Even though Magic the Gathering has Innistrad as a sister setting, nothing else in DnD has the look and feel of Ravenloft.

Are you telling me this wouldn't be at all enticing to all the Vampire Gamers?
It looks so cool.
             Lastly, what is not really talked about are the numerous different worlds of popular fantasy not owned by Dungeons and Dragons.  There is no Middle Earth, Hogwarts, or Pern.  No Wheel of Time or Discworld.  No Elder Scrolls.  No Britannia from “Ultima” or Albion from “Fable”.
            There are no mentions of “Warcraft’s” Azeroth or the Known World of “Game of Thrones”.  No mention of Pathfinder (their setting is a lot of fun).  No Hyborian Age of Conan.  No Narnia.  No Barsoom (though Dark Sun might have taken some notes).  No Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser.  No Hyrule or Mushroom Kingdom.  No Equestria (another oversight as it is owned by Hasbro and has some crossover appeal).
            No Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  No Oriental Adventures at all.  No world of Norse or Greek myth.  Nothing based on Native American, Indian, African or other real life mythology outside of the West unless you dig into something like the Realms and even then, THOSE AREN’T AT ALL DISCUSSED.
            Most glaringly there is no discussion of the Multiverse of Magic the Gathering even though many are awesome sauce, and I must reiterate ARE OWNED BY THE SAME COMPANY.
            I mean, if you don’t have room for Ravenloft I can see not talking about properties owned by someone else, that would seem like an unwise move to draw comparisons between your product and those of the “competition”.  Conversely, if you have room for Birthright, you can make room for Ravenloft… you know, by cutting Birthright.

Need for a New World
            Let me talk about one last thing, there has been too long a break since the last new campaign setting.  In many ways 5e was an attempt to strip down the game to be simpler, but I think that they are now falling into the same trap that Hollywood is in that they are trying to rehash their older IP instead of making new stuff.  Let me just show you a timeline.  (For this purposes we are counting Mystara from 1981, even though it goes back before that kind of).
(Click on the image for Full Size)

            As you can see from the chart is has been a while since the last new campaign setting (let’s not kick Wizards of the Coast in the nuts by pointing out Pathfinder again).  This is kind of shameful all the more so because the open casting call that got them Eberron also netted them several finalists that they still own but haven’t used.  Why in heaven’s name are they not massaging those things into workable product.  Rich Baker still writes a DnD themed comic online (Order of the Stick) are you telling me he wouldn’t want the setting he submitted to head to the printers?  This is the longest dry spell for new IP in the history of the franchise at 13 years it is closing in on doubling the previous record of 8 between Birthright and Eberron.  NOT GOOD.
            I keep hounding doing a full release of a Magic the Gathering setting in conjunction with a set of Magic cards, the crossover would lead to cross pollination of the franchise, it would also double the market for novels, comics, posters and other merch.  It just seems like a good idea.

Coming Tomorrow
            My favorite god in the game.  Which I already wrote about a couple years ago, so that shouldn’t be too much work.  Unlike this entry, which kind of got out of hand.


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