I've been trying to articulate criteria on what makes for a good campaign setting for D&D to make it easier for me to determine which of my half-baked campaign elevator pitches have a chance. The list is evolving to be a blend of what makes for good adventures, and what are the mechanics in D&D that imply things about how the world works, that should also be addressed.
After yesterday's thought experiment on "Goblins of the Spanish Main" - a suggested D&D setting placed in a fantastic version of the Caribbean - I can add some more things to the list.
The fundamental unit in D&D is the small troupe of adventurers, the party, and enjoyment of the game requires a great degree of party autonomy. Regardless how players choose their plot hooks or go seeking adventure, before the action gets going, they need to be on their own for planning, strategy and decision making.
Adventures and Frontiers
Advancement in the game is based on wealth acquisition, so the default mode for adventuring is looting. There's also combat, so the wealth tends to be guarded by something. Unless it’s war, fighting other people is usually against the law, but that doesn't apply to monsters.
Combining these elements quickly brings in to focus why the monster filled hex crawl or dungeon crawl is such an ideal adventure structure; it allows a small troupe of adventurers autonomy to loot and battle monsters while acquiring wealth.
For that reason, a good campaign setting needs to have that dividing line between civilization and the wilds; the border areas beyond civilization are the lawless frontiers that support classic D&D style adventures.
People have certainly tried to take D&D's rules engine and use it in other contexts - urban noir investigations like Eberron, Game of Thrones-style political intrigues, horror games. I can't say how well they all work, but that does seem to be getting away from the core D&D experience or exploring and looting.
One other item to add the list is Treasure and Magic Items - in addition to explaining the existence of dungeons, the fiction or story behind the setting needs to address why they're filled with gold coins and magic sword.
So my revised list of setting criteria to address or explain is looking more like this:
- Adventures and Frontiers
- XP for Gold
- Treasure and Magic Items
- Classes and Levels
- NPC Classes and Levels
- High Magic
- Humanoids and Monsters
- The End Game
- Clerical Magic
- Vancian Magic
I added one more regarding NPC classes and levels. It's fairly important for the referee to consider the demographics of adventurers and the nature of classes and levels in the campaign setting. A decision needs to be made whether the populations of the world are mostly zero level people, or whether characters with classes are fairly common. There's quite a big difference if the world is rugged and medieval, where most rulers are also field generals, so lords and nobles are high level fighters. Are clerics common, meaning healing is common and folks come back from the dead? Think how different a PC cleric would be perceived if clerics were extremely rare and their spells were miraculous? Certainly the default approach - as seen in various published settings - is that rulers are powerful and high level, and clerical and arcane magic is common.
Anyway, that's a big topic - whether the rules and capabilities that apply to PC's also govern the NPC's in the world - I just wanted to point out why I'm adding it to the list as something the designer should address.
Thanks everyone who chimed in on the list the other day, or gave some feedback to "Goblins of the Spanish Main". I don't know that I'm done, I'll probably toss out a few more elevator pitches or thought experiment settings to test the list further and apply some word smithing.
You can see why "points of light" is such an enduring campaign frame for D&D; a fantasy dark ages setting after the fall of a great empire provides justifications for frontiers, lawlessness, dungeons, treasure and loot, and self-made rulers.