Thursday, May 10, 2012

Criteria for a Good D&D Setting

I'm always kicking around these "elevator pitches" in my head for some upcoming D&D setting.  I develop bas cases of the Gamer Attention Deficit Disorder… ideas accumulate in the back of my brain like flotsam and jetsam.  Just to get them out of there and put them down on paper, I created a section of the blog, The Junkyard, just for dumping ideas (hopefully, it becomes my place to go scavenge for ideas in the future).  Like the man said, an idea is the most resilient parasite - it's impossible to eradicate - but maybe you can park it somewhere to cool off.

One of the problems with these half-baked settings mash-ups is that once you take them out and really look at them, half the time I realize they're not really good fits for a D&D campaign after all.  Which kind of begs the question, What are the criteria for a good D&D setting?

You would think that some hoary elder of the D&D blogosphere would have established the definitive criteria for the ideal D&D setting some time ago, but alas, I cannot seem to recall seeing such a list.  Don't get your hopes up for seeing one here.

The problem is this:  Dungeons & Dragons is a game, with elements that appeal on the level of a game.  It also generates fantastic stories.  I'm not a story-oriented DM; my D&D style is to throw stuff on the table, play the game, and the story is what you have after all the game elements come together after a night of play.  But somewhere along the line, a lot of us started treating D&D more like an emulation of fantasy literature, and less like a game that had some fantasy inspirations.

The problem of designing a good campaign setting requires coming to terms with the game-oriented elements of D&D, and making sure they work in the context of the setting.  Many times, house rules and similar changes are foisted on the game to minimize or remove game elements that are perceived to get in the way of the fiction.  Sometimes these changes to D&D are only cosmetic, but other times they're major surgerry.

Let's start with the perspective that D&D is Always Right.  If that's true, what are the core game elements that need to be accounted for in the setting?

Here's the list I have so far:

Let's face it, a D&D world is crawling with these underworld locations filled with traps, weird magic "specials", monsters, and lots and lots of loot.  Ideally, the setting should support a mega dungeon concept, too.  Where'd they come from?

Classes and Levels
The D&D world is one where there are clear demarcations between different approaches to adventuring, as embodied by the four base classes, and where experienced characters and rulers wield vast power compared to their zero-level brethren.

Powerful and far-reaching game effects are keyed off whether someone is good or evil, or at a minimum, Lawful or Chaotic.

High Magic
The D&D world is one where folks with the requisite intelligence (and perhaps money) can study magic, learn to fly around, and toss fireballs.  You can come back from the dead, too, if you know a high level cleric with a good wisdom.

Humanoids and Monsters
The wilds are crawling with talking, anthropomorphic furries that want to eat people.  Just where do all those humanoids and monsters come from?

XP for Gold
The whole paradigm of gold = experience means there's likely an "adventurer class" in society that specializes in exploring old ruins, and successful adventurers can amass fortunes in wealth.  Which brings me to my next point...

The End Game
Default D&D assumes an end-game where high level characters can take their vast fortunes and carve out small kingdoms with their many followers.  This implies a degree of wilderness or borderland, ideally in the form of a hex crawl.

Characters in the D&D world rub shoulders with these curious pseudo-humans with pointy ears and funny accents that live in the woods or the hills.

Clerical Magic
The default D&D setting assumes clerics gain their powers from deities, which implies quite a bit about the nature of the cosmology and humanity.

Vancian Magic
Spell books, spell memorization, and flashy combat magic create a set of expectations about the world and how arcane magic functions.

Please suggest more to add to the list if there's some I missed.

My goal is to have a small checklist of things to address when I'm kicking around alternative campaign ideas.   It'll help keep my ideas grounded, or at least ensure I'm addressing core elements of the game or developing suitable equivalents.


  1. A question, the answer to which might effect this: Do you view things like hit points, uniformity of tunnel sizes, Vancian magic, etc. as merely artifacts of abstracting a world into a game (much in the same way Monopoly abstractifies Atlantic City geography) or are those literal translations of real elements of the world?

    If the former, I think you've got the basics covered. If the latter, you've got a few more things. Of course, the answer could be different based on different elements.

  2. I tend to think of hit points as part of Classes and Levels; the nature of the world has 10th level fighters that can take on an entire village of mooks, which pretty much slides all default D&D games towards pulp action and away from the gritty grim-dark.

    But I should have something specifically called out for Vancian magic and divine casting (especially because clerics imply quite a bit regarding the cosmology that needs to be addressed).

  3. This article by S. John Ross might also be of use.

  4. This sentence encapsulates a lot of my thinking: "But somewhere along the line, a lot of us started treating D&D more like an emulation of fantasy literature, and less like a game that had some fantasy inspirations."

    If DnD is "always right" then Gygax's initial statements about changing things around as your group sees fit would be high on my checklist. DnD is a game. Games are about having fun within a set of rules that are ultimately arbitrary. So, whatever your group's primary fantasy inspirations are, tweak the rules to make 'em work. Don't like demi-humans? Ditch 'em. Think leveling should be faster? Do it.

    Out of your list, really the only things that I'd keep are classes, levels and dungeons. To me, that's the heart of DnD right there. Some range of archetypes (which might or might not include clerics, thieves, etc). Some manner of improvement with experience (with the latter arbitrarily defined). And some environment in which the real gives way to the fantastical.

  5. To me, a good D&D setting is not good because it explains the existence of PC mechanics. It is good because it provides opportunities for adventure and exploration. Thus, I would approach this in a different way. Of the elements on your list, I think that dungeons and wilderness/borderlands are the only ones that jump out at me. I don't think you need to assume that just because PCs are adventurers and get XP for gold that this need affect the other NPCs in the world all that much. Also, no need to assume high magic just because the PCs have access to such.

    I guess I would summarize all that by saying that consistency is overrated when it comes to a good gameable setting. It can be cool for other reasons (and is certainly fun to put together as a referee) but I don't think it is the most important thing.

    Here are things I would include in such a list:

    - Rumor tables and other ways for PCs to discover info
    - A source of hirelings
    - Ways to encounter most of the creatures in the core rules
    - Places to find most of the treasures from the core rules
    - Cool ways to build class advancement into the setting
    - NPCs that players care about (this one is hard)

    Interesting side note: alignment has never made much of an impact on any game I have run or played in yet. Maybe this is a side effect of starting in 2E and being heavily influenced by the other big games in the 90s (Vampire, etc).

    1. The point of the list isn't that every D&D setting needs these things, but that they're a core part of the rules and need to be addressed. Some of them can be waved off in a setting cosmetically, others require major surgery.

      But you allude to a fascinating alternate topic - do the rules and systems that govern PC's govern NPC's as well? That's a great one to discuss.

    2. I tend to come down on the side that NPCs don't need to follow the same rules, though they may as needed by the referee. This is one of my major disagreements with ACKS; all characters with political power in ACKS (by the book) are assumed to have a class and be high level. I also think that having them not follow the same rules sometimes can be an important source of wonder (or the weird) that is not possible if players can fully extrapolate the world from the rules they have access to. I think we've talked about this from a different angle before in the comments on some other post.

      For me, what makes a good D&D setting is actually pretty divorced from class specifics. As a thought experiment, assume any one class is missing from the game. Does that change what is needed for a good setting? I don't think so. Even limiting the game to one class doesn't really change the requirements. Perhaps what I'm thinking about here is a more fundamental core underneath the properties you are talking about. For an extreme example, consider Carcosa. I think this is a fully functional (and very good) D&D setting. Geoffrey has talked before about how he more or less treats Men & Magic as a complete game, which he then stripped down even more.

      In fact, looking back, that is exactly how I started my Carcosa review:

      In Carcosa, almost all of the identifiable tropes of D&D are gone, yet the essence remains. There are no dragons, demi-humans, magic-users, or magic items.

      Part of the reason that I think this deeper core is more useful is that if you actually take many of the core class elements (reliable Vancian magic, etc) of D&D as written to their logical conclusion, you end up with a setting like Eberron. Magic as technology, cities lit with continual light spells, etc.

  6. Starting from the D&D is always right point of view, I believe one more point should be: Vast portions of the world are not civilized and the most dangerous creatures and monsters can be encountered, considering the random encounter charts with dragons...

  7. Another point: The game seems to treat PC playable races as fundamentally different than intelligent monster species, even if they're equal in all non-mechanical aspects. The fantasy world should reflect this in some way.

    Also: Demi-humans are limited in their potential regarding the different approaches to adventuring (race/level limits). Why?