Day 21 – Favorite RPG Setting
Perhaps another category I could spend years examining, because there’s a great number of RPG settings I hold dear. Despite its kitchen sink approach, I still really dig Paizo’s world of Golarion. I have a soft spot for most of the Fate Worlds, especially the newest one (Masters of Umdaar, which is a fantastic science-fantasy mashup I can’t wait to get in hard copy). And on top of Star Wars, Middle Earth, Al Qadim, Blue Planet, 2070’s Seattle, etc. etc., there’s the fact that I most often enjoy making my own settings far more than playing in someone else’s…
So, in lieu of one, here’s a bunch of great settings and why they’re in my tops list.
- Everywhere in Exalted – I think I’ve already covered this a few times, but I’m in love with the sweeping scale and pure epicness of the setting—a city built into living gems, a city in the lap of a buddha statue, cities lost in the great deserts or swallowed by forests, cities at the bottom of the ocean, cities built inside the god Autochthon… and then you start reading Yu-Shan and get this great idea for a Sidereals game that’ll never run, because Sidereals.
- Eberron – much like Exalted in terms of powerful magitech and scale. Combine advanced magictech devices with pulp noir settings, rich intrigue, dynamic noble houses, and a land sitting in the ruins of the Last War (e.g., the World War 1 analogue), use it to flip several D&D tropes and traditions on their heads, and you have one of the more divisive campaign settings ever made for D&D. You should know which side I’m falling on.
- Deadlands’ North America – if I could only pick one game to show the perfect blend of style, substance, and setting, it would be Deadlands. Spaghetti western steampunk horror in an alternate Weird West? Sold. The horse opera cliches are easy to ape at, and even as Deadlands makes the western elements fascinating, it blends them perfectly with both psychological and survival horror. Then bolts on the steampunk bits, on blasted hellscapes like the furnaces of Salt Lake City. No matter where you are in the setting, you’re right in Adventure Territory.
- Dark Sun’s Athas – imagine that magic ends up syphoning life essence unless used with care and precision (read: “used with less power”). Flash forward several hundred years and you have a blasted fantasy wasteland, an apocalypse of dickish villains ruling a Mad Max-esque thunderdome of horrible creatures and warring city-states. It’s a mashup of post-apocalypse and dark ages points-of-light. And it’s glorious.
- 7th Sea’s Theah – another kitchen sink mashup, where Arthurian England brushes shoulders with pre-Reconquista Spain and feudal Tsarist Russia. But it’s rife with intrigue, thanks to a bunch of excellent secret societies that mirror real-world secret societies, adding both interest and plenty of ideas for plot twists. Plus, reading the books gets you pumped to buckle some swash.
- Bloodshadows’ Marl – an overlooked and oft-forgotten RPG, which is a shame since it had so many cool ideas—namely, its setting. Think traditional high fantasy that’s advanced to 1940s-era technology, making a mashup of film noir and sorcery. The setting just oozes atmosphere, even though the art and game design was not WEG’s best. I would hack this into Fate in a heartbeat.
- Every D&D Plane (Planescape) – between its DiTerlizzi art and invented slang, Planescape was one of the most evocative and atmospheric line of game books ever constructed. I think part of the reason WotC has been leery of bringing it back is fear that they won’t be able to capture the same magic to do it justice—and since it was heavily weighted on a ’90s zeitgeist of raging against machines and smashing the state. So, think Shadowrun, only where your Johnson is a bodyless floating skull, and you’re inevitably betrayed by demons.
- The Fading Suns universe – Bill Bridges left White Wolf to work on this now-forgotten game, and while I never found its rules that impressive, its world sure is. It’s a sprawling space opera best compared to Dune, with dozens of feuding noble houses warring amongst the stars. Oh, it’s also kind of junked and held together by bits of string, with a very worn-in feel. Lots of political intrigue and potential for exploration.
- The Domain of Dread (Ravenloft) – it’s a testament to TSR’s designers that three of their AD&D settings made my tops list. Ravenloft could easily have been just a hodge-podge of classic monster movie horror tropes, hoary old gothic cliches, all dry ice smoke and cardboard tombstones. (If they had, I’d still love it.) Instead, the setting started off using that point as both inspiration and homage, and added in its own mythology and terrors that keep players on their toes. There’s a reason nobody looks forward to the mists of Ravenloft bearing down on them…
- Tri-Kazel (Shadows of Esteren) – a fantastically detailed low-magic fantasy setting, kind of the ultimate points-of-light world. Drawing heavily from Celtic and Germanic myth, the world is big and empty and open, except for civilized places which hold their own horrors and intrigues. As a neo-gothic horror setting, Esteren gives you plenty of ideas to work with, especially from its excellent art, depicting the grimy life in a dangerous world.