Theros? But What About Your Favorite D&D Campaign Setting?!

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Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted speculate on what we might see in the upcoming fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons book Mythic Odysseys of Theros. Since I already shared my own speculation in the post we published when we discovered the new book before any official announcement that’s not going to work here. Instead I’ll take the opportunity to consider a perspective we see and hear a lot as regards MOoT and the previous Magic: the Gathering material brought into the 5E D&D multiverse, Guildmasters Guide to Ravnica. There’s a lot of D&D players out there who see these M:tG settings crossing over with D&D taking away from the game and giving short shrift to campaign settings of the past they’d like to see updated for 5E D&D. According to Wikipedia there’s nearly 30 official D&D campaign settings in the game’s history, last updated March 14, 2020 to include Exandria. The campaign setting for Critical Role’s adventures became an official part of the D&D multiverse with the release of Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount.

Play in your favorite D&D campaign settings now

Perhaps the strangest reaction to Mythic Odysseys of Theros and Guildmasters Guide to Ravnica isn’t the call for revitalizing older campaign settings in lieu of exploring new ones. What strikes me odd is the wish not for new mechanical versions of classic settings but updated lore. More than a few times I’ve read comments expressing sentiments about the crunchy bits being the easy part to update, something these Dungeon Masters enjoy. If I’m honest I don’t understand this perspective. The games we play in any setting very quickly become personalized to our groups, and in many cases the thrust of adventures and campaigns results in even more changes to the setting customized to each gaming group as a matter of course. How your group reconciled the giant ordning, solved the death curse or whatever means your version of the Forgotten Realms is different than any other groups’ setting.

However you approach new and classic campaign settings, whether you want to replicate the flavor through lore and themes or differentiate your campaign with mechanical changes, I thought it would be fun to take a look at all the official D&D campaign settings and offer some resources to players hoping to capture those experiences in 5E D&D. It’s a long list, so let’s get into it. I’m going to curate the list to include D&D campaign settings I see mentioned often from players hoping for a new iteration for the current edition. A word of warning first though: I do not have intimate knowledge of all these settings, but I’ll do my best to understand and point you towards resources I believe can get you there or at least appeal to the same sensibilities.

Birthright

“A setting in which the players took on the powers of the divinely-empowered rulers of nations, with emphasis on tactical gameplay with a broad scope.”

I can’t help but think of Matt Colville, who’s stated several times his affection for this 1995 campaign setting. I recommend checking out MCDM Productions where you’ll find Strongholds & Followers, and presumably Kingdoms & Warfare down the road. They’re not exactly the same scenario as Birthright but these resources definitely expand the scope of your 5E D&D campaigns including warfare mechanics and building and maintaining facilities and surrounding lands.

Blackmoor

“During the Christmas of 1970/1971, Dungeons & Dragons Co-Creator Dave Arneson created the World of Blackmoor. This was the first fantasy campaign.”

I don’t believe it gets more classic than this one, and I imagine the core D&D game themes and elements capture the important parts of this setting at least mechanically. But if you’re looking to recreate the setting in your games there’s a few resources.

Council of Wyrms

“The Council of Wyrms boxed set provides all the rules and background material necessary for staging adventures with dragon PCs.”

The trick with this scenario, it seems to me, would be twofold. First, how to represent character advancement and second, how to challenge characters who are dragons. Dragons gain power as they age, and tremendous amounts of that power. I imagine this sort of campaign would take place stretched out over milienia.

Dark Sun

“Dark Sun featured an innovative metaplot, influential art work, dark themes, and a genre-bending take on traditional fantasy role-playing.”

I get it, I get it. You love Dark Sun. More than most, this D&D campaign setting leans heavily on specific mechanical systems like psionics and defiling/preserving magic.  It’s a tall order to fill but I believe it’s entirely possible to cobble together some material fairly easily and run games set in Athas. You can take any monster you want and reflavor their features as psionic in origin. Lots of people point to how even the plants of Dark Sun are psionic and dangerous. To me this is all about presentation. Slap some extra psychic damage on a twig blight’s attacks. Getting across the idea of how brutal the world can be is the important part here. Instilling ideas of scarcity and survival in this harsh climate drives adventures forward. As for the metaplot there’s nothing mechanical about it — just straight up lift this from the original material.

Dragonlance

“The fictional Dragonlance world of Krynn contains numerous characters, an extensive timeline, and a detailed geography. The history of Krynn consists of five ages.”

A favorite setting for many players who grew up reading the novels set in the world of Krynn. If I’m honest this is one of the more strange requests out there. Other than draconians, something a DM could homebrew fairly easily, it’s a lot like Blackmoor, Greyhawk and other settings in the sense that there’s not much different going on than a bog standard D&D game aside from setting details. But that’s great news for 5E D&D players because there’s enormous amounts of setting information for this one, maybe more than any other.

Forgotten Realms — Al-Qadim

“Al-Qadim uses One Thousand and One Nights as a theme and is set in the land of Zakhara, called the Land of Fate. Thematically, the land of Zakhara is a blend of the historical Muslim Caliphates, the stories of legend, and a wealth of Hollywood cinematic history.”

Important concepts to the Zakharan culture include honor, family, social station, purity, piety, and hospitality. I think there’s a lot you could do with some of the options in the Dungeon Master’s Guide to add these mechanical elements to a campaign, and outside of game material created for Al-Qadim there’s tons of real world inspiration to draw from and create adventures in this rich setting.

 

5E D&D campaign settings ravenloft dark sun greyhawk spelljammer
The worlds of Dark Sun, Greyhawk, Spelljammer and Ravenloft are some of the most beloved campaign settings in D&D history.

 

Forgotten Realms — Kara-Tur

“Kara-Tur’s cultures and peoples are fantasy analogues of medieval China, Korea, Japan, the Ryukyu Islands, Tibet, and other regions of East Asia.”

I didn’t mention this with Al-Qadim but now is a great time to point out these cultural pastiches are problematic for several reasons. More often than not these real world analogs are created without sensitivity or inclusion. Notwithstanding that a fantasy world would even have entire regions develop so similar to our own, these kinds of campaign settings often mash together stereotypes and superficial ideas. This can result in wildly misrepresenting cultures and to me, creators can’t have it both ways. You can’t say it’s a made up fantasy world that doesn’t relate while at the same time presenting very clear parallels to real world cultures.

Ghostwalk

“The central locale for the Ghostwalk setting is a city called Manifest, a mausoleum city built atop a geological feature known as the Veil of Souls which leads the spirits of the departed on to the True Afterlife.”

I’ve got a bit of experience with this one, from a campaign I played where everyone could use whatever sources they wanted to create characters. If you weren’t around in the 3.5 D&D era, this meant a ridiculous number of sources. I thought it would be fun to play a ghostly character, and on my own I could do very little. But I could possess other creatures! There’s not a whole lot to this one — it was designed to be self-contained in a single book — but that being said there’s only a single book! Inside are seven adventures, details about Manifest and discussions of themes and concepts.

Greyhawk

“Greyhawk, also known as the World of Greyhawk, is a fictional world designed as a campaign setting for the Dungeons & Dragons fantasy roleplaying game.”

I’ve got to be honest, this is the weirdest one on the list I see people clamor for. I’m not sure what they want, there’s really nothing unusual about Greyhawk mechanically. It is the Basic Rules essentially, and other than lore and setting information that I suppose could be moved forward by the 5E D&D team and result in changes and developments, what’s the big deal here? I’ll never know.

Lankhmar

“Lankhmar is a fictional city in the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories by Fritz Leiber. It is situated on the world of Nehwon, just west of the Great Salt Marsh and east of the River Hlal, and serves as the home of Leiber’s two antiheroes.”

The City of Sevenscore Thousand Smokes is one of my favorite settings because I adored the stories of its two most famous characters growing up. Game resources for this one are scant — there’s nothing even over at Dungeon Master’s Guild. I suspect this relates to licensing. But, if you want to create adventures and campaigns in this amazing city, you could do worse than enjoying a series of terrific fantasy novels.

Planescape

“As its name suggests, the setting crosses and comprises the numerous planes of existence, encompassing an entire cosmology called the Great Wheel, as originally developed in the original 1987 Manual of the Planes by Jeff Grubb. This includes many of the other Dungeons & Dragons worlds, linking them via inter-dimensional magical portals.”

As unusual and different than a traditional D&D setting as it sounds, this seems to me much more about flavor and lore than mechanics. More than most on this list I feel like a group with Planescape material from earlier editions could easily replicate the experience in 5E D&D. Evocative art and compelling factions and dynamics made this setting come alive and there’s nothing mechanical about these things.

Ravenloft

‘It is an alternate time-space existence known as a pocket dimension or demiplane, called the Demiplane of Dread, which consists of a collection of land pieces called “domains”, brought together by a mysterious force known only as the Dark Powers.”

Players can never get enough of this one! Back in the day the Demiplane of Dread expanded to include lots of domains including one where a favorite fictional villain of mine ruled — Lord Soth. There are mechanical differences in this dark place, and fortunately a lot of them are contained within Curse of Strahd. Widely considered one of the best 5E D&D adventures, I know tons of players who continue campaigns there. Since it was an official campaign that means it was part of Adventurers League too, so there’s a huge variety of adventures and other material already done for you.

Spelljammer

“Spelljammer is a campaign setting for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (2nd edition) role-playing game, which features a fantastic (as opposed to scientific) outer space environment. Spelljammer introduced into the AD&D universe a comprehensive system of fantasy astrophysics, including the Ptolemaic concept of crystal spheres. Crystal spheres may contain multiple worlds and are navigable using ships equipped with “spelljamming helms.”

My No. 1 favorite! Perhaps that’s why it seems more than almost any other setting people clamor for this one. It’s also the one with the most need of mechanical support. But fear not! I’ve been running 5E D&D Spelljammer games for years so I’ve got some great resources for you. The key thing here is capturing scope and gonzo quality of the setting. The most important things here are decided how you want to handle spelljamming vessels and ship combat. This can encompass a lot — travel time, air, food, water and so forth — and in my experience discovering how this applies to your particular group is key. I can certainly understand why people eagerly ask for 5E D&D Spelljammer. I’m one of them! There’s a lot to consider and although I’ve developed my own resources for handling these things I’d love to see an official version.

Other campaign setting resources

What’s your favorite D&D campaign setting? If it’s not already part of 5E D&D, what do you wish a new version would include? Like I mentioned at the beginning I honestly don’t understand the animosity towards new campaign settings, especially in terms of the sense that long time players are being ignored. Do the players upset because we don’t have Dark Sun have sympathy for OD&D players for whom Athas was the new setting while they pined for more Greyhawk material?

In my own personal game groups, among the Nerdarchy crew and with people in the D&D community literally all over the world we’ve played 5E D&D games in countless settings including many of those listed above, which don’t have any official support. Guess what? They were all fun and impacted not at all by drawing on existing material from the past.

I completely understand the desire for official content to support a favorite D&D campaign setting. But I’m not going to let it slow me down from creating something new from what we already have. And if you’re not so inclined, there’s an excellent chance someone already did it for you.

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Nerditor-in-Chief Doug Vehovec is a proud native of Cleveland, Ohio, with D&D in his blood since the early 80s. Fast forward to today and he’s still rolling those polyhedral dice. When he’s not DMing, worldbuilding or working on endeavors for Nerdarchy he enjoys cryptozoology trips and eating awesome food.

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