The Many Worlds of D&D, part one

Dungeon MasterDungeons & Dragons has never been about one single fantasy world. In fact, beginning in the 1980s, the game spawned a multiverse that stands on par with anything churned out in the comic book industry. Through the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition years especially, D&D became home to dozens of parallel fantasy worlds.

Unfortunately, the D&D multiverse was very bad for business. In the 1990s, TSR split its market by supporting too many settings and chasing diminishing returns. Recent editions have focused on the most profitable settings, with 5th edition adventures taking place almost entirely in the Forgotten Realms and paying lip service to other worlds.

Despite the more sensible business model, the many settings of D&D still have their fans and, thanks to the existence of affordable PDFs, are available to new audiences who want to explore the past. I can’t tackle the many settings of D&D in a single article, but this is a start with more to come.

For the purposes of this survey of worlds, I’m focusing solely on officially published campaigns released by TSR or Wizards of the Coast. Including other D&D compatible settings such as the ones introduced through the Dungeon Crawl Classics and Pathfinder lines would quite honestly make my head explode.

Blackmoor

Blackmoor

Magic sword? Check. Rifle? Check. Giant frogs? Checkity-check-check.

There’s some debate about what the first D&D campaign setting truly was, but Blackmoor is definitely among the earliest, if not the very first. Based on most accounts, Blackmoor actually predates D&D, because the game’s co-creator Dave Arneson as the setting for his wargaming sessions.

Blackmoor introduced a lot of the traditional tropes of D&D, especially the megadungeon. Lots of PCs lost their lives in the depths of Castle Blackmoor.

The setting also established a general weirdness that pervaded D&D. There was a strong science-fantasy element, with magic possibly having originated from technology found aboard a crashed spaceship and several monsters being created due to radiation from said ship.

Beginning as a massive dungeon crawl, Blackmoor eventually evolved into a place full of weird fantasy, sci-fi elements, and even political intrigue.

Where you can get it: Unfortunately, due to disputes between Arneson and D&D co-creator Gary Gygax, Blackmoor never got a proper setting book. It did wind up getting incorporated into other worlds, with both Greyhawk and Mystara including it in their distant past. Basic D&D did see a series of Blackmoor adventures, beginning with Adventures in Blackmoor. Finally, Zeitgeist Games released Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor: The First Campaign for the 4th edition rules.

Greyhawk

Mordenkainen

Mordenkainen is sort of the ultimate AD&D wizard.

The other “first” D&D setting (albeit probably coming after Blackmoor), Greyhawk represents the setting work of the game’s other co-creator, Gary Gygax. It served as the basis for a lot of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons modules, particularly classics like The Temple of Elemental Evil, Against the Giants, and Tomb of Horrors.

The trick with Greyhawk is that the setting that TSR presented wasn’t the setting Gygax actually used. As he had an ongoing campaign, he didn’t want his players to find the secrets of the world by looking in a book. Thus, the published version of Greyhawk is like an alternate dimension of the setting, with familiar NPCs like Mordenkainen and Vecna but marked differences from Gygax’s house setting.

Greyhawk also got wrapped up repeatedly in business politics and other internal messes over the years. As Gygax left TSR and his enemy Lorraine Williams came in, the setting got shoved to the side and changed. The famous megadungeon Castle Greyhawk became a joke module and the setting got drastically changed during AD&D 2nd edition.

A kinda-sorta version of Greyhawk emerged as the default setting of 3rd edition D&D, but the game’s new owners, Wizards of the Coast, kept things vague and changed some details to create a more generic world. Still, Greyhawk’s influence has been felt in each edition of the game. Even in the game’s 5th edition, the villain of Tomb of Annihilation began as a demilich in Greyhawk.

Where you can get it: Greyhawk got multiple setting books from the 1970s to the 2000s. First edition had the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Game Setting, 2nd edition had From the Ashes and Greyhawk: The Adventure Begins, and 3rd edition had the D&D Gazetteer and the Living Greyhawk Gazetteer. All of these are available in PDF format. Unfortunately, Greyhawk never appeared in 4th edition, and it doesn’t seem like it will get a 5th edition book, either.

Mystara

Mystara

Start in the dungeon, end by building a kingdom on the surface of the moon.

Depending on who you ask, calling this setting by the name Mystara is a sin. For years, people referred to the setting simply as the Known World – the name Mystara came from an ill-fated attempt to rebrand it for the AD&D line.

Mystara began in the late 1970s/early 1980s as a setting for the basic D&D line and developed somewhat organically through a number of adventures and boxed sets. It’s one of the few settings developed outside the AD&D line, which meant that it presented a different world in a lot of ways. All elves knew magic, all clerics were human, and iconic D&D-isms such as the many-eyed beholder and psionic powers didn’t have much of a place in the world.

While it began as a simple backdrop for dungeon and wilderness adventures, Mystara took on a very pulp fantasy feel that few other settings duplicated. You’ve got a nation ruled by multiple 36th-level magic-users, another nation filled with gnomes that fly literal airplanes, and another kingdom with a werewolf baron, just for starters. The world doesn’t have a core like our Earth, but is instead hollow and filled with beings that the immortals (who would be gods in any other setting) hid away from the rest of the world.

If you want to start your career fighting dire rats in a dungeon and want to end it dueling a frog-faced immortal being in the depths of a hollow planet while treading your own path to immortality, Mystara is the setting to use.

Where you can find it: For the basic line, the Known World was introduced through a series of Gazetteers such as The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, which are available as PDFs. When the basic line died out, TSR tried to convert the world to AD&D through a series of boxed sets such as Glantri: Kingdom of Magic (available in PDF, but the other sets are not). Sadly, the world didn’t really translate well to the AD&D rules and has been unsupported ever since, except through the excellent an resource Vaults of Pandius.

Next Time

This part of my informal survey of worlds has focused on the “firsts” – the first setting, the first published setting, and the first basic D&D setting. By the late 1980s, TSR found a lot of success in developing new settings tied to their novel lines, beginning with Dragonlance. I’ll touch upon some of those next time.

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