The Many Worlds of D&D, part two

Oriental AdventuresDungeons & Dragons started as an offshoot of wargaming, but it grew quickly. TSR, the company that owned the game, soon saw that people wanted more than just dungeons and wilderness areas for their heroes to explore. They wanted a semblance of a living fantasy world filled with history, personalities, and adventure.

The earliest settings, which I described last time, grew at the speed of adventure – new information got added as needed for a given module rather than in an atlas-like book. By the 1980s, though, D&D was realizing its media crossover potential. This led to a new wave of campaign settings that had a reach far beyond gaming tables.

Kara-Tur

Sword of the Daimyo

Politically-incorrect naming aside, Oriental Adventures was pretty cool.

The setting of Kara-Tur appeared briefly in the 1985 rulebook Oriental Adventures, where it served as a setting for the samurai, ninja, and other Asian-inspired classes and races that the book supported. At this point, it only got a handful of pages of description and had no map, but the land proved popular enough to explore further. Ultimately, the setting got its own boxed set.

Technically, Kara-Tur is not a campaign world of its own. Instead, it’s another part of the Forgotten Realms setting, although its entry into “official” D&D predates the Realms. (The Forgotten Realms, described below, began appearing in Dragon Magazine in 1980, but didn’t receive fuller detail until 1987.) Originally, Kara-Tur was intended to be part of the Greyhawk setting, but the push to promote the Realms got it transported to the far east of the continent of Faerûn.

Kara-Tur seems to have been a fairly big deal in 1st edition AD&D, as it received several supplements and adventure modules. However, interest in Asian-themed D&D games seemed to wane later on. Although 2nd edition books occasionally cited the 1st edition Oriental Adventures, the setting itself didn’t receive an update.

Where you can get it: The 1st edition Oriental Adventures rulebook provides some information about Kara-Tur, but the real details came in the boxed set Kara-Tur: The Eastern Realms. There were no updates to the setting past a few 2nd edition modules. But, since Kara-Tur is still part of the Forgotten Realms, maybe we’ll get lucky and get some adventures there in 5th edition.

Dragonlance

Dragonlance

Larry Elmore was one of the big artists that helped to breathe life into Dragonlance.

Although it is now largely unsupported, Dragonlance is one of the most influential campaign settings to ever come out of D&D. Unlike previous settings, where a world was created based on the needs of adventure modules, Dragonlance was a fantasy world created from the top down, with an epic history, major overarching plots, and a more romantic kind of fantasy than the treasure-driven adventures of the past.

Dragonlance is set on the world of Krynn, focusing mainly on the continent of Ansalon. It began with an overarching campaign comprised of twelve adventure modules, with each module focusing on a different dragon. TSR staff members created PCs to playtest those modules, and those PCs became main characters in the tie-in novels co-written by Margaret Weis.

As the name implies, Dragonlance is heavy on dragons and features a lot of epic adventure. It is also the first setting to really deviate from the standard D&D rules. There are no halflings in Krynn, for example, with the race instead replaced by the kleptomaniac short people known as kender. Other settings soon picked up on this trend of altering the rules to fit the setting, which greatly diversified the worlds of D&D.

The original Dragonlance saga hit the New York Times bestseller list and kicked off the trend of most D&D settings having their own novel line. Despite a lot of well-received novels, though, the setting eventually started to peter out in the 1990s. TSR tried to give the setting its own game in the card-based Dragonlance: Fifth Age, but that had the twin problems of being very different from D&D and coming out in 1996, just as TSR was entering financial troubles that would eventually cause it to stop printing anything at all.

Where you can get it: Dragonlance saw campaign books in three different editions. For 1st edition, there is Dragonlance Adventures. 2nd edition has Tales of the Lance. 3rd edition saw the license for the setting head over to Sovereign Press, which released the Dragonlance Campaign Setting. All of these, plus the non-D&D game Dragonlance: Fifth Age, are available as PDFs. 4th edition left the world of Krynn alone, and there has been no sign of it in 5th edition, either.

The Forgotten Realms

 

Elminster

Love him or hate him, Elminster is the face of the Forgotten Realms.

By far the most popular of D&D’s campaign settings, the Forgotten Realms came about due to persistence from its creator Ed Greenwood and a change of hands at the top of TSR.

Greenwood had been writing stories set in the Realms before there was even a D&D. When he got into role-playing games, the world he had created became his homebrew setting. Hints about that setting found their way into articles he wrote for Dragon Magazine, which featured the long-winded wizard Elminster as his unreliable narrator.

By the mid 1980s, TSR was embroiled in a power struggle. The eventual new owner Lorraine Williams pushed Gary Gygax out of the company and proceeded to downplay a lot of his influence on the game. This included pushing the world of Greyhawk into obscurity and looking for a new setting to promote. She got that in the Forgotten Realms. The company bought the rights from Greenwood and assigned veteran designer Jeff Grub to revise it and turn it into the next big thing for D&D.

The original conceit of the Realms is that there are hidden magical portals between our world and others. Over time, those portals have vanished or been forgotten – hence the name Forgotten Realms. That idea got downplayed in official material because D&D was the target of many concerned parents already and the company didn’t want any kids to get lost while looking for these imaginary portals. Instead, the Realms was more or less a standard fantasy world, albeit very high in magic.

In addition to Greenwood’s material, many other mini-settings got bolted onto the Realms, such as the aforementioned Kara-Tur. The setting got an even bigger boost thanks to the novels of RA Salvatore, who introduced the heroic dark elf Drizzt to the world in a series of bestselling novels. Despite many changes both in-game and out, the Forgotten Realms has soldiered on and remains synonymous with modern-day D&D.

Where you can get it: The Realms has hundreds of products, many of which are now available in PDF. If you’re looking for a starting point, there’s the 1st edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Set. The 2nd edition boxed set is surprisingly not available in official PDF, but there is Forgotten Realms Adventures. 3rd edition brought the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting hardcover, while 4th edition split the setting material into two books: the Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide and the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide. While 5th edition hasn’t done an official setting book, the Realms now serves as the default D&D world. Thus, virtually every release, from adventures to supplements, has a great deal of Realms lore within its covers.

Next Time

While 1st edition AD&D was fairly restrained with its releases, 2nd edition grew rapidly and in many different ways. This led to a proliferation of campaign settings. While that was great for gamers who liked choices, it also cannibalized TSR’s own sales, which eventually led to the company shutting down. However, the weird and wild stuff found in the 2nd edition era really showed how broad a game D&D could become, and I’ll cover some of those settings next time.

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