Over a year ago I ranked what I consider to be the best D&D modules of all time. That post is still popular (currently averaging eight hits/day), so for a New Year treat, I thought I’d rank the D&D campaign settings. Here they are — realms, planets, and worlds — from best to worst. I decided to ignore Spelljammer and Eberron, not simply because I dislike them, though that’s definitely true, but for the sci-fic elements; spaceships and robots just aren’t D&D. Click on the maps to see the full size.
(1) Middle-Earth. 1982-1999. 5 stars. Not made for D&D, but no matter, ICE’s superb modules were readily adaptable. Middle-Earth is of course a world of high fantasy, about which I usually have bad things to say (see 8 and 10 on this list), but Tolkien did it first and best, and he was darker than most give him credit for. His imitators are blind to the “long defeat” theme which pervades his tales, and the ultimate powerlessness of good over evil. Then too, magic is incredibly subdued in Middle-Earth, and (after the First Age anyway), the gods seldom involve themselves directly. Middle-Earth is in a constant state of fading, or “lowering” its fantasy context with the passage of time. On top of all this, it’s a genius creation, with cultures, languages, and history so detailed it doesn’t seem like fantasy; it’s a pre-history to our own world and resonates with the realism of places like Mystara and Hyboria. The folks at ICE fleshed out Tolkien’s labors with amazing scholarship of their own, especially in exploring lands to the south, and it was a sad day when the Tolkien Enterprise fascists took away their license. (Other Minds have done a pretty good job filling the 21st-century vacuum.) I never tired of gaming in Middle-Earth.
(2) Mystara. 1981-1995. 5 stars. Some of the best old-school modules were set in Mystara, the realm of Basic D&D. I played by Advanced rules, but the world for AD&D (see 9 below) did nothing to inspire me. Mystara hooked me right away, from its sketchy inception in The Isle of Dread module, to the fleshed-out detail in later gazeteers. The nations are compelling medieval European analogs of our own world: click left to see the Thyatian Empire (= the Byzantine), the Grand Duchy of Karameikos (= southeastern Europe), the Principalities of Glantri (= western Europe, ruled by wizard-princes), the Ethengar Khanate (= the Mongols), the Republic of Darokin (= the mercantile states of medieval Italy), the Emirates of Ylaruam (= Mid-Eastern Arabs), the Northern Reaches of Ostland/Vestland/Soderfjord (= Scandinavian vikings), plus regions for the dwarves, elves, and halflings. I still consider Mystara the most ideal setting for D&D campaigns.
(3) Athas. 1991-1999; 2008-present. 4 ½ stars. Launched the year I stopped playing D&D for a long time, The Dark Sun products are among the few decencies of the 2e period, superb in fact, set on a planet so saturated with Dune overtones you expect sandworms to appear. Athas is a land of ecological disaster, constant thirst, grinding poverty, and like most dying worlds has a history reaching back to a glorious age now forever out of reach. In this sense it’s reminiscent of Middle-Earth’s long defeat and foreordained passing, but even more depressing for its lack of deities; there are no Valar equivalents to assist, however obliquely, in keeping the tide of evil at bay. Clerics and druids draw their power from elemental forces, and wizards use magic at their own risk. It’s a world where halflings are cannibals, heroes are almost unheard of, and sorcerer-kings hold city-states under complete tyranny. I wish I’d been able to get use out of this brutal world; it wasn’t supported in 3e though has made an inferior comeback in 4e.
(4) Nehwon. 1985-1992. 4 ½ stars. In terms of legendary characters, D&D always reminded me of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser (Conan a close second), roguish heroes who are anti-heroes at least half the time and involve themselves in personal or localized threats more than cosmic world-shattering evil. I was delighted to no end when TSR began publishing the Lankhmar resources in the mid-’80s, especially since this was an upsetting time when Dragonlance was changing the face of the game for the worse. Lankhmar City remains the vilest cesspit of any campaign setting, corrupt at every level, a place where you have to worry about being backstabbed (literally and figuratively) at every turn. The world beyond the city is great too, with classic regions like the Sinking Lands and City of Ghouls. I dreamed a lot about Nehwon as a teen, and being sent on the same kind of ludicrous missions Fafhrd and Mouser suffered under their wizard patrons. My nostalgia for this world is topped only by my reverance for Middle-Earth.
(5) Ravenloft. 1990-present. 4 ½ stars. Based on the vampire module of the early ’80s, the world of Ravenloft was later developed as a full-blown setting of isolation, apprehension, and constant fear. It’s a world of haunted mansions, cursed bloodlines, and of course plenty of undead, ruled by various domain lords who are so evil as beyond redemption. And it’s a living terror in the hands of a DM who knows how to run mood pieces — the only realm on this list which can be properly called a horror setting. Like Athas (see 3 above), Ravenloft isn’t a place you’d choose to make your home; its inhabitants rarely smile; it’s not for gamers who prefer light fantasy or expect their characters to live long or who will resent frequent saving throws against fright and madness. Evil forces are the norm. Once again it’s interesting to note something excellent produced in the ’90s, which was mostly a bad time for D&D. And Ravenloft has remained official throughout the 3e and 4e periods.
(6) Kara-Tur (“The Orient”). 1986-1987. 4 stars. As a fan of those godawful ’80s ninja movies with Sho Kosugi, I was ecstatic when TSR produced the Oriental Adventures version of D&D, which naturally demanded its own world. Wisely, they didn’t try for an eastern version of Greyhawk, but rather took the approach of Mystara and Hyboria, borrowing directly from the cultures and societies of our own world. Kara-Tur looks almost exactly like China (Shou Lung) and Japan (Kozakura), and given compelling histories of tumultuous dynasties and shogunates, not to mention (of course) underground assassin movements like ninjas. In ’87 Kara-Tur was officially made part of The Forgotten Realms (see 8 below), which I never acknowledged, having no use for that setting. When you get down to it, Kara-Tur can be made the “East” of any world — even Middle-Earth if you want to be bold. The modules designed for it were okay, though too railroady (pre-scripted in plotting) like most adventures of the late ’80s.
(7) Hyboria. 1984. 4 stars. Classic D&D drew so much inspiration from Conan’s world (who doesn’t think of Red Nails when playing modules like The Lost City and Dwellers of the Forbidden City?), and I’m surprised there were only two short modules made for it. Even sadder is that these modules weren’t particularly good, more in line with the atrocious film-sequel Conan the Destroyer than any of Howard’s source material. But Hyboria itself is a great world, and what I love most is that, like Mystara and Kara-Tur, it’s modeled so closely on our own that it feels real for all the fantasy. Where Mystara evokes medieval Europe and Kara-Tur the Far East, Hyboria reaches further back to antiquity and covers it all: Aquilonia is a blend of the Roman and Carolingian Empires, Corinthia the stand-in for ancient Greece, Shem the biblical region of Syria and Palestine, Stygia an Egypt-like domain of the snake cult of Set, Khitai the China equivalent, and so forth. A lot of the best classic AD&D modules could easily be set in Hyboria, frankly, instead of the artificial world of Oerth.
(8) The Forgotten Realms. 1987-present. 3 stars. Introduced to 1e in ’87, incorporated into 2e in ’89, the Forgotten Realms became unquestionably the most popular campaign setting of the ’90s; it was revised for 3e and then again for 4e, and so remains alive and well today, though I’m certainly not one of its devotees. It’s a quintessential high fantasy setting, where magic is ultra-powerful, magic items practically grow on trees, legendary monsters are to be found everywhere, and gods frequently involve themselves in mortal affairs. Most importantly, it’s a world demanding moral crusaders against evil (like Krynn, see 10 below), which is the part I object to the most. Unlike pulp fantasy worlds (Mystara, Nehwon, Hyboria, Oerth), high fantasy doesn’t encourage moral ambiguity, and the high-stakes plotting, ironically, can trivialize the problem of evil. That being said, this place does have a way of engaging you if you let it. A sample of modules are listed here.
(9) Oerth. 1980-2008. 2 stars. Readers will be astounded by this placement, as many of the best old-school modules are set in Greyhawk (Oerth’s main continent), a world inspired by the classic pulp realms of Conan, Fafhrd & Grey Mouser, and Elric. But Greyhawk doesn’t feel inspired at all. It’s terribly artificial; its geography is forgettable and its politics contrived. As a teen I had the impression that Gygax threw a bunch of hastily concocted kingdoms at a map and let them fall where they may. He knew how to write modules better than anyone but couldn’t design a setting for them to save himself. Oerth just doesn’t feel distinct in any memorable way, and it says something that I would sooner resort to even a high-fantasy world like the Forgotten Realms. The setting remained officially supported for a long time, up until the launching of 4e a few years ago. I almost never used it; for me, Mystara suited AD&D modules as perfectly as it did the Basic modules.
(10) Krynn. 1984-present. 1 star. If Oerth is half-assed, then Krynn is conceptually irredeemable. But then this is Dragonlance we’re talking about, for which really nothing good can be said, and I’m appalled (but not surprised) that it has the longest lifespan on this list, born at the tail-end of D&D’s Golden Age (’74-’83) and still thriving to this day in 4e. Krynn is a world of high fantasy, and everything I wrote about the Forgotten Realms (see 8 above) applies here too. But Krynn is worse, marking a trend to mainstream fantasy so that it could be for “everyone” instead of D&D fans. Riding dragons horseback is an insult to the majestic creatures, and the kender are just plain offensive. Believe it or not, I still have the blasted modules, as I was caught up in the initial craze like everyone else; I dug them out of my closet last night to exasperate myself and relive the most painful gaming experiences of my life.