Over on Grognardia, James Maliszewski lists his favorite imaginary settings, whether they are RPG worlds or strictly literary ones. You can read his commentary in the first post (numbers 10-6) and the second post (numbers 5-1), which add up to the following ranking:
1. The Third Imperium
6. The Dying Earth
7. The Hyborian Age
8. The Known Worlds of Fading Suns
10. Middle Earth
James got me thinking about my own favorite settings, and I’ve ranked them below. Seven have been designed specifically for RPGs, and one of them (#4) has inspired an RPG setting, so, like James, my heart is clearly game oriented when I think of alternate worlds.
1. Middle-Earth. Of course it’s my favorite: the world of Tolkien’s source material and also how it was developed in ICE’s gaming modules. Those modules (published from 1982-1999) weren’t made for D&D specifically, but I had no trouble adapting them. There’s a lot about Middle-Earth that sails over the casual reader’s head. It’s grounded in the “long defeat” theme — the ultimate powerlessness of good over evil — meaning that when good does triumph it’s a just holding action; worse is to come. Magic is subdued in this world, and (after the First Age anyway), the gods seldom involve themselves directly. The lands are in a constant state of fading, or “lowering” their fantasy context with the passage of time. It’s the most genius imaginary creation, with cultures, languages, and history so detailed it doesn’t seem like fantasy; and in fact it was intended by Tolkien as a prehistory to our own world and so it resonates with a realism that’s hard to come by in high fantasy. The folks at ICE fleshed out Tolkien’s labors with scholarship of their own, especially in exploring lands to the south, and it was a sad day for me when Tolkien Enterprise took away their license.
2. Tekumel. I’m new to this setting, coming to it just this year under a grim cloud: the exposure of M.A.R. Barker’s neo-Nazi beliefs. It seems too bizarre to be true. Barker studied for a long time in India, converted to Islam, changed his name to Muhammad, and became of a Professor of South Asian Languages. He created Tekumel, the first gaming world not based on a European white setting. It’s populated by brown people and their cultures are based on Middle-Eastern and Eastern models. How on earth could this guy be a white supremacist? But then looking into it more, I saw that it’s not as surprising as you might imagine, considering the strong link between Islam and Nazi Germany’s war. In any case, I’ve never had a problem separating artists from their socio-political views; I wouldn’t be able to appreciate much art if I did. And Barker was a genius. After only months of pouring over the Tekumel setting, I join Maliszewski unreservedly in calling it the second best imaginary setting of all time. Like Middle-Earth, it’s detailed and complex, especially regarding the cultures and languages. It’s basically a Middle-Earth grounded in Indian, Middle-Eastern, and Meso-American mythologies.
3. Mystara. I always played AD&D, not Basic, but I liked the setting for Basic much better than Greyhawk. The Isle of Dread was the first module I read in full and prepared as a DM (not Keep on the Borderlands, which was the first module I played under the DM’ing of a friend), and so for me, Mystara, or the “Known World”, was there from the start; it was my official D&D sandbox. When the gazetteers started coming out, I was in hog heaven. The nations are medieval European analogs of our own world and so it feels real: 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 = the Middle East, the Northern Reaches of Ostland/Vestland/Soderfjord = Scandinavia, plus regions for the dwarves, elves, and halflings. There’s nothing artificial about it like Greyhawk, and I still consider Mystara the most ideal setting for D&D campaigns.
4. Averoigne. If Elric of Melniboné is the best pulp fantasy hero, the world of Averoigne is the best pulp fantasy setting. I’ve known Averoigne primarily through the D&D module Castle Amber. As a teen way back in 1981, I went there as a mage, and had to keep my spells under wraps lest I fell prey to the inquisition. In the module Averoigne is lifted right from the stories of Clark Ashton Smith: a province in a parallel world similar to medieval France, but where magic is real and considered to be an evil pagan practice. Clerics (priests and bishops) don’t cast spells, and spell casters in general are viewed with suspicion and subject to arrest by the church authorities. It’s an analog of the province of Auvergne in particular, with the capital Vyones standing for Clermont (where the First Crusade was preached), Ximes for St. Flour, etc. Of course, Smith wrote his stories long before D&D was a thing, between 1930-1941, but he may as well have been gazing into the late ’70s and early ’80s. Averoigne is practically a blueprint for a D&D campaign setting, and I can’t stress enough how inspiring Smith’s tales are. I’ve read some of them many times — The Holiness of Azédarac, The Beast of Averoigne, and The Maker of Gargoyles being my top favorites.
5. The Land. It’s not the most D&D-friendly setting, but The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant were a milestone for me. By rights, this entry probably deserves to be higher, considering the impact on my imagination in my formative years, second only to Middle-Earth. Especially the Second Chronicles. The First established a vibrant Land with natural magic — Earthpower everywhere, in the trees, rivers, hills, and stone. In the second trilogy, Donaldson nuked the Land we love so dearly, with one of the most creative and nasty evils I’ve read in a work of fiction: the Sunbane, a corruption of Earthpower, affected by blood sacrifice, inflicting the Land with 3-day cycles of (a) a desert sun (evaporating all water and vegetation everywhere for three days), (b) a fertile sun (causing vegetation to grow fast, but the vegetation is in tortured pain), (c) a rain sun (causing relentless cold and windy storms), and (d) a pestilent sun (causing rot and decay, water to go bad, and swarms of poison insects to attack). How Thomas Covenant and Linden Avery manage to heal the Land is among the most epic tales of fantasy literature.
6. Newhon. Though I agree with Maliszewski that Lankhmar City is its crown jewel, the entire world of Newhon inspires me. I love the City of Ghouls, and the Sinking Lands in particular, and have used variants of the latter in more than one setting. But there’s no denying the primacy of Lankhmar, the greatest city ever imagined in any work of fantasy — a vile cesspit, corrupt at every level, a place where you have to worry about being backstabbed (literally and figuratively) at every turn. I was delighted when TSR began publishing the Lankhmar resources in the mid-’80s, especially since this was a turbulent time when Dragonlance was changing the face of D&D for the worse. 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, Ningauble and Sheelba. Even though Elric is the supreme pulp hero, and Averoigne the best pulp setting, it’s Newhon that most aligns with the D&D universe as conceived by Gary Gygax; the tales of Fafhrd and Mouser have a D&D feel to them that’s unmatched by other pulp tales (including even Conan).
7. The Third Imperium. I’m not big on sci-fic, but Traveler is like old-school D&D — gritty, not glitzy. Both games assume the characters are roguish adventurers “on the make”; adventures typically involve shady activities in order to acquire money, and the characters are outsiders (“travellers”) without commitments to local planetary societies. (The Raza crew in the TV series Dark Matter remind me of Traveller, and their spaceship is very Traveller-esque.) The space world has lawless frontiers (like the Spinward Marches and Solomani Rim), where authorities are distant and corrupt. And it’s damn perilous. There are no healing potions or rods of resurrection. When you engage combat, you feel that you’re risking your life for good. Hell, you can actually die as you are rolling up a character — before even beginning to play the game — the only RPG I know of that has this mechanism in place. As for Traveller’s setting, The Third Imperium is as vast and unending as you’d imagine the universe, and I’m in awe of its design.
8. Athas. Launched the year I stopped playing D&D for a long time (1991), 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. 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. The modules are railroady as hell (as everything was in the ’90s). but the setting itself is brilliantly conceived.
9. The Lands of Dus. I dare say there are many grognards who haven’t heard of, let alone read, the Lords of Dus novels. Even in my day they were an obscurity, a sword-and-sorcery series in the vein of the early pulps. It was especially the second novel, The Seven Altars of Dusarra, that was classic D&D come to life. The story’s hero is Garth the Overman, and the world he inhabits is like those of the pulps: decadent and grim, full of shady rogues, evil priests, and self-serving wizards. The city of Dusarra in particular reminds me of Lankhmar, especially the Street of the Temples devoted to a variety of perverse deities. There’s Tema (goddess of the night), Andhur Regvos (god of darkness and blindness), Aghad (god of hate and treachery), Sai (goddess of torture and pain), P’hul (goddess of disease and decay), Bheleu (god of war and destruction), and finally, the one whose “name is not spoken” (god of death). Garth’s mission is to rob these temples, and he causes a shitload of suffering for doing that, not least because he sets off a new era of war. In the post-Game of Thrones era we tend to think George Martin invented “brutal fantasy”, but as I see it, Martin essentially took the dark amoral elements of sword-and-sorcery fantasy and brought them into high fantasy. There’s a lot I miss about those stripped down worlds of the pulps that told straightforward stories, unencumbered by epic ambitions, and the Lands of Dus is by far the most underrated of those imaginative worlds.
10. The post-apocalyptic America of Gamma World. I can’t exclude this one. Gamma World was the only sci-fic RPG I had any use for besides Traveller. Its vision of a post-apocalyptic United States was basically the Dark Ages of Our Future — a vision born in the ’80s, during the Reagan era when everyone worried about nuclear holocaust. But what raises this setting above other post-apocalyptic worlds is that the apocalypse is so far into future (the 24th century, 2322 AD), which allows the pre-apocalyptic world to be just as futuristic and alien. There are high-tech artifacts like blaster pistols and robots, and cars that fly. The world of the ancients is filled with as much mystery and wonder for players as it is for player characters. (PCs start adventuring in 2450, about a century and a half after the nuclear wipe out.) It’s a global sandbox like classic D&D settings, in which PCs move from one pocket of civilization to another, plundering lost wealth and artifacts — the kind of America I thrilled to playing in, with a film like The Road Warrior being so popular in the ’80s.