In my time with D&D I’ve read about and played in a lot of different fantasy worlds. The ones that really stand out for me may be clichés but I still love them:
Greyhawk: If it came out new now I don’t think anyone would notice it, but it’s got a lot of gaming history behind it, particularly 1st Edition AD&D. Classic adventures such as White Plume Mountain, Against the Giants and the Slavers series are all set in Greyhawk, and the Circle of Eight, who include PCs from Gary Gygax’s original band of players, have given their names to famous spells. I bought the World of Greyhawk boxed set back in 1985 (the 1st Ed AD&D version) and even then I realised it had been going for years. I find it difficult not to get nostalgic about it. I was fortunate enough to exchange emails about 10 years ago with Gary Gygax who explained to me that he had deliberately left Greyhawk sparse on details so that DMs would not feel restricted with filling in their own details.
I had a go at contributing to it in 2000 when, with the release of 3rd Edition, Greyhawk briefly retook centre stage and Living Greyhawk was started by the RPGA. I joined the British group that was responsible for Onnwal, but it did not work out well for me – I sent them a number of pieces of material (mostly NPCs and plot ideas of mine), but none of it was used, and I didn’t get any feedback, so I just gave up on the RPGA. Pity.
Leaving the RPGA alone, I have looked at the city of Redspan, the city of Dyvers and most of all the mysterious land of Blackmoor. The Greyhawk version of Blackmoor has fascinated me as I wonder what Gary Gygax was thinking of when he put it there: Was it a serious attempt to fit Dave Arneson’s campaign along side his own, or was it just a cursory nod to his co-author of D&D? I think that had he wanted to, Gary could have done a better job of fitting Dave’s Blackmoor campaign into Greyhawk.
Forgotten Realms: I feel that if Gary Gygax approached Greyhawk from a game designer’s point of view then Ed Greenwood approached the Forgotten Realms from the story-teller’s point of view. And oh boy, a lot of stories have been told. Whereas Greyhawk was deliberately vague (at least to start with), with only outlines of nations and history, the Forgotten Realms has acquired huge levels of detail that few other fictional settings have approached. Star Wars, Star Trek and Tolkien's Middle Earth are the only fictional settings that I am aware have similar levels of detail. And I love it.
It can be quite intimidating, but I am a firm believer that everything about a published fantasy setting is optional in a DM’s campaign. Thus every book that has been written about the Realms can be taken or left as the DM chooses, as can any part of those books. I believe the DM is allowed to take the published version of the Realms and make it his own version of the Realms. Whatever knowledge the players have of the published version, they should be aware that the DM still has the final say. That means that the 50+ modules, sourcebooks and boxed sets for the Realms become a resource to be enjoyed, not a syllabus to be tested on by other fans of the setting.
The other accusation I hear about the Realms is the powerful NPCs taking over the game. I think Ed Greenwood made his NPCs more prominent than Gary did, but did not intend for them to outshine the PCs – they were there to guide the stories and adventures along, not to become a “Deus Ex Machina” solution to overwhelming problems a DM might face the PCs with. Most DMs who have run games in the Realms are sensible enough to realise this. And as a result, the NPCs of the Realms are probably better-known than their Greyhawk counterparts. The various novels have certainly helped bring the characters to life in the minds of readers and players.
I bought the 1st Ed grey boxed set, and then the 2nd Ed black and gold boxed set, and then the 3rd Ed campaign setting. I have also got a lot (perhaps half) of the regional sourcebooks (mostly 2nd and 3rd editions) and other books and boxed sets (Elminster’s Ecologies, the Ruins of Undermountain (2nd Ed boxed set, with the proper big maps) and Lost Empires of Faerun (my favourite 3rd Ed book for the Realms)). And these days, the Realms has almost as much nostalgic value and Grognard credentials as Greyhawk, particularly if you talk about stuff from 1st Edition (before the Avatar business and Time of Troubles), and talk about Ed’s original campaign with the Knights of Myth Drannor (not quite as crusty as Gary Gygax’s Circle of Eight but damn nearly….)
Dragonlance: I got into the novels before I got into the gaming world, but the important thing for me was that other people at my boarding school loved the Dragonlance novels. As a result it was the setting of one of my longest-running campaigns, during the later years of my stay at boarding school. Although probably considered quite tame and generic now, at the time it seemed a radical break from the D&D conventions established in Greyhawk and continued in the Forgotten Realms. No halflings? Solamnic Knights? Minotaurs as PCs? Cool! Gully dwarves? Annoying Kender? No assassins? Errm….
My little rant about Dragonlance is that it has changed too much – particularly with the second cataclysm, the brief foray into the Saga system and then back to D&D. I feel it’s a salutary warning that if you change a fantasy world too much, the people who read stories in it or play games in it will feel that it’s simply not the same world any more. Some change is ok (I’m cool with the Greyhawk wars, and sort of ok with the Time of Troubles in FR), but I’ve left Dragonlance alone now for quite a while and do not expect to be going back to it.
Other Worlds: There are other settings that I’ve got the information for, but I haven’t had the opportunity to play in. These have been often fun and interesting to read about but due to the lack of play-testing I can’t honestly include them in my favourites: Dark Sun, Lankhmar, Spelljammer, Planescape, Ravenloft, Mystara and Eberron all deserve honourable mentions.
More soon. John