[Ramble] On Campaign Settings: Review Standards

A gentleman by the name of ~ZOZ asked to see more OSR campaign setting reviews since Bryce doesn’t touch them. Well and good, says I, I’ve reviewed some in the past, but I’ve never really made any of my standards explicit. With the purpose of increasing usability I shall do so now.

This post focuses on the standards for a campaign setting for DnD or related OSR games. General standards for what makes a good campaign setting are dependent on the underlying assumptions of each game in question and are likely to lead to meaningless generalities.

So any set of standards begins with some assumptions. I am assuming the campaign setting under review is actually meant to be used as the basis for a campaign, not mined for ideas that can be plonked down in one’s home campaign. While some might scoff at the notion that a real GM can set his campaign in someone else’s setting, I would posit the following:

1. Unless you chucked out the monstrous manual, overhauled all the spells, redid all the magic items, and wrote some custom classes while you were at it, your campaign setting is likely to operate under a plethora of assumptions and utilize countless elements that are, in effect, a campaign setting, implicit or explicit.
2. People run games in Empire of the Petal Throne, Carcosa, Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Dark Sun and plenty of other shit.

As I might have mentioned before, I believe there is a meaningful distinction to be made between two types of campaign settings for DnD. I call them Type A and Type B because I my soul is a withered husk from reviewing modern Lamentations adventures. Permit me to refine/revise them here. Identifying what a campaign setting is trying to do makes sense if you are going to judge how well it is helping you do it.

Type A campaign settings operate on more or less the same underlying parameters as oldschool DnD, and can even be traced back to Appendix N or a subset thereof. That means your setting is going to have dungeons, players starting as low level characters of humble means that must make their way in the world, wizards that cast vancian magic, a world populated by the ruins of old civilizations, a wilderness pseudo-medieval technology level etc. etc. etc. There might be a new class here and some spiffy magical items, monsters, and places to explore there, but you are not fundamentally altering what DnD is really about. These campaign settings tend to be diverse, open and have lots of potential for accommodating different styles of play.
Examples: Greyhawk, Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Forgotten Realms, Erde, the Lost Lands, Ahmerth and most hexcrawls would fall under this.

Type B is where there is significant deviation from the underlying assumptions of Core DnD and is often much more specific with regards to what a campaign is meant to be about in terms of theme, adventure, style of play and so on. They also tend to be WEIRD, but there is no law that states they have to be. The defining feature of Type B is that it tries to differentiate itself from what DnD is generally offering.
Examples: Carcosa, Meatlandia, Birthright. Arguably Ravenloft or Midnight.

I’ve run long term campaigns in Mystara’s Grand Duchy, Carcosa and the world of Warhammer 40k. These were some of the reasons why I selected them and not others.

Ease of use: No different from standards for a good module, a good campaign setting makes it easy to transform inert content into a session of play. All the rules of readability, clarity, an index, references, compatability with the core game etc. still apply. A certain efficiency is expected. Does the setting convey its core concepts and assumptions so I can pick which part of it I will begin my setting fairly easily or must the entire work be assimilated first and a first game carefully set up?

Depth: Perhaps the bane of ease of use, Depth is important because it is the pillar on which rests Immersion, one of the Holy Trinity of DnD. Is the game a living, breathing world, or is it only a stage consisting of inns, dungeons and item shops? A setting without depth falls apart after a single question from a curious PC, the illusion is shattered, and suddenly your game becomes a whole lot less serious. What is the size of the garrison in the City of Kelvin? How do the people of Penhaglion stay alive? Why is raise dead commonly available yet no one ever seems to use it?
These seemingly innocuous details enable the GM to extrapolate the ramifications of PC actions and make the world seem alive, and more importantly, generate adventure! If the answer is that it doesn’t matter just get in the dungeon since we are running Tower of the Raggi for the umpteenth time, you are dealing with a low depth setting.

Potential Energy: I noticed it poorly in Isle of the Unknown or the Gazzeteer of Darokin and I noticed it had been done well in Chronicles of Ahmerth and Carcosa. A campaign setting with high potential energy is described in terms of exciting events, either ongoing or with the possibility of happening with minor upheaval. A campaign setting with low potential energy has features described in thick, static blocks of exposition, cities with no troubles, NPCs with static attributes and nation states co-existing in glazy-eyed harmony or slack-jawed enmity.
High potential energy means TERRIBLE AND EXCITING THINGS CAN HAPPEN. The Duke has been nurturing resentment against the king and is waiting for the right time. The City of A Thousand Towers is dependent on precious grain along a single passage through the World Spine Mountains! The Denarians and the Hapulians live in uneasy peace…until now! Too little and your setting is an inert piece of shit that makes the GM do all the lifting himself, too much and your game is gonzo.

Originality:  In this current climate, I think originality is probably overrated. I’ve seen too many wacky fucking settings that you would rather commit seppuku then play in floating around in the d20 era and in the OSR so its bears repeating that too often weirdness is used as a crutch for deficient craftsmanship. That being said, if you are going to use someone else’s setting the least you can do is expect that setting to excite and entice, to spark the imagination, as opposed to induce boredom and depression. If you are going to do another vanilla DnD setting, at least give me a reason why I shouldn’t use one of the n settings that came before it.

Appeal: A compelling setting can make you forgive many flaws. Dark Heresy 1st edition is by no means perfect, but it has so many compelling elements and the universe of Warhammer 40k is laced with so many exciting possiblities that it becomes much more appealing to invest the time. Carcosa is probably an even better example. When it comes to useability Carcosa has many defects but it has an undeniable attraction to me that inspired me to make something out of it, come up with house rules, fix some of the broken systems etc. etc.

Suggestions or commentary welcome. Have you ever run a game in a campaign setting or do you always make your own?

We’ll see how well I uphold my own standards as I review Gaz 1: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos next.


10 thoughts on “[Ramble] On Campaign Settings: Review Standards

  1. [Taxonomy]

    One important question to answer for this topic: what are you defining as a setting? I’m not trying to be pedantic – “I know it when I see it” is a legitimate answer. I guess I was wondering about some borderline products that are sort of like “mini-campaigns” or “adventure settings.” Focused hexcrawls, that sort of thing.

    I was specifically wondering about Hot Springs Island, megadungeons like ASE and DCC mini-settings (like Purple Planet, Shudder Mountains and Underaereth).

    [Types A and B]

    You don’t think it’s all that bad, do you? If you were really that cynical, what would be the point?


    What you call “potential energy” is probably my favorite thing in role-playing, period. Of all the criteria, though, I feel like it’s the hardest to evaluate purely from reading the text. I guess that’s why you’re the expert reviewer and I’m just some chump in the comment section.

    One of my anti-criteria is “completeness.” I’ve found that any setting book that tries to nail down every single detail is valuable purely as a cure for insomnia.

    [Things to come]

    Do Hill Cantons/Marlinki! Yoon Suin! Hot Springs Island! The other stuff I mentioned!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m glad my comment was interesting enough to inspire an entire blog post.

    One thing I want in an RPG setting is things I couldn’t come up with myself. It’s easy to invent a generic fantasy world with marauding orcs, beautiful elves, scheming noblemen, giant spiders, etc. The settings I like are ones I would not have imagined myself. I could not have created Carcosa and that’s why I’m drawn to it.

    This blog post puts it more eloquently:

    The most important thing is appeal. If a setting begs to be run, you’ll smooth over it’s flaws. If it isn’t appealing, then who cares? The tough part is figuring out what makes one want to use a setting; I think it’s a combination of the novelty of the ideas and quality of the presentation.

    One more thought: maps are important. A badass map can elevate a setting. I imagine if you had a beautiful, detailed map with evocative place names, that could be the entire setting.


  3. Seems like a solid set of criteria for evaluating setting information. I look forward to seeing them applied.

    “Why is raise dead commonly available yet no one ever seems to use it?”
    My ego whispers that I played some part in inspiring this example. It has been cast into my subconscious for 14 days as punishment.

    “…too often weirdness is used as a crutch for deficient craftsmanship.”
    Very true. “Different/original” =/= “interesting/good” by default

    “…the universe of Warhammer 40k is laced with so many exciting possiblities that it becomes much more appealing to invest the time.”
    I think it’s quite remarkable how WH40K has tons of dead trees dedicated to its lore/history and yet still has vast amounts of open space to do your own things with it. The grand scale of it all probably helps, since it gives room to have planets or even whole systems fall to some apocalypse without collapsing the setting.


  4. During my teenage years we played a lot of Vampire: the Masquerade and Forgotten Realms – but we only really used the setting as a springboard to do our crazy shenanigans. Sure, the Sabbath vs. Camarilla conflict was ever-present, and we did get a lot of use out of the giant FR map, but we never really went beyond including more details than in the core books.

    Lately, we have been using Hyperborea as presented in AS&SH. The setting there is explicitly more evocative than definitive; it’s more like a list of places, each described in a paragraph, plus the cultures, languages, general flora/fauna, etc.

    I suck at drawing maps, so I’m drawn towards all fantasy settings that come with nicely done (and legible!) cartography. Also, when I’m left to my own devices, I always end up with a bottom-up approach with regards to world building – and over time I deviate more and more from the initial premise (less so when I use a published setting).

    (Just random thoughts today, I guess. At any rate, I’m looking forward to hearing your opinion of individual campaign settings.)


  5. A cynic might say you haven’t had any standards since you started reviewing free shit people send in. The obligation of gift economy clouds the mind. Without purchase, there is no purity; without purity, cancellation. Are we not Online?

    I of course am far too decent a soul to hurl that sort of mud at you, O Prince, so instead on with the Good Faith.

    I have been happy to work within other people’s campaign settings, since I lack the interest in the sort of versimilitude-inducing nuts and bolts that ground and reify the place. I am much more of a characters-and-small-events person and like to focus my energies on things I enjoy and am good at rather than putting myself through the wringer of boring crap for nerds who haven’t heard the Word of Harrison.

    One thing I will say against my approach: if I had built a campaign setting of my Very Own in the long long ago, and stuck with the first game system I ran in it, I would probably have a body of original Fantasy Literature under my belt by now.

    Another thing I will say against my approach: it reduces one to the mind-slavery of Brand Loyalty all too easily, as one’s processes and thoughts become framed in the terms devised by those who hold Intellectual Property.

    I still run a good game but occasionally have cause to lament that I’m playing with other people’s toys.


    1. [Cynic]

      I agree that gift economy poses a challenge even to the iron-souled but even a cynic will observe there are several donations I have had to shitfuck with a One Star Review because they were godawful. The danger of becoming a sellout is ever a looming threat on the horizon. I actually try to be harder on donations because of this phenomenon.

      [Brand Slavery]

      That last caveat is most interesting, especially because similar effects can be observed in the festering sewers of Dungeon Magazine, were like Wolfe’s Ascians Men are compelled to express their fantasies in banal, rule-clogged triteness and every dash of wonder is accompanied by several volumes of spell effects culled from Dragon Magazine articles and extirpated Tome of Magic pages too wretched to put in the final volume.

      Once an Albionian frequented these hallowed halls with sage advice and challenges of White Wolf adventure paths. In my power and long years, I no longer remember if you are he.


      1. [Harder On Donations]

        Our hypothetical cynic might suggest that you are still contaminating your process, merely in the opposite direction, overcompensating for the gift economy. Purity is Strength. On the other hand, you get free stuff and I have to buy my limited edition figures second hand, so what price purity?

        [Festering Sewers]

        You get me. It is folly to express one’s vision entirely in terms of a rules system, no matter how broad that rules system *claims* to be (and there are none quite like the D&D stans for claiming there is only one true system – I blame Jonathan Tweet, myself).

        [Beneath Those Roiling Depths Fair Albion Slumbers Still]

        You might recall such a specimen and make logical conclusions. I couldn’t possibly comment. I’m sure he has his reasons for adopting a new moniker and a long silence, but these are the End Times and horrors of Old Night will come a-creeping to pick the bones of history.


      2. [Contaminations]

        To which I say fie! The free market shall have its feedback express highway into the hallowed halls of this blog, and provide welcome diversion and discovery outside of the patterns already laid down. Let those who think a Prince clouded by greed has cast his judgement ill-considered state this in the comments section, for men may still speak their thoughts in this demesne.

        [Fair Albion]

        Then familiar or not, be welcome within these walls Traveller. Your arrival is fortuitous. Great things are in the making, the likes of which have not been seen in the longest time. For a new module is forged, greater then the old, with more dark labors and fell deeds on the horizon.

        Before I depart, let me caution you, lest you stumble onto it unforewarned. Do not travel to the place of my genesis, for its lord has fallen silent, and only wretched, mewling things now prowl its desolate, forgotten halls. No mirth there, but piteous sorrow and yearning for olden times long lost.


      3. [Genesis]

        Way ahead of you. Amusement has fled along with purpose; only the deplorable remain. So pass all kings.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s