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General A Taxonomy of D&D and other FRPG Settings

Mercurius

Legend
I find taxonomies to be somewhat interesting and useful for understanding a given subject, with the caveat—and ongoing reminder—that all taxonomies are abstractions (ala the famous Korzybski phrase, “the map is not the territory”) and often make categorical choices that don't always work. Meaning, there are always gray areas.

Ongoing discussions about D&D settings, new and old, have inspired me to think about how different worlds can be categorized. In particular, the discussion about Dragonlance, and whether it is closer to kitchen-sink settings like Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms, or if it has more in common with themed settings like Dark Sun, which is what I am suggesting.

Anyhow, what follows is one way (and not the only way) to categorize D&D settings. I’ve mostly included D&D worlds published by TSR or WotC, but have also included a few third parties, and a couple non-D&D worlds. If you have a sense of deja vu while reading this, it may be because I (think I) wrote something similar here some years ago, but am not certain.


Category A - Kitchen-sink Settings:
These thematically-broad settings are designed for a wide range of play experiences. There is an “anything goes” feel, even if they vary by tone and flavor. They generally include a number of Earth analogues, although are not necessarily bound to them. They are also based upon the D&D rules-as-written, with only small—if any—variations. The underlying idea is that if you want to play D&D as it is described in the rules, with as many options as possible, these settings are for you. A further commonality is that they all generally arose out of a specific edition of the game, what could be called their “root edition,” even if they were updated in later editions. To some extend you could say that they were designed as showcases for default game as it was when they were published (which sometimes led to awkward adaptions in later editions, e.g. the infamous Spellplague of the Forgotten Realms).

Examples (with root edition): Greyhawk (OD&D), Forgotten Realms (1E-2E), Mystara (BECMI), Golarion (Pathfinder), Exandria (5E/Critical Role), Kingdoms of Kalamar (OGL), Midgard (OGL).

Category B - Thematic Settings (Style/flavor-focused):
These settings are more narrowly focused around specific themes and styles. They vary in terms of geographical and thematic feel, but the underlying commonality is that the theme or style is front and center, and they generally don't make an attempt to be all-inclusive of every game element. Imagine, for instance, the difference between a full-color painting (kitchen-sink) and a sepia-toned one (thematic); both could depict the same breadth of landscape, but the latter emphasizes a particular mood or flavor, even at the expense of including "all colors." Unlike the next category, the focus is on theme or style, with rules differences being secondary.

Examples: Dark Sun, Dragonlance, Eberron, Ravenloft, Scarred Lands, most Magic: the Gathering worlds.

Category C - Thematic Settings (Rules-focused): While these settings are somewhat similar to the previous category, there are some notable differences. These settings are focused on different and specific elements of the D&D game ruleset itself, and often on variations, options, or sub-systems from the core rules. Meaning, while both groups are theme-focused and and may have elements of both stylistic and mechanical variance from the default game, it is a matter of whether or not the theme is focused on stylistic and flavor elements (B) or rules and game elements (C). Meaning, a category B world might start with the What If scenario of, "imagine a post-apocalyptic world without water," while category C might start with, "imagine a world built around psionics and alternate approaches to magic use."

Examples (with thematic focus): Planescape (the Planes), Spelljammer (spelljammers and the crystal spheres), Birthright (kingdom-building), Ghostwalk (ghost PCs), Council of Wyrms (dragon PCs).

Category D - Boutique Settings: These are what I would call “art settings” or “world-first” settings, meaning, they were created as imaginary worlds first and foremost, and only secondarily as RPG or novel settings, which may simply have been utilized as the chosen way to express and share the author's creation (and thus, you will note, none of my few examples are actually D&D worlds). The underlying reason behind their creation may vary widely, but they all share this underlying world-building first factor. Meaning, the primary “game” of the designer was the building of the world itself, which may or may not have continued for years. Another important element is that these settings tend to veer towards sole authorship; others may have fleshed out certain elements, but the world itself is the creation of a single author. Of course settings in different categories might share this, but the shared quality tends to be greater. Note: This category doesn't really apply to published D&D worlds, but it may apply to homebrew settings, as some folks (like myself) enjoy world-building for its own sake, so I thought it was important to include.

Examples (with author): Middle-earth (JRR Tolkien), Talislanta (Stephen Michael Sechi), Tekumel (MAR Barker), the Hyborian Age (RE Howard).


Further Thoughts

As with most taxonomies, there is an artificiality that makes some settings debatable, or at least borderline. A good example is Eberron, which is strongly thematic in terms of steampunk, but also somewhat “kitchen-sinky.” But I categorized it in the second group because its focus is on the thematic style, and the Earth analogues are generally more distant than the worlds in group A. For instance, Sarlona has strong elements of East Asian-style Communism, but it is divergent enough not to be as straightforward as, say, Mulhorand-Egypt.

A few settings that I didn’t categorize are Jakandor, Nentir Vale, and Blackmoor. The first because I don’t know enough about it to decide whether it belongs in B or C, and the latter two because they are partial-settings that are presumably part of a larger world, which I would assume is category A, but wasn’t described enough to safely categorize. The Wilderlands of High Fantasy is sort of in a middle-ground: it is a much larger region, but am not sure if it belongs in A or B.

In some cases, a setting may inhabit a different category depending upon vantage point. For instance, Earthdawn could be either B (Barsaive only) and/or A (the wider world), although if I had to pick just one category I’d go with B, for reasons similar to Earthdawn.

Finally, among some of the classic non-D&D worlds, I’d include Glorantha and Harn in category A, and Earthdawn, Warhammer, and Shadow World in B. I am least certain about Glorantha and Warhammer, both of which are close to the line between A and B. Glorantha follows Earth analogues and is kitchen-sinky enough that I think it probably best belongs in A. Warhammer is also tricky as it is basically dark fantasy Europe, but its thematic elements are central enough that I think it slips over into B. Harn is pretty much a very realistic fantasy-version of the Medieval world and I think safely belongs in A. Shadow World, or Kulthea, is strongly themed around certain ideas, and a good example of a large setting that still fits B over A.
 

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Voadam

Adventurer
Kalamar was originally a 2e setting and technically never OGL, it was a direct official 3e D&D license so a 2nd party publisher.

By your definition of kitchen sink I would definitely have put Eberron there, it was explicitly designed to have a place for everything that is mechanically D&D. It does have a strong pulp post WWI theme so which group it fits in more is definitely debatable.

I would also generally put in Dragonlance, it started as a standard normal option D&D with rare clerics but the default party for the adventures had one from the beginning. It got more exclusive later with Dragonlance Adventures messing with clerics and magic users and had a strong romantic heroism theme (as well as to actually use dragons in every adventure), but it felt in line with core D&D options when it came out.

Jakandor is strong themes, distinct culture clashes, a big magocracy with a neutral animated dead work force versus a barbarian warrior society mix of vikings, Celts, and American Indians with totem magic all in a backdrop of unexplored magical dungeons after a magical apocalypse.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
Too late in evening to really respond appropriately. But I like this exercise; not sure if I agree with your taxonomy 100%. I'll try to come back tomorrow.
 

Coroc

Hero
Kalamar was originally a 2e setting and technically never OGL, it was a direct official 3e D&D license so a 2nd party publisher.

By your definition of kitchen sink I would definitely have put Eberron there, it was explicitly designed to have a place for everything that is mechanically D&D. It does have a strong pulp post WWI theme so which group it fits in more is definitely debatable.

I would also generally put in Dragonlance, it started as a standard normal option D&D with rare clerics but the default party for the adventures had one from the beginning. It got more exclusive later with Dragonlance Adventures messing with clerics and magic users and had a strong romantic heroism theme (as well as to actually use dragons in every adventure), but it felt in line with core D&D options when it came out.

Jakandor is strong themes, distinct culture clashes, a big magocracy with a neutral animated dead work force versus a barbarian warrior society mix of vikings, Celts, and American Indians with totem magic all in a backdrop of unexplored magical dungeons after a magical apocalypse.
Yea you could see Eberron as THE kitchen sink setting, but that tittle still goes to the realms, because Eberron has everything but as it says on the label "with a twist" and that makes it a themed setting.

With Ravenloft, Eberron, Darksun and Krynn being thematic settings I totally agree, but all of these have (had) special rules and not few of them, so they also (but not exclusively) would fall under category 3 imho. But I do get what OP meant, and overall it is a good taxonomy still
 


Mercurius

Legend
Would a setting like Ptolus fall under the rules-focused thematic setting?
Hmm...I'd say category B, based upon what I know of it. Its theme focus, as far as understand it, is more setting-oriented--urban adventure--and less about specific rules. I suppose it could be a hybrid of A and B, because it is essentially a kitchen-sink city.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Is this taxonomy just focusing on a set of rules of the game:

A: Defaults
B: Gameplay rules
C: DM rulings and additional game modules
D: Character creation rules

If so, wouldn't there be another category based on enemy design (resulting in many low magic worlds and Earthlike worlds via subtraction or No European settings or Horror games via addition)?
 

Warren Ellis

Explorer
Hmm...I'd say category B, based upon what I know of it. Its theme focus, as far as understand it, is more setting-oriented--urban adventure--and less about specific rules. I suppose it could be a hybrid of A and B, because it is essentially a kitchen-sink city.
Well I remember hearing it's like a setting designed to show off every little gameplay assumption about 3e or 3.5e as in "you can buy magic" and all that, for example.

Like it provides in-setting explanations for why all these little gameplay assumptions are there.
 

atanakar

Hero
Examples (with root edition): Greyhawk (OD&D), Forgotten Realms (1E-2E), Mystara (BECMI), Golarion (Pathfinder), Exandria (5E/Critical Role), Kingdoms of Kalamar (OGL), Midgard (OGL).
While it is true that a Greyhawk supplement was published for OD&D it contains no details of the world except two short mentions. It was mostly new spells and additional rules. Greyhawk became a proper published setting (with map and details) only during the early days of AD&D 1e.

Blackmoor was also an OD&D supplement (lacking setting information).
 
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I could be wrong, but I think the Hyborian Age was created specifically as a setting for the novels, not for the sake of world building.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Aleena died for your sins.
I would start by saying that I don't really agree with the taxonomy. I think it has some, but limited, usefulness.

I tend to view settings along the following axes, and I don't really think it's helpful to bring in non-D&D settings because they can vary widely (and most non-D&D FRPGs tend to have "default" and "everything else" so it's not really helpful either):

A. Settings that reify standard D&D tropes.

This is the big ol' category, and it also includes those settings that "typify" an edition. These are the settings that make for the standard "D&D" experience. D&D is its own fantasy category, with its own tropes, and these are the settings that have largely defined what D&D is in various editions. This largely, but not completely, maps on to the idea of the "kitchen sink" setting.

Examples: Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Nentir Vale, Mystara, various incarnations of Blackmoor, Invincible Overlord/Wilderlands, Ravenloft

Notes- Some people might wonder why, for example, Ravenloft and Dragonlance are included here. While they made slight alterations in style of play (gothic horror, romantic fantasy) and changed a few things (steel, kender), these are additions and reified standard D&D tropes. This also includes "twists" and "flavorings" such as Kara Tur, Maztica, and Al Qadim, which just end up in Forgotten Realms anyway.


B. Settings that subvert, modify, or play with standard D&D tropes.

These are settings that explicitly play with the standard D&D tropes, often with a strong authorial vision, and subvert those tropes or modify them in theme, rules, or both in order to make a different play experience.

Examples: Eberron, Dark Sun, Birthright, Ghostwalk

Notes- these should self-explanatory. While Eberron might be considered a "kitchen sink" setting, the strong thematic elements that undercut typical D&D tropes do not really put it in the same category as a standard D&D campaign setting.


C. Meta-settings.

Ever since D&D was released, there were planes, and the idea of traveling between various settings (or even different games). Meta-settings make the connective tissue explicit, and provide that the area of travel can, itself, be a setting.

Example: Planescape, Manual of the Planes, Spelljammer
 

Voadam

Adventurer
Most everything falls under Kitchen sink fairly readily. It is pretty rare for something to be so specific it does not. Dark Sun culturally kept fairly not kitchen sink, but even that had stuff like the Meso-American and Mesopotamian themes that crept into characterizing certain sorcerer-kings' city states.
Ravenloft, Planescape, and Spelljammer are pretty kitchen sink as well. They each provide easy built in rationales for including anything from D&D as a player element or as a DM element.

Ravenloft has a strong gothic horror aspect but its different domains from different worlds makes it very kitchen sink. It has two ancient Egypt lands, a dark sun land, the only mythic india land I can think of in official D&D, part of Thay, a mind-flayer land, standard D&D in Darkon, lots of kitchen sink aspects. Also the mists drawing from different worlds means the party can have PCs from different worlds together so you could have a Rashemon witch from the Realms next to a Knight of Veluna from Greyhawk.

Planescape is all the planes and all the game worlds, connected by a planar city of gates that can connect anywhere so you can have people from any world in concept.

Spelljammer is similar but through physically getting from one world to another through magic space.

Hyboria was definitely a kitchen sink, just not for D&D mechanics. It is made up of a lot of analogue lands (ancient Egypt land, ancient Greece land, Spain, Pict wilderness, ancient Afghanistan, Africa, East Asia, Germany, Norse scandinavia, Celtic areas, etc.)

Birthright had the European domains, the viking domains, the Arab domains, the slavic domains, the dwarf domains, and the elf domains. It added domain rules but felt like a kitchen sink setting with the added element of divine descended rulers.

Most everything falls under Kitchen sink fairly readily. It is pretty rare for something to be so specific it does not. Dark Sun culturally kept fairly not kitchen sink, but even that had stuff like the Meso-American and Mesopotamian themes that crept into characterizing certain sorcerer-kings' city states.
 

Lem23

Adventurer
Harn is definitely not A (Tieflings, dragonborn etc aren't a presence there at all). I'd say either B (low magic medieval as the theme) or more likely, D (especially if you include Talislnta and EPT in that category), a fully realised art /boutique world with a specific mythology present.
 

squibbles

Explorer
Category A - Kitchen-sink Settings:
Examples (with root edition): Greyhawk (OD&D), Forgotten Realms (1E-2E), Mystara (BECMI), Golarion (Pathfinder), Exandria (5E/Critical Role), Kingdoms of Kalamar (OGL), Midgard (OGL).

Category B - Thematic Settings (Style/flavor-focused):

Examples: Dark Sun, Dragonlance, Eberron, Ravenloft, Scarred Lands, most Magic: the Gathering worlds.

Category C - Thematic Settings (Rules-focused):
Examples (with thematic focus): Planescape (the Planes), Spelljammer (spelljammers and the crystal spheres), Birthright (kingdom-building), Ghostwalk (ghost PCs), Council of Wyrms (dragon PCs).

Category D - Boutique Settings:
Examples (with author): Middle-earth (JRR Tolkien), Talislanta (Stephen Michael Sechi), Tekumel (MAR Barker), the Hyborian Age (RE Howard).
I think there's a question that precedes your premise. What do you want the taxonomy to do? Why is authorial originality / degree of kitchen sink-ness the primary axis of distinction?

The way I organize my setting books is by genre and degree of magic, i.e. high fantasy/high magic, sword and sorcery/low magic, sword and planet, etc., since those differences reflected my interests at the time I created the typology.

Admittedly, your taxonomy makes sense to me. I think the reason for that, though, is that Category A - kitchen sinks - are an ideal type. Kitchen sinks share a set of similar elements: D&Disms like armored Catholic-esque henotheists and swashbuckling magic lutists have inexplicable cultural niches, the middle region is a medieval Europe pastiche, north-ish of it is a viking pastiche, south-ish of it is an arabian pastiche, east-ish of it is an orientalist pastiche. They have different place names and particularities, but the standard components are there.

The other parts of the taxonomy are different varieties of departure from the ideal type.
  • Category B - Departures for deliberate thematic reasons
  • Category C - Departures for deliberate rules reasons--though I'd put all of these except Birthright in Category B (and add Ptolus to C)
  • Category D - Departures because they predate the solidification of the standard D&D world (I'd put Talislanta in B too)

I tend to view settings along the following axes, and I don't really think it's helpful to bring in non-D&D settings because they can vary widely (and most non-D&D FRPGs tend to have "default" and "everything else" so it's not really helpful either):

A. Settings that reify standard D&D tropes.
Examples: Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Nentir Vale, Mystara, various incarnations of Blackmoor, Invincible Overlord/Wilderlands, Ravenloft

B. Settings that subvert, modify, or play with standard D&D tropes.
Examples: Eberron, Dark Sun, Birthright, Ghostwalk

C. Meta-settings.
Example: Planescape, Manual of the Planes, Spelljammer
This makes a lot of sense to me too, though I'm not clear which of these would be the 'axes.'

Is it:
reifyin' like a boss
^
I
meta <------------------> not meta
I
I
subversive AF
Also, I think lots of non-D&D settings would be appropriate to include. D&Disms are prevalent enough in the fantasy zeitgeist that many people with no knowledge of icosahedrons could tell you the proper noun for an armored Catholic-esque henotheist. Also, LotR and Hyboria are--maybe--essential enough to the D&D canon that they ought to be included in the typology.
 

Mercurius

Legend
I would start by saying that I don't really agree with the taxonomy. I think it has some, but limited, usefulness.

I tend to view settings along the following axes, and I don't really think it's helpful to bring in non-D&D settings because they can vary widely (and most non-D&D FRPGs tend to have "default" and "everything else" so it's not really helpful either): SNIP
Those are probably more clearly defined, and thus easier to categorize. That said, I don't think category C is necessary or is of the same type as A and B and is actually a sub-group of B, as they are inherently an alteration of classic D&D tropes. So your taxonomy, while clear, only really includes two categories: settings that reify D&D tropes and settings that subvert or modify them.
 

Mercurius

Legend
I think there's a question that precedes your premise. What do you want the taxonomy to do? Why is authorial originality / degree of kitchen sink-ness the primary axis of distinction?

The way I organize my setting books is by genre and degree of magic, i.e. high fantasy/high magic, sword and sorcery/low magic, sword and planet, etc., since those differences reflected my interests at the time I created the typology.

Admittedly, your taxonomy makes sense to me. I think the reason for that, though, is that Category A - kitchen sinks - are an ideal type. Kitchen sinks share a set of similar elements: D&Disms like armored Catholic-esque henotheists and swashbuckling magic lutists have inexplicable cultural niches, the middle region is a medieval Europe pastiche, north-ish of it is a viking pastiche, south-ish of it is an arabian pastiche, east-ish of it is an orientalist pastiche. They have different place names and particularities, but the standard components are there.

The other parts of the taxonomy are different varieties of departure from the ideal type.
  • Category B - Departures for deliberate thematic reasons
  • Category C - Departures for deliberate rules reasons--though I'd put all of these except Birthright in Category B (and add Ptolus to C)
  • Category D - Departures because they predate the solidification of the standard D&D world (I'd put Talislanta in B too)



This makes a lot of sense to me too, though I'm not clear which of these would be the 'axes.'

Is it:
reifyin' like a boss
^
I
meta <------------------> not meta
I
I
subversive AF
Also, I think lots of non-D&D settings would be appropriate to include. D&Disms are prevalent enough in the fantasy zeitgeist that many people with no knowledge of icosahedrons could tell you the proper noun for an armored Catholic-esque henotheist. Also, LotR and Hyboria are--maybe--essential enough to the D&D canon that they ought to be included in the typology.
Makes sense. My original idea was just a bit of fun, mostly around the notion that thematic settings seem to,play with either "fluff" or "crunch" elements (my categories B and C).

I like your notion of the kitchen sink as an ideal type, which goes along with @Snarf Zagyg 's emphasis.

I admit that I fudged Talislanta a bit, and as @Paul Farquhar said, Hyborian Age doesn't really fit my D, although interestingly enough, fits your D--as does Glorantha. Strangely enough, so does the Forgotten Realms in a way, as Ed Greenwood started making it in the 60s as a kid, although I don't think it really took shape until the D&D era, so ultimately belongs in A.

As for your last point, it really depends upon whether we want to center it on D&Disms or not. For the sake of this discussion and forum, I'd say yes. In that sense, originally I disagreed with @Lem23 about Harn, because it is kitchen sink according to its own Medievalistic Harnmaster tropes, but if we recenter the taxonomy on D&Disms, then it fits into your category B, the theme being simulationist Medievalism--along with Ars Magica's Mythic Europe.

So maybe your axes could be:

Y: D&D ideal type to divergence from type.
X: Broad (kitchen sink) to narrow focus.

Or something like that. Not totally happy with that, as the "D&D ideal" is unclear and could be a bit fuzzy.
 

S'mon

Legend
Wilderlands was created as a kitchen sink setting for OD&D. While it might seem a class B thematic 'gonzo swords & sorcery' setting now, in the mid-70s it was a clear Class A using the common tropes of the day.

Ed Greenwood's Forgotten Realms was actually a Class D world-for-own-sake, whereas RE Howard's Hyborea was created primarily as 'somewhere to set pulp stories from any epoch' and is really closest to a literary Class A.
 

squibbles

Explorer
Makes sense. My original idea was just a bit of fun, mostly around the notion that thematic settings seem to,play with either "fluff" or "crunch" elements (my categories B and C).
Ya, that's a distinction that I've not seen made before. I think there is a meaningful difference between crunch elements that exist to serve novel fluff, i.e. rules to make wizard magic cause environmental collapse, and fluff elements that exist to serve novel crunch, i.e. in-setting backstory to justify the centrality of domain rules. But there probably aren't that many settings that truly belong to the second category--it's a lot easier for a prospective setting designer to reason forward from theme to representative mechanics than to reason backward from mechanics to a verisimilitudinous theme.

I like your notion of the kitchen sink as an ideal type, which goes along with @Snarf Zagyg 's emphasis.

As for your last point, it really depends upon whether we want to center it on D&Disms or not. For the sake of this discussion and forum, I'd say yes. In that sense, originally I disagreed with @Lem23 about Harn, because it is kitchen sink according to its own Medievalistic Harnmaster tropes, but if we recenter the taxonomy on D&Disms, then it fits into your category B, the theme being simulationist Medievalism--along with Ars Magica's Mythic Europe.

So maybe your axes could be:

Y: D&D ideal type to divergence from type.
X: Broad (kitchen sink) to narrow focus.

Or something like that. Not totally happy with that, as the "D&D ideal" is unclear and could be a bit fuzzy.
Ideal types are difficult to fit into broader typologies because they are definitionally a melange of many essential but unrelated characteristics. Like, for example, I think of high magic, kitchen sink-ness, bastard feudalist power structures surviving a civilizationally superior predecessor polity, and gonzo levels of divine intervention as being primary traits of the D&Dism ideal type. None of those traits necessarily has anything to do with the others but, if you remove one of them from a setting, it ceases to fit the ideal type.

I think a taxonomy with less amorphous distinctions would be more insightful.

What do you think of this 3x3 with the dimensions 'faux-medieval-Europe-ness' and 'prevalence of the weird and magical'?

limited magic and weirdnesstraditional magic and weirdnessvoluminous or extreme magic and weirdness
faux medieval Europe1a: Harnworld, Pendragon, Westeros1b: Ars Magica (I assume), Birthright1c: ???
faux medieval Europe with exceptions2a: Lord of the Rings, Ravenloft2b: Forgotten Realms and its many kitchen-sinky brethren2c: Lamentations of the Flame Princess and its OSR ilk, Ptolus
not faux medieval Europe3a: Hyborian Age3b: Darksun, Talislanta, Tekumel, some Magic the Gathering worlds3c: Eberron, Planescape, Spelljammer, other Magic the Gathering worlds

It didn't occur to me prior to creating the table, but it seems like there's a lot of clustering around 2b, 3b, and 3c... taxonomies are hard D:>
 

Mercurius

Legend
Love it, @squibbles - a definite improvement (or evolution).

A couple candidates for, your empty 1c: Warhammer's Old World and the pre-modern versions of Mage, although both might work more in 1b.

Earthdawn and Glorantha belong in 2b, I think, even though they are closer to not-faux than FR and Greyhawk.

I'd put Shadow World, Numenera, and Exalted in 3c, Glorantha probably in 2b.
 

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