D&D General The Default Setting of Dungeons and Dragons

Hriston

Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
First, a disclaimer: this post is in no way meant to imply a "one true way" of handling setting in D&D. I'm aware the games are played with a wide variety of setting details, some of which intentionally subverts assumptions the games seem to make about what fiction can be imagined about where the PCs are in the broadest sense. Rather, I'm interested in exploring what sort of generic setting details are contained in the games themselves without any overlaying of what might be considered a more specific, complete, or detailed setting.

Autobiographically, when I first came to D&D in the late 70's/early 80's, I had an expectation of setting-neutrality and that the games' systems would be a sort of physics engine for resolving outcomes independent of any setting in which a character's actions might have been taking place. But as I began reading the rulebooks, which in my case were the Holmes Basic Set and the core books of AD&D (1E), I was struck by how the games' systems were somewhat inflexibly designed to produce a particular sort of setting experience. I recall an occasion where I was reading about devils in the Monster Manual (1977), and while I was captivated by the lore and world-building aspect of the nine layers of Hell and the different types of devils inhabiting them, I also found myself wondering why, for instance, Asmodeus was presented as the default ruler of Hell as opposed to a more setting neutral, generic version of the Devil. I've since come to the conclusion that content like specific monsters or particular magic items (especially artifacts) aren't part of a game's setting unless used in the game, but nevertheless D&D seems to assume a setting where there are monsters and, possibly, magic items.

So I'd like to use this thread to dig in to what general setting details (including history, geography, locations, and cultures) can be supported as default for D&D. To start, here's a list of elements that I think provide evidence of a default setting together with the implications thereof as I see them:
  • Cleric class, spells, and magic items - This one's iffy because a particular group could ban the class, but assuming its use, what it says about the setting of D&D is that gods and divine magic are real. Also, in some if not most editions, use of the class would imply the existence of undead creatures.
  • Magic-user/wizard classes, spells, and magic items - Subject to the same limitation as the cleric, magic-using classes would indicate that arcane magic exists in the game world.
  • Equipment and weapons lists - These lists indicate a Medieval European material culture and level of technology with attendant implications for climate, social organization, and geographical access to resources similar to that of Medieval Europe.
  • Monsters - While no particular monster needs to be introduced, the base assumption of gameplay seems to be one of encountering threats from creature-adversaries which provide ever increasing challenge for advancing characters. The implication for setting is the world is dangerous.
  • Treasure - This may have somewhat lessened importance in more recent editions, but the idea that vast hoards of treasure are the reward awaiting brave, or at least self interested, adventurers willing to risk their lives in the face of deadly perils would indicate that the world is one that fulfils the tropes of sword and sorcery fantasy.
  • Dungeons/adventuring sites - The focus on site based adventure would seem to necessitate that adventuring locations such as dungeons exist in the game-world as well as attendant implications about historical and/or geological past events that brought about their building or creation.
Anyway, that's my list of elements common to, I think, most editions of D&D that touch upon or suggest to me a default setting. What do you think? Is this at all useful for understanding how setting operates as an element of D&D? Is there anything I've missed or that should be added? Thanks for reading!
 

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First, a disclaimer: this post is in no way meant to imply a "one true way" of handling setting in D&D. I'm aware the games are played with a wide variety of setting details, some of which intentionally subverts assumptions the games seem to make about what fiction can be imagined about where the PCs are in the broadest sense. Rather, I'm interested in exploring what sort of generic setting details are contained in the games themselves without any overlaying of what might be considered a more specific, complete, or detailed setting.

Autobiographically, when I first came to D&D in the late 70's/early 80's, I had an expectation of setting-neutrality and that the games' systems would be a sort of physics engine for resolving outcomes independent of any setting in which a character's actions might have been taking place. But as I began reading the rulebooks, which in my case were the Holmes Basic Set and the core books of AD&D (1E), I was struck by how the games' systems were somewhat inflexibly designed to produce a particular sort of setting experience. I recall an occasion where I was reading about devils in the Monster Manual (1977), and while I was captivated by the lore and world-building aspect of the nine layers of Hell and the different types of devils inhabiting them, I also found myself wondering why, for instance, Asmodeus was presented as the default ruler of Hell as opposed to a more setting neutral, generic version of the Devil. I've since come to the conclusion that content like specific monsters or particular magic items (especially artifacts) aren't part of a game's setting unless used in the game, but nevertheless D&D seems to assume a setting where there are monsters and, possibly, magic items.

So I'd like to use this thread to dig in to what general setting details (including history, geography, locations, and cultures) can be supported as default for D&D. To start, here's a list of elements that I think provide evidence of a default setting together with the implications thereof as I see them:
  • Cleric class, spells, and magic items - This one's iffy because a particular group could ban the class, but assuming its use, what it says about the setting of D&D is that gods and divine magic are real. Also, in some if not most editions, use of the class would imply the existence of undead creatures.
  • Magic-user/wizard classes, spells, and magic items - Subject to the same limitation as the cleric, magic-using classes would indicate that arcane magic exists in the game world.
  • Equipment and weapons lists - These lists indicate a Medieval European material culture and level of technology with attendant implications for climate, social organization, and geographical access to resources similar to that of Medieval Europe.
  • Monsters - While no particular monster needs to be introduced, the base assumption of gameplay seems to be one of encountering threats from creature-adversaries which provide ever increasing challenge for advancing characters. The implication for setting is the world is dangerous.
  • Treasure - This may have somewhat lessened importance in more recent editions, but the idea that vast hoards of treasure are the reward awaiting brave, or at least self interested, adventurers willing to risk their lives in the face of deadly perils would indicate that the world is one that fulfils the tropes of sword and sorcery fantasy.
  • Dungeons/adventuring sites - The focus on site based adventure would seem to necessitate that adventuring locations such as dungeons exist in the game-world as well as attendant implications about historical and/or geological past events that brought about their building or creation.
Anyway, that's my list of elements common to, I think, most editions of D&D that touch upon or suggest to me a default setting. What do you think? Is this at all useful for understanding how setting operates as an element of D&D? Is there anything I've missed or that should be added? Thanks for reading!
Honestly, I’m not sure what you’re trying to do here. Everything you’ve listed are simply tools that can or can not be used by a group IMO. If you don’t have them in the rules, then it would be some amount of work to include them. But it’s always easy to exclude them.

The one thing common and I guess perhaps useful for setting is that by default D&D is fantasy based. However, The DMG does include rules for guns and scifi weapons, IIRC.

However, I am struggling to understand the point of this post. What are you hoping to achieve?
 


The "default" setting for D&D is usually a material plane set within a defined multiverse. Those individual material/mortal planes can vary wildly, from the grim deserts of Athas to the sprawling streets of Ravnica, but the assumed default setting for most editions has been a fantasy version of medieval Europe. IIRC, the 5E DMG did a fairly descent job explaining these assumptions and why they were used, but I don't have access to it at the moment.
 

Aldarc

Legend
download.jpg
 

Medic

Neutral Evil
Whenever I see this discussed, "Implied Setting" is usually the phrase that gets thrown around to describe the sort of world that the rules are tailored to.
 

Hriston

Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
Honestly, I’m not sure what you’re trying to do here. Everything you’ve listed are simply tools that can or can not be used by a group IMO. If you don’t have them in the rules, then it would be some amount of work to include them. But it’s always easy to exclude them.

The one thing common and I guess perhaps useful for setting is that by default D&D is fantasy based. However, The DMG does include rules for guns and scifi weapons, IIRC.

However, I am struggling to understand the point of this post. What are you hoping to achieve?
Just what I wrote here:
So I'd like to use this thread to dig in to what general setting details (including history, geography, locations, and cultures) can be supported as default for D&D.
 



TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
Great topic. There is absolutely an implied or default setting. Maybe quite a specific one. And one that isn't really like anything in fantasy literature, unless of course written to be like D&D.

... I recall an occasion where I was reading about devils in the Monster Manual (1977), and while I was captivated by the lore and world-building aspect of the nine layers of Hell and the different types of devils inhabiting them, I also found myself wondering why, for instance, Asmodeus was presented as the default ruler of Hell as opposed to a more setting neutral, generic version of the Devil. I've since come to the conclusion that content like specific monsters or particular magic items (especially artifacts) aren't part of a game's setting unless used in the game, but nevertheless D&D seems to assume a setting where there are monsters and, possibly, magic items.

AD&D had a very strong default setting. It also was one of the worst for saying: the DM can do whatever they want, but for AD&D, things work this way. The MM, DMG, and PHB had lots of detail for the implied setting, and the named entities, artifacts, and planar information made it less implied and more just the setting. Throw in Deities and Demigods, and things start to get really out there, with implications of many kinds of settings, and one very crazy multiverse.

Speaking of which, the currently morphing edition is leaning back into that. Multiverse is the setting.

2E probably tried hardest to be generic. It still had the stuff noted in the OP, but it tried really hard to be a more vanila base for more specific settings that you would also buy. No Asmodeus. It made the core rules sort of a snooze fest. No Asmodeus! And there was the most tension between how the game really worked, as per the OP, and the various settings and campaign advice, which often tried to push in a different direction.

Setting building blocks...paladins, owlbears, the teleport spell...give you something to work with and are pretty cool. Things like Asmodeus, Sigal, the Rod of Seven Parts, are both more motivating and more optional. But more motivating.

Another way to think about it, outside of some very generic task resolution rules, what you are getting out of the game is the default setting. Thats the value added!
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Playing in the 80s, it was sword-n-sorcery peanut butter with all manor of chunks of sci fi, planar, elder horror weirdness candies mixed in. We just bought modules of somewhat appropriate levels for our characters. A "campaign" may involve clearing the caves of chaos, surviving being shipwrecked and running from dinosaurs on the island of dread, exploring a crashed spaceship in some remote mountains, following the rabbit into the lands beyond the looking glass, getting sucked through the mists into Ravenloft, add to that in converting our AD&D characters to play in Boot Hill and Gamma World. Man...trying to come up with a list of assumptions for D&D gives me a headache. I mean they published dungeons where you could come upon a film crew filming a "star trek" rip off.

70s and 80s D&D didn't seem to be as hung up on verisimilitude as we are today.

The Greyhawk boxed set was the first time I started thinking in terms of having a somewhat coherent setting. But all that weirdness could be--and was--dropped into Greyhawk. About the only thing that Greyhawk changed for me was developing new fetishes for heraldry and cartography.

I think all of the features and assumptions listed in the OP are accurate. But they are just the assumptions to often be juxtaposed with all manner of anachronistic, genre-bending weirdness.

Sometimes I miss the incoherent wonder of my childhood D&D.
 

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