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D&D General What makes a good setting book?

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
So, I don't buy setting books. I've never been interested in the core settings of D&D, they've always felt excessively generic to me. But to be fair, I also never really dug to see what else is available; both in term of older editions and 3rd party. So lately, after putting one too many hours prepping a setting for a new campaign, I wondered what it would take for me to buy one. Let's say I was exposed to a product and I could have a glance at the table of contents and the book's content; what could make me go "oh I want to run a campaign in this".

And then I realized that I don't any references. I don't really buy adventures either, but I've often read and dug about what adventures people liked, what are the classics and what's cool about them. But not with settings.

I've read many times that the Sword Coast book for 5E was not great. I own it, I read it but I don't understand what's wrong about it. I also read that the Planescape campaign book for 2E was fantastic, I also own it, read it and not fully understand what's that much better about it. I also started getting into Vampire the Masquerade recently, and their core rulebooks have much more lore and story that I expect from a core rulebook, but surprisingly, I don't hate it.

Let's ignore everything marketing or production related (quality of the print, good editing, good name, nice art, etc). Let's focus on the content, what's written in the pages. Also, let's ignore stuff that's splashed over multiple books. I'm curious about what people expect or are looking for in a single product that introduces a setting.

I'd like to start a discussion around the following questions:
  • What are you looking for in a setting good?
    • Mechanical content (custom subclasses, magic items, monsters stat blocks)?
    • Lore?
    • Good characters?
    • A unique twist?
  • What proportion of each? A little bit of mechanical content and a ton of lore? Or the opposite?
  • Are you looking for something fully detailed and a bit more rigid?
  • Or for something more modular and actionable?
  • What's more important to you: not having to put in time to adapt and use the content, or have the content be easy to be modified and adapted?
I'll even go further: what are your favorite setting books? Or what are the worst?

Oh, do note that I'm talking about D&D here, but if you have insight regarding setting books for other systems, I think it's applicable.
 

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jdrakeh

Adventurer
A rich cosmology, humanity and other species with multiple cultures (instead of single, unrealistic, monocultures), an explanation of why magic works the way it does in the setting. Those are the three big things that I like to see.
 

I want a setting that feels fresh in an exciting way. If a setting just feels like generic homebrew number 345,304 but with professional art and editing, I'm probably not going to be invested enough to run it instead of working on my own concept.

I also want enough explanation and depth in the book to feel like I have a grasp of the setting without having to make most of it up myself. Ravnica, for instead, is intriguing as a concept but after looking through the book I feel like I'd have to do a ton of worldbuilding to make it make sense, to me.
 
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ideally, everything mentioned so far but expanding what I can do is important to me either a new way to play in settings or genre so pushing towards the time I can play in any madness my fevered brain can make.
 

AcererakTriple6

Autistic DM (he/him)
My three favorite setting books in D&D 5e are Explorer's Guide to Wildemount, Eberron: Rising from the Last War, and Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft. They all follow the same format that WotC has used for all of its setting books that came out after the SCAG, which includes a section for character options, a section for DM advice, a gazetteer section, a monster section, and a lore section. I've found that this format works incredibly well, and is very compelling.

Yes, lore is a significant part of it. The player options included are also a major part of it (Wildemount would be very different without Dunamancy and Eberron would be very different without Artificers, Dragonmarks, and its main races). The format and given tools are very important to me. However, the main thing might be the basic concept of the setting (if it adds anything to D&D that we don't already have in the existing setting). Eberron, Ravenloft, and the M:tG settings are very different from the core assumptions of D&D 5e. Wildemount as well, to a different extent. If a setting is really close to the base assumptions of D&D 5e, it needs to do a really good job at highlighting its differences to avoid the feeling of "just another Forgotten Realms/Greyhawk", like how Explorer's Guide to Wildemount focuses on its history, conflict between the Kryn Dynasty and Dwendalian Empire, Dunamancy, the Arms of the Betrayers/Vestiges of Divergence, the Heroic Chronicle, and its in-depth and amazing gazetteer section that gives plot hooks specific to the world in every location that it details.

That's what I think makes a good D&D setting book. Don't tell me what I already know about the world (the base lore included in the PHB), tell me how the world does things differently and how the PHB fits into the world.
 

Yora

Legend
Play hooks. I have seen settings deliver on great lore, mechanics, and such, but then utterly fail with play hooks that make it easy to understand what the players would be doing besides setting themepark tourism.
Are you talking about Planescape? Because this sounds much like Planescape.
Amazing world, but offers nothing to have adventures in it.
 

Azuresun

Adventurer
1: At least one clear reason in the setting for PC groups to form, and clear objectives for them to pursue once they do form. There are a lot of RPG's that kind of forget to do this! Scion springs to mind, where I read the books and thought "This is cool, what the hell do I do with it?"

2: Adversaries who can challenge the PC's, but are not genre-savvy and entrenched in the setting to the point where they become unassailable. There are a lot of settings where the authors get a bit too carried away with writing their villains, and forget to provide any way by which a small band of quirky, individually powerful adventurers could plausibly be a threat to them, and forget that any "bad guy" nation or culture is also probably going to be ridden with corruption, political infighting and inefficiency. In the Demon: The Fallen RPG, the Earthbound are an example of how to do this well--they have much more raw power than the PC, but also outstanding weaknesses (they're immobile, and heavily dependant on their cultists to enact their will in the world).

3: Factions. Eberron and Fading Suns are two of my favourite settings, and both of them feature a large number of factions. And for almost all of those factions, it's entirely plausible that I could come up with both a hero and villain from it--two different Avestite characters could be a zealous bigot out to burn the impure, and a beacon of pure faith standing strong against the dark forces that wish to obliterate humankind.

4: There are things that need fixing, but the setting is not doomed. That's an important distinction. For example, Warhammer 40K is a very dark setting overall, but the PC's can still win meaningful victories on a smaller scale. Wraith: The Oblivion tips too far into the "Why bother?" side for me, when Oblivion has infinite soldiers and resources and nearly everyone on the not-Oblivion side is a raging jackass at best. And Blue Rose leans a little too far in the other direction, where there's a scarcity of villains and most of them are clustered up together in the designated Bad Guy Land.

5: More importantly than getting a census of the world, I want to know what it's like to live there. The 5e Eberron book did this magnificently, to the point where I consider it the best incarnation of the setting so far. Things like rolling to see how a random village has been scarred by the war, or to see what sort of intrigue or zany scheme my gnome character is tangled up in are more useful to setting the tone of a place than pages of dry statistics. I like how the Wildemount book included adventure hooks for each location. And in another setting book I read, I really liked how they provided generic types of characters that you might meet in a certain location--characters like "Ill-Mannered Old Money", "Braggart Mercenary", "Worldly Priest". And so on.

6: Make non-humans feel non-human. This is a bit of a pet peeve of mine--dwarves and elves should not feel mundane. They should be getting different reactions from a human and have some way that they don't quite think or act like humans do.

7: No metaplot.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Are you talking about Planescape? Because this sounds much like Planescape.
Amazing world, but offers nothing to have adventures in it.
Honestly I was foremost thinking of a non-D&D setting - Tekumel: Empire of the Petal Throne - but I can see how Planescape could apply.
 

The primary thing a setting book needs is to explain the style of the world, which helps players and DMs decide if it's what they're looking for. It also helps differentiate it between similar settings (Greyhawk as sword & sorcery, Realms as heroic fantasy, Dragonlance as epic fantasy) and to promote any unique twist (Dark Sun's defiling, Eberron's steampunk, Ravnica's megacity). WotC current setup seems good, balancing character options, DM options, and lore, and while I personally I prefer more DM content and lore than character options, that doesn't sell books.

The book needs to strike a balance between utility and inspiration. The Living Greyhawk Gazetteer is a wonderfully detailed encyclopedia of the Greyhawk setting... that reads exactly like an encyclopedia. Conversely, the original boxed set was filled with all kinds of inspiration for the DM, but was lacking in a lot of detail. It's presumed that the latter was done on purpose to allow DMs to fill in as they see fit, but this isn't useful to a lot of DMs. An overly detailed world, as the Realms had become by the end of 3E, also limits the DM in how much leeway they have in making adventures and locations.
 

akr71

Hero
I've read many times that the Sword Coast book for 5E was not great. I own it, I read it but I don't understand what's wrong about it.
I also own it, but I don't consider it bad, just overpriced. It has the shortest page count by far but the price didn't really reflect that. Bigger maps, especially for cities and towns, would have been nice.

Back to the question at hand. What do I think makes a good setting book?
  • Maps, lots of maps. Maps of cities and towns, maps of regions and nations.
  • Organizations. General descriptions of the organizations at play - nations, powerful guilds, trade groups, priestly orders (or knights, or whatever) - organizations that have an agenda and may span nations. I don't need to much detail - a bit of history, their motivations, their allies and adversaries.
  • People & Culture - what makes the people that live here different from the ones that live over there? It can include species or ancestry breakdown, but I will likely ignore that.
  • How is it different? What mechanics or things make this setting different from any other vanilla D&D fantasy setting?
  • Hooks. Lots of adventure hooks. Spark my imagination. When I read about a thing, I want my imagination to take over and say "Oooh, that would be a fun adventure! I could do this, or this, or this."
  • NPCs and interesting folks for the PCs to interact with. This is a very low priority item, but sometimes 'drag and drop' items are useful when under the gun to get a session prepped.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
Are you talking about Planescape? Because this sounds much like Planescape.
Amazing world, but offers nothing to have adventures in it.

Huh ? No adventures in Planescape ? I have tons of adventures in Planescape, there were dozens published with the setting including long campaigns, including real gems like the Great Modron March and Dead Gods.

And almost every story arc that we have used in our campaigns ever since Planescape came out brushes the Great Wheel and Sigil, and sparks of incredible adventures. In our Descent into Avernus campaign, they've already gone through the infinite staircase and plan to get help from Sigil.

Best setting ever, although I agree that it's not for everyone. Playing Planescape:Torment is almost mandatory, and a good idea to see if the setting pleases you. It's an iconic game for many reasons, and the updated version with better graphics makes it much easier to play.
 

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
Play hooks. I have seen settings deliver on great lore, mechanics, and such, but then utterly fail with play hooks that make it easy to understand what the players would be doing besides setting themepark tourism.
Play hooks is generally how I develop my own stuff for my games. I prepare a ton of small quests, or conflicts that my players can latch unto and let them take whichever bait they want. So that makes sense to me, that's also what I'd want.
an explanation of why magic works the way it does in the setting
That feels specific to me. Do you have an example from a setting where they explain why magic works the way it does?
character options, a section for DM advice, a gazetteer section, a monster section, and a lore section
And what's the balance of all that? Which ones would you be willing to sacrifice, or sometimes wished there was more of?
 


Are you talking about Planescape? Because this sounds much like Planescape.
Amazing world, but offers nothing to have adventures in it.
Planescape is an interesting example here because it's both a great, inspiring setting and yet the box sets include lots of lore and fluff an comparatively less easily gameable material. The factions, for example, are very evocative and fun when you first read about them, but for the most part are not anchored to the setting and to each other by concrete plots that the players can get involved in, partially because their goals are abstract.

But it is still my favorite setting, because it does such a great job of getting the mood right. Tony Diterlizzi's art does a lot of the work here. You could just show me pages after pages of his art and I would feel inspired to run the setting. The cant is...an acquired taste I suppose, but at least served the purpose of making the setting different from others. And there were lots of really neat ideas, even if they were sometimes buried in walls of weirdly formatted text.

The included adventures in the box sets and most (all?) of the modules ended up being a combination of fetch quests, railroads, and glorified random encounters. Which I suppose is fine...it was the height of 90s trad gaming after all.
 

For myself, I'm only interested in setting books (or other supplements) that let me do something I couldn't easily do already - ie 5e DnD doesn't have great ship-combat rules in the core books, so a seafaring setting would be cool. But I wouldn't buy a setting without a hook like that (ie more elves isn't gonna catch my interest because it's easy to make new elf subraces.)

The exception would be modules / adventure paths, since they (should) do a lot of the prep work for me.
 

jdrakeh

Adventurer
That feels specific to me. Do you have an example from a setting where they explain why magic works the way it does?

Sure. Shadow World (Rolemaster) explains how the three different types of magic work within the confines of that world. The Dying Earth RPG does the same (and, no, it doesn't work exactly like D&D magic, despite D&D magic being termed "Vancian" by many). In d20-ish games, The Wheel of Time RPG (based on D&D 3x) explains in some detail how magic works in its world. There are a lot of other examples.
 

Having successfully kickstarted setting books, consulted for setting books, and written for other setting books, I've come to the conclusion that a successful and strong setting is one that gives a very strong and diverse array of experiences with an equally strong and somewhat unique genre.

To break that down, a setting needs to be associated with a good experience for it to catch on. That includes the reading of it, thinking about it (probably the most important part), and lastly, the playing of it. The setting needs to provoke thought and inspire creativity when read, and while the book doesn't need to and shouldn't transmit an exact experience, it should give the reader, thinker, and player a "flavor" that they unmistakably associate with the setting forever more.

It can be hard to achieve this, and hard to do it in new ways, but that's why we keep doing it I suppose.

My favorite setting is my own, but I don't want to be accused of shilling, so my 2nd favorite setting right now is Absolute Tabletop's A Deadman's Guide to Dragongrin.
 

Eltab

Lord of the Hidden Layer
The 3e Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting is the Book of 10,000 Plot Hooks. IMO the best campaign setting book, it describes lots of things to do.

An interesting campaign setting will be different from other worlds somehow. Ebberon has magitech; in Dark Sun defiling removes the "throw magic at a problem" option; Ravenloft is like entering a black-and-white-era horror movie. Forgotten Realms / Greyhawk in contrast have become the baseline for D&D.
 

Having successfully kickstarted setting books, consulted for setting books, and written for other setting books, I've come to the conclusion that a successful and strong setting is one that gives a very strong and diverse array of experiences with an equally strong and somewhat unique genre.

To break that down, a setting needs to be associated with a good experience for it to catch on. That includes the reading of it, thinking about it (probably the most important part), and lastly, the playing of it. The setting needs to provoke thought and inspire creativity when read, and while the book doesn't need to and shouldn't transmit an exact experience, it should give the reader, thinker, and player a "flavor" that they unmistakably associate with the setting forever more.

It can be hard to achieve this, and hard to do it in new ways, but that's why we keep doing it I suppose.

My favorite setting is my own, but I don't want to be accused of shilling, so my 2nd favorite setting right now is Absolute Tabletop's A Deadman's Guide to Dragongrin.
what is your setting anyway?
 

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