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D&D General What makes a good setting book?

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
For me? One thing - cool evocative details. Stuff that makes me say "ooooh, that's cool" and makes me want to put in right in a game. Cosmology? Geopolitics? Even normal politics? Yawn. I own it or I can write it. But cool images, little awesome places or people or ideas? Those are gold. That's my two cents anyway.
 

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For me? One thing - cool evocative details. Stuff that makes me say "ooooh, that's cool" and makes me want to put in right in a game. Cosmology? Geopolitics? Even normal politics? Yawn. I own it or I can write it. But cool images, little awesome places or people or ideas? Those are gold. That's my two cents anyway.
so fighting robot worm riders on legally not mars?
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
so fighting robot worm riders on legally not mars?
I'll take whatever is given. On a more serious note, this is why I love Mork Borg so much, not because I'm ever going to run it as-is, but holy cow have I stolen bits and moments from it a lot. Or been inspired to write. Both are great.
 



Lyxen

Great Old One
But it is still my favorite setting, because it does such a great job of getting the mood right.

I was planning to reply to this thread along these lines but you beat me to it. The technical details of the settings and what it contains are way more important than the mood and whether it captures my imagination.

For example, I like SciFi, but first way less than heroc-fantasy, and I dislike mixes, they are usually poorly done and an excuse to hide flaws in the fantasy design. Also, for D&D, I like High Fantasy, which is what the setting needs to capture because it suits the design of the game.

These are mood breakers for me.

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.

Exactly ! The combination of a few words, the images, the setting of pages, etc. are for me way more important to fall in love with a setting.

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.

But not only, because it's very much a roleplaying setting. The adversaries are usually way stronger than the adventurers, you can't succeed without cunning, negotiation, roleplay, and especially without dealing with the alien nature of creatures from all corners of a multiverse.
 

I was planning to reply to this thread along these lines but you beat me to it. The technical details of the settings and what it contains are way more important than the mood and whether it captures my imagination.

For example, I like SciFi, but first way less than heroc-fantasy, and I dislike mixes, they are usually poorly done and an excuse to hide flaws in the fantasy design. Also, for D&D, I like High Fantasy, which is what the setting needs to capture because it suits the design of the game.

These are mood breakers for me.



Exactly ! The combination of a few words, the images, the setting of pages, etc. are for me way more important to fall in love with a setting.



But not only, because it's very much a roleplaying setting. The adversaries are usually way stronger than the adventurers, you can't succeed without cunning, negotiation, roleplay, and especially without dealing with the alien nature of creatures from all corners of a multiverse.
the latter depends on the right type of players and dm thus I would not back a setting that is purely like that as it can go super wong super fast.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
the latter depends on the right type of players and dm thus I would not back a setting that is purely like that as it can go super wong super fast.

It's certainly a matter of taste, and I won't dispute tastes inherently, but we have been playing "planescape-style" ever since it came out, actually, we were playing it that way in a number of cases before the game came out, so for us it actually came super right.

But why exactly would you say that a game like the one I described ("But not only, because it's very much a roleplaying setting. The adversaries are usually way stronger than the adventurers, you can't succeed without cunning, negotiation, roleplay, and especially without dealing with the alien nature of creatures from all corners of a multiverse.") can go super wrong super fast ? What is the danger here ?
 

It's certainly a matter of taste, and I won't dispute tastes inherently, but we have been playing "planescape-style" ever since it came out, actually, we were playing it that way in a number of cases before the game came out, so for us it actually came super right.

But why exactly would you say that a game like the one I described ("But not only, because it's very much a roleplaying setting. The adversaries are usually way stronger than the adventurers, you can't succeed without cunning, negotiation, roleplay, and especially without dealing with the alien nature of creatures from all corners of a multiverse.") can go super wrong super fast ? What is the danger here ?
you need everyone to like that and you need a dm who can do that properly, you have to know ahead of time or you end up with a guy going off in anger over to being able to hit things this week or the dm can't get the magic and the world falls flat.
it was made to compete with that vampire game right?
 


aco175

Legend
At this point in my life, I want a setting to provide most all the background stuff to run the world and allow me to make the adventures. I can make a town and come up with NPCs and businesses, but that is secondary to the players and PCs who are the story. Give me the maps and cool options to run the world like a roving caravan circus that I can use but free me up to develop the action.

I do not mind giving me more powerful NPCs and evil organizations. This is a shell that I can use to make the story better. I can use a Szass Tam that runs a country over there, so I can use that if I want. I use FR nowadays, but thought that Scarred Lands would be good to use. I bought some 3e material for it and only used the spells and feats and not the world.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
You need to start with a great setting. It explicitly needs be a setting that will enable the telling of different stories then generic/FR campaigns. Not that you can't tell the same stories, but even they will feel different. And it needs to have a new take on the same-old-same-old. Otherwise the content will have no draw about why to switch to it.

You need a dynamic setting, where things are on the cusp of changing or have recently changed. And the setting book must really play up all of the Calls to Adventure that creates.

It needs to be full of hooks for play. Sure, knowing that this country is a benevolent oligarchy and it's main exports are grain and copper are useful in reference material in the back. But I want to know about the ring of statues around the borders that have been slowly being unearthed and are turning away any dwarves who try to leave the borders.

Basically, a great setting book has so many hooks that as a player or a DM I while I'm reading it I keep on going "I want to be from there - no wait, from there - oh shoot that's cool, maybe my character is from there". Also any specifics that will help me create adventures - this area is undermined by the old dwarven kingdom that's been lost to madness, and this island has fiendish varients of the normal jungle animals you'd expect.

I do want information, but I don't want to get lost in the weeds. An important city should have an overview, descriptions of the forces at play in it, and maybe a short description of the different sections of city with three mover-and-shakers detailed for each, be it an NPC, an organization, or a place. That's enough detail that I have things to default to and I get the feel of it to be consistent in creating more detail.

Organizationally please give me a kick-butt index, and maybe even a glossary of NPCs and organizations with a mini description and page numbers. How the 13th Age core book does it's index is wonderful - adapt that to a pure setting book.
 

steeldragons

Steeliest of the dragons
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.
Well, that's the whole ballgame, isn't it?

The quality and style of the writing is going to have a huuuuge impact on what people reading it think. Editing helps. Art helps (definitely). All of that. But what is the meat and bones of the whole thing? The writing. Is it evocative? Is it clear or is the world's ancient history (or current circumstances) too convoluted for some readers to follow? Does it use enough trope to fit into "This is a cool and fun fantasy setting for a TTRPG?" But, not so much as to feel "vanilla" or "simplistically derivative" or "just plain boring/dime-a-dozen/unimaginative?" OR, does it upend tropes so much/everywhere that it becomes just kind of meaningless/weird and falls outside of its proposed genre.

The quality of what makes a setting a hit or a dud for a significant portion of gamers [significant enough to become/be considered, by the general community "a success"] is going to be "what is 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)?
Yes.
Most definitely. As much as you can give me without getting into toooo much minutia. This is a fine line that gets missed... often -either stopping far too short or overshooting far too much. The quality of the writing [and editing] has a good bit of pressure on it here.

Good characters?
Yes. But, again, this is a tightrope of sorts. Should a unique setting have some interesting NPCs that are notable and have places in the world. Absolutely. That's a ton of fun for the creators and potential players in the setting, knowing about so-and-so, seeking them out for aid or quests, etc. BUT you really need to think of the setting as a whole and not overpopulate these sorts of beings/entities.

Forgotten Realms, I think, can be pointed to as a great example of what NOT to do. Totally overpopulated with uber-powered, fingers the pies of everything, personalities that the PCs will have no choice but to feel inferior and pointless next to.

No bueno. These kinds of special, notable, interesting NPCs should be in a setting, I think. They need a notable place and power in the setting, and don't necessarily need to be plot-immune overpowered gods-in-NPC-clothing using the players as pawns. Setting NPCs are, probably, the notable wizards of power. Great lord/kings of regions. Great warriors/heroes of renown, sure. A few those names and deeds that might get sung and stories told around evening fires. And, of course, {and perhaps most importantly] the infamous and notoriously sinister and villainous. None of these, it should be noted, need be existing in the current day of the setting, but may be legendary figures or tales from some far off land from where the PCs begin.
  • A unique twist?
I mean....sure. Something that is a little different. See what I say above about tropes, though.

Every setting can have a twist. But every it depends how big and how prevalent. To whit: "Instead of those troublesome Tolkien-estate hobbit halflings, MY setting is going to just have a small country people that are blue, nearly all dress in white, and live in giant mushroom houses."

Is that a "twist?" Is it enough of twist? Or a meaningless tropey substitution?

At the other side, "Instead of wizards and clerics and druids casting magic spells, anyone can collect these "spell gems" that contain magic effects within them. They are naturally occurring and completely random, so wizards are always out to accumulate as many as possible to diversify and duplicate their power. Priests and druids seek to collect them to protect as the treasured gifts from their gods. But there are no "spells" or "casting"...no individuals have "magical power." There is nothing to "learn" other than identifying what effect is contained within what stone. No spellbooks. No meditations. No incantations or material components. But they get these energy-containing "stones"/crystal beads that shatter when thrown/crushed and release SOME -known or unknown- magical effect."

Is that too much of a "twist?" Too divergent from player expectations and genre-bending to be enjoyable or useful at the gaming table?

But if a "unique twist" is expected as an integral part of any/every individual setting then...ya know...in what way is it "unique?"

There are no new ideas under the sun.
  • What proportion of each? A little bit of mechanical content and a ton of lore? Or the opposite?
That is entirely an individual player/playstyle preference thing. There will never be a formula to properly combining lore and mechanics for all readers. Best case/hedging bets, you'd want to make things as close to 50/50 as possible, so neither side can claim they didn't get "enough" of their preference.

For my two cents, the point of a homebrewed/unique/created setting is the lore. The internal consistency that the reader can follow and absorb and "get" to facilitate their enjoyment of the setting.
  • Are you looking for something fully detailed and a bit more rigid?
I would say fully detailed is the same thing as rigid. No? You need enough framework and structure to make things meanignful and understandable and set a stage. But not so rigid as to curtail player agency and meaningful input by characters. That, of course, can and will change over time at a table, in play. But a setting book needs to make it clear that the game can be fun and creative within the set stage you are presenting.

Where are those lines? What is the number/percentage? When is enough too much for this table versus that? This player versus that? ENough for this DM to work with versus that?

Those questions have no answers. Everything about setting design sits upon an undulating spectrum.
  • Or for something more modular and actionable?
Yes. See above.
  • 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?
Is think I veer more towards the former. If I am buying/investing in taking a game into a setting, I'm not looking to do the writing and creative work myself. That's what the setting is for in the first place.

The best settings allow for the latter, as well. A setting, I would say, should be so clear and evocative [necessitating definition and a degree of rigidity] that changing elements of them, if that is your desire, is not difficult and doesn't "break"/cause complications other parts of the setting. While, at the same time, it is structured enough to not require -or actively expect- any changes/work on the reader's/DM's part.

That's not a lot of help, I guess. Sorry. Like I said, there is no formula for this. There are no "rules" or numbers to a making a [universally accepted/enjoyed] "good setting." But maybe it gives you some things to think about.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
you need everyone to like that and you need a dm who can do that properly, you have to know ahead of time or you end up with a guy going off in anger over to being able to hit things this week or the dm can't get the magic and the world falls flat.

Huh ? First, obviously, you must have globally similar tastes to that of your table for any type of game to work obviously.

Second yes, if people come to a table just wanting to hit things, he would not be very compatible with the rest of our table, and it's not that specific frustration that would make gaming with him difficult.

As for the world falling flat and the DM not being up to speed, it might happen with any setting, actually you know what, I think it happens even more with purely technical setting where people expect to hit stuff, because they have a falling out about rules and ruleslawyering, if the frequency of posts about DMs abusing their power or making mistake is any indication.

it was made to compete with that vampire game right?

I have never heard that rumour before. WtM came out in 91, Planescape in 94, so I would not think that was the case, and the two settings are actually extremely different, I am not sure I can find similarities between the two...
 

Scribe

Hero
  • 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?

The world making sense, is number one to me. I dont need 10,000 years of history, but I need the 'present day' to make sense and be understandable.

I refer a lot to 'systems'. Being the relationship of the lore, to the crunch, and the various ways those things reinforce each other, and inform the adventure hooks.

What is the cosmology if any? What are the Planes being used if any? Are they just there to be there? What is the history of the place, and how does that history enable, or deconstruct the tropes of the game, to propel the players into action?

Moving from that, I need the races and classes to matter. I'm not into 'do whatever' settings in any way shape or form. Races need to be distinct, meaningful, detailed and demonstrably different from the lore to the crunch from each other.

Classes, dont need to be unique beyond what D&D already provides I'm honestly quite fine with the selection we have today when one includes all the subclasses, but if the world supports a unique approach to something, fantastic, but it needs to be 'part of' that world.

As far as whats more important between ease of use vs ease of adaptation, I think ease of use. I can lift anything I want out of other settings, shape it, add to it, and incorporate it into my own setting.

If I want to buy someone else setting, its because I think it looks like it can stand on its own and provide something different to experience.
 

Huh ? First, obviously, you must have globally similar tastes to that of your table for any type of game to work obviously.

Second yes, if people come to a table just wanting to hit things, he would not be very compatible with the rest of our table, and it's not that specific frustration that would make gaming with him difficult.

As for the world falling flat and the DM not being up to speed, it might happen with any setting, actually you know what, I think it happens even more with purely technical setting where people expect to hit stuff, because they have a falling out about rules and ruleslawyering, if the frequency of posts about DMs abusing their power or making mistake is any indication.



I have never heard that rumour before. WtM came out in 91, Planescape in 94, so I would not think that was the case, and the two settings are actually extremely different, I am not sure I can find similarities between the two...
the having of important factions and high roleplay force just brings it to mind, I hear rumours but nothing solid myself.

never had the luxury of even being in a group with which I was on the same page.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
the having of important factions and high roleplay force just brings it to mind, I hear rumours but nothing solid myself.

Ah, I see what you mean, but you know, there are factions in a lot of games (just look at Ravnica and its guilds for example). And we had been using Houses and SafeHavens with such characteristics in our LARPs since 1987 actually.

As for the roleplaying, yes, you are right, it might be a trend of that period. But, despite Planescape being heavy on roleplaying, you still have people with feelings like those: "most (all?) of the modules ended up being a combination of fetch quests, railroads, and glorified random encounters" etc.

And still, the very first sections of Planescape say things like: "Sometime players (and DM ) just don 't understand role-playing. They've grasped the mechanics of dice rolling, character class, spells, and all that, but not the leap or creating a part like an actor in a play or movie. A good DM can help these players a long, and they'II gel the hang or it sooner or later. Put the party in situations where they decide things based on their alignment and faction , situations where spell and weapon · don' t cut it. Remind them to think like Beakers, Godsmen, Signers, Lawful Goods, or whatever. Get them to describe things their character might like and dislike. Gradually their choice will build into a part they can understand and play."

And this is what I remember of really playing the setting... and playing D&D overall actually.

never had the luxury of even being in a group with which I was on the same page.

Then I just really hope that you will find one some day, it really makes a huge difference in the game. Just keep in mind that it's never perfect (unless you find your clones), but that it's better that way because small differences create variety and surprise, and make the game more rich. And like any relationship, it might require a bit of work to smooth bumps along the road, but overall it's so much worth it, and it will return it a hundredfold.
 

Ah, I see what you mean, but you know, there are factions in a lot of games (just look at Ravnica and its guilds for example). And we had been using Houses and SafeHavens with such characteristics in our LARPs since 1987 actually.

As for the roleplaying, yes, you are right, it might be a trend of that period. But, despite Planescape being heavy on roleplaying, you still have people with feelings like those: "most (all?) of the modules ended up being a combination of fetch quests, railroads, and glorified random encounters" etc.

And still, the very first sections of Planescape say things like: "Sometime players (and DM ) just don 't understand role-playing. They've grasped the mechanics of dice rolling, character class, spells, and all that, but not the leap or creating a part like an actor in a play or movie. A good DM can help these players a long, and they'II gel the hang or it sooner or later. Put the party in situations where they decide things based on their alignment and faction , situations where spell and weapon · don' t cut it. Remind them to think like Beakers, Godsmen, Signers, Lawful Goods, or whatever. Get them to describe things their character might like and dislike. Gradually their choice will build into a part they can understand and play."

And this is what I remember of really playing the setting... and playing D&D overall actually.



Then I just really hope that you will find one some day, it really makes a huge difference in the game. Just keep in mind that it's never perfect (unless you find your clones), but that it's better that way because small differences create variety and surprise, and make the game more rich. And like any relationship, it might require a bit of work to smooth bumps along the road, but overall it's so much worth it, and it will return it a hundredfold.
never met a dm like that.

clones would be worse I have always liked that which is external to myself.
 


I have never heard that rumour before. WtM came out in 91, Planescape in 94, so I would not think that was the case, and the two settings are actually extremely different, I am not sure I can find similarities between the two...

I've definitely heard this before, that is that part of the motivation behind planescape was to respond to the appeal of Vampire and other WoD games. This includes the idea of having an urban fantasy game high on factions and storytelling. Planescape is obviously very much its own thing, but mid 90s TSR was definitely contending with the success of white wolf. Ironically, for me at the time, planescape was my gateway into vampire and mage.
 

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