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D&D General What makes a setting


I tend to play in Forgotten Realms now-a-days as a world, but was thinking if others would consider a setting something smaller such as Sword Coast, Phandalin, Icewind Dale or another region. Could Waterdeep be a campaign setting? If I was getting players and they asked what setting and I said FR- Chult is that different that if I said FR- Dalelands.

Is a setting a world like Dark Sun, Greyhawk, or Mystara in that has its own flavor and niche rules or can it be something else?

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Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
The setting can be a village, or a city, or a world, or a plane, or a multiverse. Heck, in a level 1-20 D&D campaign, it's likely the setting will be some number of those--maybe all--over the course of the campaign. They kinda nest that way.

EDIT: Fixed a sentence that was ugly.
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My top 4 reasons a campaign setting is chosen:
  1. Inspired. Players and/or the DM have read books or otherwise have a unified vision of the setting. They're excited about having the Pristine Tower from Dark Sun be a part of the game because they've all read the Prism Pentad books.
  2. Unique Feature. Players don't have a clue about what Dark Sun is, but something tickles their fancy, such as a post-apocalyptic setting, or psionics, or half-giants and thri-kreen, or defiling magic, and so on. The DM may or may not, in advance, know the feature but is willing to put in the time.
  3. Just the Action Please. The Generic pre-fab setting like the Realms that is easier for everyone. You're more concerned about getting to the action than what pantheon is in place or where Baldur's Gate lies relative to your current location.
  4. DM Worked Hard. The DM has homebrewed a world and that's where you are going. Unlike #2, there's nothing that really grabs your attention as a player relative to anything else (yet). It's a place to hang your hat and that's fine.
My last campaign: Dark Sun, chosen for #2 because the players thought that sounded cool, even if not a one had heard of it in advance.

Current campaign: a hodgepodge of pre-fab Golarian (Pathfinder world, generic like the Realms), Celtic pantheon (a player suggestion), and largely for reason #3. The campaign is all about kingdom-building and navigating political hazards that make Game of Thrones look like child's play. It could be played nearly anywhere, though immortal sorcerer kings of Dark Sun would detract from the campaign theme.


I generally run my games in eberron or an eberron-like setting becausemagic as a science wide magic provides a structure I can build from as does the world balancing on a precarious razpr's edge of intrigue plotting & mistrust in addition to things like he dragonmarked houses to give room for players to go off script in unexpected ways that allows me to use that as a chance for worldbuilding.

Similar applies to darksun (which I have run sometimes). The walled cities are something of islands to themselves but there are themes & norms I can draw on or build off without needing to resort to plot armor & handwaving too much if the players do unexpected things. The setting is very much post apocalypse but was once much more advanced so I can apply magic as a science

The overuse of plot armor effectively unmakes a setting for me as it introduces jarring & out of place areas I can't apply logic & most writers are human to build the plot rails in whatever forking direction players happen to go & need to actively steer them away or just ask them not to look behind the obvious curtain tforcing me to keep track of all the retcons continuity porn & gap fill at a much more detailed level.

It's a vaguarady of the language. Technically everything in the world is part of your "campaign setting," but in realty only the parts the players interact with are actually part of the setting. I run Greyhawk, and while to me the entire world is part of the setting, I'm only concerned about the parts that directly impact this game. Your setting can include lots of different part, such that running a different campaign in the same setting is different enough to be noted. For example, my 5E campaigns have been:

  1. Web of Destiny - an epic AP style campaign that took the party from level 1 to level 18. It took place over several sections of the western Flanaess, and into the Underoerth, so it's known by it epic story.
  2. Nyrond (Nessermouth) campaign - a west marshes style campaign where the player explored and adventured around a small area that slowly expanded. Went from levels 1-4 before Ghosts of Saltmarsh came out.
  3. Saltmarsh campaign - the original Greyhawk trilogy from Ghosts of Saltmarsh, with a few other adventures to fill it out. Party is currently level 7, and will probably end at level 8.
All of these are in my Greyhawk setting, and the players have seen events from the other campaigns affect each other. However, they are independent campaigns set in an area that helps define that particular campaign. In the case of FR, denoting Chult vs Dalelands is a very important thing to add.

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I tend to play in Forgotten Realms now-a-days as a world, but was thinking if others would consider a setting something smaller such as Sword Coast, Phandalin, Icewind Dale or another region. Could Waterdeep be a campaign setting? If I was getting players and they asked what setting and I said FR- Chult is that different that if I said FR- Dalelands.

Is a setting a world like Dark Sun, Greyhawk, or Mystara in that has its own flavor and niche rules or can it be something else?

As others have correctly observed, a setting (or a campaign setting) is a term that is used both to describe the following two things:

A. The world, overall, in which a campaign takes place. This can be a published setting/ third party setting (such as Exandria, or Lankhmar, or Eberron, or Pelinore) or a completely homebrew setting, or some amalgamation of the two.

B. That part of the world with which the adventurers interact.

The reason that (B) can matter a great deal is that most worlds are not monoliths.

Take Forgotten Realms (please!).* If you're playing an FR campaign in Waterdeep, it's probably a great deal different than playing an FR campaign in Al-Qadim or Kara-Tur, especially if your FR campaign is going to stay in a geographically restricted area.

On the other hand, if you are playing a "water themed" adventure on the high seas, the differences between playing in Greyhawk and FR are probably going to be minimal compared to the fact that you are playing with a particular theme.

As such, when we talk about settings, we can be referring to both the world (A) or to the part with which the adventurers are interacting (B), but which part matters more or predominates will usually be context-specific.

*Apologies to Henny Youngman. For the 10 people who get that. ;)


Thank you all for responding. This is more what I was thinking, but I read that people keep asking for new settings to be published and wonder if that is just more worlds and old worlds with a different flavor. Some people perceive that Icewind Dale / Frostmaiden is a new setting and some see it as just another FR product. It got me thinking how the Wizards/Hasbro people look at it.

I know that a lot of people have a favorite world setting such as FR or Planescape. Each of these has a flavor that appeals like Ebberon with a technology bit or Dark Sun with a desert post-apocalyptical feel. FR crammed a lot of these flavor-settings together like what @Snarf Zagyg said earlier.

Does the 'setting' in a world sense, that a DM tell you about make you want to play or not play more? I play in FR mostly since it is easy and I have a lot of background, but if a DM was making a campaign set in Kara Tur or Chult I would not feel like it was FR, to me, others I'm sure feel like it is normal.

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Thank you all for responding. This is more what I was thinking, but I read that people keep asking for new settings to be published and wonder if that is just more worlds and old worlds with a different flavor. Some people perceive that Icewind Dale / Frostmaiden is a new setting and some see it as just another FR product. It got me thinking how the Wizards/Hasbro people look at it.

Great question! I can't answer for the Powers that Be, but based on their output, I would say the following:

They view settings as discrete worlds for adventurers to try out, with some amount of "theming" that makes it different than default D&D and/or with some "tie-in" that would make people want to explore it. This is why we have had Exandria, Eberron, and various "themed" M:TG settings.

On the other hand, it appears that they think that FR is being fleshed out by APs, and otherwise is the generic setting for tables to make their own. Sometimes being the default setting can be more of a curse than a blessing.


Moderator Emeritus
Back in the heyday of Dragon mag there used to be articles written by Ed Greenwood detailing the Realms, but written from the PoV that Greenwood was traveling there to discuss with Elminster and get the info. In one of those (don't remember the issue, but I am sure I still have it), Elminster mentions Kara-Tur (which was originally introduced in Gygax's poorly named Oriental Adventures - suggesting to some that it existed in the World of Greyhawk) and Greenwood responds, "Kara-Tur is here, too!?" (or something like that). Elminster is puzzled by the suggestion there is more than one. The suggestion of the article, I think, is that Kara-Tur was being officially placed in FR - but as a kid I read it as (and still read it as) meaning "You can drop portions of an arch-setting into any other world setting and that's fine."


Often a smaller scale sourcebook on a specific nation/kingdom/city will be called a setting sourcebook. So Al-Qadim could be its own setting or part of the greater FR setting. Sometimes these are not connected to any specific world at all such as Ondine Publishing's Parsantium City at the Crossroads and often these can be fairly plug and play into a different campaign setting world. Some setting stuff is canonically in multiple worlds. Take Freeport, it is in its own Green Ronin World, but the pirate city is also found as part of Goodman Games' Known Realms, Misfit Studio's Spiros Blaak, Second World Simulation's Second World Sourcebook, and others as the original adventure was 100% open under the OGL.


Lawyer by day. Rules lawyer by night.
For me, setting is a holistic approach. It's not just the where. Dark Sun is the prime example. It's D&D, yes, but damn is it different. Far less magic, additional weapons mechanics, a different bestiary, and a dependence on psionics. Which makes it a different setting.

Eberron is another example. It has that pulp noir aesthetic. That's its hook. It isn't Faerun.

You could even possibly argue that Pathfinder/Golarion, being a fork, is a setting. Yes the mechanics are wildly different when comparing to 5e. But it's still recognizable.


For me, its enough of a backdrop to tell a story. It needs:

  • Some urban area to act as a base for PCs
  • Enough rural area to adventure
  • A list of common races and monsters
  • Local deities or faiths
  • Guilds, organizations, or other power groups
  • Local legends, history, and rumors
  • A map is generally preferred.

So, something like Keep on the Borderlands isn't quite a campaign setting, but it's a good start. Karameikos is a more complete, and a setting like Greyhawk is a good example of a complete setting. Obviously, Forgotten Realms and Eberron are very detailed, but even Theros or Ravnica still checks the boxes for a setting. Heck, even Barovia from CoS has enough info to be a barebones campaign setting.

Does the 'setting' in a world sense, that a DM tell you about make you want to play or not play more?
Setting is (now) the unique terrain "hook" for your adventure (e.g. Underdark demon lords, adventures on the high seas, jungle, icy wilderness, vampire stalker in alternate dimension), all set in a generic fantasy world with every option available.

Personally, I'm an old-school gamer, but over the last 20+ years of DMing, I think only 1 gamer has avidly read books connected to my setting and had a passion to play that world. The rest: they just want a good storyline and it doesn't matter where we go.

My Historical Take: I get the feeling Wizards, and competitors like Paizo, have taken lessons from the '80s and '90s heyday of TSR when players were discovering D&D for the first time. After a decade or so, when players got bored with the "same old stuff," TSR introduced a slew of highly-detailed, awesome gaming worlds in boxed sets complete with maps, new rules, spells, NPCs, and hundreds of pages of background: Planescape, Spelljammer, Dark Sun, to name a few. Great for players, some amazing stuff. But, TSR went bankrupt (for a variety of reasons, but pushing extreme volume of product was one). And, they split the gaming market. If you were playing Dark Sun, you likely weren't buying the latest Spelljammer product.

So, the lesson they felt was to have a generic, endless world, that could accommodate all your cool terrain hooks. Like Paizo, every adventure takes place on their generic world (e.g. desert mummies, a nation that makes pacts with devils from the hells, an icy Baba Yaga setting, and so on.) WOTC seems content with a few pages to get you through Ravenloft and the Underdark. I'm not a fan of this, but I think they're banking on the slew of new players having no idea what that is, thus not needing those boxed sets, and old-school gamers either already having the material or getting it off DM Guild. If you want to tweak it (e.g. have a Celtic pantheon or restrict available races/options), that's an easy fix. No boxed sets needed.

Summary: the game world may not matter anymore to players who don't have a clue what the difference is between Greyhawk and Mystara. Rather, setting is about going to a cool, new place, that we haven't seen before in prior adventures, and this can be done on a generic gaming world.

A cool feel, unique individuality, opportunities for the characters to do what they want while also being emerged in the setting, as well as lore/npcs/magic-items to interact with.

A "setting" is a bit like "art"; we all agree that some things are examples, and some things aren't examples, but giving a hard-and-fast distinction is going to fail in both directions (false negatives and false positives). As a rough pattern, however, a "setting" will generally have some sense of place, theme, and history (or context, for things like really hardcore sandboxy campaigns).

Place can be anything from a multiverse down to a single village or school. The most common is a "region," which generally means something smaller than an entire continent but larger than a single city's practical reach (in terms of guards, army, taxation, etc.) or a single biome's reasonable size. Often, "place" also brings with it cosmology, explaining stuff like why there are devils and demons, or where souls go when they die (if this is known).

Theme has enormous variation, as one might expect. Dark and gritty. Noir intrigue. Fallen civilizations. Fantasy supers. Digging up ruins of the past. Etc. This is where most of the "flavor" of the setting can be found. Planescape, for example, has a theoretical place of "the whole multiverse" but is pretty thoroughly centered on Sigil as its place...and yet the punky aesthetics, the funny Sigil cant, the especially strong intermingling of planar forces, that's entirely Theme in nature.

History/context is the backdrop stuff, the immediate recent events, the climate around which things occur. So, for example, "metaplot" Dark Sun has a different history/context than 4e Dark Sun, because certain events from the Prism Pentad have not occurred in the latter but have in the former. If people reject a particular setting element introduced after a big setting is established, that's an example of preferring one history over another. While this part can theoretically be as open-ended as Theme can, in practice it's constrained by the previous two things because this is where you ensure that adventuring in this place, with this theme, actually makes sense.

But, as noted, there can be some real exceptions. A super-ultra "beer and pretzels" game may have no real theme beyond "diving into murderholes for phat lewtz," may have no well-defined "place" because the DM randomly generated all of the surrounding hexes and never put much effort into defining the starting location, and may have little more context than "you're a group of murderhobos taking jobs and exploring around, there's probably a king somewhere out there and some religion, but who really cares." I think such incredibly no-investment gaming is unlikely to remain stable in the long run, if only because individual characters will start becoming presences or parts of the history/context, and place was a key component of a lot of early hexcrawl play (that's literally what establishing your ruled-plot-of-land was for!), but an argument can definitely be made that this kind of game defies my classifications.

I use a homebrew world as the setting of my campaign, but only a small region of the world is actually used; a collection of islands called the Emerald Coast. While the rest of the world is referenced often during play, I try to keep the campaign within the confines of the region at all times. Both I consider the setting: The world and the region.


Victoria Rules
Personally, I kinda define "setting" as including anywhere the PCs might go, or see, or learn about during the course of the campaign.

Which means the setting not only includes the world they're on and all the astronomical features they can see from it, it includes any other worlds or planes they might visit or hear about and in some cases might also include other times if time travel is a thing in the campaign.

Now of course most of this isn't going to be greatly detailed until-unless needed; but that doesn't mean it's not out there waiting. :)


Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
A game’s setting is comprised of things described by the game’s participants about a fictional gameworld including such elements as time-period, specific locations and cultures, historical events, and characters.


Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
A setting is as big or small as it is.

If you excise all mentions of elsewhere, Icewind Dale can be a setting. If you have NPCs and political machinations and such from elsewhere, those elsewheres are part of your setting to some degree. The cosmopology could be part of your setting - for example in Balder's Gate: Descent to Avernus you have parts of FR, you explicitly have Avernus, and you implicitly have other planes such as where the devils and celestials come from.

Ptolus was a city/underground that was a whole setting, though it could be played as part of a larger setting.

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