Happy New Year! This will be the third January where we talk about a bunch of Dungeons & Dragons. Every month I write a D&D article, but I have a lot of thoughts about that game, so in January I try to cut down on my list of article ideas, by pushing a bunch out. Two years ago we talked about the narrative reasons one class might multiclass into any other class, which was fun. Last year, we talked about all the different building blocks of a campaign, from encounter, to adventure, to the world itself. This year, we are going to look at all the major aspects to writing your own adventure.
The first major aspect to decide when writing an adventure, is “Where are we?” There are many, many different D&D settings for your story to take place in, and each one has it’s own strengths and weaknesses. There is no certified “Best” setting, but there might be one where you can tell a particular story you are interested in.
Note: When I say you, I mean the Dungeon Master, as well as the players. Everyone should agree on the setting, because certain PC decisions won’t make sense in certain settings, and you want to make sure that everything and everyone is working together to have fun and tell a great story.
Classic, generic D&D might not have a particular setting. This is a kind of homebrew setting, where the map doesn’t really matter, as the gameplay is fairly simplistic. You see, the creator of the game, Gary Gygax, really leaned into the idea of the Dark Ages of Medieval Europe. In this time, life was fairly humdrum boring for most people. There were two themes that Gary Gygax really wanted to emphasize in his games. One, is that the wilderness, outside of town, is full of monsters and dangers that are too much for us, and so Gary made the monsters of legend all real within this game. The other, is that the civilizations of days past (i.e. The Roman Empire) were more advanced, both culturally and technologically, which is why D&D is all about searching for rare lost treasure, imbued with magic that can’t be replicated easily, from long forgotten eras. Little to no politics, just monsters in caves, and saving the blacksmith’s daughter from the goblins.
The Mad Max of D&D settings. In this desert-world post-apocalyptic setting, Might Makes Right. The world you are living on, is dying. Resources are scarce. Magic itself is what drains the world of life, and therefore using magic is forbidden by the public at large. Between Bandits and Gladiators, there are a lot of fun, scarcity-based stories and adventures to be had in this setting.
Popularized by a series of novels, Dragonlance is a more classic style setting, set after the Three Dragon Wars. There are over 190 novels set in the Dragonlance world, and so there are several styles of stories that can be told in this setting, but many of them revolve around the “Good vs Evil”, dragons and evil queens style vibe.
What some call the “Steampunk Fantasy” D&D setting, Eberron takes the magic of the world, and pushes the history closer to the modern day than any other. There are great wars, metal men, trains, and newspapers. However, what really makes this setting shine is not in the technology-styled magic system, but the intersection of Swashbuckling adventure with Noir intrigue. There are no pure heroes in Eberron, as everyone has a secret to hide. The villains tend to be less megalomanical usurpers of the world, and more rich leaders of industry, and political leaders vying for power. Can you hop on the lightning rail, before the Leader of House Cannith can create another engine of war?
The default setting of Fifth Edition D&D, Forgotten Realms is an extremely fleshed out world, full of a long, complicated history, with more gods than anyone can remember. If you’ve heard people mention any proper nouns regarding D&D in the last decade, odds are it is in Faerun, the world of Forgotten Realms. Drizzt Do’Urden, Sword Coast, Xanathar, Waterdeep. If you are planning on having some prewritten 5e adventures within your larger story, it’s probably safer to just have the game set in Forgotten Realms, so that the setting is consistent and easy to manage throughout.
This was Gary Gygax’s homebrew world. When he started playtesting his new game, he started with a dungeon under Castle Greyhawk. Because of this, the setting isn’t the most advanced, but if you want classic, simple D&D, this is the place to go.
The default setting of 4e, was created to harken back to the “generic” setting, with the great civilizations of dragonborn or tieflings haven fallen. Most of the word is left vague, so that you can fill in the gaps as you see fit, while still giving you the basic building blocks of a world to start with. The gods are a combination of Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk, with a few new ones as well. It is a dark time, with the age of heroes long gone. So what do you do in the ruins of history?
Ravenloft is not a full setting, but a demiplane. The world of Ravenloft was created as a setting for a more gothic horror, to defeat the vampire lord Strahd von Zarovich. Ever since the first edition of the game, Ravenloft has been present, but it has never been developed into an entire world. This is a great setting if you want to have a very specific theme, with a clear villain in place. You’d be surprised just how creative you can get, when you add restrictions to your world.
This setting is perfect if you have friends that are fans of Magic: The Gathering, and you are trying to get them into D&D. Ravnica is the world that Magic is set in, and so the players will have an easier time understanding the lore and setting, and you can focus more on the gameplay. It skips a whole level of learning.
While also a Magic: The Gathering setting, Theros has a strong Greco-Roman vibe to it, meaning that it works as a standalone D&D setting, and not just a tie-in. If you want to create more classical-styled heroes, fight legendary monsters, and interact with the gods, this is the setting for you.
Lastly, as I mentioned above, you might want to create your own setting for your players to explore. If this is your first time creating a setting, it’s best to do so the Greyhawk style, which is to start with a dungeon, then a town, then a region, and slowly grow your setting as your players explore it. Create as needed, and discover what the world is with your players. However, if you want to take on the gargantuan task of creating your own homebrew world, step-by-step, I laid out 11 steps for you to go, to ensure that the internal logic of the setting is consistent.