Great Published Settings

What is your favorite published setting book? I’m interested in published materials that create a clear idea of an area with the type of peoples therein, world history and politics, factions and potential adventure hooks in a succinct way.


I love Ultraviolet Grasslands for its sheer inventiveness. That said, I find its presentation pretty unwieldy. But then, Rejec has been explicit in resisting the usual approach to setting, so I guess that’s to be expected. UVG’s setting is there to be ransacked for ideas, not played as a cohesive world.

In terms of presentation, I think Blades In the Dark is a strong model. It presents a distinct, yet recognizable world, with a workable level of detail (what do they eat? how do they grow that food?), in a package that’s navigable and comprehensible, but that still leaves plenty of space to improvise and develop the world.


One of my favorite settings is Griffin Island (1986), by four luminaries: Kraft, Jaquays, Stafford, and Peterson. It was a boxed set with a GM book, and Scenarios book, a big fold-out hex map, and a booklet of player handouts. This is one of the old items I never sold or gave away. It’s too good.

Based on the earlier Griffin Mountain supplement, “a campaign of barhopping and wandering around the wilderness,” that was published as redesigned for the Glorantha setting, the updated Griffin Island was returned to its non-Gloranthan state and crossed with the Isle of Dread concept to make it foldable into any game world. It became a model, directly or indirectly, for many later supplements (think Hot Springs Island or Neverland).

Sandbox hexcrawls were not the norm in the old days, but this was one of them. To quote the Gamemasters Book from the boxed set,

The raw facts contained in this book do not comprise a campaign of themselves. To create a Griffin Island campaign requires interaction between these facts and the adventurers, guided by the hand of you, the gamemaster. The exact plot of Griffin Island’s future lies in your hands.

Notice how this has to be explained. That’s because sandbox hexcrawls were far from the norm in the the '80s, contrary to popular belief.

The module critics of these latter days would probably find plenty to hate about this classic campaign set–too much exposition for the GM to read! no bullet points! weak procedure rules!–but then again, the critics today almost never actually use the adventures that they write about.

I never ran it as written, either, but I have plundered Griffin Island for many ideas in my games over the decades. It’s the main inspiration for the setting/module I’m tinkering with now. As it is written, Griffin Island does make the most sense with the third edition of RuneQuest, for which it is designed, but the lighter your rules, the easier it is to use with any supplement, as most of you know from experience.


Thousand Thousand Islands


Evils of Illmire


And yeah, UVG.


The 32-page World of Greyhawk folio from 1980. Not as a setting to run, but as a setting to sort of soak in and draw inspiration from.

EDIT: Although I have, now that I think about it, entertained the thought of running 5E’s Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh anthology, which takes place southwest of the Free City of Greyhawk.

P.S. The map of Greyhawk is a thinly-veiled map of the United States as viewed by a Midwesterner; Greyhawk itself is Chicago, the Sheldomar Valley is California, the “decadent” Great Kingdom is the East Coast, etc.


About once a week I feel sorely tempted to drop $90 on the full Thousand Thousand Islands print run.


Anomalous Subsurface Environment


Same, @SymbolicCity . It looks really awesome and really effective at getting one out of their own cultural rut.


The Rainy City- a city at the end of the world where it always rains. Great weird fiction-centric ideas and details and a good sense of humor - the vibe really reminds me of Vandermeer’s Ambergris series


I really like this topic, and it’s stuck with me for some reason. I think it’s because I’ve gone back and forth – sometimes I have loved settings created by someone else vs. sometimes I prefer settings dreamed up by me and my friends. @hopefulweirdwonder, do you have any examples in mind (perhaps within TRPGS or maybe without) of settings that are close to what you’re describing? Or maybe we can narrow things down another way?

I ask because, on one hand, there is a trend of “micro settings” that I really like in TRPGs. Woodfall and Willow are good examples of the small-scale approach. It can be effective, but not so much in terms of the history or politics of a world.

On the other hand, we have things like Paladin: Warriors of Charlemagne, a spinoff of Pendragon by Chaosium. I’ve had a chance to physically hold one of these books in a game store (I did not buy it!). It is an impressive, HEAVY tome. Even has some very bling-y gold-leaf edges on all the pages.

The table of contents is 10 pages long. (You can see if you click into the “full-size preview.”) I don’t think I can describe Paladin much better than the official summary, but it is very historical, very faction oriented, and very long (yet all focused on one region in western continental Europe). This isn’t the kind of book I find useful, but it illustrates how far this scale can reach, from small to super detailed.

So I suppose that’s all to say – good question! Hard to choose!


I mean it’s all about what works for you and your table. I also homebrew my settings but I think working from a mutually agreed upon basis of a setting at your table can work because not everyone is a world builder and having stuff to work from I think is helpful. Not everyone has the time or inclination to start from scratch.


Thanks for sharing those two mini settings I hadn’t heard of them and as someone who is working on a mini setting it’s helpful to see how they set their’s up.

Paladin doesn’t sound like something I would personally use but I super want to look at it now! That sounds so cool.

Same it looks so incredible

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I also think it’s just fun sometimes to root around in someone else’s imagination a bit.


Agreed because inspiration can come from anywhere


Yeah, when I go to that game store again, I’m going to sit with the Paladin book and just absorb a little, and then buy some dice or something instead!


It is awesome that you have the time, energy, and inclination to design your own settings! Not everyone does sadly. But there’s space in this hobby for all of us!


If you do the Saltmarsh stuff, I wouldn’t mind hearing how it goes. Especially if you can compare/contrast the old material and the new.

Barrow Keep: Den of Spies arrived in the mail yesterday, so I’m reading through that now. It’s a fairly limited setting, focused on the politics of a single castle, but so far it seems like a strong toolbox for running campaigns grounded in court intrigue and generational sagas.


I think one thing to remember about published settings in general, even if you are someone like me who plays and designs their own settings and adventures is that they represent the state of community design and they serve a lot of purposes besides playing in them.

First they act as a great on ramp for never players and referees. Without ASE I doubt that I would have gotten back into the hobby in 2011 and I doubt even more that the campaign would have lasted as long as it did. ASE’s humor and freedom from the Gygaxian vernacular fantasy was refreshing and exciting in a way that simply playing B2 again would not have been.

Second they offer a great way to start creating things. Trying to begin designing with an entire setting is often a quick way to stop designing. Do you start with the cosmology and history as 5E’s DMG suggests? To me that never seemed worthwhile when you are running five sessions of a game. Instead an existing setting allows the fledgling designer or referee to add to something they already like. Start small, design a single simple adventure. Plus there’s a pretty good chance that if you think you’ve just thought of a new setting, you haven’t - someone did one mostly like it already and you can use that as a basis.

Third, even for jaded long term referees and designers on their 5th or 6th home setting, it’s refreshing to see what other people are doing. It’s inspiring and settings can offer so much to borrow from, big stuff like new ideas about mechanics to little things like a trap or location. Even if you don’t use them directly, RPG design is largely bricolage, so it’s often worthwhile seeing what other people are doing.

Also this is why people should do more actual criticism of RPG product. Yes, you will make enemies of some creators if you point out flaws in their thing and no you can’t sell it on .itch, but thoughtful and honest analysis and review of products is a great help to designers. Both the person who you take the time to review, and to others who are thinking of making something similar or who want to run the reviewed product. Also if someone takes the time to review your rpg stuff - even if they don’t like it, consider what they say, and take pride that they read it at all and took the time to comment (I appreciate even the angry /tg/ guys who occasionally yell that my stuff is not to their taste between various slurs and frog memes - wish they were more cogent, but one can learn stuff even from the dregs of the internet).