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RPG Design Study #1: The Most Resonant Fantasy Settings

Chris Flood
United States
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What settings in a fantasy world are most familiar to or popular with gamers? These are the places that every fantasy world seems to have, especially those "kitchen sink" ones that try to appeal to everyone. The main differences are geographical, demographic, and so on, but most importantly plot-related. Each setting has a different type of story structure attached to it, which is why we find them pop up so frequently. Reviewing popular publications, I've come up with five catch-all categories.

The Town with a Secret is a popular choice for low-level starter adventures. PCs follow up on various leads to uncover some hidden agenda and then face down the hidden enemy in a climactic battle. Examples include Bogenhafen and Orlane.

The Outpost by a Hinterland is also popular for introductory scenarios but seems to have more legs for sustained play. PCs explore the hinterland, frequently dotted with ruins or remains of a forgotten civilization. The outpost itself might feature some intrigue, but it's primarily a home base for the PCs. Examples include Keep on the Borderlands and the West Marches.

The Faction-Filled City--every setting has one: Waterdeep, Ptolus, Sigil, Middenheim...the list could go on. PCs get wrapped up in inter-factional conflict and politics, complex hidden agendas, alliances and betrayals, and so on.

The Lair of Evil is where some dark power has been brewing for ages. PCs might have to unravel some of its mystery before getting there, but eventually they must enter the stronghold and take on a powerful foe. Examples include Ravenloft and Castle Wittgenstein.

The Exotic Locale Requiring a Lengthy Expedition provides similar opportunities for exploration as the hinterland but PCs lack the safety of a home base. They have to plan for extended travel and danger. The inspiration for this category was the "Underdark," which seems to pop up somewhere in most fantasy settings, but I think it's functionally the same as, say, the "Frozen North," the "Lost World" Island, and so on. But maybe each warrants its own category.

From this forum discussion, I've procured another one:

The Well-Traveled Path like a road or a caravan route is another common setting, particularly for introductory adventures. Movement is easy, and exploration of exotic locales is low. Possibilities for social interaction are high, but not as high as they would be in a populated area. There might be some regional politics the players would get involved in, but it's not nearly the same scale as the factional stuff you get in cities. This setting is particularly conducive to mercenary-style, adventurers-for-hire play, as PCs travel from one place to the next picking up local missions. The foremost example from a top-rated game is the river in The Enemy Within Campaign Volume 2: Death on the Reik, which affords the PCs high mobility and relative safety.

What do you think? What have I missed?
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