The Worlds Of Dungeons & Dragons

by Matt Miller on Aug 27, 2010 at 12:30 PM

To trace the history of characters, role-playing, leveling, and character growth in gaming, one need look no further than the humble beginnings of Dungeons & Dragons. Likewise, long before Mass Effect and Elder Scrolls were shaping massive fictional settings, Dungeons & Dragons set the standard by building one fantastic world after another in its early years, giving players a huge number of locations, characters, and events to integrate into their own home games. Now in its fourth full edition, D&D has continued its trend of deep and complex campaign settings through annual releases, each highlighting a different world for players to explore. We talked with longtime Wizards of the Coast veteran, Rich Baker, about the job of building worlds, and went in depth on the newest and soon-to-release settings of Dark Sun and Gamma World. Before we finished, we even got some hints of where Wizards will be heading after that.

“Every world wants to have a strong, unique hook. You want to be able to look at a particular world and know why that world matters – what’s different and special about it – as compared to a lot of other settings that can look a lot like each other,” Baker tells us. Baker has been a part of D&D for almost 20 years, contributing to dozens of products that have evolved the game over its numerous incarnations. His chief responsibility these days is creating D&D’s new campaigns. However, years ago, he had no idea that his career would be shaped by the game. “I sort of backed into this career. Back in 1991, I was on active duty in the Navy, and I decided to go ahead and wrap up my service time,” Baker tells us. “While I was getting out, I was throwing resumes to all sorts of companies. I sent one to TSR for the devil of it. I’d been a D&D player since I was 10 or 11 years old. I was a big fan of fantasy and sci-fi, and I knew I wanted to write for a living.“ He got the job at TSR (the original publisher of D&D) and became an instrumental part of the team that worked on projects like the original Dark Sun, Spelljammer, and Birthright settings for 2nd edition.

Through it all, the appeal of building a fiction has remained paramount. “Having a chance to create a vision of this fantastic world, and make that vision unique and special – man, that’s the World Series,” Baker declares. “That’s the thing you’re in this business for. The opportunity to create a world from the ground up and be the vision behind it –  I’ve been very fortunate, as I’ve had this opportunity on a couple of occasions throughout my career. And I won’t lie – I look forward to the next opportunity I have to do it. It’s the best.”

Next up: The menacing world of Dark Sun

Familiar races take on a different flavor in Dark Sun

In recent years, Wizards of the Coast has been fleshing out its 4th edition role-playing game through re-releases of past worlds from a new perspective. The newest is Dark Sun, a dark and forbidding world defined by barbarism and tyranny. “Most D&D worlds are, to a greater or lesser extent, strongly influenced by the center of the fairway, classic fantasy tropes. The knights, castles, and dragons – things like that. Those all draw very strongly from the Lord of the Rings and the medieval romances,” Baker tells us. “Dark Sun draws on sword and sandal inspirations instead. I look at Dark Sun as a world very strongly inspired by Conan stories from Robert E. Howard, or Barsoom, the Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars stories – those are very strong influences present in Dark Sun. I think because Dark Sun is drawing from those different traditions, it just has a really unique flavor and feel to it.”

Dark Sun originally released as a 2nd edition D&D boxed set campaign world back in 1991, and was certainly the most dramatic departure from tradition. Famously brutal, the adventures set in the world were so challenging that players were suggested to start their characters at a higher level and boost their ability scores beyond anything that the D&D game normally allowed. The new Dark Sun re-imagines that original release. “We looked at what to do with Drk Sun, coming back to it almost 15 years later. Do we just pick up from where the second boxed set came out in 1996? Do we kick it a century or two down the road? Ultimately, the best and most interesting moment of the Dark Sun story was right after that first boxed set came out in 1991. That snap shot of the world,” Baker says. “In a way, it’s a little like how Marvel treated the Ultimate Spider-Man or Ultimate Avengers – let’s go back to the start, and re-envision it, and use all the tools and abilities we’ve learned in the time since to represent this as the best incarnation we can come up with.”

That snapshot of the Dark Sun world is a stark and dangerous place. Deserts dominate the world, suffused with heat and sandstorms that are as dangerous as any monstrous encounter. The landscape is all that remains of a world shattered by war and violent magic centuries earlier. The wastes are filled with universally hostile animals and monsters. If you avoid them, you’re likely to run afoul of the unfriendly elven slavers that run the deserts, or the cannibalistic halflings in their jealously guarded forests. Alternately, there are city-states out there under the red sun, but they’re no more accommodating. “In the civilized areas, you have to deal with these terrible despots and tyrants known as the sorcerer-kings – who are essentially nearly immortal beings who wield horrible sorcery, control entire armies, along with a whole bureaucracy of magical servants named templars at their back and call. It’s a world in which the cities are highly oppressed.” Hero player characters in the world must decide where they can carve out a place of their own. “Dark Sun presents you the challenge: do you try to make a go of it out in the deserts, where there is no law, and life is savage brutal and short?” Baker questions. “Or do you try to make a go of it in the cities, where you have to watch out for these terrible tyrants and those that are supporting them?”

The creatures of Dark Sun have a flavor all their own

The harsh environment isn’t the only thing that sets Dark Sun apart. The new campaign book, which released just a few days ago, includes numerous new options for players and DMs alike. New races, like the insectoid thri-kreen or the half-dwarven muls, help to offer new starting points for uniquely Dark Sun flavored characters.

There’s also an entirely new character option called themes. “It’s one more piece of your character identity, after race and class, that describes what your place in the world is,” Baker explains. “The notion of the themes came around as we were thinking about a gladiator class – something we considered for a long time. What it came down to was the question: what’s a gladiator? It’s anyone who fights in an arena. It could be a fighter, or a barbarian, or a battlemind. All those people could end up in an arena. So we wanted gladiator to be something that you could hang a bunch of different character classes on.” With that in mind, more theme concepts arose – templars, dune traders, elemental priests, athasian minstrels. These and other concepts each became themes. A theme provides unique powers to the character as they level up, and helps to guide the role-playing concept that will inform how a player interacts with the world.

Dungeon Masters have even more to find in the new Dark Sun setting. Full descriptions of the various locales of the world are included, and unique rules for adventure creation guide encounter design, including how to handle everything from survival in the wastes to the looming shadow of slavery in the world. A second book, the Dark Sun Creature Catalog, delivers almost 150 pages of the unique monsters and antagonist characters of the world, including write-ups for the insanely powerful sorcerer-kings that govern the land.

Next up: The upcoming Gamma World reboot

Old editions of Gamma World, like the one pictured above, focused on crazy mutations and sci-fi meeting fantasy

Dark Sun isn’t the only new project set to flesh out the D&D game in the coming months. Longtime players will have fond memories of Gamma World, the crazy, partially comedic adventure game that was originally only loosely based on D&D rules. The setting is returning this fall in its own standalone game, but this time it will be compatible with 4th edition D&D rules.

“Gamma World is a setting that has been ravaged by all manner of strange apocalypses,” Baker says. “It’s a post-apocalyptic world in which your character is likely a mutant or a mutated animal, armed with a number of strange mutant powers and abilities, using incredibly advanced science fiction technology and adventuring in a world populated by horrific, mutated monsters.” The new version of the game is built to be fast and rollicking, and to allow DMs to cross-pollinate monsters and other features from their existing D&D libraries into the Gamma World setting. “We want to make sure that a DM can grab some critters out of a monster manual, dress them up as mutants, and throw them into their Gamma World game. If you look at something like a beholder, and you want it in Gamma World, then why not?” Baker tells us.

The Gamma World game stands apart from the normal D&D game in a few important ways, most notably through the elimination of race and class, which are instead replaced by mutation. “A Gamma World character is composed of two mutant themes – we think the right way to do it is to roll them randomly off a table, because if you’re picking them, you’re just not playing in the spirit of Gamma World,” Baker opines. “Sample themes might be: seismic, yeti, cockroach, pyrokinetic, plant, android, cyborg – there’s a zillion of them. You throw a couple of dice, and find out ‘Hey, I’m playing a seismic yeti. Wasn’t expecting that. I guess I’m a yeti made out of rock’.”

Gamma World has a long history with D&D, but this is the first time the two games will be effectively cross-compatible.

The new Gamma World roleplaying game is set to release this October, with an extensive rulebook, character and monster tokens, 2 double-sided battle maps, character sheets, mutation and loot power cards, and more. The game supports play up to 10th level, and seems to be designed as a fun, fast alternative to more in-depth D&D campaigns.  It could also act as a brief break from your regular gaming routine.

Next up: The newly announced 2011 setting for D&D, and Baker’s advice to homebrew setting creators

The new D&D Essentials starter set features this same classic art from the introductory game in the 1980s

This fall will see a big push from Wizards of the Coast as the company debuts its Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line of products. The Essentials line delivers new content in small, often low cost alternatives to the earlier hardcover books. Targeted at least partially towards newer gamers as an introduction to the game, Wizards hopes the Essentials line will include enough new info for DMs and players that experienced gamers will be willing to check them out as well.

Even as Wizards reaches out to younger and newer gamers, the further future of the D&D game seems intricately planned out. When we asked Baker about future settings prior to this year’s Gen Con, and whether we’d likely see an entirely new setting, or another campaign setting reboot, he had this to say. “I’m not at liberty to talk about what we have cued up for 2011, which is too bad, because I think it’s really interesting. I think going forward we’ll probably do some amount of revisiting classic, well-established worlds. Although I hope that at some point in the not too distant future, we’d sit down and try to brainstorm something we’ve never seen before,” Baker says. “I know about a few things we’re working on – I just can’t tell you about them yet.”

Ravenloft is a far darker setting for the D&D game, filled with horror and the danger of corruption

Since we conducted the interview with Baker, the established setting he hinted at was revealed at GenCon. Wizards of the Coast quietly teased next year’s setting at the show – a new version of the classic horror world, Ravenloft. Embracing the gothic horror sensibilities of vampires, werewolves, and all things that go bump in the night, the new Ravenloft Roleplaying Game is being built to allow several new options for D&D gamers. Like Gamma World, Ravenloft is structured as a standalone game that can be integrated with existing D&D products as a full campaign setting, or run on its own without any additional products. Features include the ability to play as vampires, werewolves, and other monsters, as well as explore the fog-enshrouded realms of Ravenloft's dark lords. We'll know the exact features of the setting when it releases October 2011.

Wizards will also release a brand new expansion next year to its existing Forgotten Realms world. A full campaign setting for Neverwinter is targeted to release in 2011, an announcement that should come as little surprise to video gamers given the recent announcement of Neverwinter coming from Cryptic Studios. Neverwinter has long been a major adventure site within the Realms; this new release should ensure that the fantasy city has extensive details that will no doubt tie in to the upcoming video game.

While Wizards continue to deliver high-end professional settings to tempt gamers, Baker is completely aware that many D&D players have stepped onto their own playing fields through the crafting of settings of their own, unique to their gaming groups. His advice to enterprising world creators? “Don’t feel like you have to build it all at once. As a DM in the past, I’ve started working on 100 page manifestos on the world. If I hadn’t figured out what’s going in California, how could I possibly run a game in New York?” Instead, Baker recommends that a more modest approach can be equally rewarding. “Come up with a good adventure with trappings on it that make it feel like your world, and see where it leads you.” Whether creating our own settings, or digging into the worlds that the professionals at Wizards of the Coast craft, it seems players of the D&D game have a wealth of worlds to explore in the coming years.