Around Christmas time last year, there was a popular twitter tag #fourRPGs. I tweeted my four most influential games on Boxing Day.
Over my thirty-plus year of gaming, I have played many games and enjoyed some great settings. Often, these settings were the stars of the show, and thus they deserve an article for themselves. Today, I explore the four RPG settings which have had the most influence over me as a GM. These four settings are:
- Middle Earth
- Day After Ragnarok
The world of Glorantha is a detailed bronze age setting, where mythology comes to life. The Glorantha website summarizes the history of this fascinating setting as follows:
Glorantha is the mythical world that can be found on the Other Side of our consciousness. First discovered by Greg Stafford over forty years ago, Glorantha has been explored in such games as Dragon Pass, RuneQuest, HeroQuest, and King of Dragon Pass.
My early experience of Glorantha came with a few games of RuneQuest 2. It was the richness of the cultures which made Glorantha stand out, in contrast to the bland, generic setting in the core rules of AD&D. The wonderful Griselda stories in White Dwarf magazine had a part to play here, too. However, it was not until I read the enthralling examples of play in HeroQuest 1 that I knew this was the setting for me.
Just as there is so much detail in the setting, there are so many reasons I like Glorantha. The attraction can be summarized in two main reasons: culture and religion. The cultures of Glorantha feel distinct from each other, with differing world-views. This feature is epitomized by the trolls, who are presented as a viable culture, not just as generic monsters to be slain for experience points.
The second main reason I love Glorantha is for the treatment of religion and mythology. Once again, these feel like real religions woven into the fabric of society. Not only does this evoke the bronze age setting, it makes religion a powerful force for the Heroes. The importance of myth is underlined by the presence of heroquests, where the re-enactment of a myth can bring the Heroes powerful divine magic.
Glorantha is one of the primary influences on my Tales of the Hero Wars campaign setting. I am daunted by the sheer volume of material about the setting, so I chose to simplify much of the history. Likewise, I adopted the Gloranthan religions, but cut back on the mass of mythology. The current Fortress of Crows campaign has the strongest presence of religion in our games to date, so I am slowly embracing Gloranthan-style gaming. I am excited to see where it will take our game.
2. Middle Earth
The Middle Earth setting arose out of the writings of JRR Tolkien, notably in The Lord of the Rings. This was a highly influential book for me, and thus carries a lot of sentimental value. I played a few games of Middle Earth RolePlaying (MERP) in my early years of gaming, and it was a special feeling to be adventuring around the iconic fantasy setting.
Yet, Middle earth also deserves a place on this list on the back of two superb treatments of the setting. First, the Iron Crown Enterprises releases, setting books released in conjunction with the MERP game. I picked up a few of these books on ebay, and they are wonderful resources with amazing levels of detail. Each book focuses on a small area of Middle Earth, presenting Tolkien’s world in great detail. I have not tried to run a game from them, but the amount of information makes them a joy to read for any fan of Lord of the Rings.
In recent years, the Middle Earth franchise has transferred to The One Ring, published by Sophisticated Games and Cubicle 7. As to be expected, these modern rules take a more narrative approach to exploring Middle Earth. I recently finished reading Tales from Wilderland, and found the setting even more approachable. Tales really deserves a review of its own, but the short version is that it cleverly recreates many episodes from The Hobbit, without slavishly following the same plot. Middle Earth remains as magical and evocative as ever, but now the Players can share in some of Bilbo’s experiences, without following the same story.
I am aware that much of my affection for the setting comes from my love of The Lord of the Rings, and an acknowledgement of the effect it has had on my reading preferences. Yet, the two waves of supplements have great merit themselves. The ICE books are masterpieces in detailed setting creation, while the Cubicle 7 approach enables Players to closely experience Tolkien’s scenes, without having to follow a familiar plot.
I suspect Middle Earth has less influence on my current campaign setting than Glorantha has. However, the standards of material presented in the ICE books remain the benchmark for setting detail. I lack the time required to create a history anywhere close to Tolkien’s sweeping epic. However, my thumbnail sketches of setting forever seek to create a feeling of Middle Earth’s richness and drama.
Third on the list is Planescape, the great planar cosmology published by TSR in support of their Second Edition AD&D. I skipped over 2E for a variety of reasons, but fell in love with Planescape when I started seriously building my Tales of the Hero Wars setting. This epic setting has two main areas of appeal.
Firstly, there is the unified vision of the planes. The Great Cosmic Wheel has fallen out of favour in recent years, but it presents a simple model for a myriad of planes of existence. My version replaces the alignment planes with an expanded selection of elemental planes, but the core principles hold true. I love the way philosophy was the driving force in Planescape, this was a setting where ideas really mattered.
Secondly, I was drawn to the sheer style of the Planescape books. The Sigillian cant is highly atmospheric, and captures the character of the City of Doors. I probably should have made more use of the cant during our recent Sigil PD campaign, but portrayal of NPCs is a weakness of mine. Snippets of cant scattered through the books, along with the iconic DiTerlizzi art, created a memorable and intriguing setting.
As you can tell, I find a lot to like in Planescape. As much as anything, I love the style and feel of this setting. The books are so much fun to read, and they make me want to explore the planes. The quality of the material is great, make no mistake, but it is the style which draws me back to the streets of Sigil.
Along with Glorantha, it is the Planescape setting which most closely resembles my homebrew campaign. My elemental planes are very much variations upon those found in the Great Wheel, even if the cultures within them are more similar to Glorantha.
4. The Day After Ragnarok
My final choice is The Day After Ragnarok, a FATE setting written by Kenneth Hite, released by Atomic Overmind Press. In this incredible pulp setting, World War Two ends when a US atomic bomb destroys the head of the Midgard serpent summoned by the Nazis. The poisonous body crushes most of Europe, sends tidal waves to wipe out the Eastern seaboard and becomes a source of weird serpent techno-magic.
This is Kenneth Hite at his best, writing at the intersection of alternate history and occult magic. Who could not love a pulp setting marrying strange technology, soviet ape-soldiers, occult Nazis and twisted magic? This is a setting with something for everyone, and Hite weaves it all together within a wider plot.
I adore the energy and strangeness of this setting. My Players love interludes here, whether fighting Baba Yaga on the Polar Express, or saving British atomic secrets from Nazi raiders in the Australian desert. We have enjoyed some zany one-shots in this setting, and I am sure we will return.
The Day After Ragnarok has minimal influence on the central setting for my campaign. However, it is the inspiration for one of my game worlds, and gives us a fantastic chance to vary the pace and style of our games. This is a popular venue for one-shots, and I expect pressure will mount on me to run a dedicated cycle of tales in this crazy setting.
These are clearly my favourite settings, but there are two other games which merit an honourable mention:
- The Empire, Warhammer Fantasy – After two false starts, I finally played out the classic Enemy Within campaign for Warhammer Fantasy RPG. This was the setting for my most successful character ever, Santalion the Elf. It is my longest-running campaign as a Player, but has more to recommend it than my nostalgic memories. Just as Glorantha is set in an earlier time than the classic medieval fantasies, so the Empire is set much later. This renaissance-era setting is dark, gothic and very atmospheric. It is a gritty setting, with a powerful sense of danger.
- Ptolus – This city supplement, written by Monte Cook, is perhaps the greatest single RPG setting book. The layout is impeccable, packed with useful information and cross-references. The city itself makes for a perfect adventuring location, with buried ruins below, intrigue on the streets and an ominous tower watching over everything. The first cycle of tales for my current campaign was set on the streets of Ptolus, giving me a strong personal link to the city.
As with the top four RPGs, it has been fun exploring my roleplaying history. I may struggle to run a game in Middle Earth, as that would take me away from the ongoing continuity of my Tales of the Hero Wars campaign. However, the other three settings are likely to remain strong influences on my gaming for many years to come.
What are your top four RPG settings? What classic world have I missed? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.
- Do you need more Tales?
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