|CC by-nc-sa Lonnie Dunn, found here:|
Middle-Earth: Tolkien's world is great for his stories, but terrible for gaming. Everything in it is already pretty well set and with little wiggle room. Plus, it is the prototype of what we might call "generic gaming fantasy", with its elves, dwarves, humans, and halflings. While I love it for Tolkien's stories, for gaming it is dreary and dull. A couple of games manage to work some usable gaming material out of it, but in each case it is either by leaving Tolkien's setting behind to some degree or by so limiting the area and scope that the players can't get their characters tied up in Tolkien's plots. One thing that I do love about Middle-Earth is Tolkien's proclivity toward nature writing. A lot of people count that as a flaw in his works, but I love it. And the singing too.
Glorantha: While it has elves and dwarves, Glorantha does everything so differently that it is just bonkers. Anyway, elves (aldrayami) and dwarves (mostali) are the merest sideshows in the craziness of Gloranthan societies. With ducks, trolls, and even wilder thinking species, Glorantha is a place people will either love or hate. The bronze age aesthetic appeals to me, though I sometimes get lost in Stafford's wildness. The way that spirits and magic are handled in the setting is well worth anyone examining, and one can examine it from the perspective of simulation (RuneQuest) or narrative (HeroQuest), depending on your predilection. It might be best to look at how both games approach the setting.
Oerth (aka The World of Greyhawk): While this is technically generic gaming fantasy of the type noted above, the treatment of the setting as a real place, where population numbers and numbers of troops are recorded, where trade goods are placed by region of origin, and where gaming necessities like examining what the players are doing as a profession are incorporated as institutions in the setting make this one of the most vital and essential gaming settings to look at. It doesn't hurt that it's also one of the most diverse settings, with the populations of the centerpiece continent, the Flanaess, being largely people of color (and this has been true for longer than that was something that audiences demanded).
Tékumel: Probably the first setting specifically for gaming to be published - though it originated long before gaming, Professor Barker developed it in a role-playing campaign. As a result, it has some elements that are specifically directed toward the needs of player-characters in the setting, such as the underworld of every major city. Being the first, it was also not tied to the assumptions of previous efforts and so is a gloriously insane look at some of the potentials of worldbuilding. Like the earliest D&D games seem to have been, it is a "science-fantasy" setting, with advanced technology sitting next to marvelous magic. If you're a worldbuilder and haven't looked at Tékumel yet, you're missing out.
Dark Sun: This was the first published setting I saw where the potentials of worldbuilding came clear to me. It happened as I was sitting in on a game session, waiting for one of the players, and I listened as the party leader chose to set aside some gold in favor of carrying more water. That was stunning to me at the time, since I had gotten used to players taking as much gold as possible to maximize their experience points. Just crazy! I looked further into it, and was unimpressed by some of the decisions, but the way that the desert environment was baked into the setting still leaves me in awe. The ways that the generic gaming fantasy thinking species were re-imagined is worth examining. I also learned how important a seemingly little thing like logistics can be to creating flavor.
Hârn: Yes, humans, dwarves, and elves. There are some weaknesses of this setting, but the lovingly crafted detail is inspiring. Treating characters as if they were more than just a collection of statistics (though there are a lot of statistics in the game that goes along with the setting, it is also suitable for a number of different rules sets), and the setting as if it were more than merely a backdrop in front of which characters kill things, helps to set a tone that I appreciate deeply.
Spelljammer: A look at what can be done with generic gaming fantasy if cut loose from some of its assumptions. I love it, but it seems to have been eclipsed by Planescape, perhaps because the existence of Spelljamming ships deforms other settings that include them, so that Oerth, the Forgotten Realms, and Krynn sat uneasily among the assumed worlds of the setting and should never have been included there in the first place.
The Young Kingdoms: Worth examining to see how a fiction setting (in this case, the Elric of Melniboné stories) can be fitted to the needs of a gaming campaign. By focusing on areas that are mentioned but only incompletely explored in the fiction sources, while carefully avoiding breaking canon, the setting details in the Stormbringer RPG (and its other - in my opinion inferior - incarnation, Elric) provide an interesting and alternative take on some concepts that have become over-familiar. The Melnibonéans sit as a sort of decadent elvish society that provides a useful contrast to the sorrowful or joyful ones that one can get from emphasizing different aspects of Tolkien's elves.
Hyboria: Speaking of Elric (who was explicitly created to be the antithesis of Conan), Howard's setting happens to be useful in gaming terms, with plenty of different directions to choose to travel as characters. It's also very helpful in providing a world in which all, well most, of the thinking species are just humans. Unfortunately, in part it does this by making all sorts of assumptions about "race" and whatnot, so it should be examined carefully and sifted finely to extract the useful parts.
Which reminds me to add that I am not very fond of settings that try to "reimagine orcs" as noble whatevers. As I have often said, if you're doing that, why do you have orcs at all? What is it about orcs that you need in that setting and cannot get from just making the adversaries human? The whole point of orcs is to give players a foe they can slaughter with a minimum of moral quandary. "Subverting" that simply removes the only reason for orcs to exist. It's one thing to examine orc society in detail, as is done in Hârn for example, but pointless to make them out to be some sort of noble savage, unjustly misunderstood by humanity. That role is equally suitable for humans, whether of a different skin color than the players' characters or perhaps just with differing sartorial assumptions, and more pertinent for that theme as well. The subverted orc is just a trap for the players that they can't rightly get out of: "Here are some orcs, go ahead and kill them!" "OK, now that you've killed a bunch of them, here's why you're awful people for doing that." It's not a moral test, it's just being a shitty Referee.
Anyway, the point here is that a gaming setting should pay attention to what the players will be doing with their characters in the setting. You can't just plop them down and assume that they will do things. You have to give them things to do, and you have to arrange the setting so that they will be able to do those things. For instance, Oerth has the institution of the "adventurer", who is someone who does a certain type of thing and is given privileges to pursue that occupation in the assumed laws of the land. In Tékumel, there are networks of tunnels underneath the cities that interested parties can explore in a search for lost technology and such. And so on. Put those things in your world setting.