Most D&D fans, even younger table top fans new to the game, are probably aware of the history of the game. I’m old enough to recall the days of TSR pumping out sourcebook after sourcebook for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition. Most of us old guard players still sit on a hoard of books that talk about strange things like “THAC0”. What may surprise new fans of D&D was that TSR used to produce material for a plethora of fully developed campaign worlds. Indeed, the world of Dungeons & Dragons was a rich multiverse not limited to Oerth or Faerun. TSR gave us these campaign worlds in the form of boxed sets. All the special rules, maps, and sourcebooks that Dungeon Masters (or “DMs”, as we call them) and players needed to adapt the game to the unique themes of these settings.
It’s something that may be a bit hard for generations of gamers raised around endless DLC in platform games. This wasn’t material for a half-finished game, but rather rules for playing the same core game in a totally new way. You might think of them as an official mod rather than DLC. These sets were a game changer (pun partially intended). It was a vision of the future of the Dungeons & Dragons game that was radically ahead of its time. It demonstrated that the rules of the game could be sculpted to fit the imagination and vision of players and DMs alike.
That sense of a unique vision of fantasy also helped sculpt the wondrous variety and quality of artwork and overall presentation of D&D publications to this day. What were once flavorless books filled with text or tables were now filled with thoughtful attention to the layout, fonts and thematic art of the products TSR released to supplement the game worlds in addition to their core product line.
It was a touchstone moment in the history of not only gaming but in the world of pop-culture narratives. One that is often overlooked, sadly enough. Much of the media created in the realms of pop-culture today are being written or illustrated by people who grew up within these worlds and by derivation, learned to extrapolate, experiment and imagine an equally unique vision of what fantasy storytelling could be like. There wouldn’t be the variety of games or well developed homebrew material for table top role playing games in general were it not for this innovation.
Since the acquisition of TSR by Wizards of the Coast, there has been a slow, perhaps reluctant, effort to introduce material for game worlds other than Forgotten Realms. There was a bit of interest in new worlds in the early 2000’s with Wizards temporary acquisition of Alderac which brought the worlds of Rokugan and Théah to the d20 system and many of you may remember the explosive interest in Wizard’s unprecedented “Create a Campaign Setting” contest which produced the world of Eberron.
This reluctance may stem from a legitimate concern about the mass release of content for a larger scope of designed game worlds. The creation and release of products to support these numerous campaign settings was costly and obviously some proved to be far more popular than others. These sets created the look and feel of Dungeons & Dragons as we know it today but it came at a heavy cost. It has been pointed out that this unsustainable volume of products was among the factors that drove TSR out of business.
However, in the marketplace of 2018 and its ease of access to web based content, e-books and PDF releases, the risk of producing game world content from the existing titles is far less of a financial risk for Wizards of the Coast. The interest in new game worlds for D&D may be about to enjoy a sort of renaissance. Dark Sun has been increasing in popularity with updated rules for 4th and 5th edition and there are rumors of a long awaited 5th edition update to my personal favorite, Spelljammer. Building on the solid foundation that is the 5th edition core rules, now may be the perfect time to revisit the worlds of the TSR multiverse.