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In 1985, the release of Oriental Adventures marked something totally new for D&D: a departure from the traditional medieval fantasies that had dominated the game through its first decade.
Composite Worlds: 1987–1994
Though Oriental Adventures created an entirely new fantasy setting that did not have a Western focus, it’d be a few years before TSR would go that far again. Instead they experimented with the idea of different worldviews by filling out two of their fantasy worlds with a variety of settings, some of which broke new ground for D&D. These composite settings offered players the best of all worlds—not just the singular worldview that had previously been the heart of D&D.
The Known World was the first of TSR’s composite worlds, as envisioned in a series of Gazetteers (1987–1991) overseen by Bruce Heard. The Emirates of Ylaruam (1987) was the Known World’s inaugural take on nonfeudal societies; it was an “Arabian Nights” setting that offered a more magical take on D&D than anything before it.
A number of other analogue Earth cultures appeared for the Known World in the years that followed. The Kingdom of Ierendi (1987) depicts a Hawaiian vacation paradise; The Northern Reaches (1988) reveals a Scandinavia with Vikings; The Republic of Darokin (1989) describes a Renaissance-era country; The Golden Khan of Ethengar (1989) introduces Mongol hordes; The Atruaghin Clans (1991) details Native American–like people; and Dawn of the Emperors: Thyatis and Alphatia (1989) includes a Roman Empire analogue (or maybe a Byzantine Empire analogue). It’s a pretty impressive list of non-feudal settings that was created in just five years’ time.
Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms began publication a bit later in 1987. Though it has a stronger basis in feudal societies than the Known World, it wandered further afield too, in part thanks to the work of myriad hands such as Jeff Grubb, Douglas Niles, and Scott Haring. Moonshae (1987) brought Celtic fantasy to the Realms, then Empires of the Sands (1988) introduced the country of Calimshan, which was the Realms’ own Arabian Nights principality (or rather its first, as Greenwood created a few Arabic lands to the edges of the Realms). Barbaric fantasy came into the Realms through The Savage Frontier (1988) and then Egyptian fantasy made its influence felt in Old Empires (1990).
In 1988, TSR combined the non-Western setting of Oriental Adventures with its most successful composite setting. The result was Kara-Tur: The Eastern Realms (1988), which shrunk Kara-Tur a bit to fit it into the Realms. TSR soon followed that up with The Horde (1990) and the rest of the Empires event, which placed a Mongol-like land between Kara-Tur and the western Realms. A year later, TSR published the Maztica Campaign Set (1991), which introduced another continent to the Realms, based on Aztec and Mayan fantasy. Just five years after the introduction of the Realms, you could travel from a fantasy Asia through fantasy Eurasia, then across the sea to fantasy South America. It was every bit as impressive as the expansion of the Known World beyond its feudalistic roots.
Of course, both the Known World and the Forgotten Realms were reflections of the ultimate composite world: Earth. D&D experimented with this campaign world a few years later with seven “Historical Reference” books: Vikings (1992),Charlemagne’s Paladins (1992), Celts (1992), A Mighty Fortress (1992), The Glory of Rome (1993), Age of Heroes (1994), and The Crusades (1994).
Some of these books were different takes on feudalism, and most of them had been covered in other forms in the Known World or the Forgotten Realms, but A Mighty Fortress was something entirely new: it moved D&D up to the Elizabethan Era, complete with guns and other elements that had never before been seen in the feudal D&D game. It was a signpost for how far D&D had expanded beyond its medieval roots during the era of AD&D second edition (1989–2000).
Nonfeudal Settings: 1989–2000
The 2nd Edition era was a time of great experimentation for D&D. Many, many new settings were created, some of them reinterpreting the genres that D&D had played with in the 1970s and ’80s—but taking them further than had been possible in the predominantly feudal worlds of Greyhawk, the Known World, and Blackmoor. The result was the first full-blown D&D settings that moved beyond standard medieval fantasy.
This began with Spelljammer (1989), which was D&D’s new take on the science fantasy genre. Monstrous races zoomed from world to world in magical space ships. Though Spelljammer didn’t put as much focus on scientific technology as some of D&D’s early adventures, it nonetheless created an entirely new paradigm for adventure.
Ravenloft: Realm of Terror (1990) similarly expanded the horror setting of Ravenloft (1983) into an entire world. It introduces many different evil rulers (not just Strahd) and many different horrific and monstrous races (not just vampires). The setting was successful enough that it was revised as the Ravenloft Campaign Setting (1994) and then spun off the Masque of the Red Death and Other Tales (1994) campaign setting. The latter was one of the furthest stretches ever for D&D, as it introduced Gothic Earth, a horrific Victorian setting.
Of all of D&D’s widely variant settings of the 1990s, Ravenloft was supported for the longest, from 1990–1998. Even when the Ravenloft campaign world went away toward the end of 2nd Edition’s run, the Ravenloft brand remained as a line of horror supplements for D&D, which suggests that while medieval feudalism has always been D&D’s touchstone, horror isn’t a bad alternative.
Dark Sun (1991) was probably TSR’s most distinct campaign setting to date. It offered a very primitive, survival-oriented take on D&D. Dragon Kings ruled the post-apocalyptic “Dying Earth” setting of Athas, and players were as likely to be slaves as bold adventurers. The result was about as far as you could get from the idea of feudal societies—and another hit setting, since it also resulted in an Expanded and Revised edition (1995).
Al-Qadim (1992) was TSR’s third major take on Arabian Nights adventures, following the Known World’s Ylaruam and the Forgotten Realms’ Calimshan. Like Calimshan, Al-Qadim was also set in the Forgotten Realms, but it was presented as a distinct, standalone setting. Three years of supplements followed, providing the best support ever for an Arabic D&D setting.
From the Ashes (1992) offered a new take on the Greyhawk setting. It was still a feudal, medieval world, but like so many of the settings of the 2nd Edition era, it adopted one of the genres that TSR had played with in the 1970s and ’80s; Greyhawk was now a world of dark fantasy, where evil had advanced to become a dominant force. Unfortunately the change wasn’t enough to save the old setting. After a short run (1992–1993), From the Ashes was retired; when Greyhawk returned it would once more be a gonzo Medieval world.
Planescape (1994) was the last 2nd Edition setting to really push D&D beyond its medieval fantasy origins, but it was a doozie of a finale. Planescape was D&D’s planar adventure setting, taking players across the many Outer Planes. However, it really challenged the D&D norms through its aesthetics, which lay somewhere between punk and dark fantasy. This was seen not only in the setting, but also in the dark and moody artwork that ran through its books.
Into the 21st Century: 2000–Present
In more recent days, D&D has largely returned to its feudal fantasy origins, focusing on settings such as Greyhawk, Krynn, the Forgotten Realms, and the Nentir Vale. It largely fell to d20 trademark licensees and open gaming licensees to produce the next far-flung D&D settings. Those licensees fulfilled that obligation in spades, creating some of the strangest D&D settings ever, such as the science fantasy Dragonstar (2001) and the steampunk DragonMech (2004). Though not technically D&D, Wizards of the Coast helped to push the envelope with d20 Modern (2003)—a modern-day D&D ruleset complete with three settings: "Shadow Chasers", "Agents of PSI", and "Urban Arcana."
However, Wizards of the Coast also continued to support a few of the older non-Western D&D settings, to remind players that D&D could be more than just feudal castles. Fans updated settings like Spelljammer and Planescape, while Wizards themselves returned to Dark Sun with a 4th Edition release (2010).
Meanwhile, Wizards was also playing with a pair of non-Western campaign settings that were new to the game of D&D.
The first was a brand-new Oriental Adventures (2001), which now focused on the Legends of the Five Rings world of Rokugan; it was later extensively supported by AEG.
The second was an evocative and innovative setting that recalled the AD&D heights of settings like Dark Sun and Planescape: the world of Eberron (2004). This new campaign world offered a very different take on D&D and, like many of the best, it escaped easy classification. It was cosmopolitan, somewhat technological, a little post-apocalyptic, and definitely pulp.
Most importantly, it provided a new take on D&D adventuring for the 21st century—one that lay beyond feudalism.
Before 1985, D&D had only played with stepping outside of the boundaries of traditional medieval fantasy. However, the release of Oriental Adventures that year acted as a catalyst. Afterward, non-Western fantasy invaded the Forgotten Realms and the Known World, then it became basis of brand-new settings, resulting in some of the most innovative takes on D&D in the 1990s, with the legacy living on in worlds such as Eberron and Dark Sun.