I'm looking for a setting which should answer these rather specific key points:

  • Pre-made and detailed. I would like the heavy-lifting to be done for me. There shouldn't be too many holes left that I keep having to fill them in.
    • EDIT: If possible I would prefer a setting I can start playing with only a few books such as a main book and two or three more, whether they be scenarios or region books. Two reasons for this: monetary firstmost, and then time. Having to read 5+ books just to "get ready" would seem overkill. Obviously, if the setting works out, nothing says I can't buy more books fleshing out more of the setting as I go.
  • Any system or system-agnostic. I will probably use a generic system such as Fate Core, PDQ# or HeroQuest 2 to run game anyway. Bonus points if it's easy to decouple setting & system.
  • Not grimdark or gritty. Not even "realistic". It doesn't have to (shouldn't, really) be pure comedy, but I'd like a setting that seems mostly nice to begin with, where not everyone is a miserable peasant slave under a tyranny of darkness and where it is possible to trust a good deal of people without ending up backstabbed for it. Bad guys are necessary for conflict and some gray areas are always interesting if only for variety's sake, but I'd like negative aspects to be mostly the realm of the PCs' enemies. Bad places and bad organizations certainly exist, but they should not be the default and most common thing. This is probably the most important aspect of my research. Many settings go for the "mature" route and this is so not what I'm looking for.
  • Adventure! Action! Daring! Saving the day! (doesn't have to be the world, though)
  • Rule of Cool is rule #1!
  • Includes exotic locations. Things like deserts and pyramids, ice wastelands, incredible forests and jungles, impossible cities, flying islands, grandiose palaces, underwater civilizations, etc... Most locations should make your mind-eyes pop out and be awesome in one way or another. Not everything has to be over-the-top (mind-eyes need their rest too) but it should be a world (or worlds) you want to see a lot of.
  • Encourages travel-based narratives. I'm a sucker for variety, so it should be possible, if not encouraged, to travel to the aforementioned exotic locations during adventures. A setting where one adventure takes place in an ancient-asia-inspired wondercity, the next in Africaland and another at the top of snow covered mountains would be nice. It doesn't have to be Asia or Africa inspired, but it's the kind of geographical and cultural variety I'd like.
  • Non-media-franchise. It's hard to live up to existing settings from movies or series and I know I wouldn't feel comfortable running it unless I know everything.

Is there such a setting in existence? Or at least something close that could work with a few tweaks?

EDIT: I realize I am asking for a lot. As such, if you know of a setting approaching these criterias but not quite meeting them, I believe it's still worth mentioning, along with the bits that don't quite match.

To help refine things, here are other points, though they are more optional:

  • A High Fantasy or Heroic Fantasy setting would be my preference but I am also curious about Sci-Fi and anything a few centuries back such as Victorian era, Wild West, Musketeers or Pirates of the Caribbeans stuff.
  • I'm not big on Modern, Post-apocalyptic or Cyberpunk settings because they are usually entrenched in darker tones and gritty realism. An Urban Fantasy that's not all about dark moody cities may possibly work though.
  • Clichés are OK. I still consider myself a newcomer to roleplaying games and I have barely touched anything in-depth yet. As such, I am not sick of your classic elves and dwarves at all.
  • Normal stuff is OK. Having a some "normal" places to contrast with exotic locations is not a bad thing.
  • Multiracial. Whether it's high fantasy with dwarves and elves, Sci-Fi with aliens or urban fantasy with clockwork robots and feys.
  • A little room for expansion and tweaking. While I need a solid base to work from, I'd like to avoid the opposite extreme of being "stuck" in a setting so tightly made that inserting or modifying anything breaks it all (or is just not that setting anymore). This can be anything from small geographical regions left as a blank canvas, to setting mysteries with an answer left to the GM but, very important, with examples of what might be the truth (for inspiration).
  • Not too much politics, or at least avoidable. I'm just not big on that at all and it doesn't scream "adventure!" to me :). This also goes for wars with big armies (focus should be on individuals and small groups of heroes). It could serve as background and explain why some parts of the setting are the way they are, though, but I wouldn't make adventures out of it.
  • A setting not overly detailed but with enough adventure modules to serve as examples may work too.

Here's a list of works that mostly represent the tone and elements I'm looking for:

  • Indiana Jones
  • The Mummy
  • Uncharted videogame series
  • Pirates of the Caribbeans trilogy (not seen 4th one)
  • Stargate SG-1 TV series (and the original Stargate movie)
  • Tintin comics
  • The Princess Bride
  • Some James Bond and Mission Impossible movies may well fit the bill for the "impossible action" thing, less for the spy thing.
  • National Treasure (I didn't like the movie, but the theme fits, very Uncharted/IJones-like)
  • Hellboy movies (if at least for the exoticism and over-the-top action)
  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie (over-the-top action and steampunk bits)

And as it turns out, none is really "high/heroic fantasy", mh.

Finally a list of (some) settings I have either read, played in or heard of that may fit the bill or, on the contrary, don't work for me:

  • Pathfinder Inner Sea Setting. I like the variety and somewhat optional nature of the many lands, but there also tends to be a dark undertone in the setting books. Sometimes less in some modules and Adventure Paths, but sometimes also much more. It's also not quite over-the-top enough at low levels thanks to the d20 base, but this may be fixed in a variety of ways (higher level, different system). This setting could work for me with a lot of cutting out the darker locales/civilizations, giving everyone Belts of Being Good +5 and pushing the awesome levels up to 11. But then, is it still Pathfinder anymore? For reference, I'm currently mostly intrigued by Qadira, Osirion, Jalmaray
  • Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies. Very very close. Floating islands, varied places, definitely doing the swashbuckler adventure thing with terrible villains but also honorable heroes. It even encourages you to create your own islands and pick which nation is the Big Bad and which one is the Force For Good. In a sense, all it's missing is more playable races and more material to devour :)
  • Spirit of the Century. This is made of derring-do and seems to have the right tone for me overall. Sadly, this is a ruleset first and a setting second. I think I need more content for this one.
  • Kerberos Club. Victorian + Fantasy + Pulp + Superheroes + Steampunk? Yes please? But why so dark? :( Something similar with less Gothic would probably work well enough for me.
  • Vampire, Werewolf. As a counter-example. Generally dark and political (at least Vampire).
  • Forgotten Realms. I'm barely familiar with it. This way work for all I know. Seems like it requires a LOT of material, though (a lot of it out-of-print too...)
  • Eberron. While I like the fantasy steampunk part, the Noir part, not so much.
  • Planescape. Absolutely amazing at exoticism, but the many dark undertones have kept me from actually doing anything with it.

EDIT: If you believe one of these settings actually fits my request or can be easily tweaked to fit, please do mention it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm curious about the apparent self-contradiction: you want "pre-made and detailed", and yet reject the Forgotten Realms because it's too detailed. How is it possible to answer this, when very detailed is required but too detailed eliminates the setting that perfectly fits your requirements? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jun 23 '13 at 17:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie I am open to suggestions that don't fit every requirement. I'm already asking for a lot, I think, so I'm willing to go with the next best thing that actually exists :). As for the detail paradox, let's say book-buying costs will become an issue if I need to buy more than half a dozen books just to get started with a setting. One main book and a few more focused ones should be fine. I may go beyond that once I really get into the setting. \$\endgroup\$ – leokhorn Jun 23 '13 at 20:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't have time to write a full answer at this time, but I would like to give you the strongest possible recommendation to the premade Savage Worlds settings "Solomon Kane" and "Sundered Skies." The former is as close as you can get to RPGing in an Indiana Jones movie. The latter is a little more fantasy-oriented. Both are rife with cliches in a good way, kind of like The Princess Bride is (another touchstone that you reference). The Savage Worlds system is by its very nature cinematic, swashbuckling, over-the-top, and only as gritty or realistic as you want it to be. \$\endgroup\$ – dodgethesteamroller Jun 24 '13 at 2:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you are looking for more SotC content, checkout Strange Tales of the Century. I think it is what you are looking for, but I haven't had a chance to properly read mine yet. \$\endgroup\$ – Quentin Dec 9 '13 at 13:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd post Planescape as an answer, but as it's already in the question, it would be redundant. Instead, I recommend re-examining it; It hits all of your points bar that one you mentioned, and that one's easily fixed: You can easily ignore, avoid and defuse the various dark bits. Built-in to Planescape is the idea that reality is largely a matter of belief, so it's easy to present everything from a not-particularly dark perspective by, e.g.: Allowing the forces of good to triumph over whatever darkness you find grimmest because that's a belief shared by bashers all across the planes. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Dec 10 '13 at 3:48

The Case for Eberron

Yes, Eberron has a few noir elements

I agree that Eberron has some noir elements. There’s some details of shady dealings going on, what with the war just ended and the nations, dragonmarked houses, and others clandestinely vying for power and advantage in the event that the Last War isn’t really. The introduction to the setting in Eberron Campaign Setting talks about Eberron being a “World of Intrigue” that has a pretty noir feel, and things like the Investigate feat and Master Inquisitive prestige class exist explicitly to power a campaign that reflects the film noir notion of a private investigator.

But they are not everything in Eberron

Ultimately these noir elements are not crucial or even common parts of Eberron. They exist, for those interested in them, because Eberron does try to be everything for everyone, but you don’t need to involve them in the least. The “World of Intrigue” section I mentioned above is just the seventh of ten headings in that section. The second one, “Tone and Attitude,” talks about medieval fantasy and swashbuckling adventure, and the use of Action Points “to help capture the cinematic nature of swordplay and spellcasting.”

Furthermore, while both “Tone and Attitude” and “World of Intrigue” are just bullet points, a whole section of the first chapter – in fact, the first section of the first chapter – is “The Tone of Eberron” which talks about “heroic deeds” and “evolving magic” and how it is a world where “action, adventure, good, evil, and a thousand shades of gray paint the landscape in broad, powerful strokes, and ancient mysteries await discovery so that they too can influence the world and its people.”

And the very next paragraph is

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, all classes and races. They travel the world, battling villains and recovering fabulous treasures, dealing with over-the-top action, harrowing challenges, cliffhanger situations, narrow escapes, and ominous mysteries that are as likely to shed light on centuries of secrets as they are to threaten the safety of the current day.

Between these two is a sidebar called “Movies to Inspire You.” Here’s the list:

  • Brotherhood of the Wolf
  • Casablanca
  • From Hell
  • The Maltese Falcon
  • The Mummy
  • The Name of the Rose
  • Pirates of the Caribbean
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Sleepy Hollow

Some of these are dark, but more are very much not. Three of them are literally movies that you yourself include in your list.

How to avoid Eberron’s noir and politics

Sharn, the City of Towers, is where almost all of Eberron’s intrigue happens. It’s the most populous city in Eberron, and it has a seedy underbelly where gangsters, cultists, and spies hang out. It’s the one place where all the nations and all the houses have a place to operate – and that means that, behind the scenes, they are wheeling and dealing and sabotaging and spying.

But you don’t have to get into any of that, because Sharn is a huge place. People live their whole lives there not being involved in any of the above, and the overwhelming majority of people who visit are tourists, merchants, or adventurers looking for work. Just as a DM who wants to get the players involved in the politics of Eberron would have their employer have secret ulterior motives that drag them in, you could just as easily have employers that are totally above-board and simply want the players to go out and slay a beast or retrieve an artifact.

Or they could simply not go to Sharn at all. In the northeast, you’ve got pirates; far to the south, you have a jungle ripped straight out of the opening scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the west, there be monsters, and in the east there be more different monsters. The northwest has the forest of druids and mythical animals, and beyond that the desert of demons. Dotting the landscape everywhere are caves, hideouts, ancient ruins: places to explore, to loot, to find dangerous men or monsters terrorizing the countryside and in need of smiting.

So don’t drag the players into the politics or the dark parts of the setting: there’s still a lot left. For the players, the peace can be real, the houses can be just providers of goods and services: after all, these are exactly what these groups appear to be on the surface.

And Eberron does a ton of the things you want

Eberron is very much an over-the-top, high-action setting. It’s fantastical and does that great fantasy-punk combo of “what if the medieval world had had real magic?” There is a ton of information about the setting: both 3.5 and 4e had numerous books about it. But it very intentionally and explicitly leaves most mysteries unsolved. Stuff like “do the Warforged have souls?” “what lies hidden in Xen’drik?” “what does the Dragon Prophecy say (and what does that even mean)?” and so on, but it doesn’t lay out the details: that’s for you, as a DM, to decide. So it should fit comfortably in your desired range of “detailed, but not without wiggle room.”

And multiracial is a huge part of Eberron. Even the monsters have their own nation (Droaam). Eberron is very much a “kitchen sink” kind of setting, and everything in D&D explicitly has a place there – which means there’s really no limit to what you can do with races. There are even places (particularly big cities) where it’s so common to see things that are exotic that even if you’ve never seen a particular creature before, you wouldn’t necessarily be surprised to see one.

D&D Monsters in Eberron

Everything in D&D has a place in Eberron; it’s one of the tenets of the setting espoused on the very first page. In particular, most of the Monster Manual monsters have explicitly-defined places in the world. Most are similar to where they are usually, but some things warrant specific description.

First of all, Eberron is, in the context of D&D, a low-level setting. For the most part, the most powerful members of mortal races, nations, or organizations are only just a bit over level 10. Veteran soldiers – and the world just finished a hundred-year-long continent-spanning war, so veterans they have – are usually only about level 3-4. The greatest heroes are often 6-8. It must be stressed that this is at least partially a reaction to the extremely high power of high-level D&D characters. Level 17 allows a Wizard to cast, for example, genesis, which does exactly what it says on the tin.

But it also means that powerful monsters – dragons, fiends, the Eberron-specific Daelkyr, and so on – are not really viable enemies in most campaigns, and so Eberron hides them away: fiends and mad-creatures are sealed away in the center of the planet, and the dragons are reclusive and found only in a far-off continent. The outer planes are instead separate moons, and the creatures on them aren’t seen very often.

So while these sorts of creatures certainly exist (and a DM can bring them in almost anywhere he wants them due to how the moons influence Eberron and sometimes open portals to it), the focus is on more mundane and/or mortal creatures in a typical campaign. Heroes that are to have any interactions with dragons (and for the most part, those interactions aren’t likely to be hostile) are going to be some of the greatest mortal agents to have ever lived. Responding to a weakening of the seals on Khyber would be an adventure that would call upon the combined resources of the mortal realms. And so on. Obviously, those sorts of campaigns can be run. They’re just going to be a huge, history-changing things, never routine.

The other thing worth mentioning is that some creatures, especially giants, goblins, and orcs, have been upgraded to true civilization status. Goblins have their own nation in Khorvaire (though no one really likes them), and they (along with the orcs, who are more druidic) were actually the ones responsible for sealing the madness-creatures away centuries ago, when their empire dominated Khorvaire. Giants, on the other hand, were the first non-dragon mortal civilization, and their magics basically destroyed Xen’drik, the jungle-continent to the south. Their civilization is largely dead, but historians at least know how significant it once was.

Even for the more monstrous races, Droaam is a nation just for them. It’s not formally recognized as such by other countries, but it exists and it functions, sort of. It’s led by some night hags, and there are towns and fiefdoms led by all sorts of creatures – ogres and trolls, medusas, even a mind flayer. These operate mostly independently, having separate laws, attitudes, and goals: their affiliation with each other is close to being in name only. But the name counts: they acknowledge the greater nation (even if no one else does), and at least some of them work together (and browbeat the rest into helping) for the purposes of trying to reach out to the rest of the civilized world and convince it of their worthiness for joining it. This is a largely economic collusion: monstrous races can be very effective contractors for various projects. Ogre work-crews-for-hire are becoming common in some areas, since their large size and great strength makes them excellent at construction and the like. Some in Droaam are working to expand that further: looking to exploit their own natural abilities for fame and fortune. They just need a bit of acceptance first... and to not destroy the nation in a collapse of in-fighting.

Cultures of Eberron

For the most part, there is not an easy one-to-one correspondence between Eberron cultures and real-world ones. The primary (mostly human) “Five Nations” are vaguely European in the typical steampunk/magipunk sort of way, though with their own oddities. For example, necromancy is pretty common/accepted in Karrnath, and some intelligent undead operate openly as citizens. Breland’s got a proto-democracy-almost kind of thing going on, Thrane’s a threocracy, and so on.

There are desert nomadic cultures, but I wouldn’t call them Arabian, I’d call them orcish or halfling or thri-kreen or crazy robots (depending on which desert you were talking about). The halflings are nomadic herder/traders while the orcs continue to battle back against the remnants of the fiends and mad-creatures that once devastated Eberron. The orcs might be seen as sharing some tropes with some stereotypical Native Americans (particularly the “noble savage”). The thri-kreen don’t really get a lot of detail, they’re just mentioned as things that live in Xen’drik’s desert. The crazy cults for crazy robots really don’t match anything in the real world for obvious reasons.

Sarlona, where the dream-spirit/human symbiotes known as kalashtar are from, and neighboring Riedra, where the dream-spirit-possessed quori and their enslaved human population are from, have vaguely Asian motifs (particularly in their martial art monasteries), but ultimately are much more themselves than they are Asian.

Q’barra, in eastern Khorvaire, seems inspired by the European colonization of the New World, with the lizardfolk already living there seeming similar enough to Aztecs. Plenty of those places are smugglers’ hideouts and pirates’ dens, but at least one major settlement was founded on philosophical principles as a refuge from the madness of the Last War – so the country has a bit of a Caribbean meets Plymouth Rock kind of thing going on. And north of them, there be all kinds of pirates in the Lhazaar Principalities.

So you’re kind of all over the place in terms of culture, but it’s hard to draw too many parallels to the real world – unless you want to. Eberron certainly has tons of fantastic and exotic locations and peoples, and many of them are intentionally left vague enough that no one can really claim they aren’t Arabian-ish if you want them to be.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Were there any eberron novels? You have me intrigued now but I find novels often provide a better intro a setting than the campaign books. \$\endgroup\$ – TimothyAWiseman Jun 25 '13 at 0:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TimothyAWiseman It seems there were but I didn't even know that until I googled it. Unlike, say, Forgotten Realms, where the novels describe major historical events in the setting, I gather that these are smaller scale: things that happened in the setting to these characters, not setting-defining events. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jun 25 '13 at 0:08

Al Qadim

...is a setting basically for AD&D 2nd edition, but conversions for 3.5 exist (though I think you could simply ignore the rules part and assign the cultural ones to 3.5 classes as well.)

Let me quote the Wikipedia entry on the setting:

Al-Qadim is an Arabian Nights-themed campaign setting for the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. The setting was developed by Jeff Grubb for TSR, Inc., and was first released in 1992. Al-Qadim is set in the land of Zakhara, called the Land of Fate. Thematically, the land of Zakhara is a blend of the historical Arabian Empire, the stories of legend, and a wealth of Hollywood cinematic history. Zakhara is a peninsula on the continent of Faerûn in the world of Toril, the locale of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, although Al-Qadim is designed to stand on its own or be added to any existing campaign setting.

Pre-made and detailed.

Sure, both. To start and run a mid-length campaign (as we did), the core book and the basic boxed set should be more than enough. They contain a lot of details, and the latter's "information treasure" is divided into two books (one for the DM, the other for everyone), neither of which is a long read. Should you fall in love with the setting and crave more, though, you'll find extra books.

Any system or system-agnostic.

As I've said, Al Qadim was developed for AD&D 2nd ed. (what we played it with) and later adopted by fans for 3.x - but I think it would be pretty easy to separate the setting from the system, discarding the latter and replacing it with your own choice.

Not grimdark or gritty.

In my experience, the tone here is utterly up to you to pick. By default, it's mythic-folktaleish-action-adventure. Remember, it's based on the Arabian Nights. You could definitely turn it into grimdark (by adding realism), but basically it's flying carpets, disguised princes and princesses, evil sorcerers and their minions, magical lamps with djinni and efreeti in them, ancient treasures hidden in jungles, deserts, and wild mountain ranges (inhabited by yak-men!), duels, stories about stories about stories, and, sure, the 40 thieves... and all the things you'd associate with these tales.

Adventure! Action! Daring! Saving the day! (doesn't have to be the world, though) Rule of Cool is rule #1!

Have I mentioned flying carpets yet?

Includes exotic locations. Things like deserts and pyramids, ice wastelands, incredible forests and jungles, impossible cities, flying islands, grandiose palaces, underwater civilizations, etc...

Yes. Al Qadim has all of these and more. (Okay, perhaps no ice wastelands. Just icy mountain plateaus. With yak-men on it.)

Encourages travel-based narratives.

Have I mentioned flying carpets yet? ;) (Or camel caravans? Or the majestic galleys sailing the seve... several seas? Or the elephants? Or the Roc - an eagle that can carry away an elephant? (Even the one you're riding, yes.))

A setting where one adventure takes place in an ancient-asia-inspired wondercity, the next in Africaland and another at the top of snow covered mountains would be nice.

Just what I've been telling you.


It's not that. But you'll find numerous adaptations of its core inspiration (the Arabian Nights) to base imagery on and draw further inspiration from for your stories.

A High Fantasy or Heroic Fantasy setting would be my preference

You've got it. It's both. :)

Clichés are OK.



Have I mentioned fl... no, I mean, the yak-men? Well, they're not playable, unless you make them so (hey, you're the DM), but you'll find all the cliché D&D races here and more. (You said clichés are OK.)

A little room for expansion and tweaking.

Don't read too many expansion books, and you'll have it. ;)

...setting mysteries with an answer left to the GM but, very important, with examples of what might be the truth (for inspiration).

Al Qadim does this. There are several plot hooks left open on purpose, where you decide what's the truth.

Not too much politics, or at least avoidable.

You don't want it, you ignore and avoid it. You could do politics in AQ, but it would risk turning your game somewhat realistic which in turn would bring in a threat of grimdark. Stay with the flying carpets, and let's roc on. (Pun intended. Sorry.)

And with that, I rest my case. (Okay, now that I've written this, I'll have to dig up my AQ boxes. Haven't played with them for ages--meaning about 15+ years, omg--, but... :))

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    \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan I've linked to Amazon where, if we can believe the system, the books I've mentioned can be bought from third parties. Al-qadim.com also seems to be an informative site (I've also linked it in my A), and Wikia also seems to have further, though apparently rather introductory info on it. :) \$\endgroup\$ – OpaCitiZen Jun 24 '13 at 7:27


Based on what you say is your most important criterion, I suggest you try Leverage. The game is based on the TV show of the same name. In the game, a group of best-in-class criminals band together to try to do good instead. It's a high-action game based on the Cortex Plus Action system and designed to allow for player narration and high derring-do.

Basically, the show ran as a caper movie every week. Complex plans, flashbacks, twists, and cons. Plus acrobatic action and fisticuffs. All the fun of Ocean's Eleven and Mission Impossible put together.

The tone of the show is heroic - they may have dark pasts, but ns they're dedicated to fighting for the little guy. As the tag line says:

The rich and powerful take what they want. We steal it back for you.

As far as being a media franchise - there's no real problem. None of the original Leverage team's exploits were exactly public. And there are plenty of people and companies out there with totally different victims for your new crew to help. So the details of the original stories don't really matter.

There are plenty of stories published - just read any newspaper from the last 20 years or so.

They can go wherever you want - Leverage mostly stayed in the U.S., but they did travel internationally on occasion. Do what you feel like, people need help from super-competent teams all over the world.

The setting is fully detailed - check Wikipedia and Google Maps. Don't want to run it today? Grab the expansion booklet and run it in the 40s.

It's not dark, grimdark, or mature. It's a heroic setting - modern Robin Hood. If you wanted something with the smashing action of Spirit of the Century, I suggest you give this some serious consideration.

EDIT: There are no expansions detailing locations - but as I have noted, the real world is thoroughly documented already. There are expansion books adding more details to each of the key roles (Hitter, Hacker, Thief, Grifter, and Mastermind), and then a series of Companion books. Those books can expand the number of scams and frauds your bad guys run, and the type of direct antagonists they face (dedicated investigators, intelligence agents, etc..). You can pick cities that strike your fancy and use them as backdrops to play out your game against.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1, because it's a good write-up and seems like a good suggestion. Definitely captures the light-hearted heroism that was asked for. I have a concern though: the setting is basically the modern world. While obviously that is highly-detailed, how much can you get Leverage-setting books that help locate and name these kinds of things? Answering that might improve this. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jun 23 '13 at 19:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ This had been recommended to me for a different question and I was not too thrilled by the series back then. Checked one episode and was not really impressed. That said, the RPG itself may work to some extent, but isn't this more of a system (Cortex Plus) than a setting with locations, NPCs and plot hooks? I'm also generally less smitten by modern settings, as mentioned in the question. That said, I'll keep this in mind for a modern foray if the mood takes me, thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – leokhorn Jun 25 '13 at 16:31

13th Age's setting, the Dragon Empire, is high fantasy, high magic, and it's somewhat unrealistic, and seems to be specially tailored for heroic fantasy

  • Details: the setting isn't detailed down to the last mile. Major cities, points of interests are given, but there isn't much given on the culture, lifestyle, politics or such. There are, however, interesting footnotes about the festivals and norms of the place in the rules. For instance, no one knows the origins of the Halfings, and every major races devise their own account about them. Halfings just politely nod and agrees with every theories.

  • Icons create the plot. The default assumption in the setting is most conflicts arise from tensions between the Icons - major movers and shakers in the world. The tension and relationships between icons create lots of opportunities for drama. For instance, the Archmage is the one who set up wards and rituals to keep the Empire safe and prosperous but he is getting overwhelmed at that and requires adventurers to perform some of his duties while he go tango with greater evils.

  • Magic makes everything bright: The major hubs of civilization are stable, prosperous and peaceful because of the efforts of various Icons. The Archmage, for instance, put up wards to ensure that farms yield their corps, no monsters cross the threshold and no dark magic are being practised. However, adventurers are needed to keep the fragile peace as the Icons' resources are stretched further and further.

  • Lots of room for heroics: 13th Age makes sure there is lots of things to do. There are travelling dungeons, islands in the sky, monsters coming in from the sea, hell-holes where demonic forces push through into the world. There are at least 2 major cities inhabited by monsters, and the evil/ambiguous icons have agendas of their own. It can be as straightforward or as political as you like.

  • Lots of room for expansion: The settings only detail the major cities, but you can pretty much include details of your own - towns, taverns, dungeons etc. Also, the races and icons are described broadly, but enough is given for you to understand what they are like, so you can extrapolate from what is given.

  • Exotic Locales: Let's see, floating realms in the sky, ruined cities being rebuilt by monsters, hell rifts, an island which is the stronghold of a undead king, a cathedral which supports worship of all gods of good and its architecture is consistently changing, sea fraught with monsters and their underwater kingdoms, and more.

  • Mysteries: 13th Age is full of trivial and interesting mysteries. Trivial ones - which is responsible for creating some of those monsters, the Archmage or the Lich King who was the former Wizard King? The major ones - what did the Prince of Shadows steal from the Dwarven King, so much so that the latter swore to have the Prince's head on a platter? Super major ones - how is this current age going to end?

  • Lightweight: The setting just takes up 1 chapter in the 13th Age rulebook, though to be fair, information about the setting can be found throughout the book (apparently, people do use the Message spell to reserve rooms in inn!). The next upcoming book, 13 True Ways, will expand upon the setting. What's nice about the elements in the setting is that you can easily port them to other settings.

One of the big cons, however, is that the Dragon Empire is rather shallow. There's no talk of how the people look like, their religious beliefs, major holidays are what-such. GMs have to fill those in.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It's a shame that it seems to be under-detailed because what you mention definitely sounds interesting, especially the use of magic as a positive force -- almost an everyday thing for life betterment (and I love when magic also serves mundane purposes, re: your Message example). Also, that it's only a small part of the book, which would be wasteful for me since I'm pretty sure I wouldn't use the system. I may have to look into this anyway, if only as an example of what a more positive fantasy setting can be like. May help me find a template to apply to darker settings and redeem them :) \$\endgroup\$ – leokhorn Jun 25 '13 at 16:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ Their next book, 13 True Ways, will have much more on the settings, or so I was told. Perhaps you want to check it out when it is done. \$\endgroup\$ – Extrakun Jun 27 '13 at 4:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ This may be nice! I have looked into 13th a bit but found much more on the mechanics than the setting so far, though I saw the names of some of the Icons. Sounds intriguing at least :) \$\endgroup\$ – leokhorn Jun 27 '13 at 15:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ The setting only has 1 chapter dedicated to it. Each heading basically described what the location/area is, what makes it stands out, and propose some form of adventure seeds. A lot of it is up to the GM's imagination. \$\endgroup\$ – Extrakun Dec 10 '13 at 17:46

What you're looking for is found in Spirit of the Century. Admittedly, the setting is not laid out in exhaustive detail--but don't overlook the accretive effect of the examples of play, sample characters, and villains.

The world of 1923 is strongly written, with fabulous examples suggesting a very dynamic world under the surface of our history. It can be as normal as you like, especially if you tone down mysteries skill. Going the other way, wild and wahoo is just over the horizon--note that their first novel in the universe is "Dinocalypse"--and their recurring villain is Gorilla Khan.

Share Setting Engagement

The greatest reason to embrace Spirit of the Century, however, is that it takes much the burden of setting creation off of your shoulders and spreads it around your group. Instead of worrying about building (or reading) a prepared, detailed setting, then worrying about how to get your players to buy in, you can reverse the process. Work from a messy pot of influences, then build up the elements that excite your players.

Character generation is particularly good for this; in Spirit you have one reasonably complete adventure location (and completed story) per character. Each prequel locale has seen at least three PCs interact with it, which gives you an interested audience when you set the adventure somewhere they are excited to "return" to.

But the story can start anywhere... even dining in the Woolworth Building when a rattle of gunfire breaks the glass and apes come flying through, riffles at the ready!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The lack of details is really the problem for SotC in this specific case. I do love the way FATE games tend to promote very personal setting creation, and I may very well engage in this in the future, but for now it does leave everything into a blur. If they release a setting book someday, I'll probably gobble it up :) \$\endgroup\$ – leokhorn Jun 25 '13 at 16:58

I'm going to throw in a hat for the setting of Exalted -- Creation specifically, although one could potentially have interesting campaigns taking place in Yu-Shan (heaven), the Underworld, Malfeas (hell), Autochthonia (mechanical world), or the Wyld (chaos outside the world).

Pre-made and detailed. I would like the heavy-lifting to be done for me. There shouldn't be too many holes left that I keep having to fill them in.

Exalted has a lot of source material (I have 108 files in my Exalted 2e folder, although not all of those are PDFs, some of them are unofficial supplements, and some are free downloads). However, the world the game is set in is similarly large. In fact, second edition has a majority of the setting nicely divided into 11 setting books -- 6 for the supernatural areas (Underworld, Malfeas, Yu-Shan, Wyld, Autochthonia, and the Blessed Isle) and 5 for the more mundane areas (North, South, East, West, and Scavenger Lands), appropriately named the Compass of Celestial Directions books, and the Compass of Terrestrial Directions books. (~$25 each when printed)

Each direction is physically very large, as well, meaning you're unlikely to need more than 2 Direction books at a time, depending on where the players are. It is possible to walk (or swim, as the case may be) from any of the above locations to any other, except for Autochthonia -- and even Autochthonia is accessible if the Seal of Eight Divinities has been broken. Some routes may require passing through other areas; leaving Yu-Shan requires passing through a gateway into Creation, for example, and from there you could go somewhere else.

If you look at a map of Creation, there is a lot of "empty space" (the map is roughly 12,000 x 7,000 miles) which you would need to fill in with small random unnamed villages if you wanted to present content to your players every single step of the journey, but that level of granularity is really beyond necessary.

All that said, a well-made campaign could take place in a single major city like Chiaroscuro, Nexus, Great Forks, or the Imperial City.

For an Exalted 2e campaign with a group that hasn't done it before, I would recommend:

  • The Exalted core book
  • One of the Manual of Exalted Power books if the players are not Solar Exalted
  • One of the Compass of Terrestrial Directions books depending on the starting location of the campaign -- possibly two, if you're near the edge between two regions
  • One of the Compass of Celestial Directions books if you intend to take the campaign to such a place

Anything else would be fluff, and dependent on your players. For example, Book of Sorcery, vol. I: Wonders of the Lost Age gives many more options for magical artifacts, Books of Sorcery, vol. II: White and Black Treatise gives many more sorcery and necromancy spells, and Scrolls of Esoteric Wisdom: Scroll of the Monk gives many more martial arts styles.

If you're not running the game with the Exalted system, I'd say you'd only need the relevant Compass book(s), and maybe Manual of Exalted Power: Dragon-Blooded if the game was taking place on the Blessed Isle.

Any system or system-agnostic. I will probably use a generic system such as Fate Core, PDQ# or HeroQuest 2 to run game anyway. Bonus points if it's easy to decouple setting & system.

I've never tried decoupling Creation from Exalted, as my group and I love the game. But I can't think of any particular reason why you couldn't decouple them, save for statting out creatures/heroes/deities/etc., but I think you'd have to do that for most settings.

Not grimdark or gritty. Not even "realistic".

For the average mortal, Creation sucks. But PCs are not the average mortal. Even Heroic Mortals in Exalted (the lowest power level the game system is designed to support) are far away from grim & gritty. A Solar Exalt (the upper tier of PC power) laughs in the face of mundane danger, and a combat-spec Exalt (of any flavor) should be capable of handling small armies on his or her own.

Adventure! Action! Daring! Saving the day! (doesn't have to be the world, though)

I've actually been reading some of the Exalted 1e novels recently. In the first novel, one of the cannon Exalts feels guilty about not going on adventures.

Rule of Cool is rule #1!

The Exalted system has mechanics for Rule of Cool. When you do Awesome™, your attempted action becomes easier, rather than more difficult.

Includes exotic locations. Things like deserts and pyramids, ice wastelands, incredible forests and jungles, impossible cities, flying islands, grandiose palaces, underwater civilizations, etc... Most locations should make your mind-eyes pop out and be awesome in one way or another. Not everything has to be over-the-top (mind-eyes need their rest too) but it should be a world (or worlds) you want to see a lot of.

The South is largely covered in desert (morphing into volcanic wasteland as you go further south). I can't recall any pyramids, but the city of Chiaroscuro contains ancient ruins of glass buildings; the special glass has unique properties lost to time.

The North goes from cold to tundra to ice quickly; few things not adapted to survive there last for long.

The Far East is covered in forest -- evergreens towards the north, jungles towards the south, with deciduous in the middle.

White Wall is an entire city whose construction is devoted to being a prayer to the Unconquered Sun. The metropoli and patropoli of Autochthonia are all alive, powerful Alchemical Exalted in their own right. Meru (lies in ruin in "modern day") sits on the side of a 600 mile-tall mountain. Luthe lies on the bottom of the ocean. Stygia contains the Mouth of the Void (a hole to, well... the void) as well as the Calendar of Setesh, as mechanical construction which moves the sun and moon in the Underworld. Malfeas is infinitely large, yet has a border; it also has many layers (like an onion), yet all can see the green sun in the center.

Mount Metagalapa is a floating mountain... as far as "present day" people know. (It's actually a Titan-class airship, whose downward-facing cannon has a listed damage value of "infinite".)

Multiracial. Whether it's high fantasy with dwarves and elves, Sci-Fi with aliens or urban fantasy with clockwork robots and feys.

While there are multiple races in the setting, it's primarily focused on humans. There is variety among the humans, such as the djala "panda people" (short, white, black spots, hairless), but they're still humans at the core.

Other races include:

  • Dragon Kings (four varieties, one for each direction except center): lizard people who came before humans
  • Elementals (many varieties, categorized into the five elements): powerful elementals spontaneously transform into lesser elemental dragons. Powerful lesser dragons spontaneously transform into greater elemental dragons, lose their minds, and become forces of nature.
  • Demons (many varieties, categorized into three circles): Third Circle demons are component souls of the Yozis, the primordials who surrendered to the Exalts in the Primordial War. Second Circle demons are the component souls of the Third Circle demons. First Circle demons are the progeny of Second Circle demons or other First Circle demons.
  • Mountainfolk: Dwarves (IIRC they're technically Earth elementals)
  • Gods (no two are really alike): Each god has a specific job, or at least they're supposed to. Heaven is a bureaucracy, and you can imagine how that turns out. Many gods lost their jobs during the Primordial War (the primordial who became She Who Lives In Her Name destroyed some concepts forever), and again during the Great Contagion and the Balorian Crusade. Some gained employment elsewhere, some did not.
  • Raksha (aka Faeries/Fair Folk): Denizens from the Wyld who feed on dreams/souls. When the Raksha fight one another, they do so by telling stories, which become reality. (Basically, they LARP at each other with Calvinball rules.)
  • Ghosts: Humans have two souls, the Hun and Po. The Hun reincarnates (usually -- otherwise it gets stuck in the Underworld), while the Po rises as a Hungry Ghost to attack the living if the dead is not given a proper burial.
  • Half-blooded Humans: Some humans are half-human and half something else, including gods, elementals, ghosts, demons, raksha, and exalts.

Lunar Exalts can also take on the form of animals.

A little room for expansion and tweaking. While I need a solid base to work from, I'd like to avoid the opposite extreme of being "stuck" in a setting so tightly made that inserting or modifying anything breaks it all (or is just not that setting anymore). This can be anything from small geographical regions left as a blank canvas, to setting mysteries with an answer left to the GM but, very important, with examples of what might be the truth (for inspiration).

The map has empty spaces for you to fill in, and there's at least one unanswered question in each major area. For example, the city of Nexus has an enforcer named the Emissary. He's clearly supernatural, meting out punishment with, for example, green lightning or turning people inside-out. Exactly what or who he is is unclear, though. In the first published novel, he defeated a Third Circle demon by simply taking off his mask. That demon can no longer colocate between Malfeas and Creation.

Not too much politics, or at least avoidable. I'm just not big on that at all and it doesn't scream "adventure!" to me :). This also goes for wars with big armies (focus should be on individuals and small groups of heroes). It could serve as background and explain why some parts of the setting are the way they are, though, but I wouldn't make adventures out of it.

There is certainly politics (especially among the Terrestrial Exalted and on the Blessed Isle), but it's entirely avoidable. The game system has mass combat rules, but the mass combat in both first and second edition was poorly written, and most people don't like it. (Here's to hoping the third edition mass combat is done well.)

A setting not overly detailed but with enough adventure modules to serve as examples may work too.

There are only 3 officially published adventures, one of which is free and comes with quickstart rules.

Finally, I'll leave you with the list of suggested resources which share theme and flavors with Exalted -- not that you need to go out and read/watch all of these from beginning to end, just giving you a better idea of Exalted's theme.


  • Tales from the Flat Earth by Tannith Lee
  • Hawkmoon by Michael Moorcock
  • The Complete Pegana by Lord Dunsanay


  • The Bible
  • The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer
  • Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en


  • InuYasha by Rumiko Takahashi
  • Ragnarök by Myung-Jin Lee

Movies and Anime

  • RG Veda
  • Ninja Scroll
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • Kung-Fu Hustle

Video Games

  • Dynasty Warriors 5
  • Jade Empire
  • Thief: Deadly Shadows
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I put it in a comment, but I think I have a little time to extend it.

Anima Beyond Fantasy has more or less all the things you are looking for.

  • The set is detailed. You can start playing with the first book (called Core Exxet) it IS rules extensive though. You can add a few books to expand the rules and you don’t need to buy many more books anyway, because there aren’t many of them to start with.

  • The system is based on D100 and resembles RoleMaster quite a lot (without the tables, thank Io).

  • Anima is not realistic. There are certain organizations that can make your life unhappy (if you are a mage it is going to be tough on you) and as I said before, there are some super-powerfull organizations that keep the world in check, but they normally don’t ever appear and unless you do extremely destroying world things they leave you alone. There are a lot of bad places if you are going to be a tourist.

  • Adventure check, action check, daring, check. Save something, yes.

  • Rule of Cool is rule #1 in this game.

  • Includes a lot of exotic places (there is even on book dedicated to it). Desserts yes, pyramids yes, impossible cites yes, flying islands, yes, grandiose palaces yes… underwater civilizations… err.. I think not. Sorry. But alas! You have other dimension civilizations!

  • Travel-based narratives are an option. Gaïa (the name of the planet) is rich and is well worth exploring (the introduction adventure is in a zeppelin!) . You can do it, your choice. There are African styled places, Asian styled places and European styled places.

  • There is a little media, it has a miniature game and a Wii game and probably some novels, but not remotely close to dragon lance thing. Knowing everything though is going to be complicated. The rules are VERY intensive and the background is very rich. Anyway the Core book covers it very well.

More… (take a breath!)

  • It is high fantasy running on rule of cool. But I have already told you that.

  • In Anima there are other races… they are extrange, like really strange but you have them. They are not elves and dwarves, but are inspired in some. You have light and dark elves, giants, human animal hybrids (more or less) and some others. They have some benefits but they gain less experience in each session, so they are not usually used by the players, but they are there with all the rules and you can use them.

  • You have “normal” stuff (like farms villages and medieval Europe places) , but beware that at high levels everything you are going to do is out of the “normal”.

  • There is actually little room for expansion in this setting. The background is very, very detailed. But you can find grey areas in some places and you of course you can hand wave anything you don’t like.

  • The politics are avoidable. Depending on your background of course you could be of the proud warrior people that don’t do much politics or you could be the typical French court member in a castle. The setting excepts that politics are the less and adventuring the most. There are special rules for one character fights a big army (alone!) and it is not very difficult to win, depending on your level and AoE attacks.

  • The setting is overly detailed, sorry. And the books don’t have much of a chronic you can read and play, but a lot of ideas to make your own.

One more thing, Anima is much associated with manga and anime (and it is blended on all the rules, special attacks, magic, psionic and such), so if you are a fan of say, naruto, bleach, bastard, dragon ball, etc… you will find some things in the settingthat remembers a lot like them (and event let you play as something of the like!).

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  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ While I'm a big fan of Anima: Beyond Fantasy, I have to say it does tend towards the dark a bit. Even many of the easily obtainable options for player characters raise some difficult-to-avoid ethical questions. "Well, yes, I can create life, and yes, it does have human-like intelligence. No souls, though. Is that a problem?" \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Jun 25 '13 at 6:18

Artesia, Adventures in the Known World

Based on a series of graphic novels, it's a fascinating setting of fantasy and old school folklore remixed into a fantasy world. It's not grimdark, but it has war, and politics - that said, it's pretty easy to focus your stories on small group rather than nation-shaking armies.

The major set up is you have a major empire with a monotheism pushing into every other nation who are mostly forms of animist/spiritualist types who are either converting, allying, or banding together to resist.

The core game uses tarot as a reward system - basically nearly ANYTHING you might imagine doing gives you points associated with that Tarot card - which limits how you can spend those points in turn. By using a generic system, you can use the parts you like and avoid the rather hefty crunch of the core system.

Full Light Full Steam

It's not fantasy, but it's steampunk. Take the Colonial era, except give everyone solar powered spaceships and make every planet in the solar system inhabitable. Although the default is that you're in the British Space Navy, it's really easy to set up scenarios as any of the other nation powers or natives to those planets.

Slightly Off Topic suggestions

If you want settings that are the opposite of grimdark, the ones that come to mind are: Golden Sky Stories, Do:Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, Ecology of the Mud Dragon. These don't have very detailed settings though, and might be either too light hearted or silly for what you're looking for.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Totally oblivious about Artesia but the tarot thing intrigues me. I happen to have FLFS and have read parts of it. I may have to dive back into it someday. GSS and EotMD seem to be going for the other saccharine slice-of-life extreme. I'm leaning towards that edge, but I'm still looking for some head bashing :). DO actually looks intriguing. Maybe not quite what I was thinking of with this questions, but still... Looks like its FAE version is not done yet though :( \$\endgroup\$ – leokhorn Dec 17 '13 at 12:47

I would recommend you the setting of Glorantha, which was basically the original setting for RuneQuest, created by Greg Stafford. The global setting is typically High-Fantasy, with Elves, Dwarves, ...

I think there has been a rewriting of the Glorantha universe here. You should check it out.

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