Last Updated on January 22, 2023
If you’re new to D&D 5e (or any edition for that matter), it’s usually not too long before someone asks the question “what setting are you playing in?”
In as much as the history of D&D is the history of its various editions, the story of the game is also largely written in its campaign settings.
From its earliest days, D&D’s designers were creating their own worlds in which to have adventures – places that now bear legendary names like Greyhawk, Dragonlance, and the Forgotten Realms.
Even if you’re new to D&D, these names probably ring a bell.
Welcome to our primer for the most iconic campaign settings in Dungeons & Dragons. While there are dozens of official campaign settings out there, we’ve compiled a list of the ones that hold pride of place in D&D’s cultural milieu.
If you’re a new DM, maybe these strange new worlds will inspire you to set a game in one of them – or give you a clue as to which setting you want to plunder for material to slot into your own game.
The Big Three
Famous Adventures: Keep on the Borderlands (1979); Against the Giants (1981); Night Below (1995); The Tomb of Horrors (1975)
Locations: Castle Greyhawk, The Temple of Elemental Evil
Playstyle & Tone: High medieval fantasy, designed for “classic” D&D dungeon delving and monster slaying with minimum intrusion by the politics of the world.
Set in the world of Oerth, the World of Greyhawk was created by Gary Gygax and his co-DM Robert Kuntz, who switched off playing and running the game with one another throughout much of the 1970s.
Fun Fact: Gygax’s character throughout those early campaigns was called Mordenkainen (as in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes).
Tonally, Greyhawk is pretty close to being a generic “fantasy land”. It has a sprawling history dotted with mighty empires, a decidedly eurocentric take on medieval feudalism, and probably more allusions to the works of J.R.R Tolkien than Gygax would have cared to admit.
The focal point of this setting is the Free City of Greyhawk and Castle Greyhawk – a sprawling megadungeon extending deep into the earth – in the land of Flanaess. T
he setting kicks off at the end of a brutal series of conflicts (Gygax’s pedigree as a wargamer is pretty obvious throughout the 1980 World of Greyhawk setting guide) between the various noble houses of Flanaess and the demoness Zuggtmoy, which ended in victory for the forces of good, but the disappearance of their leader, the Prince of Furyondy.
Now, Greyhawk is beset by bandits, wandering monsters, and the shattered remnants of Zuggtmoy’s cult.
Greyhawk has tended to receive a mixed reception, largely due to the fact that the material released for the setting by Gygax (while replete with long lists of the types of trees commonly found in Flanaess, names for days of the week, and heraldry of noble houses) never really laid out the good stuff that he saved for his own games.
Later editions updated Greyhawk in various different ways, my favorite being From the Ashes (1992) by Carl Sargent (who also wrote Night Below – hands down one of my favorite adventures of all time), which plunges the lands of Flanaess back into a period of bloody war – figuring correctly that the backdrop of brutal conflict would make for a much more interesting campaign than the relative peace of Gygax’s original design.
The Forgotten Realms (Faerûn, Toril)
Famous Adventures: The Throne of Bloodstone (1988); Out of the Abyss 2015); Lost Mines of Phandelver (2014)
Locations: Waterdeep, Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter
Playstyle & Tone: The archetypical 5e campaign setting, The Forgotten Realms present sword and sorcery adventures in a world brimming with monsters and magic.
From the sprawling cities of Waterdeep and Neverwinter to the frozen peaks of Icewind Dale, The Forgotten Realms are lands of magic, daring escapades, and the constant threat of monster attack.
First developed in the late 1960s by author Ed Greenwood as the setting for his childhood fantasy novels, Greenwood brought the setting to TSR for publication in 1987.
While there were plenty of iconic adventures published in the Forgotten Realms over the years, it’s been with the launch of 5e that the world of Thoril (which contains the continent of Faerûn) has grown into the unofficial main setting for the game.
As D&D 5e’s standard setting, the Forgotten Realms have a little bit of everything. Faerûn is an open land full of kingdoms and empires, large and small, and scattered city-states and villages struggling to make their way in a landscape that can be unforgiving wilderness one mile and cosmopolitan city the next.
You could run a brutal jungle-crawl in the continent of Chult, a high-stakes game of guild versus guild intrigue in Neverwinter, or just climb down into some abandoned dwarven mines for a good old-fashioned dungeon crawl.
Famous Adventures: Dragons of Despair (1984); Dragons of Desolation (1984)
Locations: Ansalon, Pax Tharkas, the Plains of Dust
Playstyle & Tone: Epic, high fantasy with an emphasis on sweeping narratives filled with dragon riders, knightly orders, and powerful wizards.
In the 1980s, TSR’s marketing department was of the mind that, while D&D was packed full of dungeons, the game didn’t contain nearly enough dragons.
Around that time, a designer and author called Tracy Hickman – alongside his wife Laura, and his writing partner Margaret Weis (as well as other TSR heavyweights like artist Larry Elmore, David Cook, and Jeff Grubb) – devised a new setting that not only focused more one the second “D” in the game’s name, but would also feature a central story arc – an unheard of idea in D&D up til that point.
The result, first released in 1982, was the Dragonlance campaign setting for AD&D. The shared universe also spawned a host of popular fantasy novels and other media tie-ins.
True to its intentions, Dragonlance – set in the world of Krynn – is D&D with the dragons turned up to eleven.
Knights in shining armor ride into battle on the backs of dragons, the gods (especially the draconic gods Bahamut and Tiamat) often take on leading roles in the conflicts between good and evil, and the whole thing is just one big, heroic, pulpy fantasy dream… sometimes.
The books are such a pivotal part of the source material, and span such a range of time periods, levels of magic, and tones, that it can be hard to get a grip on what’s going on, making Dragonlance probably the hardest campaign setting to just pick up and play.
There’s sadly no 5e content in the Dragonlance setting at the moment, although Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons did just add the classic magic weapon “The Dragonlance”, so keep your eyes peeled.
Some of the most iconic D&D campaign settings evolved from the tables of its creators. This is the case with Blackmoor, Dave Arneson’s homebrew setting. Arneson originally developed Blackmoor as a world in which to run tabletop wargames, later adapting it for the earliest playtests of what would become D&D.
The mechanics of dungeon delving were invented, more or less in real time, in Arneson’s Blackmoor games.
Blackmoor ended up being published as the second official supplement to OD&D in 1975 (the first being Greyhawk) and… wasn’t really a campaign setting.
It contained rules for new subclasses, monsters, and D&D’s first published adventure, “Temple of the Frog” – which was pulled from Arneson’s own home games – but no details on Blackmoor as a setting in general.
Arneson later left TSR ( not on particularly good terms), with Blackmoor evolving into part of the Mystara setting for Basic Dungeons & Dragons as a world which existed some 3,000 years before the “present day” in other D&D modules of the time.
Adventures in the Blackmoor setting centered on the Empire of Thonia and the Province of Blackmoor, strange lands shrouded in mist and legend, when men were just beginning to use (but not understand) the wild magic that suffused the lands around them.
A dark pocket dimension filled with gothic horror adventures, featuring vampires, werewolves, and ghosts. Ravenloft – also known as the Demiplane of Dread – was created by Tracy and Laura Hickman (authors of the Dragonlance setting) in 1978, with the first official module Ravenloft being published in 1983.
The dark realm of Ravenloft (home to Strahd Von Zarovich, the vampire lord and possibly D&D’s most iconic villain of all time) is the setting for one of 5e’s most popular modules, Curse of Strahd, which was expanded in 2021 with the addition of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, which widens the scope of the setting beyond Strahd’s home of Barovia into the other Domains of Dread like Carnival and Mordent.
Released in 1993, the Birthright campaign setting focuses on the continent of Cerilia in the world of Aebrynis.
In contrast to games of epic fantasy or murderhobo dungeon crawling, Birthright sets out explicitly to be a setting for politically sophisticated games. Each player controls both a character and the kingdom (or country, duchy, etc.) which they rule.
Characters acquire a domain composed of provinces and holdings, which they upgrade, defend, and expand as they battle monsters, scheme, and plot against their political rivals, and try to curry the favor of their king. It’s a really unique take on D&D that I wish got more love these days.
The boxed set itself is a little expensive if you want a physical copy and the rules can feel a little clunky to a modern player. If you want to play a Birthright style game in 5e, try Matt Colville’s Kingdom’s and Warfare for some modern mechanics to bring this land of political machinations and mighty rulers to life.
The result of D&D getting real dark and weird in the 1990s, Dark Sun is the campaign setting that introduced Gith and psionics to the game, not to mention took the classic “high fantasy heroic” artstyle that defined previous editions and threw it out the window.
Set on the post-apocalyptic, dying world of Athas, Dark Sun eschews the classical Tolkein-inspired medieval fantasy for planetary romance (like Dune) and dark fantasy. Inspired by the Dying Earth series of novels by Jack Vance, Dark Sun is crawling with bizarro space wizards, strange alien life, and feels utterly unique among other D&D settings.
An evocative setting that fuses together magic and technology to give us new races like the warforged, as well as airships and the artificer class, Eberron is enjoying a surge in popularity right now thanks to its excellent 5e sourcebook.
Set in a world recovering from a cataclysmic war between several noble houses, which involved legions of living constructs and mighty war machines battling it out for control of an increasingly destroyed land, Eberron blends the exciting possibilities of technology with the dark reality of magical and mechanized warfare.
- About Author
- Latest Posts
I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.