Five Reasons Why the Best Setting for Your Fantasy RPG is Earth

World MapOne thing all DMs (and plenty of players) enjoy about homebrew RPG settings is the process of worldbuilding. Several years ago, I hammered together the initial idea for a fantasy world based on our own world. The geography is the same; the populace, flora and fauna? Not so much. Here’s why this might be the best idea I’ve ever had.

To be clear, when I say this is “the best idea I’ve ever had,” I’m not trying to pat myself on the back. I’ve had tons of bad ideas, but this one seems to have worked out really well. In fact, I can hardly take credit for it, since fellow Viking Ryk Perry has taken it over for long stretches and fleshed it out to a far greater extent than I had. So far, the world has been around for an entire years-long 3rd edition D&D campaign and survived a huge magical cataclysm prior to returning (several in-game years later) for 4E. That’s certainly more longevity than any other campaign world I’ve created.

But this article isn’t about my campaign world, it’s about why you should use Earth for your own, and how to make it work.

1). It saves the DM a ton of work. Right off the bat, you don’t need a world map. Just find a nice World Atlas and photocopy some key pages. You can then draw new borders or geographical highlights right on those sheets. If the players are traveling through Europe and want to visit a large city, you don’t have to make up a city name, location or general character. Just have them visit Prague. You don’t even need to know what Prague was like in whatever vague historical era your campaign takes place in. Prague in your world is just like what you imagine Prague might have been like in 1,255 if dragons and wizards really existed. What’s the weather like in Japan in the winter? Just like it is our “real” Japan. What does the Russian villain talk like? Just like Drago.

2). It gives the players an anchor. I’m a big fan of adding certain levels of realism to RPGs, as long as they don’t detract from the fun. Small details can make it much easier for players to really imagine themselves accepting a quest from the king or walking along forest path in search of a ruined temple. A world based on Earth has a whole bunch of those little details automatically built in. Whether its the irritating attitudes of those snooty French nobles or the searing heat of a walk through the Sahara, little bits of common knowledge and stereotypes play into the DM’s favor.

3). You can defy expectations to create fantastic scenarios. Imagine you’re a DM creating an adventure around some anomalous winter conditions. You can have an NPC explain to the players that it’s normally very warm here, and this sudden snow must be supernatural in origins. That’s fine. But imagine instead that your characters are on a ship sailing to Cairo. As they approach the city, they sail into a massive blizzard, and can’t get into the harbor because it’s choked with ice. You don’t have to explain why this is weird — the players will immediately know something is up and want to investigate.

4). You can play with mythology. There are obvious to do this — throw a labyrinth and minotaur into an adventure in Crete, or battle some frost giants in Sweden, for instance.  But you can also alter your world to capture the feel of mythology. There’s a great example of this in our campaign: I originally made the United Kingdom a realm ruled entirely by elves, which I thought captured a nice Celtic, druidic flavor. Ryk took this a step further and made it into a mist-enshrouded magical elven kingdom that fades in and out of our reality (in 4E, it’s a place where the Feywild overlaps our world a lot). This is such a great way to make Earth fantastic: it’s our world the way we imagine it in fairy tales and glorious epics.

5). Most fantasy worlds end up with a bunch of Earth analogues anyway. Even the Forgotten Realms fell victim to this, with Kara-Tur, Al Qadim and other expansions. At some point, your players are going to want to fight in Roman gladiatorial combat. Yeah, you could invent a reason for that to exist in a fantasy world, but you really want to visit Rome, so why not just visit Rome? Why create “a mysterious land far to the east that’s similar to China,” when you could just have “a mysterious land far to the east called China”?

6). (Bonus reason) Earth is pretty fantastic all by itself. Soaring mountain ranges, verdant jungles, roaring rivers, bizarre plants and animals — you don’t need to make anything up to have a world filled with wondrous and amazing things. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t tweak things to make them even weirder. Mount Everest? Made of one giant white diamond. The Alps? Entirely populated by evergreen treants. African animal migrations? How about flying antelopes that follow storm clouds through the sky, drinking directly from them?

9 Responses to Five Reasons Why the Best Setting for Your Fantasy RPG is Earth

  1. This part of why I love Shadowrun. The “What If” factor. What if magic entered our world? What would happen then? I love it.

  2. Yeah, Earth is Really Cool!!!

    I’ve had a great time with the ‘what if’ concepts, working and building in reasons why the roman empire and neo-ancient greece and egypt exist side by side with portions of feudal europe. Lots of fun creating a reason behing all that.

    Points 1 and 2 are very valuable by my estimation. If you reference arthur or merlin or excalibur, most every player has an idea what you are talking about and they likely have some of their own views on the subject. You don’t have to describe the power of the magic sword or go into great detail about how powerful a king Arthur was. Instead, becuase the players already know or at least have an inkling, you can focus on differences.

    In the same way, you can use such ‘common knowledge’ as points of reference for other things in the campaign. Like that wizard could have been a peer to merlin or this magic sword pales in comparison to excalibur etc. (Don’t even get me started on greek mythology).

    And on top of it all, if you don’t know too much about the subject . . . well the hsitories just got it wrong is all. There are no contermporary writings about arthur. He isn’t even mentioned (to the best of my knowledge) until centuries after he lived. playing around with the historiography by itself can be fun plus you can use it as a shield for you lack of scholarly knowledge on a specific subject.

    and if you look back far enough, there is already a great deal of published information for earth based D&D games from the old 2nd edition green books to several interesting Dragon articles. If you can get your hands on some you’ll find that a good deal of the work is already done and you just have to do some mix and matching and fleshing out the things that you want to do.

    Earth is Awesome. Thanks for inviting me Ed!

  3. ggodo, I agree. I really like the shadowrun concept and I work along those lines frequently. But since we’re in history rather than the future, I look at it in a little bit of a different way; not what would magic be like if it came back (sic) but rather since magic already exists in our world, how would our world have been affected if magic existed all throughout history.

    In my case, I have also looked at it from the point of view of what would/could make magic cease to exist? I have come up with a sort of partiall hidden mythology that makes it possible for magic to fail and for the Earth to return more or less normally to our actual timeline. (of course the players want to prevent this from happening and some times they get the chance – and don’t screw it up too badly).

  4. Wish I’d read this before. Really interesting read, and all of those reasons are great reasons just to play on Earth. If I were more ambitious, and less lazy I would love to come up with a campaign set someplace nifty on this ball of dirt we call home.

    We could visit Calif Hornea, and see some of the strangest, most diverse creatures on this continent. Giant, muscular, bronzed barbarians who hang out near beaches doing pointless manual labor all day long; scantily clad enchantresses that glide along on wheels attached to their feet; mechanical dancers that have a convincing, humanoid appearance; and a ruler who often yells at children to drop their baked treats, and climb into flying machines.

    Calif Hornea is a crazy place.

  5. Or head north to the lands of Ory Gun. A mysterious land that is believed by many to simply not exist, Ory Gun is a land of diverse climate and many a foggy overcast day. The natives live close to nature and resent the ignorance of the outside that claims their nonexistence.

  6. Where else but in an Earth-based campaign can you travel to New Orc City to face and defeat its terrifying ruler, Bloomgerbergle!

Comments are closed.