Deep seeded in every gamer’s soul is a love of exploration. There’s nothing quite like uncovering a new world through individual encounters with its residents, slowly peeling back the onion and discovering the internal logic, politics and tropes that define their interactions. We’ve had a look and come up with a list of ten of the most distinct, unique and detailed worlds for you to explore in your next campaign.
Firstly, some ground rules, because there’s is such a broad range of tabletop genres that players could explore we’ve chosen to focus only on tabletop RPGs. Not that there aren’t some incredible depth to be discovered in games like Twilight Imperium, but they deserve a list all of their own.
Second, we’ve chosen to focus on worlds with professionally released resources already built for them so players can jump in and start experiencing the universe for themselves now.
10. The Hyborian Age (Conan)
Elsewhere on this list, we refer to one of our entries as the ‘granddaddy of them all’. Of course, that is just a little hyperbolic, and you’ll have to forgive my fellow editors for getting a little caught up in their favourite settings. The truth is that most game-worlds owe much of their DNA to J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, it’s just with so much imitation and innovation, a lot of the high-fantasy settings end up blending into each other and looking more or less the same! Not so for this old-timer though. Conan’s Hyborian Age was first penned in 1930 and set out a clear internal logic and consistency that has well-informed comics, card games, board games and cinema outings since.
The Hyborian Age takes one of humanities gaps in history and myth and fills it with fascinating characters and creatures closely linked to but distinct from Greek Mythology. What so exciting about the Hyborian Age is how it reenvisions the much revisited Mediterranean coast, with a dried-out sea and land bridge that connects the British Isles to the European mainland. The Nile, renamed The River Stix, the northern lands ‘Asgard’ and ‘Vanaheim’. Each locale is connected to the mythos and cultures of its corresponding real-life nations, yet they intermingle in a balanced pantheon of connected bronze-age civilisations.
9. USA (Cyberpunk Red)
As of 2020, the United States has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world, with 90% of the wealth controlled by 10% of the population. Over 65% of the population lives in squalid misery, and another 25-50,000,000 disenfranchised, homeless nomads, wander the ghost towns of Central America. But enough politics. Cyberpunk is set in a fictional version of the USA where following ‘The Collapse’, states like Texas and California break off into their own free state countries.
The world of Cyberpunk may have worn its Blade Runner inspirations on its sleeve when first published in 1988. But, as it’s developed over the years contributions from card games, novels and new editions have added a rich depth to its lore explaining the origins and motives behind the corporate assassins, Netrunners and Mad Max-style nomads. Its world might not feel unique to people who discovered the genre through Ghost In The Shell, or Akira but Cyberpunk scores points for being the originator of a lot of the tropes that define its genre.
8. The Known World (A Song of Ice and Fire)
Relatively new when compared to some of the other settings on this list, George R. R. Martin’s Known World, is no less profound or fascinating. Sure there are the places represented in the novels and TV Shows, but there are entire continents with stories yet to be told. Players can jump into the Age of Valyria or find themselves dodging patrols in Robert Baratheon’s uprising. They can visit a time when sea dragons sunk anyone venturing towards Asshai or take on BBEGs who might include Azor Ahai or even the Others.
The world George R.R. Martin built owes much to the high-fantasy settings of the Lord of The Rings and even DnD’s Faerun. But where it sets itself apart in the detail of its political movements and their societal impacts. Most everything makes ‘sense’ with leaders motivations however self-involved creating realistic outcomes for the poor souls trapped under there rule. Whether it’s a case of social disruption leading to religious extremist wars or complex economic issues stemming from long-lasting sieges, it’s easy for players to make sense of the world they find themselves in.
7. The World (Shadowrun)
Shadowrun combines cyberpunk and high-fantasy settings to create a near-future world where technology has advanced beyond our understanding, powerful mega-corporations control everyday life, and magic and classical fantasy races have returned to the world. Previously a little inaccessible as a setting due to the deep nerd-knowledge needed to know the tropes of both genres and combine them deftly, media such as Netflix’s Bright has turned a wider audience onto the possibilities of Shadowrun’s setting.
Thankfully, once players take notice, there’s a whole lot to get into with an extensive franchise that includes a series of novels, a collectible card game and multiple video games. The balancing of Matrix-style hackers and essence enhanced magic wielders creates a world where dragons and dystopian plagues are as common as corporate espionage and organised crime syndicates.
6. The Weird West (Deadlands)
Could we write this list without a steampunk entry? Well… maybe. So often, steampunk is so poorly put together, that it seems to be more a rough collection of half-baked ideas and aesthetics rather than a complete world setting. Thankfully Deadland’s Weird West exists. The Weird West combines the nostalgia the Manifest Destiny-driven United States nation, fighting against the cultural mythos of the native American Sioux. The scenario unfolds with western ideals of progress running head-on into cultural mysticism but with the added curveball that in this reality, magic is a very real force of nature.
This world gives players a foot in the door with the familiarity of gunslingers and Spaghetti Western tropes but mixes it up with Reckoners, Shaman, Blessed and Mad scientists all competing to conquer the West. While not as densely filled out as many of the entries on this list, there remains a bevy of printed and digital sources to draw inspiration from with Deadland Dime Novels dozens of campaign books to draw on.
5. The Wizarding World (Harry Potter)
J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world may have been a bit shaky in mainstream media in the last few years, and its formalisation as a corporate entity might be counter to how most fandoms operate. However, there is still so much potential for it to expand and continue to capture new generations of fans. The shared universe is vast and detailed; sadly, access to game systems set within it is not. However with the Harry Potter Miniatures Adventure Game out there, and the fantastic if unofficial Hogwarts RPG available for free we couldn’t resist putting this one on the list.
The trick to the Wizarding World is that it is not morally relativistic. Like OT Star Wars, it’s a world of good and evil with chosen ones, dark wizards and where friendship and love ultimately triumphs. Also much like Star Wars the fan base fight over every new detail and story pronouncing it the end of the fandom as regularly as Harry throws around expelliarmus charms. Of course, there’s the BBEG to end all in He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. However, there’s also a bevy of historical artefacts and nemeses, that you could pull into adventures set in England’s Hogwarts, Scandinavia’s Durmstrang or even Uganda’s Uagadou School of Magic.
4. Cthulu Mythos (H.P. Lovecraft)
The Cthulu Mythos began as a concept by author H.P. Lovecraft and represents possibly the first effort -unwitting though it may have been- to create a shared universe that linked various narratives, not by author or characters but by setting and tropes. With elements of H.P. Lovecraft influencing everything from Buffy to Game of Thrones to Adventure Time, it’s hard to deny the impact that the Cthulu Mythos has had on pop culture.
Unlike the Song of Ice and Fire or Star Wars universes, H.P. Lovecraft never published a statement about what is or is not canon for the Cthulhu Mythos, so creators and players have built their own canonical rules that allow the universe to keep expanding and changing within set thematic boundaries. The one pervading theme is ‘cosmic horror’ where humans are an insignificant speck on the scope of history and where sanity is elusive and fragile. Stories typically take place within the late 19th and early 20th centuries giving every story a dark, Victorian, Sherlock-Esque vibe but with the constant potential for unfathomably large old gods being raised by cultists and unwitting human pawns.
3. Toril, The Forgotten Realms (Dungeons and Dragons)
The primary world setting for Dungeons and Dragons, Toril is perhaps best known for the continent of Faerûn. Still, it has some much more to offer beyond that, with the Arabian-like Zakhar and Asian-influenced Kara-Tur, not mention the various planes fo existence. Even without the rest of the continents, Toril has enough to offer in just the continent of Faerûn, with deities, politics, history and famous cities such as Baldurs Gate and Waterdeep.
The depth on offer here is incredible, with wikis, books, guides and videogames all devoted to exploring the history and stories within. If there were one criticism, it would be that there’s almost too much to take into account, with deities and history that can overwhelm even seasoned DMs. Toril is the gold standard when it comes to RPG settings, the granddaddy of them all that sets the benchmark.
2. The 41st Millennium (Warhammer 40,000)
Inspired by Dune, H.P. Lovecraft, Paradise Lost and 2000 AD, Warhammer 40K has to be one of the most loved, most celebrated settings that has struggled to gain mainstream acceptance. Deliberately absurd in its scale and themes, 40K offers opportunities for everything from comedy to horror to of course large-scale interplanetary war.
The vast array of material on offer to help player explore is mind-boggling as it’s been expanded on time and time again since it was initially described in 1987. The only criticism is that from the outside, the detail is so intricate that it can be hard for players to see the forest for the trees. However, 40K’s distinct aesthetic still stands out against a myriad of imitators with its bulky, exaggerated armour, madcap Orks and sleek Steve Jobsian T’au each having interesting and well-detailed backgrounds and histories worth players time.
1. The Galaxy Far Far Away (Star Wars)
Who doesn’t love Star Wars? Well, it depends what you’re talking about, the movies? The X-Wing series of books? The Old Republic era? The original trilogy? The Heir to the Empire? The Darth Bane trilogy? The Clone Wars? One thing everyone can agree on, the fact that we can list these few but diverse settings, all spawning from the same universe if proof that it’s one of the best.
There’s not much to say about Star Wars that hasn’t already been written, commented on, analysed and revisited already. However, what makes the universe so particularly great for tabletop players is the number of resources on offer— Edge of The Empire, Age of Rebellion, Knight of The Old Republic. There are options available to go anywhere in the galaxy, and due to to the strong aesthetic already built, players have no trouble making stories inside of the established canon, setting them up to take on BBEG’s like rouge Imperial Moffs, Hutt’s with an axe to grind or even Sith warlords.