Tuesday, September 27, 2022

My Top 10 Favorite Imaginary Settings (Part II)

As I prepared the second part of this list, what struck me is that three of the top five entries are roleplaying game settings. Thinking on it, I suppose that only makes sense. I spend a lot more time exploring imaginative settings through roleplaying than I do through simply reading stories set in them. In any case, this was a useful exercise for me, since it helped me to understand better the things I find most attractive in imaginary settings. Readers will notice certain commonalities between my favorites, though I think there's also a fair degree of diversity too.

Part I can be found here.

5. Zothique

Of all the settings created by Clark Ashton Smith, Zothique is by far my favorite. I was first introduced to Zothique through his short story, "The Empire of the Necromancers" and it very rapidly became one of my favorite imaginary settings. Evoking melancholy and ennui, as well as making ample use of mordant humor, one might call it the Clark Ashton Smith-iest of all his imaginary settings. I've derived a great deal of pleasure from reading stories that take place on the Last Continent; several of them are regular reads that I return to year after year.

In some respects, Zothique is quite similar to Vance's Dying Earth, in that it's really our Earth in the impossibly far future, when sorcery and congress with extra-terrene entities are now facets of everyday existence. However, it lacks the technology-as-magic (or is that magic-as-technology?) conceit of the Dying Earth, focusing instead on the return of black magic and alien gods as a consequence of mankind's enervating boredom as it awaits the end of all things. Zothique drips with a decadence that is equal parts repulsive and enchanting – heady stuff, especially for someone whose life is as staid as mine.

4. Lankhmar
You can be forgiven for thinking I meant Nehwon, but I can assure you that I mean Lankhmar, the City of the Black Toga and home base of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. The truth is that, for the most part, I don't find the world of Nehwon all that interesting. Indeed, I'm not even certain that Leiber found it all that interesting himself. Lankhmar, on the other hand, is endlessly fascinating and is practically a world in itself, with its dark, winding streets, remarkable locales, and even more remarkable inhabitants. It's not for nothing that Leiber's best stories all take place within the city's walls.

Lankhmar is the setting that first taught me the potential a single well-described place could hold. Leiber ably demonstrated that there's absolutely no need to create an exhaustive fantasy world to tell amazing stories. Bring a single city to life and you have everything you need to present many tales of adventure. Lankhmar is also probably why I've long had a fascination with cities and city-states in fantasy, as well as why I hope one day to referee a campaign set entirely within a city. I haven't done it yet, but, if I do, you can be sure there will be more than a little Lankhmar in the proceedings.

3. Glorantha

Even a few years ago, I doubt Greg Stafford's Glorantha would have made it onto my top 10 favorite imaginary settings, never mind my top 5. For a long time, my early experiences with the setting made it difficult for me to recognize its brilliance. Recently, though, Glorantha has risen considerably in my estimation, thanks in no small part to my having had the chance to play in a couple of RuneQuest campaigns that allowed me to experience the setting on its own terms. The result was a re-evaluation of both the setting itself and what Stafford was attempting to do with it.

If D&D's default idiom is pulp fantasy, then RuneQuest's is mythology. Glorantha has a mythic feel, like the world of Greco-Roman myth but with numerous unique and, dare I say, modern twists on them that make it feel genuinely unique. Stafford was a keen student of myth, religion, and spirituality of all kinds and that shows in the cultures, societies, and beliefs of Glorantha. It's a thoroughly engaging place, all the more so, I think, because that seems to have been the intention. Through their characters, players are supposed to grapple with the meaning of myth and legend, even to the point of potentially rewriting them through their characters' actions. And to think I once dismissed it as too "Californian."

2. Tékumel

Some of you will no doubt have expected that Tékumel would take the top spot on this list and I can't blame you for thinking so (though those who know me well will not be surprised by my actual top choice). I was a relative latecomer to Tékumel, only really discovering it in the early '90s, through a Usenet newsgroup dedicated to the setting of Empire of the Petal Throne. Once I discovered, I was hooked and became a lifelong devotee. Recent revelations have not dimmed my love for the setting nor weakened the enthusiasm of myself or the players of my ongoing House of Worms campaign, which barrels on toward its eighth year of continuous play.

My fondness for Tékumel is based on several factors, the chief being that it's not a vanilla setting. Instead, it's a complex, detailed world whose main inspirations are a variety of non-European historical cultures. Despite this, it's not nearly as difficult to understand as some have claimed and can, in fact, be enjoyed by roleplayers of all stripes. I also love Tékumel for its blending of science fiction and fantasy, something that you'll see in many of the settings on this list. And despite the claim that the setting is so detailed that there is no room for individual creativity, I have found just the opposite. Rather than being an impediment to my own creativity, the detail has served to inspire me, often in unexpected ways. I've had more fun refereeing my Tékumel campaigns than I have almost any other – high praise from a gamer who's been playing for more than four decades.

1. Third Imperium
If you correctly guessed that the Third Imperium would be at the top of this list, congratulations, you know me and my tastes well. I regularly tell people that, when it comes to RPGs, "D&D is my first love, but Traveller is my true love." A big part of the reason why I feel that way is because of the game's "official" setting. Players older than I remember a time when Traveller, like Dungeons & Dragons, was simply a rules set without a setting of its own. For them, Traveller remained a game of "science fiction adventure in the far future," while, for me, it's always been "science fiction adventure in the Third Imperium."

My fondness for the setting is born of several factors. The first is the deft way that Miller and his colleagues at GDW borrowed and riffed off elements of the great sci-fi writers of the '40s through '70s to create a setting that was simultaneously familiar and original. The second is that I've spent more time playing and refereeing in the Third Imperium than I have in any other imaginary setting. In many ways, the Third Imperium is home and I know it like the back of my hand. Finally, my first professional writing credits were for Traveller in the 1990s, which, in turn, introduced me to a number of others who subsequently became some of my oldest and dearest friends. I can think of no better marker of excellence than that.


  1. I love posts like this from you James. I wish I had more time to explore and play with different groups.

  2. interesting, no greyhawk. agree with most of these, skipping the few I have not experienced...

  3. Lankhmar and Tekumel are definitely on my list. I have no experience with Glorantha; I'd substitute Shadow World. My number one is most likely Dark Sun.

  4. Glorantha would be my top choice. I've tried to like urban settings, but I have yet to run a truly successful urban campaign. Even my current Haven/Thieves Guild campaign using RuneQuest rules has escaped the bounds of the city, so while Lankhmar is really interesting to me, it just doesn't stick with me. For Traveller, I prefer a much smaller setting than the 3rd Imperium, though maybe someday I'll pick a corner of the 3I and try running a campaign there. I want to love Tekumel, but I have yet to wrap my head around the almost totally alien world.

  5. Wow, I would have guessed Tékumel at the top simply because you often post some criticism of Traveller, after its initial years, implicitly assuming the Third Imperium to be its setting.

    Still, I would take those two as my top settings for RPG use.

  6. Nice choices. Here's my (top-7) list.

    1. Middle-Earth (of course it's my favorite -- as detailed in Tolkien's source material and also Iron Crown Enterprises' gaming modules published from 1982-1997)
    2. Tekumel (I'm a newcomer to this setting, but I've been overwhelmed by how stunningly impressive it is)
    3. Mystara (I always played AD&D, not Basic, but I liked the setting for Basic much better than Greyhawk)
    4. Newhon (more than Lankhmar - the whole land)
    5. The Land (from Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series)
    6. The Third Imperium
    7. Athas

    1. Actually, shame on me, I forgot the Averoigne of C.A. Smith's stories. That would be in my top 5 for sure.

    2. I was tempted to include Averoigne too, but I figured more than one CAS setting was probably pushing it and opted for the one I most enjoy.

  7. Not surprising, and all but the one Barker ruined would be in my own top twenty, and mostly top ten. Wouldn't call out Lankhmar over Newhon though, since many of my own favorite stories from the setting don't take place in the city itself. Certainly ranks up there as one of the best-realized fictional cities though, alongside Sanctuary (Thieves' World), Liavek, Greyhawk, and Pavis/Big Rubble.

    Of the fictional settings I'd most like to actually live in (rather than just visit) James White's future (including but not limited to Sector General) is perhaps the most appealing, simply because it's relentlessly optimistic without ever quite feeling naive.

    1. Some other great cities:

      Haven (Gamelords, Thieves Guild NOT to be confused with Sanctuary/Thieves World/Robert Lynn Asprin...)

      Midkemia has several smaller cities or towns that are nicely detailed. Their work fed into both Sanctuary and Pavis.

      Good call on Liavek. I would love to see RPG material set there. Another good one is Merovingan Nights (I can't find what the city is called), another shared world anthology series featuring some familiar names.

      Sector General sure is interesting. I'm not sure how good an RPG setting it would make, and I have no idea how to make a medical drama into good RPG material.

    2. Haven was interesting, as were the cites portrayed in the Lejentia books. Part of the reason I didn't mention Merovingian Nights was due being similarly unable to remember the name of the city - if it even really had one. Great series regardless. :)

      There have been a couple of medical drama RPGs in recent years, but you could maybe run Sector General's setting without it being in the forefront. Ambulance ships wind up in first contact situations all the time, and the setting supports other kinds of diplomatic contacts as well - even sort-of-warfare where one side is badly misunderstanding the other's intentions and things go sour. White wrote the "your sun is about to go nova, we don't have time to talk if we're going to evacuate you to safety, please stop shooting at us, this is for your own good" story from both sides of what sure looks like an alien invasion, after all. Plus there was that real shooting war over Sector General itself, where an actual Evil Empire was deliberately using propaganda to sell the Federation as villains and monster. A game set in the aftermath/cleanup phase of that mess could be workable.

  8. Thinking about it, Minaria (the setting of the TSR board game Divine Right) would make my top ten most of the time, which says something considering how little material was actually published about it. Some hints in the rulebook and that wonderful map, and a short series of articles in Dragon back in the day, and that's really it outside of fan material. DR is one of those rare board games that manages to feel like it has a whole world behind it that you're just getting a glimpse at, much like Dragon Pass, SPI's Swords & Sorcery, GDW's Bloodtree Rebellion, and Heritage's Demonlord.

  9. I have always been fascinated with Greyhawk. I bought the soft-cover edition with the beautiful map by Darlene and the gazetteer when I was in high school in the early 80's. I had plans to set a campaign in the Great Kingdom, where the PCs would have to be "undercover" in a decadent kingdom. Then there's the Nyr Dyv and Greyhawk itself and Furyondy etc.

    It's not a fully-fleshed setting by any means but I had/have a very active imagination. Sometimes to my detriment...

  10. Great list. I'd cut Glorantha, Third Imperium and Fading Suns. And add:

    Lovecraft's New England and the Dreamlands
    Moorcock's Young Kingdoms and the Multiverse
    Greyhawk (Darlene map)

    Great topic, James.

    1. Blasphemy to cut Glorantha! :-)

    2. Ha. Sorry. It's those stupid ducks.

      But I'll hold a spot for sha-Arthan!

    3. Speaking of ducks, I had an email newsletter from Splintered Light Miniatures today announcing 15mm scale Glorantha Dark Trolls and ducks in the works. Greens looked okay, although the duck one was too tall and is being redone.

  11. Overall, that is an excellent list. My own would probably look like this, from highest to lowest:

    1 - Third Imperium
    2 - Glorantha
    3 - Dune Imperium
    4 - Hyboria
    5 - Earthsea
    6 - Oerth
    7 - Young Kingdoms
    8 - Hârn
    9 - Barsoom
    10 - Middle-Earth

    There are more, but this is the top 10 (Zothique and the Warhammer 40,000 setting are in my 11th and 12th spots). Like you, for me the Third Imperium is a comfortable place full of adventure. I spent some time being hurt by what I saw as a betrayal in the Virus metaplot, and I still prefer to let the Rebellion devolve into Hard Times in my own games rather than nuke it all, but I can't stay away from the setting. I have a long, happy relationship with Glorantha, so that one was a given for me. The others just follow on from there.

  12. Young Kingdoms > Tekemel
    Harn > Glorantha

  13. My favorite science fiction setting is that of Dune, as set forth in the 1965 novel of that name. I like how it presents human beings living as human beings with some very advanced technology, rather than as staring at glowing rectangles and asking machines to solve their problems for them. I think the spectacle of young people shuffling around staring at glowing rectangles has made me realize that computers, so far from being the wave of the future, are instead a dead end.

  14. One of the things I appreciate about Glorantha is that it's a rare example of a pure fantasy setting, by which I mean it's not a spherical planet floating in space, but rather a square blob of land floating down a cosmic river.

    (I'm aware that many of the concepts are drawn from real world mythology, but when even the Forgotten Realms are semi-plausible planets, it's nice to see a game world that isn't anything of the sort.)

  15. It occurred to me later that you’ve limited yourself to 20th century entries. I was thinking that Arthurian Britain would have otherwise ranked in the top 10, especially Stafford’s synthesis as RPG.

  16. A very good list, of course!

    If only Tékumel hadn't taken an extended "hiatus" after the early 50s (prior to the publication of LOTR) it would've been interesting to see what an influence that might've turned out to be beyond RPGs.

    Agreed with Lankhmar city over Nehwon: albeit personally also using the former as a hub for the latter, to have such a strong "core" city setting for adventure was well recognised by the Judges Guild crew and others, too.

    (And a quick aside, if I may, re. your useful Goodman Games article on Leiber https://goodman-games.com/tftms/2021/09/14/adventures-in-fiction-fritz-leiber-h-p-lovecraft-and-the-origin-of-sword-and-sorcery-stories/ , the Lankhmar boardgame as eventually published by TSR actually *pre-dated* D&D as it was originally meant to be published by Guidon Games, per the correspondence that went along with Gary's playtest copy dating back to that period; https://www.acaeum.com/forum/viewtopic.php?p=182513&c=1#p182513 )