Monday, March 23, 2009

No, there is another

Not too long ago Jamie Mal offered the opinion that the original World of Greyhawk folio was the best setting TSR ever published for D&D. It probably came as a shock to no one that he thinks the first official setting for D&D was the best of the lot. Not that I really disagree. Personally, I’ve played the crap out of Greyhawk over the years, using it for nearly every edition of the game. In terms of combining artistry and utility Darlene’s sprawling depiction of the Flanaess is still one of the best game maps ever created. The only other setting I’ve used nearly as much would be Mystara, or as we called it back in the day, The Known World.

What strikes me about both settings is that they are not brilliant works of genius by any stretch. Instead, I would call them workmanlike. Greyhawk and Mystara are sufficient as the place to have your adventures, and that’s it. No big whoop. And I think that’s a great thing. They fill a need for folks who don’t want to make their own setting but who want a larger background, a context for their adventures, and nothing fancy. In this way Greyhawk, Mystara, and the Wilderlands show a direct descent from Robert Howard’s Hyboria. I love the Conan tales as much as the next guy but Howard wasn’t an artiste building an intricate world, he was a dude writing macho tales of sex and violence. The milieu around Conan was little more than an excuse for the Cimmerian to fight rapier-wielding pirates in one adventure and axe-swinging Vikings in the next.

So while I don’t disagree that Greyhawk was probably the best setting TSR published, I would qualify that as only from a practical DM’s point of view. In terms of sheer artistic power, I’d look elsewhere. Empire of the Petal Throne is an obvious contender here. Some will say that EPT doesn’t count because it technically isn’t D&D. All I can say in reply is that EPT obviously took OD&D and tweaked it to better fit a set of needs, just like every D&D ref who has ever written a houserule and just like every later edition of D&D. But like gin, I can only take Tekumel in small doses before it completely messes with my head. That’s why I’ve imported some hunks of the EPT into my World of Cinder homebrew setting. Now I can engage Tekumel as much or as little as I want, then back off and return to the orcs and elves and whatnot.

Some days I’m of the opinion that the best D&D setting TSR ever published is neither Greyhawk nor Tekumel. I’d give the gold medal to Minaria, the setting of Glen & Ken Rahman’s classic fantasy board game Divine Right. I’ve only played a handful of games of Divine Right and it’s been more than a decade since I’ve actually seen the inside of a copy. But the map continues to be one of the coolest I’ve ever seen. Click the image below to get a little taste of the awesomeness.

The various kingdoms are ruled by monarchs with names like Nualt the Dreamer, Archon of Mivior or Cemoii the Wanton, Queen of Shucassam. And the counter mix is full of hardy mercenary captains like Juulute Wolfheart and the Black Knight. The elves are Nazi bastards, the Gypsies are all half-elven refugees, and the ghouls have vulture-beaks. What’s not to love? And while the game itself was very sparse in fleshing all this stuff out, Glen Rahman wrote a couple dozen fabulous installments of “Minarian Legends” in the pages of Dragon magazine, right around issues 34 to 57 or so. Each legend is only three or four pages long, a size I find very easy to digest.

Two things really make the world of Divine Right a neat-o choice for setting D&D adventures. First of all, it is a pulpy fantasy world with just a hint of fairy tale creepiness. There’s no grand clash between good and evil, no Tolkienian angelic elves mucking up things, no epic plot. The game is about the struggle of nations, chock full of blood-soaked battlefields, alliances of convenience and backstabby betrayals.

And secondly, I sometimes think that the fact that the setting wasn’t created explicitly for D&D can be an advantage. One of the things that occasionally undercuts Greyhawk and Mystara for me is the close correspondence between the system and the setting. I know some folks think system should always support the setting and some days I feel the some way. But if you take that too seriously I think the game mechanics end up damaging the credibility of the game world. Or maybe I just prefer to engage the gaps between setting and system and when the two align closely I have no room for play.

Putting together a Minaria campaign would be a pretty straightforward, though it’d require some work and more than a little cash. For rules I’d probably go with OD&D, 1st edition Advanced, or Holmes Basic. But lots of other stuff could work as well: Tunnels & Trolls, Rolemaster, HackMaster, C&C etc. You’d need a copy of the boardgame, which isn’t cheap whether you’re talking about the original TSR version or the fairly recent re-issue by Right Stuf. The Dragon magazine CD-Rom collection provides all the Minarian Legends articles, though if you don’t have that I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them floating around there somewhere. maybe? Any PDFs on the net are probably outlaw copies, unless the rights have reverted to Glen Rahman or something like that. This d20 Minarian adaptation looks like it might be helpful as well.

The main thing that would require a little work from baseline D&D would be a few of the races. Divine Right goblins aren’t puny little fartknockers, for instance, but rather are described as averaging “four to six cubits” in height (which means an average height of 8 feet or so, I think) and are almost as strong as trolls. Bugbears, maybe? One of the really cool advantages of such a project is that, by dint of Minaria’s boardgame origins, you already have everything you need to generate events at the campaign level: just play out a few turns of the game before you set the PCs loose.


  1. Minaria rocks. You will get no argument from me.

  2. I've always wondered why someone didn't write up the World of Minaria for D&D. The Legends series in Dragon magazine gives you all the background you'll ever need, and the map (as you pointed out) is awesome. I'm so stoked I'm going to pull out the (original) gameboard and stare at it for awhile!!!

  3. You suck, Rients. I love Minaria, but despite having liberally stolen from "Minarian Legends" over the years, have never thought of setting a campaign there.

    Now I'm thinking about it, even if only for a side project. And I don't need another one of those. THANKS. :(

  4. You know, there's an online version of Divine Right at

  5. There is a region called 'The Waste of Vah-Ka-Ka'. The 'Waste' of 'Ka-Ka'? Am I reading that correctly?

    This one, while possessing a very cool map, is not one I am familiar with. I admit, in my early D&D days our campaign world was sort of an alternate Greyhawk world that eventually morphed into an original(reasonably) world of out own. Greyhawk was the only world outside our own the we ever used in D&D.

    I will need to look into this further. As always, Jeff's post send me hurdling into the nether realms of the internet...

    Barking Alien

  6. Nice call, Jeff. I remember reading the Minarian Legends back in the day (and never had the boardgame), with the exact sort of hankering. There was something wonderous about those articles.

    Hmmm ... and now I have the Divine Right collectors edition. Hmmmm ....

  7. Luckily for me, the Right Stuf version was sold out. The fugue has passed.

  8. Anonymous12:13 AM

    The Ghost Riders of Khos... The Black Hand... Ogsborgg the Ogre... The Helm of Wisdom...

    Loved them all!

    In high school, we played Divine Right almost every weekend. Now, however, while I have both versions, I can't get my friends to try it.

    By the way, I should check, but I believe The Right Stuf version came with a CD that included all the Minarian Legends articles...

    Oh, actually, the box says "CD-ROM, containing historical data about the game, over 300 pages of background material..." But my disc isn't in the box. I wonder where I put it.

  9. I was going to post something about using Minaria as a RPG setting on a forum (like K&K or the like), but you said it more elegantly then how I would put it. I do like how Minaria has a rich and deep backdrop, but with a lot of ambiguities to how one would use this world to their own ends - not to mention the different and original approach it takes to fantasy.

    Not just I was influenced to consider using Minaria as a fantasy setting from reading the reading the Minarian Legends articles, but one article in particular called About the Minarian Legends that lays out the development of the game, which is a really good read.

    "I’ve seen them floating around there somewhere. maybe?"

    I'm not saying much, but its worth a looking into, you think? ;3

  10. The good news--umm...perhaps not for Scott--is that a new edition of the game has been in production. It's still hung up with difficulties apparently at the printer, but that at least bodes well.

    I also hear rumor that Scarlet Empire, Rahman's proto-type sequel to DR ( , may also finally see the light of day too.

  11. It never occured to me to use Divine Right as setting material, but the map has been a favorite of mine for years. Thanks for a glimpse inside the box. I may have to find one on Ebay, assuming it's not too pricey.

  12. Excellent discussion on a great topic

  13. See how I combined Minaria with the Flanaess to form Oerik here -

  14. I think we must share some out-of-phase part of our brains...

  15. Looks very cool, albeit with a strong Dragon Pass influence.

  16. I love Mystara. I've been thinking about buying the Grand Duchy of Karameikos pdf from Paizo and updating it for a 4E campaign. Reading the Penhaligon Trilogy in 7th Grade (1994) is what got me into D&D in the first place.

  17. Minarian Legends available

    1. Anonymous12:48 AM

      its all in Chinese! :(