D&D 4e, D&D 5e, Dungeons & Dragons, Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, World Building

Let’s Go Exploring – If We Can Ever Find Somewhere Unexplored

Recently I started running a game of D&D set in the Forgotten Realms; and as I was describing where the players were in the world it occurred to me at how civilized the Realms (and my beloved Greyhawk for that matter) really are. The world still has wild spaces but there are clearly defined boarders and while there are monstrous hordes out there to fight it all just feels like you’re supposed to be battling armies and corruptible, nongovernmental organizations instead of disappearing out in the wild country searching for treasure and a dragon to love you.

At this point in the history of the D&D game nearly all of the official game worlds have a mountain of narrative fiction surrounding them that helps define the world clearly for us. We know what we’re going to find when we go to Thay, or when we wander the imaginary streets of Greyhawk, or if we’re sitting in the halls of Karameikos. And when we wander abroad, while there are wild spaces, the frontiers of our nation states have internalized “. . . the European frontier – a fortified boundary line running through dense populations . . .” (Turner) and in doing so they have limited what sorts of adventures we can have.  

This is a problem, and one that Wizards of the Coast has recognized:

“One of the first things we tackled in the SCRAMJET team (the team responsible for world building in 4th edition D&D – Charlie) was the creation of a set of ‘key conceits’ – things we knew we wanted to be true about the game world and the characters’ role in it.

During those discussions we found ourselves wandering into a debate about campaign world design and the ‘typical’ D&D game. Many of the campaign settings we created in previous editions look a lot like the map of the modern world – neat borders are drawn around countries. Implying that he world is more or less carved up between a number of political entities or civilizations. We weren’t very happy with that, to tell the truth. It works against the sense of mystery, wonder, and dread you’d like to see in most D&D settings.

In kicking around this particular key conceit, we hit upon the idea of a different core assumption about the world: Most of it is monster-haunted wilderness, and the centers of civilization are few and far between . . . I came up with the phrase “points of light in a dark world” to capture this concept . . .”


With the points of light concept Wizards of the Coast encouraged us to re-examine our maps and to reconsider our notions about how the nations of our worlds are settled. Furyondy, for example, has seven major towns: Chendl, Willip, Littleberg, Crystalreach, Reach, Gold County, and March. If we apply the points of light concept to this nation than these seven major cities would be all the cities we find with a few, sparsely populated villages and boarder keeps dotted throughout the remainder of the nation. The rest of the state would largely be wilderness populated by the monstrous denizens.

I’m liking the idea so far but it necessitates more thought.

Works Cited

Baker, Richard. Points of Light in a Big, Dark World. Wizards Presents Worlds and Monsters edited by Jennifer Clarke Wilkes, Wizards of the Coast, USA, PRINT. 14

Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Significance of the Frontier in American History. DIGITAL Accessed 4/21/2020


2 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring – If We Can Ever Find Somewhere Unexplored”

  1. The problem with both the points of light setting and the densely packed political States Is rooted in a fatal misunderstanding of medieval history and society. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Any town of significant size requires an extensive hinterland, not just a few villages here or there. The idea of clearly defined political borders and loyalties that extend beyond specific persons didn’t really begin to develop until near the end of the hundred years war. Political control was haphazard at best, even though we may have maps of Europe with clear political boundaries, reality was significantly different. Lords and Kings often had limited or non-existent control over large parts of their territory. And there were many places where habitation was practically non-existent, where we can place monsters.

    I see the attraction of both models, of political entities vying for control, and a points of light wilderness, yet I think it is possible to have both simultaneously. Looking at history helps to inform my game and not have a homogeneous setting full of stereotypes. Medieval history is replete with places that were isolated and surrounded/harrased by bandits(monsters) and/or wilderness, and also political factions and shifting alliances. One does not exclude the other.


    1. I see where you’re going with this Lance, but the problem is that the fictional worlds many of us play in aren’t an extension of the actual medieval history of western Europe. Instead they’re based on the narrative works of a plethora of authors who have filled all the spaces around Waterdeep and Greyhawk. Every forest has been explored, every dungeon delved, and every lonesome tower has been brought low.

      The Points of Light approach was an attempt to rectify that mountain of fiction and to allow people to play in the shared worlds in a way similar to what you’ve described. It was a way of “giving permission” to people who felt like they couldn’t ignore what came before. Not all of us are like that, but there are enough that they felt the need to address it.


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