When it comes to roleplaying game settings, my favorite world remains the Forgotten Realms, and very specifically the version of the Realms that exists in the original grey box, published in 1987 (still available on PDF). Although I collected all other iterations of the main campaign setting product, this one still holds the top spot for the favorite presentation of a campaign setting.
In one booklet called the Cyclopedia of the Realms, a big chunk of the world is presented in short, alphabetical, encyclopedic entries that vary in size from a couple hundred words to a full page, maybe two, plus a map. This format presents the world in bite-size pieces that are loaded with snippets of information hinting at the larger picture, hinting but not showing it outright. You get at-a-glance views of towns, dales, cities, and countries, with mentions of people of importance, current events, and interesting landmarks. You get descriptions of how the standard D&D races and classes fit into the world, each revealing aspects of how this world functions, how and what people believe about themselves, each other, the creatures all around, even the gods above (and below). There are tons of flavorful elements all over each page, but none so elaborate, so detailed, that it’s exhaustive. They are morsels meant to whet your appetite, ingredients for you to combine and put together in a meal of your own making. Later editions of the campaign setting would go to describe the world in excruciating detail that would then be expanded even more upon by subsequent support products. Fun as they are to read, they turned the Realms into a memorization exercise rather than a game setting, where canon encroached on all sides on a game master’s desire to have a Realms of their own.
I talk about the Cyclopedia and the grey box because as I turn my attention to organizing and outlining my unnamed Fantasy Project, I have to decide how to present the world where the game takes place. I ran an informal poll on Google+, Twitter, and a couple of Facebook gaming groups asking people what kind of format do they prefer when it comes to campaign settings: a framework approach like that of the Cyclopedia of the Realms, or a detailed encyclopedia, like later Forgotten Realms products. For the most part (a 70/30 split), people prefer a framework approach that presents enough information to get a feel about a place, with some juicy details that can spark adventure, but with enough room for them to make it their own. It’s the approach I prefer as a reader, and even more so as a writer.
With the Fantasy Project, I’ll be using the framework approach to present a gazetteer of the world, the major countries, the influential groups, and the key events leading up the moment when the book is set and the games begin. The world of this project is based on medieval/early-modern Earth, specifically Western Europe, Asia Minor, and the Levant, which means you can Google up images and resources to shore up your game while having the freedom of a fantasy world to create your own version of history. As a writer, this frees me up from having to create an entirely new world from the ground up, and focus on the parts that are unique to my project and important to the game.
Shakespeare said that All the world’s a stage, and my job as a writer is not to write the stories for the game master and the players, which is what I feel a detailed campaign setting does, but to set the stage that is the world so that they can unleash their characters and create new stories.