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Recently Mike Evans asked about setting books on Google+. Here’s what I wrote:
I found Rob Conley’s Points of Light 1&2 to be short and concise setting books. They contain regional maps with a key; most things get a paragraph or two. NPCs get name, class, level. It’s very similar to the Wilderlands of High Fantasy but shorter. I have used both at the table and have been very happy. There are free examples available online: Lenap (which is what I got started with) and Southland.
Rob Conley’s Majestic Wilderlands has more house rules, classes and the like which I don’t care for and unusable small maps. This is why I haven’t used it. I usually find that browsing the blogs and reading books gives me cool ideas and make me want to add stuff to the campaign. These things don’t need to be in a setting book.
I’ve used the Forgotten Realms book for D&D 3 as a player to help me write a backstory because I felt the DM enjoyed this kind of thing. The setting book provided names and places galore, so it was very useful to me. As I suspected, however, the backstory itself turned out not to be very useful at the table. This is why the kind of games I like to run don’t need this sort of setting book (Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Golarion, Glorantha).
Generally speaking I need much less religion, history and culture background than is usually offered by the big setting books. When I ran the Rise of the Runelords adventure path, for example, I never referred to the Golarion campaign setting book once. Not once! That’s how useless it was at the table. I think it’s useful for people wanting to write interesting backstories to their well-travelled characters, it’s useful to authors wanting to write adventures set in Golarion, it’s useful for the community as a reference point when talking about the game they love. It’s just not as useful at the table.