The Eberron campaign setting is almost ten years old.
It was released as the culmination of a search for a new campaign setting, and chosen from amongst 10 thousand submissions. The contest began in 2002 and ended in 2003, when 3.5e was released and we saw the first teasing hints of the world, although the actual campaign guide was not released until 2004.
Let's quickly put that into perspective. I'm a librarian at an Elementary school, which is K-6, or ages 5-11. So the majority of the kids in my school are younger than Eberron. They have never lived in a world without the Last War and Warforged and magitech. They have never breathed the air of a world where there was no such thing as dragonmarks or dragon shards. Eberron is becoming less and less "the new kid" and more and more old school.
With 5e looming on the horizon, is it time for something new?
D&D Next has a strong vibe of nostalgia. Unsurprising since it's the first edition being designed by people who grew up playing D&D and spent their childhoods playing the game. Nostalgia is neither good nor bad. It is as responsible for the revamped Battlestar Galactica and the Abrams Star Trek movie as it is for the new Charlie's Angels series or the Land of the Lost movie. The execution is what matters, not the source of the ideas.
Given the edition is founded on the concept "the best of the past", shouldn't it focus on old campaign settings?
Probably. At least at first. We know the Forgotten Realms has a book coming out that will allow play in any era of the Realms (and hopefully, unlike the last three campaign world books, this one will focus much more on the world and less on giving players shiny new powers). A large tome or boxed set of several books detailing nations and regions throughout the history of Faerun would be excellent.
It might also be fun to have a Greyhawk setting guide. Greyhawk was Gary's world, and this edition and recent years really seem to be honouring his contributions to the game, so republishing his world might be fun. Given Gygax had his own Greyhawk, one with slight differences from the published versions (to keep surprises from his players), it might be fun to go through his notes and publish an alternate Greyhawk, one more in line with Gary's campaign.
Alternatively, it might be interesting to incorporate as much of Living Greyhawk as possible, referencing events from Regional modules and the advancements in that campaign. Or have a multiple-era approach like the Realms where you can play before and after the Greyhawk wars.
Still, as much as the edition should look backwards for inspiration, it should do its own thing and be its own game. And, eventually, it should have its own campaign setting that caters to its design and nuances.
The trick of having a new campaign is something that isn't just a rehash of older ideas. WotC already had a lot of generic fantasy worlds (Greyhawk, Mystara, the Realms, Dragonlance), worlds where the standard conventions are flipped on their head (Spelljammer, Ravenloft, Dark Sun), worlds that emulated different historical cultures (Al-Qadim, Kara Tur) and ones that expand on what magic would do to a culture or world (Planescape, Eberron).
It's hard to think of what's left. Some idea that's large enough for multiple adventures and campaigns, with many new locations and ideas, but has a universal appeal. I love me some Dragonlance but that world wasn’t design to support multiple world-spanning stories, just the one big Epic (the War of the Lance). You want a new world to have dozens of places to start campaigns and support multiple stories, each equally grand and stretching over multiple levels without going into ideas or stories better suited for other campaign worlds.
There are some ideas that haven't been done just yet, such as the water world. They must have gotten dozens of those during the campaign setting search (if not hundreds). There's been some rumblings from the fans for Chris Perkins' homebrew world Iomandra to be promoted to a full setting. People just like boats and islands and pirates, but it’s harder to have dungeons on a water world.
Does the above mean that there are no new ideas for alternate worlds? Naw. There are tonnes. Here’s a few, because I’m on summer vacation and have too much free time:
Underworld. Inspired by the forthcoming Menzoberranzan book, what about a setting that is all Underdark? Imagine a world where the surface was inhospitable or dying and every race dug down to survive. Instead of the subterranean races invading, it would have been the surface races. The entire world is this vast three-dimensional maze of different types of subterranean terrain, fighting for caverns and limited resources in this world where humans and elves and halflings are very much the underdogs.
Planar conjunction. As the different power sources in 4e are tied to different planes, it might be interesting to take that a step farther. A world where there was only a couple power source (say, Primal and Martial) with the related classes, until the other Planes collided and mixed with that world. A collision of worlds that allowed the other types of magic into the world. They Feywild and the Astral Sea and the Far Realm and colliding and overlapping with regions of this world of shamans and woodsmen.
A world without death. Inspired by a conversation Kieth Baker once had on the Tome podcast, what would the ramifications of being able to raise dead with a few thousand gold pieces worth of diamond dust do to a culture? What happens to the nation rich in diamond mines? How do all the nobles feel about the family patriarch being immortal? How are kings handled? It’d be fun to really look at all the narrative problems with magic in D&D and expanding that out.
War world. Take Eberron’s Last War and expand that out by a few extra generations. Imagine a world locked in perpetual war that has spread outward as nations betrayed each other again and again. No place has been spared fighting, and every place has been besieged, sacked, and ruined. War drives everything, with no art and philosophy left in a world that only produces soldiers and supplies for soldiers.
Fantasy Africa. While we have an orient and an Arabia, there's no world that's the equivalent of Africa. With Zulu tribes, Anansi tales, jungles and desert. Inspired by the myths of an entire continent mixed with a dash of D&D sensibilities.
Fantasy Western. This is an idea I'm running with in a novel I'm writing, mixing the tropes and character types of the western with that of fantasy. D&D skipped over the Old West and jumped right to the '20s with Eberron but there are a lot of fun stories in western tales.
Will It Happen?
Who knows. WotC has been unpredictable at best regarding D&D support and products. How they've handled and thought of campaigns has changed dramatically between 3e and early 4e, and from early 4e to the more recent releases.
It'd be neat to see something new with new ideas and the modern concepts of what a world needs and how to design a fantasy world, but WotC might just as easily focus on classic worlds and their older ideas, which makes sense as the development/creation time is smaller and it renews potentially valuable IPs.
And, sadly, with the splintered fanbase and eroding audience, it might depend on sales and how many people are actually interested in 5th edition, let alone a new setting.
I guess we'll see...