In recent years, I've noticed an interesting trend in fantasy campaign settings that I believe deserves some discussion. While more "traditional" fantasy campaign settings like Forgotten Realms continue to be popular, there seems to be a rise in what I'd like to call "Fantasy With a Twist" or "What If?" campaign settings.
I guess I should explain what these terms mean. "Fantasy With a Twist" or "What If?" settings are fantasy worlds that change/exclude certain elements associated with the more traditional settings or add new elements that present a unique twist to the idea. These kind of settings are usually presented in the form of a "What if?" question (Hence the use of that term).
For example: "What if your fantasy campaign took place on a dying world where magic is scarce and the planet is mostly badlands and deserts?" or "What if your fantasy campaign was based on the cultures & mythologies of Africa instead of Western Europe?"
If you were to ask me why these kind of settings are popular at the moment, I would guess it has to do with the belief that traditional fantasy settings are boring and played out. That people want something new and unique to sink their teeth into. Something fresh that hasn't been done again and again.
While that's great and some of my favorite campaign settings fall into this category (Dark Sun, Iron Kingdoms, Planescape, etc.), they have their own pitfalls and someone wishing to design such a setting should approach such a project carefully.
First, you should make sure your concept actually has enough weight to carry an entire campaign and possibly more in the future. Some ideas might sound cool on paper, but don't have enough legs to carry it further than the initial concept. Secondly, make sure there's more to the setting than the initial concept. You want the setting to feel like a living, breathing world, not some two-dimensional experiment with little to no depth. Finally, make sure you can express the setting in some relatable way. While you might understand your setting perfectly (you created it after all), you're players might not. Instead of creating a headache for yourself, make sure you can express the ideas in ways they can understand them.
Although I feel like traditional settings still have their place and always will have their place, these "What If?" settings can offer a breath of fresh air every now and again and I think that's perfectly fine. Just make sure you approach these kind of settings with caution and actually make it interesting instead of relying on a gimmick.
I don't think that's too hard, right?