Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Retrospective: The World of Greyhawk

Though my fondness for Judge's Guild's Wilderlands has since eclipsed it, I still consider 1980's The World of Greyhawk Fantasy World Setting to be the best campaign setting product TSR ever produced. I can already hear the chorus of disagreement rising in the background, as fans of Planescape and Dark Sun, Birthright and Ravenloft, even the 1983 Greyhawk boxed set prepare to show me the error of my ways. They're welcome to try and make their case, but I'm not easily dissuaded on this point, as I'll explain.

When I say "best," I'm not speaking specifically about the Greyhawk setting itself. I certainly like Greyhawk a great deal, make no mistake. As one might expect, it's a perfectly naturalist setting -- a faux medieval Europe with magic and monsters added to it. It's the very definition of what hipsters nowadays call "vanilla fantasy." I readily concede that point. Greyhawk isn't very remarkable as a work of the imagination. Most of its setting elements are immediately recognizable to anyone with a passing knowledge of history and pulp fantasy archetypes. But that's to the good, since it makes it very easy for both players and referees to get into the setting without having to understand reams of backstory and minutiae. The World of Greyhawk was intended to be a backdrop for one's D&D adventures. Backdrop. It's there to provide a little context and depth; it wasn't intended to be the focus of one's campaigns.

Commendable though that is, The World of Greyhawk's real virtues are as a product. When I said it was "the best campaign setting product TSR ever produced," I meant that literally. This product consists of two large hex maps -- among the most beautiful ever made for any RPG product -- and a 32-page booklet that gives a brief overview of the setting, its nations, peoples, points of interest, and related matters. You'll find no uber-NPCs within, very little history, and no epic plotlines. With the exception of a few adventures that were tied to locations on its maps, The World of Greyhawk didn't even get further supplements.

The setting was a gigantic canvas onto which great swaths of bright colors had been applied, but which was noticeably lacking in detail. If the referee wanted such detail, he had to make it up for himself, which is exactly what I did do. When I tell people that, as a kid, I played in a Greyhawk campaign, what I mean is that I played in a campaign that used the map from The World of Greyhawk and the sparse details I found in the accompanying folio. The specifics of that campaign bear minimal resemblance to what Greyhawk would become later, with its great wars, grand plans, and powerful NPCs. Mordenkainen? Tenser? Robilar? Who were they? They never appeared in my games except as names associated with spells or magic items. I'm not even sure I was cognizant of their connection to Greyhawk at the time. My Greyhawk was home to Morgan Just, Sir James Calvert, Theinburger the Thief, and Evro, among many others. They were the most important people in the Flanaess and it was they who stood against its worst villains: Severinus the Lich-Lord, Ragrak Troll-Born, and Ashad Raghul and his Black Brotherhood. If you've never heard of them, that's no surprise, since I made them all up, placing them within Greyhawk and using them in all manner of adventures that forever changed the face of the setting. My setting.

They say that brevity is the soul of wit, but it's also the soul of a good campaign setting product in my opinion. The best ones are those that provide referees with the broad strokes and allow all the detail work to be done later, as needed, by the referee as his campaign evolves. The World of Greyhawk did that for me as a young person and I'm forever greatful for that. Much as I've loved many later campaign setting products for their brilliant ideas, none has ever compared with that Darlene map and 32-page folio when it comes to utility in play -- a brilliant product whose like I'd dearly love to see again.


  1. I never used Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, or Krynn, because I always felt that coming up with vanilla fantasy settings was easy-peasy; why not invent my own pseudo-Middle Earth, rather than spend the money on somebody else's? That's why I prefer Planescape, Dark Sun and Spelljammer when it comes to D&D settings - I never would have thought up those by myself in a million years. Or maybe I would, but I never would have had the wherwithal to bring them to life.

    That said, I definitely agree with you that the broad-brushstroke approach of the original Greyhawk is vastly superior to (say) the grotesque bloated monster of a thing that Forgotten Realms became.

  2. I agree with noisms post completely. I much prefer Dark Sun,Planescape (and Eberron!), but I would rather play Greyhawk if I was looking for a vanilla fantasy game, which can be fun too. Once in a while.

    I am glad they nuked the bloated Realms, the new one is much more interesting anyways.

  3. I'm not familiar with the 1980 Greyhawk set, so I can't really judge its merits, but I've gained a new respect for Greyhawk since going back to the 1983 Greyhawk set and the pre-83 modules for my 'Greyhawk classics' campaign. I'm having fun with the old modules, but this post drives home to me the continued importance of sub-creation, of making stuff up. Stuff that feels natural to the setting and the feel I want for my campaign; which is planned to be very much 'low fantasy' and naturalistic in tone (we started with the Saltmarsh trilogy). This also reminds me to be wary of even reading the reams of online Greyhawkiana, never mind treating it as canon. A world where Saga of Old City can exist without Artifact of Evil. A world where Iggwilv perished after Graz'zt broke free, where Iuz is a puffed-up cambion, where the inherent vitality of the Aerdi will survive the reign of the corrupt Naelexi dynasty. A world without hordes of demons/devils/undead trashing everything.

  4. Greyhawk still stands as the best example then promoted on how to approach designing a world for those needing guides to such. It left everything open, slim histories, etc.

    Just as EGG detailed how one might make a dungeon by including samples of such in the DMG. Not everyone has the time or inclination or creativity to make worlds; and some folks want therefore to get to the gist of playing and entertainment. Greyhawk allowed that, for play to take place immediately without too much crafting, and for adventures to be plugged into it to promote that play and the understanding, once all was said and done, of inspired design with all of its proposed elements. I know some people that would have never lifted a pen to create who were thereafter inspired to do so by starting out this way, so therein lies the setting's least talked about victory, so to speak: Many folks learned to _create_ from that world,
    vanilla or not, makes no difference.

    As always there is something to be gained by one or all in an inclusive
    industry and mindset, and Greyhawk is certainly a sterling example of that.

  5. Sheesh, until this very morning as I read this, I had no idea that the copy of the WoGh folio that my older brother bought back in 1982 was MISSING the 32pg booklet. The one we got had 2 map sections and that was it. I always felt like it was kinda lame because it "didn't include" some kind of guidebook.

    No doubt the contents were printed on the back of the folio, and we were just stupid.

  6. Not everyone has the time or inclination or creativity to make worlds; and some folks want therefore to get to the gist of playing and entertainment.

    This was exactly my situation BITD. I've always been imaginative, but never especially creative. Also, being familiar with very little history and almost no fantasy literature (except LotR) when I was 11, the WoG gave me precisely enough detail to go on without ramming a bunch of unnecessary metaplot down my throat. I plugged in published modules and little tidbits of my own, and let the players determine the course of the campaign through their actions. It remains to this day the backdrop tacked up behind my sandbox (literally and figuratively).

    As a side note on folio vs. 1983 box, I appreciated the extra material, although I'm sure it was superfluous for some DMs. I preferred using the Greyhawk gods over the "real world" gods in Deities & Demigods Cyclopedia, and the weather and wilderness encounter tables in the Glossography were nifty and useful, IMO.

    The map in the original folio was the bomb, however. Printed on sturdier paper and slightly larger than that in the boxed set, I still use that one. Had it laminated, even.

  7. I am more familiar with the '83 Greyhawk, but it remains my favorite setting from TSR, hands down. I think its because there was very little to keep it from becoming *our* setting. And, oh, those maps!

  8. Interesting point, in that being the first, Greyhawk's strength was in presenting the common denominators of fantasy to a broad audience. Modern setting products often spend a lot of their word count establishing how different they are from the concept of "vanilla fantasy," as an alternative to that elegant simplicity.

  9. I remember looking at the ad in Dragon Magazine and wondering what lands were around that odd shaped lake.

    My first major AD&D campaigns were run in the World of Greyhawk. In someways my own Majestic Wilderlands represents marriage of what I loved about the Wilderlands and the original Greyhawk.

    For high level detail the approach taken in the Folio was very good. Very much the same I take with my high level detail in Points of Light.

    However as a practical gaming product I always had an issue with the howling emptiness of the 30 mile hex.

    The first time I could come up some interesting encounter or locale. But by the Nth time it was getting old fast even with help from random tables. Which was why I gravitated over the Wilderlands.

    If D&D had some travellesque method of generating campaign regions then it would have been a very different story.

  10. QUOTE: "If D&D had some travellesque method of generating campaign regions then it would have been a very different story."

    If I may be allowed, TSR, under the guidance of EGG as president and me as his co-DM of the Greyhawk Campaign and designer, were in the process back then of formulating many add-ons to the world which never came to light then due to the company's unfortunate "political" situation.

    The majority of these ideas were to aimed at fleshing out regional areas, like the Wild Coast, for example. Others were an expansion of the religions with unique spells and such. In all more useful backdrops, information and areas to use and sculpt/add to at will. The idea for the regional expansions were to keep them as "history light" as possible,thus emulating the design style of the world and so not overbear one with what one person referred to in this subject as "metaplot". Unfortunately this never came to pass, so the world never equaled, in a sense, let's say, that of Tekumel, by MAR Barker, which I for one appreciated for all of its inspired framework and imaginative design. Certainly there is a limit to what one can or will use from a campaign game world, but if one keeps designing creative stuff with no fluff, well, I'm all for that.

  11. Thanks for the insight. If those regional modules came out probably I would continued to use Greyhawk. Even at the high school and college level I never had enough time to do prep. I loved the politics, and cultures of the setting and that carried into my Majestic Wilderlands.

    To expand on the travelleresque comment. GDW presented the 3rd Imperium in a similar high level view.

    While the Spinward Marches and Solomani Rim existed as products, the lack of specific detail was never a big issue because traveller had a nifty way of generating a lot of local detail quickly.

    This meant that it was feasible for referees to support the vast feel of the Imperium on their own.

    If D&D had a system for making regions then it wouldn't matter that Nyrond or one of the Ulek states didn't have anything. If the referee decided that where he wanted to set his campaign then the basic details were a few rolls and table look up at away.

  12. I'd like to hear more about Severinus the Lich-Lord, Ragrak Troll-Born, and Ashad Raghul and his Black Brotherhood!!!!

  13. I agree with James.

    When I got the '83 boxed set, of course at the time I felt it was a big improvement. But in later years I find that my hands have a much greater itch to lay hold of the Greyhawk folio, maps, and slim booklet. Again, the art seems more raw and vibrant to me in ways.

    But moreover, what was it that really bulked up the '83 boxed set? You guessed it, all the new deities. Scattered through two books to hold all the info. At the time, I thought it was a great boon, but then it caused years of work trying to track down the ones that weren't detailed (Lakofka's), match up the differences in presentation, etc.

    My personal flaw, to be sure. But ultimately it was again those damned clerics, and the enormity of the work trying to patch over how painfully little sense they make in D&D, that caused this unnecessary bulking up of the product.

    To summarize: Yay slim Greyhawk folio. Just enough to provide a sketchy backdrop and kick-start the DM into doing useful creations for his or her personal campaign.

  14. Oh wow, Blast of Nostalgia -- 3d10 dam, no save.

  15. Interesting point, in that being the first, Greyhawk's strength was in presenting the common denominators of fantasy to a broad audience.

    Gaming has long been prone to the cult of novelty and I think that perspective too easily overlooks the appeal of common denominators well presented. That's the genius of The World of Greyhawk IMO and the source of its lasting appeal.

  16. If D&D had some travellesque method of generating campaign regions then it would have been a very different story.

    It's on my list of "Things to Do." :)

  17. Severinus the Lich-Lord was a Suloise lich (my Suloise was Greco-Roman in culture, roughly) who tried to re-establish the Suel Imperium by reclaiming lots of magical artifacts from the Sea of Dust.

    Regrak Troll-Born was a half-troll (he was big, strong, had green skin, and regenerated) Snow Barbarian who did his best Genghis Khan impersonation and tried to unite the barbarians against the Great Kingdom and other southern lands.

    Ashad Raghul was a Baklunish Great Grandfather of Assassins (16th level), who formed a secret society called the Black Brotherhood, which was dedicated to Tharizdun. Imagine a fantasy version of Hashisheen mixed with Cthulhu cultists and you won't be far off.

  18. Bravo. I loved that original "pee-chee folder" Greyhawk setting, too. It's minimal details and toss-off facts were just enough for me to create the world I wanted. When later products finally came out (especially "Greyhawk Wars," or whatever it was) I didn't need or want them, since "my own private Greyhawk" had gone in very different directions. I still remember the adventures my PCs had as agents of the Baron of Ratik in his desperate struggle to hang on.

    Oh, and I loved that map too, even with the rivers that began in the middle of nowhere. ;)

    Dang, now you've really got me all nostalgic.

  19. I once owned this set. The maps were a work of art, inspiring daydream after daydream. Little pictures over the Internet really don't do them justice. The booklet, unfortunately inspired next to nothing out of me. I appreciate that there wasn't a bunch of heavy timelines, continuity, or powerful NPC's, but I would have liked some adventure hooks, rather than just flat listings of populations and standing armies. (Like reading the Census.) Just selling the maps would have been a better option.

  20. James, this is the epitome of the bizarre review you occasionally indulge in, in which you tell us how much you appreciate what was left out, and almost nothing about what was put in. Strangely we know what you're talking about.

    I had the '83 Greyhawk, and got the map mounted on a lightweight board so it could hang in my room, but I never learned anything from the book: I think it might just be a matter of which writing style one finds appealing.

    I used to spend a lot of time staring at that map, especially the freakishly deep lake dead centre. I wondered what wedge-shaped bit of land had been lifted off the world to leave such a geometrical hole. Now I live next door to a freakishly deep lake and I no longer find it as improbable as I did then.

  21. richard:
    "I wondered what wedge-shaped bit of land had been lifted off the world to leave such a geometrical hole"

    The Isles of Woe, of course! :)

  22. Faux Europe, I think is a bit harsh. Greyhawk was many things but Faux Europe, it was not. I would rather say it was a Mirror Europe (even the map is the map of Europe drawn backwards). In typical Gygaxian fashion, Gary took familar tropes and inverted them for his setting. True in the early years, he played with all forms of heroic fantasy but I think as he matured/aged Greyhawk became a default home and he wished flesh it out from both his own adventuring tales (whether he was a player or DM) or just the process of codifying D&D into AD&D. This came to an appex with the Gord novels...and sadly Greyhawk almost stopped there...but some 2nd Edition products remain to Gary's original path.

    The problem we may never know. When Gary was kicked out of TSR and told that he cannot use any of its IP save what could be sanctioned by the suits. He moved on. At FanExpo, he lamented how Greyhawk was not what he created...which was more Newton rather than Neutron blasted heath that came into being. This is not to say that Mona & co. did not do a good job but it lacked the continuity that From the Ashes seemed to posses and Return to Castle Greyhawk (I would like to see what they had to do to compromise to get that approved).

    Greyhawk lives on but all to often it gets diluted with each edition of the rules. Till now, when the unofficial Greyhawk fanzine looks nothing like the Gary's world that we all fell in love with becoming indeed just another Faux Europe.

  23. Regarding Referee's poignant and incisive remarks: I concur. But Greyhawk lives on not only in spirit, not only through its fans, but through its biggest fan and original co-DM.

    Be looking for more of it from my pen.

  24. Pray tell more Lord Robilar will the rules be in OD&D or that which shall not be mentioned (3-4e).

    You are probably right...the problem with the fan memory is that it is becoming more and more fragmented. If you thought something was good in one edition, it eventually makes it way into one's Campaign. I remember trying to run Dragonlance in the Flanness** (with suitable modifications) but Dragonlance goes against everything that Greyhawk stood for...which was a High Magic Sword & Sorcery campaign...I would be tempted to call it Heroic Fantasy but I think that as I said applied to the early days when things ran wild & loose.

    **Thank the Gods, I did not publish these ideas back then...but it was fun for the players to go on this epic LOTR quest.

  25. Thanks for the info on Severinus and co. I may just have to borrow them for my next Campaign!

  26. Referee: I don't think I should co-opt the thread here anymore than I have. I appreciate Jame's blog immensely and the time he has devoted to keep it a neutral area in which to meet and exchange POVs.

    Greyhawk is close to my heart as is 1st Edition. Hell, EGG and I used to use the old Outdoor Survival board to do outdoor adventures for the longest time, for both of our merged campaigns then. Darlene's map was a god-send after that, as well as being a beauty, just like her. :)

  27. James, this is the epitome of the bizarre review you occasionally indulge in, in which you tell us how much you appreciate what was left out, and almost nothing about what was put in. Strangely we know what you're talking about.

    That's why I love my readers so much :)

  28. Faux Europe, I think is a bit harsh.

    I didn't intend it as a criticism. My point was that it's a setting filled with feudal states that have (largely) believable societies and whose variety nicely reflects the variety of the European Middle Ages.

  29. I don't think I should co-opt the thread here anymore than I have.

    Please feel free, although some of this might make a good series of posts over at Lord of the Green Dragons.

  30. "They say that brevity is the soul of wit, but it's also the soul of a good campaign setting product in my opinion." - couldn't agree more. Metamorphosis Alpha was a blast with an entire game world and rules all in 34 pages.