Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Retrospective: Greyhawk Adventures

Although D&D's Bronze Age in the early to mid-1990s is quite rightly associated with the plethora of pre-packaged campaign settings TSR published for the game, this strategy had its origins in the dying days of the Silver Age. This was the period immediately prior to the release of David Cook's second edition of AD&D, when the company was throwing a lot of spaghetti against a lot of walls to see what might stick. The time was equal parts "experimental" and "desperate" and you can see that in the unevenness of the products TSR created.

Being the unrepentant TSR fanboy I was, I naturally picked up almost everything the company produced, even when it wasn't something out of which I thought I'd get much use. That's what led me to buy Dragonlance Adventures in 1987 and, the following year, Greyhawk Adventures. In 1988, I was no longer making use of Gary Gygax's World of Greyhawk setting, having developed my own setting during my high school years. Even so, there was no way I wasn't going to grab a new hardcover AD&D book, especially one written by James M. Ward, creator of my beloved Gamma World

As it would turn out, Greyhawk Adventures is not the work of James M. Ward – or, rather, it's not solely his work. The volume is instead the work of many different writers, some of whose names I recognize and others completely unknown to me: Daniel Salas, Skip Williams, Nigel Findley, Thomas Kane, Stephen Innis, Len Carpenter, and Eric Oppen. The content of the book is itself a mixed bag, consisting of seven chapters and two appendices. The chapters describe (in order) the deities and clerics of Greyhawk, new monsters, significant named NPCs, magic spells, magic items, unusual locales, and a series of adventure outlines and random encounters. Meanwhile, one appendix enumerates the spells named after Greyhawk magic-users and the other introduces the concept of playable 0-level characters.

The section on deities and clerics was of great interest to me in my youth, in part because I had a lot of fondness for the gods of Greyhawk. Each god is described in some detail, along with the statistics for his "avatar" or physical manifestation in the realm of mortals. I suspect this concept was introduced here in order to obviate the problems that arose from the way the gods had been presented in Ward's earlier Deities & Demigods. Clerics, on the other hand, were presented in a way similar to Dragonlance Adventures, with each god's priesthoods operating according to their own unique rules, including weapon and spell restrictions. I thought then as I do now that this only makes sense and probably should have been introduced into Dungeons & Dragons sooner. If nothing else, it's an excellent example of game mechanics doubling as worldbuilding.

Sadly, after a strong first chapter, Greyhawk Adventures stumbles and never really recovers. The sections on monsters and magic items, for example, are fairly bland, with only the thinnest of Greyhawk veneers to justify their inclusion in this book. The section on named NPCs, many of whom are the rulers of the setting's city-states and countries, is a little better in that there's a stronger connection to the setting but most of these NPCs are so powerful and influential that the likelihood of a DM ever making use of them in play is small. The book's many new spells, like everything else in this book, vary in quality, their main characteristic being that all of them are associated with a famous Greyhawk spellcaster. If you ever wanted more Bigby's Hand spells, for example, Greyhawk Adventures has got you covered. 

After all these years, I still can't make up my mind as to whether the idea of playable 0-level characters is insanity or genius. The basic idea is that a 0-level character is an apprentice adventurer, one who hasn't yet decided on his character class. Through his choices, the 0-level character slowly determines his alignment, abilities, proficiencies, and so on. He can also seek out instructors to teach him more, thereby advancing along the road toward full membership in a traditional character class. It's a genuinely interesting idea, particularly since 0-level characters can and indeed will have a smattering of skills associated with multiple classes. It's almost an attempt to present a class-less AD&D, albeit one with lots of caveats and limitations in order to preserve one of the game's foundational design elements. (It's worth noting, too, that there are also rules for allowing characters of 1st level and above to pick up the abilities of other classes at the cost of an XP penalty.)

Compared to Dragonlance Adventures, Greyhawk Adventures is a letdown on multiple levels. The strength of Dragonlance Adventures lies in its integration of rules and setting so as to present a version of AD&D tailored to the world of Krynn. Greyhawk Adventures does nothing of the kind. It's a grab-bag of fairly generic – and often unimaginative – material released under the Greyhawk masthead but without any significant connection to Gygax's campaign setting. The most interesting stuff in the book, aside from the material on the gods and their clerics (which was simply an adaptation of what Dragonlance Adventures had already done), is the appendix on 0-level characters and even that is half-baked and tentative, as if its designer (whoever he was) didn't quite have the courage of his conviction to upend D&D's class system entirely.

The end result is a book that is by turns meandering, trite, and directionless – much like TSR before the publication of Second Edition gave the company a short-lived injection of energy and enthusiasm. As a well known hater of Dragonlance, I hope others will recognize the significance of my stating here that Dragonlance Adventures was a superior book to Greyhawk Adventures in almost every way. Indeed, it's possible that Greyhawk Adventures might well be the worst hardcover volume ever published for the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which is saying something


  1. Except for the deities chapter, I found this book worthless.
    The spells and monsters looked very, very boring and as pointless as the additional information on the setting (adventure seeds?).
    Last but not least, I'm firmly in the "0th level as insanity" camp.
    Whether GhA is better or worse than the WSG it's a matter of taste, probably.
    I really can't make up my mind between this and the Survival Guides.

    As for Greyhawk, the Gold Box remains the best version ever written. There is all I need in there, no more, no less.

  2. I'm really glad that you've done a retrospective on this, as I always found the cover beguiling, but I never bought it. Your comments have made me decide not to purchase the PDF or POD.

    1. This cover is one of Easley's best from the "Orange Spine" era. YMMV on how much of the content inside is good/useful, but it had an absolutely elite cover.

  3. The new spells may not have been exciting, but they were useful. Despite being kind of a fanatic when it comes to new monsters I believe that I've used only 1 from this book thus far. Zero-level characters and GH deities were not of interest.

  4. we were disappointed. some neat greyhawk fluff, lots of magic stuff that didnt interest, the 0 level bit wasnt our thing, and no maps of cities etc. def not worth our meager funds at the time. that said, others may have found it to be a great sourcebook. to each their own.

  5. IMO, absolutely the worst of the "X Adventures" books and not very good compared to anything else either. I've not run much in the way of DL, but it is clearly a book that lives up to it's billing. I've found Forgotten Realms Adventures extremely useful in my OGB based Forgotten Realms games over the years.

    I've bought one print copy of GHA on purpose- I sold it almost immediately. I received two more as parts of collections during my collecting days, and I sold them both as well. I bought in on PDF for posterity but found it nearly useless, especially if you have "From the Ashes", or the later "Players Guide" and "The Adventure Begins" (both excellent).

  6. I certainly agree with the previous comments about how YMMV with this product. My own opinion of it has definitely changed over the years, these days I view it with a certain nostalgic fondness but I recall being fairly unimpressed with it when I first bought it.

    I view the deities and clerics info as a mixed bag. I've always like the idea of the specialty priest as it would become known in AD&D 2nd edition, but I rarely liked the any of the implementations in the various official products. The monsters are mostly bland, but two of three of them sparked a few creative ideas for me over the years. The hall of heroes, magical spells, and magical items chapters have grown on me over the years. I also quite like the geography of Oerth chapter. I don't think the adventures are much to write home about, but I did end up using the rescue of Ren and the house of cards ones as idea seeds/basic outlines for adventures I ran players through over the years. I do rather like the idea of 0-level characters, but don't care for the implementation in this book at all.

    I don't regret buying it, but I think both the Dragonlance Adventures and later Forgotten Realms Adventures hardbacks are more useful books (for varying different use cases).

  7. I agree with Cominius, Forgotten Realms Adventures was a far better product, a lot more consistent.

  8. I never read this one. But I did own "Treasure Hunt", which I think was the introduction of the idea of 0-level PCs. As a youth, I liked the idea of getting to play your PC's "origin story", before they had any adventurer class abilities. I can't say I've ever actually used this notion in a game, unless you count playing through a DCC funnel adventurer (and I guess I would count it).

  9. The fact that the book has very little material-or even mentions- Gary only adds to how much of a disappoint this book was to become. But the idea of zero level PC's is an interesting concept and has been used in other RPG's like Burning Wheel.

  10. Glad to see I'm not alone in having put Greyhawk Adventures back on the game store shelf at the time. Never did look at it closely. Still good to know what's in it. Thanks James.

  11. I have it as well and overall it's kinda meh. If I had to rate it on a scale of one to five, I'd give it a three. I'd only recommend for those who are die hard WoG fans. I think what makes it a 3 is there is nothing of EGG in this book, which is sad imo.

  12. I had forgotten the zero level characters presented in this book. I wonder if this inspired Goodman Games' use of zero level characters for Dungeon Crawl Classics.