Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Retrospective: Greyhawk

After more than 300 posts in this series, it's often difficult to come up with an appropriately interesting subject for each week's Retrospective. As a general rule, I try to stick to RPG products published before 1989 or thereabouts, since that marks the beginning of D&D's Bronze Age and a sea change within the larger hobby. I likewise try to stick to RPG products I owned and/or used at the table, or that were at least important to me in some way, though I've often broken this rule over the years. Ultimately, my point is that choosing a product to discuss each week is more of a chore than one might suppose.

In thinking about what to write this week, I eventually realized that, while Original Dungeons & Dragons has always been a staple of this blog, I'd somehow never written specifically about its very first supplement, 1975's Greyhawk. I'd referenced Greyhawk innumerable times, of course, but I'd never given it a proper Retrospective-style treatment. This is an egregious oversight on my part, not simply because of how important Supplement I is to the history of D&D, but also because I've given both Eldritch Wizardry and Gods, Demigods & Heroes this kind of attention, which seems unfair.

From the vantage point of 2023, nearly a half-century after its initial publication, it's likely impossible to appreciate just how significant the appearance of Greyhawk was at the time. Most of its additions to OD&D, from paladins and thieves to new spells, magic items, and monsters, were all later incorporated into the much more widely read Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules. Consequently, a reader coming to Supplement I for the first time might mistakenly fail to see what the big deal was about this 68-page digest-sized booklet. Yet, in many very real ways, this is the volume that transformed OD&D into the game that most of us recognize today, even those playing editions that wouldn't be released until the 21st century.

How could it not? At 68 pages long, Greyhawk is more than half the length of all three volumes of OD&D. The sheer bulk of the new material more or less guaranteed that any adoption of it would change both the character and complexity of the campaign in which it's used. In his foreword, Gary Gygax – then the humble "Tactical Studies Rules Editor" – agrees, noting that "what is herein adds immeasurably to the existing game." Greyhawk, he later explains, includes "new rules, additions to existing rules, and suggested changes." This is true, as far as it goes, since each section of the supplement carries a parenthetical notation, such as "(Additions and Changes)" or "(Corrections and Additions)." However, the overall thrust of the supplement is one of supersession, with the new material being more than simply suggestions the individual referee can either adopt or not, as he sees fit. 

Even if that was not the intention, that seems to have been how Greyhawk was widely received at the time of its publication. It is my understanding – and those older than I, who remember those days, can correct me if I am mistaken – that most referees gleefully incorporated the new material into their campaigns without much complaint. After all, they'd already been adding their creations and those of others, too, so why wouldn't they accept the latest word from OD&D's own publisher? Indeed, the cynic in me can't help but wonder if Greyhawk was published so that TSR could get out in front of the torrent of content for D&D being created by someone other than themselves. 

As I stated at the start of this post, Supplement I forever changed the face of D&D. For one, it presented two new character classes, a new race (half-elves), and new options for multiclassing by non-humans that further muddled the question of the "right" way to interpret OD&D's notoriously unclear rules about elves. For another, it expanded the mechanical utility of ability scores and changed the way hit dice and hit point accumulation worked. All of this alone would have been sufficient to make OD&D + Greyhawk a very different game than OD&D alone, but Greyhawk offers up even more game changers, like the new experience point awards for defeating monsters. The new system is much less generous than OD&D original system, which the text of Greyhawk dubs "ridiculous." There's also the alternate weapon (and monster) damage system and an early version of AD&D's weapon vs AC table.

Then, there are the new spells, with their expanded level ranges. Magic-users now have spells have up to 9th level and clerics up to 7th, where before they were limited to 6th and 5th respectively. Among the new spells introduced in this supplement are many mainstays of the game, like magic missile, web, and silence, 15' radius, as well as many more higher-level spells, like the various power words and resurrection. The cumulative effect of all of this is to raise the power and utility of spellcasters, something that remained true for decades afterwards.

The new monsters include numerous D&D hallmarks, like beholders, umber hulks, and gelatinous cubes, not to mention the Queen of Chaotic Dragons (not yet named Tiamat, however). The list of new magic items is similarly filled with things people now associate strongly with the game, like vorpal blades, bracers of defense, portable holes, and decks of many things. Like the new spells, these additions greatly expand the scope of the game in myriad ways. They also contributed to D&D's growing distinctiveness as a thing unto itself rather than just the random mishmash of ideas and concepts liberally swiped from mythology, folklore, comic books, and pulp fantasy.

I cannot state strongly enough how important the publication of Greyhawk was to the history of Dungeons & Dragons. I'd go so far as to say that no supplement published has ever had as wide-ranging and profound an effect on the game's identity or its content. For good and for ill, the Dungeons & Dragons that exists today, both as a game and as a brand, was born in Greyhawk.


  1. "After more than 300 posts in this series, it's often difficult to come up with an appropriately interesting subject for each week's Retrospective."

    Suggestion - Retrospective: Grognardia's first post.

    Too soon?

    1. Great idea.

      I was also going to quote this passage from James' post to say, the Retrospective posts are hands down my favorites on the blog. Whether remembering something from my youth or learning something about the history of the hobby, these are consistently enjoyable. Thank you!

  2. Supplement I is indeed a game changer and it heavily influenced game-play going forward. The changes in mechanics and in the style and philosophy of play which are introduced in Greyhawk will become solidly integrated with AD&D.
    I started play prior to publication of AD&D and although I had Supplement I, and I used it extensively in play, I came to prefer a game that is played sans the official supplements.
    The original three LBBs promote a personal customization of the mechanics of play, which is appealing to the heart of many creative referees. The addition of the thief class, weapon charts, bigger ability score bonuses, new spells, and awarding experience for monster slaying all alter the game in subtle, but significant ways. The real value in the supplement for me has been as a model demonstrating how the LLBs can be added to and altered to create my own setting and milieu including new personalized classes, spells, monsters, etc. all designed by me and my player group. The end result has been more satisfying than play using any published system or setting. Obviously many have embraced Greyhawk, I merely offer my experience to illustrate how diverse the original game can be.

    1. I think that you are right. The Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements could also be viewed as the expression of house rules and local campaigns. Could Arduin and Tekumel be seen in a silar way?
      If that theme had continued it would have been interesting to see the other early campaigns

  3. Someday I want to run D&D starting with the original boxed set, then adopting in supplementary material as it became available in real time, starting with S&T, The Dragon, supplements, etc. I'd probably only use Judges Guild material on the side, as that is what was readily available in my hometown area at the time...

    Having started with BX then adding AD&D within a matter of months I never experienced the organic growth of the game as it had from 1974 (original box set) to 1980 (release of the DMG).

    It would not be quite the same, of course; forewarned is forearmed. But it would be interesting, to be sure.

    Now to find a group who would dig that as much as I would...

    1. S&T? What a brain fart! I meant SR, of course...