25 August 2020

For the Love of Greyhawk - Reprise

World of Greyhawk Gazetteer, 1980
World of Greyhawk Gazetteer, 1980

Over on ENWorld, the user Snarf Zagyg started an interesting conversation in response to some discussion about Greyhawk that arose as fans learned about the release of the new 5e book, Tasha's Cauldron of Everything.

Snarf Zagyg entitled the thread "For the Love of Greyhawk: Why People Still Fight to Preserve Greyhawk" and it offers some good food for thought for Greyhawk fans, and for D&D players in general.  This reproduces my reply in that thread:


A very interesting conversation, thanks for starting it up, @Snarf Zagyg !

While I am a long-time Greyhawk fan, I too would be interested to see what interesting and new material could be published for Greyhawk. Unless and until WotC releases older editions for publishing via DM's Guild, that means new official Greyhawk material will be written for 5e and 6e, ad not for 1e/OSRIC or the other clones. So, if WotC publishes a Greyhawk book that I like, I'll pick it up. Adapting new material Greyhawk is a natural process that every Greyhawk DM has to do who's not playing with the current rules set; it's not a big deal, and it works forward as well as backward (all of those 1e adventures are also easy to bring forward into 5e too). I do the exact same thing with material from FR, Necromancer Games, Call of Cthulhu, and whatever else feels right to use in my Greyhawk campaigns.

One of the core strengths of Greyhawk (in addition to its resilient and enthusiastic fanbase, who provide support for the setting through many ways, including the Oerth Journal---a freely downloadable professional quality zine---to name just one example among multitudes*) is its flexibilty. When I run a Greyhawk campaign, it may be related to others that I've run before from a story/continuity POV, but it's just as likely that I'll use that game as a fresh start: to play in a region of the setting that I've not explored before (I've not yet run a campaign set in Land of Black Ice or in the era of the Migrations, for example), or to play with new classes/races/rules to try them out (an all-thieves game set in Dyvers, where the PCs are undermining the guilds of Greyhawk City, for example), or to explore multi-planar play among several inter-related Primes (Greyhawk sort of meet's MCU's Nine Realms, as in my two concurrent campaigns).  Greyhawk can handle all of these options and more, and deliver a setting that drives gameplay that brings me and the other players to the table each week, excited about the next session.

Greyhawk's core flexibility is grounded in and builds upon both the setting's patchwork publishing history, and the design ethos that Gary and Rob baselined Greyhawk to support:

1. Greyhawk's spotty product support---both in quantity and quality---can be leveraged to your advantage as a DM:  because Greyhawk canon is so filled with contradictions, mutually-incompatible evolutions, and alternate takes on the same people, places, and things, it demands that the DM define their take on the setting, to decide what's in and what's out from the options palette during each game.  You want an undead-focused globe-trotting save-the-world campaign?---grab the Vecna modules or "Age of Worms" and have at it.  You want urban high intrigue among sparring noble families?---use the CIty of Greyhawk boxed set during the signing of the Treaty of Greyhawk, or use Ivid the Undying set during the Turmoil Between Crowns.  You want swashbuckling piracy?---build out Feelta's Slave Lord fleet raiding the shores of the Wooly and Relmor Bays, or fight the Scarlet Brotherhood as an Iron League privateer in the Azure Sea.  You don't like how the Greyhawk Wars played out?---play the boardgame to a different conclusion, and change history by preventing the assassination of Tenser and Otiluke.

2. Greyhawk's design ethos is built upon the foundations of DIY modular campaigning.  Both the 1980 Folio and the 1983 Box, Greyhawk offer a loose framework within which any DM can build and create any campaign they desire.  Because it's defined in a light-weight manner---the broad sketching high points of history, geography, and the political topography---that open framework frees the DM to pick and choose among canons, to rewrite history to serve the needs of the game**, but still doesn't force a DM to fill the whole blank-slate work on their own.

I'm on the record about what I think has been done wrong with Greyhawk over the decades, but I don't think any of that would prevent Greyhawk from thriving with the proper attention and support.


* For my favorites, see my Greyhawk Links page at https://www.greyhawkonline.com/grodog/gh_links.html

** A great example of how one DM (Montand on Greytalk but reposted from Greyhawk-l@oracle.wizards.com as preserved on Canonfire!) proposed changing Greyhawk nearly 20 years ago:

Date:         Fri, 12 Oct 2001 05:55:16 -0400
Reply-To:     Greyhawk <[log in to unmask]>
Sender:       Greyhawk <[log in to unmask]>
From:         Taras Guarhoth <[log in to unmask]>
Subject:      The Future of Greyhawk
Comments: To: Greytalk <[log in to unmask]>
Content-Type: text/plain; charset="iso-8859-1"

Out of chaos, order forms. The civil war winds down in the Sea Princes, and the land coalesces into two stable states. Westkeep was held by the Keoish, but barely, and at great cost to their armies. Now two hostile nations, ruled by former Olman slaves, stare at each other across the lower Javan plains. But as much as they hate each other, they hate those to the north even more. And so it begins. 

And out of renewed order, chaos and evil are born. Sterich, retaken from the giants settles back into it's daily life. But something is amiss within the land. A corruption rots at the heart of the old Earldom. A bloody coup is staged, and the Margrave is killed, some whisper sacrificed to foul gods, and the land begins to change. Keoland watches from across the Javan, sending in a token force that it quickly dispatched, their forces spent in the campaigns in the south. 

Farther north, the Gran March and Geoff squabble endlessly over the city of Hochoch. Their attention is myopically focused on a tiny chunk of river land, and their resources are quickly dwindling. They fail to notice developments farther to the north, beyond the plains of Bissel. The lands of the Bakluni have been enflamed. A new leader has arisen among them, and demanded that they expand. A horde forms, and sweeps through the hills and vallies of Ket, and then presses beyond, into Bissel, swiftly destroying what resistance that land could muster. But they do not stop there. They press on, into the Gran March and Veluna, thrusting into the hearts of both lands. 

Across the Yatils, the Wolf and Tiger nomads join their Bakluni bretherin, riding on Perrenland and Iuz. Although their gains are more modest, they do succeed in keeping the famed mercenaries of Perrenland home, and Iuz from pressing in upon his southern neighbor while Veluna distracts it. And distracted Furyondy is. The cities are scoured and fields emptied to push back the Bakluni horde. Veluna and Furyondy finally reunite, in a hasty attempt to shore up both lands against their invaders, and Ferrond is reborn. The horde is stopped, and pushed back to the Fals Gap...but not quite back through it. 

All is not quiet elsewhere, however. Turrosh Mak, barely holding onto power, makes a renewed surge to the north, into the lands of Celene. None stand with the Fey Queen, remembering her refusal to stand with them. None can afford to, either, for war is breaking out. The elves fight hard and fiercly, but, in the end, they fail, and their land is overrun. But not only their land. Narwell and Safeton are ripped from the grasp of Greyhawk. Riots break out in the free cities as refugees flood into Verbobonc, Dyvers, Greyhawk City, and Hardby and chaos reigns in the lands south of the Unknown Depths. 

The Pale strikes hard into Tenh, and pushes the Fists and a distracted Iuz from the land, claiming it in the name of He of the Blinding Light. The expanded Theocracy becomes even more repressive and institutes an inquisition across the whole of their land to root out the remnants of Iuz and other non-Pholtine religions, whether good or evil, lawful or chaotic. All will be stamped out in the name of Pholtus, while Nyrond teeters on the brink of collapse to the south, starvation and taxation and warfare having taken a heavy toll on the land. 

The lands of Aerdy have not been quiet, either. Old North Province and Old South Province finally settle their scores within the heartlands of that formerly Great Kingdom. Warfare rages, cities burn, and in the end, Xavener takes his rightful place on the Malachite Throne, ruling a reunited empire that stretches from Idee in the south to North Province in the north. The land is awash in humanoids and mercenaries, a new round of civil war ready to sweep the land after it's Second Turmoil Between Crowns...but Xavener has something else in mind... 

Aerdy's forces march on Almor, and that ravaged land swiftly returns to the fold of Imperial Aerdy as troops march across the land, sweeping through the near-rebellious Nyrondese. Nyrond rapidly gives ground to the Aerdi, suddenly feeling a dagger in it's side. The Pale. Revolts erupt in the north and west as the renewed warfare brings even greater hardship. Midmeadow openly rebells, and invites Palish troops in. Nyrond finds itself disintegrating rapidly. When the dust settles, the lines have been round to a halt. Rel Mord stands on the border, and Womtham has fallen. Nyrond is a much reduced nation and pleads with the Urnst states for help, which they grudgingly give, allowing the fallen kingdom to keep itself from being swept from the face of the Oerth. 

Xavener also sends his troops south...and while Irongate withstands even more years of seige easily, Sunndi is not so lucky. For the second time in under two decades, the land finds itself fallen to Aerdy...and this time, there is no Osson to liberate them. The "king" of Sunndi is executed for treason, and Aerdy sets about occupying the land. But their occupation faces an unexpected setback. Bullywugs and lizardmen and other creatures from the Vast swamp pour out in all directions, slaughtering the forces of Sunndi and Aerdy alike. They claim half the Pawluck valley before they are finally ground to a halt by humanoid troops. The short-lived Kingdom of Sunndi is no more. 

But is this all? Or is there more? 


Ok. Yes, there was a reason to all of that. A revelation hit me tonight. Greyhawk is stagnant. It is bloated. It is everything we accuse the Forgotten Realms of being, and then some. 

Why do I make these outlandish claims? 

Let us take a look. It has been a decade since the Wars were published, and like them or hate them, they were the last major change to the Flanaess. Nothing of real note has happened since then. A few borders shifted a little bit, a few faces changed, a few titles changed. But no real change happened. The Flanaess remained in the exact same place it was in 10 Real Life years ago. 

And since then, we've sat around doing nothing of note. We've contemplated the scent of Otto's toejam, and what color Mordenkainen's belly-button lint is, all based on obscure passages from books so long out of print they aren't worth worrying about anymore or based on some utterances of some half remembered events that may have actually happened handed down from various creators, which, of course, are at odds with everything published. 

And in doing so, we've locked out two simple things. 

New People. And New Ideas. 

We've let ourselves become every bit as decadent and decrepid as Imperial Aerdy under the last of the Raxes and the Naelaxes. We chained ourselves to our precious "Canon" for so long that we refused to accept the existance of anything not already mentioned in it. Hell, we codified it, in the form of NiteScreed's essay. 

And so we damned ourselves. 

How did the Forgotten Realms survive for years on a constant stream of product, which is probabily easily triple or quadruple what was produced for Greyhawk? They weren't afraid of change. They weren't afraid to shake things up. They weren't afraid to introduce a fresh face into the halls of power or use a fresh idea. But Greyhawk was. We demanded that villans be heavily tied to the setting, and so we forced the same tired faces to be reused. We never killed our enemies. Doing so would drastically reduce our options. 

Greyhawk, if it is to survive, needs to change. It needs to burn, and then rise like a phoenix from it's ashes. It needs to shed itself of the foolish notions of rooting everything in something that came before. 

Above was one possibility of how to do this...but there are others...I know, I've heard them. They came from the ancient and near-mythical time of TSR on the AOL boards. I have dim recollections of such things as a Rennisance in Keoland, and a Plague sweeping out of Celene. This is what Greyhawk needs now. 

The question is...can we get it from anywhere? 

Taras Montand Guarhoth 
Canonfire! http://www.canonfire.com/ 
Submit Early, Submit Often...but make no mistake, you Will Submit!


  1. I really want to know more about the plague sweeping out of Celene. Does anyone have more info or a link?

  2. 1. We like stable because it is easy.
    2. In the real world, even with world wars most borders don't change. Wholescale change happens over 500 years, not 5.
    3. Who is to say that your changes to Greyhawk are any better than mine? Gary, that's who. If Gary had written the Greyhawk Wars, most would have jumped on board. Alas, Gary did not change Greyhawk's political map, and those who did seemed apathetic about the setting. What Gary, et al. did was flesh out different areas. That IS change. (And Gary planned to expand to other continents.) But you and I cannot change canon; Snarf Zagyg's suggestion is a good one - if WotC as IP holder hired a GH heavy-weight to write actually good content that respects both the old and logically progresses the new direction, we would be happy.
    4. If a game designer creates a detailed world, it takes time to digest. If the setting creator leaves the bulk of design to the players, that takes someone else's time. Both ways, a lot of effort goes into it, and we are loath to leave behind the sunk cost.
    5. I have seen two games where change was built into the setting: White Wolf and Deadlands. Note that WW changed one component at a time as the years rolled along. Pinnacle Group (Deadlands) put out three different settings and three substantially different rule sets depicting the changes over the course of a couple centuries. The fans followed along with those changes.
    6. If you are having fun, why change? Cliche is cliche for a reason - we like it.

    1. Gary and Rob were clearly advancing the timeline for Greyhawk toward the outbreak of multiple wars in their articles in Dragon; they may not have gone so far as Cook's Greyhawk Wars game did, but war was definitely brewing.

      Other games, in particular the various Living campaigns during the 2e and 3e eras, were able to advance game timelines as well, but it was far from exclusive to RPGA or LG: TORG did this in the early 1990s too, along with the WW metaplot you alluded to (among others). That said, I think that you point (if I'm reading you properly) is that change for change's sake is not good; change that is gradual and fits the setting is fine. And I agree with that.

      The original post from Montand wasn't so much about gradual change, I think, but a frustration with creative stagnation: nearly every edition of D&D has redone the same old modules and monsters: Giants, Iggwilv, Iuz, slavers, etc., etc. Rather than revisiting and reprinting and updating the same old content, adding to the setting (in a respectful but new manner) is what he was railing against.


  3. I really like you post. I really do. But as a long time Realms fan let me say: the Times of Troubles where cool, with a lot of left to work with for a DM if he wants to. The novels made a lot of things worse, though. The Spellplague? The Sundering? Nope, sir. There were better ways for change. Change does not have to be a major overhowl. The Times of Troubles did shake the Realms up without canceling all the info that existed about the Realms up to this time. The major events that came afterwards did just this. They nullified what was published before. And this sucks.

    So yes: change Greyhawk. Let Iuz concentrate on godhood instead of his realms and let the Horned Society become a major player - with a group of evil leaders, all worthy adverseries for the players. Let an era of exploration begin like the D&D Princess Ark story from Dragon Magazine. Let Aerdy rise anew. But don't destroy what is there. Evolve. Take steps, not jumps.

    1. @ ~T~ You are wrong with 2) and what you call the real world. WW1 und WW2 changes alot. Even for the winners. The British Empire was destroyed, the US Empire created. The French Empire was destroyed. It was the end of colonial expansion and territories. Germany lost half of it's territory. Poland was recreated, Slovakia, Coratia, etc. were created and vanished again. Won't start with the african or asian continent now - the error in your argument should be clear by now.
      And what happen before, in and after wars is by no way allways logical. Again, sit down, put your school books in the trash and read some real history books about the wars of the last 100 years. What political intrigues happend before, how many lies were woven to plant fututre conflicts and how irrational political figure heads acted. Logic is not the major problem with the Greyhawk Wars as published (IMHO).


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