Saturday, July 25, 2009

Worlds of Fantasy Part I - Greyhawk

I never understood why some people have such a high regard for Greyhawk. Did I just come to it from the wrong angle, or is it not for me?

I no longer remember when I first heard of Greyhawk, but I know I've heard it was "that world Gygax invented in the dawn of the hobby". I knew nothing of Blackmoor or Braunstein then. The first memory I have of it is of an blurb in a catalog from a mail order game store. That product was From the Ashes, and I also remember seeing The City of Skulls. As you can tell, I came to Grehawk fairly late. It didn't seem all that interesting, though. There was a crowd of settings published for 2nd ed AD&D at this time, and they all seemed more interesting than the, to me, bland looking Greyhawk.

A few years down the line, when I first encountered the nebulous subject of "old school", I bought a bunch of the old adventures from eBay and Noble Knight to run an old school campaign with the then new 3rd ed D&D. Now I read some of the short snippets of background in these modules, and it seemed less interesting than ever. I still don't see how it could make anyone care much for Greyhawk. I actually borrowed a couple of later books from a friend, after having heard of the folio and realized it was out of print. Both of these products gave me the impression that you probably had to have been there from the beginning. They referred to wars, rulers and countries, but nothing hooked me. It still seemed, bland.

I have now later been exposed to more of Greyhawk, and still feel it is very bland. It has absolutely nothing that sets it apart, except that it was Gary's campaign world. Sure, not all fantasy campaigns needs three suns and purple elves, but still. I'm beginning to think that the reason so many fans of D&D have a soft spot for Greyhawk is that when they were exposed to it, it was about the only thing out there. Also, the fact that the AD&D tournament modules were a common experience for many players made Greyhawk a common ground of the D&D experience. Greyhawk was D&D, basically.

Maybe someone will now comment and say that Greyhawk is wonderful and the Folio is the best thing that ever happened to gaming. For me it was always just "a fantasy world" and even when I tried it wouldn't come alive. Considering I already from a earlier age knew of Dragonlance from the excellent computer games from SSI, I think Greyhawk is a good example of marketing failure. Considering what happened to TSR as Gygax left I guess it was inevitable.


  1. Greyhawk was the first one published - and so many adventures made veiled references to it - that if you came in at the beginning, well, it was THE setting for AD&D (B/X had the Known World - which some of us conflated into Greyhawk). Anyway, reading it now, it's a skeleton of a setting and that's probably what I like best about it. Just enough detail to get me thinking, but not so much that all my thinking is done for me. The reboot (Greyhawk Wars and From the Ashes) were meh for me. Dragonlance is my favorite alternate setting (don't get me started on the storyline, though) because it's unique in flavor and, again, probably had just enough detail to get me thinking (own a bit of the post 1e DL stuff, but never really read it - I guess the hardback and beyond kind of overdetailed the world with more subplots, etc...).

  2. Greyhawk is wonderful and the Folio is the best thing that ever happened to gaming.

    I didn't even have to say it, you did. I just copied and pasted. An excellent time saver.

    Seriously though, Greyhawk appears so nondescript because it was supposed to be an outline, and a frame work for you to build on.
    Greyhawk is like a box of model parts, you can make what you will of it.
    Every DM who was ever a devotee of the setting made it quite differant than every other DM's version, and often, the later published materials were just ignored, or chopped up for parts.

  3. @Bill, DL did have flavour, indeed.

  4. @Palmer,

    I like to make it easy to comment, and add to a post. :D

    My biggest "problem" with Greyhawk was that I didn't even get any idea of what to make of it. It was a frame work which for me just remained an empty frame. I'm not sure why. It's not like I think it's especially bad. That would have made it easier!

  5. Greyhawk was (and still is) one of my favorite campaign settings because it was such a framework: it hinted at aspects of the world, but rarely never revealed them outright. Because of this, there was plenty of room for DMs to maneuver and to make the world their own.

    As Palmer said, it had a little bit of everything -- it was the kindling for your imagination. I started in Greyhawk because that was the default setting when I started playing way back in the 1980s. I stayed there because when I returned to gaming in the 1990s, I found that the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance had become so huge, so overgrown, that it felt like it was too much work to carve out a part of the world and make it my own.

    Greyhawk was far more flexible in that regard. That said, t's worth noting that wars over canon were often fierce and intense; there's a reason why the #1 fan web site is called Canonfire... This isn't the place to go to adventure with your dwarven sorcerer or kobold paladin, but if you're looking a more traditional fantasy setting, it works great.

  6. This is kind of repeating points that others have made, but what always made Greyhawk interesting for me was that it was largely a justification for the original Dungeons & Dragons rulesets. It's what you come up with if you look at all of those rulebooks together and ask "what would a world full of adventurers like the games PCs and their henchmen, populated by the humanoid races and D&D monster set, where there were gods who served primarily to grant clerical abilities, a wide array of unique sentient artifacts artifacts, and a massive number of ancient, ruined temples, abandoned keeps, dragons' dens, and sunken cities; what would that world look like?"

    There is some cool flavor that's very specific to Greyhawk (the lich Vecna, the wizards from whom the original D&D spell names are derived, Lolth and Iuz, the Free City itself) but the sum of it isn't enough to justify an RPG setting. What was so great about Greyhawk was that it gave you exactly as much background as was really necessary to run an uncomplicated, party-like-it's-1980 D&D campaign (a map, a few cultural analogs of popular fantasy tropes, deities and demigods, and some archnemesis scattered around the world) without burdening you down with a story. Dragonlance, by comparison, I liked very much as a setting (minus the gnomes and gully dwarves) but would have been no more likely to use in a campaign than Middle Earth; both worlds are built around an established central story that's already been developed in detail, so it's harder for me to imagine a really successful, totally open-ended campaign evolving there.

    I have never read a post-1e Greyhawk product, by the way. I don't need to see one to know it would be terrible; 2e marked the point where TSR abandoned Gygax's original pulp-fantasy aesthetic so I'd imagine they'd mangle the world based on it.

  7. Yup. What they said.

    I never played 2e, but the 2e Greyhawk stuff isn't so bad as a source for ideas. Though many of the modules I've seen are horrible railroads. You need to rip the rails out of them to make them work (unless your players lack any initiative of their own).

    Also, I find the 'blandness' of the setting makes it a nice homely place for adventurers to return to after they've been off on some adventure in weirdsville. When they start running into dragon-headed dudes and girls with horns sprouting from their heads they know they're not in Kansas anymore. But if those kind of folks just casually wandered the streets of their hometown they'd never have felt like they were in Kansas in the first place.


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