At the recent Metatopia convention in Morristown, NJ, I attended a seminar given by Kenneth Hite (who has written a number of GURPS titles as well as many other works including two different Star Trek RPGs). During the seminar, he used the World of Greyhawk as a punching-bag, accusing it of being a mish-mash of disparate cultures stripped out of place and time and slapped down with wild abandon, leaving it suitable only for picaresque adventures (the implication being that real “story-driven adventures” would not be suitable there).
Let us say that I disagree with his assessment.
I see the Flanaess as a fairly straightforward analogue of Medieval and early Renaissance Europe. Obviously, it’s not a straight one-to-one comparison, but there are enough strong analogies there, and only a few outright inventions, but ones which serve to secure its place as an original fantasy world based on the model of Europe, rather than attempting to be an alternate history setting.
Most certainly wrong is Mr. Hite’s contention that the Flanaess consists of a wild amalgam of disparate Earth cultures. During the seminar he glibly spoke of “the Roman area” and “the Egyptian area” of the Flanaess. I confess in decades of play, study, and writing about the setting I don’t recall seeing them. Such places have been hinted at over the years in far-off regions of Oerik (particularly in the Far West, where we see places such as Erypt and the Tharquish Empire), but never actually detailed. To say they’re simply crammed into the Flanaess willy-nilly is factually inaccurate.
The Flanaess is “guilty as charged” when it comes to having a “Viking area” (the Thilronian peninsula, where we have the Schnai, Fruzti, and Cruski barbarian nations), but that hardly disqualifies it from having a mostly pseudo-European character. The Vikings, after all, were a feature of early Medieval Europe.
The comparisons between the Flanaess and Medieval/Renaissance Europe go deeper than merely sharing a Viking-esque culture on their respective peripheries. Both have a large and unwieldy empire made up of very strong, quasi-independent states loosely governed by a central authority. In Europe this was the Holy Roman Empire, and in the Flanaess this is the Great Kingdom of Aerdy.
The overwhelming political structure used by states throughout the Flanaess are feudal monarchies. There are, of course, exceptions; the Yeomanry is a sort of “warrior’s democracy”, while Perrenland is quite obviously closely modeled on Switzerland. The Scarlet Brotherhood is obviously an invention (although there does seem to be just a little bit of the Jesuits peaking through those scarlet robes). While it is true that there are more regions directly ruled by clerical authorities in the Flanaess than there were historically in Europe, this is not at all unusual when one considers its polytheistic nature. With multiple religious authorities, it’s only natural that there could be multiple religiously-ruled nations. And, of course, the Papal States in Italy were the model there.
Aside from these (and many other) specific comparisons, there are also more broad thematic similarities. There is the theme of regaining the lost golden age; in Europe, it was the drive to recreate the Roman Empire, while in the Flanaess it’s the lost Suel Imperium. There’s the imminent threat of a foreign culture on the doorstep; in Europe, the Muslims in Spain, the Mediterranean, and Balkans; in the Flanaess, the Baklunish in Ket and the lands beyond. The Flanaess does seem a bit more insular than Europe, but this may be a function of the fact that none of the lands of Oerth beyond the Flanaess have ever been officially described in any great detail.
As far as the suitability of the Flaness to larger, story-based games as opposed to episodic “capers”, thirty years’ worth of thousands of gamers playing in the setting give the lie to that. Just a quick look at Canonfire! will show that the Flanaess is able to support games of all types and stripes; from pure dungeon-crawls to sandbox wilderness play with the occasional tentpole location to full-blown epic story arcs spanning decades of in-game time.
The notion that Greyhawk lacks an internal logic, or that it is somehow the result of throwing around Earthly cultures without any regard for how they might have evolved side by side, is simply false. While it does display many original concepts and constructions, the Flanaess owes a lot of its broad strokes to Medieval and Renaissance Europe. To claim that it cannot support anything other than picaresque adventures and dungeon crawls is likewise an untenable position, owing to the fact that GMs have been running epic story-based campaigns in it for many years. I would hope that those who propose to lecture others on game design, and especially RPG settings, would have a bit more familiarity with their subject before making such sweeping and inaccurate remarks.