The catastrophe that ended the ancient Suloise Imperium, known as the Rain of Colorless Fire, has long fascinated Greyhawk aficionados. The official canon texts tell us but little:
When the Invoked Devastation came upon the Baklunish, their own magi brought down the Rain of Colorless Fire as a last terrible curse, reducing the Suloise Empire to what is now the Sea of Dust. …
This bleak desert is the Sea of Dust, the former Empire of Suel or Suloise. History tells us that this was once a fair and fertile realm extending a thousand miles west and southwards, too. The merciless and haughty rulers engaged in a struggle for dominance and supremacy over all of Oerik with the Baklunish, and in return for a terrible magical attack, the Suloise lands were inundated by a nearly invisible fiery rain which killed all creatures it struck, burned all living things, ignited the landscape with colorless flame, and burned the very hills themselves to ash. [World of Greyhawk Folio, pp. 5 and 26]
There’s more from the Star Cairns, but it falls more into the realm of in-game speculation, but fits in with another canon source:
Two of the most powerful wizards involved in this project were researching ways to recreate the Twin Cataclysms that destroyed the Suel and Bakluni empires; their hope was to find a more controlled way of decimating a large number of opponents. One, a woman named Alatla Minah, explored the invocation of pure elemental matter, thinking to emulate the Rain of Colorless Fire. The other, a man known as The Longsword for his unusual ability to fight with that weapon, studied the means to open a gate to the lower planes and unleash a fiendish horde, inspired by a similar event which occurred during the Invoked Devastation due to the mysterious Bringer of Doom. [The Star Cairns, p. 38]
There’s also a magic wand in the Greyhawk Adventures hardcover book that supposedly mimics its effects on a smaller scale, but it’s obviously a slap-dash thing. For certes, it should properly be called the fire wand of the Baklunish, since they’re the ones who called down the Rain of Colorless Fire in the first place, but it does provide a fascinating extra-planar tie-in:
This wand may have been the device that caused the destruction of the Suel Empire, or it may have been created to reproduce the event. … The wand can summon a deadly “fire” to rain down in a 60′ cube from a range of up to 80 yards. The “fire” inflicts 5 points of damage per round to all creatures, regardless of protections, resistances, or immunities to normal or magical flame. Such damage cannot be cured by any spell less than a heal spell. Furthermore, the fire will destroy buildings of less than stone construction, and will evaporate free-standing liquid to a depth of 1 foot per round. Objects exposed to the “fire” must save versus disintegration or be destroyed. Note, however, that matter is burned to dust and ashes, not vaporized. … The wand can be recharged, but only in the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Ash, which lies between the Elemental Plane of Fire and the Negative Material Plane. [Greyhawk Adventures, pp. 75-76]
While the connection of the wand (and by implication, the Rain of Colorless Fire itself) with the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Ash does make a lot of sense, and the effect of the wand does indeed match that of the original ruination of the Suel Empire, I think it represented Jim Ward’s best guess at the cause. While it’s a good guess, it does seem to be contradicted by Gygax, albeit in non-canonical sources. The line about it being responsible for the Rain of Colorless Fire itself is safely set aside, as there’s nothing in the item description that even implies it could be capable of such multiplication of its effects. However, it does plug into the researches of Alatla Minah, if we stretch “pure elemental matter” to include para-elemental matter.
So that’s about as close to a canon origin of the Rain of Colorless fire as we have.
The Living Greyhawk campaign, however, has its own version of the event. Since Living Greyhawk is its own (non-canonical) continuity, this doesn’t present a problem:
After decades of conflict, the Suloise Mages of Power called down the Invoked Devastation upon the Baklunish, resulting in an apocalypse so complete that its true form remains unknown. Entire cities and countless people were purged from Oerth, leaving few signs of the great civilization that thrived from the Sulhaut Mountains to the Dramidj Ocean.
In retaliation, a cadre of Baklunish wizard-clerics, gathered in the great protective stone circles known as Tovag Baragu, brought the Rain of Colorless Fire upon their hated enemies. The skies above the Suel Imperium opened, and all beings and things beneath this shining rift in the heavens were burned into ash. So terribly did these attacks plague the world that they have come to be called the Twin Cataclysms, a term understood by nearly every resident of the Flanaess. The Dry Steppes and Sea of Dust are geographical reminders of this unbridled magical power, now lost to all people—perhaps for the better. [Living Greyhawk Gazetteer, p.13]
And, to be fair, this doesn’t have to be inconsistent with the “official” version, either. Nothing says that the invocation of the power from the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Ash didn’t take place at Tovag Baragu. Indeed, the fact that it has some connection to other planes is a point in favor of this theory.
Many fans of Greyhawk have come up with their own inventive backstories for the Rain of Colorless Fire and its Baklunish-destroying counterpart, the Invoked Devastation. They range from ancient Baklunish artifacts to nuclear weapons to meteors from Greyspace to the use of the mysterious artifact/ruin Tovag Baragu. I’m sure there are many others. However, Gygax himself has given us several inklings of his thoughts on its nature and origin, in the description of Gord’s fight with the Duskdrake:
The edge of the spewing shadow-flames caught Gord, and the searing heat burned his exposed flesh with agonizing ferocity. At last Gord knew how terrible was the stuff of shadow-fire, understanding the refinement that resulted in the fabulous fire-ruin that had been used by human mages to devastate an empire. [City of Hawks, p. 309]
I’m very sure that the “fabulous fire-ruin” is the same as the Rain of Colorless Fire. The Gord the Rogue books were constrained to be circumlocutious when referring to events and personages in the World of Greyhawk setting, which was still owned by TSR.
This, then, is the secret to the Rain of Colorless Fire, at least as Gygax conceived it in 1987. It did not come from Tovag Baragu, the Quasi-Elemental Planes, or any such thing. It originated in Shadowland, and was somehow related to the fiery breath of the mighty duskdrakes of that plane. “Refined” in some way by the Baklunish mages, the stuff was able to be brought to the Prime Material Plane and unleashed against a target thousands of miles in width and breadth. This is particularly likely, given that Shadowland was a place that Gygax was particularly fascinated with, as it not only ended up being a major locale in City of Hawks, but was also on the list of upcoming Greyhawk products at more than one point. Of course, it was never published, and remains merely a possibility in a Gygaxian Greyhawk campaign. However, yet again, because we don’t have any details, nothing rules out Tovag Baragu as a conduit for those forces originating there.
Later, in 2001 Gygax gave an alternate explanation, involving a hitherto-unknown deity, Dorgha Torvu:
While the Invoked Devastation of the Suel was wrought through the vilest of the Evil powers, the counter response was unjust despite provocation. Swayed by the evil counsel of Vilp-akf ‘cho Rentaq, that alien thing which is called an Elder Elemental God, Dorgha Torgu bent dimensions and loosed unnatural elements in his charge so as to precipitate upon the Suel realm the near-invisible and unquenchable flames that consumed the land, burning even rock to powdery ash. [Oerth Journal 12]
So we are left with no fewer than four possible sources for the phenomenon that obliterated the Imperium:
- Power associated with the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Ash (TSR/WotC canon)
- Power associated with Tovag Baragu (Living Greyhawk)
- Power associated with the duskdrakes of the Plane of Shadow (Gygax)
- Actions of the deity Dorgha Torgu (Gygax)
With the second being compatible with the first and third, if desired. Of the three, being more inclined to the earlier Gygaxian vision of the setting, I’m naturally going to lean towards that interpretation. Dorgha Torgu seems like a cop-out to me. I also don’t see the need to involve Tovag Baragu, as it seems like one of those “catch-all” locales that seems to get swept up in just about anything Baklunish, and thus ultimately makes the setting seem smaller. That said, using the duskdrake connection also feels a bit more… interesting than merely making the obvious plane of ash/sea of dust connection. But canon is canon after all…