Western Oerik and “that map”

Long-time readers of this blog, and even longer-time Greyhawk fans, will recall that originally the western portion of the continent known as Oerik was completely unknown to us. All we had was a partial map included in the original 1980 Greyhawk folio:

As you can see, the Flanaess proper is in the northeastern corner of the continent, and the rest is left completely blank save for coasts and mountain ranges. The westernmost shoreline isn’t even shown; the map ends at that range of mountains. I think most of us assumed the continent ended not too far off the left edge of that map (because the coasts seem to be aiming towards some sort of convergence), and we were simply left to imagine what it might look like.

Fast forward to 1996, after Gary Gygax had departed from TSR, and Greyhawk had been pretty much left to lay fallow for several years. But then Dragon Magazine Annual #1 came out, and Greyhawk fans were given a quick two-page entry for our favorite setting. A map of the continent of Oerik, with names of nations and brief descriptions:

At the time the DA1 map (as I’ll refer to it here) was controversial, and it remains so to this day. This is for two reasons; the aesthetics and the content.

Aesthetically, it sucks. Not only did the DA1 map essentially append an enormous block of territory to the western end of Oerik, but it’s about as dull as you could possibly imagine. Just look at it; everything beyond that big line of mountains in the center of the map. It’s essentially a big rectangle with a bunch of triangles stuck on at odd places. Just about the only person who thinks it’s a good choice from an aesthetic point of view is this guy:

Telly likes him some triangles

And not only is it dull from a purely aesthetic point of view, the vast open spaces leave almost no room for interesting geography. Look at the right half of that map (the part that was covered in the original Folio map). All sorts of interesting coastlines, islands, mountain ranges, etc. Lots of places to stick interesting nations, smaller bits of interesting geographical features, and so forth. In such cramped quarters, you can put forests and rivers and all sorts of geographic variety.

Not so on the left side of the map, which is not only so large that any sense of detail is lost, but it’s on a scale that is almost unusable. For instance, one would almost have to cross a distance equal to the entire width of the Flanaess to get from Erypt to anyplace else westwards.

Speaking of Erypt, that brings us to the second objection about the map; the content. Some of the names on the map are just awful; Erypt, Nippon, the Gulf of Ra, Orcreich, etc. The article that accompanies the map does give an “out” by saying those might not be the real names, but in the absence of anything else, they’re what we’ve got. On the other hand, depending on how much of the François Marcela-Froideval material we use, Erypt could end up looking pretty badass:

Memphis, capital of Erypt, according to the Chroniques de la Lune Noire

Now, things regarding western Oerik were pretty much left there for a long time. Nothing further was published, except a couple of fleeting mentions in Dungeon magazine. Then, in 2002, Wizards of the Coast published their Chainmail skirmish game, which was ostensibly set in the World of Greyhawk. Specifically, the westernmost part of Oerik, which in the DA1 map was labeled the Empire of Lynn, the Elvanian Forest, the Kingdoms of the Marches, etc.:

This comes with its own problems. Naturally the names from the DA1 map were wiped out in favor of the factions of the Chainmail game. A few years ago I made an attempt to reconcile this map, the DA1 map, and what we know about the Chroniques de la Lune Noire (a series of graphic novels by François Marcela-Froideval, who was originally going to have his own “piece” of Oerth to develop as a setting, whence came the name for the Empire of Lynn/Lhynn).

But if you look, the Chainmail map does more than that; it sets the geography for huge swaths of territory. What in the DA1 map was the Celestial Imperium (Greyhawk’s China), is now an immense forest that would nearly cover the whole of the Flanaess itself. There is also now a “Southlands” (which on its own is no problem, because it could just be a more generic name for the Red Kingdom, Barbarian Seameast, and Erypt) which is all desert. That’s a desert that is roughly 7,000 miles wide and 3,000 miles across. That’s almost as large as the entire continent of North America, and it’s all desert.

Where the DA1 map dropped a huge swath of land and dared us to do something interesting with it despite its lack of inner waterways and mountains, Chainmail did one better and declared half of the region as a whole to be desert. I mean, I like desert-based adventures as much as anyone, but that’s just excessive.

And the worst part is, the Sundered Empire (the name of the Chainmail setting) could actually be a pretty decent RPG setting if it were given a proper treatment. There are even drow houses from Erelhei-Cinlu, as originally described by Gary Gygax in the Giants/Drow series of adventures.

So the fan of Greyhawk is left with a dilemma. If we ignore the DA1 map because it sucks (and, let’s face it, it’s not great), we run the risk of being overtaken by canonical developments in the lands it depicts, such as happened with the Sundered Empire. Then one has to scramble to get the new material to fit in their own home-brewed solution, and it runs the risk of becoming a treadmill running faster and faster, as one tries to re-incorporate the new material.

And that, frankly, is the problem with the “it’s your campaign, do anything you want with it” school of thought. At some point, you could find yourself forced to either ignore new material because it doesn’t fit with something you changed, or spend inordinate amounts of time trying to get it to fit into your campaign.

On the other hand, if we stick with the canonical representation of Oerik, with its continent-sized deserts, rectangle-and-triangles shape, and somewhat contradictory geography, we’re stuck with an almost unusably-vast landmass, half of which is desert, and the other half of which is, frankly, out of scale with the rest of the setting.

It’s a tough choice.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

17 thoughts on “Western Oerik and “that map”

  1. It’s not a tough choice for me; that map of western Oerik is a travesty. There are other largely undeveloped (to my knowledge) ideas I’ve seen sketches for that I’d go with any day of the week over this one. The dream would be to get Anna to do up the maps for it!

      1. I’d have to dig around the old hard drive. I’m reasonably certain I’ve saved everything that I’ve seen in that regard. If I remember, some of them attached the known map of Mysteria out west, and I think one other setting’s map. Not a horrible idea if one wanted to have some rapid world development. And the maps I’ve seen had a much better coastline and islands as Joseph talks about. I’ll try to find them, or maybe some google-fu will uncover them.

  2. I completely agree. I loathed the DA1 treatment as it just felt lazy and uninspiring – something that felt a common theme with the way the setting developed during that period.
    I wanted a Kara Tur setting that was as interesting as the OE had suggested. It completely failed to materialise.
    I also thought that the Oeridian homeland pre-migration should have been better explored.
    I would dearly love to see it given a much better interpretation.

  3. Yeah. I was never a huge fan of Greyhawk back in the day. It wasn’t anything in particular. It’s just that the folio made it seem a big place with knights and barons and stuff, while I was running the Wilderlands and having a blast. But, I admire the heck out of Gygax, and I have no trouble drawing a line and saying, “That’s it, from HERE ON I ignore whatever crap gets published.” I’ve done it with tons of product lines.

  4. In my personal and professional work, I have responded by suggesting that the map is a forgery. Which likely gives you an idea about my opinion of that document.

  5. Cut DA1 loose!
    Speaking of Froideval, he was co-author with David Cook and Gygax on the 1985, Oriental Adventures hardback. Kara-Tur as presented in this book was generic of course, there is no reference to either Oerth or Faerun afaik. Where things get interesting for me in hindsight, is that the first follow up adventure to OA, Swords of the Daimyo in 1986 (also by Cook) has a generic starting scenario to bring your existing (gaijin) characters to Kara-Tur. In “Over the Waves We Will Go” there is an earth-like western coast and a vast ocean to cross in order to reach the east.
    Back in 1986 I firmly assumed this coast was meant to be the edge of the map inset in the Greyhawk Glossography. If it referred to the Sword Coast in FR that would do just as well. Indeed, in 1987 Kara-Tur was pinned to FR. Of course that was followed by Maztica (1991) inbetween, so now a Marco Polo type journey to Kara-Tur is more plausible for present day Realms players than what was presented in 1986.
    In hindsight it seems remarkable to me that Gygax would put his name on the front cover of a book that was destined to be part of the Realms. I bet he originally intended OA to launch from Oerth as default, but then when FR was launched in 1987 it had to be a change in direction and design suggested by the growing popularity of Greenwood’s setting.
    DA1 wouldn’t come out until 1996, which by then is too little too late for those of us who may have been using Kara-Tur for 10 years.

    1. Mike … you’re absolutely right. OA was originally intended to launch from Oerth. But the transcript by Froideval was scrapped, and one by Zeb Cook was replaced (for good or ill).
      Dragon Magazine #102, October 1985, p. 36 “Coming Attractions” stated:
      “…an expansion of the WORLD OF GREYHAWK™ Fantasy Game Setting covering the Oriental lands of Oerth!”
      That doesn’t say that Kara-Tur was on Oerth, just that *an* expansion to Oerth was originally planned. Which was the one scrapped. Gary said openly that he preferred Froideval’s work. So, he didn’t really put his name on an FR-based book … he put his name on one that was originally intended to have launched from GH.

  6. ‘And that, frankly, is the problem with the “it’s your campaign, do anything you want with it” school of thought. At some point, you could find yourself forced to either ignore new material because it doesn’t fit with something you changed, or spend inordinate amounts of time trying to get it to fit into your campaign.’

    That doesn’t necessarily bother me when so much of the official material is itself contradictory. No matter which source you decide to go with, then you’re going to be contradicting/throwing out some kind of canon. Isn’t that kind of what happened for people whose campaign areas might have been destroyed in From The Ashes, or whose own takes on Nyrond or the Bandit Kingdoms clash with The Marklands or Iuz The Evil?

    That said, I agree with Mr. Bloch about all that Southlands area kind of going to waste as a desert. Deserts are great for adventures, but so are swamps, forests, hills and mounains…which is why the Flanaess has all of those things in addition to the Bright Desert. And I also like Mr. Bloch’s idea of moving places like the Sundered Empire to another continent.

  7. Joe … I want to say: I like this article.
    I think I’m one of the few who don’t … well, I don’t have a problem with DA1, per se. A rarity, to be sure! LOL! 😛
    I’m not crazy about the triangle-bits coastlines, either, but, that’s just because I’m an artist who happens to like cartography, especially fjords! 😛

    I do agree with you a *LOT* on some points … I don’t like that the map depicts the entire Southlands as desert. In the text of the setting it says the NPCs know there’s stuff beyond the desert. The “Southlands” are literally described as “below the Blasted Desert”. So … essentially, whoever drew the map, drew it wrong. The desert isn’t “s’posed” to go that far. It even says the Baklien (who weren’t native to desert) disappeared to the south, and never returned … so, we know there’s other people down there.

    The Factions of the Sundered Empire, are, no doubt pretty large to the point of being unwieldy. But, arguably, no larger than the Great Kingdom, Suel Empire, or Baklunish Empire, were at their heights, or even the Celestial Imperium is.

    But, I don’t think that the northern nations were “wiped out”, really. But, compiling various sources…
    The “Elven Lands” were renamed Ravilla; the Elvanian Forest is still there just unlabeled; the Marches are still there, just not so much on the frontier and are called Disputed Regions, if we follow the “Chroniques de la Lune Noire” by Froideval, the Empire of Lhynn simply fell a little, and where the “emperor’s lands” is, notably now in the region of the “Free States” with it’s capitol on the coast. Similarly, Gigantea is still there, it’s just called “Terres de Gigantomorphs”.

    As far as the forest replacing the Celestial Empire … I don’t think of it so much as replacing it as finally giving it some terrain since it was just blank slate before. After all, the majority of our real-world China is forested. Most maps depict China as mostly green, too.

    Overall, I really like your article, even if I have a slightly different (entirely fanon) take on it. It’s well-written, and presents fact-based evidence for your opinions on why, and the inherent difficulties with it.
    Quite honestly, it inspires me to go back to work on my own mapping project that’s been idle for years, wherein I still use DA1 as a source, but, give it a little more interesting coastline that still (mostly) follows what’s given from published sources.

    1. I did say it was the *names* specifically that were wiped out. Yes, they were largely renamed, but my original statement still holds. In fact, if you look back to my “beyond the Flanaess” maps from a few years ago, I took exactly the approach you give here.

      The whole thing with Lynn/Lhynn is a very tangled mess. Even the original sources contradict one another. So that’s a lot more subjective when one is trying to reconcile them all with the Greyhawk sources.

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