Thoughts on Canon, Part I

The issue of “canon” in Greyhawk circles is one that comes up often enough, and it’s an issue that I’ve given a great deal of thought to over the last decade or so. It’s important to me not because it impacts or does not impact my own personal campaign (by definition any campaign I do that is not composed solely of canon modules is non-canon, and my DMing style just doesn’t lend itself to that), but rather because it speaks to the ideal towards which my campaign strives.

Canonical Greyhawk is important because it represents the baseline. It is that common stem from which all Greyhawk campaigns derive, and it defines the corpus of material common to those campaigns. Non-canon elements may be introduced, of course, but the corpus of canon material represents that minimum which cannot be redacted, lest the kernel be lost and the DM be left with something that is not-quite-Greyhawk, no matter the name and map that is used. That is not to say that every canonical element must be actually used; the spaceship of S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks may exist in my Flanaess without my PCs ever visiting it, but the fact that it is there as a potentiality has, I think, an important impact.

It must always be remembered that Greyhawk is neither defined nor bound by any given set of rules. One could run a Greyhawk campaign using the GURPS rules and be perfectly within the bounds of canon. Differences between D&D, AD&D, 2E, 3.X, and soon, 4E are irrelevant to the setting itself. Rules come and go, but the setting, as a collected history, interacting political and private entities, personalities, religious and social customs and practices, etc. transcends rules. Furyondy is Furyondy whether or not it’s in 1E or 2E. Tenser is Tenser whether he’s described using D&D or 3.5 rules. The sole exception would be if the rules mandate radical changes to the setting to accomodate those rules. (That’s one of my forebodings concerning 4E and Greyhawk, but that’s a topic for another post, and I will not make any judgements until I’ve actually got the rulebooks in my hands.)

Many people have proposed lists of canonical Greyhawk works, and I will be no different. I would argue that, given the above definition and intention of canon in the context of the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting, the following works represent that baseline, below which one has lost something ineffably Greyhawk.

The list must needs start with the 1980 folio and the 1983 boxed set. Without these you don’t even get the basics of geography, history, religion, and politics. I would add the “obvious” modules from the early 1980’s; the Giants, the Drow, the Slavers, Temple of Elemental Evil. S1-4 have a lot of background material as well, and the setting is definitely much lessened without the likes of Iggwilv and White Plume Mountain. I would add the “From the Sorceror’s Scroll” articles penned by EGG, describing the then-current events of the Flanaess. Often overlooked, those articles breathe life into the setting, and provide an excellent example of the sorts of things that the DM might have going on in the background, either for color or for the sake of adventure instigation. I would add the novels Saga of Old City and Artifact of Evil, as well (and, naturally, the short story At Moonset Blackcat Comes).

The big question, of course, revolves around the Greyhawk Wars and From the Ashes. Are they to be included in the baseline definition of canon? I, with no little amount of regret, must argue “yes”. Those two products, while they certainly describe changes to the people and places of the setting, really aren’t the apocalyptic setting-smashing works they are often portrayed as being. Many DMs, I think, throw out a lot of good material in an effort to achieve an innocent purity, and I think that’s a mistake. Similar changes were foreshadowed by EGG himself in the Sorceror’s Scroll articles mentioned above, where kingdoms contested, Iuz plotted and schemed, and so forth. I might disagree with the notion of “advancing the timeline”, as was done with these products (I do, and believe it’s the job of the DM to advance the timeline in his or her campaign), but the fact remains that it was done and needs to be dealt with rather than ignored.

As an aside, it is certainly true that Greyhawk’s “decline” began around the time that Wars and FtA were released, and I think that many people’s impressions of those two products are tied to that fact. However, I would argue that the decline was more due to the release of the 2nd edition rules, which had a similar impact across the board, than it was to the contents of the two boxed sets.

For those DMs who simply cannot abide the changes that the Wars make to the kingdoms and personages of the Flanaess, there is of course a way out, even while keeping those products within the sphere of canon (thereby allowing the DM who cares about canon to use the “good bits”). In fact, it’s what I am doing in my own campaign. More on that in a future post.

To be continued…

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.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Canon, Part I

  1. Personally, I’ve come to dispise the notion of “canon” for RPG settings.

    I don’t think any player, DM, or module author should be expected to be conversant with a wide body of canon.

    At most, along your minimum requirements criterion, I’d count at most the folio and boxed set.

    And even that…if someone wants to run a campaign inspired by Greyhawk before publication—with a map based on North America like Gary used—is that not really Greyhawk?

    Even when running my Lord of the Rings campaign, I make it clear to the players that I reserve the right to contradict canon if I wish to. It’s not something I do it big ways all the time, but once the game starts, it is no longer Tolkien’s world; it’s ours.

    All of which is not offered as argument, but merely as another point-of-view.

  2. My two cents would be that if it was done without the consent of EGG, it’s not anything I want to touch with the proverbial ten-foot pole.


    “but the fact remains that it was done and needs to be dealt with rather than ignored.”

    “Needs” to be dealt with and not ignored? Or what? My gaming table suddenly explodes and my whole group dies in a cloud of supersonic d4 schrapnel?

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