Historical Analogies in Greyhawk

It has been fashionable for many years to decry the From the Ashes boxed set as the beginning of the ruination of the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting, as it turned many well-established Greyhawk institutions upside-down, wreaked havoc with political boundaries and alliances, and generally shook things up beyond recognition in some cases.

I don’t happen to share the loathing of FtA that many of my fellow Greyhawk fans feel towards this product. True, Gygax didn’t write it, and I’m not a particular fan of “advancing the timeline” in any sense, but if it has to be advanced, FtA does a decent enough job of it. It certainly doesn’t present any changes more drastic than our own history has evinced.

In the course of a few years of Flanaess history, we see the Great Kingdom fracture into ruin; Iuz expand to conquer the Bandit Kingdoms and Shield Lands; the Rovers conquer Tenh; the shadowy Scarlet Brotherhood take over the Hold of the Sea Princes; Geoff conquered by giants, and more changes.

But stop a moment to reflect on some of the changes in European history during the Middle Ages. William the Conqueror, based in a small duchy which would measure only four or five hexes across on the Greyhawk map, managed to take over one of the more prominent kingdoms of the day. The events that led to the event, from the ascention of Harold to the throne of England to the battle of Hastings took less than a year to unfold. A very small power defeats and conquers a much larger one.

In 500 CE, the Visigoths ruled a kingdom that spanned from Paris to Gibraltar. Within a few years of the death of the strong Visigothic king Alaric, the kingdom was fractured and many parts lost. Internal strife and weakness leads to division and defeat, much like we see in the Great Kingdom.

In the early 13th century, an order of fanatical warrior-monks spearheads a crusade and succeeds in conquering large swaths of territory, bringing them under its sway to advance their own religiously-based ideology. The Teutonic Knights are not so far removed from the Scarlet Brotherhood.

Obviously, these are not perfect analogies, but I trust the point is made. Those who complain that From the Ashes changed the map, upset the political order, laid low the mighty and brought the minor to prominence, miss the point of the ebb and flow of history. The modern nationalities that we commonly recognize (France, Spain, England, Germany, Italy) are relatively modern notions, and were in years past quite mutable. Just ask the leaders of once-mighty states such as Burgundy, Catalonia, Lombardy, and the Norman Kingdom of Sicily. That sort of fluidity is part and parcel of the historical landscape, and no campaign should ossify its borders and cultural background without an excellent reason. Even (especially) Rome was fluid, never enjoying exactly the same borders for more than a few years during its entire history. Why should a campaign world be more static?

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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.

13 thoughts on “Historical Analogies in Greyhawk

  1. Yes, indeed. What From the Ashes amounts to is a potential direction that any Greyhawk campaign could have gone in. As I recall, the campaign I participated in had halted by the time this was released. The game master acquired it, advanced the timeline a few years, brought our old characters out of retirement, and we had a rollocking good time in a changed political landscape.

  2. Campaign Worlds shouldn’t be in flux, and I also agree. Campaigns should be set in dynamic worlds that have mutable boundaries that fluxuate over time. Dynamism is more memorable.

  3. When I first got my hands on FROM THE ASHES, I hated it. HATED IT. I thought that it was illogical, and destroyed all the fun of the Greyhawk campaign.

    Now that I’ve had a lot of years to let it sink in, I don’ think it is quite that egregious. I still hate all the animii running around, and I’m not too fond of Geoff being totally overrun by giants, but I can live with most of what happened now.

    Of course, that being said, I’m ignoring all of it in creating my campaign. I may incorporate some elements into my campaign at some point, but for now, I’m using the Yeomanry as my personal sandbox, and making stuff up as I see fit.

  4. no campaign should ossify its borders and cultural background without an excellent reason.

    Agreed, but I split hairs on the difference between a published campaign setting and a living campaign in actual play. I’ve used some of the ideas in From the Ashes in my own Greyhawk games, but I abhor the idea that publishers should advance timelines with new canonical material.

    The PCs should be the William the Conquerors of their world, or the dudes responsible for Geoff going to jotunheim in a handbasket. I much prefer the Wilderlands approach, where you get a snapshot of the world circa now and future products flesh that out more rather than push a publishing agenda by creating an unnecessary core timeline.

  5. I agree with Jeff above.

    In regards FtA in particular, like Mystara’s Wrath of the Immortals/Poor Wizards’ Almanac and Forgotten Realms 4e it goes way overboard in the scope of changes shoved into a few years. Apocalypses can work in campaign worlds designed around them, where the PCs are the epic heroes taking centre stage, but as something that just happens around the PCs they seem pointless to me.

    I’ve recently started running a 576 CY Greyhawk campaign, for the first time paying serious attention to the contents of my ’83 boxed set, and it seems a much funner and cooler setting than subsequent developments. I love the sense of possibility when I don’t have to have Iuz or the Scarlet Brotherhood as uber-BBEGs. Going by the Alignments listed in the glossary, both Nyrond and Scarlet Brotherhood are the same LN alignment!

  6. Oddly, perhaps, I agree with both S’mon and Jeff in most of what they say. I neither think that “advancing the timeline” is a good thing, nor do I use FtA myself. However, in particular regarding something S’mon said:

    it goes way overboard in the scope of changes shoved into a few years

    I must take issue. FtA takes the timeline to CY 584, which gives 8 years between it and the original boxed set (and folio, for that matter). 8 years is a very long time in terms of politics, warfare, and history, and, especially given the point I was trying to make in regards to European history, a LOT can happen in eight years.

    I would similarly disagree that FtA was an “apocalypse” in the same sense as what has happened twice with the Forgotten Realms. In Greyhawk, we see some nations conquered, some broken up, some with changes of rulership. That’s small potatoes compared to Gods turning into mortals, planes of existence being shuffled around, entire races and kingdoms being moved, inserted, and deleted, and so forth. Compared to the Realms, Greyhawk got off light with FtA.

    Personally, I think much of the ill-will towards FtA comes from its “darker” tone, and that’s a separate discussion. I don’t particularly care for the movement of FtA away from the sandbox and towards the adventure path, but FtA cannot be blamed for that. Such was the direction that all TSR worlds were taking at the time. In purely in-game terms, the political changes between 576 and 584 were simply not Earth-shatteringly dramatic.

    As I said in the original post, I’m not a fan of advancing the timeline. But Gygax himself was doing that in those Dragon articles which described troop movements and other events in the Flanaess in 577-578. If advancing the timeline at all is a bad thing, then advancing it 2 years is as bad as advancing it 8.

    I should point out that I don’t use FtA in my own campaign, just in the interest of full disclosure.

  7. Changing the timeline just to publish new product is stupid, but at the same time, letting the setting lay fallow but for modules (which only the DM will buy anyway) is just as foolish.

    Every now anda then, a change should be made. A kingdom should fall and be replaced by something new, or old. A hero should rise, or die. The balance of power should change. Something new should be discovered.

    Aside from being good business sense, it opens the field to new players who haven’t shared the original, or to players who have “played out” the original.

    Change can be good! I’m not saying Greyhawk should go the “gotta catch-em-all” route that Forgotten Realms and White Wolf have, but neither should it lay dead for fear of trampling upon the sensibilities of the old school players.

  8. Hmm… Overall I have to say I dislike Metaplot, and that includes official timeline advances.

    Eg I ran my Mystara Dawn of the Emperors campaign 1000 AC to 1045 AC. Then TSR advances the official timeline 1000 to 1010 AC, in a different way of course. Pointless. Same happened with Oerth.

  9. “The modern nationalities that we commonly recognize (France, Spain, England, Germany, Italy) are relatively modern notions, and were in years past quite mutable. Just ask the leaders of once-mighty states such as Burgundy, Catalonia, Lombardy, and the Norman Kingdom of Sicily. That sort of fluidity is part and parcel of the historical landscape…”

    And I think a setting which did this right would be great. Short of playing Medieval Total War, though, I have not seen it done right in a game. Probably my home Dawn of the Emperors campaign came closest that I’ve seen.

  10. I’d just as soon send it to the ashes as look at it.

    Eight years a long time? Sure, there’s the occasional big reverse… but then you’ve got affairs like the Hundred Years War that last significantly longer.

    The whole thing was just way, way, way too over the top and also… metaplot.

    I’m sorry, but the point of a campaign setting is so that I don’t have to come up with weather charts and demographics myself. But I will be in charge of the big events. Nothing makes the PCs into a complete sideshow like a big, top-down authorial metaplot.

    And whaddaya mean Geoff gets overrun by giants? Giants get overrun by Geoff. G1-3 aren’t exactly a cakewalk, but I bet they’re often finished successfully. Of course, all those stories are eliminated with a few keystrokes.

    Sorry… this is a good blog but on the subject of this steaming pile, I couldn’t agree less.

  11. So you don’t agree that over the course of eight years in European history, we could see kingdoms fall, wars begin and end, and one power take over another? Because that’s all I said; I made no statement on the general quality of FtA other than the fact that I don’t hate it.

    I think you’re letting your hatred of FtA color your opinion, to the point where any words that aren’t dripping with venom towards FtA must be attacked, even if they are objectively correct. Please save such behavior for the message boards such as ENWorld.

  12. I am not a great lover of FTA, although I agree with Joseph that the events within it are plausible. Likewise I see the direction being taken in many cases as quite a reasonable conclusion to hints in both Dragon and the '83 boxed set.
    My main rub with it though is the sense of everything happening pretty much on cue. In my campaign I don't envision the Scarlet Brotherhood as being ready for mass invasion at the drop of a hat… sure its a possibility, but the execution of it at the same time as Iuz/Ket and the Giant incursions….. it all seems just a little too coincidental and set-up.
    Now I entirely agree with Joseph that the events can be seen in the context of real-world history. I can see Ket seizing opportunity as Iuz strikes, but the Great Kingdom collapse and Brotherhood activities should have been held off for later IMO ( I also find the extent of both Iuz and Brotherhood gains a little overplayed, but that is personal preference.. I would have preferred both to have been more creeping in their conquests/subversions).
    The use of timeline extension will always be tricky. Personally I just mine it for what I like and leave the rest. The problem for me comes when such events force major campaign changes as with FR, where god-death seems as common as day change!
    Overall, i'm not a huge fan of FTA if I look at its cramming into the 8 year timeline of so many changes everywhere, but beyond that it isn't IMO a bad product.

  13. I agree with Joseph that the events within FTA are plausible, but that is not my main beef. The reason that I see it as flawed is the way that so much of it seems to rely on coincidence and feel shoe-horned.
    Sure the collapse of the Great Kingdom is not far fetched (albeit I would have played it differently…). Fall of the bandit Kingdoms et al to Iuz… check (but probably over a slightly longer period than the 'deck of cards' events portrayed). Scarlet Brotherhood machinations? Ok, although having a massed force ready to strike did jarr somewhat. Ket and Giant Invasions, again either or both a possibility, and Ket striking while Iuz plays is logical…
    But now the rub. ALL of this coming together simultaneously?? Hmm. Yes I accept that events have knock-on consequences, and as I state, each event is highly plausible. Yet I can't shake the feeling that someone was stood over a map poking each contry/empire and figuring what major event was going to fire off (… oh heck we've forgotten Lendore… quick lets have an Elven rennaisance).

    I use the product to mine various events as I see fit, and leave what doesn't work for me. To that end the product works fine. It is better than the FR situation which seems to kill gods daily and change the mechanics of the game (Fate of Istus… now that's another issue….!). I agree that changing a timeline is tricky, inconvenient even, but so long as fundamentally it doesn't dismiss whole swathes of the core setting I don't see it as an issue. It becomes more-so where adventure releases rely too much on buying in to political changes.Given that there were few GH adventure releases (certainly few of much worth IMO)around this time I cannot hate this product. I do feel that it could have been so much better though!

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