Greyhawk through the ages

This post is inspired by something that +Eric Franklin posted on Google+, asking about From the Ashes, and it inspired me to take a quick jaunt through the various published incarnations of the setting (Gygax’s home campaign was originally quite different, but morphed into something more like the published version as time went on). I’m going to focus here on the boxed sets and setting-wide sourcebooks, rather than the specific modules and regional sourcebooks that have been released over the years.

First, of course, we have the 1980 folio. This was the original incarnation of the published version of the setting, and packs a lot into its 32 page gazetteer. There is a broad overview of history, written in terms of migrations of peoples (reminiscent of the late Classical era migrations of the Germanic tribes), as well as capsule descriptions of all the nations and natural features (mountain ranges, forests, rivers, etc.) on those beautiful maps by Darlene. It is set in CY 576.

Many of its fans feel that one of its strengths is its brevity and lack of detail. There are no descriptions of deities or religions (beyond Iuz, because he rules a nation, and even then there are no stats in the conventional sense of the term), no adventure hooks, no NPCs (other than rulers, and all they’re given is a class and level). I think modern audiences would probably find such omissions frustrating, whereas we OSR types see them for what they are – room to fill in ourselves.

The folio was followed shortly by the 1983 Gold Box, consisting of those same Darlene maps and two books. The Guide covers much of the same information, in terms of kingdoms and forests, but adds a lot of information on deities, random encounter tables for various regions and nations, quasi-deities, tables for appearance and national origin, and more. Much of the additional material had appeared in the pages of Dragon magazine, but some, such as the mini-adventure seeds, are new to the product.

Up to this point, the setting is what could be called a “classic” fantasy setting. It portrays the forces of evil and good in the world as being in relative equilibrium, has a quasi-medieval/Renaissance feel and level of technology, it can be called a high magic setting, and its relatively low amount of canonical information still makes it very easy for a DM to make it his own without worrying about contradicting something written in some novel or sourcebook (a problem which plagues the Forgotten Realms). There is a definite feel that evil is on the rise, but the situation isn’t hopeless and the stalwart heroes can stem the tide through bold action.

1992’s From the Ashes, produced after Gygax had left TSR, takes the setting into a different direction and sets a decidedly different tone. While the basics of the setting are still intact – it’s still relatively high magic, the quasi-medieval/Renaissance organization is still there, and the canon is still relatively low compared to the Forgotten Realms (but growing, especially with the City of Greyhawk boxed set and the various regional sourcebooks that started to come out after this boxed set was published). The various nation descriptions are updated to reflect what’s happened in the timeline between the time frame of the Gold Box and this set (which takes place in CY 585), but the real change is in the tone of the setting.

Evil is now clearly ascendant. Iuz has conquered most of the northern Flanaess, the Great Kingdom has collapsed into undead-fueled anarchy, giants besiege or have conquered the western Sheldomar Valley, demons and devils (tanar’ri and baatezu, ahem) stride the land, and the Scarlet Brotherhood is popping up everywhere taking out leaders and conquering territories. The feel now is that the forces of good are on the ropes, besieged on all sides as well as from within, and evil could triumph at any moment.

Once Wizards of the Coast acquired Greyhawk, they moved the timeline ahead yet again, this time to CY 591, and released the Players Guide and Greyhawk: The Adventure Begins, both in 1998. This time the pendulum swung back to the “evenly matched good and evil” side. Iuz is more-or-less contained, successor states are rising in the former Great Kingdom and establishing (relative) order, the Scarlet Brotherhood has suffered reversals, and the western Sheldomar Valley is being reclaimed from the giants. One gets a sense from this incarnation of the setting that everyone is catching their breath after the tumultuous years that preceded it.

There’s also much more of a focus on the central Flanaess and the city of Greyhawk itself in these products, but not so much that they seem to be in isolation. By this time, however, the weight of the accumulated canon (in the assembled adventure modules, sourcebooks, novels, magazine articles, and miscellanies) is starting to tell – inconsistencies are creeping in much more frequently, which is inevitable when so many authors have written so much material for a single setting – but in terms of sheer volume it is still far behind the Forgotten Realms.

Finally, we come to 2000’s Living Greyhawk Gazetteer, which was an incredibly thorough and comprehensive treatment of the setting, including an enormous depth of history on all of the territories and nations of the Flanaess, information on deities and religions, NPCs, and more. It is set in the same CY 591 timeframe as The Adventure Begins and the Players Guide, and served as the launching-off point for the Living Greyhawk campaign managed by the RPGA. Because of this, although it adds a wealth of detail (indeed, it might be said that it adds too much, straying the farthest from the original folio in terms of content vs. room for DM invention), the tone of the two earlier books is still maintained.

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.

11 thoughts on “Greyhawk through the ages

  1. I like the '83 box better then the old one for more information nowadays. Mixed abit with the from the ashes for evil ascent so heroes have something to do….

  2. The dilemma I think many settings face is small and simple may be best for the purist, but the company needs to put out products to keep a setting in the collective minds of gamers. I know some people hate From the Ashes because it "messed up" (or at least changed) GG's vision of his campaign world. Yet without it Greyhawk would have been passed over in 2nd edtion and maybe 3rd edition as well. Greyhawk would have been a footnote in the early history of D&D. I for one am glad that TSR/WOTC has paid some attention to Greyhawk, even if it isn't what some fans expect.

  3. @Norman Harman: Oh, I will *so* be running a 5E Greyhawk campaign once I get my hands on the new rulebooks. Once we're slipped off the "no derivative works" leash that the playtest license imposed on us, expect to see a lot of material, if the game turns out as I expect.

    @John L: That's a dilemma faced by all settings. But we've also seen a distinct change in attitude over the years within the gaming population, away from "give me a light framework so I can make my own stuff" towards "give me everything I need to play." I think the trend is exacerbated by the organized play and "living campaign" phenomenon, which basically mandates that style of play.

  4. True joseph, on the living play style, but also that living play style brings in new blood into the fold. Without it you face stagnation.

    I may or may not like say, pathfinder society. But their organized play does bring folks into the fold and keep them active.

  5. Excellent post. I had the old folio version. I thought it was beautiful looking, but I didn't know what to do with it. I think the Gold version would have been more to my liking. It's good to have some grey areas to insert your own creativity, but too much and you don't need the published product. You may as well do it all yourself.

    I know better than to say that players and DM's should simply ignore continuity in published settings and just use what they want. It's too bad they couldn't just publish the game setting on one hand, publish novels about the setting, and not mix the two.

  6. Great topic for a post and very timely, as I just had a newer gamer ask me about Greyhawk boxed sets. I'll be directing him to this nice summary.

  7. Right now I am really enjoying my '80 Folio.

    I think what might make for a good series of posts are which Dragon articles are the best for a Greyhawk Campaign. Something I have considered myself, but it would a huge undertaking.

  8. I will never forget the first time I held the gold box in my hands, and then I saw Darlene ' s maps…

    I have been running adventures in Greyhawk, on and off, since 1985 and have so many great memories. Thanks for the post Joseph.

    I'd love to see new material for the setting even though I'm afraid what that might be if the wrong people were in charge. I want the opportunity for newer gamers to get exposed to my favourite setting and experience the same thrills I have.

  9. We had that '83 one when I was but a lad. Confused us as we thought it was supposed to be a game itself. And yet we already had D&D and played that. Didn't know at the time there was an earlier version. Didn't know until now that there were later versions. Preferred Karameikos.

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