A thought experiment.
If I was in charge of Greyhawk right now, with 5th Edition coming out this summer, and the setting itself having officially lain fallow, for all intents and purposes, for nearly fifteen years, this is what I would do with it.
I’d have a three-pronged approach.
The first prong would be traditional RPG supplements; more specifics on those in a minute. The second prong would be board and card games that were set in Greyhawk and which played on what I think are its unique strengths. The third would be a series of miniatures and scenarios specifically designed to play into the upcoming Battlesystem rules that were announced yesterday.
I happened to catch some of the Q&A from last Friday’s video broadcast, and was (pleasantly) astonished to see the Wizards of the Coast guys talking about treating settings in exactly the same way I’ve been talking about for quite some time now. Choose a (relatively early) point in the timeline and make that the “default” starting point in the setting. Then have a tableau of events happening in the background. Any given DM could use or not use those events as he sees fit. Perhaps his players will alter the course of those events.
Such an approach requires a deft touch and a firm knowledge of the setting, of course. What are the implications of the PCs rescuing Prince Thrommel from the Temple of Elemental Evil? Veluna and Furyondy are merged in alliance. How does that impact what Iuz does in CY 585? Give some alternatives for pivotal events, especially ones which the PCs could reasonably be expected to participate.
But doing so means you can’t extend the timeline too far. The Forgotten Realms chronology spans more than a hundred years (the Grey Box being set in 1357 DR and the Campaign Guide being set in 1479 DR). It would be nigh unto impossible to provide viable alternatives for all of the major events that the PCs could influence, especially when they interact with one another.
But Greyhawk, right now, only spans fifteen years (the Folio and Gold Box being set in CY 576, and the Living Greyhawk Gazetteer being set in CY 591). There’s a lot of history packed into that decade and a half, but it’s still manageable. Certainly enough for a paragraph here and there to describe “alternate timelines” that a home campaign could follow. Fifteen years of in-game time seems like plenty to me, but I might take it out another ten years just to make it an even quarter-century. After that, leave everything to the DM to work out (and stick to that promise!).
So the first “prong” of my approach would have a major setting product, based in CY 576. A boxed set with gorgeous maps would be ideal, but a suitably detailed book would do. Then have another product, which I have previously called the Great Greyhawk Campaign (in homage to the Great Pendragon Campaign product), which details not only the historical changes to the setting over the course of the next 25 years, but gives the DM specific tools that he can use to make the setting come alive through those events. Finally, another end-cap setting product, detailing the world as of CY 601, giving DMs who want to start their own campaigns without the detailed events happening in the background.
That middle product, the Great Greyhawk Campaign, would be a new sort of thing for the setting. I’d organize it by year, broken down by region and season. Have rumors available in different places and different times, so that the PCs will hear about wars and sieges, peace treaties and invasions, as is relevant to where they are at the time. Folks in the Pale in the spring of CY 577 are going to hear different rumors than those in Keoland in CY 585. There would be a detailed breakdown of events in each locale as well. Troop movements, assassinations, intrigues, battles, strange events, royal weddings, etc. Nothing would say that a DM would need to follow this “canonical” timeline, but it would be there, available, and would provide a backdrop against which he could play his campaign.
Adventure modules happening against the backdrop of war and intrigue raging across the Flanaess would follow. Most of the “location based adventures”, which don’t really change over time, like the Tomb of Horrors or Castle Greyhawk, would be set in 576 as a default, but could be plugged in just about anytime. Others might or might not be timeframe-specific, depending (and if they are, I’d want to include guidelines for moving any of them around in the timeline).
And later on, of course, I’d want to start expanding the descriptions of the world beyond the Flanaess.
The second “prong” would be tabletop board games. I’ve long been tinkering with a “Merchant Princes of the Flanaess” concept, moving trade goods from city to city. Deliver a lot of silver to Rauxes, and the price goes down. Draw a card, and there’s a famine in Wintershiven, and the price of grain goes up there. I’ve also got a “Fight for the Malachite Throne” idea in the back of my mind. A card game, where players are factions within House Naelax, struggling to get their favorite son on the throne as the reigning Overking lays dying. First there is behind-the-scenes maneuvering, but when enough cards have been played, he dies of natural causes, and the gloves come off. Lots of other such non-RPGs are possible; look at the success of the Lords of Waterdeep board game. That would work in Greyhawk just as well.
And thirdly, since Wizards of the Coast has announced that a mass battle module/game will be forthcoming, a series of miniatures and battle scenarios that capitalizes on the Greyhawk campaign’s origins in wargaming. That’s one of its great strong points, moreso than almost any other campaign setting (Birthright being a possible notable exception). The Battle of a Fortnight’s Length, the Battle of Emridy Meadows, Iuz’s invasion of the Bandit Kingdoms, the Iron League vs. South Province/Medegia, the Hateful Wars, the rise of the Empire of the Pomarj… There are dozens of awesome wars and famous battles that could be used as the basis for a whole line of Battlesystem figures and both individual scenarios and campaigns. Dibs on the first set of Knights of Holy Shielding figures…