Greyhawk is a mess

The Marklands, 20 miles per hex

In the process of getting ready for my 5E Greyhawk sandbox campaign (in two weeks – yikes!), I started where I always start. Maps. So in the process of trying to put together a map of the Gnarley Forest and the surrounding environs, I went to the sources and started to put them all together.

And I discovered that the official cartography of the central Flanaess is a complete and utter mess.

The region is well-covered. There’s the original Darlene map, of course, but there’s also the region map from the City of Greyhawk boxed set, the campaign map from From the Ashes, the wilderness maps from Temple of Elemental Evil and Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, one of the maps from The Marklands, the map from Rary the Traitor, and the Domains of Greyhawk map from the Player’s Guide.

From the Ashes, 6 miles per hex

Now, naturally, they don’t have a consistent scale. That would be too easy. Some have hexes, some do not. And the fact that they span some 15 years of in-game time doesn’t help, but it’s hardly insurmountable; the number of major geographic features that change during that time is manageable; mostly forts and castles that are built.

But what’s incredibly frustrating are the details. Many of the maps don’t line up, even when they’re blown up to a consistent scale. Coastlines are inconsistent, rivers are off their courses by many miles, and forests ebb and flow like the tide.

Villages move from place to place; one notable example is the village of Walthain in Furyondy. In the FtA Campaign map, it’s about 50 miles away from the village of Dianrift, and a road heads inland from Sendrift (another 40 miles along the coast) into the interior of Furyondy. But in the Marklands map, the two villages are suddenly 20 miles closer to one another, and the road now heads inland from Walthain, which is ten miles further away from Sendrift than it was before! Plus, the coast of the Nyr Dyv doesn’t line up between the two maps at all; in one it has a much more pronounced northward swoop than in the other, where it’s relatively flat.

Rary the Traitor, no lake

Perhaps the most annoying/hilarious is the case of the disappearing lake in the Abbor-Alz. In the FtA map, there’s a lake near a camp named Marstefel, which the accompanying campaign book tells us is a semi-permanent camp inhabited by tribesmen. But in Rary the Traitor, both the lake and the tribesman camp are gone, replaced by a castle called Griffon’s Nest, inhabited by the self-styled Bandit King of the Abbor-Alz! The castle is apparently quite old, having been abandoned by dwarves in years past. And the two products supposedly both take place in the same time-frame, CY585.

From the Ashes, behold a lake!

So it’s taking some creative tinkering to get everything to fit together. In the process it’s almost impossible to avoid contradicting some previously published material, since it seems to contradict itself! Still, I muddle through, but it is a mess.

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.

22 thoughts on “Greyhawk is a mess

  1. The Case of the Disappearing Lake is too cool not to use. Perhaps it's an illusion defense created by the original dwarven inhabitants of Griffon's Nest, and the Bandit King has recently learned to activate/deactivate it.

  2. Wow! I want so badly to get my maps out and see what discrepancies you mention but then I realized, I was happily oblivious all these years, why dive in deeper? Thanks for pointing those out.
    I wonder how Anna's maps handled it? Surely she noticed.

  3. I can see why you would be frustrated, but I like the idea. Early map makers often got things wrong, someone told them the town was north on the river when it was south, one legend says there is a lake another a dwarf castle.

    Each map maker chooses what to include from the information he has heard having never been there.

    players come to a crossroad a sign says Thistledown is south their map shows it is north. With only enough light for an hours more travel they face a hard choice.

  4. Even so-called canon material differs wildly in its authority. When discussing Greyhawk, obviously Gygax was the highest authority, and his work can be sorted into 3 tiers: 1. Published works, such as the WoG Folio & Boxed Set, modules, and official Errata; 2. Dragon, Polyhedron & other articles stated to be new rules; and 3. the Gord novels (because they were based on his house rules, not the published AD&D / Greyhawk rules, and because they require some interpretation to translate to maps or other game terms)

    Beyond that it is a Greyhawk DM's responsibility to weigh any lesser canon source by its scope and usefulness to your campaign when it contradicts itself, or other materials that you have adopted as canon.

    For example, the City of Greyhawk boxed set presents a particular problem for me because the city map/undercity map are distinctly not the city I envision as Greyhawk, but the Area Map & most of the NPCs, adventure cards, and other material did fit my campaign well.
    I deal w/ this by subtly discouraging my players from spending much time in the city and keeping the geography vague when they do need to enter.

    From the Ashes and the Greyhawk Wars related modules OTOH contradicted prior canon so badly that I found them unusable (not to mention that by the time they were published, my campaign timeline was already 10 years beyond the events they introduced so I saw no point in trying to retcon them in)

    And BTW, also missing from the FtA Campaign Map is the bridge across the Selintan leading NW from Greyhawk to a path that joins the road to Dyvers.

    Changes in forests can mostly be explained away by logging, fires & regrowth. An area adjacent to a forest, if left alone, will become part of the forest in 3-5 years and will be well on its way to being old-growth in 20.

  5. Assuming you have online copies of all of the maps in question, and/or the ability to scan them, it is not too difficult to scale them and superimpose them on each other in order to reconcile the differences and produce your own master campaign map.

    If you do this correctly, you can use it to produce any adventure maps you need at any scale & size with or w/o hex or square grids for DM or player use.

    You can do this with something like Photoshop or Gimp, but there are much better options specifically for map-making. And better yet, many of them are free!

    Basically, you load each map into its own layer. Start with the biggest, then scale each new one to the same size & slide it around till the details match as closely as possible. Make them transparent enough to see every map. then draw your own over them with the design tools and copy & paste.

    If enough people are interested (as in at least 2-3 people are willing to pay $5 to download it), I can make a detailed tutorial showing what software you need, how to install it, and step by step, how to combine several maps and make your own better one, and then how to create adventure maps from it.

    But since that wouldn't be done in time to help Joseph, I will say that one of the most useful map editing programs I've found is QGIS, available free for M$ Windows, Mac & Linux at

  6. Yeah it sounded like you had at least done the scaling & comparison part, and maybe made a composite map. but I figured that a discussion of the techniques might be of interest to others.

    I'm not doing anything nearly as advanced as Anna, largely because I don't have the spare time.

    Also, I'm a bit more interested in drawing a few specific types of maps for use in my games and creating a GIS database than in doing pretty 2d & 3d renderings right now.

    Out of curiosity, what software are you using?

  7. Hexographer. I like the simplicity, but it also has the ability to import custom icons and png images for tracing, which I find invaluable.

    I've created a composite map approximately covering the area from Maure Castle to the western Kron Hills, and from the Midbay to Safeton. It's to be a sandbox type campaign centered on Dyvers and the Gnarley Forest, so I think I've got a pretty good area for the players to romp in.

  8. Several people have mentioned Anna's maps as a possible source for reconciling the issues I've discovered. Unfortunately, one of the problems with Anna's maps is that she incorporates material from both fan and canon sources, with no way to distinguish between the two.

    I simply don't have the time to investigate every single village or feature on her maps that isn't on mine, to figure out if it's canon or a fan creation.

    And yes, that's important to me. I want to start with canon and add my own interpretations, and be able to know which is which.

  9. She does offer her maps in a few formats that support layers.

    Perhaps you could convince her to separate canon vs fan contributed features into different layers in her PDFs

  10. This is a great blog post Joseph, thank you for bringing this up!

    The way I dealt with the frequent incompatible maps was to look at the text sources instead. I tried to read everything I could find about the area and then "reconstructed" a map that tried to accommodate as much of the text sources as possible, and also not deviate from published maps more than necessary.

    Might sound strange for a map maker to downplay the map sources, but I think it makes sense. My reasoning behind this is that those who wrote the texts are for the most parts the ones with the knowledge about what they were writing about. Maps are often done by artists who are just contracted to create a map, and have no or very little knowledge of what the map covers. I know this is the case because I have been hired to do maps just like that, and I wouldn't be surprised if that is the norm in the industry.

    When it comes to canon or not I'm not a purist and wanted to include things on my map rather than exclude. For a while I had layers for "old canon", LG and "fan made" content. But it was hard work for me to try and figure out what should go where, so I merged them together. My source files are available for free for those who want to remove or alter stuff, or I can do it for compensation for the work needed. That way my maps can be altered to fit anyones particular Greyhawk campaign.

  11. The lake was an illusion cast by Rary long ago as a contingency to hide the castle, perhaps as fall back or a place to keep stuff.

    But yeah, just pick a map and run with it. greyhawk maps have no consistency.

  12. Joseph,

    Any thoughts on doing some posts on how you put together a sandox/hexcrawl? I'm thinking of starting one up, and I would love to hear your take on the subject. Particularly how you use published material in your game and the difference in setting one up for 5th vs. AD&D (either 1st ed or Adventures Dark & Deep).

  13. @Todd Rokely

    I'm probably in a minority on this, but when putting together any setting that I'll be devoting a significant amount of game time to, I like to do some real-world research before adding in the fantasy elements.

    I try to find actual places similar to my chosen setting that I can use for geological and historical research.

    I want to know what the terrain is like. What natural materials & resources are available? How does the terrain influence building of houses, roads, bridges … (and of course, castles & dungeons)? Are natural caverns likely or even possible? What about artificial underground construction? What plants & animals are native to the area? What crops can be grown? How would it affect encounters & battles?

    What was pre-industrial life like in the area?Or better yet, pre-gunpowder medieval life?

    I try to chose sources with lots of pictures. If it's even remotely possible, I like to actually visit the areas I'm studying and take lots of photos, especially if they have some sort of well preserved historical area. Of course that depends on where you live and how much you can easily travel. Obviously, being in Europe would be a huge advantage, but even in the US, Colonial, Civil War, or Old West sites can give you a little bit of a sense of what medieval life looked like. Descriptions & pictures help, but if you've never actually been there and personally experienced it, it's hard to convincingly portray settings like a windswept beach, a rocky mountainous coastline, a river canyon, a fjord, a high mountain pass, a desert, grassy plains as far as the eye can see, or any other sort of terrain.

    Once I have a good feel for the area and how the people live, I start filling in the game details. The known details are of course already fixed points, but a 30 mile hex is a big place. Just think about all of the interesting settings within a 15 mile radius of your house.

  14. The map with the lake seems to line up with the Central Alborz range in Iran (just north of Tehran). In fact, that lake appears on Google maps in the same place, so I suspect someone was using a real world map as a go-by for that part of the FTA map, exactly like Tom was discussing.

    I ran across this correlation while doing some reading on the Tethys Ocean and the article mentioned the Alborz mountains. It sounded enough like Abbor Alz that I did a Google Maps and a Google Images check and noticed the similarities.

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