Long-time readers of this blog, and even longer-time Greyhawk fans, will recall that originally the western portion of the continent known as Oerik was completely unknown to us. All we had was a partial map included in the original 1980 Greyhawk folio:
As you can see, the Flanaess proper is in the northeastern corner of the continent, and the rest is left completely blank save for coasts and mountain ranges. The westernmost shoreline isn’t even shown; the map ends at that range of mountains. I think most of us assumed the continent ended not too far off the left edge of that map (because the coasts seem to be aiming towards some sort of convergence), and we were simply left to imagine what it might look like.
Fast forward to 1996, after Gary Gygax had departed from TSR, and Greyhawk had been pretty much left to lay fallow for several years. But then Dragon Magazine Annual #1 came out, and Greyhawk fans were given a quick two-page entry for our favorite setting. A map of the continent of Oerik, with names of nations and brief descriptions:
At the time the DA1 map (as I’ll refer to it here) was controversial, and it remains so to this day. This is for two reasons; the aesthetics and the content.
Aesthetically, it sucks. Not only did the DA1 map essentially append an enormous block of territory to the western end of Oerik, but it’s about as dull as you could possibly imagine. Just look at it; everything beyond that big line of mountains in the center of the map. It’s essentially a big rectangle with a bunch of triangles stuck on at odd places. Just about the only person who thinks it’s a good choice from an aesthetic point of view is this guy:
And not only is it dull from a purely aesthetic point of view, the vast open spaces leave almost no room for interesting geography. Look at the right half of that map (the part that was covered in the original Folio map). All sorts of interesting coastlines, islands, mountain ranges, etc. Lots of places to stick interesting nations, smaller bits of interesting geographical features, and so forth. In such cramped quarters, you can put forests and rivers and all sorts of geographic variety.
Not so on the left side of the map, which is not only so large that any sense of detail is lost, but it’s on a scale that is almost unusable. For instance, one would almost have to cross a distance equal to the entire width of the Flanaess to get from Erypt to anyplace else westwards.
Speaking of Erypt, that brings us to the second objection about the map; the content. Some of the names on the map are just awful; Erypt, Nippon, the Gulf of Ra, Orcreich, etc. The article that accompanies the map does give an “out” by saying those might not be the real names, but in the absence of anything else, they’re what we’ve got. On the other hand, depending on how much of the François Marcela-Froideval material we use, Erypt could end up looking pretty badass:
Now, things regarding western Oerik were pretty much left there for a long time. Nothing further was published, except a couple of fleeting mentions in Dungeon magazine. Then, in 2002, Wizards of the Coast published their Chainmail skirmish game, which was ostensibly set in the World of Greyhawk. Specifically, the westernmost part of Oerik, which in the DA1 map was labeled the Empire of Lynn, the Elvanian Forest, the Kingdoms of the Marches, etc.:
This comes with its own problems. Naturally the names from the DA1 map were wiped out in favor of the factions of the Chainmail game. A few years ago I made an attempt to reconcile this map, the DA1 map, and what we know about the Chroniques de la Lune Noire (a series of graphic novels by François Marcela-Froideval, who was originally going to have his own “piece” of Oerth to develop as a setting, whence came the name for the Empire of Lynn/Lhynn).
But if you look, the Chainmail map does more than that; it sets the geography for huge swaths of territory. What in the DA1 map was the Celestial Imperium (Greyhawk’s China), is now an immense forest that would nearly cover the whole of the Flanaess itself. There is also now a “Southlands” (which on its own is no problem, because it could just be a more generic name for the Red Kingdom, Barbarian Seameast, and Erypt) which is all desert. That’s a desert that is roughly 7,000 miles wide and 3,000 miles across. That’s almost as large as the entire continent of North America, and it’s all desert.
Where the DA1 map dropped a huge swath of land and dared us to do something interesting with it despite its lack of inner waterways and mountains, Chainmail did one better and declared half of the region as a whole to be desert. I mean, I like desert-based adventures as much as anyone, but that’s just excessive.
And the worst part is, the Sundered Empire (the name of the Chainmail setting) could actually be a pretty decent RPG setting if it were given a proper treatment. There are even drow houses from Erelhei-Cinlu, as originally described by Gary Gygax in the Giants/Drow series of adventures.
So the fan of Greyhawk is left with a dilemma. If we ignore the DA1 map because it sucks (and, let’s face it, it’s not great), we run the risk of being overtaken by canonical developments in the lands it depicts, such as happened with the Sundered Empire. Then one has to scramble to get the new material to fit in their own home-brewed solution, and it runs the risk of becoming a treadmill running faster and faster, as one tries to re-incorporate the new material.
And that, frankly, is the problem with the “it’s your campaign, do anything you want with it” school of thought. At some point, you could find yourself forced to either ignore new material because it doesn’t fit with something you changed, or spend inordinate amounts of time trying to get it to fit into your campaign.
On the other hand, if we stick with the canonical representation of Oerik, with its continent-sized deserts, rectangle-and-triangles shape, and somewhat contradictory geography, we’re stuck with an almost unusably-vast landmass, half of which is desert, and the other half of which is, frankly, out of scale with the rest of the setting.
It’s a tough choice.