Friday, June 28, 2019

Greyhawk and me

I have been meditating on fantasy campaign settings and why there are distinct preferences for one over another. Some such as Dark Sun and Tekumel are unique. However many of them seem quite generic including Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Mystara, Golarion, and Kobold presses Midgard. These start with a Medieval Western European base zone and tack on other cultural memes such as Viking, Arabian, and Asian cultures. Golarion and Midgard I understand, as third-party products they need a setting they can control. However, the three-way fight between Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk and Mystara, seems hard to comprehend. All of these are sufficient breadth and scope to allow a DM to insert whatever adventure they care to run. I am not an expert on any of these worlds, but they seem very similar when contrasted with Dark Sun. Greyhawk being the oldest perhaps should take the primacy of place. However, most of my recent experience has been with Forgotten Realms. As a start to analysis, I will in this post discuss my experience with Greyhawk.

I first encountered Greyhawk in the Greyhawk expansion to the little brown books in 1975. Although there were several pages of short adventure suggestions there was very little setting. I played "Descent into the Depths" as a tournament module at GenCon, but the Underdark has little relation to the surface kingdoms of Greyhawk. The next year was "Secret of the Slavers Stockade" with some actual information about the Pomarj. In 1980 came the famous Darlene Map and Gazetteer, however, a list of place names and dry facts is not something that captured my imagination. Also in 1980 I picked up and DMed the "Village of Homelet" which was going to be a campaign but fell apart after the moat house was cleared and the promised sequel the "Temple of Elemental Evil" failed to appear. By the time "Temple of Elemental Evil" came out I had moved on in my life. Rumor has it that Forgotten Realms was much more popular with the writing staff at TSR during the Gygax era because Greyhawk material required Gary's approval.

I followed the 2e restart, but the Greyhawk war never quite resonated with me. "Border Watch" is a nice beginner module. "Iuz the Evil" is a great explanation of  Iuz evil empire. "Vecna lives" is a marvelous high-level adventure, but is set in the Sea of Dust far from the main centers of action. The "City of Greyhawk" boxed set was interesting especially the side quest cards (a feature which has disappeared from modern design) however I disliked the main city map (better Greyhawk city maps are available on the web).  The disappointment of the various "Castle Greyhawk" iterations is a whole blog post in itself.

3e saw the rise of "Living Greyhawk". I was a bit late to the party starting in 2006. Living Greyhawk brought a great breath to the world, but everything was highly compartmentalized by real-world geographical region. In Ohio, I was restricted to Veluna. Getting actual Veluna modules were a bit hit and miss, requiring the third party volunteer coordinator to e-mail both the encrypted module and password key. However, in our group, I used the special adventures set in the "Bright Desert" (for Wizards of the Coast [WoTC] modules you could download them off the web site, and only have to request the password). Unfortunately, the intellectual property for most of the "Living Greyhawk" modules is a total mess with module rights reverting to the author, but Greyhawk content being retained by WoTC rendering everything unpublishable without removing the content of most interest to me. "Expedition to Castle Greyhawk" was the last flurry of 3e. I thought the book was well written for the most part, but I was annoyed that the upper levels were expected to be randomly generated. I did pick up some "Living Greyhawk" modules for the upper levels which I ran my nephews through (pretty good low-level dungeon crawls, but probably also lost in the IP meltdown).

4e cleared Greyhawk from the table. With 5e we are beginning to start to see a return with: the Greyhawk pantheon included in the player's guide; several classic Greyhawk adventures like "White Plume Mountain", "Tomb of  Horrors", "Against the Giants", and the "Hidden Shrine of Tachoman" updated; and the "Ghosts of Saltmarch" being officially set in Greyhawk. I have not played any of the new material yet so cannot say how well they play. Most of these so far seem to be drop-in adventures having very little to do with lore from the larger Greyhawk world. I also love the gorgeous map of Greyhawk made by Anna Meyer.

So where does this leave me and Greyhawk? I think modern play owes a great debt to Greyhawk marking both Mystara and Forgotten Realms as derivative products. However, the on-again-off-again publication record makes it less comprehensive setting than Forgotten Realms. The written works of Mystara cover a much broader range of cultural memes than the published  Greyhawk work. Although the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons hardcover book "Oriental Adventures" putatively placed Kara-Tur on the same planet as Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms very quickly absconded with it. I saw on the web a proposed conversion of Greyhawk to a points-of-light style setting which I found weird because to my way of thinking Greyhawk was always a points-of-light setting, to begin with. As I usually run my campaigns in one-horse towns seeming far removed from the central action of any campaign world (although in such places great evil festers and grows) any generic medieval western setting will do.  Perhaps I am still running a disguised version of my Village of Homelet campaign after all (although no hidden 10th level assassins for me, please).

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