I was involved in a forum discussion last summer about the lack of any natural deserts in the World of Greyhawk setting. Those fans who have followed Greyhawk since the 80's already know about this topic fairly well, but just in case, it goes as follows: All the major arid regions of the Flanaess have had some kind of magically influenced climate brought upon them in the past. A popular way of justifying this is to say that magic affecting the weather in the Flanaess is natural to a high magic setting. This is a fine in game excuse except as I have recently investigated, I now think the reason for all the magical deserts is due to emulating campaign development.
1st Edition (World of Greyhawk Folio and Boxed Set)
In the original published setting we have four major arid regions in the Flanaess (I won't get into Riftcanyon might be a fifth). The Sea of Dust, the Dry Steppes, the Bright Desert and the Barren Wastes. The Sea of Dust and the Dry Steppes of course are the leftovers of the Suloise and Baklunish Empires respectively after their Twin Cataclysms destroyed each other. This is the historical backbone that the campaign is built on as laid down by Gygax and there is no disputing these massive regions were magically created.
"History tells us that (the Sea of Dust) was once a fair and fertile realm extending thousands of miles west and southward, too."
"Once the (Dry Steppes) was well watered and fertile, forming the homelands of the Baklunish Padishahs and Sultans..."
What of the Bright Desert in 1st edition?
"The harsh climate, wildly varying temperatures, and hostile inhabitants...tend to discourage exploitation."
And the Wastes? Virtually no reference outside the Rovers of the Barrens hiding there time to time. This is what grabs me. In the early going we have two magic deserts and two natural ones. It would have to take a great leap of imagination to translate "wildly varying temperatures" as magically influenced back then. Moving on...
2nd Edition (Greyhawk Adventures, Rary the Traitor, Iuz the Evil, etc.)
Development on the setting moves forward. James Ward writes about the Burning Cliffs in the Wastes for the first time. From this section we learn about a possible magic origin for the Wastes:
"...the forests, marshes, and grasslands at the edge of the Wastes, hundreds of miles away, have begun to sicken and die, supporting the claims of some scholars that the Burning Cliffs are in fact responsible for the Wastes to begin with."
"A large town has grown up near the center of the conflagoration, where there is a gate to the plane of Fire. The wily Storich's boasts are true to the hilt; he passed through to the City of Brass itself..."
Ward goes to the magical gate theory and so the Wastes become in danger of losing its natural desert status. Then some years later, Iuz the Evil by Carl Sargent further elaborates on the creation of the Wastes. The wheels completely fall off this time and the Wastes are forever in the magical column.
"The origins of the Wastes are generally thought to be magical, with some natural, or most likely magical, cataclysm having created them much as the Sea of Dust was created, probably centuries before the Invoked Devastation."
It gets stranger...
"Other tales tell of a subterranean race of intelligent, magical reptilian creatures which employ magic to render the Wastes a wholly barren land to keep the surface folk from taking an interest in their affairs."
Then there is the Bright Desert. This completely untouched desert region got its first dose of Greyhawk development in the divisive Rary the Traitor by Anthony Pryor. Metaplot aside, he introduces good material on the climate and life of this previously undeveloped desert.
"Any desert is a harsh climate, and the Bright Desert is harsher than most. Located in a waterless bowl, with scant rainfall each year, the Bright Desert challenges even the hardiest wilderness survival expert."
Then Pryor introduces the ancient kingdom of Sulm and its rival Itar to give the area its place in the Flanaess' background.
"Once, over 2000 years ago, a Flannish kingdom called Sulm ruled the central portion of what is now called the Bright Desert. Constant warfare with desert nomads and internal unrest led Sulm's rulers to delve into forbidden magic and the worship of evil gods."
This quote is good in that it means there has always been some arid areas of the old Bright Desert. Perhaps Sulm's central region was a river cutting through the desert not unlike the Nile or Tigris. Of course this all goes to "waste" with the curse of the Scorpion Crown which turns all Sulmites into manscorpions and with it the fertile kingdom of Sulm vanishes from history. All is not lost though:
"If the crown is eliminated...the Bright Desert slowly begins to revert to a reasonably fertile, if somewhat arid region. There changes taken place over a century or more..."
So we finally have a natural desert with some fertile areas, that then falls into the same development hole and becomes affected by high magic and changed into a completely hostile desert region. At least Anthony gave the Bright Desert a little credit. Perhaps the reversion back to a fertile land is slow because natural desertification would have slowly ate it up anyhow even if Sulm hadn't vanished overnight. This is a good partial save for the Bright Desert to not be cataclysmically created by magic but rather maintained by it.
What of the rest of Oerth? We now know of other arid lands beyond the Flanaess thanks to the Dragon Annual map and its highly controversial analogue nations. Here we have possible candidates for future natural deserts with places like Erypt and the Red Kingdom. The temptation for future writers, be they professional or fanbased, to make these undeveloped lands magically created or maintained will be great. After all they are following in the footsteps of Gygax and if destroying kingdoms and turning them into ash was good enough for him, why not try it again?