Thursday, April 26, 2012

Beyond the Flanaess' Importance

This is a bit of rambling that may only be a concern to me, but I thought it might pique debate, so I apologize in advance. Lately in the Greyhawk community, there has been an incredible upswell of interest in the lands "beyond the Flanaess". The lands of Western Oerik were always hinted at in canon sources, and even in scant references in Gygax novels, but the continent finally launched into mainstream discussion with Skip Williams and Dave Sutherland's official map of Oerth in the Dragon Annual #1, then later was built upon by the short lived Chainmail minis setting of the Sundered Empire. Nowadays fan development of Western Oerik can be found in abundance online. Canonfire! has a regular thread discussing the influence of Francois Froideval's Black Moon Chronicles comics on Gygax and Western Oerik. Beyond the Flanaess was the major theme of last year's Oerth Journal #26. And most recently as I've reported, Greyhawk Grognard has been dutifully mapping beyond the Flanaess in the tradition of Darlene's maps. Stepping back from the enormity of development outside the base setting of the Flanaess I am reminded of a familiar quote from the Guide to the World of Greyhawk:

"As is obvious, the Oerik continent is the major center of the world, and the easter portion, the Flanaess, is the center of enlightened humanity. Oerth has four great continents and countless islands, and four great oceans and countless seas which surround these bodies of land. Little is known about the lands of the western portion of Oerik, less still about the savage inhabitants of the other continents, but such knowledge is, of course, of little use anyway and of no importance to humanity."

This simple yet elegant introduction was enough to keep fans of the setting focused inside the boundaries of the Flanaess for decades. For game purposes there was never any need to know more. For characters, it's common knowledge the Twin Cataclysms destroyed the old world and the survivors rebuilt their civilization in the east. End of story? Perhaps not. Since the world of Oerth was unveiled (surprisingly there is still room for mystery) the game's boundaries have been chipped away gradually over the years in everything from the Living Greyhawk Gazetteer to Dungeon Magazine. The point of all this is, as world development progresseses, how long can we continue to accept that the Flanaess is the center of enlightened humanity and the lands outside it are not important?

This attitude is easily explained in game, for sages and scholars don't necessarily have the means to explore beyond their confines yet. Oerth is literally the center of the universe, so it comes as no surprise then that the Flanaess is also considered the center of civilization on Oerth. The quote above is supposed to be based on the perspective of the Savant Sage who lived at the end of Oerth's Epoch of Magic, an undefined future point where the Flanaess is still thought of as the center of civilization while the rest of Oerth is of little importance! Outside the game, how can this be reconciled with the wealth of information we now have about the rest of Oerth? The fact that the Guide is said to only be volume three of seven might explain their omission within the setting's narrative but it still downplays their importance. Could the mountains, seas and deserts of Oerth be enough of a buffer between the Flanaess and beyond to keep global centers of civilization apart for the next few centuries? Is arcane magic and divine interference factors?

The caveat for authors and artists developing areas "beyond the Flanaess" thus, is inadvertently creating a new scene that might exceed the so-called center of enlightened humanity we already know and love. Vast regions of untapped potential like the Celestial Imperium (Suhfang), Lynn, Zindia, etc. beg to be populated with their own cultures and stories, but as they add up and interconnect like Western Oerik, the result is that the Flanaess starts to look smaller. Indeed, shouldn't the perspective of those "little known" lands be that they are the center of civilization and the Flanaess is the isolated backwater? It's an interesting exercise in game balance and world building; one that I hope Greyhawk fans take into consideration so that the importance of the Flanaess setting isn't diminished.


JasonZavoda said...

Since Gygax doesn't have a hand in these lands they are well beyond the Flanaess and into the realm of variant campaign. Nothing wrong with a variant campaign, Greyhawk is meant to be a variant for every DM hence the bare bones approach.

It gets a little harder to explain that bare bones make the campaign your own design to new players when they see things like the revolting material released after Gygax left TSR, then the higher quality but definitely variant dark and detailed Sargent material.

Gygax's Greyhawk survived the Doomgrinder years and Living Greyhawk, it will survive the Land beyond the Flanaess. The hobby is such a small niche at the moment that this most recent variant reaches only hundreds while Gygax's version reached hundreds of thousands.

The Flanaess will only seem small to people who think they have outgrown it, and in the end those people won't be happy till they leave the Oerth entirely and create their own campaign.

Dwarin said...

I never attributed much importance to canon. Canon is whatever I make of it, in other words, whatever I define about the world is my canon, so other materials can be a source of inspiration to me, but will never override my own notions about Greyhawk. This is not to say I don't use some books as baseline (aka Greyhawk Folio).

As for Flanaess being the center of enlightened humanity, this does not mean there aren't other powerful civilizations outside Eastern Oerik. Let us remember that Rome considered itself the center of the world and a beacon of light whose duty was to bring civilization to the dark corners of the world. From this point of view, even if Flanaess is considered, by its people, the center of enlightened world, this doesn't necessarily make it true. One could consider Western Oerik as a sort of Cathay: so distant that only rumors and legends reached the western world in the middle ages.

In the end, I'm sure someone, somewhere, already set their own adventures in that part of the world. They may conflict with published sources, but I never liked settings whose authors tried to detail every corner of the world (see Forgotten Realms). The world looses a bit of its mystery. Gygax intended Greyhawk to be molded and changed by each GM so, to me, there is no one true Greyhawk. Each DM has his own Greyhawk.

Ragr said...

I agree with what's been said above. The whole idea of Greyhawk was for a little detail to go a long, long way in the mind of the DM and player. The more detailed supplements that came out post GH wars were of use to me only as maps and ideas and the detail was both overwhelming and unusable as written.

Personally, I am far from outgrowing what we already have in the Flanaess and I'm still finding dark corners far from the madding crowd in which to set campaigns. I watch with a detached interest as people detail "beyond"; it's good stuff, don't get me wrong, but I get plenty of mileage out of what we've got closer to "home".

The same thing applies to the planes; I never had much use for extra-planar naughtiness when the Oerthy stuff was evil enough.

I hope people will derive lots of enjoyment from the development of Oerth beyond the Flanaess, and I'll keep watching, but I'm happy with my lot.

Oh, one thing I will confess to really not liking is the real world parallels in the development; the allusions to China, Japan etc by naming conventions. It didn't work for me when the Baklunish lands got "Arabbed up" and I like it less now.

On a positive note, though, I appreciate that people are interested enough to put their heart and soul into the projects.

mortellan said...

Yeah I think I need to validate that I absolutely love and support beyond the Flanaess projects, it's just curious to me how the Flanaess is so geographically small and self important when compared to the rest of Oerth.

Gygax clearly had some of those real world analogs in mind in his campaign, but they needn't be so obvious all the time. I'm digging the Froideval borrowing much more than most and I'm anxious to see what Greyhawk Grognard does with mapping the Sundered Empire which I all but ignored until recently.

Joseph Bloch said...

I think the quote from the GH book needs to be taken as the sort of in-game in-joke of which Gygax was so fond. It's precisely the sort of attitude that a scholar in medieval Florence would have had, regardless of the fact that it was made out of both hubris and ignorance of other vibrant civilizations such as that of the Muslims, India, and China.

As far as the various "Beyond the Flanaess" initiatives somehow diminishing the Flanaess, I don't see it at all, for several reasons. First, it's all unofficial, and will all get jettisoned the instant anything comes from WotC on the subject. Second, there's so much published material for the Flanaess that it's the natural setting for a game (although I'm finding a lot more fans of the Sundered Empire than I ever imagined were out there). Third, the Flanaess *was* Greyhawk for decades, and even my own maps never quite seem to measure up to their simple charm. Perhaps that's just nostalgia, but I'll take it anyway. My own campaign is set in Greyhawk, not Suhfang...

Valkaun_Dain said...

I love maps. I can't emphasize that enough. I really enjoy looking at what might lie beyond the horizon. I don't give a rip if it's accurate, canon or not. Ultimately it's up to my DM to make that decision (although a little arm twisting never hurts). I appreciate it that people have tried to define what might be out there, beyond the Flanaess.

I wouldn't put much stock in the opening paragraph and I agree with Dwarin. That's clearly a Flanaess centric opinion of the nether region's savages and barbarians. Surely Suhfang has the same opinion of themselves and the "lesser" cultures far to the East.

And I wholeheartedly agree with Ragr. Most of the names are just plain lazy. Erypt... Really? Change ONE letter and you think that's just enough to give us an idea without beating us over the head with it? Zindia? Spelling it backwards would have been more creative AND less obvious.

Oh well. Make mine Greyhawk!

Cebrion said...

I see no issue with any "Beyond the Flanaess" content diminishing the Flanaess.

Some interaction between the Flanaess and beyond would be fine, and it can be discounted easily enough if one wishes, as can anything related to it. "Beyond the Flanaess" is merely a platform for Greyhawk fans (and potentially WotC) to write up something pretty much whole cloth, in their own way, and according to their own interpretation of what makes Greyhawk "Greyhawk" for them. If other people like it, great. If they don't, does it really matter? Not really (well, it does sales-wise if it is WotC doing the writing).

I might not necessarily set a campaign in an area located "Beyond the Flanaess", but I would very likely send some PCs out there for a visit. A DM must be prepared for a "This place is AWESOME! Let's not go back to the Flanaess for a while!" response too though; i.e. you could be the victim of your own success. :D I really don't set a campaign in a particular area though. My own campaign is ongoing, never ending. It takes place "in Greyhawk", meaning it may takes place anywhere in Greyhawk, for any length of time. I would be more likely to set adventures in areas "Beyond the Flanaess' if there was a good amount of material written for it. That would just make my job a bit easier, and , being the free thinker that I am, I could toss out/replace any material I didn't like anyways. ;)

In the end, it is all, at the very least, yet more source material to be mined however one wishes, so I say "Have at it!" :D

Donna L Martin said...

Hi...I'm hopping over from the A to Z Challenge. Can you believe the challenge is almost over? Lovely blog...good luck with future posts!

Donna L Martin

Charles Mann said...

I enjoy picking up pieces of all the various material sources. I have run campaigns since the first boxed sets and I find it freeing to let the players have fun with source material while keeping my canon open to accepting the materials its all just flavor or fluff. I am currently running a 3.5e Custom honorary nod campaign, kind of nostalgic with a twist sort of set up.

I had an ancient assembly of gargantuan monstrous beasts (beings of cosmic station) that feed on magical potential and divine essence that basically caused the destruction of many realms specifically including two of our favorites, Toril, and Oerth. (these beings are like ancient mega-titans before the 'old gods' of most worlds or realms, they are drawn to more powerful magical or divine realms )

The place the campaign is now is a mostly undiscovered landscape that has only been inhabited for a couple thousand years by refugees from both realms and a few surviving divine beings that took up the protection of this new world. So it leaves it open including or excluding many options from the old ways of 1st and 2nd for my creative materials on so many things. This has brought some great enjoyment from my group of old school players in the stories and plots hearken back to our freer more open less rules lawyered games of old.

Some find it enjoyable for the old stuff because we are definite D&D veterans as well as 1st and 2nd AD&D. Then the inclusion of the kara-tur and oriental adventures holds it for a few of my mid range experienced players. Finally it hold the attention well of my newer say from 2nd Ed and into 3, 3.5 are heavy Forgotten Realms fans of so much good material neverwinter, the dales, waterdeep, baldur's gate, underdark.

I just wanted to comment to say that i enjoy finding more material on Oerth even to this day after so many years of playing. If i don't like where the canon of publication is i can still incorporate what i do like and it fits since we haven't deviated far from the basic game motif we have used for 30+ years.