Monday, September 1, 2014

Why the Gem of the Flanaess?

A long while back there was a discussion in our weekly Greyhawk chats about the Azure Sea and that sparked an esoteric question in my head which I thought better explored in length here: Why the Gem of the Flanaess?

For those not intimately familiar with the setting, the Gem of the Flanaess is the nickname of the Free City of Greyhawk, the literal central focus and namesake of the World of Greyhawk. The City of Greyhawk Boxed Set addresses this exact question in the opening chapter of its gazetteer. Put another way, why is Greyhawk so important in the world and why should you base your campaigns out of it? I postulate that while the city is nice and centrally located, given the evidence of history post Greyhawk Wars, if a dungeon master wanted, the setting focus could theoretically shift. The book says:

"A number of key factors have contributed to Greyhawk's key position in the affairs of the Flanaess. Among them are its location, long history, economic versatility, and the vigor and variety of its population.

Greyhawk has long been the beacon for men and women of learning, or great faith, or high magic...

...currently active adventurers are also drawn to the city. The nearness of the great ruin, Castle Greyhawk, has proven to be the most irresistible draw..."

All are important factors. Greyhawk as it goes, started as a minor trading post in a good location. As the Flanaess became more settled during the height of the Kingdom of Aerdy, it grew somewhat, but didn't quite explode until the time of mayor Zagig Yragerne his era of learning and construction and then ruin of his wealthy castle within the last 250 years. In fact, the Free City of Dyvers, (a former capital of Furyondy) which is also on the Nyr Dyv water-system a mere 120 miles away, was a much bigger and more important city for a time, that is until Greyhawk sapped away much of its cultural and economic influence. If it can happen to Dyvers, so too can Greyhawk lose it's luster.

Greyhawk is certainly a hot-bed of adventure, but those same dangers could someday keep trade away trade and scare off the variety of people that it is so proud of having. How? Iuz's empire is just across the lake in the Shield Lands and to the south-west is the orcish empire of the Pomarj, then to the south-east is the Bright Lands. Greyhawk while neutral, is very rich so I highly doubt the city, though strong in its own right would be safe from conflict. Castle Greyhawk (Greyhawk Ruins version) itself is also a danger to the long term security of the city. Not to mention, if the player characters somehow manage to clear the dungeons of all its wealth, where will adventurers go next? Maure Castle?

Then there is the trade route quandary. Pirates of the Pomarj and Wild Coast plague the way south through the Woolly Bay, the Nyr Dyv is relatively safe (don't trust Rhennee bargemen), but does have its own aquatic dangers, then that leaves the east-west roads. As I mentioned, Dyvers is an economic rival and the Duchy of Urnst to the east is on good terms yet if you see the map its a bumpy road traversing the dangerous Cairn Hills and nearing the Mistmarsh swamp. The Gem of the Flanaess may be centrally located, but it's by no means easy to access.

Now that I've bored you to death, where else would be fitting to move a campaign focus given the socio-political problems surrounding Greyhawk? Here's some possible suggestions:

The World of Irongate: Irongate (detailed in Dragon #351) is comparable in every way to Greyhawk. Fairly centralized free city, large multi-racial population, natural resources, fortifications and high magic. Situated in the east-center of the Flanaess, it's main political concerns is the outed Scarlet Brotherhood, pirates and the fractured kingdoms of Aerdy. Unlike Greyhawk which relies on roads and rivers, Irongate has a major seaport to trade and explore leagues beyond its reach. As for adventure, the place is reputedly an extra-dimensional nexus and is in proximity to adventure locales like the Tomb of Horrors.

The World of Gradsul: Gradsul, to the southwest of Greyhawk is the main port city of the Kingdom of Keoland. Much like Irongate, it is a largely (49,400) populated center of trade on the Azure Sea. It has a similar reach to exotic resources brought up from the south seas islands and jungles, much too far for Greyhawk to attract. Gradsul isn't a free city, but it is certainly the most prosperous and heavily defended one in Keoland. It's only military concern is the piratical Sea Princes. Gradsul can make a nice urban locale for political intrigues and from this base adventures be sought in the nearby Dreadwood Forest, the Hool Marshes or just a ship's voyage away.

The World of Rel Mord: To the east, this capital of the Kingdom of Nyrond is another major populated city (46,500) as well as a center for learning like Greyhawk (The University of Rel Mord). Rel Mord is usually at odds with the Great Kingdom, but as of the Greyhawk Wars, they aren't as much of a concern. Rel Mord is along a river-way like Greyhawk and is centrally located in the kingdom as to make it the hub of all roads going to the Urnsts, the Theocracy of the Pale or even to Aerdy. Adventurers can try their hand at the ruins of Almor or go west to Maure Castle.

The World of Lopolla: Want to have a Baklunish/Arabic feel to your game? Lopolla, the capital of Ket to the far west of Greyhawk is situated in another hub of trade and travel between the Yatil Mountains and the Barrier Peaks. Lopolla is a large (27,300) multicultural center spanning the peoples of the Flanaess proper to the Baklunish west. After the Greyhawk Wars, things settled down for Ket so they're not entirely at odds with their easterly neighbors anymore. Loads of adventurers can be attracted to nearby treasures in the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth or the make an Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. After those, Lopolla can be used as a springboard to further quests Beyond the Flanaess.

The World of Verbobonc: Lastly to the west, there is the humble Viscounty of Verbobonc. While it is smaller than Greyhawk (12,700) it is just as diverse in population and lays near the same river trade route as Dyvers and the Gem of the Flanaess. This minor city is much more buffered from the threats of Iuz or the Pomarj thanks to Furyondy and Celene giving it a chance to grow where Greyhawk might languish. It is also still close enough then for adventurers to travel to the same local hot spots that we all know. Verbobonc much like it's bigger neighbor however, has its own local adventure attraction, the Temple of Elemental Evil.


tom said...

Actually, in my nearly 40 years of running a Greyhawk campaign, my players have rarely ventured into the City of Greyhawk, and never into the Castle Greyhawk dungeons.

There are several reasons for this, mostly because either out of laziness or fear that I couldn't do it justice, I never tried very hard to develop either setting. And neither did TSR.

The hopelessly cartoony WG7 may have been cute & funny at some point in history with its pop culture references, but it wasn't a module you could turn real PCs loose in.

In 1989 when the City of Greyhawk boxed set finally showed up about 8 years after it was first promised, it was somewhat disappointing in a too little, too late kind of way. It just wasn't even close to the fabled city we all imagined.

Likewise, a year later when WGR1 - Greyhawk Ruins came out, it was a worthy module and certainly one of the best TSR produced during the post-Gygax era, but it just wasn't the legendary awe inspiring megadungeon we'd heard so many tales about.

And there are enough other interesting locales in the Flanaess that I don't think anyone cared too much. If my players had been begging to explore either place I probably would have tried inventing my own early on, or building on CoG or WGR1 later.

Oddly, aside from a short lived Lendor Island campaign in which 2/3rds of the party managed to get themselves killed in module L2, my players have never ventured off the left half of the Darlene map.

My typical starting point has been somewhere between CY570 - 573 on the Wild Coast, often Badwall. I've also tried Thornward, Littleberg, Flen, Longspear & Verbobonc. Or Homlet, Saltmarsh or Hochoch starting in CY576.

The early start served both to give me some known events to use as a backdrop, and to allow the players to gain enough experience to tackle the medium & high level modules in the timeframe when they were supposed to happen.

Mike Bridges said...

Tom, I'm glad you managed to branch out in different directions. I otoh really do love the City of Greyhawk and have used all incarnations of the city and ruin (saved the joke dungeon). I know from my decades of running Greyhawk that there's a lot of great untapped locations (like the ones you described). And as I illustrated here, there's comparable urban areas(I used LGG populations), though it's understandable from a design POV that 50% of published material will focus on the namesake city.

Lee B said...

Once I decided boat travel was the only good way to change scenery, players were based in Gradsul. No waiting to fight slave lords or swamp beasts. Going inland to any great degree was only required when it became time to fight underdark races.

Mike Bridges said...

That's awesome Lee. I have started basing campaigns near large bodies of water too just for the same reasons you mention.

Jason said...

The World of Rel Mord! I am presently campaign planning a start in a coastal town on the southern coast of Nyrond. I don't recall how I came up with this location, but the basic idea was to start the group off somewhere OTHER than the Free City, as I wanted to really play on the wonderment they would experience when they eventually entered its gates. Unfortunately, while fleshing some backstory out, I realized Nyrond was pretty awesome in it's own right, with ports servicing trips south to Irongate and elsewhere. So, although I love The Free City (ran the ruins and many city adventures back in the heyday), I'm not sure the group will even make it there...

tom said...

That's the trouble... nearly every place you look in the Flanaess is that awesome once you start digging a little.

Not every city makes a good starting point for 1st level characters, but once they gain a bit of experience you can choose just about anywhere as the locale for a party's home base, depending on the type of campaign you want to run.

It's an amazing well designed world setting.