Friday, October 2, 2015

Greyhawk is Ugly

I'm playing devil's advocate here, so hang on. Yesterday I was reading how it was the late Dave Arneson's birthday. The co-creator of D&D is of course famous for Blackmoor, which is a setting in its own right yet inexplicably part of the World of Greyhawk as well. That got me rethinking how Greyhawk, the setting many of us love is really an ugly patchwork of disparate settings, genres and authorial voices. Contrast that with rival Forgotten Realms, and you'll see why Greyhawk isn't a very marketable setting as a whole.

I'm not a Gygax historian by any means so my facts and chronology might be skewed, but I do know enough about the setting that I can look at the parts that make up the whole and see how hard it would be to defend the setting to a newcomer. The basis for the World of Greyhawk is naturally, an adaptation of Gary's home game and if I'm right Robert Kuntz's Maure Castle game as well. It's not uncommon for writers to collaborate on fantasy settings; Dragonlance is a successful example. A couple DMs building a homebrew world is ideal in fact, though Gygax does get a lion's share of the credit. Ed Greenwood by comparison is also considered the singular voice behind the Forgotten Realms but it's early development wasn't burdened by additional or outside the home setting material (cultural analogs Kara-Tur and Al-Qadim notwithstanding). Greyhawk however, during the infancy of D&D was intentionally designed to be a kitchen sink setting that liberally borrowed from many of TSR's brightest authors.

This spirit of creative diversity at first can be taken as an advantage, but once you try to explain the origins of this crazy quilt of a setting it becomes rather unwieldy. So you already have Gygax and Kuntz's campaigns and then Blackmoor (and the Duchy of Tenh) in what I can only guess is an homage to Arneson's campaign because the two bear little resemblance except in name. Add to this Lenard Lakofka's Lendore Isles campaign nestled comfortably on the edge of the map. Jim Ward's classic sci-fi game Metamorphosis Alpha was given a nod in the World of Greyhawk via the adventure Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Genre bending hero Murlynd features heavily in early Greyhawk canon and I suspect he may have once been intended as a link to TSR's western-themed RPG, Boot Hill. Stranger yet is author Andre Norton's involvement in writing the novel Quag Keep. It's name is also thrown in the game setting despite there being no further similarity.

The patchwork nature of the setting goes "beyond the Flanaess" too, the setting nearly saw the inclusion of Frank Mentzer's Aquaria setting and it's now fairly well known from the Dragon Annual #1 map of Oerth that much of what was planned to be in the western half of the world was somehow based on the French graphic novel Black Moon Chronicles. By the time all these things are in place, the incorporation of Moldvay and Cook's classic The Isle of Dread into Oerth for Paizo's Savage Tide AP seems even less surprising.

So what is a fan of Greyhawk to think? Luckily the setting has been around long enough that later writers and fans have done all the heavy work justifying how these parts work (or don't work) together. Or you can ignore ramblings like mine and enjoy the diversity. Yet for published Greyhawk to continue one day or even reboot as the case may be, I'm afraid it may be necessary to tear up this quilt and focus just on the cohesive or "iconic" parts of the setting.


5 comments:

Mystic Scholar said...

No doubt you are quite right in regards to any reboot of Greyhawk.

Joseph Bloch said...

I made something of a lengthy reply here: http://greyhawkgrognard.blogspot.com/2015/10/the-ugly-duckling.html

Timothy Brannan said...

Personally I rather enjoy the hodge-podge mix myself. It is what makes Greyhawk great.

Sean Robert Meaney said...

I find the political and economic relationships flawed. Veluna has firewood shortage for its population. Of two upriver sources Vesve forest is off limits to the degree of timber harvesting Veluna needs. That leaves the forest in ket. Veluna is economically dependent on ket for firewood. Yet Veluna has a better relationship with the firewood hoarding tree hugging elves of Vesve forest. If ket takes produce from veluna in payment it has a surplus it can export west. That makes ket an economic power.

Marty Walser said...

I don't think hodge-podge is necessarily a negative in the consumer's eye.

When you look at something like Pathfinder's Galorian setting, it's a complete pastiche of everything ever printed for Pathfinder. Heck, it even has musketeers and colonial period America pasted into it.

It is hugely popular as a setting.

It's all about marketing. Greyhawk could easily be just as huge as Forgotten Realms if they focused some marketing behind it and put out a new cyclopedia or splat books like the one for the FR Sword Coast.