AD&D Review: The World of Greyhawk Fantasy Game Setting

The World of Greyhawk boxed set originally came out in 1983, a few years after the original folio edition of 1980. At the time, it was a really impressive product. Two big poster maps showing the world, and two softcover booklets – one 80 pages, the other 48 pages – detailing the world. The first book, the Guide to the World of Greyhawk, described the nations, history and gods of the world, while the second book, the Glossography, detailed the specific game mechanics of the world.

In my opinion, there haven’t been too many fantasy world maps that look better than the maps Darlene drew for Greyhawk. There’s one basic flaw with them, which is that the cities are occasionally incorrectly placed on the maps. Coastal cities seem to be inland due to some oddity in how they were printed relative to the hex map. Otherwise, the maps are clear and colourful.

The setting itself was designed as one that gave the Dungeon Master a starting point for their campaigns. Numerous nations, all possessing distinct cultures, so that an existing campaign could be easily converted to the setting, or that a DM could be inspired by a different aspect of the world. However, those wanting a lot of detail on a particular nation would be disappointed: each would gain only a few brief paragraphs giving a sense of the nation and its relationship with its neighbours, but the bulk of the work in detailing it was left up to the DM.

There is an unusual concept used in the presentation of the 1983 set: it treats Greyhawk as being a real world and, indeed, possibly part of the past of our own world. In the foreword to this set, Steve Winter and Allen Hammack describe how The Guide to the World of Greyhawk was written by a personage known as the Savant-Sage, during Greyhawk’s Epoch of Magic. A few centuries later, this work was discovered by Pluffet Smedger, the Elder, a sage and scholar who used the work as part of his history course. He compiled a set of Glossographies that contained details for mathematical models – or games – that could be used to recreate events of the past; he and his students used them to examine the historical events that the Savant-Sage had described. Although the original works were far longer, part of the Guide and its matching Glossography had been discovered and been published as the present work.

Interestingly, the foreword notes that Smedger wasn’t playing AD&D. His notes had just been translated into AD&D terms!

This foreword and the Brief History in the Guide made me really interested in the setting; I was enthralled by the world. It helped that the early adventures published by TSR were all set in Greyhawk; a page in the Glossography detailed where they were set in the world.

The Glossography is an interesting work. The first section of it gives random encounter tables used when travelling through the various nations (although there are no urban encounter tables). In the civilised nations, the patrol encounter was relatively common, and it’s very interesting to see how they are handled compared to games today. For instance, the entry for “Elves, Knights” indicates that there will be 15-96 troopers, 12-42 leaders and 2-4 Fighter/Magic-Users encountered. D&D came from people who were very interested in military war-games, and this fascination can be seen in the encounter tables. Merchants, Nobles, Raiders and Brigands – all can be found on these tables, in addition to the more fantastic Trolls and Giants. To travel through the lands of Greyhawk could be a dangerous endeavour, and it all speaks of a setting where war is common and high-level characters would recruit their own troops and followers. Most of the tables have a section that refers the user to the standard monster tables in the DMG.

The book also has a chapter that suggests several adventures that the DM could design. Each adventure has a plot, setting and suggested enemies. The adventures make good use of the lore of Greyhawk, and there is one – The Lost Passage of the Suloise – that I used for inspiration in one of the early 3E games I ran. (My friends may recall being chased by poison-dart wielding, albino pygmies beneath the Sea of Dust…) It’s one of the best sections of the set, and gives a real feel to the sort of adventures that could be run in the world.

The Glossography is rounded out by game statistics for a small number of gods and important personages in the world. Heward, Keoghtom, Murlynd and Kelanen get descriptions, and we get statistics for several of the important gods, as well as special powers their clerics gain. Twenty-two gods get game statistics of the sixty-odd that are listed in the Guide. There’s little description here past how they act in combat. Unfortunately, this still is part of the era that saw game statistics for deities as far more important than their role in the world. (An era that we haven’t entirely shed, even today).

The Guide gives better and longer descriptions of the gods. The Guide is an expanded version of the 32-page book in the 1980 folio that contained most of the nations plus the history of the world. It is 80 pages long in this edition, and the section on gods is the most significant addition. (The best version of the deities would be released in 2000’s Living Greyhawk Gazetteer). More gods are listed than are properly described, with Beory, the Oerth Mother, getting a single line. Fharlanghan, the Dweller on the Horizon, meanwhile gets a full page-and-a-half describing him and his priesthood. It is unfortunate that, even here, there’s a lot of description as to how he fights. It is sad that the descriptions that actually allow you to properly play the deities and their priesthoods in the game feel more like a mistake rather than an integral part of the descriptions. When they do appear, they’re very welcome and useful.

The bulk of the Guide is given over to describing the nations and important areas of the world. It’s probably worth showing you the entry on the Frost Barbarians in the Guide to give you an idea of what little information you often have to work with.

Frost Barbarians (Kingdom of the Fruztii)
His Most Warlike Majesty, King Rälff of the Fruztii

Capital: Krakenheim (pop. 3,300)
Population: 50,000+/-
Demi-humans: Few
Humanoids: Some
Resources: foodstuffs, furs, silver, gold

The Frost Barbarians are the weakest of the three nations (of Suel peoples) inhabiting the Thillonrian Peninsula, called Rhizia by these peoples. They have never recovered from the Battle of Shamblefield, and have been under the suzerainty of the Schnai for the past two decades — and several times previously as well. The supposed figurehead placed upon the throne of the Fruztii has, however, built his kingdom carefully, and in actuality it is now independent in all but oath. A recent pact concluded between Fruztii and Ratik saw a joint army wreak havoc in the Bone March, and during the next campaigning season clear the north pass of the “Fists” (see Hold of Stonefist).

Short and to the point, certainly! I generally find that the descriptions of most nations are entirely adequate. They give me enough information to form political intrigues around their affairs, but not so much detail as to stop me doing what I want with them. We can also find more details about the nations in their neighbour’s descriptions, giving you more of an idea as to how they interrelate.

If the Greyhawk boxed set had been all that had come out for the setting, it is unlikely that it would be that well remembered today. Although I like the set exceedingly well, its most significant achievement is to give context for the original AD&D adventures: The Slave Lords, the Invasion of Giants and Drow and the Temple of Elemental Evil. AD&D was very well served with some big, memorable adventures in its early years and it’s the World of Greyhawk where they were set. Those adventures provided an entry point to the world. The boxed set provided the context, and then the ideas for further adventures.

There is one notable thing lacking in this set: there are no characters to interact with. The book has Gods and Quasi-Deities, certainly, and the titles of rulers. However, does it mention important NPCs such as Mordenkainen, Tenser and Eclavdra? Not really – perhaps a reference in the Quasi-Deity section, but little more. A few years later, the original printing of the Forgotten Realms setting would be filled with interesting characters, but NPCs are notable absent in this set. Something that I consider quite important in a modern campaign setting is missing altogether.

The set was set in 576 CY. The next release of the setting, From the Ashes
(1992), would update the year to 585 CY, in the aftermath of a massive war. Two later releases of the setting, The Adventure Begins (1998) and the Living Greyhawk Gazetteer (2000) set the year at 591 CY. And, there the setting has rested, with only a few new Greyhawk products having seen print since then. It’s possible that we’ll see a Greyhawk hardcover release for D&D 5E, but it’s unlikely to be imminent. If it does get released, it is entirely possible that it won’t advance the timeline further, and might even be set in 576 CY, the time of the classic Greyhawk setting.

My own campaigns have been mainly set in Greyhawk for the last two decades; the year having progressed to 605 CY. I tend to use both this 1983 set and the Living Greyhawk Gazetteer as my primary sources for the campaigns, between them I pick and choose the details I want to use and then add in a bunch of material of my own invention. It’s worked pretty well for me.

The World of Greyhawk Fantasy Game Setting, to give the product its full title, is a tremendously important work, both to me personally and the hobby as a whole. Its view of the world as the struggle between the nations, with other powers influencing them as well, allows for some excellent adventures, even if their potential has rarely been fully realised. Wizards have just released the PDF of this boxed set, and it’s been done well: fully bookmarked and with the two maps scanned in as their full pages, although the resolution is likely a little less than you’d want to print them out at full size. They’re nicely done, nonetheless. I have at least three copies of this set in various states of repair; having an electronic copy is a wonderful Christmas present.

Is it the be-all-and-end-all of all campaign settings? I certainly hope not! As a 1983 release, it dates to the period where the hobby was transitioning to a far more professional endeavour. One only has to look at the improved production values of this release over the 1980 folio set to understand how much the hobby was changing. I would consider the 2011 Neverwinter Campaign Setting to be the best campaign supplement for a small part of the world, but for an entire world? The last one I really enjoyed the presentation of was the Eberron Campaign Setting of 2004, but even that has its problems. Describing an entire world is hard.

For all that, the World of Greyhawk boxed set gives you the basics. There’s a lot of irrelevant stuff, but there are sections of genius as well. Enough so that this is the starting point of many of my current campaigns. That, in itself, is an impressive achievement.

5 comments

  1. Marty

    It’s too bad they did not have a more prinstine map to scan for the PDF release. Lots of heavy fold/crease lines… If they had asked me, I would have lent them mine for a “small” fee. My maps are pretty pristine.

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  2. Sean Robert Meaney

    As entertaining as greyhawk is, once you factor in firewood use (1 acre of forest per family per year) you get odd economic relationships like the total harvesting of that forest in ket and its export to veluna down river (the most viable trade route for fuel) over the next twenty years. Fuel starved nations are some how expected to maintain good relations with forests ruled by elves. At existing populations the forests will be gone in a century followed up by a time with fuel shortages, war with the elves of vesve forest, and collapse of the agricultural economy.

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  3. Leon

    This review is surprisingly timely. AD&D 1st edition seems to be undergoing a revival of sorts (esp. with online resources such as dragonsfoot and Canonfire. I myself and just rereading the original Greyhawk set after being out of D&D for over 20 years, and here I stumble on a recent review. Great stuff!

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