Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Refocusing Greyhawk

As I was having some coffee with my Greyhawk Map the other day, I kind of got to wondering - what would it be like to take a look at Greyhawk through the eyes of someone like Leiber or Howard?

There's a popular image of Greyhawk (and its world "Oerth) as a sort of alternate version of Earth in the Middle Ages, with magic and elves thrown in for good measure. Shiny-armored Knights thunder across the plains of the Great Kingdom, Feather-capped archers plumb the depths of the Gnarley Forest, Dervishes ravage the borders of Bissel, etc. But we all know Gygax's love for pulp fantasy was just as important as his love for Medieval miniatures warfare, so somewhere in there are the seeds for a campaign of Dark Savagery.

I can't really call it "Reimagining Greyhawk", because the pulp stuff is in there, it just kind of got brushed aside as Greyhawk passed through the hands of more and more editors, marketers, and editions. So I prefer to think of it as "Refocusing". Finding those parts of Greyhawk where you just know there's a howling barbarian with a bloody greatsword trying his best to get out!

Imagine Greyhawk City a little closer to Lankhmar. Its Thieves' Guild a little darker and more cultish as opposed to the one portrayed in the Gord novels.

Imagine a Scarlet Brotherhood more akin to the Dreaming Isle of Melnibone, its Suloise monks and wizards the modern descendents of the twisted demon-sworn conquerers of a dead age.

Imagine the Wild Coast and Pomarj as a savage Hyborian wasteland, where a man's life is only worth the steel he carries.

Imagine the Nyr Dyv as a pirate-infested sea like the Vilayet, dotted with black isles haunted by the nightmares of lost races and empires.

Imagine Dyvers as a city of dark pleasures, depraved wizards, and crowded brothels like Shadizar the Wicked.


Instead of This:

Well, you get the idea.

Sounds like fun, doesn't it?


  1. Your first image is a Fortune City notice rather than the pic you wanted.

  2. Darn those invisible image police! :)

  3. I call foul by using a Larry Elmore pic to contrast against a Frazetta masterpiece. I don't think Elmore ever illustrated anything having to do with Greyhawk, at least nothing major. I agree, though, that, if I were going to
    "re-imagine" Oerth, I'd highlight its affinities with pulp fantasy and downplay its pseudo-medievalism.

  4. Parkinson or Easley probably would have been more typical, but I really wanted something with a dragon, a knight, and a Gandalf-clone, and Elmore came through swimmingly! ;)

    Oddly enough, there isn't a lot of "archetypal" art associated with Greyhawk, the setting, though there is a lot of fantastic stuff associated with the classic adventures that used Greyhawk as their default setting. As far as sourcebooks went, there was usually just someone vigorously riding something in a left-wards direction (see World of Greyhawk, From the Ashes, Greyhawk Adventures, etc). The original little Supplement cover is probably the only pulpy one of the bunch, with a vaguely Conan-esque warrior facing down a somewhat moon-faced beholder.

  5. "Oddly enough, there isn't a lot of 'archetypal' art associated with Greyhawk..."

    Excellent observation, Al. And it's something that never really occurred to me before, but reflecting on it, I think the (relative) absence of motif-defining art in Greyhawk -- as compared to other TSR settings -- is one of the things I like about it. I consider it a strength. And it can only benefit the sort of refocusing you're proposing here. Which btw is a great idea and I'd love to see more.

  6. Oddly enough, for my campaign, I...ahem...borrowed some of the themes of Greyhawk, resprayed them, changed the licence plates and voila, a whole new world. But once it was made, it took on the darker themes that run through my mind. The fall in flames of great cities, the twisted and unpredictable evil of the Empire of the Snake, the bloodstained ruin of warrior hosts, long-lost temples to unspeakable cults, slave traders with more than a hint of Gor, tragedy and pointless sacrifice. The underlying themes are still there, but my interpretation is a lot more pulp, axes sticky with gore, a lot less shiny armour and anaemically mystic elves.

    Whilst I concur that the Elmore illustration chosen sums up a lot of what was bad about the prevailing themes of TSR's D&D interpretation at the time, Elmore's cover for Dragon #140 is one of my all-time favourites.

  7. Well, Welcome to Wyrd Greyhawk,Al!

  8. Does sound like fun - yes! Thanks for the Frazetta/Elmore juxtaposing - jarred something loose in my head...

  9. EGP - That's very cool, especially the noted inclusion of the Cthulhu mythos. I also like that you're basing your version off of pre-Wars Greyhawk. I tend to ignore that stuff too!

  10. Fun post.

    I think the 'refocusing' of the feel of some of the current supplements and things are going towards a more gritty pulp feel and less fairy-land knights and dragons.

  11. My first impressions of Greyhawk came from the artifacts and relics of Gary's Dungeon Masters Guide. Based on that, the Greyhawk I imagined was quite similar to the Greyhawk sketched here. :)

  12. If you look at the original offering, the most medieval thing is the armies list and a few feudal titles and things. Otherwise, the setting as described doesn't seem particularly medieval.

    I always really liked the Great Kingdom, which managed to mash-up the Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire pretty successfully.

    Stuff like the migrations of the various peoples, the Rain of Colourless Fire, and the Horned Society are pulpy. In addition, the colonial stuff about the native Flan sure seems more Beyond the Black River than Chanson de Roland.

    On the other hand, Conan's Aquilonia was pretty bloody medieval, so the two tastes don't necessarily go against each other.

  13. I don't know why you just won't play Runequest and USE Lankhimar/Nehwon and/or Elric/Stormbringer/Eternal Champion. If you're going to actually do anything more than scrap the surface of the sword and sorcery vibe, it can take a considerable bit of work if any party member is playing a mage or cleric as those classics of the game are often absent in player roles, or at least player style roles with any ability, in most of those iconic images.

  14. I don't know. On some level, I have to call this project misguided.

    Certainly, Gary Gygax loved S&S tales. However, it's downright myopic to pretend that he somehow wasn't equally (if not moreso!) a fan of medievalism, as well.

    It doesn't take a genius to trace a direct path from Chainmail to the feudal nature of the rules on taxation and PC landholding in the DMG to the pseudo-medieval power structure of the Greyhawk setting products and modules to the birth tables and arcane polearm appendix in UA.

    If anything, look at the very much more purely-medieval social structures in his Castle Zagyg: Yggsburgh sourcebook if you need proof that this wasn't a trend that the game's primary originator abandoned in the early 80s.

    So my question is: Why ignore all this? "Purity" as it relates to some idea very new-fangled Internet meme that D&D is somehow supposed to be a dedicated Forge-esque S&S simulator instead of the mongrel beast it is? To what end?

    Personally, I find the the (Grognardia-driven, as much as I love J. Mal?) notion that "real" D&D begins and ends with S&S faddish and misguided. It was never that way.

    If you want savage barbarian Greyhawk, just set your games games among the northern Suel offshoots, in the Amedo Jungle, among the Rovers of the Barrens, or between the Tiger and Wolf Nomads. It's not difficult, and it doesn't involve deforming the entire setting to suit a fad.

  15. @ JGK & WM:

    I don't know Ravyn (was simply directed to this site by another Greyhawk fan on the web), but it seems to me that he's doing this first, because he loves Greyhawk and the rules system that he uses. He, like every DM in existence, just wants to alter a few aspects of that world we all love to better fit his own idea of the perfect medieval fantasy setting. Again, don't we all?

    So, what we have here is an opportunity for the rest of us to see what Ravyn has to offer in the way of expanding creative ideas that we can adapt to our own WoG campaigns as we like. I have not read the rest of the links that expand on Ravyn's ideas yet, but I look forward to seeing what he has come up with so that I can pick and choose what parts I like for my own campaign. It's not like Ravyn's a WotC employee tasked with officially redirecting the focus of the World of Greyhawk.

    Oh, and as far as justification goes, I think that's great! We all want to know that there's support for our ideas in the work of those who have gone before. If Ravyn can find support from the original author of the WoG for the changes he wants to make in his own campaign, I'm all for hearing what he's found. If there is seemingly contradictory evidence that others prefer to rely on to support their own vision of the WoG, that's wonderful too. ;)




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