Sunday, December 13, 2009

Welcome to Wyrd Greyhawk! We'll all laugh about your ignominious death.

I haven’t actually posted anything about my game world before because it’s Greyhawk, and I figured everyone is already familiar with it. I’ve realized though, that everybody’s Greyhawk is different. And alot of gamers have no experience of Greyhawk at all.
Weird, huh?
It sort of took me aback the first time I ran into a dismissal of Greyhawk as “vanilla fantasy”, and poorly detailed. My Greyhawk is based on the original World of Greyhawk Folio, and I had always just assumed that everyone understood that the world was only sketchily described because you, the DM, are supposed to make up and fill in your game world as you need, and as you like.
Apparently, this isn’t so. I’ve gathered from the forums and game blogs that there is an expectation that contemporary game product should be, “plug and play”. No tinkering or house ruling required or allowed. A product is considered incomplete if every possible situation isn’t nailed down in the rules.
This strikes me as one of those disconnects between Old Guard thought and New School. I like to make stuff up. I like to build things and figure them out at my leisure. I’d much rather buy the tools I need to create something on my own than pick up a turn-key version already finished. You learn something when you do it yourself.

Anyway, I’ve never actually written out all the things I’ve done to Greyhawk over the years. My version mostly just exists in my head, or in scattered notes in binders.

I’ve decided though, to at least write an outline, or a set of points, that detail the differences and changes I’ve made, and those I plan to make in the future. I’ve picked up a lot of great ideas from the blogs and forums and I look forward to trying them out. This is really to help me pull together just what I’m going to do for the next campaign.

I’m preparing to get a game together in the near future and relaunch the Greyhawk campaign with a reconstituted game group. I think getting this down in one document will help me focus on the spirit of the World of Greyhawk I want to convey. This is just a draft of the general idea, not a complete description. I don’t think that’s even possible.

I’m calling my iteration, Wyrd Greyhawk, cause we’re all a pack of doomed, laughing bastards anyway. Eat, drink, and be Gary! For tomorrow we die!

Wyrd Greyhawk is mediaevalesque pulp sword and sorcery. Imagine it as Arthurian myth, the tales of Charlemagne, and the Canterbury Tales, as rewritten and expanded on by Fritz Lieber, Clarke Ashton Smith, and R.E.Howard. In the private library of a disreputable tavern, while smoking black lotus from a bejeweled hookah, and drinking absinthe from elf-skull cups, with smoky eyed dancing girls languidly twirling about the room.
And H.P.Lovecraft sitting on a pile of black silk cushions in the corner playing a sitar.

My sense of humor is dark and earthy, and so is my sense of drama. Stuff happens in my games that you know you’re a bad person for laughing about.

The core of the world is solidly medieval European, with themes and situations from Sword&Sorcery, Weird Tales/Pulp fiction, real world ancient history, Lost World stories, dark fairy stories, and others layered on top.

Player characters are not super-human Heroes, but average Joes. Maybe they have a bit more skill, or talent, or luck, than usual. They’re desperate, or idealistic, or greedy, or excluded, or otherwise unwilling or unable to plow, or march, or forge, or serve their betters.
For one reason or another, they’re at least partially outside the bounds of society and must make their own way in the world.
Black humor is at the heart of the game. The odds are stacked heavily against the PCs and they know it. Humanity and its allies are beset on all sides by inimical races, monsters, and gods. Plagues, war, and famine stalk the Flaness.
They aren’t destined for greatness, though they may attempt to carve their way to it. If that’s what they’re after. It’s really up to their own actions, and the dice. They might make you a king; they might say you die in a pit.


* Magic is rare. It is weird, feared, and not a technology stand-in. Magic-users are few and far between. No crystal ball TVs, no magic streetlights, no wizardly freezers. There are no magic shops. There’s not a snowballs chance in hell that anyone is going to sell genuine magic weapons, spells, or items from a storefront. PCs might be able to work out a trade with an NPC in possession of a magic item they desire, but it won’t be cheap, and it’s unlikely that mere gold will be sufficient to purchase magic outright.
* There are no magic schools. Arcane knowledge is guarded and shared by the powerful practitioners of the art only with their own apprentices and followers. Great wizards accumulate apprentices and followers and hangers-on. These may be thought of as members of a particular school of magic, centered on the theories of that particular mage, but there are no classes or diplomas.
* The city of Greyhawk has an area known informally as, “The Sorcerer’s Quarter”, where many of the cities powerful magic-users have their homes, but, there is no giant pyramidal School of Wizardry. I always hated that thing.
* I’m writing a version of Trollsmyth and Malisjewski’s Secondary Powers and Residual Effects for spells. I think it’s a brilliant idea that helps drive home the weird and fearsome nature of magic use. Magic-users are manipulating the very fabric of reality by casting spells, and that kind of power is not free of consequences.
* I think that I may work up a sanity risk table to associate with spell use of levels above 3rd. Maybe something like Call of Cthulu has. I may extend the risks of magic use to include those who spend a lot of time with the magic-user, like fellow party members.

* Religion

I’m including all the published gods of Greyhawk in the setting. No Norse, or Greek, or other pantheons though. I’m including real world approaches to the gods to make religion a bit more true to life though.
* People create hyphenated, or composite deities to serve cultural or political needs. As the Egyptians had Atum-Ra, so there might be a Pelor-Pholtus, or a Boccob-Celestian
There’s always the problem of having a pantheon of deities underlying the monotheistic structure of the Cleric Class, which as you all know, was built on the archetype of the Christian crusading priest. And also, to hold Sir Fang in check. To address this, I’m adding the religion of The One God, a belief system which holds that all the gods of the various Greyhawk pantheons are in fact, each facets or faces of a single creator god. Worshipers of the One God view all other gods as valid, but incomplete, manifestations of the One God.
This will take care of the players who want a classic, crusading cleric, while keeping the pagan flavored pantheonic cleric as well.
All religions have factions and theological hair-splitters, so, there’s also the worshipers of the True God, who view all other gods as false, or demonic. Some of them are open-minded and philosophic about their beliefs and some are militant and intolerant.

* I’m also including the Cthulu mythos under both their own, and alternate names. They won’t be worshiped openly, at least not by humanity. But behind closed doors in degenerate backwaters, and in guarded dungeons in the great cities.
“IA! IA!”. My kuo-toa are Deep Ones.

I haven’t assigned areas of influence yet, but the flavor and style of worship of every god and pantheon will vary widely from place to place. There is no guarantee that worshipers of god X in one location will agree, or get along with worshipers of god X from another location. They might not even be of the same alignment.
Also, whether standard, composite, monotheistic, or pantheistic, all clerics classes will be able to cast clerical spells. The true nature of the gods can never be known, and no one can point to the ability to call on divine magic as proof of their religions validity, as all clerics are capable of doing so.
There isn’t going to be any final truth about whose view of religion is correct that the PCs can ever uncover.
The unknown is at the heart of the game.

* Expanded Timeline

The chronology of historical events in the gazetteer covers a space of 1122 years. It begins with the start of the Baklunish-Suel wars in 5031 by the Suel calendar and ends at 6091, or 576 Common year.
The Invoked Devastation and the Rain of Colorless Fire are marked at 5094, Suel calendar. 1003 years Before Present,(publication of the Greyhawk Gazetteer).
Pulp sword&sorcery is built on ancient empires and forgotten kingdoms, prehistoric races and monsters of the unknown past. I really want the Suel Empire to be my ancient empire of evil sorcery, Hyperborean, Melnibonean, Stygian in feeling. So, I’m pushing the Rain of Colorless Fire way back a few thousand years.
I’m assuming that Gary meant the Suel Empire to play a somewhat analogous role to the Roman Empire, as far as the history of the Flaness is concerned.

The commonly accepted date for the end of the Roman Empire is A.D. 476. If the end of the Suel Empire is meant to overlay that, and you add the 1003 year span to take us to the publication date of the Gazetteer, that would bring us to a real world date of 1479, and knowing Gary’s preference for a high renaissance setting for his own Greyhawk, I have to think this isn’t coincidental.

I came to D&D from literature and not wargaming though, and 1000 years just isn’t enough time for me to feel the sense of really ancient history that I want the Suel Empire to evoke.

So, in Wyrd Greyhawk, 5094 is the date of the fall of the Oeridian Empire instead. The Oeridian Empire is going to be my Rome analogue. The end of the Suel Empire in the Rain of Colorless Fire takes place thousands of years earlier. In the aftermath and migrations into the Flaness, the Oeridians founded their own empire. It stands for two thousand years, and then disintegrates due to continued invasions by the Knor in 5094 where we pick up the standard timeline. This makes the Great Kingdom of the Aerdy a lesser imitation of the Oeridian Empire. Something like the Holy Roman Empire was to the actual Roman Empire.

The Knor are my stand-ins for the Saxons, Goths, Franks, and other Germanic Tribes which finally overwhelmed Rome. In Wyrd Greyhawk, they’re suel tribes who move down from the north and destroy the Oeridian Empire after 300 years of migrations and wars.
By the time of publication of the Gazetteer, they’ve largely assimilated with the conquered peoples and no longer strongly identify with the Thillonrian Suel.

* I’m also making the Thillonrian peninsula the original home of the Suel. It never made sense to me to have the survivors of the Suel Empire make their way there and then suddenly abandon all their ancient culture in favor of viking-like barbarism.
In Wyrd Greyhawk, tribes of ancient suel sailed from their ancestral home in the Thillonrian peninsula many thousands of years ago, and dispersed across the Oerth. One group founded the kingdom in the south that would later become the Suel Empire. Others vanished to known history.

This frees up the Frost, Snow, and Ice barbarians from the Suel Empire baggage, and gives me the option of inserting new history as it occurs to me.

* I think I’m going to flavor the Baklunish countries, Ket, Tusmit, and Ekbir, with some Empire of the Petal Throne Seasoning. I’m not sure exactly how yet, but they always seemed a little flat to me.
A dash of Tekumel ought to spice them up.

This up coming campaign will kick off prior to the Greyhawk Wars. I’ll eventually do some version of the wars, but I think I’ll hold off on that until the party makes it to End Game stage.
There will be no Rary the Traitor, or Vecna knockoff rubbing out the Circle of Eight. That was just silly.


Alignment is treated as a generalization. I’m not getting rid of it; it’s a good method of shorthand for basic behaviors. No alignment languages though, I don’t see a need that thieves cant, or arcane speech, or soldiers argot doesn’t fill. Players don’t know the alignments of each others characters, that stays between the player and the DM.
A cleric PC who casts Know Alignment is unlikely to share the knowledge gained other than vaguely. The Cleric’s player is not allowed to pass the information to other players, only hint.

Technological level

I think that in a world with many competing races, plus monsters, war, plagues, gods, and demons that the constant strife would result in migrating areas of Dark Age and renaissance. Technological advancement depends on the persistent transmission of accumulated knowledge over time, from one generation to the next.
Wyrd Greyhawk has no printing presses, and magic is not used to bring learning to the masses. Wizards are generally unsharing sorts. Save for the personal teachings of the friars of Delleb. With knowledge only transmitted directly from master or teacher to student, or apprentice, or journeyman, any break in the chain results in the loss of information and skills. The learned, the skilled, the knowledgeable, get killed in wars, or eaten by monsters, or die of plague, and civilization must rediscover, or recreate what has been lost, over and over again.
So, the default maximum level of technology tops out at about 1350 AD Europe in the greatest cities, an average level of 1100-1200 AD in the towns, villages and hamlets, and an iron age base in the hinterlands.
Plate mail is the greatest protection normally possible, and it’s not common. Full plate armor is nearly unheard of. Only the elves and dwarves have the skill and knowledge for complex armor, and even they don’t make a lot of it.

Societal Changes

As with technological level, the ever present threat of humanoids, monsters, magic, war, plagues, etc, has an effect on the mostly feudal governments of Wyrd Greyhawk’s perpetual middle ages.
The structure of society is both altered and reinforced. Even mediocre Lords, Chieftains, or Kings enjoy the loyalty of their subjects, so long as order and a degree of security are maintained.

The recurring destruction and disruption of villages, towns, and cities results in a permanent underclass of wanderers, refugees, and dispossessed. These people migrate in search of new homes and opportunities, outside of the normal feudal structure of most kingdoms.
They are generally referred to as the Unfettered, as they have no masters or lords. Adventurers often come from the ranks of the Unfettered.
The fame and riches that a successful adventurer may acquire may result in greater than normal social mobility, both upwardly, and downwardly.
A lord whose castle is sacked, and whose land is overrun, may also sink to the level of the Unfettered and take his chances as a soldier of fortune.
A dirt poor swineherd whose pigs are devoured by wargs may also become unfettered and take his chances on adventure.
Life with perpetual near-disaster tends to make both rulers and ruled more accepting of their inferiors and superiors. People still desire advancement, since advancement equals greater security, but in general, there is less friction between the classes than was the norm in actual history. Nothing unifies the in-group like Threats from Outside.


Slavery is prevalent in many areas of the flaness, but not quite the majority. Those areas without slavery are usually the ones where the common man has a fair amount of power. Slave labor devalues the work of free men and puts them at a disadvantage. Lands such as the Yeomanry stoutly oppose slave holding.
Bringing slaves into non-slaveholding land is viewed with distaste and discouraged, but only the Theocracy of the Pale automatically declares slaves in its territory to be freed.
The city of Greyhawk looks the other way concerning outlanders bringing small numbers of personal slaves within its domain. Only convicted criminals may be enslaved in areas controlled by the city.
The Elves
The elves are weird. They hale from the Otherworld. The Otherworld is contiguous with Greyhawk, meaning entering it at one point, traveling across it and exiting it at another point will bring you out in an analogous point on the face of Greyhawk.
It exists in the same space as Greyhawk, but not the same dimension, as it were.
The Otherworld is a fey Greyhawk, where the elves are dominate and men are few in number.
There, the elves are their true selves and far more powerful than they are in Greyhawk.
For various reasons, they choose to spend time in Greyhawk and the longer they stay, the lesser they become.
PC elves are always the standard "lesser" game elf.
This is the hollow world at the center of Greyhawk. There unknown races built eldrich and ancient civilizations eons before the surface was populated.
It has had many names, but known now by the name given it by the last to discover it, explorers from the Suel Empire.

This is as much as I’ve got for tonight, just off the top of my head. I’m going to keep posting my ideas for Wyrd Greyhawk as they form up.
I think I’ll pick out some more atmospheric art for posting too. A picture is worth a thousand random tables, you know.
Picture credits:
Top pic is from a king arthur tale and the artist is unknown to me.
second pic is the Darrel Sweet cover for Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions.
Usually Sweet is a bit to cartoony for me, but I like this one, and Three Hearts and Three Lions is often sited by Gygax as one of the foundational books that inspiration for D&D was drawn from.
Third pic is Jeff Jones, the Son of the Bear God. Rockin, eh?
Fouth pic is called Tyranny of the Night and I think the artist's name is Raymond, not certain on that.
Fifth pic is The Wizard, by Don Maitz. You might recall it on the cover of Dragon magazine long ago. I love Maitz's stuff, You have to see a large version of this to really see all the detail in it.


Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

> A cleric PC who casts Know Alignment is unlikely to share the knowledge gained other than vaguely. The Cleric’s player is not allowed to pass the information to other players, only hint.

Maybe you have more rational "in your head" but this really stuck out as arbitrary and "meta". If Alignment is gonna be a generalization then just ditch Know Alignment et al.

Anonymous said...

I knew there was a good reason I sold off all of my Greyhawk stuff, except for the hardcover and 1983 boxed set...

Post like this wants me to restart work on In The Shadow Of Vesve Forest from a few years ago (B2 KOTB in hex Y4-47) - except I'm already committed to restarting my own campaign world.

Rob Kuntz said...

Great stuff, Gene. I ditched Know Alignment (actually never used it) way back in the day (Hack, Wheeze, Cough. Everyone is considered "Neutral" until proven otherwise (through fact of social interaction). What? Nothing on my PC Robilar? For shame! ;)

Yes, the plug and play (or push button attitude) has certainly rooted in games, but it is only an
example of what our real society has become under the "Me" generation. The insidiousness, and thus the contempt for actually doing something (such as getting out from in front of a computer game to actually socialize via game meets, for example),"...affects us all." As Treebeard said. :) RJK

Timeshadows said...

Interesting spin. :D

I was thinking recently of hyphenated gods, too.
--Cool synchronicity. :)

Matthew Slepin said...

Excellent post.

David Larkins said...

Great stuff!

I think that I may work up a sanity risk table to associate with spell use of levels above 3rd. Maybe something like Call of Cthulu has.

The 2nd edition Players Option book Spells & Magic had several alternate magic systems, including a very Cthulhoid/Lovecraftian "cosmic horror" approach that put spell-casters' sanity and souls in mortal peril. If I remember correctly, the risks grew progressively greater as spell levels grew higher.

Anthony N. Emmel said...


Love your take on Greyhawk. It's very similar in feel to my own feeling for the game. I determined a couple of years ago, that if you go "By the Book" with level restrictions, healing spells, healing times, etc., AD&D can be quite gritty. Very gritty. Even downright deadly. :)

charles mark ferguson said...

Love it. You've gotten your cake & eaten it too. Ie, S&S + all the best pseudo-Christian stuff (the inquisitors, the templars, the macabre-ness of fairy tales). You know, the stuff WH40K excel at. It's funny, I have gone right off the whole medieval thing in my RPing in favor or S&S, mostly because the medieval facets that leap to the fore in D&D are (for me) all the weak-ass stuff. You've reminded me how much i actually love this rich, image-saturated period of history. For that I thank you.

PS: "Suelucidar" - priceless.

And your elves are perfect.