D&D General Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, and Canon: Stare Decisis in D&D

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
The recent announcement of the inclusion of Greyhawk in D&D: The Re-D&Dening DMG, got me thinking to myself, “Self, what about canon? What about precedent? What about stare decisis? And why do you keep watching Ultimate Beastmaster on streaming, even though, objectively, it is the worst show ever made?”

Well, I can answer three of those four questions. So, a very brief discussion of precedent and stare decisis, and how I think it might inform our views of canon for settings like Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk.

HA HA! Did I say very brief? IS MY NAME NOT SNARF? SAY MY NAME! That's right, I can't even order a coffee at Starbucks without a 30,000 word dissertation. To fully unpack my thoughts, I need to first discuss precedent and stare decisis in the legal system, and then get to canon as it would apply to campaign settings.

In order to assist those who want to argue things without reading the OP, I will divide the post into two parts for easy skipping- the first part is the law-like discussion. The second part is the firing of canons. Good?

I. Law-Like Substance. Stare Decisis and Precedent.
America (and those other countries similar to the UK/England, as well as fictional lands like "Canada" and "New Zealand") employ a “common law” system, which means (SIMPLIFYING HERE) that the law evolves over time, through a series of court decisions. Earlier decisions are precedent for later decisions. Stare decisis (roughly translated- measure twice & cut once, or, um, stand by your decision ... according to Tammy Wynette) is simply a fancy name to refer to the doctrine that courts are using to refer to precedent. Note that I will be discussing the application of how this works, generally, in 'Murikah, land of the free, home of the Big Gulp.

So how does this precedent thing work in practice? Well, there are different types of “authorities” for law; many of them are binding on the court (this means that the court has to follow them, except in months beginning with R, like Ranuary) without being either precedent or stare decisis. For example, the United States Constitution, or a State Constitution, or a statute, or even the rules of evidence or procedure, are “binding” on the court, but wouldn’t be referred to as precedent. Instead, when we discuss precedent and stare decisis, we would be looking at other court cases. Here is where it gets confusing.

There are two primary types of precedent- strong (or vertical) and weak (or horizontal).

Strong. The primary focus of litigation, and courts, is finding “strong” or “vertical” precedent. This means that another court, higher in the food chain, already decided the issue. A precedent was established, and lower courts have to apply that precedent. Now, this can take many forms. But the easiest way to think about this is to think about the Supreme Court (as in, the United States Supreme Court). If the Supreme Court rules on a constitutional issue, then all lower courts must apply the Supreme Court ruling. There may be some “play” in the decision; after all, no decision can encompass all the facts that will come up in the vagaries of life, but lower courts aren’t allowed to say, “You know what, we’re going to rule in a completely opposite direction.” Well, for the most part. It’s complicated. But that’s strong/vertical precedent/stare decisis. Lower courts applying the precedent of a higher court.

But this is the most important form of precedent and stare decisis, because it’s the building blocks of the law. Most of “the law” occurs at the trial courts, and the trial courts are applying the law decided (and published) in the appellate courts.

Weak. This is where the fun is. Weak, or horizontal precedent, is a court applying its own precedent. Various courts have various rules for this; for example, with some appellate courts, a “panel” (or three judge) decision is binding on the entire appellate court unless and until it is overruled by the whole (en banc) court. Which means that it is strong precedent, until it isn’t. But the general rule is that the decision is as binding on the court in question ... as the court wants it to be.

Wait, what? So, let’s use the Supreme Court again as an example. Once the Supreme Court decides something, that decision is binding (weak, or horizontal precedent) on the Supreme Court until the Supreme Court says it no longer is binding (the Supreme Court overrules the past decision). So, in a certain sense, stare decisis is exactly as binding on the Supreme Court as five justices want it to be.

But ... that’s not the totality of what is really happening. The law truly is small-c, Burkean conservative, and while five justices (of the nine) could overrule past precedent at any time, they try to keep in mind that they shouldn’t. So some of the factors they consider when seeing if they should overrule something are-

a. Is it a constitutional decision? This is going to seem weird, but constitutional decisions are easier to re-visit than statutory ones. The rationale for this makes perfect sense once you understand it, however. The only people that can change a constitutional ruling/interpretation are the Supreme Court (absent amendment), whereas Congress can change a statute at any time. For an example of this, think back to the case involving equal pay (aka, Lily Ledbetter). To the extent that the Court was “wrong” on the statute in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Congress changed the statute two years later with the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. So stare decisis carries more weight with statutory decisions than it does constitutional ones because it is easier for someone else (the legislature) to “correct” the decision without the Court needing to.

b. Reliance interests. One value in having the law change slowly (when it changes at all) is that it fosters reliance interests. People can rely on the law being relatively unchanged. If you organize your affairs, or your business, assuming the law is going to be a certain way, you shouldn’t have to worry about the Supreme Court, one day, upending it to the detriment of your reliance interests. While this often comes up when discussing money and property, one of my favorite examples involves Miranda rights. You know what they are, because we all do (cue Law & Order theme song). Anyway, there had been a movement since Miranda v. Arizona to get rid of Miranda rights, because some people claimed that they weren’t based on the Constitution. It was sort of a “holy grail” for certain types. Well, they finally got their chance in Dickerson v. United States in 2000. But rather than get rid of Miranda, the Supreme Court (over dissents from Scalia and Thomas, because, again, of course) re-affirmed Miranda, because of stare decisis and because it had become a part of the national culture; in essence, society had come to rely on them. Put another way, don't mess with something people are used to.

c. Things change. This is really the big one. Over time, things change. Decisions get hollowed out, or “construed” until they mean almost nothing. Or, perhaps, the underlying facts and societal circumstances that led to the first decision have changed so much that it needs to be re-visited. Finally, there are times when a court (or the Court) makes a decision, and sees that it doesn’t work nearly as well in practice as it did when they were dreaming it up, and it needs to change ... now. But this is an amorphous category, usually most evident either in hindsight or when the Supreme Court suddenly requests briefing on the continued validity of a past opinion.

Anyway, the tension with “weak” precedent should be apparent. The law must change with time, but should also be resistant to change. Or, put in a less satisfying way, you should be able to depend on the Court’s prior decisions, until you can’t.

Persusasive. This is the category that generally confuses the most people. Persuasive authority is not precedent, and it doesn’t fit within the stare decisis framework, but it is commonly used. And it can be anything; cases, law review articles, treatises on the law, even a blog post. Anything can be persuasive, but some things are more persuasive than other things.

For example, let’s say you are in a state court. By your state rules, you are only bound by the appellate court for your area and the state supreme court. Now, let’s assume that there is no binding law from either of those sources, but you found a case that’s on-point from a different appellate court within your state. That’s going to be very, very persuasive. It might not be technically binding, but the trial court will likely consider it dispositive if there is no other contrary authority.

Or, same scenario, but a federal court (a trial court) within your state has a published opinion on that issue of state law. Again, not binding, but likely very very persuasive.

On the other hand, let’s say that you find an opinion from the Constitutional Court of South Africa. It will probably not be persuasive, at all, to a trial court in Alabama.

This goes with all the territory. The Restatements of Law can be somewhat persuasive, or not at all persuasive, depending on the circumstances; courts are more likely to listen when it comes to issues involving agency than, say, someone trying to explain why the Model Penal Code should apply to the state criminal statutes.

Now, with all of that out of the way... how does this inform our view of canon? Of was this just an attempt to sneak in a legal 'splainer? ....um .... no?

II. Dueling Canons: Why It's So Easy to Argue Over Canon in Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk

A. First, the Realms.

Before reading this section, I recommend looking at the following website- it's the canon / authority page for the Forgotten Realms Wiki.

There are two things to highlight- first, the bolded bit at the top that acknowledges that neither TSR nor WoTC has any rules about "canon" in Forgotten Realms. Second, the hierarchy of canon they propose, which goes as follows:
1. Official FR sources.
2. Ed Greenwood.
3. Core D&D sources.
4. Other D&D settings.
5. Licensed material.
6. Online posts.

They break it down further from there, but what you will recognize is that, much like the legal system (aha!), there are different levels of authority that are proposed to "bind" decisions about canon! To really push the analogy, the brand holder (WoTC) is like the Supreme Court, and they can make official pronouncement about canon, which are then applied by others in the food chain (such as licensees, or fans, or writers of books, etc.) until and unless WoTC makes some other announcement.

....and this is where we get to the more interesting application! See, just like with the law, there are people that RELY on the canon previously produced by WoTC. The fans. That is why there is a tension whenever WoTC (or whoever the current rights-holder happens to be) chooses to upset precedent and re-visit and change canon. There is a tension between changing things as needed (as they have the right to do) or changing things so much that the people who like and rely on the canon are no longer interested in it. To use FR as an example, WoTC has changed things over time- messing with the timeline, using SpellSunderingPlagues, devouring campaign settings into Faerun, and so on. Some of these changes have been more or less controversial. But I am sure that we can all imagine a change that went ... too far. Say, changing the Forgotten Realms into a post-apocalyptic setting of sentient Twinkies? We see that there is a constant tension with canon between the ability of the rights-holder to do whatever they want, and the inherent restraint of not changing things too much given the fans' reliance on prior canon.

The second issue with canon in campaign settings is that a campaign setting is fundamentally supposed to be used as a backdrop for a home campaign. This means that every table will be running a slightly different FR. Now, the greatest strength (or weakness, depending on your view) of FR is that it isn't just a campaign setting. It has its own rich tapestry of lore through countless novels, video games, and other media (including the recent movie) that have added more story to the setting than other D&D settings. Even so, people can do whatever they want at their own table.

B. Finally, Greyhawk.
I promise to do my full Greyhawk post soon ... or is that a threat? But I wanted to start by looking at the issue of "canon" in Greyhawk. Obviously, we don't know what exactly will be in the DMG, but Greyhawk is an interesting choice, and I think it's a good one. But only to the extent that WoTC is going back to the original conception of GH- one that eschews most ideas of canon. Let me explain.

When D&D was first released, Gygax had no particular desire to do modules (as small "APs" were then called) or campaign settings. In Gygax's mind, every table would be creating their own campaign world and adventures! So the very earliest supplements were not made by TSR (Palace of the Vampire Queen module, City State of Invincible Overlord setting). Of course, Gygax and TSR quickly realized that these types of supplements would sell, so Gygax started work on the World of Greyhwk.

There are a few important things to note about GH. First, GH is based on Gygax's home campaign, but he created the entire world and the Flanaess (the part of GH that is known and pictured in the Darlene map) from scratch. Second, he created all-new names for the countries, which is why some of them are very cool, and some of them .... aren't. Next, GH is not exactly the de facto setting of OD&D and 1e, but it also isn't not the de facto setting... which is hard to explain, but I'll try.

It's hard to fully explain at this point just how integral Gygax was to early D&D (1974-1985, with a rough, um, Hollywood period). At this time, we know that D&D had a lot of people working to ensure it was so amazing- I am not going to name them, because I would invariably omit many, but the artists, the writers, the editors, and everyone else. Even the books written by Gygax had substantial input and editing by others, some to the point where it's just not accurate (look at the 1e OA cover ...it says Gary Gygax ... he did not write that .... we all know who wrote that). But to most players, Gygax was D&D. He wrote the rules. He wrote the modules. He wrote the most important stuff in Dragon Magazine. And, yes, he wrote GH. Importantly, all of these had references to things that happened in his campaign, so they were all tied in together. Vecna is mentioned in the DMG, so Vecna is in GH. Acererak is in Tomb of Horrors, so Acererak is in GH. And so on. GH wasn't the de facto setting, but the mentions of lore that you'd find sprinkled around? Yeah, that must mean it's GH!

GH was released twice- first as the "Folio" in 1980. Then, after Gygax wrote some additional material in Dragon, as the World of Greyhawk ("WOG"). The WOG has four times the pages of the Folio, adds deities, and expands the detail. For many people like me, the WOG is the platonic ideal of the perfect campaign setting. The reason why is simple- it provides a world, and provides a lot of mysteries and possible "hooks" for the DM to use, but primarily does not provide too much information. Reading through the descriptions, often sparse, you will continually run across tantalizing hints to be explored, but nothing more. This is a campaign setting as coloring book, asking that you fill it in.

From there, it gets more complicated. Gygax wrote some novels about GH (the Gord series, the first one is almost readable, the rest fail to clear that low barrier). Gygax was ousted from TSR. Rose Estes wrote some Greyhawk Adventures series (um....). Jim Ward wrote a Greyhawk Adventures hardcover in 1988- weirdly and notably, the last official hardcover rules book for 1e. TSR later advanced the timeline, leading to the Wars and Ashes eras. 3e made GH the default setting and had Living Greyhawk, but arguably did much more for FR.

There are a number of excellent fan-run sites that try to sort through and advance the canon of Greyhawk. And I think that they are all wonderful. But I'd like to make the following two points-

1. There are a number of people who love various aspects of the lore of GH from 2e and 3e, and I wish them nothing but happiness. Nothing that anyone ever does or says will wreck your version of GH.
2. That said, I am hopeful that by including GH as an instructional setting, WoTC intends to return it to close to the 1983 version, which is to say largely open and a blank slate for tables to fill in.

As I mentioned above, one of the salient features of the FR is that there is so much canon! Much like the law, the accretion of material over time has meant that issues of "what is really precedent" and "what is canon" and "what do I do if a videogame has a different placement of a village than a licensed t-shirt?" continue to crop up. This type of lore, and debates over it, excites and intrigues the nerd in all of us!

But in the end, while this might matter for a film or a book, when it comes to the play at our table ... well, every table is its own Supreme Court. I don't want to have to check for precedent, or authority, or permission to play it as I want it. I want a Greyhawk that, in the end ... let's me have it my way.


log in or register to remove this ad

And what if the parallel worlds become officially canon? For example the cinematographic adaptation of Dragonlance could tell some different facts.

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
And what if the parallel worlds become officially canon? For example the cinematographic adaptation of Dragonlance could tell some different facts.

Well, as I've previously mentioned, I've always believed that all worlds existed (including all variant games at all tables) in the variant planes of the prime material, aka the Gygaxian Multiverse.


Well, as I've previously mentioned, I've always believed that all worlds existed (including all variant games at all tables) in the variant planes of the prime material, aka the Gygaxian Multiverse.
GP: Is Eris true?
M2: Everything is true.
GP: Even false things?
M2: Even false things are true.
GP: How can that be?
M2: I don't know man, I didn't do it.
—The Principia Discordia


I've never particularly cared much about canon in Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms. Honestly, at this point, the two settings blur together so much for me I can scarcely tell one from another. They both play like D&D to me which is a generic kitchen sink fantasy setting.


Registered User
I've never particularly cared much about canon in Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms. Honestly, at this point, the two settings blur together so much for me I can scarcely tell one from another. They both play like D&D to me which is a generic kitchen sink fantasy setting.
Honestly, if there is any particular detail that I remember it means it came from Forgotten Realms. Greyhawk for me was always more of a vibe than having any concrete facts about it.


1. There are a number of people who love various aspects of the lore of GH from 2e and 3e, and I wish them nothing but happiness. Nothing that anyone ever does or says will wreck your version of GH.
2. That said, I am hopeful that by including GH as an instructional setting, WoTC intends to return it to close to the 1983 version, which is to say largely open and a blank slate for tables to fill in.
I actually don't think, with the proper passage of time, these two ideas are not compatible.

WotC has decided D&D no longer has metaplots. That is to say, the Eberron model of setting a setting in a particular starting year and letting the DM advance the game via play (rather than the setting growing via outside media like novels or video games). Eberron is perpetually at 998 YK, Ravenloft 735, Dragonlance in the WotL, etc. Most of the later metaplot expansions have been undone (no Grand Conjunction, no Dragons of Summer Flame, no Faction War) but elements that came from those changes (especially in terms of opening the setting to new options) remain. Apparently, The FR has a clause that stopped them for doing that, so they did a giant "a wizard did it" and everything magically is back to the way it was 100 years ago, except now Dragonborn exist. I fully suspect Greyhawk will get the same style of reset as the other D&D settings; return to the starting year (GoS is Pre-Wars) but will certainly take elements from post Folio material and blend them.

Voidrunner's Codex

Remove ads