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D&D 5E Greyhawk: Pitching the Reboot

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
It's been a while since I've posted about Greyhawk ... AND I HAVE COME BACK FOR MORE!

I was inspired by this recent post by @The Glen:

Marketing is the biggest issue. How do you make a setting sound fun? Greyhawk is a complete mess politically. The entire region is a powder keg waiting to blow. You've got expansionist Nations looking to increase their borders, secret societies trying to purge the impure, and the supposed good guys can't put aside their differences to present a united front.

That's what the players are facing. There isn't an elminster in Greyhawk. There isn't going to be high-level saviors that are going to keep the status quo. The high-level Wizards here really don't care about anyone but themselves. And that's a reoccurring theme because a lot of the Nations don't care about what's outside their borders. The elves would watch the Flaeness burn rather than risk their own people.

It's grim. It's bleak. At any given moment you're looking at Fantasy World War 1 as all the old grudges get settled in a geyser of blood. There aren't many happy endings in Greyhawk. But unlike ravenloft or dark Sun they are still possible. You will earn your happy ending.



This is in accord with my general ideas for how to "reboot" or "reintroduce" Greyhawk. In order to bring a viable Greyhawk to 5e, I would observe the following rules:

A. Do not slavishly recreate the past.
This Is A Dude Who, 700 Years Ago, Totally Ravaged China, And Who, We Were Told, 2 Hours Ago, Totally Ravaged Oshman’s Sporting Goods. -Bill .... or Ted... mmm, Esquire?


Greyhawk has a lot of fans, even still. Some love the 1983 set. Others are more about the 3e timeline. Thing is, people like what they like. But you can't go back to the past. If someone loves the old stuff ... they can always play it! There are so many resources for it- from print on demand, to Canonfire, to innumerable Grognards who will be happy to tell you what "real Greyhawk" is like. Point being- if you want the "real" thing, play the real thing. Heck- most of it is doesn't even require much "updating" to 5e, since it was mostly sketches that didn't really rely on rules.

The worst approach would be, IMO, to simply cater to the prior fans. For three simple reasons- (1) a slavish re-creation can never live up to what they have in their minds, because they are no longer living in the 80s or 90s or whenever they were playing it, and are not nearly as awesome and young; (2) prior fans would not agree on what makes a good recreation, anyway, and what needed to be incorporated to modernize it while staying true to Greyhawk (just toss out the term "Dragonborn" and see what happens); and (3) new fans DON'T CARE about your past, gramps. And we want new fans.


B. Quality is what matters.
Quality writing will always attract the high-brow audience. -Chuck Tingle, perhaps.


When you think back about any successful installment in a movie franchise, or any successful "reboot" of a media property, one thing immediately comes to mind- what matters is the quality. It's such a banal point it should be obvious, and yet ... what matters, what always matters, and what only matters, is the quality of the product. People can (and do) discuss things like "fidelity to canon" or "fan service," and these are all good things; but whether a particular media property is reifying expectations, or subverting them, what matters is that it is ... good. People, even the hardcore-iest of the hardcore fans, forgive a multitude of sins when something is good, whereas it's a lot harder to enjoy if it's bad.

More simply- making something high quality is the top priority; fan service should always be the secondary consideration.


C. Make it relevant and make it different.
See, you can't rewrite, 'cause to rewrite is to deceive and lie, and you betray your own thoughts. -Britney Spears, possibly.

The most important thing about any new version of Greyhawk would be that it has some type of relevance to people today. To use a (perhaps trite) example, elements of the reboot of BSG incorporated concepts from the then-current war on terror to give it some added pathos for current viewers. From that perspective, any person looking to re-do or re-launch Greyhawk would be best served looking at those elements from the past that would differentiate Greyhawk from other settings and make it a distinctive and appealing setting for some gamers.

With this is mind, I would argue for the following aspects of Greyhawk that should be brought forward and accentuated, and very much believe that a Greyhawk that more closely resembles a "Game of Thrones" type setting, with darkness, war, and a political backdrop would be very successful!

1. The Dying of the Light.
The Flanaess was once a place of great civilizations. Empires of unimaginable power and magic ruled the land, until they crumbled into dust, victims of their own hubris. Today, the great powers are corrupted from within (the Great Kingdom) or teetering on the edge; a few proud city-states, such as Onnwal, Greyhawk, and Dyvers welcoming traders from far and wide, but much of the land is empty and desolate, with villages and hommlets scraping by meager existences, and the presence of raiding parties a constant threat.

The greatest powers lie within tombs, hidden away in forgotten ruins and wrecked cities covered by jungle, long forgotten.


2. Politics is a zero-sum game.
The nations of the Flanaess are in constant competition with each other. There are theocracies and bandit kingdoms, free cities and associations of free yeoman; but while alliances are easily made, they are more easily broken. Most nations, even the "good" ones, are looking to expand, and all of them are terrified of any new rising power.


3. There is real evil, and it's winning.
While the good and neutral nations mostly squabble amongst themselves, real evil walk the world and cooperates in their plans. At least ... for now. Iuz. The Great Kingdom. And the Scarlet Brotherhood.


That's just an opening. But, in the end, pushing Greyhawk as a setting that really accentuates these differences would make it more interesting for a new set of gamers to play.

So - what's your pitch? How would you reboot Greyhawk?
 

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hopeless

Explorer
Pick an area and work from there.
I suspect many might use the Village of Hommlet and work up to the Temple of Elemental Evil.
Are there any other games that stick out as far as Greyhawk are concerned?
Except for Blackmoor perhaps?
 

The Glen

Hero
Focus on the isolation and the racial and cultural disparity. This is not a land where you walk into a Tavern and find one of every race singing at the bar like in the Forgotten Realms art. And else walking into a human village is probably the first elf they have ever seen period and they will have all sorts of incorrect knowledge about them.

Set the theme as Man versus government. There are knights galore in Greyhawk and they will more than likely be used against Rival Knights of other nations instead of Orcs or Giants. There will be tremendous amount of distrust from Nation to Nation.

Keep the magic broad but low. There's a lot of it, but there are very few high-level practitioners of it. Some styles of magic will not be present. Likewise keep the party poor. Even if they find large amounts of gold know Noble is going to let them keep it. Because they need it more to pay off their Lord, the entire setting is heavily feudal.

Exotic races need to be rare or nonexistent. In Greyhawk the drow are Boogeyman and not a playable race. Most people don't even know they exist. I think the only one that even lives on the surface is at the Valley of the mage and that's off-limits to everyone anyways.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Keep the magic broad but low. There's a lot of it, but there are very few high-level practitioners of it. Some styles of magic will not be present.

One idea is to have Greyhawk with optional rules to make it specifically a low-magic setting.

In other words, a section for "de-magicking" the various classes.

That might be an interesting twist, and provide more GOT vibes.
 

Quartz

Adventurer
So - what's your pitch? How would you reboot Greyhawk?

I think we've done this before. Anyway, I would take the conceit of Pluffet Smedger and make it real. The year is now 800-odd CY. Lands have consolidated and changed. Iuz has become a full god and left Oerth but his legacy remains. Perhaps his lands are ruled by the lich-queen High Priestess Halga. This would allow for a significant reworking of the setting while retaining everything that was.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Supporter
That might be an interesting twist, and provide more GOT vibes.
I think beyond GoT vibes, it needs a lot of Witcher vibes and First Law vibes. People aren't fearful of other races out of ignorance, they're fearful of them because they've had enough dealings to know that the other races are different from themselves and have their own priorities. Magic isn't unknown, people know what it's about, but they know that magicians are powerful people who are doing stuff that they can't comprehend, which is plenty of reason to give them a wide berth.

Mordenkainen and the Circle of Eight are more like Bayaz and the Twelve Magi, they're doing their own thing and the balance of power of nations is simply a tool to use for their own ends. Witchers are alchemical mutant super-soldiers, but people still hire them; that's the sort of concept that D&D groups are built on.
 

Mind of tempest

Adventurer
One idea is to have Greyhawk with optional rules to make it specifically a low-magic setting.

In other words, a section for "de-magicking" the various classes.

That might be an interesting twist, and provide more GOT vibes.
they could certainly work as sub class ideas. the martial could use some none magic bulking up.
 

Urriak Uruk

Debate fuels my Fire
I think beyond GoT vibes, it needs a lot of Witcher vibes and First Law vibes. People aren't fearful of other races out of ignorance, they're fearful of them because they've had enough dealings to know that the other races are different from themselves and have their own priorities. Magic isn't unknown, people know what it's about, but they know that magicians are powerful people who are doing stuff that they can't comprehend, which is plenty of reason to give them a wide berth.

Mordenkainen and the Circle of Eight are more like Bayaz and the Twelve Magi, they're doing their own thing and the balance of power of nations is simply a tool to use for their own ends. Witchers are alchemical mutant super-soldiers, but people still hire them; that's the sort of concept that D&D groups are built on.

1. The Dying of the Light.
The Flanaess was once a place of great civilizations. Empires of unimaginable power and magic ruled the land, until they crumbled into dust, victims of their own hubris. Today, the great powers are corrupted from within (the Great Kingdom) or teetering on the edge; a few proud city-states, such as Onnwal, Greyhawk, and Dyvers welcoming traders from far and wide, but much of the land is empty and desolate, with villages and hommlets scraping by meager existences, and the presence of raiding parties a constant threat.

The greatest powers lie within tombs, hidden away in forgotten ruins and wrecked cities covered by jungle, long forgotten.

I very much agree with the GoT/Witcher comparisons here. And I think one of the most important aspects of Greyhawk is that it is a world in decline.

Much like how in GoT, most folk don't believe dragons really existed, and how in the Witcher that order of monster-slayers is dying off (and the elves massacred), Greyhawk is a world defined by its decline. Humanity has ascended as the preeminent force on the continent, but they are petty and vindictive, untalented at magic. Ripe for the forces of evil to abuse and manipulate.

It's not really a concept that has been explored much by the D&D settings so far (the closest is Ghosts of Saltmarsh, which is literally in Greyhawk). But I think if you look at GoT and Witcher (two of the most popular fantasy shows of the last 5 years), there is clearly some appeal for more grounded low-magic fantasy.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Supporter
It's not really a concept that has been explored much by the D&D settings so far (the closest is Ghosts of Saltmarsh, which is literally in Greyhawk). But I think if you look at GoT and Witcher (two of the most popular fantasy shows of the last 5 years), there is clearly some appeal for more grounded low-magic fantasy.
It would also be a good thing to have developed for the upcoming movie and (especially) TV show; one of the reasons you don't have live-action high fantasy is because the budget would be too high. Low-magic fantasy cuts down on the cost a lot. (Unless you do battles with 1000s of extras on location and have CGI dragons, of course.)
 

It's grim. It's bleak. At any given moment you're looking at Fantasy World War 1 as all the old grudges get settled in a geyser of blood.
I gotta say man, I think approximately 0-10 D&D players are interested in a setting like this. Grimdark pre-war? For D&D? Are you even slightly serious?

Grimdark is already like, targeting an old people audience, frankly, grogs and aging edgelords. D&D is absolutely terrible at grimdark. There's no reason to engage with the politics of any of the Greyhawk nations as they're all pretty lame. This is a recipe for selling like hundreds of copies instead of thousands, let alone tens of thousands or millions. It would probably sell worse like this than catering to the ancient fans, even, though I admit not a huge amount worse.

I strongly agree with your general suggestions, but the world you outline doesn't seem one likely to attract players now, in 2021. In 2003 or something? Sure.

But I think if you look at GoT and Witcher (two of the most popular fantasy shows of the last 5 years), there is clearly some appeal for more grounded low-magic fantasy.
In D&D? I don't buy it. I don't buy that that audience really plays TT RPGs, or if they do, wants D&D to be like that. And D&D is extremely bad at that because of the Vancian magic system. The idea that you can have "grounded low-magic" when people are daily summoning magic animals and shooting fireballs and so on at level 5 is pretty silly imho.

It would also be a good thing to have developed for the upcoming movie and (especially) TV show; one of the reasons you don't have live-action high fantasy is because the budget would be too high. Low-magic fantasy cuts down on the cost a lot.
But that's not what D&D is about or like, even slightly. D&D is inherently high-magic, and the only way around it would be to literally cut every single full-caster class from a setting, at which point, it's not really D&D.

As for Greyhawk, I think the only way it comes back and actually sells any copies if it's a modernized gonzo dungeon-crawl fantasy setting leading with strong visual design, an appealing suggestion for how campaigns there should basically work, and one that differentiates it from other "generic fantasy" games, and where the strong villains are used to provide adversaries for adventuring, not fodder for politics.
 

werecorpse

Adventurer
For years nations pursued their personal and myopic agendas of power. Rel Mord politics was more about who would be sovereign while the Theocracy and the Urnst entities undermined Nyronds power. The silent ones of Keoland supported their nation against their rival nations only rarely focussing on the darkness beneath the Hellfurnaces. Yes Greyhawk battled against orcs from the Pomarj but always with an eye on it’s mercantile rivalry with Dyvers. When the Scarlet Brotherhood or Iuz rose in power or The Monstosity took the Malachite Throne these were too often other people’s problems.

Heroes seemed to arise from out of nowhere to battle these great evils, they defeated the plans of arch liches, destroyed demon queens as they broke loose from their bindings, recovered Raosih artifacts to allow fiendish armies to be decimated, kept fast the gates holding back Tharizdun, thwarted the plans of spider gods, ended the reigns of nascent elder evils before they had begun. The kings and queens of the Flanaess had begun to subconsciously rely on the rising up of heroes as if such thing were a natural law of opposition to the great evils that might plague the world.

Such was not the case. There was no “natural law”. It took a great and magical mind to see the fallow ground wherein the seeds of evil would grow. To, from the shadows, nurture and test the mettle of adventurers. To ruthlessly allow some to break against lesser foes so that they would not be those called upon to battle against the dangers most vile. Then to step out of the shadows to provide the advice that would hurl the surviving shining gems into the furnaces of evil knowing they would snuff out the evil while cracking and crumbling themselves. One who saw the utter ruin of truly good heroes as a worthwhile necessity to keep the world in balance.

But now Mordenkainen is truly dead. Some say he is no more yet others declare he exists in another realm one where the future of Oerth is no longer his concern. Either way he is gone. His hand rested lightly on the tiller of fate for decades if not centuries. Now the path is unclear.
 

I tend to concur with the GoT mixed with the Witcher's approach. Greyhawk tends to be a grim and unforgiving place where d'espoir is aplenty and hope is scarce. The few nations that are on the side of goodness ate few and their ressources are stretched to their limits with barely enough to keep the evil empires at bay.

Evil is everywhere but even its evil empires are fighting each others or are locked in an uneasy truce that no sides believe that it will last.

Except for the halflings which have always been working closely with the humans, most other demi-humans stay in their countries. Elves of Celene are notoriously isolationist and those of the Vesve are too caught up in their skirmishes with the Ancient (Iuz) to be seen anywhere else. Other elven kingdoms are too few in number or even more xenophobic to interact with humans Valley elves, which are closely related to the gray elves or the Lendor elves, or the few tribe's of aquatic elves comes to mind here).

The dwarves are few and far between with most of their kingdom hidden from men in mountains. They mostly rely on trusted traders and a few years might pass before the word that a Dwarven kingdom has fallen because contacts are fat between. Only Ironwall break this pattern and even then, dwarves are not often seen.

Gnomes are even rarer than the rest. The only known gnome enclave in in the Kronn hills and even then, to find them is a feat in itself...

So Greyhawk is human centric and it's greatest empire have fallen to evil and shattered as a result. The Great Kingdom is no more, many of its cities in ruins and many citadels are now defended by Animus, a perverted form of undead that keeps a semblance of life but lacks emotion save the negative ones. Undead and demons are their servants but at least, none of these undead, so far, has shown an interests in the humans surrounding their fortresses...

Although there are powerful individuals in Greyhawk, they are not as active (or do not appear to be) as powerful individuals in other settings. The players are left to themselves. Contrary to the FR and some other settings, their actions matters and they are vital for the side they will be working for, even if it is just for themselves...
 

I think one critical aspect of the Greyhawk setting is that characters 10th level and above are extremely rare, and quite powerful. If you meet a Fighter of 10th level, he's a lord regent, not a hired sword. This isn't scalable. You can't just use 20th level instead of 10th. Because in Greyhawk, clerics who can raise dead and wizards who can make wishes just aren't around. If you don't capture this, the setting doesn't make sense.

So, if I were rebooting the setting, it would be with an adventure to emphasize this. Instead of the traditional FR-style romp through dungeons of escalating difficulty before defeating the big boss, chapters 1-10 would be establishing the players as warlords, archmages, and the like, and chapters 11-15 would be about dealing with problems as leaders of kingdoms or holy orders or whatever, rather than increasingly powerful murderhobos.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Supporter
Grimdark is already like, targeting an old people audience, frankly, grogs and aging edgelords. D&D is absolutely terrible at grimdark. There's no reason to engage with the politics of any of the Greyhawk nations as they're all pretty lame. This is a recipe for selling like hundreds of copies instead of thousands, let alone tens of thousands or millions. It would probably sell worse like this than catering to the ancient fans, even, though I admit not a huge amount worse.

I strongly agree with your general suggestions, but the world you outline doesn't seem one likely to attract players now, in 2021. In 2003 or something? Sure.
Gotta disagree. I don't think younger millennials and Gen Z are only drawn to brightly-drawn, escapist fantasy. I mean, we're talking about a generation where probably the biggest anime of the past five years is Attack on Titan. There's absolutely still an audience for bleaker stuff among the younger crowd.

But that's not what D&D is about or like, even slightly. D&D is inherently high-magic, and the only way around it would be to literally cut every single full-caster class from a setting, at which point, it's not really D&D.
I don't think that's necessary. I mean, the last episode of the Witcher had like 10 wizards destroy half an invading army. That's some D&D type stuff if I've ever seen it.

Likewise, Castlevania on Netflix feels very alt-Greyhawk to me (not Ravenloft-y, as one might think) despite being fairly high-magic. Supernatural evil warlords march armies of darkness against benighted human kingdoms who are led by corrupt theocrats, and only reluctantly altruistic adventurers can defeat the source of evil. Every Richter and Sypha fight scene feels like a D&D fight to me.

The setting just needs to play up that the adventurers are special, a cut above the beaten down (but still worth saving) rabble they normally encounter. Low-magic and gritty doesn't mean it has to succumb to the OSR notion that the adventurers are some random sampling of the general population who happen to walk into haunted ruins.
 

My question would be, what does Greyhawk add?
Most of the new setting based books so far for 5E aren't just a bunch of people and places, but instead add something new that can be used in any home brew campaign.
Examples:

Ravnica = Guilds
Theros = Gods/Piety
Eberron = New races/Artificer/etc
Wildemount = Dunamancy

Ravenloft = Demiplanes
 

Likewise, Castlevania on Netflix feels very alt-Greyhawk to me (not Ravenloft-y, as one might think) despite being fairly high-magic.
That seems like a very serious case of seeing what you want to see lol.
Gotta disagree. I don't think younger millennials and Gen Z are only drawn to brightly-drawn, escapist fantasy. I mean, we're talking about a generation where probably the biggest anime of the past five years is Attack on Titan. There's absolutely still an audience for bleaker stuff among the younger crowd.
Attack on Titan was a flash-in-the-pan and is definitely not the "biggest" anime of the last five years in any sense, because it's from 2013, and the flash was in what, 2014? 2015? Whenever it was that S1 hit Netflix. When S2 arrived years later, it barely even made a splash. No-one really cared.

Also, the idea that Attack on Titan isn't escapist is pretty bloody wild mate. It's extremely escapist - it doesn't deal with any emotional realities or make people think about their own lives - ironically unlike a lot of more "brightly drawn" anime. Grimdark often is extremely escapist. 40K certainly is. There's zero real or relevant or meaningful or relatable about it.

And you're talking anime? You think like, most kids today watch stuff like Attack on Titan, because mate, they don't. Attack on Titan was big with people in their 30s and 40s particularly, that's why you've heard of it. The stuff younger viewers are watching is a lot more interesting than that.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
One idea is to have Greyhawk with optional rules to make it specifically a low-magic setting.

In other words, a section for "de-magicking" the various classes.

That might be an interesting twist, and provide more GOT vibes.

I don't think classes need to change or be demagicked to do Greyhawk. Greyhawk is more low level than low magic. The key is that most of the magic users/havers are in the crazy petty political game of nations, the crazy petty political game of nations, or avoiding both. That's the other reason (the other being fear of death and trauma), people cash out the adventuring game. So it's less that your PCs don't have magic as much as access to it puts tons of hooks in you. Playing a nonmagical PC lets you be more free in this declining world (until you reach high level).

To spice up Greyhawk, I'd instead add an Attention mechanic where the weirder and rarer the aspects of the party are, the more they get roped into "overworld" craziness that inhibits their freedom. And you'll be too low level to do anything about it.
 

To spice up Greyhawk, I'd instead add an Attention mechanic where the weirder and rarer the aspects of the party are, the more they get roped into "overworld" craziness that inhibits their freedom. And you'll be too low level to do anything about it.
This seems like it would be a good idea, but bloody hard to do right.

I think you'd need a really in-depth setting with a ton of hooks, and you'd need a bunch of tables to roll on to help the DM decide what form the attention took (assuming you're really trying to sell this).
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Supporter
That seems like a very serious case of seeing what you want to see lol.
It makes sense to me. The world is too sprawling to fit neatly into the trope sinkholes that define Ravenloft. The setting is VERY D&D like in its magic use. But it's too grim to fit into the Realms or Eberron. Thematically, it fits for me into a GoT/Witcher themed Greyhawk.

Attack on Titan was a flash-in-the-pan and is definitely not the "biggest" anime of the last five years in any sense, because it's from 2013, and the flash was in what, 2014? 2015? Whenever it was that S1 hit Netflix. When S2 arrived years later, it barely even made a splash. No-one really cared.

Also, the idea that Attack on Titan isn't escapist is pretty bloody wild mate. It's extremely escapist - it doesn't deal with any emotional realities or make people think about their own lives - ironically unlike a lot of more "brightly drawn" anime. Grimdark often is extremely escapist. 40K certainly is. There's zero real or relevant or meaningful or relatable about it.
Yes, my number one choice for escapism is the world where my mom gets eaten by a 50 foot tall toddler. :) I think we're using different meanings for escapism. I don't see escapism and "emotional relevance" as opposite sides of a spectrum.

And you're talking anime? You think like, most kids today watch stuff like Attack on Titan, because mate, they don't. Attack on Titan was big with people in their 30s and 40s particularly, that's why you've heard of it. The stuff younger viewers are watching is a lot more interesting than that.
I'm basing this on having a 14 year old son with a group of friends who are all into anime, and all of them devoured (npi) the new seasons of AoT when they started watching it 2 years ago. Most of what I watch nowadays is based on my son's recommendations, rather than my own. I've seen too much isekai for my own good. :)

Purely anecdotal, but that's all any of us can offer. None of us are subject matter experts on this.
 

I gotta say man, I think approximately 0-10 D&D players are interested in a setting like this. Grimdark pre-war? For D&D? Are you even slightly serious?

Grimdark is already like, targeting an old people audience, frankly, grogs and aging edgelords. D&D is absolutely terrible at grimdark. There's no reason to engage with the politics of any of the Greyhawk nations as they're all pretty lame. This is a recipe for selling like hundreds of copies instead of thousands, let alone tens of thousands or millions. It would probably sell worse like this than catering to the ancient fans, even, though I admit not a huge amount worse.

The Warhammer updates/reboots by Cubicle 7 are doing really well, and those are mostly grimdark, but they are doing well because they are not D&D, though I doubt it is all men who are middle-aged or older giving them all those sales.
 

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