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D&D 5E Greyhawk: Why We Need Mo' Oerth by 2024

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!

One of the things I have often written about, albeit not recently, is Greyhawk. It is, for various reasons, my all-time favorite campaign setting, and one that I continue to return to. Recently, the tail end of another thread turned into people discussing the setting, and whether it will be brought back. One of the comments in particular caught my eye. Starting as a reflection on the awesomeness of Forgotten Realms, the comment pivoted to the following conclusion:

This is part of why I think the Greyhawk setting, as a whole, will never get published again.

While this is possible (for reasons I will go into at the end of this post), I thought it would be helpful to explain, in detail, why I think that (1) it is imperative that WoTC publish Greyhawk as a campaign setting on or before the 50th Anniversary of D&D, and (2) what form I think that setting can or should take. Finally, if you're curious about some of the prior posts I've had on Greyhawk .... here's a compendium of the first half of my prior threads... go down to category 5.

1. The importance of Greyhawk in history, for the future, and for 2024.
History is an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.

We are fast coming upon the 50th Anniversary of D&D in 2024. This will be a time to celebrate the present of D&D, the future of D&D, and the past of D&D. I think that many of the people currently playing D&D would agree that, for whatever issues we might have with 5e, there has never been a time when the game has been more popular, and that the game has (for the most part) managed to delicately straddle the dividing line of incorporating the rich tapestry of the past of D&D while also looking forward. One of the many places that this approach is evident is in the release of campaign settings- we have settings that are decidedly of the long-ago, TSR past (Forgotten Realms, Spelljammer, Ravenloft, Dragonlance), those from the more-recent WoTC past (Eberron), those that are incorporating other IP (the M:TG settings), and those that are new to 5e (Wildemount).

Notably absent from that list is the original official D&D campaign setting - Greyhawk. For those that are unfamiliar with the setting, Greyhawk was the home campaign of Gary Gygax. He would write about the events in the campaign in various periodicals, mostly Dragon Magazine. In addition, the assumed setting of almost all of the "golden age" modules and core rule books (the 1e PHB, MM, and DMG) was Greyhawk. However, it was assumed by Gygax and TSR that players at home would be developing their own campaign worlds. It wasn't until others stepped into the void (such as Judge's Guild, with City State of the Invincible Overlord) that TSR released the first official campaign setting- the Greyhawk Folio in 1980. Later, in 1983, TSR would release the more expansive Campaign Setting (the Boxed Set).

Now, the close association of Greyhawk with Gygax is important in understanding the history of the game and the setting ... because at the end of 1985 he was ousted from TSR (although the legal battle lasted through 1986). Although TSR acquired the rights to (almost) everything involved with Greyhawk, there remained a great deal of antipathy between Gygax and TSR. Which also explains why, in 1987, TSR released the first official Forgotten Realms Product (the Gray Box) pursuant to an agreement with Ed Greenwood.

From that date on, Greyhawk products continued to be sporadically released, but without the imprimatur of Gygax, there were always some doubts by the older Greyhawk fans as to the validity of some of the lore. This was also not helped by TSR's release of the parody module WG7 Castle Greyhawk in 1988... which went over, with most Greyhawk fans, like a clown at a funeral. That said, the various offerings (the wars, the post-war ashes material, the "Living Greyhawk" material and shared world from the 3e era) certainly brought in additional fans that enjoyed the setting, and there are some real gems (such as the boxed set City of Greyhawk or the Moore/Reynolds attempts to reset the setting to something close to the Gygaxian roots). For the most part, fans tend to gravitate toward either the 576 CY timeline (Gygax) or the 591 CY timeline (Moore/Reynolds/Living), as the intervening War and Ashes tends to downplay the strengths of the setting.

Wait. What strengths? Why do people like Greyhawk? This requires a detour into ... the Forgotten Realms / Greyhawk feud.

2. Greyhawk is not the Forgotten Realms.
Why are the disputes on TTRPG forums so vicious? Because the stakes are so small.

So one thing to understand about Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms is that while they are often presented as two incredibly similar settings by some ... it is usually wisest not to say that to true fans of either setting. A big part of this is the history of the settings- for large portions of D&D's history, all the way through 4e, these two settings were often presented as being in an essential tension with one another due to the timing and promotion of these settings.
Greyhawk was the setting from the beginning until 1987.
Then Forgotten Realms became the primary focus from 1987 through the end of 2e (1999).
Then Greyhawk was elevated back to the "default setting" in 3e, except while that was the official stance, Forgotten Realms quickly usurped it to the extent that most people didn't realize that Greyhawk was technically supposed to be the default setting.

From a historical standpoint, then, it becomes clear that the GH/FR dichotomy often appeared to fans of both settings as a zero-sum game; resources primarily went to one setting, or the other. But not both. But beyond that, the settings themselves are very different in the way they present ideas and the game itself.

Forgotten Realms is ... well, it's a massive setting. For better or worse (depending on your preferences) it has EVERYTHING. It has long since grown past the charming articles that Ed Greenwood wrote in Dragon, and the Gray Box. It has become FR, devourer of worlds. Because of the great amount of support it has had, and the lore-heavy approach, anything you could want can be found in FR (and is likely documented in a wiki). It has devoured campaign settings, from Kara Tur to Maztica to Al Qadim. It has spawned countless novels and computer games. It sucked in major characters and items and plots from other settings as needed. It has been subject to spellsunderingplagues to keep it updated and retconned as needed. There are Elminsters and Drizzts and all sorts of personages wandering around. Even the lore has lore that has lore.

That is not Greyhawk. Greyhawk has mysteries; the lore is often incomplete. What are the fabled dungeons of Castle Greyhawk truly like? What is the real story behind the Rain of Colorless Fire and the Invoked Devastation? What is the past that gave us all those evocative names for artifacts in the 1e DMG?

For that matter, there isn't even generalized agreement as to what exists beyond the Flanaess. That's right- in Greyhawk, no one can be quite sure what else is even on the world beyond the eastern part of one continent. For this reason, while there have been numerous excellent attempts to add in or harmonize the various additions of lore over time (such as the website Canonfire), Greyhawk still feels like a campaign setting that is a lot of hooks begging DMs to decide how they want to incorporate them. For that reason, to borrow a phrase @Hussar used, individual campaigns are very different, so that Hussarhawk and Snarfhawk can have diametrically different events and reasons.

In addition, FR was fundamentally born out of a concept of High Fantasy- while Greenwood uses many influence, by the time of its official incorporation into TSR as a campaign setting, the "itchen Sink" setting would be heavily influenced by the Tolkien assumptions and the more narrative-driven Dragonlance (as well as the FR novels that began to issue). GH was spared this, simply because Gygax's attempts at writing novels in Greyhawk ... sucked.

Well, there's one book that almost reaches the heights of mediocre in a Leiber-esque derivative fashion. And then the series really goes really downhill. Ahem.

Anyway, Greyhawk was born from more of an amalgamation of Swords & Sorcery and vaguely political influences, with countries (and city states) with crazy forms of government in a state of tension.

Both are excellent settings, but despite some similarities, they are very different. The one thing that fans of both agree on, though, is that Dragonlance sucks.

... just kidding! Seeing if you were still reading. Anyway, the long history of the setting is, I think, reason enough to bring it back on or before the 50th Anniversary. That said, I'd like to address a single issue:

But the grognards? Won't they get mad?
Maybe? Who knows. You can't cater to angry people. More importantly, WoTC did a dry run when they released Saltmarsh. Remember that? Not only did they release a Greyhawk module that was well-received, they had .... a DRAGONBORN in it. And the world didn't end. We will be okay.

So, with that out of the way, what should they do with a new Greyhawk? Here's my proposal ... feel free to put in yours!

3. The 50th Anniversary Greyhawk Proposal.
This is dialectics. It's very simple dialectics: one through nine, no maybes, no supposes, no fractions. You can't travel in space, you can't go out into space, you know, without like, you know, with fractions! What are you going to land on: one quarter, three eighths? What are you going to do when you go from here to Venus or something? That's dialectic physics, okay?

I only have a few requirements for the new Greyhawk.

A. It needs to be good, not simple faithful to the original.
This should be obvious, but the past has to remain in the past. I would like a return to the 576 CY timeline (partly for the next reason) but I don't need it. What I want more than anything is an interesting quality setting THAT ATTRACTS NEW FANS. You can always get a reprint of the old stuff if you want- I want a new generation to have their own Greyhawk.

B. It needs to have the Darlene Map.
One of the things that was so magical about the original setting was the Darlene Map. I can't think of a better way to continue to honor a pioneer within the industry than by having that map released again with the setting (I guess they have those slip thingies instead of boxed sets now?). It's truly one of the great and seminal maps in this hobby. Now, I know that the Anna Meyer maps are amazing as well, and I agree with @Hussar that they would also make an excellent addition ... but I'd like to give Darlene some props.

C. It needs to stay mysterious.
The one quality that Greyhawk had that I think needs to be continued is that it was mysterious. It always had a lot of hints and hooks, but not answers. It was always a setting that drove the imagination. I don't want a new release to color in the lines- I don't want any official answer as to what lies beyond the Flanaess. At most, there should be hints. Tables can decide for themselves.

D. It needs to have a point of view.
I think that one thing that would be helpful in having a rebooted Greyhawk stand out is to provide the setting with a point of view or a strong theme that people can grasp. Now, there will be some interest if you sell the fact that this is the homebase of things people have already heard about (Mordenkainen, Tasha, Vecna, etc.). But let's give it something more. Here's a few ideas that I had previously-

i. The dying of the light. (Mad Max)
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 within wrecked cities covered by jungle, long forgotten.

ii. Politics is a zero-sum game. (Game of Thrones)
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, territories ruled by demigods and crazed possessed emperors; 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.

iii. There is real evil, and it's winning. (The real world ... what, too dark?)
While the good and neutral nations mostly squabble amongst themselves, real evil walks the world and cooperates and coordinates in its plans. At least ... for now. Iuz. The Great Kingdom. And the Scarlet Brotherhood. I mean ... evil gods, evil empererors, and racist Nazi monks. What's not to like?

iv. Gonzo isn't just a muppet.
The barriers to the multiverse are permeable in Greyhawk; there are rumors of a crashed metal vehicle in the Barrier Peaks, and of shimmering portals to many worlds within the ruins of Castle Greyhawk.

There you have it. What do you think? Is ....


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I always wanted to get into Greyhawk, but, starting as I did in ‘91, the move had already been made to FR. The closest I got to getting Greyhawk was the Justicar novels by Paul Kidd. Your post is making me feel that I really missed out on something.

I would agree that people overlook the historical importance of GH to the game. With Saltmarsh and TftYP Wizards talked a lot about the continuity of experience and how cool it was that middle school kids just picking up the game for the first time could run the same adventures that kids playing in the 70's and 80's did. I think that applies equally to letting a new generation adventure in the world that Gary Gygax himself created.

I also think the whole idea of FR vs. GH as a zero sum game is overstated. It made sense not to have overlapping settings when settings were product lines - launching a new setting used to mean upwards of a dozen books, and that was a lot of attention that got taken away from other stuff. With 5E the settings are essentially one and done hardbacks that are dropping multiple times a year. A GH setting book is not going to be taking resources away from supporting FR; at worst it means one less MtG adaptation that year.


Moderator Emeritus
What I like most about Greyhawk is that for the last 20 years when I steal names and maps from it for my own hodgepodge homebrews, most of my players don’t recognize them, as such. For example, all my worlds have had a Saltmarsh in them and my current one has a human supremacist secret(ish) society called the Scarlet Brotherhood who claim to be descended from the fallen Sulouise Empire, and a time in the past betwen that empire and the current republic called “The Time of the Sea Princes.”

Anyway, I like gaps and build-it-yourself sets to play with and the ideal setting will always be that way for me who finds making things up/stealing/adapting easier than being beholden to so-called canonical lore.

OP says it's important to bring back Greyhawk, but doesn't really say why. It feels more like a curiosity of its time, rather than something that is expanding.

The majority of its users are either 1e grognards, or maybe some that took to it in its 3e revival, and that was 22 years ago. The questions about "what lies past the Flanaess?" have probably already been answered at those tables that are using the setting. If it's just going to reprint old material, it's not worth getting, and if it expands and updates the setting, will it still be usable for the people who have spent 30 years answering the mysteries themselves?


Cry havoc! And let slip the pigs of war!
There is a lot of truth in this.

We got the gray box FR when it came out because it did not seem well populated—wild.

I got the grey hawk boxed set second hand and found it was…more open than we realized?

It was darker and had the flavor that matched the monster manual and dmg.

The deities were cooler. I am playing a cleric of Wee Jas as we speak! But the open do it yourself make it your own is baked in.

While not crowded with detail, those chosen make it seem to have weight. Seems like it has some weight.

Immediate must buy if they ever release it. I would be thrilled, Dragonborn or not (last night I thought about playing one some day don’t tell).

I cannot easily explain why it seems more tangible to me that FR…maybe because of the weird Gygaxian layers of borrowed imitated and made. Inlike how he draws from so much history and fiction and plain old invents…

But in general what snarf said


Yes, bring back Greyhawk, but I'm going to disagree with you, Snarf, and call for remaining true to the Gygaxian mold (and take "mold" in whatever way you want).

My protest is one of aesthetic principle, and really extends towards a wide range of media. Too often old things are remade and painted over, and lose their original, archetypal form and quality. There is something to the idea of riffing within a limited set of parameters; just as jazz or raga players solo within a theme of musical phrases and qualities - it isn't just chaos.

This is why I think, in some ways, Golarion is a more cohesive setting than the Realms: it was designed with being a shared world, and to continually be expanded upon. It may have started as Erik Mona's , but it quickly become not just his (TBH, I don't know anything about its origins - and it may be that its coherency is due to his oversight? I don't know).

The Realms, on the other hand, had existed for two decades, in some form or fashion, before the publication of the gray box. And Greyhawk was distinctly Gygax's until he was exiled from the realm.

This is not to say that I think post-gray box Realms is bad, or even that post-Gygax Greyhawk isn't truly Greyhawkian. But even the best longbows--if bent far enough--will break. At the least, FR became more and more "heapish," and lost some of is distinct Greenwoodian flavor.

I mean, let's face it: Al-Qadim is cool (and, quite frankly, cooler than Calimshan), but does it really make sense in the Realms? And is it necessary, with Calimshan? And don't get me started on Maztica or Kara-Tur, not to mention the Horde and Moonshaes.

Now this is not to say that you're suggesting that they "Realmsify" Greyhawk, but that adapting or updating it into a different cultural milieu can end up diminish its signature quality.

It is a similar aesthetic issue I have with updating other media to the current context: it often feels rather cheap and, dare I say, colonial and is sometimes (though not always) ideologically motivated - like the new creators want to erase the original vision and put their own stamp on it. Some things can be revisioned; I liked both the Nolan Batman films and was pleasantly surprised with the new one that just came out, even though I still have a special place in my heart for the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton one (and yes, I know there are earlier forms of Batman). But in both cases, they worked because the revisioning played within certain themes; and the changes were aesthetic, not ideological.

There is another option: Why not, instead, create new worlds, new superheroes, new ideas that are created to express the ideas you want to explore? Why not create a new D&D setting, even a kitchen sink one, that can be endlessly expanded upon? A Golarion for 5E?

In other words, I don't think dragonborn (or whatever) belong in Greyhawk, and I think Greyhawk is lesser for having them. I mean, why are they necessary at all? Certainly, individual DMs can do what they want and cater (or not) to the desires of their players. But as far as the published books? Keep the aesthetic signature that is unique to Greyhawk. Otherwise, yes, it feels closer to the Realms or just any generic branded D&D world. What ends up happening is a diminishing effect. Chris Pine is a solid actor, but he's not Kirk. William Shatner is Kirk (in the case of Star Trek, I would have rather seen an entirely new space franchise, or at least a different captain and era - which is why Picard and TNG was great...it was still "Star Trekkian," but wasn't painting over the original).

The settings are an opportunity to explore different themes, to combine different elements of D&D lore in unique ways. We don't need starshimmer elves in Dark Sun (or whatever), and we don't need nice drow in Greyhawk. Let the worlds be distinct. D&D can be many things to many people - that is a strength of the game that can and should be exploited. But if everything becomes only some things to some people, it lessens its potentiality; or if everything must be included in some form or fashion, not matter how it jars with the aesthetic signature, it diminishes distinctiveness.
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