Monday, 16 October 2017

Setting Review II: Greyhawk

After Forgotten Realms, we move further back in time to take a look at the setting it knocked off its perch as the de facto setting at TSR - Gary Gygax's very own World of Greyhawk (I will, at times, be comparing the two settings for the very same reason).

Quick intro to the setting

(See also my review of the map of greyhawk - Incidentally, the most visited entry on my blog)
  • The world of Greyhawk is a Sword & Sorcery setting built on a proper medieval chassis with just a light sprinkling of Tolkien influences. 
  • It is built around a dichotomy of the lands of Men being relatively mundane, with the history and cultures of these having a suitably 'realistic' feel and the wilderness being home to the Weird - The place where adventurers go to experience the fantastical. Here, Greyhawk has a strong 'anything goes' approach where spaceships, timetravel, contact with other worlds, from the silly to the serious, are all within the tone of the setting.
  • It is a sparse and very open-ended setting characterised by no two greyhawk settings being quite the same, depending on how each DM interprets the setting.

Unpacking the above

I put each paragraph above in its own bullet point, because I feel they each need a bit of unpacking to really 'get' greyhawk. That it even needs this kind of unpacking is perhaps one reason that Forgotten Realms was such a smash hit in comparison.

A Sword & Sorcery setting built on a medieval chassis 

Compared to the Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk has a lot less influence from Tolkien. The primary inspirations that shine through are the Sword & Sorcery of Lieber's Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser and the more classical fantasy of Poul Anderson's Three Hearts & Three Lions.

Other sources can be inferred, but are not as clearly evidenced. What I mean by that is that Greyhawk assumes a different generation of fantasy enthusiasts. For people who had already read Jack Vance's The Dying Earth or Michael Moorcock's Elric it is easy to see how these influences fit like a glove for creating a richer framework of Gygax's greyhawk. But they are not essential for the core of it (more on this below).

Gygax is better schooled in medievalism than Greenwood and it shows in his setting history and how it shows a pattern of cultural development. On a scale of Harn to Legoland realism, Greyhawk, in certain ways, leans much closer to the Harn side. We are meant to know that feudalism had a historical origin here, that peasants get killed in petty wars of nobility and that trade follows pseudo-realistic patterns.  
The clear medieval character (surprisingly rare in fantasy) of it makes it more analogous to Game of Thrones than any other D&D settings (except maybe Birthright).

The lands of Men are Mundane & the Wilderness home to the Weird

An article in Dragon Magazine #40, "Believe it or not, Fantasy has reality", spells out an implied assumption of Greyhawk that is crucial to understanding how it is more than a semi-realistic, but ultimately somewhat bland, medievalist setting:
“...There is an essential element which will determine the success or failure of a game as High Fantasy: the division of the world into Home Areas and Wyrd Areas.
A Home Area is one in which everyday life as we know it exists; it is the Primary World.
A Wyrd Area is the realm of the Dark, the actual world of Faerie. It is in Wyrd Areas that one encounters monsters and has adventures. All AD&D dungeons are Wyrd Areas."
The world described in the original Greyhawk Folio and Boxed Set is mostly the mundane 'home area' world. What neither does a very good job of showing, but which is made abundantly clear by the modules situated in Greyhawk, such as EX1 Dungeonland, EX2 The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror and WG6 Isle of the Ape, is that once you cross into the wilderness, Greyhawk becomes more akin to a gritty Alice in Wonderland, that is awash in Weird Things from interplanetary timetravel, spaceships and robots, to extra-dimensional horrors and whatever else a DM could dream up (lest we forget - The drow were originally a surprise 'evil elf' race unveiled in an adventure and were very much a signature race of greyhawk before Forgotten Realms popularised them further). 

There was a clear assumption of No Holds Barred when it came to the Weird and whatever fantastical stuff you wanted to throw at your PCs would never interfere with the tone or style of the setting. Here, Jack Vance's Dying Earth and Planet of Adventure take over as unstated influences and the baroque, absurd and humoristic character of Greyhawk begins to show itself.

Another assumption to bear in mind, also unstated, is that Greyhawk assumed picaresque adventurers having episodic adventures that could as often venture into the absurd as it did the heroic. As opposed to the more epic quests and heroes that modern audiences might assume as their D&D default, owing to their  modern literary fantasy influences.

Much of this could be self-evident to those who had the folio, a few published adventures and had read much of the same kind of literature that Gygax had soaked in. It is not at all clear to younger audiences, or even older ones who didn't have the same influences (or, those who had but didn't necessarily infer that these influenced were to be imputed). 

A modern World of Greyhawk setting would need to devote a fair amount of pages to elucidate to modern audiences its tone, style, literary influences and hitherto unstated assumptions in order to really be 'got'. 
As such, it has to be said the Greyhawk has not aged as well as some settings (though its kinship with Game of Thrones may have given it new modern appeal) and the bar of entry is somewhat high to younger players.

A Sparse & Open-ended Setting

The saving grace of Greyhawk is that all of the unstated assumptions above are not necessary to use it well.
"The world of greyhawk is yours now -- Yours to do with as you wish. You can mold new states out of old ones or inflame ancient rivalries into open warfare as you tailor the world to suit the needs of your players."
Naturally, many DMs take it as a given that they can adapt existing settings to suit their needs - But unlike most modern settings, Greyhawk was always intended as a chassis for DMs to customise and make their own. For similar reasons, though detailed in some areas, it is intentionally sparse in others.

As such, Greyhawk really should be mostly evaluated on its suitability as a gaming chassis to get DMs started with and how easy it is for DMs to pour their creativity into and make it their own. It lends itself as easily to gritty "game of thrones" style gritty low fantasy as it does to "Paladins & Princesses" or Lieber-esque sword & sorcery.

A Note on Later Developments

This review assumes the default line of the original Folio and boxed set. As was obligatory for all TSR settings during the 90s, Greyhawk was blown up by a Big Event. In Greyhawk's case, they took all the seeds of conflict scattered across the original material and triggered them all at once - Thus the Greyhawk Wars and with it the new campaign set From the Ashes by Carl Sargent. 

The Greyhawk Wars altered the tone of the setting significantly. The original version was an open-ended setting with no overarching angle or theme, where the geopolitics is tightly strung in many places, but where events in the wilderness could just as well be influential. Hooks were set as dials for the DM to turn when he wanted stuff to happen.

The setting of From the Ashes was one where geopolitics is the dominant theme of the setting and evil definitely has the upper hand and you can't visit a village anywhere without having to deal with some fallout or another of the wars. More Darkhawk than Greyhawk.

As a result, true to its original intention, many greyhawk fans never took it as more than one person's interpretation of greyhawk.

Roger Moore later advanced the timeline a few years further in The Adventure Begins, which did a credible job of taking it back to a more open setting whilst retaining the dynamics of an unfolding timeline (which was always the intended case based on Gygax's Dragon articles), a point in time it has been frozen at ever since, publicationwise.

Although 3rd edition took Greyhawk as its default setting, all we got were some very dry and bland setting books that represent a nadir in Greyhawk as far as quality of material written.

Roger Moore wrote of the same era (591 CY) with a far more pleasant and evocative writing style and Sargent, while given a thankless task of writing for the most ungreyhawky of greyhawk eras, had an explosive imagination and his work is good for mining no matter your own interpretation of greyhawk.


If you have already soaked in the sword & sorcery literature that Gygax also enjoyed - Lieber, Vance, Howard, Lovecraft and Anderson - to fill in the blanks, Greyhawk will be an easy pickup and represents a very solidly constructed medievalist setting soaked in exotic and weird fantasy where anything goes.

If you are simply looking for a setting chassis where the skeleton is pre-made for you, then greyhawk is also an excellent setting for you to tinker and tailor with and put your own unique spin on. It was designed for this very task and it shows.

If you are looking for the immersive 'Greyhawk experience', a vision of the world as the creators saw it, and you have not read the literature above, Greyhawk will probably come across as a bland and indistinct setting with knights and wizards and little to set it apart from a dull pastiche of medieval europe + orcs and elves. I'd tell you to wait for the 5e setting book, but I doubt the writers would fill in the blanks for you on this.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Setting Review: The Forgotten Realms

Following on  from my Setting Map review series and my more recent thoughts on 4e's Nentir Vale and Dragonlance as a coming-of-age sandbox, I've decided to start a review series of published settings overall. Mostly D&D, but we'll be delving into some 3rd party settings, Warhammer and a few others.

These reviews will be personal and mostly aimed at giving the reader an impression of the flavor, style and gameability of the setting.

I am starting with the setting that has probably the greatest exposure of all.

The forgotten realms! Everyone knows it, or knows of it, at least.

Quick intro to the setting

(See also my review of the map of the forgotten realms)
Let's start by showing the realms from its most flattering side. Quote Ed Greenwood, from the old 'gray box':

"Most of the area under discussion here has until recently been covered by wild forests and unsettled grasslands. Civilization is still a novelty in much of this world, even the oldest of cities on the Inland Sea, or the founding of Waterdeep, the greatest City of the North, are within the memory of the oldest living elves of Evermeet."

"City-states are common, and nations on the increase as more of the wild lands are pushed back and gathered under a single king or government."

"Finally, the Realms are a land of adventure, and therefore adventurers. It is the time of heroes, when one man of pure heart (or with a powerful artifact) may hold his own against enemy hordes, where legions of evil forces may muster and be destroyed by the actions of a few, where the nations rise and fall on magical tides which mere men can control."
In a nutshell, a sword & sorcery setting for exploration, where human civilization is still in its seedling stage - A quick look at the main adventuring areas gives us an outlook like this:

The Dalelands - Sure, they are clichéed by now, but smatterings of peaceful little rural communities separated by deep woods where monsters and ruins abound amidst abandoned elven realms is quite frankly an awesome sandbox to start a campaign in.

And frankly, when you sit in your dale and look around, each direction is just a promise of even more adventure:

Cross a small sea to the east to go exploring in a wild west land of independent city-states in The Vast.

Go west to Cormyr to adventure in classical kingdom-with-knights-land.

Or north for some darker adventures in the Moonsea.

Go even further west, and the Western Heartlands open up a vast wilderland of scattered towns, secret elven kingdoms, ruins and exploration. Same with The North, only more desolate.

And further east and south, beyond the Vast, lie decadent deteriorating city-state,  distant forest realms ruled by sorcery queens, desert kingdoms, dark magocracies, witch lands and utterly ancient empires ruled by god-kings.

What are the realms like?

In its briefest summation, the Forgotten Realms is a Tolkienesque setting that, with the fall of Myth Drannor, became a roughshod Sword & Sorcery setting. And unapologetically vanilla kitchen-sink fantasy.

Moreso than the settings that came before (including Greyhawk), the realms embodies the implied setting of D&D. 

By implied setting, I don't mean what grognards extract from pouring over every paragraph of the original publications, but from what fresh gamers imagine they will be doing when they start on D&D: Travelling through enchanted woodlands, meeting archwizards and sorcery queens, engaging with noble elves and encountering dwarven kingdoms, exploring ancient ruins and uncovering lost secrets in a land of forgotten glories. Whilst unceremoniously lobbing fireballs and enriching yourself with the stuff from the critters you just killed. 

Basically, some diffuse mashup of Tolkien (Elves, dwarves, Dalelands), Medievalism (Cormyr), Sword & Sorcery (all over the place), some ill-defined American frontier mentality of exploration (western heartlands, the north) and on the edges of the known world - A barrel full of the truly exotic and weird that far away fantastical lands should have (beyond the heartlands).

For comparison, I think this mix is what has made the realms more appealing than Greyhawk which is often seen as bland. The Tolkien influences are less clear there and all the realms of men are, by design, wholly mundane (since, in Greyhawk, the encounter with the Weird and fantastical happens when crossing into the wilderness) - So no sorcery queens, godkings or other weird stuff that people see themselves meeting when playing D&D. The Forgotten Realms have all of it, albeit often at the edges of the known world (by the time of 3e, that edge was erased and you could totally have a group with an aasimar cleric, a genasi sorcerer, a dragonborn paladin and a drow ranger - just from the core setting book).

Things I don't like about the realms

Let's start with the first criticism that is true no matter what iteration you use:

It's a Set Piece Setting

The realms may be primed for adventure, but it does feel a little too gamist.

I am not asking for Harn level of 'realism', but there is no sense whatsoever of how the current culture(s) of the realms arose.

Why are there knights and nobles? Because knights and nobles.

For contrast, the World of Greyhawk doesn't give us details of how these arose, but they are easy to infer from the history and style of the setting. It's easy to picture farmers toiling in the soil in the Flanaess.

In the Realms, it's probably best to not look to closely at them, lest you discover they are just decorative props placed on the way to the next dungeon. It just feels a bit too much like a set piece for D&D adventures than a living breathing world.

The disjointed history of it doesn't help - It's basically a story of "...then this kickass empire did kickass things and left dungeons and artifacts behind before KABOOM. And then the next empire did the same, but with different artifacts..." - Which is a fine element to have. But nothing in it really tells us how the current realms came to be.

The Dalelands and Cormyr for example, are supposed to be these plucky up-and-coming realms nestled in the ruins of former majesties. But both are comparatively ancient to most other realms around (1200 years+) - Effectively making them weird for just having hung around for a 1000 years without any real development or change happening, with no real sense of  where these people came from or how their culture developed.

They could have made a lot more sense as human successor states arising in the wake of the fall of Myth Drannor, for example (which was still over 500 years ago - a very long time in medieval terms). Both in terms of age and development, but also in terms of telling us what they grew out of. Humanity as a fledgling culture developing on the borrowed remnants of their former elven patron empire. Alas, they basically seem to have popped from a vacuum and stayed that way for 1200 years.

Now for the second point of criticism

Bullshit in later editions -  NPCs, novels, metaplot & canon

Most grognards favour the original gray box whilst latter generations tend to hail the 3rd edition book as a masterpiece of setting work.
For me, I prefer the 2nd edition boxed set, minus the Times of Troubles shenanigans. In fact, setting the startdate a decade or two before the original startdate still gets you all the best of the realms without the added junk (including Greenwood's own - Why would I go to the haunted halls of eveningstar when the knights of myth drannor already looted the place?). 
The 1st edition set is just a tad too incoherent in its presentation to work for me. And that 3rd edition, while it did a masterful job of condensing a truckload of usable information into one tome, just made the realms seem too small and too busy. The Shining South was no longer a far away land of magic shrouded in myth - It was just another step on the trading route of known lands. Sense of wonder? lost.

Basically, the problem with the realms is everything that happened once the wheels started turning. Novels began being written and become 'canon'. Drizzt made good drow rangers cool. GreenwoodElminster bangs a high-level hot chick and goes and does some canon bullshit somewhere else. Harpers foil a plot from pantomime Zhentarim villains, etc. The time of troubles crapped on everyone's ongoing campaign (though it did hilariously spawn The worst module series ever), shadow wizards start invading the realm in other novels, bla bla bla. By the time we hit late 3rd edition, I didn't even want to know what was going on anymore. It's more marvel-universe-in-fantasy-dressing than whatever it used to be.
Then 4e came along and basically trolled the Realms into extinction. 5e  tried a soft reset by advancing the timeline enough to make the far future a bit more like the good old days. whatever. Take me back to 1340 DR please. 


Basically, Forgotten Realms is an evocative setting that fits D&D assumptions like a glove and works eminently for gaming -  It is however, also a hot mess, greatly encumbered by decades of being a shared world. With a bit of discipline, this can be shaved off for a perfectly good D&D setting, if immersion is not too important.

Recommended point of entry? Get the 1st or 2nd edition boxed set, read the setting and imagine it 10-20 years early than the set presents, somewhere just before Greenwood's own groups started running the realms. Maybe read the first few sourcebooks released for it. Get the setting from that. If you need more, you have a wealth of material to choose from, but treat it like salt - A bit added can enhance the flavour. Overdose and you'll ruin an otherwise perfectly good meal.