Thursday, April 17, 2014

O is for Oerth

O is definitely for Oerth, the home world for the continent of Oerik, the region of the Flaeness,  the Free City of Greyhawk and the Greyhawk campaign. It is a favorite place of mine, though apparently I am on record for hating it (more about that later).

First off, let's put this to rest - the "Oe" is pronounced like the Oy in "Oy Vey". So it is "Oith", not "rhyming with Fourth". The first time Gary used the term in front of me I thought he was just winding me up (and I was too timid a soul to question him on it), but he has used it often enough in other statement to determine that this is its full and true name.

All the Greyhawk I had at the time.
The big thing about Oerth, the World of Greyhawk, is its evolution. When I first arrived at TSR as an employee, I was interested in seeing the world itself. I had gotten a copy of the World of Greyhawk Folio (with its wondrous Darlene maps) a couple years earlier and I wanted to see the original maps. And I never could find them. I imagined a great vault beneath the Dungeon Hobby Shop that contained its secrets in some master file, protected by traps and probably a green dragon. There was a great vault (it was a bowling alley at one time), but no master file of secrets. Over time, I discovered that much of what I thought of as Greyhawk was created for that product.

Here's the story - there was a question early on in D&D whether players needed a published world at all. After all, the game encouraged people to make their own worlds. And while games like Empire of the Petal Throne had its own maps and locations, the idea of a more traditional world needed added stuff was an open question. Further, Gary was reportedly reluctant to open his personal campaign to the greater universe (it being a going concern with his own players), and was still experimenting to some degree (example - using the boards from Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival game for overland maps). So when the decision was made to move forward on the what would be called the Greyhawk Folio, they started afresh - the immediate area around the City of Greyhawk looked similar to that of the Great Kingdom miniatures campaign, and Blackmoor was placed to the north (as presented in Playing at the World), but much was new, right down to naming regions after friends and fellow gamers.

In addition, there was concern about lettinh others put adventures in "official" Greyhawk, so that a lot of new modules (like the I-series) sort of floated out there on their own, worldless. Such concerns are understandable, but this in part laid the groundwork for both Dragonlance and the Forgotten Realms, the latter being a hoover vacuum of a campaign, later sucking up previously orphaned bits of the canon.

Insert of Darlene's map.
Still love the hexes.
The idea of the Greyhawk Folio being different from its antecedent campaign, by the way is not all that unusual. For Dragonlance, Tracy laid out a map of Anasalon and then dropped a mountain on Istar to see how the final world would be broken up. The "grey-box" Realms has a number of additions that makes it different from Ed's own campaign, ranging from adopting such locations as the Desert of Desolation series to completely redrawing the Moonshae Isles (for Doug's books) to draining part of the Great Glacier (for the H-series of modules, creating the Bloodstone lands). But for Greyhawk, that Folio remains the best, first, document we had describing the world.

Which gets to why I hate Greyhawk (well, I don't, so this is the story of why it SEEMS I hate Greyhawk). I think Zeb was the one who put me under the gun, describing how, when he started work on "Greyhawk Wars", he asked me for what I would do with the world. I replied, "You mean, besides burning it to the ground?" Hence, Jeff Grubb, who was one of the crafty mechanics who helped launch the competing successful Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms, had it "in" for Greyhawk. And this argument still shows up from time to time on Internet Forums.

Now, I don't remember this conversation, but it sure sounds like something I would say. Mind you, by that point I was fairly disappointed by some of the support material for the line (Castle Greyhawk is a project that would spawn several stories, and would require many, many beers to fully describe in its painfulness (and you're buying)).

And I have used the phrase "Greyhawk Death Spiral" to refer to the sort of frustrations engaged with working with the line. The Death Spiral functioned as followed - a) There was a fandom for Greyhawk so the line should be supported, but b) there were not enough resources to go around to do everything, so c) resources went to other projects, and d) the stuff for Greyhawk was notably suboptimal, with the result that e) the very fans who we were hoping to make happy in turn are upset with the line and the company that obviously hates it. Rinse, lather, repeat.

All the Greyhawk you may ever need.
Now, there have been numerous attempts to bring Greyhawk the attention it has deserved. Up From the Ashes was a radical attempt to recharge the line. The City of Greyhawk boxed set was an excellent and accessible city set. Sean Reynolds' work in the line, in particular The Scarlet Brotherhood, was pitch-perfect. And the Living Greyhawk Gazetteer, despite the fact the typeface almost obscures the fact that it is a Greyhawk project (which sort of buries the lede).

Yet Greyhawk is home to some of the best-remembered adventures in D&D History, including the Tomb of Horrors and the foundational GDQ series (which, yes, I did a collected work and only added some connective tissue). It found an excellent home with the RPGA that resulted in Living Greyhawk, yet still, after all these years, toiled in the shadow of later lines. And while I am pleased to see that the Realms is (again) the center of the new edition, Greyhawk can be shown a little love as well.

What would I do with Greyhawk? Well, I wouldn't be caught dead saying that I would burn it to the ground or anything that daft. I would extoll its virtues as a low-magic world that still had strong roots to its miniature campaigns. Armies move in the background between rival nations whose claims on the map are greater than the reality on the ground ("points of light, anyone?"). Ancient ruins lay unexplored in shunned forests and jungles. It is a place where independent adventurers could plunder underground citadels with little influence from the powers that be. It would be an epic world without a single, overriding epic.

And I would stand on that early volume of the Greyhawk Folio as my source material, adding all the great stuff done by others in the years that followed, ignoring some of the worse excesses, and re-represent a world that the Castle & Crusade Society of Lake Geneva, circa 1975, would be pleased with.

More later,