Guest Writer: Matthew Stephen Sunrich
Since its creation forty years ago, the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game has been associated with more than two dozen different campaign settings. Though they share many similarities, these settings were developed to showcase specific aspects of fantasy, to prevent gameplay from becoming stale, and to offer players a variety of options. Some were based on campaigns that had been run by game designers, while others were created either whole cloth or as offshoots of other settings.
Many of the settings take place on different planets. The grim, post-apocalyptic Dark Sun, for example, is set on the world of Athas, where the climate is harsh, water and metal are scarce, and the people are at the mercy of fierce predators and cruel sorcerer-kings. Abeir-Toril, best known as the home of the continent of Faerun, a/k/a the hugely popular Forgotten Realms, is host to several settings, including Al-Qadim, Kara-Tur, and Maztica. The groundbreaking Dragonlance takes place on the planet Krynn, specifically on the continent of Ansalon. Others, such as the horror-themed Ravenloft, are found in other dimensions. (It is interesting to note that in addition to its stable of villains such as Count Strahd von Zarovich and Vecna, it borrows the character Lord Soth from Dragonlance.) Planescape is less a specific setting than it is an umbrella term for a milieu for adventures that traverse the myriad planes of existence. Spelljammer allows players to venture into outer space, a concept rarely explored in traditional fantasy.
The original two settings were Blackmoor and Greyhawk, created by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, respectively. Greyhawk was originally nothing more than a castle with a vast system of dungeons underneath, which Gygax had tested on his family, friends, and future employees. First came the Vaults, then the Dungeons, then the Lower Dungeons, then the Crypts, and so on. Eventually the adventurers would reach the Caves and Caverns, and if they managed to survive, they entered the final level, the Maze, where they had to defeat Zagyg the Archmage.
The first D&D supplement was titled Greyhawk; it was, however, a misnomer of sorts, as it didn’t provide details of the setting. Gygax felt that players would want to come up with their own worlds rather than adhere to one laid out in booklet. Instead, it featured rules modifications, new monsters (including the iconic beholder, which appears on the cover), new spells and magic items, and introduced the thief and paladin classes. It also debuted a combat system that was different from the one used in Chainmail, thus making D&D its own game (Designers & Dragons: The ‘70s). The second supplement was Blackmoor. Like its predecessor, it was a rule book rather than a campaign setting. It gave players the monk and assassin classes, in addition to new treasures and monsters. Perhaps its greatest component, however, was The Temple of the Frog, the world’s first RPG adventure, which was later revamped and released as a module on its own.
Gygax serialized a fantasy novella called The Gnome Cache in the first seven issues of TSR’s house organ, The Dragon. This was where fans first learned that Greyhawk was located on a planet called Oerth, which was similar in many ways to our own planet but was populated by strange creatures and wielders of magic. In this way, D&D differed from the settings of Lord of the Rings and Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, which actually took place on Earth.
When the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set was released in 1977, it consisted of a revised version of the original rules and the Greyhawk supplement. Though it was woefully underdeveloped, the World of Greyhawk became the “default” setting for D&D. Many of the most popular adventures were set there, including Tomb of Horrors, Vault of the Drow, and Descent into the Depths of the Earth. In 1980, Gygax finally relented and published the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Game Setting. It included maps and a detailed gazetteer, as well as names for the days and months and information concerning the world’s feudal system. Three years later, TSR released the World of Greyhawk box set, which included all of the material from the earlier release, as well as information taken from articles that had been published in Dragon, brand new material, and more maps.
Greyhawk’s dominance remained unchallenged until Dragonlance came along. Gygax was concerned that the popularity of this new setting would eclipse Greyhawk, so he took steps to prevent this from happening. TSR’s first novels, the Dragonlance Chronicles, debuted in 1984 and quickly became New York Times Best Sellers. Gygax churned out Saga of Old City and Artifact of Evil, the first two Greyhawk novels, shortly before being ousted from the company he had created by a crooked board of directors. (Author Rose Estes would later pen five Greyhawk Adventures novels.)
In 1988, three years after Gygax’s departure, TSR published Greyhawk Adventures, a 128-page sourcebook written by James M. Ward, et al. By this time, Forgotten Realms had become the setting of choice, but there were still a number of Greyhawk fans, so TSR decided to appease them. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the book is that it serves as a bridge between the first and second editions of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, as it is compatible with both systems. The second edition of AD&D would not come out until the following year, so, in a sense, this book helped ease players into the change.
The cover, by illustrator Jeff Easley, is a thing of beauty. You can tell immediately that you’re dealing with sword and sorcery at its most primal. Its composition harkens back to the fantasy paperbacks of the 1970s by such greats as Frank Frazetta and Jeff Jones. The sales of those cheap little books owe a lot to the cover art because the content was often less than stellar, just thrown together to make a quick buck. Moreover, it wasn’t uncommon for the scenes depicted on the covers to not even appear in the books. (Such is the case with David C. Smith’s The Sorcerer’s Shadow, but it’s a good book nonetheless.) Some of them made no apparent sense, making it difficult to determine exactly what was going on or why, but that was what made them work so well. They piqued reader curiosity.
Such is the case here. We can assume that the warrior is riding on the back of a griffon because he needs to be able to fight the winged beast on the mountaintop, but we have to wonder what could have compelled him to take up such a challenge. Is he trying to protect his village, has he been hired to vanquish the thing, or is he acting merely out of revenge? Is this the sort of thing we, as players, can expect from the game? The important thing, really, is that it gets our attention, which could be enough to convince us to take it home with us. Prior to this period, much of the art featured in the D&D books was fairly amateurish. By this point, the popularity of the game had reached a fever pitch (due, at least in part, to the controversy surrounding it), and the company could finally afford to bring some real talent to the table.
It’s no secret that Gygax adored and was inspired by the works of such authors as the aforementioned Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock, all of which are recognized masters of the sword-and-sorcery genre. One of the things that makes D&D so interesting is its mixture of the more savage elements of fantasy with the relatively more civilized trappings of the medieval and Renaissance periods. A good illustration of this is a comparison of the cover of Estes’ The Demon Hand, which features a barbarian character wearing a cloak made from a wolf’s pelt, and the art on the World of Greyhawk box set, which depicts a scene with a knight straight out of the Middle Ages, almost to the level of parody. While it’s true that these sorts of things can exist contemporaneously, we tend to keep them separate in our minds because they represent different flavors of fantasy, and reconciling them can sometimes be a challenge.
The book opens, interestingly enough, with a section on deities. This is striking because this was initially not a huge concern for Gygax when designing the setting. There are twelve gods listed, some greater and some lesser. D&D has often borrowed the names of gods from various mythologies for its own, but that does not appear to be the case here. The possible exception would be St. Cuthbert, who was a Celtic saint. Their alignments, spheres of control (the things with which they are associated), symbols, colors, and planes are included, as well as the armor classes, hit points, damage ratings (including the dreaded THAC0), and attributes of their avatars. (It is interesting to note that D&D game designers came to regret giving supernal beings hit points because it made players want to fight them. This could be one of the chief reasons that the avatar mechanic was introduced, as they can be hurt and even killed.)
In retrospect, these are not the most well-known deities in D&D. Players are familiar with Tiamat, Moradin, and Pelor, but Fharlanghn, Iuz, and Phlotus (the latter of which sounds like the wife of the President) rarely come up in gamer conversations. The ancient civilizations of Earth were similarly pantheistic; the reason for this is that they thought it made sense to ascribe certain natural phenomena to one being in particular, rather than assuming that one deity was responsible for everything. The important things were the work of major gods, while minor gods or demigods were associated with things of less significance. For example, in Greek mythology, Zeus is the father of storms, which is a pretty major thing, while Dionysis, a demigod, is the patron of wine. Of course, wine has always been hugely important for a variety of reasons, but you honestly can’t compare the power of lightning to a glass of Chablis.
The only one of these gods to be made into a miniature (in avatar form) is Nerull, the patron saint of “covert activity” and King of All Gloom. This is perhaps because he is considered a major deity and has a particularly imposing stature, appearing like the Grim Reaper with a beard. His description explains that his avatar only appears during times of darkness, which makes perfect sense. It also mentions that he is “immune to surprise,” which must be a bummer for anyone trying to plan a birthday party for him.
These deities frequently visit the Prime Material Plane in avatar form “to aid their worshipers or just to enjoy themselves,” though they go to great lengths to prevent “outing” themselves as part god. The notion that a god could find something enjoyable on Oerth is somewhat surprising, but they seem to have a predilection for the city of Greyhawk in particular. Maybe they have really good turkey legs there or something. The clerics of each deity and the spells available to them, which mirror the ones the gods use, are also discussed. Overall, this is a well-composed section that provides more than enough information for dungeon masters to incorporate into their games when necessary.
The next section, my personal favorite, is about monsters. There are, in all, thirteen bizarre creatures in these pages, none of which I had heard of before. In the context of the game, their unusual natures are explained as being the result of a of cross-breeding fad that swept the realm hundreds of years ago. They include the beastman, vampire cactus, camprat, changecat, crystalmist, Greyhawk dragon, grung, ingundi, nimbus, sea sprite, swordwraith, mist wolf, and sea zombie. The majority of these creatures are, not surprisingly, either “rare” or “very rare,” with only the camprat being “common.”
To my mind, the most interesting of the lot are the crystalmist and the swordwraith. Aligned neutral and lawful evil, respectively, they are both only active at night. The mountain-dwelling crystalmists attack in swarms, consisting of 200-300 creatures; they exist as individuals but are effectively harmless on their own. They attack with beams of searing white light, which can ignite flammable materials with magical fire. Swordwraiths are, as the name suggests, undead warriors. They attack in groups of two to eight and are highly skilled in combat, as they were in life. Their flesh is insubstantial, their armor reeks of mold and decay, and, like some other species of undead, they radiate intense cold. One of the most interesting things about the undead in D&D is that their “type” is often determined by the kind of person the deceased was or the conditions under which they died. Criminals, in particular, are likely to wind up coming back as a particular repugnant variety as punishment for their transgressions.
Next up is the Hall of Heroes, a list of notable people in both the city of Greyhawk and other places on Oerth. The title is a bit of a misnomer, as many of the people listed are not what you’d call “heroes.” In fact, many of them are thieves, assassins, and just despicable finks who’ve risen to prominent positions in government. Fourteen men and women make the list, and each, in addition to their stats, has a detailed history explaining their origin, significant events in their life, reputation, and character. I can see how this stuff could be useful in some campaigns, but for the most part it’s probably not terribly useful. The author clearly put a lot of work into it, and the stories are pretty enjoyable. Ward later co-authored the Forgotten Realms novel Pool of Radiance, based on the SSI computer game, which was my introduction to the setting.
The next section is on spells. According to the introduction, “the spell casters of Oerth are the most powerful in all the multi-verses.” The spells are listed under the caster associated with them. These eight mages are Bigby, Drawmij, Mordenkainen, Nystul, Otiluke, Otto, Rary, and Tenser. Some of these characters were introduced during Gygax’s original D&D game, while others were created just for this book. As you can probably imagine, these are not run-of-the-mill spells. They are powerful and often rather strange. For instance, Bigby’s Bookworm Bane summons a disembodied hand that crushes bookworms endangering the wizard’s library. I must admit that I was unaware that actual, rather than metaphorical, bookworms were a thing in D&D. This is certainly a useful spell for those with large, valuable collections of scrolls and books, but it clearly states that the spell has no other function. Otto’s Drums of Despair creates the sound of stentorian drums, which fills enemies with fear. Whether or not the ghost of John Bonham is involved is not addressed.
Next up is magical items. This is one of the book’s densest sections. Divided by item type, it lists rings; rods, staves, and wands; amulets; armor and shields; swords; miscellaneous magic items; and miscellaneous weapons. There are a lot of neat things described here, many of which could be incorporated into adventures in fascinating ways. Some of them are even intriguing enough to construct an entire adventure around. As this is a book specifically about Greyhawk, it’s not surprising that many of them are endemic to its setting (some even mention geographical locations), so if a DM wishes to set a game in a different world, he or she would need to modify them, at least in name.
“Oerth’s geography is little known,” the Geography section starts, “because travel is so dangerous to one’s health. Only the rich and powerful can afford the armed guards, wizards, and clerics who make long-distance travel possible.” Nonetheless, twelve regions are discussed in detail here, and each has special notes for the DM, though there is no map included. These are fairly typical fantasy environments, with the Twisted Forest, the Sinking Isle, and Turucambi (a maze of limestone jutting up from the sea bottom), for my part, being of particular interest. Great adventures can, no question, happen in a variety of places, but some of the most riveting for me have been set in maritime terrain. Perhaps it’s because of my penchant for H. P. Lovecraft tales such as “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” (Incidentally, if you enjoy Lovecraft-flavored sword and sorcery, I suggest you check out Wendy N. Wagner’s recent novel Starspawn.)
The next section features six short adventures. The first two, “Horse Sense” and “Beaming Up,” are designed for zero-level characters. (This may sound strange, but it’s explained in the Appendix. More on this in a moment.) The rest vary in terms of the levels required, but none go higher than sixth. These adventures are designed to familiarize players with various aspects of the Greyhawk setting. Some have a complete narrative, while others are merely fragments that the DM and players can work with to create a cohesive story. Most could be incorporated into an existing campaign, but they would be ideal for instances when you only have a couple of hours for a game and want to tackle something you can finish.
The final section, the Appendix, addresses the aforementioned zero-level characters. The idea behind this is that characters do not just appear out of thin air. “By the time characters reach first level,” the introduction says, “they may already have studied for years and made the choices which mold their lives.” In many cases, dungeon masters allow players to come up with backgrounds for their own characters, but this can prove difficult for some players, particularly those with little gaming experience. This appendix is a tool to help the DM develop the “feeble” character who only possesses “tremendous curiosity and enthusiasm” into one with measurable skills. The process begins with determining the character’s alignment. Next, the character must find someone to show them the ropes of their chosen class (fighter, wizard, druid, monk, or thief). It goes on to explain how zero-level characters interact with magic items, how they acquire money and equipment, and how they can learn other languages, if desired.
Many modern games, including the current edition of D&D, walk players through the process of character creation. The thing that sucks about it is that characters can die while being “generated,” forcing the player to start all over. One of the earliest (if not the earliest) games to do this was Iron Crown Industries’ Rolemaster, which is infamous for its plethora of charts consulted during combat. It stands to reason that it would delve into this potentially frustrating process precisely because of its attention to detail. Character creation in this game can, in some cases, take several hours, and to have a character perish after all that work can be maddening. Nonetheless, dungeon masters and players who are devoted to the richest game experience possible will find a successful character-generation experience very rewarding.