Realm Guide: D&D’s Oerth
The world that began it all. Home to castles, legends, and characters whose names spelled backwards reveal a hidden creator. Welcome to Greyhawk.
That’s right, this week we’re going back to where it all began. The year is 1972. The First Time I Ever saw Your Face is the number one song, The Godfather and Cabaret are in theatres, and Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson are sitting down to play through Arneson’s new tabletop wargame concept: the Barony of Blackmoor. While playing through the game, which used a version of Chainmail (the game, not the armor) to simulate a group of fantasy heroes exploring a castle.
Gygax is so entranced with the idea of exploring dungeons as a single character that he and Arneson begin work on what would eventually become the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons. During that development phase, Gygax creates Castle Greyhawk, so that they have a setting in which to playtest the game.
Gygax’ children are the first players, they fight the first monsters–some giant insects–and find the first treasure: a chest filled with 3,000 copper coins that was “too heavy to carry,” which of course it is, because this was a game by Gary Gygax, after all.
You’re dead. And all your stuff is destroyed. Now quit trying to flip the table and roll up a new character.
From these first few playtesting sessions the framework of D&D grew. After a month or so of playtesting, Gygax created the free city of Greyhawk, so that players would have some place to sell their loot–which explains why there’s a fine tradition of players becoming murder-hobos who only exist to kill things, take their stuff, and sell it.
And it’s in these first play sessions that the world of Greyhawk begins to take its shape. After all, this is the setting that colored so much of D&D throughout the ages. If you’ve ever cast a spell with a name in it, odds are good it came from here. Melf’s Acid Arrow? Tenser’s Floating Disk? Bigby’s Manual Transmission? This is a setting where the early player characters became canonized in the rules. Melf was a character played by Gygax’ son Luke.Tenser was played by Gygax’ son Ernie. Keoghtom and Heward were early NPCs (who got ointment and a haversack, respectively), Gygax’ friend Don played Murlynd (who has a spoon!) and Gygax himself had a couple of characters Mordenkainen, of magnificent mansion fame, and Yrag, which is Gary spelled backwards.*
Greyhawk is full of classic elements of D&D that have been around forever. Vecna comes from here, Against the Giants and Keep on the Borderlands were set here. And in the development of this world you can see the overarching ideas of D&D. Greyhawk is a world that feels, at its heart, like the kind of world you’d create with your friends. So much of the ideals of the early developers (Gygax, Kuntz, and Arneson) are imprinted in the DNA of the world.
So let’s fire up the patented BoLS DNA Sequencer and see what–hold on, I’m being told we don’t actually have a DNA Sequencer that we can wheel out to take a look at games, and that even if we did it’s just a metaphor.
I guess we’ll just go through the history and geography of Greyhawk then, and extrapolate ideals from all the cool stuff that’s happened in the course of this iconic campaign setting’s storied history then.
To begin with, the whole world is set on the planet Oerth. Oerth is, strangely enough, very similar to our Earth, with a little extra fantasy flavor thrown in. Of particular note is Erypt with its Gulf of Ra and Hyperboria (more on both of these in a minute). But taking a look at the map, the first thing you get is this sense of excitement behind the world. These aren’t just names of countries that exist in some theoretical vacuum, these are definite places where an adventure has happened. And as you get closer to the world, you can really tell–this is a world that was built as they played–a world built from the middle out, if you will.
Taking its name from Greek Mythology, little is known about this icy land that lies in the northernmost part of the world. This is accurate to the mythological version of Hyperborea, which was so named for the men who lived beyond the home of Boreas, the god of the north wind. It’s cold and snowy and you probably don’t want to go there.
Briefly mentioned in Dance with Demons, the last of the Gord the Rogue novels that Gygax wrote, very little is known about this continent, other than it is “vast.”
Again, only briefly mentioned. Little, if anything, is known about this world.
And now we come to the real meat of the setting. Oerik is where it all takes place. Oerik is the vast bulk of the map up above. Again, looking at the map, you get the sense that the countries listed here are places where adventures happened. Even if the bulk of the detail is left out–the names are there to tell you what you need to know. For instance, if you were to venture to Erypt with its Gulf of Ra, you’d be certain to find pyramids, jackal-headed statues, and the like. Head on up to the lands of the High Khanate and you’ll find great steppes and horse-riding nomads. The Celestial Imperium is a mythic China analogue, Niippon (which was once Kara-tur, back before it got specifically placed in the Forgotten Realms).
But again, there’s little enough information out there, aside from what you can find in the odd Adventure modules that take place in those lands. The heart of Greyhawk has always been in the Flanaess, the region of Oerik where you’ll find the Free City of Greyhawk.
The Flanaess is home to 60 different political states which is far too many to dive into for one article. So let’s just touch on a few of the more interesting ones.
Ahlissa: One of the ancient kingdoms of the Flan (the people, not the dessert), for whom the Flanaess is named. It lies in the Southeast of the Flanaess and is one of the largest empires found within the region.
Blackmoor: We’ve talked about this one already. This was where the inspiration for Dungeons and Dragons began. Included by Gygax as a nod to the co-creators of the game, places like Blackmoor and the Isles of Lendore were the settings of other adventures–now all a part of Greyhawk so that there’s an explanation for how the various PCs played by the creators could adventure together from setting to setting. Blackmoor is run by His Luminous Preponderancy, Archbaron Bestmo.
Empire of Iuz: The empire of an evil demigod who oversees pain and evil. The Empire of Iuz is both named for and ruled by Iuz, the setting’s villain, who rules from blood-black Dorakaa, the City of Skulls. Iuz’ symbol is a skull, and there’s probably a skull or two around old Castle Iuz. Presumably Iuz knows the Imperium of Man’s interior decorator.
Geoff: This is perhaps my favorite region in Greyhawk, the Grand Duchy of Geoff is the setting of Against the Giants: The Liberation of Geoff, and is one of the main regions in the Liiving Greyhawk campaign that was run by the RPGA. And it’s not hard to see why. Players worked to free it from their overlords, the Barrier Peaks are nearby–this is home to some of the most fun in all of Greyhawk.
Perrenland: Another of the lands named for one of Gygax’ friends. Perrenland is named for Jeff Perren, who co-wrote the rules for Chainmail with Gygax.
Nyrond: Another central feature in the Living Greyhawk Campaign: Nyrond was subject to a campaign of revolt, waged by an exiled prince. The prince captured the capital, and it was up to players to try and liberate the country from him. The Living Greyhawk Campaign was full of stories like this–a plotline would happen, and the actions of players would steadily alter the outcome of the campaign as it unfolded.
And finally, the gem of the Flanaess:
The Free City of Greyhawk
Originally created so that adventurers who braved the dungeons beneath Castle Greyhawk would have a place to rest and sell their treasure, the Free City of Greyhawk is where the setting gets its name. It was originally ruled by the Kingdom of Aerdy, and might otherwise have been an unremarkable place, if not for the arrival of the Archmage Zagyg Yragerne, who bribed his way onto the city’s board of directors and then became Lord Mayor of Greyhawk. From there, he went on to make the city the most prosperous in the Flanaess, declaring it the “Foundation of Civilization.”
Of course, eventually he went mad and subjected the city to all manner of insanity and chaos–anything’s possible when you’re named after the guy who created the game, I suppose, including an apotheosis of sorts that required him to imprison 9 deities (one for each alignment) underneath Castle Greyhawk.
When not being ruled by a mad archmage/demigod, Greyhawk is one of the more cosmopolitan cities in the world. The pantheon of Greyhawk (aka the default pantheon for 3rd edition–and the source of a number of deities in later editions) is worshipped fairly openly here. There are three branches of government, an executive, legislative, and judicia, which I’m sure I’ve heard somewhere before.
But of particular interest is the relationship between Greyhawk and the nearby castle: “Adventurers are drawn from throughout the world to brave its depths,” which in turn fuels the economy of the city. Again, not surprising considering its original purpose–but this summarizes everything that makes Greyhawk great.
No other world more fully captures the spirit of D&D. Not necessarily of the stories told within it, and it’s not necessarily the best setting out there (my personal favorite is yet-to-be covered), but when you play in Greyhawk you’re playing alongside the heart of D&D.
Greyhawk also featured a gazetteer and has all kinds of crazy details–what are some of your favorite things about Oerth? Tell us below!
*This happens a lot, in Greyhawk. Going through a list of character names for Greyhawk is like sitting at the table with that one friend who hasn’t come up with a name yet, and the game is waiting on him to start, and so after much prodding, he blurts out the first thing that comes to mind and thus begins the tale of Pykells.