When it comes to big picture Greyhawk, I think of odd bits of science fantasy worming its way into medieval life from wizards’ clones to tech bits from the Barrier Peaks. Arch-mages who have constructed complex philosophies around law, chaos, good and evil. Is that how the cosmos is or are we mapping it in those terms because of our own biased moral codes?
My friend and two-time roommate, Pete is a podcaster on the Rule Zero podcast and I wanted to talk with him about Greyhawk.
Pete, if you were trying to introduce people to Greyhawk, where would you suggest they start? How should one begin their journey into that world?Could you name a few things you love about Greyhawk?
I have just one caveat before I begin to answer your questions: most, if not all, of my answers are going to be based on the boxed set that was released 1983. Also, there are some things here and there that have come from the Living Greyhawk campaign and from a couple of house ruled Greyhawk campaigns that I had the pleasure to either run or be a part of.
If I were to introduce someone to Greyhawk, I would start in either of the old empires: Keoland or the Great Kingdom.
When I first read about the Great Kingdom, I envisioned a human Melnibonè that had collapsed under its own decadence. I pictured a really powerful Thieves’ Guild (a la Lankhmar) existing in the Great Kingdom and the nobles are just one bloody mess waiting to fall onto each other either coupling or stabbing or both. As of the timeline of the boxed set, the Great Kingdom is divided in vassal states that are all equally cool: i.e., the Bone March and the Theocracy of the Pale. The Great Kingdom borders on the ocean so that adds the maritime element to gameplay there. Also, I have a special place in my heart for this because my friend Dave ran his really cool AD&D campaign and we started in the Great Kingdom at one of the Bard Colleges.
Keoland is in a similar situation as the Great Kingdom with a couple of very cool exceptions: 1) Keoland willingly gave its vassal states; and, 2) it is geographically close to most of the modules set in the Flanaess (G1 through G3, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, to name a few). Also, it is really close to the areas of the map that include nomadic and Middle Eastern cultures. Plus, Keoland’s ruler is named Kimbertos Scotti – it makes me feel like that scene in “Fletch” where Chevy Chase says “John Cock-tos-ton…It’s Scotch/Ukrainian.” Kimbertos Scotti – It’s Greek/Celtic!
So, to sum up: You can start in a dark, depraved area rife with courtly intrigue, questionable morals, and SO much potential for villainy. OR you can start in a brighter, fiercer, cosmopolitan place that borders on a LOT of very cool possible storylines.
Honestly, I would have to find out what the group wanted out of Greyhawk to decide where to begin. My gut feeling is to start in the Far North in the Archbarony of Blackmoor. I’m not sure why, but if there were one place in all the Flanaess that you’d want to get the hell out of as soon as possible, Blackmoor seems to be it! That or Hold of Stonefist.
The few things that I love about Greyhawk are over-the-top cool high fantasy stuff. All the Artifacts in the original DMG exist somewhere in the Flanaess. THAT is awesome! Also, the gonzo wizards and other NPCs out there like Xagyg or Mordenkainen or anybody! There is a freaking DEMON who rules his own kingdom. There is a crashed spaceship in the mountains. There is a place called the Tomb of Horrors! I love that Greyhawk is the home to High Fantasy in all of its colors and flavors. I like that the Great Kingdom is decayed and awful. I like that there are places called Rel Mord, the Scarlett Brotherhood, and Ket. I like that there is a fantasy democracy called the Yeomanry. Greyhawk in the original boxed set is such a rich tapestry of what this game could be if you don’t go the Forgotten Realms route. Plus, there are things that have come out of the setting like the Mage Wars in the City of Greyhawk that really ramp up the awesome! I think it would be cool to play a foreign spellcaster who comes into Greyhawk completely unaware of the War. Or to play a mercenary whose first experience as a fighter was on a side in the Mage War and it has scarred them for life! It really annoys me when people poo-poo Greyhawk, because this was THE setting for fantasy gaming in the early ‘80s.
I still want to play a young up-and-coming wizard who wants to be an arch-mage during Greyhawk City’s Mage Wars.What has Greyhawk inspired you to create? What did you make as a GM or as a player that you are proud of, some little setting detail or bit of character history that linked you to the greater setting?
Within the setting, I have breathed life into various NPCs of which I am quite pleased. Kimbertos Scotti I made into the Volstagg of Keoland: Nearly 7 feet tall and tipping the scales at 370 lbs, the Lion of Keoland is a massive man. I made the Western Flanaess the setting for a secret Illithid invasion. The Illithid are being hunted by Githyanki. I think that Greyhawk has inspired me to mix it up when I want to run something. I like the idea of taking a familiar setting and then throwing something different into it: i.e., a spaceship crash lands in the Barrier Peaks. Or a gunslinger is transported to Rel Mord from our world. Or the Triffids are expanding their empire into the Flanaess. I think my favorite idea that I only really got to sketch out and not run was having all the aquatic races that lived in the Azure Sea decided to invade the surface world.
Outside the setting, I’m not sure that Greyhawk directly inspired anything I’ve made. I feel that Greyhawk taught me that it was all right to be gonzo or tongue-in-cheek when I ran adventures. There is a part of me that will always adore how villainous and epic the modules which are set in Greyhawk become.
As a player, I was really proud of fleshing out the Grandfather of Assassins in the Great Kingdom. My friend, Dave, was running a campaign wherein I played a thief who was a pacifist (believing that a genuinely skilled thief should never have to kill anyone). I wanted to play a guild thief and when we were discussing how the Great Kingdom’s underworld worked, Dave advanced the idea that the Great Kingdom is actually run by a Godfather: it is properly organized crime. Semi-seriously, I said to him that it would be really something if the Godfather were some other thing than one of the demi-human races, like a vampire or a dragon. Well, the Godfather of the Great Kingdom was named Melikor and he was a polymorphed Red Dragon. None of us knew this little factoid until we were caught with Melikor in an Anti-magic Shell and his polymorph was cancelled.
Also as a player in the same campaign, the party encountered Kas. And we didn’t know who he was. He was just a rakish swordsman looking to get in out of the rain. He told us that his previous employer had stolen his sword and he was planning on getting it back. We wished him luck. It is the little things like that encounter that I really enjoy about the setting.
You mentioned the gunslinger teleported to Greyhawk, could you talk about that NPC and where it came from?
The gunslinger is the wizard, Murylund. As I recall, he was a Boot Hill character that Gygax and Company converted into a wizard in Greyhawk using the conversion rules in the DMG. He may have been the test character for that, in fact. I vaguely remember reading something about that in Dragon Magazine. I think. Maybe. Anywho, he was cool because he still wore his duster and carried his revolvers as part of his wizard kit.
You met Kas! In a pre-history D&D game, Jason’s rogue slept with Kas’ wife.
Wow, Jay did some brown chicken-brown cow with Kas’ wife? Gutsy. Dumb, but gutsy!
What happened when the dragon’s polymorph went down?
I guess I need to preface the Melikor’s polymorph with a little explanation: Melikor was stuck in human form. A rival had wished him to be trapped that way. In AD&D, wishes were awesomely powerful things – just to cast one aged the caster or weakened them. So, this rival wasn’t screwing around.
When we entered the Anti-Magic Shell, it wasn’t a normal spell. Rather, it was a device that the Great Kingdom had used to punish people and ruin their stuff. We “walked” into this trap on purpose. All of our stuff was ruined. And suddenly, Melikor is a Red Dragon. My first response was to panic. The party had been helping Melikor track down the rival who had wished bad on him. Honestly, the way that Dave portrayed him we were actually carrying Melikor around with us: he would do little to nothing at any given point.
Needless to say that when he changed into a Red Dragon we were all a little shocked. Mel tore down the room we were in, blasted a hole in the roof and flew away. Essentially, he left us to clean up his mess…again. We only saw him twice more for the rest of the campaign: once when were in Rauxes to recruit mercenaries and he totally blew us off; and then again at the big fight just outside of Rel Mord against the amassed armies of the undead. He was in dragon form for the last bit. He was eventually taken down by three vampires working together.
But, Melikor was possibly the biggest surprise of an already surprising campaign. It was kind of awesome because Dave had never let on the Mel was something other than an influential and lazy human being.
Thanks for talking about Greyhawk with me, Pete!
Pete took out a bunch of his old D&D books, here are some relevant quotes:
I’m paraphrasing, here, “He was winning the war in the Abyss against Orcus and Demogorgon when he was summoned by a mighty magic-user and pulled to the prime material plane. Cool. That fits right into the game we’re in.”
“Graz’zt is the handsomest of the demon rulers, at least by human standards. He appears as a huge, good-looking man, although his skin is shining black and his eyes are glowing green. Graz’zt is six fingered and six toed.”
The 3.0 Manual of the Planes is a nifty book. I especially like the 3-line descriptions of each plane:
“It is an infinity of clutching horror.
It is home to demons.
It is where morality crumbles and ethics perish.”
After last Sunday’s game, we’re sitting around the dining room table, talkin’ shit, a normal post-game routine for us. Pete has his map of Greyhawk nearby, so he drops it on the table and starts talking to us about the fictional history of it all. Pete is an awesome public speaker but Aaron and I are tired and have nothing invested in Greyhawk, having never played a game in its borders.
“This nation blah blah blah and that nation and evil monks the Brotherhood of the Red something-or-other. Greyhawk is actually a city, a magocracy,” (my ears prick up a bit), ” until the arch-mages who ruled it got into a war. A few left the plane, maybe going to Sigil or wherever. So now-”
“Wait, stop the presses. An arch-mage war? That is the stuff. I’d be up for playing the midst of an urban arch-mage war. Shit, I’d want to play a wizard who wants to gain arch-mage status, wants to step up and gain something from the conflict. I mean, this Realms game could end anywhere from 3-8+ games from now.”
Aaron get’s the scared look in his eye, the look of a player whose game will end before he’s ready for it to end. He urges us, “Let’s not rush to find an ending to the campaign we are playing.”
“Nope, I’m on no rush but if it goes down, we could play that if Pete would run it. That’s all I’m saying.”
And I’m not in any rush to end the Realms game at all. I’d be more than happy with playing around with Old Snarl and the siege of Felbar and moving on to other things…maybe doing some running around along the Sea of Fallen Stars, giving the Zhentarim a run for their money. Those seeds are certainly planted and ready in the campaign already.
It was just funny and odd how quickly I got excited by Greyhawk once Pete showed me some situation amidst his nostalgia. At some point, I will have to write a blog post about the arch-mage/gunslinger found within the Greyhawk canon.