Learning a new setting, especially one as old as the World of Greyhawk, can be a daunting task even when there’s only a single setting book to read; but when you’re looking at over fifty years of published material and different eras for the setting it can become paralyzing. Where do you start? What counts as official cannon and what is apocryphal?
To help answer these questions I thought I would take a few moments to give my readers a guide to help them pick out the era of Greyhawk they would like to explore and help them find some resources that might make their learning about the setting a less intimidating process.
The Four Greyhawks
The World of Greyhawk has for distinct periods that people tend to play in, and each has its own core book that defines the baseline version of that period. While these versions are all compatible there are segments of the Greyhawk player base that disregard certain periods and there is one period which is recognized as apocryphal and all events that took place there exist separately from the core setting. Where you choose to play is based on the sort of story you would like to explore
Gygaxian Greyhawk (1972 – 1985)
The first period is defined by Gary Gygax and runs from before the formation of TSR to around 1985 when Gygax was forced out of the company. This version of the world is based on the version of the setting that Gygax ran as his home game from the very beginnings of role-playing games. It is not an exact transcription of his home game but rather an approximation of his home game with things changed for the mass market. This version of the game is where many of the classic adventures published for AD&D were set (such as White Plume Mountain, the Temple of Elemental Evil, Against the Giants, and more) and it is from the players in his game that many of the most enduring spells in the game take their names (Tenser, Bigby, Melf, Mordenkainen, and more).
The World of Greyhawk of this era was described best in the Greyhawk Boxed Set (https://www.dmsguild.com/product/17392/World-of-Greyhawk-Fantasy-Game-Setting-1e?src=hottest_filtered&filters=0_0_0_0_45357_0_0_0). Here you’ll find a brief explanation of the world, its history, and of the nations that occupy the main continent, Oreth. The world is edging towards a world war and there are machinations happening under the surface everywhere. It’s an exciting time to be exploring the world as the players are often forced to be the balance in the world to keep it from tipping over into the chaos of a world war.
For many players this is the only authentic version of the setting as it is the last version to have Gygax’s direct input in its evolution.
Greyhawk Revived (1988 – 1997)
The second period is the Greyhawk Revived period which was led by Roger E. Moore and Carl Sargent and runs from about 1988 – 1997. This period largely takes place after the Greyhawk Wars (the world war we were waiting on in the previous period) and is largely defined by From the Ashes ( https://www.dmsguild.com/product/17399/From-the-Ashes-2e). The world is darker in tone and a fragile peace is held which can be broken at any moment. We’re still loosely defined (a hallmark of the setting throughout its history) but there is enough here to refine the world into your own setting.
The stories told during this period of the setting tend to be darker in tone as Sargent and Moore took the setting into a post war era where borders were redrawn, refugees were everywhere, and the devastation of a demon powered army can be seen in every corner of the continent. For many this era represents a controversial diversion from the direction Gygax was taking the setting in (an opinion supported by Gary’s own comments on the setting as he blew it up in his Gord the Rogue novels) and it is often ignored entirely by them.
Living Greyhawk (2000 – 2008)
The third period is defined by the Living Greyhawk Campaign. This period runs from around 2000 – 2008. Greyhawk was the home setting of the Dungeons & Dragons 3e game and is loosely hinted at in the core books but would largely be defined in the Living Greyhawk Gazetteer (https://www.dmsguild.com/product/28492/Living-Greyhawk-Gazetteer-30?term=Living+Greyhaw). This version of the setting is largely apocryphal as none of the Living Greyhawk material is considered official for the core setting; however, information found in published adventures and books not associated with Living Greyhawk are considered cannon.
This era saw two major adventures released for the setting the Savage Tide (published in Dragon and Dungeon magazines and considered apocryphal) and Expedition to the Ruins of Castle Greyhawk which were quite good. There are a lot of adventures published for this era that run the gamut from good to very good, but none that have (so far) gained the influence of the best of Gygaxian Greyhawk adventures.
Greyhawk in Undefined (2009 – Present)
The final period is Greyhawk Undefined which runs from 2009 – today. Greyhawk is only hinted at but what we see is often very different from previous versions in subtle, but substantial ways. There are two books which help define this version of the setting Ghosts of Saltmarsh and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes which you should be able to find out in stores now. Ghosts of Saltmarsh is probably the best place to start for the 5e version of the game as it updates the world and helps re-contextualize the way that things work now.
Where do I start?
The answer to this question is highly subjective but if I were to recommend one I would recommend starting with the Greyhawk Boxed Set (https://www.dmsguild.com/product/17392/World-of-Greyhawk-Fantasy-Game-Setting-1e?src=hottest_filtered&filters=0_0_0_0_45357_0_0_0). The Boxed Set allows you to become familiar with the hallmarks of the setting and to begin defining it on your own terms. This is key since later eras tend to become more defined and less free for your own interpretations.
Once you’re comfortable with the baseline understanding of the world I highly recommend you begin reading the Sargent and Moore stuff for the setting as it brings a breath of fresh air to the world. Take what you like, leave what you don’t.
Okay, but What if I Want More?
You can also check out the following blogs:
Greyhawk Grognard (http://www.greyhawkgrognard.com/) – a great source for explorations of the setting throughout the history of the blog. The author has a solid writing style and he can help launch your love for the setting or inspire you to take it in a wholly different direction.
Greyhawkery (http://greyhawkery.blogspot.com/) – Arguably the easiest introduction to the setting as Mike has a writing style that feels like an old friend rather than an authoritative teacher. He’s fantastic to talk with and often one of the first places I go to when I have a question about the setting. He’s also drawn a fantastic webcomic about exploring castle Greyhawk with many of the great characters from the setting.
Grodog also has two great blogs that have helped me over the years. First there is From Kuroth’s Quill (https://grodog.blogspot.com/) which is a bit easier to read due to the way that blogspot is organized. The second is Greyhawk, Grodog Style (http://www.greyhawkonline.com/grodog/greyhawk.html) which I absolutely love. Reading either of these is like finding hidden treasure because Allan has been digging deep into the lore and world in a way that few others have.
I’m also exploring the setting in my Greyhawk Reconsidered series (https://dragonsneverforget.wordpress.com/the-series/) where I’m looking at various locations and working them into something that represents my own version of the setting. I used to write more about it on Dyvers (http://dyverscampaign.blogspot.com/) but I’ve stopped updating that blog.
There are other blogs that explore the setting, but the ones above are my favorites.
There’s also the Oreth Journal (http://greyhawkonline.com/oerthjournal/) which features the writing of people who helped create the original setting and who helped define what it would become over the years. All of this information is considered apocryphal as it was not published by TSR or Wizards of the Coast, but for many of us who love the setting it is considered a valuable resource. While you’re there be sure to check out Greyhawk Online as it is a great repository of knowledge on the setting as well.