What is The World of Greyhawk?

Here’s Brian with a submission about his favourite Dungeons and Dragons setting, Greyhawk. In D&D, a setting is a world you can put your game into. It comes complete with monsters, places to visit, people to meet, etc.

greyhawkFor many gamers, The World of Greyhawk (or just Greyhawk) is the beginning of it all when it comes to role-playing games and while it is not technically the first-ever campaign setting (that was Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor setting by a few months), it is arguably one of the most iconic settings ever created.

A brief history lesson…

In the early 1970s, The Grand Poobahs of Nerddom, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax agreed to co-create and produce a set of variant rules based on the popular wargames of the era by allowing players to take control of a single character and advance their skills over time in a fantasy setting (rather than legions of nameless, faceless soldiers). Gygax was already incorporating fantasy elements into his wargaming experiences by introducing magic and fantasy creatures (dragons, giants, etc.), but Arneson first struck upon the idea of taking a small group of heroes into monster and trap-filled dungeons beneath castles for fun and profit. Gygax fell in love with the idea and both began word on the game that would become Dungeons & Dragons and pretty much change the lives of hundreds of thousands of gamers for generations. No biggie, right?

To playtest the rules in the early days, Arneson used his setting, The Barony of Blackmoor while Gygax began with a simple dungeon level located beneath the ruins of a castle he dubbed “Greyhawk”. The very first session in the World of Greyhawk featured a dungeon infested with giant centipedes and scorpions. Gygax acted as the DM for the session while his two children (Ernie and Elise) acted as his first players.

That’s right, the World of Greyhawk, the granddaddy of them all, began with two kids, a simple dungeon level, and giant centipedes.

Roots, kids. Roots.

From there, the group expanded with a few new players and Gygax added more levels to the dungeon to increase the difficulty. Soon after, he created a nearby city, also named Greyhawk, as a safe haven for the player characters to rest, re-supply, and sell their hard earned treasures discovered in the perilous dungeon complex. This concept in itself is huge, as the model of looting dungeons and returning to a home base is present in games across every genre.

Word spread locally about the new game and if you believe the stories, dozens of gamers crammed into Gygax’s house nightly to take a turn at the table and brave the dungeon. Such was the demand that one of the original playtesters, Rob Kuntz took up the role of co-DM with Gygax, adding his own levels to the dungeon, and took groups of players (including Gygax himself) on adventures in the World of Greyhawk.

The dungeon and city of Greyhawk expanded every week with every new session and eventually the players did what all players do and asked what waited beyond the walls of the city of Greyhawk. Eager to expand his creation and the playtest, Gygax took his players out of the dungeons and into the open world. As the players journeyed outward, Gygax created new regions and fantastic locations for his playtesters to explore. He populating this new world with NPCs (non-player characters), gods, exotic treasures, monsters, and villains all while developing a rich world history.

Player characters from the original groups went on to become iconic NPCs in not only the World of Greyhawk but also in the core mythos of Dungeons & Dragons. Names like Robilar, Murlynd, Tenser, Mordenkainen, and Bigby appear in books across every edition. Spells associated with wizards such as Tenser and Bigby remain player favorites to this day because come on, Tenser’s Floating Disc made everyone’s life easier and who doesn’t like Bigbys “Hand” spells (Crushing, Imposing, Condescending… okay I made that last one up)?

The World of Greyhawk introduced concepts like political intrigue, war, neutrality, balance, and the epitomes of good and evil.

War played a huge role in the development of the campaign setting, drawing from the wargaming roots of the game as nations collided over power and political squabbles, often with players caught in the middle. For young gamers (myself included) this was a first look at high-concept themes. The game and Greyhawk could be a lighthearted or as serious as needed.

As for iconic locales, Greyhawk really set the tone for establishing environments as important set pieces or characters themselves in adventures. Many of the classic dungeon adventures, The Tomb of Horrors, White Plume Mountain, The Ghost Tower of Inverness and The Temple of Elemental Evil were all created in the World of Greyhawk. If you invoke the Tomb of Horrors in certain company be prepared to have a box of Kleenex and a sympathetic shoulder to cry on. Many were called in that adventure module but few returned.

Greyhawk is near and dear to my heart because it is the first campaign setting I ever played in and when you look at the influence and iconic ideas that came from Greyhawk it is easy to see why so many gamers sing its praises. When I meet gamers new to Dungeons & Dragons, I always suggest taking a trip down memory lane with one of the classic adventures I mentioned, specifically the Temple of Elemental Evil. Everyone should play Temple at least once in their lives.

By remembering where Dungeons & Dragons came from, we have a greater appreciation for where it is now and where it could go in the future. Many fine campaign settings came along after but for me, it all goes back to where Dungeons & Dragons began and the World of Greyhawk: the first homebrew setting.

Brian Patterson cartoonist and GM behind the webcomic d20Monkey.
d20Monkey.com / @d20Monkey