This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Seventy Six on 4 August 2021.
Lennon: So, Ryu?
Lennon: You’ve been to Greyhawk before, right?
Lennon: Um, is that a yes?
Ryu: Yeah, but I don’t want to talk about it.
Lennon: Why what happened?
Ryu (clearly exasperated): I had a bad experience.
Lennon: How so?
Ryu: Greyhawk is just a mess, okay? Everything is confusing and nobody really pays attention and…I just can’t deal.
Lennon: But so much stuff comes out of there. I mean, Mordenkainen, and Tenser…here we are! Ostron! What do you know about Greyhawk?
Ostron: Which one?
Lennon: What do you mean which one, it’s one place isn’t it?
Ostron: No, you’ve got the plane, the city, the plains, the castle-
Lennon: Wait wait wait there’s more than one plane of Greyhawk?
Ryu: (sighing): No; he means the geography. You know, mostly flat, lots of brownish-yellow plants, large herds of creatures that will stampede over you?
Lennon: Oh, okay. Why is it so confusing?
Ryu: Because the whole place is a mess! I think I mentioned this before?
Lennon: Oh come on, it can’t be that bad?
Ryu: I’m getting the hat.
Ostron: Okay, before we resort to wholesale murder and damaging sarcasm maybe we should grab a drink and learn about this? Like I always say, first we hydrate, then we educate!
Ryu: You have literally never said that. But fine. How many different books would Libby need to bring us for that?
Libbys (in a numerous glaring): Book!
(a veritable library of books is delivered, breaking the table)
Lennon: What!? Did Libby hire assistants!?
Ostron: Smell the sulfur? I think it put in a request with HR.
Ryu: How did it know it was going to need them?
Ostron: How does it know what books to bring over before you walk into the annex? I don’t ask questions; it’s too helpful as is.
Lennon: How are you supposed to sort through this? Its…
Ryu (cloyingly sweet): A mess?
Ostron: All right, let’s dig in.
The history of and lore of Greyhawk, possibly more than any other setting in D&D, are tied almost inextricably to the history of the game itself. As such it’s difficult to do a separate “publication history” and “in-universe history of the setting,” so this is going to interweave the two more than usual.
As many people are probably aware, Greyhawk began life as Gary Gygax’s personal campaign setting. All of his early home games and most of his game play through the original and first edition of the game took place in Greyhawk. One thing that becomes obvious if you look into Gygax’s early gameplay history is he suffered from the same problem many DMs still do today: if he had time and was focused, he could come up with creative names for things. Otherwise, he was kind of panicky about it and grabbed the first idea that came to him. Keep that in mind as we’re going along here.
Dungeons and Dragons started simply as a way to take Gygax’s medieval wargaming and add in fantasy tropes. True to the name, it was assumed all of the adventures would be primarily focused on exploring dungeons full of creatures. Greyhawk was one such dungeon. Officially it was the dungeons under the ruined castle Greyhawk, and Gygax came up with one level per week until he hit thirteen. There was no major theme to them or the dungeon as a whole beyond “let people play D&D in it.” Once he got thirteen levels set up, though, he structured it as a progressive dungeon crawl, with each level increasing in difficulty as characters descended, and if some of you video gamers are starting to raise your eyebrows, keep in mind Diablo came about 20 years later, though given the type of people that worked at Blizzard at the time, it’s likely more than one of them had the ruins under Castle Greyhawk in mind when they designed the game.
A major difference between the dungeon and the video game, however, is that if you made it down to level 13 of Greyhawk, rather than Diablo you encountered Zagyg, the mad archmage who created the dungeon. If you’re sitting there thinking Zagyg sounds a bit like Gygax backwards, you’re correct; remember what we said earlier about names? But in this case it was intentional; it was an in-joke pointing to Gygax’s belief that he was a madman for creating a dungeon like Greyhawk. After confronting and defeating the mad wizard, as a reward they encountered an inescapable, magical slide that took the character and propelled it through the planet out literally to the other side. Officially only three people ever made it to the bottom level during Greyhawk’s initial incarnation, one of whom was Gygax’s son Ernie, playing a character named Tenser.
For a long time the 13 level design remained, but the levels themselves expanded outward as Greyhawk became the testbed for many of Gygax’s early ideas for the game. They also turned it into a living setting; all of the players in Gygax’s games would be going through what video gamers would call the same instance of Greyhawk, so they could run into each other and hinder or help each other’s progress. Some of Gygax’s players blockaded one of the levels at one point, leading other characters to find ways to sneak around.
Eventually Gygax stepped back from DMing as much so he had bandwidth to work on other projects (D&D was growing at this point and TSR was starting to publish other games besides) and then Greyhawk expanded downward as new DMs came in and added more things, eventually bottoming out at 50 levels. However, Gygax started playing himself by then, alternating between two characters, one named Yrag and the other called Mordenkainen. Other players and DMs also unknowingly made their way into D&D history at this point, as Gygax’s son Luke took his character Melf through the dungeon, Rob Kuntz as a DM inserted an evil NPC named Bigby into one of the levels, and Brian Blume created the character Rary, although he only played him until level three, achieving his goal of being able to call him “medium Rary,” and proving that the first D&D groups ever still had “that guy”.
The early games were also the origins of other staples of Greyhawk lore, though again unintentionally. Gygax wasn’t much of an overland cartographer, so on the occasions when he needed a surface world to worry about (such as when characters were teleported to the other side of the world, he just used a map of Earth and renamed things, eventually calling it Oerth. They also needed the overland map when certain recurring characters accumulated more wealth and followers than they could reasonably use in the dungeon. These characters formed the first incarnation of the “Circle of Eight,” who constructed an obsidian structure in a different part of the world where they could sally forth and have adventures. This original circle was comprised of Mordenkainen, Yrag (fighter), Bigby (wizard), Rigby (cleric), Zigby (dwarf), Felnorith (fighter), Vram (elf) & Vin (elf). And yes, those three characters were all created by the same person.
Lennon: Okay, I’m getting it now, so Greyhawk is like a demiplane and it’s sort of like Undermountain; there are these huge levels full of things to find, there’s a mad wizard in control of it all, or at least most of it, you wander around there, and you can find portals or passages to other parts of the world or other planes.
Lennon: No? What do you mean no, that’s what you just described, isn’t it?
Ryu: Yes, and that was true for the original Greyhawk, but it…changed.
Lennon: Oh no, did they have a spellplague too?
Ostron: No, it wasn’t as clear cut as all that.
By the time D&D was established as a game in the late 70s, a lot of the material coming out for it was tied to Greyhawk. Several adventure modules were set there, many of the spells were named after characters from the world, and at least one novel had been published thanks to Gary inviting a novelist to play in one of the games. Gygax, however, was reluctant to release comprehensive notes for the setting. Firstly he didn’t believe he could make back the money based on how much time he’d spent inventing the various areas and features of Greyhawk, and secondly he really thought people would much prefer making up their own settings rather than bothering with the one he’d made.
However, by 1979 his colleagues and the D&D fans were making enough noise about wanting to actually play in Greyhawk that he relented. Realizing the haphazard dungeon and amorphous “lands” it sat under were not enough to justify a full setting, Gygax set about expanding things. First he developed a major area of the world to create a geopolitical stage. Naming it the Flanaess, he created a history saying the name was based on the first group of peoples there, namely the Flannae. Flanaess is located on the continent of Oerik. From there he stole much from the history of the British Isles or the United States, forming sociopolitical groups based on successive waves of migrating tribes and refugee peoples “invading” the area.
One of the tribes moved in with an eye toward conquering and began establishing an empire by force. The so-called “Great Kingdom” ruled over much of the Flanaess and were led by a hereditary series of overkings, each one gradually more ruthless, neglectful, or insane than the previous incarnation. At the point in time where Gygax declared it to be present day, a figure named Ivid V claimed the throne, and the various peoples of the kingdom had just risen up in rebellion.
Other than the main issue with the Great Kingdom, everything else about the Flanaess followed what today would be called “traditional fantasy tropes.” Most of the non-human races were collectively referred to as “humanoids” and relegated to the outskirts and wild areas away from civilization. These included trolls, ogres, orcs, and goblinoids, most of whom formed nomadic bandit tribes or warlord-led civilizations based on survival of the fittest. There was a civilization of elves, but they were mistrustful and xenophobic, and the small groups of dwarves were mostly the same.
All of that info was released in 1980 with the publication of “The World of Greyhawk” as a setting guide. Gygax planned to provide a steady stream of Greyhawk content after that, but various issues and concerns split his attention, so major updates got reduced to about 1 per year. Shortly after the setting guide was published he released information about the armies commanded by the Circle of Eight characters (remember at this point D&D was still heavily tied into wargaming, and establishing followers and armies was baked into the rules). In 1981 Dragon magazine had details on the various human nations, what their general appearance would be, and what backgrounds characters of different nationalities might have. Throughout 1982 Gygax and others provided full information about the 17 different political states in Greyhawk, and from 82 to 83 Gygax released information about the Greyhawk-specific pantheon of gods. Finally in 1983 they released information on additional prominent NPCs in Greyhawk beyond the Circle of Eight.
By 1984, Gygax’s attention was drawn away due to the success of D&D and Greyhawk suffered. Given that it was largely Gygax’s domain, many other designers were loathe to do anything with it, especially as Gygax had indicated he wanted to do many other things with it, including expanding and exploring other areas of Oerth besides the Flanaess and establishing the same level of geopolitical setups and tension.
However, Gygax by then was busy in Hollywood, working on scripts for the D&D animated show running at the time. Also, TSRs focus was shifting. Thanks to the efforts of some upstart authors named Weiss and Hickman, Krynn and the world of Dragonlance was taking off and starting to capture the attention of people much more than Greyhawk. Attributing the success of the setting to the accompanying novels, Gygax refocused his spare time from expanding setting content to writing novels set in Greyhawk, hoping they would re-ignite interest.
By then, however, it was the end of 1985 and TSR was in the midst of the financial difficulties that would see Gygax ousted from TSR. Ironically, the novels Gygax wrote actually did re-ignite interest in Greyhawk, but the realities of physical publishing meant they didn’t get out to people until after he’d left TSR. By 1988 TSR was wrapping up its Dragonlance adventure cycle, it was doing very well with this new thing called Forgotten Realms, and so they had some spare resources to throw at Greyhawk again.
TSR set up a new line of products, collectively called Greyhawk Adventures, to coincide with the release of 2nd edition. The first major alteration to Greyhawk lore was the Circle of Eight; rather than a group of very prominent adventurers, the group was reimagined into what it is today, more or less: a group of very powerful wizards focused on maintaining cosmic balance, rather than outright fighting evil. To give them some credit, they even threw a woman in the mix; Jallarzi Sallavarian. The rest of the crowd is mostly a who’s who of spells from D&D: Tenser, Otiluke, Bigby, and Rary. The characters of Drawmij, Otto, and Nystul rounded out the group. Rather than being a member, Mordenkainen was the leader, directing and informing the rest of the group on issues they needed to track or intervene in. Most of their focus was on the new demigod-level evil entity Vecna. Yes, that Vecna. Previously the character had been a prominent NPC lich in Greyhawk, but as of the rework he was upgraded to the status of demigod, giving players another prominent force of evil to contend with apart from the overking Ivid V.
This rework also saw the first publication of details around Greyhawk castle, though the publication did not really resemble the original home game version at all. In addition to that module, several other Greyhawk adventures were published in those years based on the new formation and goals of the Circle of Eight and the increased threat of Vecna.
Lennon: Okay, okay, fine, so they upgraded the Circle of Eight and gave them someone else to fight. So if I’m headed there I need to watch out for a megalomaniacal mad king and a megalomaniacal mad demigod. Anything else I need to know?
(another cascade of books)
Lennon: Ow! Dang it! What’s all this?
Ostron: It’s all the information that invalidates the history we just covered.
Lennon: If that history has been eliminated, why did you make me go over it!?
Ryu: It wasn’t eliminated; it was updated. They went forward in time.
Ostron: What do you mean how; that’s kind of how time works unless you do something really weird…which I don’t know how to do. At all.
Ryu: So you know how in Forgotten realms now you’ve got Rise of Tiamat, and then Tomb of Annihilation, and then Waterdeep Dragon Heist, and if you pay attention you notice that events in one sort of get mentioned in the ones that happen later?
Lennon: For the sake of moving this along I’m going to say yes?
Ostron: So that was a lot more of a thing back in the day. Here, pick up that book and read the introduction.
Veterans of 2nd edition D&D, particularly ones that focused on the extra settings, can tell you that during 2nd edition several of the settings had timelines that advanced the story of the world in much more sweeping fashion. Official adventures and sourcebooks would start and end major wars, introduce cataclysms that wiped out cities and regions, and upend the lives of major NPCs and political groups.
By 1991, TSR gave one game designer, Rick Swan, control of Greyhawk and his first impression was much like Ryu’s; because of the various different people that had worked on it since Gygax’s departure and the somewhat lackadaisical focus on the setting as a whole, there was a bunch of disparate and sometimes contradictory information around Greyhawk in the published material.
To reestablish a more coherent Greyhawk without doing an actual retcon of everything, TSR set about publishing a series of modules that led up to what are called the Greyhawk Wars. For practical purposes, the Greyhawk Wars did what the Last War does for Eberron; sets up a large scale, all-encompassing conflict that gives a starting point for the state of the world that comes after it. Though Keith Baker’s reason for the last war wasn’t that his setting was a mismatch of random info, I’d like to point out.
Also unlike the Last War, the leadup to and causes of the Greyhawk Wars are more involved. Reading details about how the Last War started is like the leadup to the Battle of Five armies in The Hobbit. Details about how the Greyhawk Wars started is like following the Siege of Angband from the Silmarillion.
To sum up, the major catalyst of the Greyhawk Wars is the introduction of Iuz, another evil demi-god. Whereas Vecna was a figure mostly concerned with increasing their personal power and potency, ultimately trying to become a full-fledged god, Iuz was more concerned with temporal power, controlling territory and ruling over people. Oh and side note; Iuz is the son of Iggwilv, otherwise known as Tasha (who has the Cauldron of Everything), and the demon lord Graz’zt. To expand his influence, he insinuated himself into the leadership of a number of otherwise barbarian tribes who usually raided some more civilized kingdoms. He encouraged them to try actually invading, just as a change of pace. The fact that they pressed their attack caught the country of Tenh completely off guard and it was quickly overrun. That ignited a political mess as the neighboring countries began arguing over whether they should combine forces to push the barbarians out, or if they needed the forces to defend their own lands.
At the same time Iuz sent representatives to conglomerates of humanoids (aka any other race that wasn’t a human, dwarf, or elf) and began encouraging them to maybe look into available real estate in the human lands, available real estate being “whatever they could force people off of.” Then, completely independently, a rather brutal but tactically brilliant half-orc began uniting a bunch of Orc and goblin tribes in an area called Pomarj. That didn’t affect anything immediately, but it becomes important in a minute.
While Iuz’s barbarians were fighting the smaller countries in one part of Flanaess, in another part the Overking of the Great Kingdom decided, upon hearing about this minor war going on, it was time for the Great Kingdom to up and reclaim a bunch of territory it had lost decades if not centuries ago. That immediately put them up against an alliance made specifically to oppose the Great Kingdom, namely the Iron League. The first thing one of their generals did was take a large force of cavalry and make havoc in Great Kingdom territory, so the great Kingdom had to split its forces to deal with that.
Unlike many fantasy conflicts, this wasn’t a story of evil forces sweeping over the land and then good forces rallying and pushing them back, nor was it a case of evil just sweeping over and making way for a plucky rebellion to form in the midst of a fantasy dystopia. At this point there were still enough wargamer fans among D&D that TSR thought it was worth it to release a wargaming module for the Greyhawk wars, and many of those people know their military history backward and forward. So for better or worse TSR made it play out more like a real war might. Greyhawk has 20 or more different political entities in Flanaess, and the history of the wars tracked what all of them were doing, and when. So you don’t have the alliance of good vs the alliance of evil. You have two evil factions not communicating at all, working in completely separate theatres, and then groups allied to the second group begin attacking all sides, messing up the progress of evil group two.
Also, the so-called good guys spend a lot of time arguing about who actually needs defending and where, and there are at least 4-7 semi neutral but definitely more positive than not groups of people who are trying to hold back and throw their lot in with whoever seems to have the best tactical position, meaning the reinforcing armies are showing up less like Rohan to sweep away hordes of attackers in a triumphant charge, and more like the Gondorian rangers showing up at Osgiliath just in time to provide more bodies for the rampaging hordes to kill just before everyone has to retreat anyway.
And then if that wasn’t enough, you have the obligatory evil group of spies and infiltrators that’s playing both sides against the middle, in this case the Scarlet Brotherhood. They have a bunch of money and information but they also have their own agenda, so they try to make sure that this group of countries is actually able to hold off an assault while letting the some of their allies fall apart, and while they like the idea of evil horde number two holding extra territory, they don’t want them to hold too much, so some sabotage of their offensives are in order.
By year two of the war’s history things get worse for everyone. Those Orcs from the Pumarj start a third front in the war, pulling some of the forces fighting off the Great Kingdom back home to defend their territory. At the same time the Overking decides the fact that they haven’t already won the war is evidence that his generals are all idiots and kills most of them, deciding to lead the army himself. Ivid V, for the record, was well known as being a grand master at many games, but he regularly checkmated himself when playing chess. So the fact that several defenders against the Great Kingdom’s advances retreated was offset by the fact that the general of the armies was colossally bad at his job. Also he was losing support at home because a fringe cult in the kingdom graciously began reanimating his dead generals as undead forced to serve him but retaining all of their intellect and abilities. Ivid V thought this was amazing and started encouraging all of his nobles to get in on being undead too.
As you might expect this was not the most popular fad among the nobility and eventually someone assassinated Ivid. Everyone in the Great Kingdom and beyond rejoiced…until Ivid reanimated, possibly through a deal with some fiend or another, and woke up more paranoid and vengeful than ever, beginning a rash of executions and reanimations among the nobles, generals, and really anyone he felt like. Thus were the ambitions of the Great Kingdom stalled.
Iuz meanwhile, was having a manpower issue. While hordes of raging trolls and ogres are great for the whole “shock and awe” thing, they’re less good at things like tactics, strategy, and not fighting each other over territory already conquered. He basically ran out of troops to continue advancing without losing territory he’d already taken. There are also rumors his mother had something to do with issues of command and control. That was okay for him, though, because everyone he’d attacked was in a similar situation, not being able to muster the troops or the alliances to mount any sort of effective counterattack.
The Pumarj Orc forces were falling apart too. The leader recognized that Orcs are really much happier when they’re winning battles, so he was forced to mostly engage forces where victory was a near 100% certainty, and any general will tell you that unless you’re waging a war against literal sheep those types of battles are really hard to find after a while. Eventually he was forced to attack tougher targets. As the Orcs’ victories waned, so did their commitment to the effort.
By the year 584, two years into the war, basically every participant had fought their way into a space where they couldn’t really continue. They were running out of food, people, and money, but no one was losing faster than any other. At that rate, all of the nations of Flanaess were just going to simultaneously collapse into disorder and chaos. In light of that, a peace treaty was organized. Coordinated by the Circle of Eight, leaders of all the major factions were invited to the City of Greyhawk, where a peace treaty was hammered out. Then, after the treaty was signed and ratified, Circle member Rary turned on his fellow Circle members in a surprise attack and blew up the tower where the meetings had taken place. When the smoke cleared, he and his apprentice Robilar had fled to the Bright Lands, a desert area with few inhabitants, and Tenser and Otiluke were both dead, apparently permanently.
Lennon: Ah, I see, so the betrayal re-ignites the war, and now Greyhawk is just a land constantly at war, and adventurers have to decide which faction they’re supporting and which ones they’re against, and it’s all morally ambiguous and grim, right? That’s why you’re not a fan?
Lennon: Oh. Is it the betrayal thing? Because I have to say that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
Ryu: No, I mean, that’s not what Greyhawk is about now either.
Lennon: Come on, Eberron doesn’t have half this much history and it’s less confusing.
Ostron: I’m sorry, how many secret societies and shadow governments are there in Eberron?
Lennon: I…I’m not at liberty to say.
Ostron: Yeah, well so far Greyhawk only has the big one. And you’re the one that wanted to go there.
Lennon: I’m starting to change my mind about that. So I assume there’s more.
Ryu: In case you lost track, we’ve only covered Greyhawk up to 2nd edition.
Lennon: If I say I have changed my mind, can we just skip the rest?
Continuing their plan to revamp Greyhawk, TSR released “From the Ashes”, a boxed set with resources that provided updated maps, an update to the descriptions of Greyhawk city and other countries and lands around Flanaess, and new collections of NPCs. It also made some updates that pulled the setting in a slightly less human-centric direction, adding more gods for non-human races as well as fleshing out the regions and cultures of those people.
The lore now focused on the fact that all of the “good” nations of Flanaess were recovering from the strain of being in a protracted war, with the Great Kingdom (under control of a mad, undead overking), the nations of violent nonhumans (controlled by Iuz), and the Scarlet Brotherhood (who were trying to infiltrate, influence, and secretly control things); all three factions are all working to destabilize these countries and push the agenda of evil. Two more sourcebooks were published to expand those details and give more information on the political situation for DMs and players to use in their campaigns, and at least one adventure module gave details about the Bright Lands and the travels of Rary and Robilar who fled after the attack on the Circle of Eight.
More sourcebooks were in the works but TSR abruptly halted publication of all Greyhawk material in late 1994. This was a prelude to TSR cancelling basically everything in 1995 because it was heavily in debt to basically everyone it had ever worked with.
That was almost the end of Greyhawk completely. When Wizards of the Coast acquired TSR and all its assets and intellectual property in 1997, the CEO declared that D&D had too many different settings going and most of them had to be cut. Greyhawk would have been on that list, except the CEO was a fan of Greyhawk in particular and tasked the Wizards’ staff with stabilizing and revamping it.
Wizards released the Greyhawk Players’ Guide in 1998, and the companion “The Adventure begins” Guide shortly after. Both resources reaffirmed most of the information from TSR’s final years with Greyhawk, but gave the world a more adventurous feel and less of a grim one as TSR had done. They also released an adventure “Return of the Eight” which saw the resurrection of Tenser and the reestablishment of a full Circle of Eight, albeit with several new members.
All of that was a prelude to the so-called Living Greyhawk initiative, the terms of which were briefly laid out in the “Living Greyhawk Gazetteer”, which also had reinforcing information about the world of Greyhawk. Wizards decided to make Greyhawk the “default” setting for 3rd edition and launched Living Greyhawk, which could be seen as a precursor to the modern Adventurer’s league. For the campaign, each of the canonical 30 regions of the world was made equivalent to a physical location in real life, so for example the Greyhawk nation of Gran March covered Georgia and the Carolinas in the United States and Onnwal covered the UK and Ireland.
Characters that were part of Living Greyhawk were given a certain number of Time Units. Those were spent to play various modules that came out during each annual season. Some of the adventures were regional and could only be played if the player was physically in the correct region, and others were only played at certain convention or tournament events. There were also “core” adventures that took place in regions not assigned to a geographic location, like the nine hells or the city of Greyhawk, and those could be played anywhere. Sometimes some of the adventures could be played out of region, but the cost in Time Units increased. Once a character used up all their time units for a season, they had to wait for the next season or start playing with a different character.
Adventures created for Living Greyhawk did involve prominent NPCs doing different things and interacting with adventurers, with major events and more lore about the world being pushed through the regular “Living Greyhawk Journals”. Each would detail a part of the world or a major power group (such as the Bright Lands or Circle of Eight) and then describe what adventures corresponded to or referenced the material from the Journals.
Because some adventures were regionally limited and others encompassed well known landmarks, a lot of lore for specific NPCs and locations in Greyhawk was advanced through the Living Greyhawk modules, and some storylines carried through and influenced later modules published for the campaign. However, there were few events that created paradigm shifts like the Greyhawk Wars, so most changes were significant only to the locations or characters they involved, without upsetting the balance of Greyhawk as a whole.
3.5 was really the last gasp for Greyhawk, officially. By the time 4th edition rolled around, stories about a certain white haired whiny ranger and a rather randy archmage had helped to propel the Forgotten Realms into a much more prominent position with D&D players and fans, so for both 4th and 5th edition it was designated as the official setting of the game. At present Wizards of the Coast seems to have a difficult relationship with Greyhawk. The number of official modules published in Greyhawk are few and far between, with “Ghosts of Saltmarsh” being the only major nod to the setting, and some have argued that was only done because Wizards wanted to republish some classic adventures updated for 5th edition, and most of the classic adventures are set in Greyhawk.
Wizards also references and uses Greyhawk characters like Tasha and Mordenkainen, but it does so in ways that don’t directly reference their history with Greyhawk. Mordenkainen is probably the NPC that’s actually participated in Wizards’ adventures most often, but even then his presence in any given location is attributed to his habit of planar travel and doesn’t relate to his Greyhawk activities at all. Several spells in 5th edition still bear the names of prominent Greyhawk NPCs like Otiluke and Tenser but it takes a lot of digging through older D&D resources to find the significance of those characters.
But what of the original creators? Gary Gygax was obviously the father of the setting, and Rob Kuntz, the second person to regularly DM in the setting, is often considered a doting uncle, having created many of the prominent NPCs immortalized in spell names or storylines. Unfortunately as with many creative business relationships gone sour, they were less than supportive of TSR and the direction they took Greyhawk, to the point where Gygax, who had retained the rights to a character named Gord the Rogue since he’d written several novels featuring the character, finished up his novel series with the character by literally destroying the world that was his version of Greyhawk, apparently symbolically declaring it dead.
There was an effort made by Gygax and Kuntz to actually capitalize on the original Greyhawk setting: the 50 level, multiple-thousand room megadungeon where everything had started. D&D enthusiasts and historians were eager to get a look and be able to play in the same location that started it all, so to speak, and both men did begin working on publishing it in a multi-volume collection for the Castles and Crusades roleplaying system, a d20 system that some say tries to emulate early D&D. Unfortunately converting the information was a huge undertaking and even after deciding to strip down the information and focus only on the city near the Castle and the original 13-level design of the dungeon, only two volumes were published before Gygax’s death in 2008. One volume focuses on the city, and the other covers the surface ruins of the castle, but no publication of the actual dungeon occurred, though Kuntz and Gygax Games have never officially said they’ve given up on the effort.
As far as modern D&D goes, as mentioned already, anyone wanting to run an adventure in Greyhawk will have to rely on historical information. If lore is all that’s required there are several online sources that have collected much of the information previously published in resource books from first to third edition and during the Living Greyhawk period. Those resource books can sometimes be found or purchased online.
Actual adventure modules are actually somewhat easier to find than you’d think. Throughout D&D’s history whatever company controlled the IP always saw republishing so-called “classic” adventures as an easy win, and all of those adventures are generally set in Greyhawk. We’ve already mentioned “Ghosts of Saltmarsh” as a resource containing repurposed Greyhawk adventures, and the module “Lost Laboratory of Kwalish” is another official reprinting of a Greyhawk adventure though I don’t think you should play it.
Ryu (rebuking): Ostron.
Ryu: Just because it has Spelljammer stuff in it doesn’t mean it’s a bad module.
Ostron: Agree to disagree.
Anyway, while official Greyhawk adventures are thin on the ground, there are multiple 3rd party groups that have focused on updating older modules for 5th ed. Goodman Games is a resource we’ve mentioned in an adventurer’s pack that literally updates older modules verbatim, and there are several independent operators that have put content up on the DM’s Guild.
If you aren’t looking to relive classic adventures the only major draw for Greyhawk is either the classic feel or the ability to adventure in an established world that is still D&D at the core but isn’t the Forgotten Realms. The Forgotten realms carries a lot of baggage for a lot of people both in memorized lore and official D&D resources of the recent past. Depending, frankly, on the age of your gaming group it’s less common to find people steeped in the lore of Greyhawk, so you don’t have to worry about someone with an eidetic memory calling you out for misremembering which street in Waterdeep the Yawning Portal is located on, but you can still name drop people like Tenser and Mordenkainen and have everyone recognize them.
Another way Greyhawk differs slightly from the Forgotten Realms is that it’s a little more…grey. Some people consider Faerun to be a place of extremes, where people slot into stereotypes a lot and things can easily get cartoony. Greyhawk was already turning dark back when it was being reworked for second edition and it’s not full of as many absolutes or extremes; you have alliances of nations that can be self-serving even while they’re helping their allies, the evil secret society helped both sides during the war for different reasons, and some of the forces of evil are more complex than their alignments would suggest. Even the Circle of Eight, the guiding and powerful group of wizards seen as the ultimate arbitrators, are a tricky group. Most of them, and Mordenkainen for sure, are focused on maintaining balance between good and evil, not necessarily fighting on behalf of good. As we mentioned in our profile on Mordenkainen, he is perfectly capable of and okay with letting a rampaging horde of demons overrun a village of otherwise good people in the name of maintaining balance, and he’s not the only one in the Circle of Eight with that outlook. However even the circle isn’t always agreed on things like that, so there’s internal strife there as well.
Greyhawk also arguably has more exploratory potential. Gygax and others had always talked about or planned to cover other areas of Oerth besides Flanaess, but for various reasons it was never completed. A world map of the planet was produced at one point under Gygax’s direction and some copies of it did make it into various publications, but official resources covering the other lands and areas were never published either by TSR or Wizards.
In the end, as we said, there’s not much about Greyhawk that will immediately set it apart from the Forgotten Realms; most of the creatures, planes, and concepts of D&D were designed for Greyhawk first, after all, and the Forgotten Realms were just constructed based around them. And after you get off the surface of Oerth there’s basically no difference; any lore referencing elemental planes, the hells, the abyss, even just the Underdark makes no distinction between the Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk. Apart from politics and the names, you have all the same demons, devils, dragons, creatures, and mimics.
The Mimic: Oh jolly good show!
Ostron: You’re a fan of mimics now?
Lennon (insistent, semi-desperately): That wasn’t me!
Ostron: Sounded like you.
Lennon: I desperately need to give you a lesson in British accents. Oh and also find the mimic!
Ryu: You got rid of all the mimics.
Lennon: I’m less and less sure of that. I’m also less and less sure about needing to visit Greyhawk; I was thinking it was more exciting.
Ryu: I mean, half demon warlords can be exciting.
Lennon: You’ve been talking to the Killer DM too much. And by too much I mean “at all.”
Libby (triumphantly): Book!
Lennon: Oh, what now? Underdark Hot Spots and Must-See Locations? Okay, again, captured by Drow and mauled by Duregar is not my idea of a good time! I’m okay with boring and unexciting.
Ostron: To be fair, you did just reject Greyhawk for being unexciting.
Lennon: Fine, you know what? Greyhawk’s great. I love it! It has exactly the level of excitement I’m looking for in a destination. Let’s go.
Lennon: If you start lecturing me about the 15 different places called Greyhawk again, I swear-
Ostron: No, we just have to go check out the scrying pool. Unless you think that’s a mimic.
Lennon: You know, someday you’re going to walk into the gnomish workshop, you’re going to grab a lab stool, it’s going to bite your arm off, and the level of schadenfreude is probably just going to kill me, but it’ll be worth it.
The Mimic: Well, looks like we’re going back to the blackboard on that one, then. Hm, that’s an idea. No, better stick with the reading desk. Spot of bother getting past that floaty chap though. Gadzooks it’s got a lot of eyes and no mistake.