The first game of AD&D played was at a birthday party. I stumbled upon a game of G1-3 Against the Giants (the Steading) at that party not long after moving to California. It would be an understatement to say that the game had a significant effect on me. With this strange and new experience floating in my head, I immediately went home and cannibalized the various dice and game pieces in the house in an attempt to recreate some semblance of what I had experienced. Soon, the race was on to pick up any D&D book I could get my grubby little hands upon. My first acquire was a duo-tone S1 Tomb of Horrors bought from a friend at school for $1.00. The newer version had come out, so someone’s older brother asked my friend to broker the older copy’s purchase. I picked up a duo-tone copy of G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King through similar circumstances.
For what seemed like an eternity (and it was likely only six months), these were my only D&D books, and I read them cover to cover numerous times. And by way of reading those two adventures repeatedly, I got my first glimpse of the World of Greyhawk.
I knew that there was a folio supplement for the setting, but it was already hard to find. Hell, we struggled to find dice in those days. It was well before such chains like J.C. Penney and Sears would start selling D&D products. Of the smattering of direct market comic book stores in existence, only a small percent stocked roleplaying games, and they were usually in big cities. While there were a few hobby stores, they were hard to find when the phone book served as the closest thing to the internet. In my early days of the hobby, I had to settle mostly for hand-me-downs, occasional loans, and photocopies of materials. And for me, that folio was like a distant near-mythical object that I would not get my hands on until the early 90s.
But any real thought of finding the folio became unnecessary in 1983 when the World of Greyhawk boxed set saw release.
And man, it was a beauty.
First off, the box and books were stunning. A truly inspired Jeff Easly cover looked like some renaissance tome, gem entrusted with a locking latch—like some knight’s journal of daring deeds. Set at its top center was a brilliant painting (also by Easly) depicting a trio of knights riding out from a castle in the background. The lead knight’s lance-mounted banner blowing in the ring, defying the confines of the frame.
It might have been the coolest thing I’d seen at that point in my life. It was one of the first products showcasing TSRs second (or maybe third) wave of artists. And it was expensive, at least to me at the time, but I scraped and saved, and eventually it was mine. The wait seemed like an eternity at the time (it was likely only six months tops).
And once I got my hands on the boxed set and tore off that shrink, the insides did not disappoint. The Catalogue (the main book) was as magical as the Hobbit or the Lion Witch and the Wardrobe to me, probably even more so. It immediately opened the door to a world both strange and familiar.
It did things that few RPG products could get away with now and set the tone for similar works in the future. Opening its pages, the first thing you saw was the various coats-of-arms of the kingdoms, city-states, and personages of Greyhawk…more precisely the Flanaess, which was the eastern portion of the continent of Oerik of Oerth (as the cover and the inside cover both informed me). Of course, Greyhawk was a city…and a free city at that, which I didn’t know until I examined its entry in the Catalogue. The inside cover listed this booklet as Volume III, which put me on edge. There were only two books in the box. Did I get a defective copy? I wouldn’t found out until I started reading the Glossography (the other book in the boxed set) that the Volume III business was pure fiction.
As part of this fiction, the Catalogue was written by a mysterious Savant-Sage who lived in the city of Greyhawk during the Epoch of Magic. While he wrote seven volumes about his world, only the third one survives: the Catalogue. The story continued, claiming the Savant-Sage’s work went missing for a couple of centuries and was recovered from an illithid’s lair in the Riftcanyon. The Glossography (the other book in the box) was written by one Pluffet Smedger the Elder, a scholar at the University of Rel Mord. Pluffet created a study aid for the older work in the form of a game his students could play to recreate events from the Flanaess’s past. The fine folks at TSR were kind enough to translate those rules to AD&D.
It’s a convoluted conceit. Not as straight forward as what Ed Greenwood did with Elminster, it twisted, turned, and was full of logical inconsistencies, like how did these TSR folk get this pair of books from some other fucking planet? Or was this our world in some distant past that had been destroyed by the ravages of plate tectonics? But, man, it set my mind on fire.
From there, the Catalogue jumps right on in—to the astronomy, calendar, climate, and season, then on to the trees of the Flanaess.
Can you imagine getting a modern RPG book where it gave you an expansive list of trees before it started talking about the people and the dangers of a setting? It was nuts. I loved it. I still do. I wouldn’t do it in anything I designed but was downright ballsy. It just threw you into a deep end and hoped you could swim…or at least not get too bored.
From there, the Catalogue moves into what becomes the more sensible territory. Starting with a timeline and an overview of events in history (along with a map showing migration of the various human peoples), it talks about the distribution of populations within settlements, the folk populating the Flanaess, languages, and a selection of portentous runes and glyphs, before detailing all the various lands of setting.
Each of these sections started with an illuminated lettered entry of the land’s name. After that, we are treated to the current ruler (as of 576 of the Common Year), followed by the capital, population, the frequency of demi-humans (that’s an old-timey and slightly derogatory term for dwarves, elves, gnomes, half-elves, and halflings) and then humanoids (goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, and orcs and their ilk), and what resources the territory possesses. After those entries, you get one, occasionally more, dense paragraphs describing the domain.
Here is one of the shorter examples (from the Ull section).
“A strong tribal clan of the Paynim nomads found the rich area between the Barrier Peaks and the Ulsprue Mountains provided them with ample grazing and a perfect territory to “settle” in. The Uli claimed this area of land for themselves and have held it against all comers. The territory comprises over 90,000 square leagues, includes the hills that separate the Ulspue from the Crystalmists.”
Re-reading this today, I can hear editors rattle off questions: Is Uli the name of the tribe? Why don’t you say that in the first graph? Why is “settle” in quotation marks? Who were the comers? Why do you have to tell us the square leagues? Can we just look at the map?
But those little idiosyncracies created mystery, at least in my mind. And those mysteries are what captures the Greyhawk setting to me. It makes you work—but in that fun and creative puzzle-solving way. Its descriptions are dense yet fuzzy. Each paragraph informs while creating more questions. It provided bold and broad strokes while daring you to fill in the details.
More so than nearly any other works that I encountered in my young life, this boxed set sparked my curiosity. Not only about fantasy but the world. One of the charms of this set, and even the folio that came before it, was that it was written by someone who not only wanted to create a world but ground it in a history that was different than our own yet somewhat familiar. While there were bits of Tolkien and other fantasies within it, much of it was grounded in real-world history. That stuff I always thought was so dull before. This boxed set led me on a path that leads to a degree in history and a lifetime love of the subject.
After detailing the various lands and city-states, we get some regional maps, one for alignment and the other for resources. Based on the wonderfully colorful and evocative Darlene maps, these black and white maps also highlight the rough boundaries between the settled and the wildlands of the Flanaess. Aside from the information it provides, those maps help the next sections of the book, which give details about the world’s various unsettled areas—the bodies of water, hills and highlands, marshes and swamps, mountain ranges, rivers, timberlands, and wastelands. Much like the entries for the various settled land, each presented with strange and compelling detail. Probably the most foreboding and evocative is the Sea of Dust. Here is one of my favorite bits from that section.
“History tells us that this was once a fair and fertile realm extending a thousand miles west and southward too. The merciless and haughty rulers engaged in a struggle for dominance and supremacy over all of Oerik with the Baklunish, and in return for a terrible magical attack, the Suloise lands were inundated by a nearly invisible fiery rain which killed all creatures it struck, burned all living things, ignited the landscape with colorless flame, and burned the very hills themselves to colorless ash.”
Keep in mind that I’m reading this during the Reagan administration on the year that our teachers implored us to watch The Day After television movie so we could see what we had coming. We knew a metaphor for all-out nuclear war when we saw it. But for once, it wasn’t something here-and-now and cower under your desk terrifying. It was in a game. It was in the past. Folks survived. It somehow made things less scary. I don’t know why.
The Catalogue’s penultimate section takes a hard right turn into the metaphysical, detailing the world’s foremost (human) deities. I’ll be honest with you, I could never make sense of how these gods fit together, but it didn’t matter. This was an age before specialty priests. Clerics were clerics, clerics, and the only good religion provided enough magic to heal their friends.
The greatest part of the deities section were the descriptions of the various evil gods. While sometimes the good ones blur into each other, many of the evil (or at least misunderstood) ones—notably Incabulos, Nerull, Tharizdun, Iuz, Wastri, and Zagyg—were metal. I mean sweaty jean jacket, album cover metal. Cultists and priests of these bad guys, as well as all the demon lords and archdevils, were often adversaries in my Greyhawk campaigns.
The last section of Catalogue comes back to more worldly matters, giving the various tiles, ranks, and honorifics of nobility and a selection of knightly orders.
When I finished the book, my mind was spinning. There is just so much information and promise of adventure crammed within 80 pages. And there was a whole other book to go.
The Glossography is a smaller booklet, clocking in at 48 pages, and is a hodgepodge of game information. Starting with travel rates followed by 14 pages of encounter tables, it then moved on to basic stats for the various rulers of the realms and a complicated way to determine weather reports for your campaign (which I often actually used in my games, sometimes to my players’ chagrin).
It then presents several adventure ideas, from the strange Quest of the Mist Golem to the political Stolen Steal. At one time or another, I ran my versions of nearly all of these. Each one is a solid adventure, though some are more convoluted than others. This section ends with the locations for various published adventures set in the World of Greyhawk.
From there, it gives you some tables for determining a character’s place of birth before introducing Comeliness.
For you kids that don’t know, Comeliness is the lost seventh ability score of D&D. As I take it, early D&D was rife with arguments about Charisma. I guess too many folks thought it was a measure of physical attractiveness, which it could be, but it was much more—a kind of magmatism. Comeliness was Gygax’s way of ending the debate. It was presented in Dragon Magazine, in this boxed set as a particular attribute to quasi-deities (mythic heroes), and then appeared again in Unearthed Arcana. It never gained traction, and I think we may have used it for a week before figuring out it was even more useless than Charisma with an awful lot of rules. Or more like pseudo-rules that were very easy to forget.
The companion book ends with the magical powers of deities of various strengths and the stat-blocks for selected deities. This was next to worthless to the kind of games I ran. Much like my real life today, back then, I didn’t prefer scenarios where random gods just popped in for mischief or tea.
Oh, and a proof of purchase symbol. That just gave me Boba Fett flashbacks. (Ask your grandpa, kids.)
To today’s standards, this boxed set is a mix of highly inspired and hot mess. Much of the material was picked up from the booklet in the older folio product with reprinted material from Dragon magazine, pieced together by the capable and brilliant Steve Winter (a very young Steve Winter) and supplemented by an excellent layout and new era of TSR art.
The gamers of today might look back at this boxed set and think I’m stark-raving mad for my love of this boxed set. While it was glossy and slick at its time, it seems strangely dated today, as well as awkward and grasping. But it’s “flaws” were—at least in my case—a crucible for curiosity. And I’m forever indebted to it.
My love of Greyhawk lasted for many years, fueled by the release of T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil, Gygax’s Greyhawk novels, and a scattering of articles in Dragon Magazine, but in my late high school years, the relationship soured. Gygax was drummed out of TSR, and the fall-out was disastrous for Greyhawk in the short run. It saw the release of the fundamentally stupid Castle Greyhawk, which, despite featuring all-star talent contributing to the adventure, was so utterly disappointing that I threw it away, and I refuse to own a copy of the work.
While Greyhawk was later revived and incredibly expanded by Carl Sargent and others’ work, its creative doldrums gave me just enough time to gravitate to another fundamentally and inspiring campaign setting Forgotten Realms gray boxed set.
But that’s a story for another time.