Resurrecting AD&D's oldest world,TSR hopes to enchant a new generation of roleplayers
by Allen Varney
[Published in Tuff Stuff Gamer magazine, Oct 1998. Posted here by permission.]
Harold Johnson has worked at TSR longer than almost anyone else -- 19 years! -- and only now does he confess. "You and I know, even though we haven't really said it: All the `generic' AD&D products are really set in Greyhawk."
Coming from Johnson, now the Greyhawk Adventures brand manager at TSR, this sounds less like a confession than a brazen territorial grab. All those Advanced Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying products like the Jakandor series, the "Monstrous Arcana" accessories (Sea Devils, Illithiad), and even reference tomes like the four-volume Wizard's Spell Compendium -- these are Greyhawk? Not one of them mentions AD&D designer Gary Gygax's campaign setting, originally published in 1980. Why should they? TSR cancelled the line in 1993.
But wait -- in June 1998 the company released Bruce R. Cordell's sprawling Return to the Tomb of Horrors boxed set. This huge sequel, though part of the "generic" line, reproduces the complete text of Gygax's 1978 module Tomb of Horrors, explicitly set in Greyhawk.
And of course, the spell compendia and all generic AD&D products use such classic AD&D magic as Tenser's floating disc, Bigby's grasping hand, Mordenkainen's disjunction, and other "named" spells. Their creators, along with other archmages like Drawmij and Otiluke, compose the Circle of Eight -- the ruling wizards of the City of Greyhawk.
Harold Johnson has a point. Generic AD&D adventures do partake of the world of Greyhawk, because Greyhawk is the ur-world, the primordial soup from which AD&D itself emerged. Gygax developed both together. For the RPG he took from Greyhawk not just its spells and tombs, but its basic conception of play: groups of characters venturing into mysterious places to overcome monsters, take their treasure, gain power, and face greater adversaries. The archetypal AD&D scenario, the dungeon crawl, originated with Greyhawk, as did the very idea of "scenarios."
As TSR's president and chief designer in the 1970s and early '80s, Gygax established Greyhawk as the default AD&D campaign setting. After corporate maneuvering ousted him from the company in 1985, TSR purchased Ed Greenwood's Forgotten Realms setting and made it their primary gameworld, while easing the Greyhawk Adventures line into oblivion. Yet many longtime AD&D fans remained devoted to Greyhawk and, in online newsgroups and at conventions, campaigned strenuously for its revival.
When Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR last year, Wizards president Peter Adkison noted "a lot of pent-up demand" for the return of Greyhawk. Having patched up TSR's sore relations with Gygax, Wizards re-launched the Greyhawk Adventures line in June 1998 -- and Johnson approached the task with all the ambition of the boldest player character.
"I want people to see Greyhawk as synonymous with AD&D," he says. "In Greyhawk, all the rules work. There aren't any restrictions. Chronomancy, shamanism.... If you want psionics, they happen. If you want specialty magic, there it is.
"This is the birthplace of adventure."
What kind of place is Greyhawk? What adventures are born there?
The City of Greyhawk stands in the Flanaess region of the late-medieval fantasy world of Oerth. Greyhawk's patchwork layout and twisting streets evoke a gritty feeling of authenticity. As Gygax recalls, "The City of Greyhawk comes from my own city-dwelling experiences and various historical maps, books, and films. I used my historical knowledge, and that drawn from my own game campaign, to put to gether the Flanaess. Try as I might, I can't think of a fantasy source that influenced the design."
Oerth has its share of history -- elven and dwarven empires, wars of conquest by the lich-king Vecna, a sprawling Great Kingdom -- but a summary doesn't capture its flavor. Unlike, say, Dragonlance's faux-Tolkien world of Krynn, Greyhawk's background does not depend on overarching continental events across ages of history. Instead, scenarios develop individual sites, in what Johnson calls "a low-res, buckshot approach to the world. This lets you create anything, or take any generic AD&D product and insert it in your campaign."
The buckshot method dates back to Gygax's original '70s playtests. Like most of those Gygax knew of, "My Greyhawk campaign was based around one or more centers of action, with less definition of people, places, and things the further one was from the main areas. This system allowed the creative Dungeon Master maximum flexibility. Winging it was standard procedure."
The flavor of Greyhawk, like that of AD&D, lies not in geographic detail but in tone and style of play. In Greyhawk, "Even low-level player characters can and do direct their own fate," says Gygax. "Individual initiative can succeed, and with success comes greater challenges. Look for action, intrigue, adventure, and self-reliance to be more important than courtly manners, aristocratic missions, or divine direction. Much of it is wild, anything can happen, and strange and wonderful things can be discovered."
Johnson sums up Greyhawk's essence in one word: "`Selfish.' Greyhawk heroes are mercenaries, and they're in it for the loot. Suppose a character in your party gets killed. If you're a Dragonlance character, you say, `I shall honor the memory of my departed friend and swear vengeance on his killer.' In the Realms, maybe you try to get him resurrected. In Greyhawk you say, `Dibs on his boots!'"
For the revived line, Johnson says, "We're targeting the fun type of roleplayer, both the old fan and new, largely on the action-adventure level. We want to capture that epic series feeling, that sense of wonder and discovery, of `wahoo' wild action. We want to challenge the public, we want to break new ground, but we also want to have an echo of the fun times of the past. One of our ads says, `I don't care what it looks like, I kill it!'"
Another Greyhawk Adventures advertisement sounds a different echo. In the ad, a wizard says, "What the hell is a `baatezu'? In my day we called demons demons!" That wizard's day predates the early 1980s, when misguided organizations like Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (BADD) accused AD&D of promoting Satan worship and teen suicide. TSR tried to appease these busybodies by renaming its demons with nonsense words. Ultimately, though, only active public education by articulate spokespeople foiled the anti-gaming movement. With the revived Greyhawk -- the line that featured demons most prominently -- TSR finally acknowledges that the "Satanic panic" has collapsed.
This suits Gary Gygax. "Generally, I believe that [Greyhawk's] original look, feel, and approach (action, adventure, personal) is correct. The Oerth needs demons and devils to plague it, and why not PC assassins too? Those who object to such things don't buy RPGs anyway."
"Greyhawk was the proving ground for new ways to tell adventures and new ways to challenge players," says Johnson. "The A series [`Slave Lords'] showed that monsters aren't dumb. The GDQ series [`Against the Giants' through Vault of the Drow] showed how to link adventures. Tomb of Horrors and Temple of Elemental Evil established Greyhawk as an intelligent, team-building series of challenges -- often traps and tricks that challenged the heroes to come up with innovative solutions, working as a team."
For the new line, Johnson and his team -- Roger Moore, Anne Brown, Kij Johnson, Kevin Melka, and (possibly!) Gygax -- aim to recreate that spirit. "It'll be very similar to earlier incarnations," he says. "Adventure, all adventure. The first thing we did is an adventure" -- Moore's Return of the Eight, published in May 1998. "It gets you right into the game, it doesn't bore you with a treatise on the nature of the world. Then we did [Brown's] Player's Guide to Greyhawk," but Greyhawk Adventures "is not really accessory-heavy the way the Forgotten Realms line is. You discover the setting as you play the game.
"We're moving five years beyond the end of From the Ashes , then moving into a comic-book type holding pattern. Things will happen, people will come and go, but the main concepts will still be around." Autumn 1998's "Lost Tombs" trilogy takes place around the City of Greyhawk. In 1999 the line re-explores some old sites: the Wild Coast and Pomarj from "Slave Lords," the Crystal Mists, the Hell Furnaces, and -- nostalgia buffs, alert! -- the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, site of the very first AD&D module (1978). "You're gonna see some real puzzlers, a real challenging and unforgiving adventure," Johnson says with enthusiasm.
"Lots of people are saying, `You can't do this [line] without a core boxed set.' You know what our core product is? The Player's Handbook, the Dungeon Master's Guide, and the Monstrous Manual. That's our source." To hear Johnson chuckle, you'd think his brazen territorial grab is a done deal -- and he, like a lot of impatient Greyhawk devotees, couldn't be happier.
What's Gary Gygax doing nowadays?
Greyhawk's creator turns 60 in July. "I surely do shake my head in wonder at what has been spawned" from D&D and AD&D, says Gary Gygax. "I think it wonderful to behold."
Since his 1985 ouster from TSR, the AD&D designer has had a checkered career in gaming. Only a part of his hyper-complex Dangerous Journeys universal system saw print (as Mythus, 1992, with Dave Newton) before publisher GDW shut down. He is currently self-publishing a kinder, gentler RPG, Legendary Adventures, on his spacious Web site (www.gygax.com).
Gygax still lives in his longtime home town of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, with his wife, Gail, and his sixth child, Alexander. "I love games and gaming, and I work just about every day for many hours," Gygax says. "It is as much fun as playing -- and I do that a couple of times a week too."