26 February 2020

Some Thoughts on Greyhawk and the Golden Age of Gygax

I started an online Greyhawk campaign last autumn (as mentioned in this post). In preparation for it, I reread most of Gary Gygax’s classic World of Greyhawk campaign setting (the 1983 ‘gold box’ version, which is my favourite, even though I prefer the art in the 1980 ‘folio’). I also reread bits of other Greyhawk-related works by Gygax (modules, some of the ‘Gord’ novels and stories, etc.) and portions of the original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons rules. Doing this reminded me of the singular character of his work.

[Trampier's front page PHB illustration. Does it depict EGG?]

In his publications from about 1977 to 1984 — what I think of as the ‘golden age’ of his creative output — Gygax's writings conveyed a very strong ‘vision’ for AD&D, and especially the world of Greyhawk. These works have a distinctive character and ethos. As I read them again, I realized that I rather liked ‘Gygaxian’ fantasy. (Or rather, I realized again that I liked it. Although I spent many weekends poring through The Dungeon Master’s Guide and various modules in my youth, I didn't really appreciate the uniqueness of Gygax’s work as a teenager. I subsequently went on to focus on other RPGs before ‘rediscovering’ AD&D and Greyhawk about 16 years ago, as part of my reaction against 3rd edition D&D. While my current campaign uses the 5th edition D&D rules, I strive to maintain a ‘1983’ ethos during our group’s sessions.)

The AD&D books are works of art — flawed, yes, but bursting with idiosyncratic creativity and energy, often drawing on eclectic and diverse sources. The ‘artifacts and relics’ section of the DMG alone is an evocative masterpiece. The original 'Drow' are among the greatest fantasy villains of all time. Many of Gygax's modules are remarkable in terms of their vision and originality (the Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun is a masterpiece of ‘weird’ fantasy). And the World of Greyhawk is a colourful swords-and-sorcery setting (with some Tolkienesque flavourings added, thanks to the inclusion of dwarves, elves, orcs, and so forth).

When I read Gygax's work (AD&D, the modules, etc.) I find his ‘vision’ to be clear and distinctive. In my view, it's primarily ‘Vancian’ in its literary inspiration (namely, Jack Vance’s early ‘Dying Earth’ stories), but with elements from the fiction of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Poul Anderson, and others, plus bits of Michael Moorcock and J.R.R. Tolkien. And of course Gygax drew upon real world history quite a bit. It’s an odd mix, to be sure, but it works overall (in my judgement).

For the most part, Gygax’s later (post-TSR) work never really interested me (except, somewhat, for the Castle Zagyg material, which of course was an attempt to ‘reconstruct’ some elements of his earliest campaign). And I found many of the Dragon editorials (i.e., ‘rants’) written by him while he was at TSR grating and pompous (especially the infamous anti-Lord of the Rings one, which caused my adolescent self great dismay). While my few interactions with him online in the early part of this century (within a couple of Q&A threads at RPG forums) were pleasant and informative, I suspect that I should be grateful that I did not know him better, as I doubt (based on my limited knowledge) that I would have found his personality and views congenial overall. But so what? It’s his positive creative contributions that count. (Many of my favourite authors are people whom I probably would not be that fond of in real life, e.g., H.P. Lovecraft.)

Despite their flaws, I find the materials that comprise golden age ‘Gygaxiana’—the core hardback AD&D rulebooks (plus Monster Manual 2, and some parts of Unearthed Arcana), the classic modules (G1-3, D1-3, S1, WG4, etc.), the World of Greyhawk, and so forth—to be evocative, unique, and wonderful fun.


  1. I agree. Most of what we consider to be "RPG fantasy" these days is really Gygaxian fantasy particularly. I feel like any description of it isn't complete, though, without an acknowledgement of his actuarial tendencies. A lot of what gives the game his particular flavor is his way of shaping events through statistical probabilities. It's one of the reasons that I most love the AD&D 1E DMG random wilderness encounters, both the method of determining when they occur and what is encountered. But also the ways that he described the matter of treasures with treasure types, the distribution of magic items, gems (on page 25-26 or maybe 27, since it came up in our last session), and so on.

  2. I found a few Chord books very informative regards Greyhawk in general.

  3. Akrasia,

    Interesting that you brought this up, as I've been thinking/reading a lot of Gygax's writings both in AD&D and earlier in OD&D.

    What do you think of Gary's writings pre-AD&D?

    I've heard of a concept, from both Daniel over at Delta's OD&D blog and by Ray Otus over at the Plunderground podcast - that there is "Gamer Gary" and "Rules Gary". I have to admit, when reading OD&D and AD&D, when reading his articles pre-77 and post 77/78, there is a difference in tone. Like his codification of D&D into AD&D changed his outlook, or the change in his outlook affected AD&D.

    1. This post was mainly about Gygax's 'world making' -- the World of Greyhawk, the modules, and the elements of the core books that concern the 'ethos' of the kinds of realms and adventures Gygax envisioned for AD&D in the hardbacks (Greyhawk and Greyhawk-ish homebrew worlds). I think that by 1977 Gygax's sense of what fantasy campaigns should 'look like' -- what kinds of elements it should contain, the nature of magic and the role of magic items, the roles of the different classes, races, deities, etc. -- comes into focus. Prior to 1977 he's still sorting things out (which is why the earlier works, when they describe world-related matters, are more sketchy, haphazard, and 'gonzo' in places [e.g., the martians in the original monsters booklet]). From 1977-84 Gygax has a clear overall 'vision' for fantasy worlds and adventures, one that is (reasonably) coherent if eclectic.

    2. As for rules, I agree that there is something like a break around 1977. Like his world building, I think that the pre-1977 material is more exploratory, tentative, and free-wheeling. From 1977 Gygax has a clearer sense of how AD&D *ought* to be run. It becomes a bit byzantine (sometimes in a good way, e.g., the magic system with all the components, the weird rules for bards, and sometimes in a bad way, e.g., the original unarmed combat rules in the DMG, psionics). But AD&D definitely is meant to be more structured in consistent across games. (I vaguely recall his opinion essay, "Poker, Chess, and AD&D" [or something like that] wherein he denounced strongly "house ruling" in AD&D -- despite doing it constantly himself.)

      I like some aspects of the additional codification and complexity in AD&D. Some of it even contributes to the flavour of the game. But I think Gygax went a bit too far in opposing variant rules, etc. Something in between the "anything goes" chaos of 0e and the "one true way" lawful outlike of 1e would've been best IMO.

    3. "Poker, Chess and the AD&D Game System" from Dragon #67, Nov 1982.

      Wow, that was quite a read. That's "Angry" Gary, as opposed to "Gamer" Gary.

      I tend to see his rules and setting intertwined, partly because I get the feeling that in his head, Gary did the same. It seems like most of the original authors saw D&D not as setting separate from the rules, but both intertwined.

      In some ways, I could even say his vociferous article is a proof towards that - folks who altered AD&D were somehow altering what he saw as his child - his Greyhawk campaign.

      Well, we could speculate all day, I'm sure. Although, now I'm curious as to this simplified grappling/physical combat system he mentions in that article...

    4. Regarding: "I tend to see his rules and setting intertwined..."
      I agree with this and didn't mean to suggest otherwise. I meant only that my focus in this post was more on the latter (setting/world). But they 'kind' of world in which AD&D adventures 'should' take place is strongly implied by the AD&D rules.

      Regarding: "I'm curious as to this simplified grappling/physical combat system he mentions in that article..."
      I haven't looked at that article in years (although now that I know which issue it is in I may do so in the near future -- thanks for the reference). But two 'simplified' unarmed combat systems are in Unearthed Arcana. He probably was referring to one of those.

    5. I was on the outside of this, perfectly happy with my White bookset, and the early supplements, and my own game worlds, designed using book 3 Underworld and Wilderness Adventures along with a few other magazine articles and supplements. For example, I never saw Gary's article in issue 67 of Dragon, because my original subscription ended in the 40's, and I think I bought like issue 54, 55, 56, like that. Somewhere right around there I stopped by Dragon magazine, becuase the tone of Dragon changed about that time, and it was no longer a magazine about RPG gaming in general, but became an AD&D only focused magazine, and I had liked all the reviews and discussion of other RPGs, and articles for game conversions and what-not, and they abruptly stopped publishing articles like this just a few issues after issue 50.

      I bought the Greyhawk folio in 1980, and used it for the Heraldry, and enjoyed Darlene's maps, but that was about the extent of it. Everyone in my gaming group made their own campaign world and detailed that, adding it what they wanted from Fantasy and Science Fantasy, and skipping everything else.

      First D&D world I played in regularly, from my first GM was set in post-apocalyptic Spain after a terrible nuclear and biological war. We were playing in this setting about a year before Gamma World was released, mind you, and it was a real place on Earth, where magic now worked.

      By 1980 I had at least three campaign worlds that I had designed. One inspired by Middle Earth (but not in Middle Earth) with lots of Hobbits, Elves, and Orcs and such. Another a series of human-centric feudal kingdoms vaguely based on Post-apocalyptic America, but with Bards and floatstone, and Ioun stone magic, and grassy plains and low rolling hills interspersed with rivers and lakes, but no one had even seen an ocean there, ever.

      My third original setting was the kitchen sink setting where I threw in everything from my favorite fantasy authors, Tamertheon, from the Jerry Pournelle Jannisary novels, There were gates and portals here leading to Middle-Earth and Earthsea, you could walk across a portion of the map that contained "The Land" and meet Thomas Covenant, Bloodguard, and Urviles. You could visit Gor and Avalon, Barsoom, Narnia, nd WitchWorld. In the North you could find Hyborea, Cimmeria, and Set. Later on in the early 80's I added Sanctuary from Thieves world, and Shannara, and Midkemia.I just never needed any AD&D campaign setting, and just used the reference tables in the AD&D rules for the longest time, for my 0D&D game worlds.

  4. Great post; I share the sentiment. As much as I love Holmes Basic D&D, Gary's work on the first three AD&D hardcovers, the World of Greyhawk and his various modules of the era is the pinnacle of RPG writing for me.

  5. I'm still amazed that WotC hasn't released the Greyhawk setting. Its not as if they were fighting with Gary and trying to deny him out of spite the way TSR was.

  6. Yeah, it's easy to lose sight of just how much information is crammed into the DMG 1e by way of its small font.

  7. Gygax was simply amazing--but yes. There was Table Gary and Corporate Gary.

    I watched D&D become a bloated, toned down, over-defined thing through Unearthed Arcana and Dragon Magazine from 1983-1989 and didn't really comprehend what had happened with Gygax and whats her name. Then second edition came out and I went to college and everyone was playing other games--Shadowrun, Cyberpunk, Vampire, then computer games. And I drifted away.

    Then my children got old enough for role playing, and I went back to Greyhawk and 1eAD&D. And delved into Vance--and it all clicked. From my campaign log: "PROLOGUE: THE ANCIENT LAND The world is old, and the sun is dying. Ruins of older civilizations dot the landscape and give tell of forgotten aeons even older than the ancient Bakluni and Suel empires. The sphere and influence of civilized culture is narrow, and humanity seems to be on the decline. Outside the borders of human and demi-human realms, and sometimes even within them, monstrous beasts lurk, waiting to plunder, kill, and enslave the unready. Where these hordes of inhuman foes come from, no-one can say, but perhaps they are as old as the advanced and incomprehensible civilizations that rose and fell through the sweep of millenniae. Undoubtedly these civilizations are the source of most known relics and talismans and objects of dweomer--could not also these monsters be the fevered experiments of some diseased wizard? Even now within recorded and surviving history, human wizards delve deeper into lost magics and grasp toward secrets perhaps better left alone. Just two centuries ago some archmage created a cross of bear and owl that now roams wild in number...

    But all is not dark! Fantastic creatures live within the world, willing to aid the forces of good: Wise Lammasu, godlike Ki-Rin, rare but powerful good dragons, and legendary unicorns and pegasi--among others!--may give help in evil times. Here and there, humankind is turning to its own resources to survive, no longer importuning the elder races for help or existing on the robbing of the tombs of past aeons. Perhaps the illimitable magic of old can be restored or the sun even given new life. It is equally likely that some mercifully stayed evil or pestilence might be cloddishly released to end the world..."

    So, by taking Greyhawk stripping it down and Vancing it up, setting Greyhawk at the end of the Oerth, so far in the future that tectonic motion has made the land unrecognizable, and all settings ever created possible in that vast sweep of time, magic and technology created and lost and created again, I liberated myself from the late 80s vanilla medievalesque pastiche and stepped into the pinpoints of light end of aeons gonzo realm.

    Realizing that Table Gary was a "Whatever you want pard, you do realize you don't even have to ask me, right?" and Corporate Gary was a "There is one true way, buy these books, do it THIS way!" guy made the two guys Gary was clear. But that came to me only within the past five years, and the clarity of the internet. Gary's like a father that I used to try to respect and follow because I thought He knew better. Now I respect and follow him as my own grown man with my own authority.

    But yes, everything you said. I run a houseruled AD&D Campaign, circa 1983-1985, as an impartial DM who lets the situation I've set up, the players, and the dice create a story that we discover together and almost anything is possible.


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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who divides his time between Milwaukee and Toronto.