Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Greyhawk vs. the Forgotten Realms - my play experience

This is me expanding on my comments over at Tenkar's Tavern on the subject of the Forgotten Realms vs. Greyhawk.

So, Forgotten Realms vs. Greyhawk?


For me, looking back on my campaigns - how many, how long - the Forgotten Realms wins.

I had more games go longer in the FR than in Greyhawk, using the FR boxed set and some early supplements - and actually a couple later ones too, now that I know enough to recognize them as post-whatever-that-killing-the-gods-thing-was.


The really simple answer?

The maps.

The Forgotten Realms boxed set had these hexless non-glossy maps with a smaller scale (1"=30 miles to Greyhawk's 1/3" hexes at 30 miles each), and came with a hex-based and ruled clear distance overlay. I could draw on the maps and put in roads, mark spots, etc. and only put down hexes and distances as they mattered - between two actual points. Greyhawk's maps are beautiful, but they are glossy (can't easily mark them up) and the scale was big enough that I needed to draw a new map to really play in a given area. Which was time consuming, so I didn't do it often. I think that contributed in a major way to my play in the FR. Smaller-scale maps you can draw on - that made continuous play in the same area easy.

The FR maps made the place feel very friendly, very changeable, and very accessible to me. The Greyhawk maps made the place feel very big, very expansive, and very cold to me. Beautiful, but without an easy handle. The games I played on it traveled a lot, or plunked right down into a single small place and didn't move much. I think that's because of the maps more than anything else.

Other things might have helped, too - Greyhawk felt like a broad, sweeping wargame map to me. Kings and states, with adventures along the seams between states. FR felt like a playground of adventures, with kings and states laying on top of a rich layer of dungeons and adventure locales. It felt less solid and easier to dig around in, and easier to change. It felt set for adventures rather than set for wars, somehow, to me.

What about canon?

Screw the canon.

Seriously. Just start where and when you want to start, and ignore the rest. It's not important, or relevant, to your games.

I won't lie - the thickness of the later canon could be a problem in the Forgotten Realms if you let it. But Greyhawk came with later canon too. I just killed off Elminister* (who needs another person's Mary Sue?) and let the players run around doing crazy crap. I think canon might make the FR more of a problem for more people - which canon do you use, do you keep up with it, are later supplements useful to you? But Greyhawk has the same - Greyhawk Wars (which I had, played, and then sold for a mint), the 2e/3e Greyhawk setting adventures, the Greyhawk books (by Gygax, Niles, and others), etc.

In the end you need to use your own canon, and I may have just gotten in early enough, hard enough, and with my own stubborn insistence on "my way" not "the books" pushing me through. I'd hear with amusement about Drzzt and Blackstaff and Elminster in the books, but they mattered to me as much as stories about Gord and Mordenkainen and Tenser did in Greyhawk - not at all. They were just other people's war stories, nothing more, and they were superseded by things that had already happened in my own gaming there. No new canon made what I did wrong, but not the other way around.

You also need to completely the ignore the admonishments to avoid killing off name characters, and must largely ignore the Player Smackdown NPCs in both settings. When they tell you that whupping Iuz is bad, ignore them. When they tell you Manshoon is too tough to defeat, forget it and let him die if the PCs beat him.

Look a large amount of supplements for a setting as a huge amount of stuff you can choose from and choose to take advantage of. It's not required. Make sure your players know that, and you can comfortably co-exist with canon.

Forget the canon and just play and let your own canon develop.

And seriously, kill the creator's NPCs. Greyhawk is better once Mordenkainen is dead and gone and Iuz a valid target. The Forgotten Realms are better once Eliminster is a doddering old helpless dude and the PCs, not the NPCs, are the final shield against chaos. Get rid of them. You'll be happier and ultimately so will the players. And you can still use the supplements, since you want locations, NPCs, monsters, and sandboxy places - not more of the canonically important NPCs.

* Technically, I just made him a cranky old sage, not a mighty wizard. The PCs who thought he seemed cool got to talk to him, but that's all they ever did. He wasn't a canon-protector.


If you crave details, here is what I remember running:

In Greyhawk:

- A couple of short AD&D games way back in the day, mostly set vaguely in Greyhawk but not pinned to a location so much as floating from spot to spot. ("You are here, and the dungeon is over here, too.")

- A couple Rolemaster games for my cousin, solo.

- Two early GURPS games using 1st edition GURPS that were very short. One went a single fight and then one player quit (not sure why, but not game-related, and he came back shortly after before taking yet another break from gaming), and the other was going fine but then we suddenly switched to the Forgotten Realms.

In the Forgotten Realms:

- One or two abortive GURPS games set in Waterdeep, using FR1 Waterdeep and the North, which I may have gotten before the boxed set, or not. I can't recall now. These games only went a session or two, before they merged into . . .

- . . . my multi-year, overlapping group GURPS 1st edition/later 1st + Update/later 3e campaign. Something like a dozen players came and went in this one, around a core group. Players changed characters, or at least some did - others stuck around from start to finish with the same guys. The game ranged all over the world, from Waterdeep and the Dungeon of Death (my version, not the module) all the way south the Halruaa and east to Thay. That finally ended in a sputtering end as my gamers moved away or got pulled away.

- . . . my first big 3rd edition GURPS game, which started as a solo game for one of my players and his dwarf fighter with a pick. He then recruited his friends and they started to play. Some of my current group were in this one. This one lasted a bunch of years, and players came and went and games were started, ended, and then re-started all over the map again from Waterdeep to Halruaa (again) to Thay to the Sea of Stars to the far, far south (thank you, Travel Map of the Realms).

It was only after that game ended that I moved on to the Known Worlds of D&D (which I'd used in my AD&D days in High School, and in my Rolemaster days, also in High School) for a GURPS campaign.

So yeah, the FR won just by sheer use.


  1. I was about to say that Greyhawk won for me by virtue of my having abandoned AD&D when 2e came out, and having never owned any Forgotten Realms stuff (my only FR play is D&D 4e, LFR games at a game store, and I can count them on one hand) - but you played more GURPS in FR than anything else!

    1. I made the switch early, really - by the late 80s I was purely running GURPS, and that's when the FR stuff was rolling out in enough quantity that I could pick and choose from some really good stuff.

      But both settings are equally good for GURPS, Rolemaster, etc. - you need to adapt anyway, so who cares if you're tossing the stats out for the NPCs if you're really looking for setting and maps?

  2. Writing products for a DM = DMing DM's
    I want a sandbox map world not a story script for a world
    I find all licensed setting a risk - starwars, marvel, krynn, FR, Glorantha
    The Meta DM trying to block my DMing style and make his characters best
    I prefer your non-cannonical approach and prefer the early DIY settings
    Ive had many big worlds and have played for 5 years on one island with one horrible city - and multiple dungeons per 6 mile hex
    exotic other culture stuff is what you find in ruins and meet refugees from

  3. I agree with most of what you say, except for the implication that killing Manshoon is frawned apon in the source material. Manshoon is a deliberate joke about abusing ADnD magic to back yourself up in a transhuman fashion, so he's a crazy arch-villain that you need to kill frequently if you want to slow him down at all.

    ISTR a war story (not sure if it was official or a home campaign) where a bunch of high level PCs decided to take out all his secret clone backups before killing the current Manshoon only to discover that there was some sort of contingency to activate all of the clones simultaneously if more than two were destroyed in too short a time frame. Soon there were multiple Manshoons active at once, plotting against all that's fair and good, their assorted evil political enemies, the PC's specifically, and each other simultaneously, and spewing chaos and collateral damage around the Realms.

    Anyway, killing Manshoon is highly recommended.

    1. I chose Manshoon for a specific reason - in "Villain's Lorebook" (FR 9552) it says:
      "Campaign Uses: Manshoon is not an NPC player
      characters are likely to meet personally. First (like
      many of the high-level villains described in this
      book), he’s likely to overwhelm all but the most
      powerful parties of PCs. Second, he’s a behind-thescenes manipulator, not a mage who normally leaps
      into battle with his foes. The circumstances must be
      extreme for Manshoon to leave the center of the
      web of evil he’s spun over the last 100 years.
      Manshoon can play a part in any campaign, especially one where the PCs have made long-term foes
      of the Zhentarim as a whole. Manshoon stays well
      informed on the heroes of the Realms who attempt
      to thwart the efforts of the Black Network, and a
      chess game of moves and counterstrokes could develop between this cunning mage and a group of
      smart, lucky, and determined player-character heroes. Of course, no single PC group can halt a significant portion of the Zhentarim’s wide range of villainous acts (even the Harpers have been unable to
      do that), but certainly they can become a thorn in
      the side of the Zhentarim’s leader.

      That's actually one of those egregious canon examples of "here is a guy who you can't face, can't draw out, and whose organization you can't beat because even this group of NPCs can't do it." That kind of stuff you must ignore, true, but the implication isn't that you're supposed to fight and kill this guy but rather never get to confront him, only pat yourself on the back for eventually becoming tough enough to annoy.

      Even in the boxed set, though, describes his a foe who has others face danger for him, and who is "never there." (DM's Sourcebook of the Realms, p. 26)

      Those passages are why I chose him for an example.

    2. Well that's just stupid. (The quoted text, not your point.) Manshoon is an IDEAL PC punching bag, and killing him is REQUIRED to experience the fun and chaos of the multiple backup clones. More, I'm pretty sure that contradicts a bunch of canon where the Zhents hit the fan, Manshoon shows up and starts flying around blasting stuff with fireballs while monologing, and various heroes kick his ass, only to be told that they're members #478-483 of the "I killed Manshoon" club.

      That said, I've never owned (or even read) the _Villian's Lorebook_, so I never saw that dumbass passage.

      Or maybe I just filtered it all out without realizing it. I sorta knew Elimunckin and Blackstaff were supposed to be off limits, but otherwise assumed everyone else short of Ao was meant to be fair game.

    3. You can see why I say to ignore the canon, and let the NPCs die if the PCs manage to kill them. The canon tends to point to "don't, they're more important to the setting than your PCs" which is not really conducive to truly epic gaming stories of your own, the ones where the PCs actually matter.

  4. I must admit that I never played either. Even ignoring that I've always been a roll-your-own sort, I transitioned out of D&D to a variety of SFRPGs early in high school (I prefer fantasy, but most of my friends wanted SF) and thence to GURPS. So there's a huge chunk of gaming lore from just past the earliest days with which I have experience only through reading, not actual play. I sometimes think this means I lack a sufficient grasp of the language to talk to a lot of gamers even of my or the immediately following generation.

    1. I had my own campaign world in my teens, but once the FR boxed set came out I really latched on to that for the reasons I mentioned. It seemed very cool, and it was so easy to pick a place, drop some party in, and just go.

  5. I have played many FR campaigns, never a GH one, even though we used some adventures or other material (City of Greyhawk boxed set, for example).
    By the time we played AD&D (early 90s) the GH campaign world was waning, with fewer products on sale than those for FR, Dark Sun or Ravenloft. And those modules (Border Watch, Iuz the Evil, etc,) weren't that good, focusing on combat and dungeon crawl - even good ones were haunted by irritating errors (the missing map of the top floor of the tower in Rary the Traitor!!!).
    Forgotten Realms was perceived as something really deep and detailed (ah, the FR Adventures hardcover...) and so vast you could find everything you liked.
    But I guess that in the early 80s playing tha classic GH modules was the best!

  6. FR of the two, but above either of them I'd put Dark Sun, Ravenloft, or Al-Qadim. But mostly we played in FR. Everyone always complained about the higher power NPCs, but I never got it. You don't complain in modern games that you're not the President of the US, do you?

    Then again, I also never was down with the "no interacting with NPCs except in the approved manner." Players want to try to kill Elminster, let them try. And he's not swooping in to save the world instead of the Ayers because there's more than one threat to the world.

  7. And by "everyone" I mean "everyone on the internet." Our group never had a problem with it. Though I do wish FR had Draconians. My very first game was a Dragonlance campaign, and Draconians were fun enemies.

    1. I think the NPC thing is that the Realms are replete with high-level adventurers, to the extent that it's kind of curious that you are useful or needed to do anything. I think I mentioned that in my Undermountain review, too - if Waterdeep has dozens of name-level (and even 20+ level) NPCs, why is there a dungeon full of city-threatening evil under it, and why is it okay for PCs to go and stir it up? It just feels like a big open question. In a modern game you don't get to the US president, but if aliens attack, why are your everyday Americans expected to handle the load? And how is it fun if you aren't?

      That's really the issue there. Greyhawk handles that better (not a lot of high-level folks waiting to swoop in) but the FR is easily playable if you make the assumption the high-level folks are already seriously pressed for time to deal with other problems, and if some of them just can't handle it if you don't. IME, anyway.

    2. I played more D&D through computer games than table top. And that meant games like eye of the beholder until eventually Baldurs Gate and Icewind Dale.

      I thought the latter games did a fairly good job of letting you stomp all over canon

    3. IME, the FR were rarely "hey, lvl 1 characters, go stop the alien invasion.". It was "hey, lvl 1 characters, go investigate those weird cattle mutilations out in BFE.". By the time it got big enough to be " save the world from a full on cross dimensional invasion by demon cows" the players were a high enough level to usefully deal with that (given adventure design principles) and the high level locals were helping out somewhere in the background. There are obviously poorly designed modules out there that were exceptions to this rule, but usually the answer to why the high level guys weren't fixing high level problems was "they were to some extent, somewhere" and "the PCs got there first."

      I always snapped my suspenders of disbelief when you had a world full of low level baddies. I remember in Eberron there's a thousand year old half dragon half elf lich that's only like 13th level, and I'm like "what has she been doing all that time?!". I dislike PC exceptionalism, and while the PCs are badasses, I prefer worlds where there are multiple other people who followed the same route to power prior to the PCs.

    4. While I get that, I also maintain that the FR has a plethora of high-level NPCs who are specifically there to deal with trouble, and yet don't deal with obvious trouble implicit in the setting. Waterdeep and Undermountain are a good but not sole example of that thing. At no point did I bring up the FR handing out serious challenges to level 1 guys. I'd say the case is the presence of many of the good NPCs makes it implausible that the PCs can have an impact.

      But my play style might be different - I think PC exceptionalism is a great thing. I'd rather have people playing Elric than playing some guy in the Young Kingdoms who mucks around while the really important people handle the really important stuff.

      Which is why I say, grab the canon you like, toss the rest, and put the PCs center-stage.


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