As a young Dungeon Master in the early 90’s I frequently ran parties through the wonderful campaign setting of Greyhawk. Sure, from time to time we found adventure in the macabre land of Ravenloft or ran through Dragonlance as it burned, but our heart really belonged to Greyhawk. Nowadays I am strictly a homebrew setting type of DM, but there is one aspect of Greyhawk that I refer to from time to time. The City of Greyhawk boxed set is probably the most useful, thorough, and cool campaign supplement that I can possibly imagine. It came out in 1989 and I still find it to be extremely relevant and, despite the fact that I have read it about a thousand times, I always find something in it that I can throw into an adventure.
For a single supplement it really contained a lot of information. Inside of the box the eager DM finds waiting for him two books, four very large maps, and an entire series of short modules. The two books are really the heart of the boxed set; Greyhawk: Gem of the Flanaess details the actual city, while Greyhawk: Folk, Feuds, and Factions is all about the inhabitants of Oerth’s primary city. As a teenager I was really just beginning to hone the craft of creating adventures for players, most of the time they were one shot style games that had little to do with the previous sessions. The characters would continue and sometimes NPC’s would resurface, but the idea of actually having the PC’s inhabit a world that lived and moved not only around the PC’s, but even in their absence, was not just a novel idea but one that may have been over the head of a thirteen year old. The Greyhawk boxed set changed all of that for me. For the first time I saw a game world that existed outside of a module, that is the citizens of Greyhawk had lives that they lived that had nothing to do with the invasion of evil giants or the secret slavers latest attempt to capture unsuspecting folks. It made them so much more real, and in turn really contributed to the world that the PC’s were looting their way through. Something clicked with me and I continue to design worlds like this to this day.
I have a confession. I thought that the maps were so cool that I had one hanging on my wall as a poster. I was 27. Kidding about the 27 part, but it was hanging in my bedroom for a long time. The four maps are phenomenal. Three of them show the city from the same point of view and scale, but each has a different spin on things. One of them (my poster) has a nice color detail of the city. The buildings are all visible and the city teems with life and action. Another map shows the city with very little details, but all of the buildings and areas are marked with a number and letter, which corresponds to an entry in the Gem of the Flanaess book. I’d gaze longingly at my poster and when a building seemed intriguing to me I would look it up and learn all about it. What’s that weird building that looks like a temple at the foot of the Grand Citadel? Oh, it’s the Lord’s Tomb. It even lists the guards that will typically be there, even some of the jokes that they make when killing time. The third map shows the same view, but reveals the underground of the city. Sewers, secret passages, crypts, and even cisterns! Wow, that is some level of detail. The fourth map places Greyhawk in context with the world around it, which is cool, but why would you ever want to leave Greyhawk?
It’s not just that the boxed set contained so much information, for what is quantity without quality? But the information contained within was top notch. The NPC’s in particular were all well thought out and they all made sense. They were not just one dimensional foils for the PC’s or overly generous benefactors anxious to part with magic items. They had agendas! They had lives! They did things. One of my favorites was the detailed descriptions of Mordenkainen and the Circle of Eight. A group of nine powerful wizards, I had been using their spells for years without knowing a thing about them (for the most part, I had picked up some info here and there). Now I knew everything about them, including their relationships with one another and why they created the types of spells that they did. It was a revelation to my inquisitive mind. I had no idea that Otto was obese. Shocking. I also appreciated how several of the NPC’s were presented at several stages of their career, making it easy to drop them into any campaign. One of my favorites was Varmai Zendeihei, a young lawful good warrior working to benefit the folks of Greyhawk. Over time she discovers a paired of cursed bracers created by Vecna and slowly transforms over time into an evil, trusted agent of Iuz. The book contains stats for her various incarnations and levels of power over different points in time.
The adventure cards that came with the book were also excellent and great for a night of adventuring, usually on the outskirts of the city. Inside the box are 23 of these adventures. They were short (all the info was on both sides of a single piece of paper) and usually quirky and compelling. They range from simple (watching over a shop while the keeper is out of town on business) to deadly (retrieving a broken staff from the crypt of a lich). My personal favorite was Vote for the Goat, in which the party is hired to provide protection for a goat that is running for political office. Great stuff all around.
Of all the TSR products of my youth, the City of Greyhawk boxed set may be my favorite. Certainly the one with the most impact. It just seemed so limitless to me in it’s scope and ambition, and what was capable with a game of D&D. Do they still make things like this today? I have no idea. I hope so. I was at the bookstore the other day and noticed the obscene amount of 4th edition material that is out there, perhaps there is another City of Greyhawk out there somewhere. I would think not though. Flipping through the Greyhawk boxed set one thing that jumps out is the lack of numbers. It is not entry after entry of feats, spells, magic items, and prestige classes. It is about enhancing a game through NPC’s and a rich world to explore, rather than by elevating the power level and providing the PC’s with endless opportunities to specialize their characters.