From The Ashes
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From The Ashes by Carl Lynwood Sargent is the second edition of the Greyhawk setting. It was one of the most drastic and skubworthy changes of this era. But first, we need to explain what it was that Sargent broke.
The March to Fail
The Greyhawk setting up through the 1980s was an organic process with many, many D&D gamers involved. Most of those gamers had grown up in 1950s-60s America. Whatever their personal differences they shared several traits: an optimistic view of human progress, a deep personal knowledge of European culture and history, an appreciation for post-Carolingian civilisation, and Protestantism in its Anglican / Lutheran form. Together the Greyhawk setting illustrated The Good in its central nations Veluna and Furyondy: quietly religious, militant against clear Eeevil, mostly tolerant. "Evil" included Vikings, Calvinism (The Pale), parodic Catholicism (Medegia), decadent Rome (the Great Kingdom), and of course the chaos in Iuz. For Greyhawk, Islam was something faraway - it wasn't exoticised or "Orientalised", so much as deemed not-a-problem. (Contrast, the Desert Nomad series.) Equatorial rainforests absolutely were exoticised: this is where gamers got the Robert Howard out of their system.
As a result, adventurers in Greyhawk are active - they push forward the borders of civilisation - not reactive. Sometimes adventurers can screw up, and let loose a serious bane like Zuggtmoy in Temple of Elemental Evil or the chained god in that Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun; but this was considered a hazard of the job. Some other adventurer maybe could come by to clean up the mess.
When Lorraine Williams took over TSR, she did away with those old gamers, starting with Gary himself. With Second Edition, her TSR chose to upend the table, with the Greyhawk Wars metaplot. Sargent had come to the ground-floor helping with the City box and then kicked off the metaplot with WGS1: Five Shall Be One; he got the nod to do the new boxed set, to "Build Back Better" as we'd put it.
Sargent built something, all right. The good doctor of parapsychology, as noted in his biography, wasn't all right in the head. He also came with a British viewpoint, which hadn't been the American viewpoint in some generations. For Sargent, the struggle against evil was something visceral and real. It wasn't about taming the wilderness, for him; it was about the Second World War. War itself was a horror; and at the end of the war, the good guys lose ground.
From The Ashes proposes a world in which Iuz has united all the barbarous and also-evil nations in the centre of Greyhawk, and attacked its neighbours; allowing other nations to make separate-peace to expand their own evil. If a nation is redundant to this vision, like the Horned Society, it is simply gone. (This nation returns, in spirit, in Scarred Lands as Calastia and later in Golarion as Cheliax.) The Great Kingdom collapses, to become a chaotic and demonic land like Iuz once was. The Scarlet Brotherhood picks up the Lawful Evil mantle from both, with aspects of /pol/; because who cares about original character-building let's punch a Nazi. The Bright Desert is now a new nation - of evil, under Brian Blume's Rary character, now called the Traitor ... a fitting mirror to his player, now we think about it.
But at least the good nations are still pure of heart and safe havens... er, no. Oh, no. Celene the elven kingdom went isolationist early on, telling Furyondy-Veluna LOL, GLWT. Those nations themselves are weakened by internal strife, where the duchies south of the frontier flat don't care that the border marchlands are facing rapacious demons. None of this assholery is anywhere intimated in prior Greyhawk lore.
These new evil superpower nations are described as horrific beyond what older Greyhawk had laid out - certainly because Carl Sargent had demons of his own.
Greyhawk splatbooks and modules continued to be released for the post-Sargent Greyhawk. These developed the horrors left in its wake. Sargent did many of these himself: City of Skulls, for instance. Eventually TSR itself died and Sargent had to release his Great Kingdom splatbook across the #200s issues of Dragon. And then Sargent himself went poof.
Under the New Management of Wizards of the Coast, the oldest guard and the newcomers agreed on One Thing: they liked the old Greyhawk, not this GRIMDARK para-Warhammer what Sargent had left them. So another Gazetteer came out tamping down some of this stuff. A common ground was reached: Sargent's lore could be mined by DMs crafting adventures into the heart of darkness, but as affecting the wider Flanaess, those times of woe belonged in the past.
We'd like to report that the whole episode became a cautionary tale in how to treat an established canon, elsewhere. It annoys people when you tear up bits people liked while introducing new bits no one requested in an effort to reinvent the setting entire. But then came 4e, and it not only reinvented the multiverse by switching from the Great Wheel to the World Axis, it went on to strike the Forgotten Realms with the terribly received Spellplague storyline that similarly wrecked the setting, resulting in the intense fan-backlash of the early years of that game that only an exodus of the most-butthurt players to Pathfinder, and the later introduction of substantially better-recieved settings, began to dim. Perhaps the historical analogy to TSR and Wizards isn't pioneer America or World War II; perhaps it's the fucking Bourbon family, forgetting nothing and learning nothing with each new fuck-up.