Old-ass setting made with help from the G-man himself; lots of the core fluff is from here.
This setting is by far the best one - Toril can go fuck itself because Oerth is THE SHIT! A peasant's life is full of shit, just like it should be. Magic items do not grow on trees in Oerth. The Gods are not going to help with every little problem you have here. The Blood War's origin is actually clear and logical. And the Circle of Eight are
total badasses well... it's complicated.
Technically, the very first dungeon-crawl was Blackmoor, made by Dave Arneson jury-rigging the old Chainmail rules with some naval war shit. But just after that, Dave invited Gary Gygax over for a session of this new thing where you didn't play a whole army or even a unit, just a single guy exploring a dungeon, taking loot and learning to do better stuff over time. Gary was so excited and energized by this new idea that within 2 weeks he had bashed out a whole set of rules for dungeon-crawling with individual characters, and designed the first level of a dungeon he called Castle Greyhawk. Two of his kids ran the game in Gary's basement (setting a precedent for geeks forever), followed the next few days by three more of Gary's buddies.
Gary, being the genius he was, just kept adding on to the thing. When the characters needed a place to rest, sell loot, buy equipment, etc., he invented the city of Greyhawk. He got a little lazy and just made the continent they were in North America with modifications (Greyhawk is very roughly equivalent to Chicago). But overall, he worked pretty furiously to create this gorgeous hot mess of a campaign setting that everyone came to love. Castle Greyhawk started off ending at just 13 levels; Rob Kuntz came in as co-DM and added another 37 levels for 50 total, making Castle Greyhawk one of the biggest fucking dungeons ever made AND run by actual players. Gary had up to 20 people in his basement in those days, all clamoring for a chance to play this radical new thing.
All in all, not a terrible way to start off the iconic setting of the Granddaddy of all RPGs.
The world of Greyhawk is called Oerth, which has four continents: Oerik (upper hemisphere), Telchuria (also called Hyperboria in old sources, north pole area), Hepmonaland (large tropical island continent SE of Oerik), and some southern continent nobody ever gave a shit about.
Gary confirmed in various places that it's basically an alternate Earth, and there are others with different vowels at the beginning of their names (Aerth, Uerth, and Yarth); each of the alternate worlds has varying levels of magic, but Oerth seems to have the most.
Almost all material dealing with the setting takes place on this continent. The actual Greyhawk setting itself takes place in the eastern region of Oerik, called the Flanaess, which is mostly considered to be the areas formerly belonging to the Suloise and Baklunish Empires (now the Sea of Dust and the Baklunish Basin, respectively), and everything to the east of those areas all the way to the Solnor Ocean.
West of the Flanaess is a bit of a problem due to lack of consistent mapping by various official contributions to the setting. The early-2000's Chainmail miniatures game (a revamp of the ancient wargame rules) was set in what is called the Sundered Empire to the far western shore of Oerik, which may kind of contradict/overwrite the ancient map of Oerik found in Dragon Annual #1, though nothing a clever DM can't handwave or ignore if they want. Likewise, between those two extreme distances is supposedly an "Oriental"/Asian-style area for all the weeaboo stuff to come from. The Dragon Annual map lists the Celestial Imperium (China), the Low and High Khanate (Mongolia), Nippon and the Nippon Dominion (Japan, and possibly a Korea analogue since the Japanese did invade proto-Korea IRL at various points in history ), and Zindia (okay, seriously Gary, what the actual fuck, at least try to be more original).
Sprinkled all over the old map are some ancient but fascinating stuff for a DM to work with. In fact, one of the setting's well-known character, Robilar, supposedly went into the west to learn to tame and ride dragons (maybe the Empire of Lynn?). Since it's never been really touched by official hands, the sky's the limit out there. Go nuts, DMs.
While it is mostly undeveloped by official sources, this is basically your standard "Green Hell" tropical continent with primitive cultures/peoples there. Basically a mix of Africa and South America from what little is known about it.
Typical arctic region. Not much to talk about, really.
There's some neckbeards who debate about exactly where and what this area is. There were some novels and other sources that take place on Oerth that mention areas like Aquaria and Gonduria (seriously, Gary, ripping off LOTR isn't an improvement on shit like Zindia), but nothing was ever officially done with that stuff. If you give a shit, read the Gord novels. Otherwise, make something up.
Flanaess has six races of humanity:
- The green-eyed Baklunish, who used to have a big empire before the Invoked Destruction (which no one alive remembers the form of) but have retained the rest of their culture. Basically Arabic type culture, including having the same naming conventions and similar social mores.
- The nomadic nature-loving Flan, Flanaess's first human settlers. They don't get mentioned a lot, but they apparently could do some impressive magical stuff in ancient times. How impressive? They basically are the ones who created druid magic as it is understood in the setting, and an evil offshoot of the race, the Ur-Flan, were some of the most dreaded and powerful necromancers of ancient times (Vecna was an Ur-Flan in life, if that gives any indication). Their people are mostly mixing in with the Oeridians, but there's still a few old holdouts of pure Flan here and there. In culinary terms, the Flan are best served drizzled with dulce de leche and the Ur-Flan are their rich, chocolate-y counterparts.
- The warlike Oeridians, who
havehad an empirefuckhuge kingdom that covered a lot of the eastern Flanaess. They'd migrated eastward from that vale now called Ull and run by some of the eviler Bakluni, setting up their (later) empire in the map we got. Unlike the Suloise and Baklunish, however, instead of deciding to fuck up some other race of people, they decided to fuck themselves up and their huge kingdom splintered in all kinds of little nation-states. Some of them kept terms like "county" and "duchy", others gave a middle finger or two and called themselves a kingdom outright. 3e strongly implies that some remnant Oerids survive in Ull but nobody cares.
- The barbaric, jungle-dwelling Olman, who lost their empire to internal strife. The Suloise came up and enslaved a lot of them to work on plantations in southern Flanaess, surprising exactly nobody who know what racist dicks the Suloise generally are.
- The foreign Rhennee, short sailors who come from Rhop, either another continent or another plane and ply Flanaess's riverways. They're basically Gypsies, just on rivers instead of land, and have all the good and bad about that IRL ethnic group (both in terms of reputation and in terms of actual behavior).
- And the fair-skinned Suloise, whose wicked empire was destroyed in the Rain of Colorless Fire (a mutual kill with the Baklunish empire above, actually, called the Twin Cataclysms - there was a Cold War on at the time they wrote all this). The Suloise are basically the Nordic/German types in the setting, including the racist baggage that that connotation comes with. They have a not-so-secret society known as the Scarlet Brotherhood devoted to the idea that since the Suloise were once an empire who totally didn't fuck shit up being arrogant pricks, this is the perfect justification to ensure the purity and superiority of their race. And how do they do that? By doing everything they can to assassinate, brainwash, extort, or just plain trick their way into toppling entire nations, enslaving practically every living sapient being who isn't Suloise (including other humans like the Olman and Tuov), and otherwise giving the very few Suloise who are halfway decent a really shitty name. Even the barbarian Suloise in northern Flanaess are dicks who raid and shit on everyone around them, including one another. (Note that they basically were the first ones to fire off the Twin Cataclysms; the Invoked Devastation came first, made by the Suloise.) There are a lot of decent Suloise elsewhere, but they get the side-eye every time the Brotherhood appears. You can never be too sure...
These humans all have their own languages, though Suloise is basically extinct. Flan is the oldest, and shares roots with Druidic. Common in Greyhawk is a widely popular fusion of ancient Baklunish and Oeridian. This is without going into the specific dialects, like Cold Tongue, a version of Suloise spoken by frost barbarians.
There are, naturally, other human subgroups based on Asian and other ethnic groups, but they never really get talked about.
Really, there's just an encyclopedia of other races, but they are all pretty archtypical D&D stuff. You have different varieties of elves, dorfs, halflings, gnomes, etc. If you've played enough fantasy RPG in the past 20 years, none of this will be much of a shock.
One interesting note is that the D&D terms of various kinds of elves are different in other settings. Both Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance have different names for their elven subgroups, yet their culture is pretty much completely the same (with minor changes according to specific history in those settings). Same with dwarves and halflings. But don't worry, dark elves are still evil bastards who worship a demonic bitch-goddess no matter what setting they are in, apparently. The Complete Book Series even specifically spells out that the different ethnicities of Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms elves are just setting-specific and slightly color-unique tweaks on the "generic" elven subraces of High, Gray, Wood, Wild and Dark.
In general, Greyhawk tries to tone down the presence and importance of demihumans as much as possible, since this was Gygax's baby and he was going for a much more humanocentric Sword & Sorcery inspired setting than the likes of Narnia or Tollers' Beleriand. (Contrast later Dragonlance and the Forgotten Realms.)
Notable nations in Flanaess include the isolationist elven Kingdom of Celene, the temperate trading nexus Dyvers, the ancient and fertile Kingdom of Keoland (inhabited by a mixture of Suel and Oeridians), the evil enigmatic Scarlet Brotherhood, the decadent Great Kingdom of Northern Aerdy which currently has an uprising problem, the Baklunish Caliphate of Ekbir, the Free City of Greyhawk (another trade nexus), the walled harbor city of Irongate and the greater Iron League, its neighbor the rich but war-torn Onnwal, the slaving Orcish Empire of the Pomarj to the south of Greyhawk, and the Empire of Iuz the Old One, who likes to stir shit up.
Try not to get the frost barbarians (the Fruztii, who are slowly becoming more 'civilized' to the older jarls' displeasure), ice barbarians (the Cruski, who hate the Scarlet Brotherhood with a passion after they poisoned Old King Cralstag), and snow barbarians (the Schnai, who share a forest border with the frost barbarians) mixed up. They're all Suel vikings, and worship a sleeping god called Vatun, which let Iuz trick them into starting a war for him some years ago.
The City of Greyhawk, however, is where the game often ends up centering at least some, if not most, of the action. But that's not shocking. Nobody gives a flying fuck about what happens in Buffalo unless they live there, but what happens in New York could have an impact on the world, if not the nation. Greyhawk is the same way: it's the largest city in the region, and its status as a free city means that it is a gigantic melting pot of merchants, refugees, political officials, adventurers, and pretty much anyone else who isn't some piss-poor farmer digging through mud every day to make enough to eat. (Lampshaded a little by the fact that, if you break it down in 3.5, a farmer can make a rather impressive amount of money through the careful application of Craft/Profession skills.) The city has everything for sale (though some things are naturally easier or cheaper to get than other things), and so much weird shit passes through there that only Sigil is more cosmopolitan, because actual fiends and angels walking the streets is still a little "gaudy" on the Material Plane.
Until 4th edition every edition change's fluff explanation was the result of some event in the Greyhawk setting, or at least tangent to it. Although these tended not to track with the greatest changes in Greyhawk itself.
For 1st to 2nd the explanation was a great plague with mysterious origins that was altering the fabric of reality and magic itself... but this had nothing to do with the Greyhawk Wars metaplot, which came later in second-edition, done to give the finger to Gary on his way out - and the Forgotten Realms even had their own entirely separate explanation for the 1e-to-2e shift, in the form of the Time of Troubles. Greyhawk got its next major update, accordingly, within tail-end 2e after Lorraine rode off on her broomstick and such people as respected the original trickled back in. All that Vecna shit happened after Greyhawk was already back on its feet.
The Fall and Rise of Greyhawk
Post-Gygax TSR - meaning You Know Who - came close to killing this golden goose.
She/they started modestly enough, with (for instance) the Greyhawk hardcover, a few middling WG modules - and the City of Greyhawk box, using the Brit Carl Lynwood Sargent to design the last. Then TSR had Skip Williams publish WG9 and WG10. These were the Dumb and Dumber in the module series, sinking the WG line in gamers' estimation. Meanwhile 1987 saw those Rose Estes novels, which ran off fans of the books.
In the 1990s this incarnation of TSR then kicked over the gaming table by siccing Sargent on From The Ashes, which turned Greyhawk into GRIMDARK. Although his version has its supporters, it divided the community and, of course, it was nothing like what the older gamers had imagined. It further got somewhat outshined by Forgotten Realms (due to over-publication of novels and other material), as well as the secondary lines/settings. But all the old neckbeards loved the homebrew feel of the original Greyhawk.
For the "Living Greyhawk" campaign and Gazetteer, WOTC decided to reverse TSR's horrific disrespect of Gary Gygax - and of Greyhawk's old flavor. They went further in Third edition, as to put Greyhawk front and center as the base setting of the game. This was how they got some neckbeards to stop frothing at the mouth about "muh THAC0!" and actually settle down enough to give it a chance. This culminated in the Expedition to Castle Greyhawk mega-adventure which was a pretty decent homage to the original dungeon crawl. 3e also sideways-canonized Spelljammer (not much, just enough to say the ships existed) and Planescape, which was more or less fully supported, only it wasn't a separate thing: it was fully incorporated into baseline Greyhawk as-is, since FR got their own cosmology this edition.
4th edition apparently decided to not fuck with Greyhawk but ignored it completely, in favor of Forgotten Realms (need to sell more Drizzt novels, after all), Eberron (which as a "static" campaign needed little publication support), and oddly enough Dark Sun (which was cool, just an unusual choice all things considered).
5th edition hasn't had much to say on Greyhawk. All of the printed material supports Forgotten Realms so far, but the word is that they intend to fully support the other campaign settings over time. For the most part, all this meant was a token side-note about how to adapt each of the various adventures and setting-stuffs over to other settings...and then 2019 finally gave us Ghosts of Saltmarsh, a collection of various Greyhawk adventures of a more nautical bent. And several characters from Greyhawk including Mordenkainen and Tasha have made appearances.
Why Certain People Love Greyhawk
When you're a kid, some of those first things you experience will always be magical. The first porn you see/watch. That first booze you drink. The first hit of a joint. First time you have actual sex. Sure, you may have other great versions of that experience, but the more you do them, the fewer of them stand out as exceptional. But that first time? It's special, it's a milestone in your life.
Greyhawk isn't just the first campaign most people play. It's the first full campaign setting created (Blackmoor was just a single city, paper clippings in comparison to Greyhawk). Sure, it doesn't always make sense. The fact that some of the nations have leaders like "His Transcendent Imperial Majesty, Overking Xavener I, Grand Prince of Kalstrand, Crowned Head of House Darmen" gives Greyhawk that eternal homebrew feel. It was created all hodge-podge, and sure it got a little ridiculous in places, but you can really feel Gary Gygax's love of D&D when you see all the little silly details he put into this thing.
This game setting is a labor of love. It doesn't always make the most sense, but it's as comfortable as those sneakers you wore in high school, and it's always there for you.
Forgotten Realms? Fuck that noise. Sure it might have started that way, but it's turned into a Goddamn marketing strategy, one in which
Marty Stu Elminster gets to fuck women he's three times (or more) older than, including goddesses and pretty much anyone Ed Greenwood feels he should have gotten to fuck in life. Even Gygax admitted that Mordenkainen was a bit of a dick who didn't really have all the answers he claimed to, he was just winging that "enforced neutrality" bit. Plus, Mordenkainen isn't some pushy perverted creep; he might be a fuck-up and retard, but he's got some standards.
Eberron isn't bad in and of itself, it's just a bit less fantasy and more steampunk-ish, plus the setting is geared for low-level PCs which means you'll be breaking the world in half in a few sessions if the DM isn't careful. Dark Sun is pretty fucking grimdark; your players need to be ready to make new characters every few sessions if they treat it like a beer-and-pretzels thing. Mystara is the only other thing that compares, and only because it is just as homebrew in nature. The only reason Mystara isn't quite as good is because it's a little more constrained (no gods, little in the way of cosmology), but in other ways it has great stuff (complicated domain and war rules/mechanics, very complex political situations). Dragonlance is a bit more on the high-fantasy scale, similar to LOTR in scope and theme; sure you do some dungeon-crawling, but it can't just be to get rich or die trying, it's because "things" are happening. Birthright isn't terrible, but there's probably better systems for running empires and wargames. Planescape and Spelljammer really aren't even their own settings, they're "unified" settings meant to mix and match with the rest of them.
Greyhawk is best if you want to play a homebrew setting without all the work involved in making one yourself, but is still inclusive enough to give you room to add your own little touches as you like to it. And that's what Gary wanted us to do: share this hot mess of an idea and put our own little spins on it.