Rain of Colorless Fire
Greyhawk was a creation of the 1970s to early 1980s. There was a Cold War on. Mutual Assured Destruction was on peoples' mind. JRR Tolkien didn't like real-world analogies himself, but, sometimes other fantasy authors could not help themselves. So, here we explain why firing nukes at people who also have nukes is not a good idea.
In-universe, when the Suel Imperium targeted the Baklunish with an "Invoked Devastation" (which the second Monster Manual associated with The Bringer of Doom), the mages of the Baklunish retaliated in their death throes to return the favor in kind, unleashing a magical apocalypse that took the form of a storm which rained down nearly-invisible flame, which burned so intensely that it evaporated liquid, melted stone, and blasted anything living to death. Such was the destruction of the Rain of Colorless Fire that it literally burned the Suel Imperium to ash, creating the desert-like wasteland now known as the Sea of Dust.
Despite this impressive sounding event, we actually know very little about it. We know that it occurred and what it did, but we don't know how it worked or even what sort of powers were invoked. The canon lore of it from the original World of Greyhawk folio consists of two entries: this one from page 5...
- When the Invoked Devastation came upon the Baklunish, their own magi brought down the Rain of Colorless Fire as a last terrible curse, reducing the Suloise Empire to what is now the Sea of Dust.
And this one from page 26:
- This bleak desert is the Sea of Dust, the former Empire of Suel or Suloise. History tells us that this was once a fair and fertile realm extending a thousand miles west and southwards, too. The merciless and haughty rulers engaged in a struggle for dominance and supremacy over all of Oerik with the Baklunish, and in return for a terrible magical attack, the Suloise lands were inundated by a nearly invisible fiery rain which killed all creatures it struck, burned all living things, ignited the landscape with colorless flame, and burned the very hills themselves to ash.
Sean Reynolds in 1998 late in Second Edition brought this, on page 38 of The Star Cairns:
- Two of the most powerful wizards involved in this project were researching ways to recreate the Twin Cataclysms that destroyed the Suel and Bakluni empires; their hope was to find a more controlled way of decimating a large number of opponents. One, a woman named Alatla Minah, explored the invocation of pure elemental matter, thinking to emulate the Rain of Colorless Fire. The other, a man known as The Longsword for his unusual ability to fight with that weapon, studied the means to open a gate to the lower planes and unleash a fiendish horde, inspired by a similar event which occurred during the Invoked Devastation due to the mysterious Bringer of Doom.
Jim Ward himself raised the possibility that the Rain of Colorless Fire might be connected to the Negative Energy Plane, or at least the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Ash; the hardcover splat "Greyhawk Adventures" has a magical wand on pages 75-76 with the following text:
- This wand may have been the device that caused the destruction of the Suel Empire, or it may have been created to reproduce the event. … The wand can summon a deadly “fire” to rain down in a 60′ cube from a range of up to 80 yards. The “fire” inflicts 5 points of damage per round to all creatures, regardless of protections, resistances, or immunities to normal or magical flame. Such damage cannot be cured by any spell less than a heal spell. Furthermore, the fire will destroy buildings of less than stone construction, and will evaporate free-standing liquid to a depth of 1 foot per round. Objects exposed to the “fire” must save versus disintegration or be destroyed. Note, however, that matter is burned to dust and ashes, not vaporized. … The wand can be recharged, but only in the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Ash, which lies between the Elemental Plane of Fire and the Negative Material Plane.
Now, there's nothing in this item's description that says it could possibly have been magnified in such a way as to cause the original Rain of Colorless Fire, but it does plug into the researches of Alatla Minah, if we stretch “pure elemental matter” to include para-elemental matter, and its suggested tie of the Rain to the Plane of Ash does make a certain amount of sense. It is, after all, literally the plane of negative energy mixed with fire; a colorless flame that disintegrates whatever it touches is just the sort of thing that could emerge from that plane.
The Living Greyhawk Gazetteer added its own touches to the history of the Rain of Colorless Fire, which are quoted below. Now, the Living Gazeteer is technically a separate canon to the old-school Greyhawk lore, but the details it changes refer to old-canon places, and there's nothing outright incompatible with the lore. Heck, Tovag Baragu does have connections to other planes, so using it as the focal point for a ritual to evoke power from the Plane of Ash? Makes logical sense.
- After decades of conflict, the Suloise Mages of Power called down the Invoked Devastation upon the Baklunish, resulting in an apocalypse so complete that its true form remains unknown. Entire cities and countless people were purged from Oerth, leaving few signs of the great civilization that thrived from the Sulhaut Mountains to the Dramidj Ocean.
- In retaliation, a cadre of Baklunish wizard-clerics, gathered in the great protective stone circles known as Tovag Baragu, brought the Rain of Colorless Fire upon their hated enemies. The skies above the Suel Imperium opened, and all beings and things beneath this shining rift in the heavens were burned into ash. So terribly did these attacks plague the world that they have come to be called the Twin Cataclysms, a term understood by nearly every resident of the Flanaess. The Dry Steppes and Sea of Dust are geographical reminders of this unbridled magical power, now lost to all people—perhaps for the better.
So, what does Gygax say on the topic of the Rain of Colorless Fire? Actually, two different things. In his Gord the Rogue novels, which take place in what its fans know is Greyhawk with a thin layer of obfuscation to get around TSR's then-ownership of it, he compares the Rain to the breath of the "duskdrakes" from the Shadowland on page 309 of the story "City of Hawks":
- The edge of the spewing shadow-flames caught Gord, and the searing heat burned his exposed flesh with agonizing ferocity. At last Gord knew how terrible was the stuff of shadow-fire, understanding the refinement that resulted in the fabulous fire-ruin that had been used by human mages to devastate an empire.
Later, in 2001's "Oerth Journal #12", Gygax outright stated that the Rain was connected to a hitherto never-mentioned elemental deity named Dorgha Torgu:
- While the Invoked Devastation of the Suel was wrought through the vilest of the Evil powers, the counter response was unjust despite provocation. Swayed by the evil counsel of Vilp-akf ‘cho Rentaq, that alien thing which is called an Elder Elemental God, Dorgha Torgu bent dimensions and loosed unnatural elements in his charge so as to precipitate upon the Suel realm the near-invisible and unquenchable flames that consumed the land, burning even rock to powdery ash.
If you're counting, that means there have been four "potentially canon" explanations given for the sources of the Rain of Colorless Fire:
- Power associated with the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Ash (TSR/WotC canon)
- Power associated with Tovag Baragu (Living Greyhawk)
- Power associated with the duskdrakes of the Plane of Shadow (Gygax)
- Actions of the deity Dorgha Torgu (Gygax)
In the end, the truth may never be known. Most fans presume that Gygax's personal canon was to tie it to the Shadowlands. Others argue that there's more evidence for (and logical connections to) the Plane of Ash. But the Greyhawk fanbase has come up with a vast array of personal explanations, including ancient Baklunish artifacts, nuclear weapons (because, hey, it worked for Blackmoor/Mystara and they share similar Sword & Sorcery roots with Greyhawk), meteors from Greyspace, and the use of the mysterious artifact/ruin Tovag Baragu.
What does WotC think? Well, they've never come out and said anything. But... one could argue that they were leaning towards the Negative Energy Plane connection, if not directly to the Plane of Ash. Dragon Magazine #339, in its article "Creature Catalog IV: Campaign Classics" features a new monster called a Suel Lich; the undead remnants of Suloise spellcasters whose will allowed them to endure the Rain of Colorless Fire by embracing undeath, turning them into a strange combination of a body-snatching ghost and a lich. In their natural forms, they appear as humanoid shapes comprised of black fire. When possessing a host body, the host's eyes glow with black flames, with the head being engulfed in black fire as the negative energy suffusing the Suel Lich consumes its body.
Incidentally, the Rain of Colorless Fire actually slipped into the World Axis as well; the Monster Manual 3 for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition features a new type of monsters called "Apocalypse Spells", which are basically Living Spells that form inadvertently from epic-level spells, especially those relating to destruction. One of the five Apocalypse Spells present in the article? The "Herald of Colorless Fire", which came into being when an ancient empire was destroyed at the end of a colossal war by a ritual which called down a rain of colorless fire, one which burned an entire civilization into nothing more than a sea of ash and dust. You surely don't need a picture drawn - but, it does bear mentioning that the picture of the Herald takes the form of a fire elemental made of a silvery-gray "colorless" flame...