Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Yggsburgh: The Ur-Setting

"What if Greyhawk looked differently?"  It's a good question.  From very early on, Greyhawk accumulated a very specific feel.  The first official appearance of the setting came indirectly through the Greyhawk supplement for Original Dungeons & Dragons.  Although Supplement I was little more than a collection of new rules derived from Gary's home campaign, Greyhawk added equal parts of grit and weird to the white box, with more detailed characters and combat and a new range of bizarre monsters that changed the atmosphere of the game.

Notably, the distinction between Hero and Anti-Hero made in Chainmail began to blur with the addition of Thieves in Greyhawk, while the presence of Paladins effectively dethroned the previous depiction of the knightly Fighting Man, transforming the latter into the obscure mercenary of later editions.  The presence of both of these new classes asked new questions about the nature of questing.  At the same time, Supplement I began to change the mechanical dynamics of the adventure.  Instead of re-rolling Hit Dice every level (and thus assuring all heroes had plenty of hits by high level), a new system was introduced where a Hit Die was merely added to the previous rolls every level.  To make things even more lethal, damage from monsters and weapons was increased across the board.  The seemingly rapid rate of heroic character advancement was also severely curbed, with early foes being worth a tenth the experience that they were previously, and combat experience being much more explicitly tied to "slaying" the monsters, instead of merely defeating them.

Compared to the more traditional fare of monsters in the original three booklets (largely a mix of Tolkien and European mythology), Supplement I added a slew of outré creatures.  Monsters like the Beholder, Rust Monster, Carrion Crawler and Gelatinous Cube not only gave the setting a very specific ambience, but mechanically changed how the game world was imagined - turning the game into a survival horror where the knight in shining armour no longer had the advantage.

As TSR sought to shore up an official setting to capitalize on the early success of Dungeons & Dragons, the Advanced game would see Greyhawk's world greatly expanded and fleshed out.  We are all familiar with that history, I think, so I would like to turn instead to a Greyhawk that perhaps once was, even if for only the briefest period: a lingering aesthetic of which is still evident on the cover of the World of Greyhawk boxed set.  Ironically, this process involves peeling back Gary's own accumulated motifs to try and uncover what the Lake Geneva campaign may have looked like in the very beginning, before the effects of play made it more of a conceptually inhabited world.  This ur-setting, I would argue, made a little known resurgence in Gary's final codex, the Yggsburgh Campaign Setting, which was a real attempt to start the clock again and see where we would go this time.

Published by Troll Lord Games for the abortive Castle Zagyg series, Gary's Yggsburgh setting was pointedly different than his other post-TSR world, Lejendary Earth.  Within the 256 page hardback of Volume 1: Yggsburgh was really nothing new, at least at first glance.  The Free Town of Yggsburgh and the East Mark are described as a fairly conventional early-Renaissance backdrop, complete with a lightweight but reasonable history, economy and (human dominant) culture.  Within the city, there are many colorful characters and a fair amount of intrigue and politics, but generally this framework is very light and flexible, as if to leave plenty of space for the referee and players.

Outside the city walls is the East Mark, a relatively small territory that is otherwise not established in any specific world.  The environs around Yggsburgh have been often noted as the quintessential sandbox, and the map hexes are well stocked with five dozen geographic locales and countless adventure hooks.  Importantly, many of the encounters the heroes will come across while wandering the map are straight from the pages of classic Arthurian fantasy.  Not to give too much away, but there are trolls under bridges, damsels in distress, giants stealing cows, armoured knights, witches' curses, bandits, rebellions and war.

This is not to say that Yggsburgh doesn't have its spots of weird, but in general these do not impose themselves on a setting that is otherwise steeped in chivalry and knight errantry.  Similarly, the setting itself, thanks to Gary's light and playful presentation as well as the intuitiveness of classic fantasy, does not foist itself upon and burden the players or referee.  Instead, Yggsburgh becomes the ideal backdrop for the readers own imagination, with only the most primal diegesis at the ground level of our fantasy imaginations.

In the end, everyone's Greyhawk is different.  Yet, to achieve the sundry interpretations of Greyhawk, all referees start from a shared foundation, a foundation which, from very early on in Greyhawk's history, started to accumulate more and more direction.  I think Yggsburgh was an effort in part to undo this, to free up our originary fantasy imaginations with a light, classic Arthurian world of romantic European mythology and literature - something at the sedimentary level of the Western poetic.  My only defense against the charge of promoting "vanilla fantasy" is this provocation: Try it.  There is something deeply satisfying and liberating about working from the loose tapestry of a group's collective consciousness of fantasy literature.



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