Thoughts on the Greyhawk Wars Board Game & Publisher Metagaming

TSR had developed a new style of play, one which added more story elements to our games, which is healthy to long term play. Today you have many people rebelling against the concept, as it does take some skill to pull off properly: what it does is that it gives the DM more of a presence in their games. The Dungeon Master isn’t simply refereeing the game, and judging, s/he is an active participant, inventing a series of events that are not random, but serve to draw in the players; providing direction and intrigue. Deep to the core, it allows the DM to figure out what is going on around the PCs very quickly. A well written scenario doesn’t feel like it is written at all, it still captures all of the magic of random play as the players aren’t confined to story elements; instead they must try to find story elements. They aren’t restricted the story if they don’t want to be, but the story is still playing itself out around them.

The end product shouldn’t be a module at all. This story shouldn’t be scripted, if we do that then we eliminate the player, which serves no point. TSR’s meta-gaming philosophy was dual-sided, on the one hand, the modules introduced a more interactive and rewarding concept, but on the other, they hijacked our tables. From a marketing standpoint, this was how TSR was able to finally make the company profitable again; where the Gygax team gave you the methods to enrich your playing experience, giving clear and concise examples of exactly what you should do from now on, the module itself being more of an example of the principles in action. In 2e these lessons could only be gleamed by critical thinking. They were still there, but they weren’t obvious. The DM had to have some background in fiction writing and find the concepts themselves, they weren’t pointed out to you, they weren’t explained, they were there but they were hidden. They didn’t encourage you to take the principles presented and use them yourselves; they wanted you to buy the next module.

TSR developed a subversive marketing plan that is still used to this day within the industry, and that is to target almost all of your products at new players. The longer you can keep the users from actually figuring out how the game works, the more products you can sell them! This marketing plan began as soon as Gygax was sacked, but it really took root in 1991.

Within the industry, the Forgotten Realms franchise was selling very well, that is because the company itself was fleshing out the world, and many users who were new to the hobby, as well as experienced players who didn’t want to do it, purchased into it. The advanced users were either ignoring most of the Forgotten Realms products, or sticking to Greyhawk; this made the Greyhawk Adventures setting appear to be stagnate. How do we get money from advanced users cheaply? The answer is gimmicks!

The Greyhawk Adventures module line was still kind of successful. TSR had used it to keep money flowing in while they established Forgotten Realms, but by 1991 the Realms was open for business. They now wanted to focus their attention on 'fixing' Greyhawk Adventures. All they needed was an epic story that would get even the advanced users excited. This story was Greyhawk Wars.

It started with Carl Sargent, a prolific writer from TSR UK; he understood the meta-game concept and was an excellent writer of it! He was assigned to “revitalize” Greyhawk Adventures, and he did, with modules WGS1 Five Shall Be One, and WGS2 Howl from the North. The series was supposed to conclude with a third module in the series, however, even though the WGS line was selling, TSR figured that they could add a gimmick to really boost sales. WGS3 was scrapped and reworked into a board game.

This is exciting! Wargaming is a neglected part of the hobby, it is expensive and completely different from D&D. Even with TSR’s BATTLESYSTEM rules, the size and scope of the battles that we can simulate is still limited. If we want to have all out war, we’ve got a problem. This has always had to be home-brewed, though most of us DMs write around it out of necessity, but what if there was a product that allowed us to simulate a huge war? This is a very sound concept and one that would appeal to even advanced users of the game. They even put their best man on the project, Dave Cook. If anybody could figure out how to get this done, and in a way to not be sued from other companies (namely the manufacturers of RISK and Axis & Allies) it would be Dave Cook. Whether he actually got that done, we’ll never know, because typical of TSR suits, the concept was ruined by interference from the very beginning.

As far as I am concerned, and do take my opinion in regards to this product with a grain of salt because I’ve never actually played the thing, all of my knowledge in regards to it is through research, and looking at it through the eyes of the few people who have and were willing to talk about it, but like I said, as far as I am concerned this thing is not just a failure, but an outright lie.

One would assume that if they bought this box, then they could play a game which would revitalize the World of Greyhawk as a whole, and make the events which take place core to their table. Boarders would change, nations would die, power would be redistributed, and it will be fantastic! And I think that this game can do that, but not on its own. As written, this entire game is pointless. The events which you are allowed to simulate have already been predetermined by TSR. Even if you get different results from the game, you’re told to ignore them.  This isn’t the only problem with it either. Not only did Cook have to design a game which was rigged, but he had to tap into two different markets, fans of Table-Top Role-Playing, as well as fans of Board Games. The rules had to be simple, and easy to master. The final results were unsatisfying to say the least.

The World of Greyhawk, which is a complex place, was dumbed down and over simplified to the point where it was unable to properly simulate the actual war, and users at the time who were extremely excited to get this thing had no idea until they took it home and tried to play it. No matter how you look at it, no matter how you spin it, or what happened afterwards, this product was a bold-faced lie. It did not keep any of its promises. This wasn’t due to David Cook, nor Carl Sargent, but to TSR marketing who misrepresented the product and what it could and couldn’t do.

Now, Greyhawk Wars wasn’t a total loss. The users of Greyhawk were angry, but they were still precocious, and typical of the grit and attitude of advanced users, they weren’t afraid of putting forth effort to rework the thing so that it can function. It was a sound concept, and it was a step in the right direction. Simulating an epic war is kind of the holy grail of table top RPGing. At least this product gave us some of the tools that we needed to get the work done. I guess, in a way, this is the product that progressive users like. We enjoy taking concepts and ripping them apart, stripping them down and rebuilding them the way that WE want them to be, so in effect, the people that were most injured from buying this game were the new users, which is a change of pace.

I am not going to insult your intelligence by rating this game, as I  haven’t played it. It sounds like a fun concept, and since I myself am also working on methods to simulate huge wars, researching it has been incredibly helpful in pointing out pitfalls that I hadn’t anticipated myself. Greyhawk Wars spawned its own sub-genre as people still network to make the game functional, and many tables were able to succeed! With a bit of research one can find completed alternative rules of play, or join the networks and further develop it, which is attractive!

At one point, the cost of it was stupid high. At the end of the day, this is a paper product and not worth the $100+ resellers were trying to milk out of it, especially considering that the game isn’t functional for what most of us want it to do. Our friends at DriveThru RPG, I feel, had fixed this issue by selling the PDF for $5. This allows the user to just print and assemble the game themselves. Now you can find the game selling for around $35, which is a lot closer to what it is really worth.

Do I recommend this game? No. I think that more can be learned by reading about Greyhawk Wars than actually trying to play it. If you are like me, and would rather spend your time actually gaming than developing a new system, you’d be best served by avoiding it. If the game was functional out of the box, that would be a different thing, but it isn’t.

If you have played this game, I ask you to please speak up and give your impressions of it, there really isn’t much out on the web when it comes to the product, and any contribution that you may have is highly valuable. Much of what I have written is based upon the observations of the handful of people who had experienced it and wrote about it, reading between the lines,  and reaching my own speculative conclusions.

Regardless of if you have played the game or not, TSR attempted to hijack Greyhawk Adventures with “From the Ashes” a box set released in 1992 that fleshed out the setting, divorcing it from its original concept of a user generated milieu, and inserting their meta-gaming concepts which boosted sales, and pleased new users, but alienated and ultimately led to the abandonment of TSR's involvement with the Greyhawk Campaign Setting.

While the WGS series was successful and is mostly well-remembered today, the implications of TSR’s meta-gaming (verses user created storylines) was catastrophic. It should have served as a lesson to the company, as well as other game publishers, but it didn’t. They wanted to provide games with rich and deep storytelling elements, but they did so at the expense of their advanced users. It is one thing to publish a module and flesh out a small part of the world map, and provide a few simple scenarios which can be shared between all users, but it is another to modify an entire setting just to make money.

I don’t think that TSR ever figured out what advanced users really wanted from Greyhawk. All we wanted was a muse. We wanted design concepts fleshed out, not completed. We wanted to learn new styles of play, not have things dictated to us under the guise that it is now a Living Greyhawk. We wanted difficult and boring things to be done for us, so that we could focus on having fun. We enjoyed the story and fictional theories presented, but we resented that TSR began directing traffic, implying that events in the modules were core and your games are garbage. Greyhawk was supposed to be a different experience depending one who was DMing; that has always been its charm. Experts like Joseph Bloch have found things in the setting that I had never notice before because they took their time really learning and enjoying the setting. They were allowed to interpret the same source material as the rest of us had, but spin it in unique ways. This can still be done, but not until you acknowledge when gaming companies are micromanaging the users, and take the proper steps to take your creative control back.

Are advanced users still in the market for new products? I think that we are, but those products are a lot different from the ones that are typically being published. As far as our delving into 2e, friends, our journey is about to get darker.


Pedro Obliziner said...

I recently was reading about the wotc new market strategy ( ) and is interesting to read about how some of it begun.
By that time TSR was kind of trying to say "hey, you can still make your own game, since you do it using our setting", i.e., it was trying to make the setting books profitable, but letting the GM keep some autonomy (even tough it was not enough for advanced players).

But now, wotc, with the decision to not publish campaign setting books anymore, is taking a step further saying "don't run your own games, our big and expensive storylines are all you need".

I think the new wotc's publishing model is a clever tatic to avoid the insane amount of products that cause the edition's "deaths", but I'm afraid the lack of incentive of creativity will create some dull new players.

[I'm struggling with my bad english here, hope I can make myself clear]

RipperX said...

Your English is wonderful Pedro. Thanks for coming back! This is a disturbing trend, once a company has shareholders to appease, the party is over. There is a progression though, the users get better and outgrow the material. The fact is that it doesn't matter what system that you use, OD&D to 5e, once you master the rules you can make your own stories. I gets boring telling other peoples. Give them time, and the new players will be rewriting their rules just as we do.

Anonymous said...

"Boarders would change, nations would die, power would be redistributed, and it will be fantastic!"
God, yeah, it's cool that you want to eat with us but at least change your clothes.

RipperX said...

I shall be shod in but the blood of mine enemies and feast only upon their despair.

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