“Humankind is fragmented into isolationist realms, indifferent nations, evil lands, and states striving for good...Nomads, bandits, and barbarians raid southwards every spring and summer. Humanoid enclaves are strongly established and scattered throughout the continent, and wicked insanity rules in the Great Kingdom.”
- World of Greyhawk (folio)
It's often been said that the Grande Dame of D&D published settings, the World of Greyhawk, was a world of “howling emptiness.”
The much-repeated statement refers to the scale of the hex map, at 30 miles a hex containing a whopping 779.42 square miles that's a zoomed-out perspective that doesn't show much there there. But if you are one of those eminently nerdy and obsessive types that give a hoot about the demographics of an imaginary land, that howling emptiness may be more than just a map abstraction.
If you actually sit down take all the distances and stated populations at face value and start crunching numbers, your immediate impression will be that the lands of Flanaess aren't just stable, if embattled faux medieval nations, but far more like the edge-of-oblivion points of light societies of a post-apocalyptic world.
(Oh how, I have been holding off publishing this post in a futile attempt to hold the lie of maintaining some level of the hipness of my twenties and thirties)
Let's take a closer look. I picked out of the one of the more well-known lands as a test case, the Archclericy of Veluna. Looking at the folio-edition gazetteer it is said to have a total population of 250,000 humans, 10,000 elves, and 7,000 gnomes for a total of 267,000.
Figuring out exactly what constitutes the land area of the domain is a bit tricky, there are no printed boundaries. I make a few assumptions like only counting “clear” hexes as farmland and pretty much stick to the rivers as boundary markers. I count out 70 hexes or 54,544 square miles. Comparing that to the total population I come out with 4.89 humans and demihumans per square mile.
That's one amazingly sparsely-inhabited land. How sparse? Well let's take some historical comparisons from 13th century Europe: France had 100 people per square mile, Germany and Italy had 90 people per square mile, and one of the most howling empty places of that time the British Isles weighs in with 40 people per square mile. (I believe that Russia of that time which was a land of great stretches of wild forest and wetlands punctuated with islands of urban concentration was around 20 but I am too lazy to hunt for it right now).
In other words, even the wildest places of Europe at the time are orders of magnitude more settled and prosperous than Veluna. Those wide light green clearings on the Darlene map turn out not to be dull vast tracts of farmland peopled by plump, happy yeoman, but barely held little bastions.
It's hard not to conjure up images of isolated little hamlets clustered around a grim watchtower or small castle with miles of wasteland and bramble-grown lost settlements filling the miles between. Even inside these “settled” lands armed-to-the-teeth patrols are making the rounds and a monster or two is not an uncommon daily nuisance.
Again I understand this exercise is a bit silly. I highly doubt that Gygax and others sat down and figured out how the population numbers lined up density wise with the map. But when the introduction paints such a vivid picture of an exceedingly tough and contested place there must have been a rough sense that they wanted to portray a world on the razor's edge demographically.