Monday, September 10, 2012

The Howling Emptiness of the World of Greyhawk


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.

Whoa.

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.  

59 comments:

  1. That provides a very interesting perspective, and one with a lot of potential to explain the "Why all of these ruins?" part of fantasy RPGs. Basically, this used to be a place once, but now it's not. Instead, we just have isolated bastions against the encroaching darkness. I think it also provides an excellent background for adventuring as a profession. These are people who are doing everything from looting the dead to fight, fight, fighting against the dying of the light. The are thieves and bandits, sages and visionaries, conquerors and explorers, etc. I think it also gives a GM a cool way to prompt the players to explore their motivations for adventuring, and to help them set (at least potentially) some long-range goals for their characters and adventuring groups.

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  2. Maybe it make better sense when the AD&D Monster Manuals describes over a hundred types of creatures that are sentient and capable of forming cultures. They all need room to live.

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    2. Good point. I would also hazard a guess that all those "human monsters" like bandits and beserkers roaming around are not counted in the census figures too.

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    3. Which is where it starts to get very interesting. We more or less know how humans would live there, and we can check to some degree by seeing what we do when playing humans or the 'demi-humans' over a long campaign, especially one focusing more on bolstering of that civilisation, or becoming and keeping names or building a domain. But what about the not-especially-humans and the inhumans? To be a fly on the wall, or hide behind the eyes in their case... Surely if there are reasons for getting involved with fantasy, beyond the fantasies and fantasising, then exploring the realms of beings that sprang from our minds but aren't us is a big one.

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  3. Here's an interesting backward calculation too. Conservative estimate (based on disputable medieval crop yields) for the amount of land you'd need under cultivation to support populations is about 1 sq mile per 180.

    So just to support the population existing for Veluna you'd only need 1,488.33 square miles of that 54000+ square miles. That's basically just over two hexes out of 70 of farmland if it was all squished together.

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  4. Very interesting. That's a population density less than present day Wyoming (5.8 per sq. mi.) but more than Alaska (1.2).

    Rob makes a good point.

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    1. I was pretty conservative when counting the hexes, assuming almost all the land east of the Velverdyva river (you can see it in the graphic above if you click on it) was in Furyondy. If you include more of that land, you'd probably be getting some very low density numbers.

      And here Veluna is not one of the really fragile, in-the-middle-of-nowhere lands like Blackmoor or Ratik, but one of the core "good" countries.

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  5. Well, this fits in with the over-arching theme of the "extended game": the characters are going out and having adventures and gaining magic and followers so that they can clear and settle that wilderness and push (demi)human settlement back towards what it presumably used to be.

    I do wonder, however, if the population figures are the classic "able bodied men of fighting age" numbers that one often gets in data like this. That would bump the density up but still not to "normal" levels.

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    1. The only thing that the booklet says next to Population in the forward is "humans only", there's no specification for adult men or the like.

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    2. I believe the "able bodied men" thing is a Judges Guild convention, and I'd be surprised if it was what the folio was assuming.

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    3. Well, it's also a bit of a wargaming thing where countries and large towns were often rated in terms of the resistance they could put up, so it wouldn't be wildly unlikely for Gygax.

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  6. You're still cool. I spent a few days once (on your lead) trying to figure out how long a standard DMG patrol can statistically protect a freehold and/or construction site against standard DMG wandering monsters before being wiped out -- usually by rough men, incidentally.

    My guess is Eastern Oerik is in a near ZPG sweet spot due to a combination of somewhat higher cleric-adjusted mortality compared to pre-modern Earth and much lower birth rates due to American-style nuclear family structures. Some areas are booming, others are declining but the overall population seems pretty steady over the last 6,000 years or so.

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    1. Ha, I would pay top gold piece to see that patrol model.

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    2. I owe you enough already. (Soon.) As soon as I get a weekend free to code it up formal, we'll all see whether Gary thought humanity was doomed or not across all terrain types.

      Meanwhile all my gut tells me is unless you have enough henchmen to run or replace three or more DMG patrols *and* enough reserve troops to fight off a bandit tribe, it's extremely unlikely you'll finish a stronghold before the rough men take it away from you. For all I know, outside the Darlene cities, everybody in Oerik is renegades.

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    3. are the PCs rough men, I wonder...

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    4. In my campaign, most definitely. Wandering monsters even.

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  7. Damn, that's almost as empty as the Dawnlands, which I specifically created as a depopulated waste (there are approximately 1.5 million humans in an area the size of France; 4 million total sentients).

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  8. Comparing this interpretation of Greyhawk with to historical Europe, I find this quote informative, discussing free knights in Germany as "harried men trying to protect their forest-bound estates from attack":

    Life was squalid in the lofty but crowded fortifications atop isolated hills; visits from bandits and robbers outnumbered those from merchants and churchmen. Urban, William, Bayonets for Hire: Mercenaries at War, 1550-1789, p. 31, Greenhill Books, London 2007.

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    1. That's a great quote, totally evocative.

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  9. Timeline (I think it's on page 5) shows the publishing year of what you're reading.

    The entire text is an in-game-world artifact.

    It isn't canon, because it's not even a true (beyond the fourth wall player or DM) supplement.

    The actual text of that written piece has no more validity than the 'player's map' of an adventure module.

    For the researchers here: I think Gygax = English inspirational sources, namely War of the Roses (still popular among wargamers). Additionally, I think Norse Influence = Kuntz

    Extra points if you can figure out the inspiration of Y'dey in Hommlet, or translate Iggwilv's name...

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    1. So unreliable narrator? Good to hear from you, Scott. Long time.

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    2. Love it. Heck, over next door in Glorantha, the texts are compiled as blatant propaganda. So tell us! Whom does the folio serve and what was "Pluffet Smedger" trying to cover up in his "edits?"

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    3. CK: No... reliable narrator, but unreliable information. Sages only know so much.

      Bomb: (from an in-game-world view), Sages would get top dollar for such political/demographic/trade information, right? Plus, limited availability (unless someone's hiding a printing press) means that only the nobles are likely to have the same text.

      The whole product is a Gygax joke/trick, in a way. Imagine what kind of spy networks a sage would need access to in order to compile the thing.

      To answer your question, though, it seems very weighted towards support of the 'civilized lands', yet the numbers show it to be almost impossible (the OP).

      The whole frigging thing could be a morale boosting piece of propaganda for Furyondy, Veluna, Greyhawk, etc's nobility.

      I went over it looking at Hommlet/ToEE, in regard to Thrommel... read and re-read that timeline over twenty times before it hit me.

      The only thing I'm surprised by is that the Folio/Gazetteer doesn't appear in the DMG Magical Item tables...

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    4. Scottsz, Oh man, you just summarized a whole series of posts I've been working on!

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    5. Those are very cool posts you're doing.

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  10. Nagora's spot-on; per the folio on page 4, "[Population] Figures show total human population. Multiply by 20% to determine the number of males fit to bear arms, multiply by 10% to get the number of males in prime condition and suitable for man-at-arms status. All figures show only inhabitants and do not include any garrisons."

    The Glassography (1983, page 3) added another sentence: "Only towns and cities are indicated on the map of the Flanaess."

    Also: Scott's comment about the (perhaps) unreliable narrator is an artifact introduced with the 1983 boxed set; the framing narrative about the Savant Sage and his finding of the Glassography and Guide books doesn't appear in the folio. There are still hints of it in there (references to sages/tomes in the astronomy section, the POV that the brief history is written from, etc.), but it's not nearly as explicit as in the 1983 boxed set.

    Allan.

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    1. Thanks a million, Allan. I was re-reading those sections over and having that thriller movie moment of utter bafflement of "what did Scott see?!" (well without the sudden illumination).

      The folio pretty much looks to me like a straightforward presentation of "facts" by a real world author. At any rate the folio still presents a number of the population stats as approximations adding a number of "+" and "-" , so even there there is no presumption of omniscience I suppose.

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    2. So in Veluna's case that number, 267,000, I used is the total population (btb and of course if the numbers are accurate). 26,700 as a raiseable army is not shabby in comparison to medieval armies.

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    3. That's probably the nicest compliment I've ever received. Thanks!

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  11. It's a smart move, not publishing any of this stuff as canon - gives Gary and every individual DM an out when their game doesn't stick slavishly to the text.

    Now you've made me wonder what the population density of Carcosa is. Also, how 5 persons per square mile might compare with the east coast of north America in 1620, after the great smallpox and typhus plagues.

    I was 12 in 1983, and all of this shot way over my head - I was just kinda disappointed that Greyhawk seemed so normal/medieval compared with the Monster Manual (nothing much has changed, I guess). So I just assumed the hexes should be smaller in my game, but I never quite figured out how much smaller.

    Which I realise is antithetical to the point you're making, but looking again today I see that with 5 mile hexes the Yatil Mountains might be just about the size of the Tatras, and the Barrier-Crystalmist-Hellfurnace range could be about the size of the Alps. If I'd thought to do that calculation back in the 80s I might've got more use out of the book...

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    1. I can't help but think that Greyhawk would work better if the scale is reduced.

      Five miles seems a little too small scale to me. (Maybe because I lived in both the Tatras and Texas and can't help but think that Slovakia is a very small place in comparison.)

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    2. Curious about slowly adjusting the scale until the population per square mile reaches the normal range in your OP...

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    3. Ah man now I'm just going to have to do the math.

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    4. See my number crunching about comparative largeness surface area wise, those are some big ole countries (but not ridiculously big) in Oerik.

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  12. Also, I assumed that Gygax left room for his customer's to insert their own cities and whatnot. I believe the World of Greyhawk is necessarily and deliberately incomplete.

    Still, goblinoids have to live somewhere. The fantasy world is not ours. In our world, we do not have competing sentient life. The human population would not have hit 7 billion if it had (baring genocidal warfare).

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  13. May be fun to think about these states as occupying a sort of perpetual American frontier with magic and border wars. Turns out Veluna's about the size of West Virginia, which contained about 243,000 citizens and slaves in 1840 and probably quite a few "rough" people as well. As frontier states go, they seem to have done OK for themselves, so there's nothing inherently wrong with the scale here.

    Veluna's a good test case because we know they just won what some might say amounts to a religious civil war. An earthly nation would be in baby boom mode, about where we were in the early 1950s. Then, if you care about Living Greyhawk, those kids are having grandkids and the population has tripled.

    Otherwise, you could discover something that's depressed population growth over the last few centuries -- "failing Oerid plasm" in a grim Howardian campaign, extra-dimensional body snatchers in something more gonzo, "Tsuggy's revenge," a little ice age -- and the natives are scared and restless.

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    1. Veluna did split off from Furyondy I seem to remember, so that comparison may be totally apropos.

      I like thinking about it more as a rough frontier place, I mean it is surrounded by some mean wilderness and places of pure evil, right?

      I guess I could see a baby boom post-kaboom of the canon and all. But 200-800%? (May be the low numbers of the folio reflect a crazy high mortality rate due to the presence of such concentrated and monstrous evils around them.)

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    2. With all the room for expansion, demand for labour and crazy clerics of fertility gods, if you actually did get the monster attrition problem under control you could get a Malthusian explosion!
      #Idon'treallyunderstandAdamSmithorpopulationdynamics

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    3. Yeah, I ain't going to fight too hard for the post-folio canon but people can if they want to.

      What gets me about the "razor's edge" view is that monsterism doesn't really explain it. As long as your community can replace patrol groups faster than the dice go against you, isolated thorps will get picked off but citadels are perfectly sustainable. There just aren't enough big monsters in the DMG encounter tables.

      It's the rough men who can and will knock you over at the hamlet level and above. This is a world where humans have won but civilization's another thing.

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    4. Agreed! Kind of supports the Greyhawk-as-wargaming environment idea...

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    5. Those bandit and other groups from the MM are an amazingly tough collection of leveled leaders. Throw in the fact that they themselves often have small castles and you have some formidable foes.

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    6. And plenty of reason for nobles to worry while purchasing a Gazetteer that focuses on all that nobility...

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    7. Maybe the bandits and their clerical cousins the dervishes are the new world rising, "the new neutral." Go-getters with gumption, sweeping away the old Almanach de Greyhawka crowd. They're just adventurers like us, men of no fortune.

      What *would* Robilar say!

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    8. They do have the Bandit Kingdoms after all as an existent power base.

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    9. This is really good. We can dream now of what City State of Stoink would've revealed about this global tide of free brothers, out to take what they need.

      The Wild Coast also faded from canonical view early on as fans and editors started to fixate on international politics, but that's where Zagyg's family came from. For all I know the megadungeon was all an elaborate adventurer factory, a machine to kill men [women if you're of the Hardby persuasion] or make them free. A Chicago machine, as it were.

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    10. ...he brings a knife... you bring a gun...

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    11. From the Untouchables... the 'Chicago Way'...

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    12. Ohhh, that's very funny. It's interesting how many "failed states" there are in Greyhawk.

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  14. I think another factor to keep in mind is that we look at the borders on Darlene's map and see it with the eyes of 20th century people. If we interpret it in a more medieval way, all those borders show is what those countries and kingdoms claim as their own, not what they control.
    In line with the AD&D domain game rules, and their inherent need of places for players to claim, build and settle, as well as the need for plenty of places for Exploring the Unknown and the Ruined, I think the amount of unsettled wilderness is entirely intentional.

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    1. that's an interesting thought - maybe the actual borders of Veluna are the 6 hexes around the city, and after that it's... who knows what. Challenges for messengers. I'd buy that.

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    2. That's brilliant Michael. So there is a Greater Veluna which is all that space (and is likely not to be as "clear" as is made out) and the actual corelands of Veluna which are a tight little cordon of civilization.

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    3. I don't know why I never thought to apply the mandala state model to Greyhawk, but it makes perfect sense.

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    4. Re: Furyondy/Veluna/Verbobonc - the union of F~V would create a 'superpower' of unprecedented size on the continent... probably plenty of good aligned folks might be uncomfortable with that idea...

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  15. What a shock. One more subject which the creators of D&D lacked any real knowledge of: demographics.

    But not to worry, because the apologists are there to explain how this oversight is really a sign of genius and not ignorance.

    Thank you Ckutalik. Nice to see someone else thinking.

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  16. I wrote a little piece on almost this same subject (at much less depth) - if I had known of this first, I would have just linked it!
    Great piece.

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