Saturday, November 21, 2009

Greyhawk Adventures: Saga of the Old City

Gaming fiction: It's pretty damn terrible, huh?

That being said, it might still be worth your while to track down a copy of Gary Gygax's 1985 "novel of swordplay, thievery, and magic" Saga of the Old City.

While it's labeled as book one of the Greyhawk Adventures series, SotOC is, in fact, predated by sci-fi/fantasy vet Andre Norton's 1978 Quag Keep.

Still, SotOC is the first full-length fiction take on the World of Greyhawk by its creator, and that makes it a potential treasure trove for any DM using that setting for his or her own campaign.

But how does SotOC rate as a novel?

The story follows Gord, a runty orphan street waif who we first chance upon as he's fighting a losing battle with a common alley rat over a hunk of bread they've both chanced upon in the trash. Now that's what I call humble beginnings!

Incidentally, Gord's first line in the book ("Shiteater!", directed at the victorious rat) is pretty good indication that SotOC is a little more daring in some ways than TSR's later, more family-friendly fiction.

Before too long, Gord has managed to escape the grinding poverty and constant bullying of the Greyhawk City's Slum Quarter by joining-up with the Beggar's Guild. It's not long, however, before a violent showdown between the Guilds of the Beggers and Thieves forces Gord to hit the road and see the wider world. Soon, he's encountering river Gypsies, rampaging sea monsters, werebeasts, lovely maidens, and more as his journey takes him from one end of the Flanaess to the other.

Eventually, it's an older, wiser, and much more experienced Gord that makes his way back to Greyhawk City at the novel's close.

So, in a way, SotOC is just a bunch of stuff that happens to some guy. Granted, the "stuff" is pretty wild and the "guy" is a dashing rogue from the World of Greyhawk, but if you come to SotOC expecting a great overarching fantasy saga plot instead of a series of exciting, but often unconnected incidents, you will be disappointed.

On the other hand, sometimes it's nice not to have to worry about saving the cosmos and enjoying a string of sword duels, treasure hunts, and whirlwind romances. Also, Gygax proves to be remarkably adept at witty dialog. He was clearly influenced in this area by Vance and Leiber, and while he's not a master of their calibur by any means, his between-character banter is a cut above that of most fantasy novelists. If plotting is his greatest weakness, this has to be his greatest strength.

In the end, SotOC stands as an enjoyable, if lightweight fantasy romp for general audiences. For Greyhawk DMs and enthusiasts specifically, it's practically required reading. There's a ton of insight here on how Gygax saw day-to-day street level life in his world, which is quite a shift from the omnipotent, bird's eye view of a gaming sourcebook.

I've never read the remainder of Gord's adventures. I've been told that they later rather drastically metamorphosize into just the type of superheroic cosmos-saving that I don't particularly enjoy. If so, that's too bad.

One little tidbit that Greyhawk DMs can take from the later books is a map that was included with City of Hawks: Map (key). It's the only Gygax-approved map of the City ever published, to my knowledge.


  1. I've only read Gord the Rogue: Sea of Death but I can testify to the cosmos-saving business others have also told you of... I did find it moderately entertaining though, and did a little write up of it. Thanks for sharing this, I might pick up an old copy somewhere if I can find it cheaply - I'd be interested in seeing more of these humble beginnings (as you put it).

  2. Gary was writing to twelve to fourteen year olds, which is important to remember. Kind of a fun romp, but keep that in mind for the characterizations.

    Steve Marsh

  3. I agree with pretty much everything in this review. The lack of a sensible plot did in fact bother me, but the Greyhawk information is nearly invaluable.

    I would recommend the other book published by TSR after this one, Artifact of Evil. For me it has a much more satisfying plot without getting completely cosmos-shattering as the later books did (although I personally loved those, too.)

    Other thing is "Night Arrant" is a series of disconnected short stories if you like that. Even that went down easier with me, admitting that they're a short story collection. SOOC doesn't really qualify as a novel in some key ways.

  4. Great review-- Saga of Old City was one of my fondest D&D-related memories of the early 80's, and I find it stands up well under re-reading.

    I made a large-scale map of the City of Greyhawk based on that map in the beginning of Night Arrant. You can find it on my own blog, in the "Free downloads" section.

  5. I only read it last year, which was very strange, because it seems like exactly the sort of thing I was reading at a certain age and couldn't find enough of.

    It's been frequently said in the OSR that too much attraction to plot is a bad thing for a D&D game. I go back and forth on that, but I certainly think it's a bad thing for D&D fiction.

    I'm much more interested in the picaresque adventures of some dude than I am in a guy with extra scimitars saving the cosmos. Saving the universe is Green Lantern's work, not Gord's.

    (Extra katanas are okay, as long as it's by Sergio Aragones and Mark Evanier.)