Chris Kutalik of Hill Cantons has written a couple of posts [here and here] ostensibly talking about Greyhawk’s population density, and comparing it to what we know of Medieval Europe. Shorter: Greyhawk is largely empty, at least given the demographics that Gygax proposed. Whatever Gygax’s intentions – and it seems to me that Greyhawk is intended to be much more populated, settled and civilized than the population densities imply – this produces a suitably post/near apocalyptic world, in which settled peoples are living on a knife edge, in which to play D&D style games.
Why is this world covered in ruins and packed with lost treasure? Why are all the lords 9th level fighters, all the archbishops 9th level clerics, in a world/system in which that degree of advancement can only be gained by a life of great danger? Why is there anything adventuresome at all for lowly 1st level characters to do? Well, as Edgar Johnson says in the comments, “this used to be a place once, but now it's not”, which is the best summary of what a D&Dish setting should be. Sure, for a game in which character advancement can be achieved by engaging in diplomatic plots, or subtle schemes, etc., a well settled, civilized place is fine. But if the game system describes a world in which personal (and political) power is derived (only) from adventuring, from risking great danger and looting the remains of dead societies, the world that accompanies such a system needs to be one of ‘howling emptiness’.
This is what is wrong with Mystara as a D&D setting (even as Mystara is lots of fun, and a perfectly decent setting for a system that doesn’t rely on the same method of character advancement) – so much civilization makes D&Dish adventuring implausible. Most fantasy settings are too settled, indeed, it is one of the mistakes I almost always make when engaging in world building (embryonic worlds that mutate and are reborn with each campaign re-setting TPK). That is why I wrote myself a Titanic Lesson Plan – with point 5 “Pay no attention to real medieval settlement patterns. Civilisation exists as pockets of light amid the fantastical peril. Culture can vary tremendously within a short distance - European inspired fantasy can sit alongside fantastical names inspired by a trip to Thailand”. I did this to remind myself that in order to remind myself that I’m not writing novels, I’m creating the locations for fantasy adventure gaming, and ‘game’ has different demands to ‘story’. The setting has to fit the game, and if the game is D&D…
Adventurer, Conqueror, Queen? They look like late 1980s, early 1990s D&D adventurers, don't they?