Go to Arcane Magics      Go to Epic MysteriesGo to Game Mechanics     Go to Greyhawk Locations
Maldin's Greyhawk

The Isles of Woe

by Denis Tetreault
Version 1.4

An Analysis of the Legends surrounding the Isles of Woe

A report by Maldin of Greyhawk... Wizard, Sage, and Member in Good Standing of the Greyhawk Guild of Wizardry and Society of Magi, as commissioned by Sir Clarence.
Unknown amongst the general public, the Isles of Woe inspire mystery and awe among those who study arcane legends of our past. Next to nothing is known of them. Even their age appears shrouded in dark confusion. What seems to be certain is that the Isles once existed within the Nyr Dyv, Lake of Unknown Depths, and they were once the seat of an empire of some nature. At some point the Isles disappeared below the waters of the lake, never to be seen again.

There is some evidence (see the "Book of Artifacts" and the "1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide") that the Isles were ruled by a wizard-priest named Yagrax who may have at least temporarily possessed a great artifact of power know as the Codex of the Infinite Planes. It is suggested that the unleashing of powers within, that he did not understand, may have been responsible for the destruction of the Isles, and hence his empire.

This information was, for the longest time, the complete sum total of knowledge concerning this topic. Until recently, that is. The discovery of a map hidden within the cover-lining of very old book in a disused part of the Great Library of Greyhawk (see the map booklet of "Greyhawk: the Adventure Begins") has spawned a new rash of speculation by careless scholars of doubtful repute. These charlatans have done nothing more than mix and match several unrelated legends in an attempt to bolster their flagging reputations by concocting "new and astonishing research" and passing such fiction as original works of scholarship.

Allow me to set the record straight, using my own extensive research. (Quoted text is from the recently published thesis known as "Greyhawk: the Adventure Begins".)

"According to legend, the Isles of Woe once stood in the Nyr Dyv, but no reliable source catalogs their size, exact location, population, or even their number (usually put at three but ranging up to seven, depending on the story). The isles are said to be so ancient as to predate the arrival of the Oeridians. The origin of their name is unknown, but they are always said to have been highly magical."
All of this seems quite sound, and is in keeping with what is known of the Isles from other sources. The age of the Isles, as with most land features, are most certainly ancient, but the age of the Empire normally at the center of the Yagrax legends is in great dispute. This author believes it to post-date the Great Cataclysms. Others say not.
"The Codex of the Infinite Planes is reported to have been created here in an age long past, giving the isles their sole claim to fame in the lore books."
This baldfaced falsehood flies in the face of all that is known of the Codex. The Codex is thought to be so ancient as to predate Oerth, and is hardly likely to have originated on the Isles. If Yagrax had indeed constructed it, his empire would not likely have been utterly destroyed by his attempts to use it. Besides, the most reliable telling of the legend (DMG 1st Ed) clearly states that the Wizard Priest discovered the tome. Also the "sole claim to fame" statement is at odds with the (false) Vecna references they make below.
"Several maps, unearthed from old ruins or ancient libraries, show the locations of the isles and provide details, but no one has successfully used these maps to locate the isles. The map provided in this [work] is one example, though others and their copies may exist in private collections."
The relative consistency of the Isles' reputed location seems to point to there being an underlying kernel of truth. Details of their size, shape, and exact location within the Nyr Dyv are non-existant, however. So far they have resisted all attempts at discovery and exploration.
"This map is kept in a special room at the Great Library of Greyhawk, and only two or three people know of it."
The generous greasing of a palm belonging to a personage in the employ of the Great Library with access to sealed borrowing records has revealed the interesting knowledge that in the year CY375 Zagig Yragerne borrowed the book within which the map would later be discovered in. The significance of this can only be speculated upon.
"The map has been dated by divination magic to be roughly nine centuries old."
The dating of the map is in question, as are the techniques used. See below, my comments on the blurring of history by a certain item. It is not only this author's belief that the map is much younger than this, but that accurate divinations concerning the map may never be possible.
"It is of unknown authorship. The map seems to show a shrunken Nyr Dyv, nearly drained of water, with Admuntfort Island much enlarged. Two islands that do not now exist lie southeast of Scragholme Island. The land east of the Selintan where the City of Greyhawk now stands was a swamp."
Examination of the map by expert cartographers confirm that it was created by someone with no cartographic skills whatsoever. The "shrunken" appearance of the lake seems to be merely a result of the distortions produced by any amateur map-maker, much as the grossly-distorted coastlines seen on maps created by mariners who do have some degree of map-reading ability. The misplacement of the Mistmarsh is further evidence of this, since this researcher finds it unfathomable that the rolling hills of the immediate Greyhawk region could ever become a major swamp under any conditions, magical or not.

If, however, the map is accurate, and the Nyr Dyv was once much smaller than it is today, there can be only one explanation. Somehow the effects of the Codex caused an area of land nearly 300,000 square miles in size to sink an incredible amount, subsequently become flooded, and thus enlarging the lake in all directions. Such arcane power would seem to be unlikely.

"What appear to be the Isles of Woe are indicated by a pointing hand. The isles seem to be peaks associated with the easternmost branch of the Cairn Hills, just north of the Duchy of Urnst. Above the pointing hand is the disklike emblem of Tzunk, High Wizard-Priest of legend, said to have used the Cod*x of the I^$inite Pl@nes to conquer surrounding realms and even other planes."
This shoddy mixing of legends is again in gross error. All evidence point to the empire being ruled by Yagrax, High Wizard-Priest of the Isles of Woe. Tzunk, an adventurer whom this author believes came into possession of the Codex long after the destruction of Yagrax and the Isles, had no association with Yagrax or the Isles. Legends clearly state that the Wizard Priest ruled the Isles at the time of its destruction, and that Tzunk (an archmage, not a wizard priest) rediscovered the tome sometime afterwards (DMG 1st Ed, pg 156). Also, there seems to be no evidence that Yagrax left Oerth, but concentrated on subjugating the local region. Tzunk, on the other hand, is the personage credited with wielding the Codex to some effect on the Elemental Plane of Fire. It should be clear to the most niave apprentice that these two personages were quite different, and not even contemporary. The symbol on the map almost certainly represents something else, however its identity is as clouded as the text appearing next to it.
"The smallest island seems to have an odd tower or lighthouse on it. A great fish or sea monster swims in the lake."
Yagrax may very well have had a tower or lighthouse, or the construction could just be a stylized representation of the Empire's seat-of-power. Similarly, the great fish or sea monster illustration may represent any of a number of legends concerning great beasts in the Lake of Unknown Depths, or it could be just as simple as the author's need to fill space with some creativity, not unlike the "Here be Dragons" references on many maps sold to gullible novice adventurers.
"A hand at the lower left of the map appears to indicate the direction of Suloise migration from the Sheldomar Valley to the southwest. An open eye with a catlike pupil is placed north of the Nyr Dyv, in a spot believed by some to have been where the arch-lich Vecna ruled from the "rotted tower" and "spidered throne" of familiar legend. The script-like writing is not in any known language and cannot be translated, even when using magic. Some text may be missing as the fragile map has missing pieces."
Another example of the mixing of legends, as an attempt to gloss over their failure at translating the map and importance of the mysterious script. Vecna has never been thought to have had his capital city on the Isles by serious researchers. In fact, recent discoveries by this author, which I cannot reveal at this time, have identified the location of Vecna's tower far to the west of the locations being discussed here. What is truly disturbing, and completely missed by most scholars, is the undecipherable nature of the otherwise seemingly mundane script. It is the author's personal belief that references to the Co&*# $& (*^ I$f&^%&#* )l$^e$ &**^ #%$^&&^%**# $#^ $%^&&#!@ &#* %$ ^&%@ d%s&@@ear completely. This may in fact be a hitherto unrecorded side effect of the item. The hand symbol could mean anything. More on this Vecna connection later...
"Many scholars will call this map a fake, as the Isles of Woe were thought to have vanished long before the Suloise appeared here and Vecna was thrown down."
This scholar would not necessarily call the map a fake, but rather an inaccurate representation of more ancient legends, or recreated from a hazy memory of another glimpsed or described map. Certain elements appear to be significant, others to be so distorted as to be unusable. But it is this author's belief that Vecna, who hailed from near the time of the great Suel-Baklunish wars, predated the rise of Yagrax. Yes, the legend has been described as occuring in the "distant past", however we all know that such characterizations are tossed about like so much wash-water, rendering it virtually meaningless. Events "merely" half a millenia ago are often refered to as "ancient" and "the distant past". Furthermore, the relationship of the Isles to the history (and effects) of a certain tome of power seems to have so clouded these histories and blocked all attempts at divination as to render it as mysterious as events of much greater age. A similar arcane effect seems to have clouded all detailed knowledge of Tzunk, so much so that many have come to falsely believe that he hailed from a far more ancient time than is actually true.
"Others will become concerned, as Vecna is said in some old tales to have ruled from an island in the Nyr Dyv, or to have had a strong connection with this region (either where the old Shield Lands once lay to the north or where the Duchy of Urnst and Bright Desert are to the south)."
This scholar is amazed that any self ascribed researcher could make such flippant and erroneous statements. My friend and colleague, Taras Guarhoth, Sage of House Cranden, recently reminded me of statements made by Uhas of Neheli within his masterful tome "The Chronicles of Secret Times" (see Vecna Lives!, pg 22). Uhas was a great historian of the Neheli, one of the latter Suel families that settled what is now Keoland. From other sources we know that the Houses of Rhola and Neheli were late migrants who settled and held the Sheldomar ('80 Gazetteer and '83 GH boxed set), having quickly crossed the mountains, and set up shop in the Keoland area, since the rest of the Suel had already preceeded them. Early in his Chronicle, Uhas describes the coming of the Neheli family from the ancient Suel lands. A good portion of the first chapters describes the struggles between the Neheli and the previous lord, the Whispered One, Lord Vecna, and his lieutenant, Kas. Taras points out that the Neheli were latecomers to the migrations. How could Vecna possibly be ruling an empire from the Nyr Dyv that stretched all the way to Keoland, and have it survive all these Suel and Oerids marching across the middle of his lands, without so much as a single historical mention? As for the other "strong connections" to Vecna, there is no evidence whatsoever linking the archlich to these regions. The Bright Desert being the most ridiculous of these. Any student spending a modicum of time in a library will discover that the Bright Desert was created a thousand years before Vecna's time, during the destruction of the ancient Sulm Empire (see Rary the Traitor).

I am pleased that Taras' arguement also supports what has, to my own surprise, been an unduly controversial statement of my own... that Vecna's reign could not have been overly long. All of the interactions with these migrating groups over such a long period would have seen more recorded conflicts with the Whispered One. There should be constant references to his empire by these numerous travellers. However these just do not exist. Interaction appears to have been short and limited in type, overall timing and location.

"One copy of this map exists outside the Great Library. It was made by a scribe but accidently sold among other papers to a wayfaring elf named (if rumors are true) Keldreth Scaramanthelon, who did not appear to be a native of the central Flanaess. Keldreth is unlikely to be aware he has a copy of the map. Any number of treasure hunters and evil forces would gladly kill to get it."
After some investigation, there seems to be some truth to this rumor. This scholar believes, in fact, that certain forces are currently embarking on a campaign of confusion and manipulation designed to lure this poor, pathetic soul from his hiding place on a contrived crusade of vengeance. If they can draw out this sorry soul, they will undoubtly pounce upon him with ferocious abandon, and tear any desirable materials he has from his cold dead hands. Anyone in contact with this Keldreth is advised to warn the naive fellow, and then put as much distance as possible between the two of you.

Respectfully submitted,
Maldin of Greyhawk
(Wizard Marked for security)

Addendum: The Geography of a Cataclysm

It would appear that the powers of the Codex at the very least lowered the land surface by a great amount. This effect was centered on the Isles,  causing the sinking of the Isles. Exactly which power was invoked is unclear. The power to distort space is most likely, since the wholesale removal of a large volume of the underlying rock would have caused much more noticable collapse and slumping features, - features that are not present. The amount of distortion diminishes as you move away from the center, however there is still a noticable effect for approximately a 600 mile radius around the Isles. Note that if a crafty sage could map the distortion field, they could predict with some certainty the approximate location of the Isles.
Originally, the Velverdyva River flowed into a lake less then a quarter the area of the present Nyr Dyv, and the Nesser River was the only outflow. The Cairn Hills were much to high to allow drainage to the south. When the powers of the Codex were activated, the distortion field lowered a vast area of land. The area of the Nesser near Leukish represents the edge of this field. As the Nesser east of Leukish was not lowered, the water from the Velverdyva/PaleoNyr Dyv watershed began filling this lowered basin (and the Nesser temporarily dried up) until the water level finally could spill out again and flow down the Nesser valley.

The Cairn Hills south of the Isles were within the distortion field, so experienced a lowering of their height along with the rest of the land within the field. As the lake level rose to its present height, the waters found a valley through the Cairn Hills that now was below the new lake level, and the Selintan River was born. Thus the geographically-impossible could happen... a major lake with two outflows.

The Nesser is a very long, slow-moving, meandering river with a very low slope, much of it near "base level" (the elevation of its outflow in the Sea of Gearnat). As a result, there is virtually no vertical erosion occuring along its length. The Selintan, on the other is a much shorter river with, therefore, a much steeper slope. Thus the river is flowing faster (particularly through the Cairn Hills stretch) and eroding downwards into the land. Five hundred years ago, the Selintan had less then half the flow it currently has. As the Selintan cuts a deeper and deeper gorge, it will capture more and more of the outflow from the Nyr Dyv until finally the lake level drops low enough to strand the Nesser outflow. When that happens, the Nesser will dry up between the Nyr Dyv and its junction with the Franz River, and the Selintan will become the only outflow for the Nyr Dyv. This event will be a disaster for the communities still living along the Nesser.

As can be seen in other areas of this website, the Codex of the Infinite Planes plays a central part of my own campaign history. For much more detailed information on the Codex of the Infinite Planes, and more on Yagrax, Tzunk, and my own preferred timeline, see my article on the "Codex of the Infinite Planes". Within said document you will learn how those souls acquired the Codex, what they did with it, and how they met their demise (including how the Isles of Woe were destroyed). It goes without saying that the level of detail presented within that article is not official canon.

Unfortunately all of the more recent "official" references to the Vecna/Yagrax/Tzunk/Isles of Woe histories are in serious error, as is much of the material available on the net (such as the Oerth Journal timelines). This page is meant as an attempt to correct that, and present extra materials I've created for my own campaign. To be quasi-fair to Roger Moore, author of Greyhawk: The Adventure Begins, the "legend" as presented therein can be taken as a complete falsehood, which, no doubt, many legends turn out to be.... but why oh! why confuse this popular topic by introducing such irresponsible errors into an official sourcebook?? The answer is beyond me. Such a sourcebook tends to become looked upon as official canon, by default. Not a "source of erroneous rumors".

Return to the Epic Mysteries Page
Return to my main Greyhawk Page (in case you got here through a search engine)

This page last modified on December 20, 2004