Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Grand Duchy of Karameikos: RPG Items I Like

WHAT IS IT?
Classic D&D region supplement covering a fantasy nation with an eastern European flavor. 

INTRODUCTION
The D&D Gazetteer series (GAZ) remains one of my favorite TSR product lines. I came to this not through D&D but the hunt for world building materials for other fantasy campaigns. I picked up the first couple at the same time and then after that I bought them as soon as they hit the shelves. They're uneven, strangely conventional in some places, but full of dynamite ideas. Some of the big hitters from TSR in that era wrote them (AllstonRolstonPerrin). I'm a sucker for a book series with a uniform dress and it really works here. In my review, I want to talk about what the gazetteer offers in general and consider how adaptable it is. 


ALL ABOUT THE CONTEXT
Before I do that, I do have to get into the strange and contorted history of the Gazetteer series and The Known World aka Mystara (for reference see the Wikipedia entry). There's some strangeness about how this “world” came together that has to be addressed. I came to D&D pretty early, playing mostly from the original white box and then the D&D Basic Set (First Edition). When AD&D came out we moved quickly up that food chain, because that was the new and more “Advanced” version. So when the Second and Third editions of D&D came out, I didn't really pay attention. I recall picking up a copy of the third edition at Target, as much for the novelty of being able to buy rpg stuff there. So that's how I managed to miss the D&D Expert Set, where the names and places for this setting first appear. X1 Isle of Dread used some of those details as well, IIRC. 

Originally sketched out in the Expert Book, later modules in the X and B series (for example B10 Night's Dark Terror and X10 Red Arrow, Black Shield) fleshed out the world. In 1987, TSR began to produce the GAZ series, detailing the nations of the world. The series would include fourteen books (plus one boxed set Dawn of the Emperors) produced over five years. The world feels like a design by committee, which it was. It notably placed theBlackmoor setting in continuity in the distant past. This world has ascended Immortals instead of gods, with that epic path and their conflicts figuring into many stories. The Known World represented lands covered by the gazetteers, with Mystara being the larger world. The Hollow World setting also resides within Mystara; that sub-setting began publication just as the GAZ series wound down. In 1994, TSR decided to bring the Mystara setting “up to date,” moving it into the new AD&D fold with new boxed sets advancing the timeline, several crappy interactive CD projects, the new Red Steel Savage Coast areas and The Voyage of the Princess Ark adventure. These later projects have a few cool things, but often they stomp over the best material from the earlier line. 


GAZ vs. FR
Historically, the Gazetteer series came out the same year as the Forgotten Realms box set. It is interesting to compare how those fared in later years, or even how Mystara stood against later campaign settings- better than Maztica, but worse than Dark Sun or Ravenloft. Perhaps closest toBirthright in terms of reach? 

THE PRODUCT ITSELF
The Grand Duchy of Karameikos comes in the classic TSR folio format, with a stapled 64-page booklet, a large fold-out map and the tri-fold screen cover. The enclosed poster-sized map is printed in color on one side. Half of that shows a classic hex-gridded map of the nation, with a detailed key. The other half shows three of the main cities: Kelvin, Threshold and Specularum. This last city map has some keyed details, but the other two more offer shapes without specifics. The interior of the screen has two maps, printed in various shades of brown on a light-blue background. You get an overhead shot of a castle, and a detailed section of the bay and docks of Specularum. A great deal is unlabeled, but is does offer more useful geography than the larger scale map. On the front side of the screen you get the back blurb, a map showing the neighboring nations, and the excellent cover by Cylde Caldwell. This sets up the illustration template for the rest of the series, though I'm not sure if Caldwell did all of them.

The meat of the supplement lies in the booklet, written by Aaron Allston, a gaming vet with amazing credits (including Strike ForceGURPS Autodueland Ninja Hero (4th Edition)). Laid out in three columns per page with tiny, tiny print, the book goes the extra mile to make it hard to read with large solid blue watermarks on most of the pages. The book includes a few detail maps of locations, a useful calendar, and clip art quality heraldry. Only nine pieces of art appear, but they serve a specific purpose: character shots of the important NPCs, all with two or three characters shown. Stephen Fabian, one of my favorite rpg artists, provides all of these. They look great. The booklet overall may be short, but it is dense and packed with information. 

SOMETHING BORROWED
Probably the most distinctive thing about the GAZ series and the Known World setting is how many of the region books adapt real world analogues. In the case of Karameikos, we have an Balkan themed setting, complete with a foreign ruling class. Names, terms and themes here borrow heavily from Eastern European sources. Later series books emulate Renaissance Italy (Darokin), classical Arab culture (Ylaruam), and Vikings (the Northern Reaches) for example. Not all the books share this approach, but most embrace it pretty fully. Before I read this series, I'd always seen this approach as lazy world-building. It felt like a cut-and-paste approach. But I think the GAZ series, for the most part, really sells the concept. Some weirdness does pop up based on neighboring cultures being lifted from very different time frames and peoples. Later games, like Al-QadimLegend of the Five Rings, and 7th Sea would also take this approach. 

WHAT'S ON OFFER
The Grand Duchy of Karameikos opens with a statement describing the origin of the Known World setting, in particular the modules where Karameikos has figured previously. Nine pages then present the Players' Background, aimed at those hoping to run a character from there. We get a history of the native Traldaran people and an explanation of how the country came to be occupied. That lead to two parallel cultures, natives and the Thyatian nobility. The tension between those two groups runs throughout the supplement. Brief material on major locations and cultures appear next, followed by rules for character creation. Key to this is the idea of social standing, rolled randomly. Details on names, races, place of origin, and available spells follow. The rules also introduce the concept of skills, with a beginning character knowing four general skills. Some examples are provided for these, but players are encouraged to come up with their own. 

A more detailed history of Karameikos follows, with a timeline. These four pages open with “Ancient History as the Characters Know It” followed immediately by the less shiny truth. Politics gets covered next- continuing the focus on social status, ethnicity and rank for the area. There's a nice example showing how political disputes spark adventures. A dissection of Karameikos Society follows, with fifteen pages covering everything from nobles to the Thieves Guild, from laws to holidays. The book stops off in each discussion to talk about how players might encounter, interact with or join with the various groups and events. A page on economics has a funny bit discussing how DMs should handle issues of wealth. 

From general cultural issues, the book moves to the specifics of the land, first with seven pages on geography. Different settlements and key locations are very briefly covered. The little bits presented focus on one or two key thematic details. Nineteen pages then showcase the major NPCs of the setting, complete with stats and combat notes for each. The assumption is that the party will be interacting with the movers and shakers of Karameikos. Descriptions of the foreign ambassadors offer a nice sneak peek of the other countries and cultures of the world. Allston makes the most of the character backgrounds. Each helps illuminate the region and/or provides hooks to hang a story on. There's a liberal mix of heroes, villains and those in-between. 

The booklet wraps up with adventuring. Two new monsters appear (Chevall and Nosferatu) along with a list of those native to the region. There's a very general section on adventure and campaign creation, less about Karameikos and more about what players should generally do at different levels. Two+ pages offer tiny adventure seeds, drawing on the earlier present material and NPCs. Finally there's some discussion of existing published adventures which feature Karameikos and how to use them.


UNDERLYING THEME
There's an interesting conflict going on throughout this supplement. On the one hand you have the native Traldarans who are generally depicted as primitive, but wise. They have a strong national identity and tradition, but they have many internal factions. New religious schisms help divide them. On the other hand, the Thyatian occupying nobility have their own contradictions. Lord Stefan Karameikos III, ruler of the Duchy is presented as a shining example. Other nobles of his people aren't nearly so enlightened. The Duke aims toward reforms, but maintains the structures and privileges of of the nobility because he has to. Most of the characters presented run black or white, but taken as a whole, the setting offers a complex set of interactions resulting in a much more ambiguous background. GMs have plenty of room to shift those complexities in one direction or the other. 

OVERALL
This is a nice, thematic supplement with interesting material. It requires work by the GM to bring it to the table however. DMs wanting an well-detailed setting to run a classic D&D or OSR game will find a lot to love here. The cultural discussion and interesting NPCs make this a great read. Not having played the conventional D&D modules associated with this world, I don't have a nostalgic attachment to the material. Instead, as a GM I'm looking to see what I can borrow for other campaigns. On that count, this supplement works. I've used it as an area in my patchwork fantasy world for many years now. The mechanics on offer are minimal, and the serial numbers on the module could easily be filed off and ported elsewhere.