Friday, December 28, 2012

Champions of Mystara: The Gazetteers' Heir?

RAIDER OF THE LOST ARK
Earlier this year I wrapped up my series reviewing the Gazetteers of Mystara. It ended on a somewhat down note, with the fairly weak entry, GAZ14: AtruaghinClans. But another supplement exists which could be considered a GAZ, if you look at it right. I’m not talking about Red Steel or the other AD&D Mystara products, but Champions of Mystara: Heroes of the Princess Ark, a boxed set which appeared in 1993, two years after the last GAZ. This supplement was oddly slotted into the Basic Dungeons & Dragons “Challenger” series. My impression had always been that those were intended for quick play and easy access. This (and the earlier Wrath of the Immortals) feels like a sore thumb.

Champions of Mystara comes out of a fiction series Bruce Heard published in DRAGON Magazine at the time. That brings up three problems for me as a reviewer: I don’t run D&D, I didn’t read DRAGON after 1983, and I’m not a big fan of game fiction. It just isn’t my thing- though I know many people really dig it. Usually I’ll read it if it appears in moderation in a supplement or rulebook, but more often than not, I’ll skip it. I’ve read some solid game novels, but I’ve also been burned by some. So my review will approach this primarily from the perspective of a GM looking for Mystara material for their campaign and secondarily of a GM looking for general material.

PRESENTATION
Champions of Mystara is half world background and half fleshing out the story of the Princess Ark and their adventures in Mystara. This comes in one of those classic boxed sets that makes you oh and ah when you open it up. There’s a lot of chrome on offer here. You get two single-sided poster maps in the hex-style of the earlier gazetteers and the Trail Maps series. These cover the Serpent Peninsula and The Great Waste. There’s also a massive two part diagram of the Princess Ark ship- with a playable grid. This is an awesome resource- and one I used for a great sky-ship boarding action in a game. Finally there are eight cardboard full-page reference cards. Each has an illustration of a sky-ship on one side with vital stats and layout and extended information on the other. Artist David Miller does a great job here.

The gaming material arrives in three saddle stapled booklets, each with a color cardstock cover. The cover art’s solid and evocative. The layout inside is clean but a little dense. It uses the tight three-column design of TSR products of the period. The design is consistent throughout, with simple page ornamentations that don’t distract. The writing’s clear, but has a lot of material to get through. I found myself putting it down from chapter to chapter because it has so much to take in. Bruce Heard provides the Princess Arc narrative, but everything else is credited to Ann Dupuis. All of that’s skillfully executed, which makes the interior art the more disappointing. Terry Dykstra provides all of the many interior illustrations. They don’t really work for me- looking too cartoony and inconsistent. That simplicity may be the intent of this series, aimed at getting new players in. But when I look at the great art in the earlier GAZ volumes and parallel releases, it bugs me. Dykstra’s one of those artists- like Dan Smith, Larry Elmore, and James Holloway- that just feel off to me.

HEROES OF THE PRINCESS ARK
The largest of the three books, HotPA clocks in at 96 pages. This focuses on the game fiction of the Princess Ark- expanding it and offering game materials drawn from the text. As noted here, those stories appeared in DRAGON Magazine #153-168. The book opens with a complicated and dense two page summary of those tales. It follows that with 64 pages of other reprinted adventures from Issues 169-188, mostly in the form of various logbook entries. That’s an odd split and I’m not sure why the handled it that way. The story generally follows the adventures of the crew of the Princess Ark, led by Prince Haldemar of Haaken, a member of the Alphatian Nobility. They crisscross the lands meeting exciting new people and often killing or being killed by them. It is epic, confusing, and full tilt.

It is also not my favorite way of conveying game information. I appreciate the occasional first person journal and perspective. That format has a long and rich history- Dracula’s a great read and it uses that pattern. I like tools like Runequest's “What My Father Told Me”- which really help get inside the setting. However the material here is caught between being a narrative and explicating the setting. I think it would be better for my purposes if it went further to one side or another. Heard’s trapped a little in his writing by those needs and the established details. As a an example we have Haldemar of Haaken. He has hostilities with Herr Rolf of the Heldannic League. That repetition of initial sounds, especially in the summary lost me. I read game materials fast, which makes this a problem. But if you like game fiction or enjoyed the original Princess Ark stories, then you’ll love the material here.

A side note- I’m a big fan of the Red Steel and Savage Baronies supplements which came out a year after. They’re some of the few AD&D Mystara products I actually like. I love the society set up there and the races presented. We can see the first bits and details of that in the stories presented here.

Pages 69-75 provide a look at the details of the ship itself, beginning with design statistics. While supplement offers rules for ship building the PA doesn’t necessarily adhere to those. In that way it makes an excellent model for a unique PC skyship. There’s a great and highly detailed key to the ship deck plans. Seven pages follow this with the stats for the various characters from the stories. A solid section comes next talking about daily life on the ship and ideas for campaigns involving it: paralleling or taking completely different courses. The book wraps with some adversary stat blocks and details.

DESIGNER’S MANUAL
This 64-page volume has my favorite cover of the three, a stately skyship with the magical flying effect creating a wake on the sea below. The Designer’s Manual covers many of the mechanical elements of the setting- introducing a number of wild and interesting concepts. It begins with 18 pages on designing and building Skyships of all kinds. This system doesn’t use point values but rather gp costs and engineering rolls. Choices of hull and frame affect other decisions down the line. This isn’t a light system. Putting together a skyship will take some serious calculation- and the book offers some record and worksheets at the end. Another nine pages cover the mechanics of sailing such ships and doing battle with them. The mechanics here echo earlier systems presented in Dawnof the Emperors and Rules Cyclopedia. This expands and extends those.

For GMs looking for setting material and ideas rather than mechanics, the book finally gets to some of the good stuff. There’s a nice section on the perils and challenges of far travels, especially close to the Skyshield of Mystara. There’s all manner of weirdness here- almost Spelljammer in its nature. Next the book switches gears from the idea of the skies and beyond. Pages 36-50 offer a World Maker’s Guide to Mystara. This includes ideas on how to develop new lands, come up with new cultures, craft societies, and develop campaigns which come into contact with these. It is pretty awesome and useful stuff- the kinds of thing you want in a Mystara “summation.” Five pages of Skyship magic follow, a two-page spread on migrations across the world, and then a half dozen pages of sheets and appendices (including conversion notes for use with Spelljammer).

EXPLORER’S MANUAL
The third booklet comes closest to the classic Gazetteer model. It breaks into three major sections: The Great Waste; The Serpent Peninsula; and other miscellaneous materials. There’s an interesting introduction which tries to reconcile this material with that from earlier publications. Part of the problem comes from the timing of the events of the Princess Ark. In the Gazetteer series, we have a classic present age. However, the events of Wrath of the Immortals act as a meta-story event moving things forward and changing some things drastically. Add to the time travel of the PA’s stories which launches the ship and crew 30+ years into the future. The book mentions several supplements as in error- including the Poor Wizard’s Almanac and X6 Quagmire!. It also addresses the problem of the Desert Nomad series and continuity. Oddly after going through that it also notes that all of these products are out of print.

The Great Waste offers a vast and dangerous expanse- a mixture of arid plains, mountains, and deserts. After establishing the geography and general history, it covers the two major empires, Sind and Graakhalia. Pages 7-24 cover Sind, an analogue for Ancient India which includes mystic monks and martial arts. I like the Sind material here- but it feels super-compacted. There’s a focus on the expected stuff- timeline, geography, laws, etc. It touches on a few oddities like the caste system and the orders. But none of it has any time to breathe. I wondered what a full 64 or 96 page Sind GAZ would look like. It echoes some of my disappointment with Dawn of the Emperors- trying to do too much too quickly and ignoring what made the earlier parts of this series awesome. I love the material here and want to see more. Graakhalia, on the other hand, is a gnoll-elvish hybrid kingdom. The idea could work, but once again because we only get eight pages, it falls short.

The Serpent Peninsula offers more juggles and savannah bordering the Sea of Dread. This section covers two Empires as well. The first, The Most Serene Divinarchy of Yavdlom, seems to mix African ancient kingdoms with elvish heritage. There are a couple of interesting details, but mostly it comes off colorless. On the other hand, Ulimwengu: The Land of the Marimari mixed Aboriginal and African themes. An empire of short, dark-skinned people with dinosaurs. These might come off less clich├ęd with a longer treatment, but I’m not sure.

The last part of this book covers many topics, including relations between these lands and their neighbors- some presented in the earlier books and some not. There’s a two-page future history, trying to bring this in line with the other layers of Mystara presented elsewhere. Monsters and army details follow. Allow me to say that the Mugumba Mud-Dwellers, humanoid beaver-people, don’t work for me. (Shakes head). A few important people get a brief write-up on two pages. That’s seems a little too little and oddly placed. NPCs are the lifeblood of a setting and they appear here as an afterthought. So what’s missing? The Heldannic Freeholds which appear as a major adversary in the stories barely gets any treatment. For what appear to be a major and interesting Teutonic Knights-analogue, they’re written off. Other places and adversaries such as Myoshima are also absent.

OVERALL
Champions of Mystara mixes great and cool stuff with other bits that merely show potential. Several pieces fell half-baked and just goofy. In the hands of a skilled writer with enough page space, they could work. But here the page count works against Dupuis’ talent. There’s good stuff, but volume wins out over quality. If you’re an OSR follower, play Mystara using another system (like AGE), or run with a retro-clone like Dark Dungeon, you’ll find some interesting mechanical bits. If you like game fiction or are simply a fan of the Princess Ark from DRAGON Magazine, this is worth hunting down.

If you’re not a big fan of the tone and approach of earlier Gazetteer products, you probably won’t care for this. It has some of the worst of those excesses and indulgences. Here that isn’t mitigated by depth and wealth of rich ideas. Instead everything feels more than a little glossed over.

But I still like it. I like Mystara and I like seeing other pieces and bits, even if they don’t fully fit with my conception. Both empires of the Great Waste feel like opportunities...wasted. They could have been full books. I love the ship plans and all of the bits about sky-ships. The sections on world design are pretty awesome. So there’s real treasure to be found here. So a thumbs up for the Mystaran GM, but much less so for the general GM.

I have said it before and I’ll say it again. Please WotC, republish legally available pdfs of this material. SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY*.


More than anything else, this material points to why we’re lucky that Bruce Heard has returned to development of the setting. Anyone interested in the setting should be following his blog.

For more on Mystara see Gazetteers of Mystara: The Review List and Cracking Mystara: Ten Last Thoughts.

*P.S. I would like to be reimbursed or offered replacements for all of the TSR pdfs I bought during the year that you sold them through drivethrurpg. I'm just saying.

4 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. I have a couple of these CoM books obtained in an eBay lot I recented bought. I will have to crack these open.

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  3. The "Challenger" series is not meant for beginners.
    It is meant for experienced users of D&D, this was to differentiate between the newer versions of the D&D beginner box sets that came out around this time.

    The VotPA reprints were condensed due to lack of space & also only the later issues that were pertinent to the theme of the box set were printed in full.

    Your complaints regarding Sind and Heldann are valid. These were originally supposed to have their own GAZ's but that had been cancelled by TSR management.

    Mystara Fan.

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    1. Good catch on the Challenger series- the reference I had read described them as being item (and I think they were addressing the modules) designed for pick up and go play, with miniatures included. But checking a couple of other places, you're correct in your reading of it. There were a bunch of different lines coming out around that time, and I probably had some of that in my head.

      Yes, it says that point about condensing the stories in the book, but it still feels a little odd and incomplete. I understand the reasons behind the decision. Of course I'm saying that from a present era where it wouldn't be difficult to have that additional material available through a secondary source.

      Yup, there are any number of those interesting locations glossed over that I would have gladly picked up the GAZ for.

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