Friday, April 13, 2012

Cracking Mystara: Ten Last Thoughts

Now that I've finally finished my review of the Gazetteer series, I have a few final thoughts. I pull links to all of those reviews in my previous post: Gazetteers of Mystara: the Review List.


I’ve said it before, but the volume of rich material in these books means that WotC really ought to be offering some kind of reprint or electronic version. I understand some of the logic for avoiding that: piracy, driving players towards new editions, production costs. Of these only the last seems to hold any merit. But illegal electronic versions exist already and I would love to be able to purchase clean, well-done and legal editions. The OSR movement has peeled off players- better to gain some market share within that rather than ignoring it. I doubt the existence of these materials with significantly impact sales of a present edition.

During the brief time WotC did sell electronic versions, I picked several up. Some of them had been scanned well- pages aligned, clean up done, contrast balanced. However many sucked. They were nearly useless because whoever’d done the scanning job had been asleep at the switch. Producing good quality materials will obviously take some time, effort, and therefor expense. I’m not saying I want Original Electronic Version quality, just something relatively clean. If WotC's serious about drawing back fans across all of the editions, then reprinting- electronic or otherwise- ought to be an arrow in their quiver.

I’m saying this because I really want a PoD copy of
The Rules Cyclopedia.


In going back to reread these gazetteers, I once again had to reconfigure my vision of the Known World and Mystara. I’d forgotten the scale of Ylaruam or that Thyatis had a mainland presence, the westernmost segment of the Empire. I’d forgotten how important Minrothad was- I’d recalled it as a kind of throwaway place but it has a significantly larger impact. I’d even forgotten that Alfheim was completely surrounded by another country. I’d never seen a solid “overview” of the world, so I had to put the pieces together myself. What’s interesting for me- especially given the way I picked up and put together a vision of Mystara exclusively from the gazetteers over the year- are the relatively rare invalidations.

Rebecca Borgstrom in her essay “Structure and Meaning in Role-Playing Game Design”

(Second Person, MIT Press 2007) talks about the way rpg supplements can actually close down a world. Gamers begin with base material, usually a core or setting book which lays out the essential elements. Places or concepts might get a fly-over pass in that product. GM’s can start running from just that material- filling things in as they go along. When later products appear, coloring those previously blank areas they contradict material the GM’s established. That’s usually a given, but some products may present themselves in such depth, with such a distinct reading that they don’t recast the GM’s read but act as a completely exclusive read on the material. This makes it more difficult for the GM to usefully adapt that material. It becomes worse if the architecture of further supplements depends on that. Borgstorm points out how some of the first edition Exalted materials do this. The Mystara Gazetteers, for the most part, never felt like they offered a closed interpretation.

Outside the gazetteers, Mystara does have an invalidation problem. In 1992, TSR began to introduce metaplot elements to the setting. Previous to this, events appearing in modules and supplements didn’t really impact the setting material. Most of the gazetteers mentioned the modules affiliated with their areas. The only mention of a module event potentially affecting a setting came for Elves of Alfheim where success or failure of an outside adventure could impact Elven life. Now TSR “blew up” the setting with the adventure presented in Wrath of the Immortals. That moved the timeline forward and drastically changed several areas including Glantri. A series of Poor Wizard's Almanacs then continued to push the history forward. The later AD&D revisions of Karameikos and Glantri assumed those events as canon, as did Champions of Mystara. GMs who didn’t move their campaigns forward ended up with supplements with useless material or material requiring more work to whip into shape. Plus, as I did, they might cringe at some of the choices.

White Wolf’s legendary for problems with metaplot in their games.
Paranoia alienated some gamers with their Post-Whoops line of products. Legend of the Five Rings most parallels Mystara’s problems. I enjoyed the first edition of L5R and I bought every supplement for it. However at a certain point, they needed to advance the game setting to parallel the story happening in the CCG it was based on. It happened slowly at first, but then accelerated. Incidents and ideas began to appear in supplements based on those world changes. By the midpoint of the L5R 2e life cycle, we’d jumped forward significantly. The Secrets of... clan books were essentially incompatible with the Way of... books for setting and characters. Of course both offered different mechanical options. It became a mess. Third Edition L5R tried to clean up the mechanical contradictions and establish a new baseline, but the history kept rolling forward, rendering interesting past material more difficult to use. The newest edition has embraced a broader approach- playable across different eras.

The problem here- as in Mystara is that I liked the world and status quo established by the original materials- I like pre-Clan War Rokugan. And I like the world of the gazetteers. I don’t want another person’s vision of what should happen; I want more ideas to play with inside that setting.


What are my top five gazetteers? GAZ3: The Principalities of Glantri remains #1- I’ve gotten more interesting ideas from that than any other volume. It also has the best cover. GAZ12: The Golden Khan of Ethengar is #2. I’ve used some of those ideas, and it is so well-written, an example of how to actually put together one of these. GAZ1: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos is #3. It has great characters and a smaller scale. I’ve only used a little bit of it in the game, but I appreciate the atmosphere and the adaptation. GAZ2: The Emirates of Ylaruam is #4 which seems a little weird to me. In my review I wrote about some of my reservations with it, but there’s a ton of great detail in it. I’d really like to do some sessions with more of this civilization. It is almost a tie with #5, but I think GAZ5: The Elves of Alfheim just edges out GAZ6: The Dwarves of Rockhome- primarily because I’ve lifted more from the former. Next on my list would be GAZ13: The Shadow Elves, GAZ9: The Minrothad Guilds or GAZ7: The Northern Reaches.


While each has some interesting ideas I think the three weakest volumes are GAZ11: The Republic of Darokin, GAZ14: Atruaghin Clans and GAZ4: The Kingdom of Ierendi. Ierendi gets last place because it feels like it so missed the boat about what makes the gazetteers great. Atruaghin Clans' weakness lies in the rush job done to produce it. Darokin just bugs me and I’m sure won’t be on others lists of the weakest.


One of the criticism I’ve seen leveled at the gazetteers is the “narrative” fiction. Generally I’m not a fan of game fiction within supplements. Some game books substitute that for providing setting or clear material. Where the gazetteers use first person voice, it has a purpose. It can an insider perspective or an unreliable narrator. Sometimes it is used to convey tone or cultural style. A few of the books overuse the technique (Ierendi for example). But where it does appear it works more often than not.


I’m in a strange position reviewing these gazetteers. I never used any of them for their mechanics: I never ran basic D&D and by the times these came out, I’d already moved away from AD&D. Instead I use these materials for Rolemaster, GURPS and homebrew campaigns. I also never ran a “Mystara” campaign. Instead I tore some of these places out and dropped them in to fill out areas of the game world. That’s required quite a bit of tweaking over the 25+ years I’ve run that world. Rereading these threw me a little- having mixed up what I’d adapted and what I’d developed myself. Mystara veterans probably wouldn’t recognize much of it. Still it isn’t the worst- Gloranthan experts would probably do a spit take with my bastardization of that material, patched together as I started to figure out how that cosmology actually worked.


I know this can be said for most established settings, like Forgotten Realms or Cyberpunk’s Night City- but I love the idea that there are multiple different Mystara’s out there. Worlds where the Hollow World is a vital and important part of the setting, worlds where it doesn’t even exist. Campaigns where the players battle against the rampaging awfulness of the Thayatian Dominion and others where they battle magical conspiracies wrought by the Alphatians. Games that perhaps play in only one or two of the regions- the Karameikan or Ethengarian campaign. That an NPC my players have come to love my be completely off-stage in another world…or might actually be a hated enemy.


IMHO Forgotten Realms and some of other recent settings aspire to be Tolkien-esque: historical, detailed, logically consistent, rich and deadly serious. The Gazetteers and Mystara as a whole take another approach. They’re closer in tone to earlier D&D material. I don’t believe that renders the material any less compelling or dramatic. But in some places it does go perhaps a little too far for my taste. As I mentioned in my GAZ10: The Orcs of Thar review, I think humor emerges at the game table and it is harder to actually craft into the material without risking a groaning reaction. But I do believe that lighter tone makes the setting feel more accessible, more friendly. As bizarre as it might sound, given some of the horrors in the setting, I feel like Mystara’s a good and happy place. I feel like my characters would be welcome there- and could make a difference.

One of the most interesting things in the current campaign has been watching the players evolving sense of Glantri (which goes by another name in my world). I really love it when a player embraces their background and becomes a kind of ambassador for their people. Lucy d’Ambreville has served to illustrate some of the contradictions of Glantri- and the complexity of their perspective on gods and divine magic. As a GM, embrace what the players come up with about their culture- let them build that from the material. Sherri, Lucy’s player, read through the Glantri material what’s come out is her reading of it. That’s provided great opportunities for world-building with minimal input on my part. It illustrates how useful a “Yes/Yes, but…” approach can be even for these kinds of larger scale details.


My next set of reviews will cover another series I love- one which has major utility today twenty years after the first volume was published. After that I eventually plan to return and review some of the more interesting later Mystara products including Red Steel, Savage Baronies, Champions of Mystara, and Hollow World.