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Hope In the Midst of Cosmic Darkness: My Mystara

by Geoff Gander from Threshold Magazine issue 2

Special thanks to my players, who against their better judgement play in my campaign.

For those who know me, and my writings over the years, it should come as no surprise that my version of Mystara is a lot grittier, and more dangerous, than thedefaultcampaign. Ill outline the major themes later on, but I will summarise the main difference in two words: Outer. Beings.

I have long been a fan of the works of H.P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries (August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howardas well as Edgar Rice Burroughs), and the stories they wrote contained a number of themes that appealed to me on a fundamental level. They often pitted doomed (or at least seriously outmatched) heroes against incomprehensible cosmic forces or unspeakable monsters, against a backdrop of worlds that were incredibly ancient, or so alien that they forced my imagination to work overtime just to conceive of them. At the same time many of these storiesand especially Lovecraftsconveyed the vastness of the cosmos and the utter insignificance of mortals. However valiant the heroes might be, however significant their victory that day might have been, the wheel of time would still roll on. These notions were such a departure from other stories I had read, and resonated with me on a fundamental level.

Mystara, being rooted in the Original D&D, has a lot of these influences there. It can be seen in some of the nightmarish monsters, in the cosmology of the Immortals and the mysterious Old Ones, and even in some of the specific world-related materials (GAZ 2: The Emirates of Ylaruam, specifically mentions an ancient nation of lizard men that is obviously an homage to the Snake Men of Valusia in the Conan series).

Cycles of Civilization

The official, documented timeline starts with the rise of the first civilizations of prehistory, to the rise of Thonia and Blackmoor and their destruction in the Great Rain of Fire, and then afterwards a long dark age broken by the time of Nithia, more chaos, and then the eventual beginnings of the modern campaign setting. It is presented as a complete civilization cycle, preceded by nothing of note.

My own literary inspirations and personal leanings, however, led me to reject that interpretation entirely. Inspired by a number of favorite authors (Burroughs and Howard feature prominently), I built a notion of Mystara being a world on which powerful civilizations have risen and fallen many timessome so far back in ancient history that virtually no record remains of their having existed. This approach has provided me with no shortage of inspiration when fleshing out the setting, while allowing me to parallel Mystaras evolution with that of our own world. My version of the setting literally has tens of thousands of years of history that I can mine. For example, the current setting, which is dominated by mammalian races, was preceded by an epoch where most of the dominant cultures were reptilian, and this in turn was preceded by a period where most of the races were amphibious, and so on. For all practical purposes this makes little difference to most characters, but it does add weight to the theme of the Outer Beings and cosmic horror.

The Outer Beings & Cosmic Horror

The most significant modification I made to Mystara is probably the addition of the Outer Beings, and the associated theme of cosmic horror. As I wrote above, I was so enthralled by the notions put forth by Lovecraft and others that I imported many of them into my own campaign, and wrote about them over the past ten or so years. But when I did so, I made sure that it was not a simple copy-and-paste job. The Outer Beings are strongly reminiscent of the Great Old Ones, but I designed them explicitly for Mystara, and nowhere else. Thus, there is no Mystaran equivalent of Cthulhu sleeping in Rlyeh, nor is there ablind, idiot godlike Azathoth looming in the centre of the cosmos. Each of the seven major Outer Beings [, Frisland: The County of Orzafeth] has a distinct personality and role, is linked to a grand apocalyptic prophecy, and has fanatical cults and monstrous servitor races to support them, but the similarity to the Cthulhu Mythos ends there.

In the cosmology I developed, the Outer Beings have existed since the dawn of timeperhaps even earlier, some might say. Seeking to impose their vision of reality on the multiverse, they are locked in an eternal battle against the Immortals and the Old Ones. At various periods the Outer Beings have been dominant, and during those times they were revered as the primary deities on Mystara and other worlds. However, those periods of dominance were not long enough to allow them to reshape the cosmos as they saw fit. In the modern (AC 1000) era the Outer Beings are imprisoned in other dimensions, but work through their worshipers (human and otherwise) to free themselves and sweep away the current reality and replace it with their own. In my Mystara, mortal knowledge of the Outer Beings is largely limited to dedicated cults, as well as scholars whose interests have led them towards the awful truth, but who realize that only mindless panic would ensue if they warned everyone of the danger. Adventurers in my campaigns can come across obscure hints that lead them to discover the existence of the Outer Beings, but the sheer cosmic scale of the conflict ensures that their role in the campaign itself is largely an occasional background elementat least for low- to mid-level characters.

To my mind, the Outer Beings fill a gap in Mystaras cosmology perfectly. In a multiverse that includes mortals, Exalted, Immortals, and Old Ones, I have often wondered: “Where doesit’ (i.e., the multiverse and everything in it) come from? Why does something exist rather than nothing at all? Is there something even bigger? Is there an opposite of creation that goes beyond destruction?” The Outer Beings are not like the Immortals, the Old Ones, or like anything else in the Mystaran cosmology. They are outside the space/time continuum that mortals and Immortals can interact with or understand. Including the Outer Beings in Mystaran cosmology creates a dark source of fear and paranoia for those that discover them, that all of reality hangs by a thread and is menaced by things that are completely alien. Although classified aschaoticbecause they are inimical to reality, the Outer Beings are actually beyond the good/evil-law/chaos axis, and threaten the fabric of reality that allows good and evil to make sense. They function well as a cosmological counterbalance to the rules-bound planar geography that all player characters and their Immortals call home. In effect, the Outer Beings are my way of saying: “Here be Monsters”.

What I did imitateshamelessly, perhapsfrom Lovecraft is his conception of cosmic horror that I alluded to above: The very notion that, heroic and mighty as you might be, the powers against which you are fighting are far greater and can easily snuff you out without a second thought. More than likely, however, they will ignore you because in their view you dont matter in the grand scheme of things. However, the battle does matter to you because your life and your world are at stake. So you fight against forces you barely understand, running the risk of being driven mad by the implications of what the mere existence of the Outer Beings and their minions means for what you perceive asreality”, knowing full well how unevenly the odds are stacked against you. But you fight anyway, because doing otherwise would be unthinkable, and the horrors you face along the way will force you to question your values, your morals, and your own perception of who you are and how you relate to thisrealitythat you took for granted. A campaign set in my Mystara can easily become an exercise in self-exploration, and in fact in my own campaign I sometimes deliberately throw my players into situations that force them to re-think their assumptions. This reflects my personal view that roleplaying can be both an entertaining pastime and a powerful tool for personal growth.

One aspect of the cosmic horror theme that overlaps with many of the others in my take on Mystara is the role of intelligent alien life formsspecifically the Zhochal, a highly-advanced race that I have modeled on Lovecrafts Mi-Go, also known as the Fungi from Yuggoth. Unlike the Mi-Go, the Zhochal are not an inherently evil race, but their society, philosophy, and physiology are so utterly alien that many native Mystarans who encounter them find it difficult to see them as anything but monstrous. Although many Zhochal are under the influence of the Outer Beings and are infiltrating a number of nations (and thus serve as useful villains), some are neutral and could possibly forge ties with Mystarans.

And this is where they act as a bridge with many other themes in my Mystara. the Zhochal civilization is based on bio-engineered technology that is so advanced that it functions as magic. They literally grow their buildings, weapons and consumable goods; their culture is alive in almost every sense. Mystaran natives would certainly find a use for many of their inventionsand in my campaign, they have. There is a small, but lively, black market in living Zhochal weapons, for example, and governments that are aware of these creatures quietly finance expeditions to known strongholds to secure Zhochal hardware for research purposes (both to combat the creatures with their own weapons, and to give them a strategic advantage over Mystaran rivals). Such expeditions are understandably very dangerous, and sometimes arecovereditem or two ends up on the black market.  Although this cultural connection is sporadic at best it has the potential to be very far-reaching, possibly depending on what the player characters do.

A Dynamic, Living World

My Mystara is on the cusp of a great renaissance. After centuries of upheaval following the destruction of Blackmoor in the Great Rain of Fire, as well as the subsequent downfalls of Mogreth and Taymora, the Known World, at least, has begun to stabilize. Political systems are maturing, enduring alliances are being forged, and most importantly an increasingly educated and mobile middle class is beginning to appear in the more advanced nations. These developments are fueling greater social dynamism and mobility, more innovation, as well as the first stirrings of an appetite for more political change. Socially, then, much of the Known World would be equivalent to the mid-to-late 17th, and in some regions the early 18th, centuries. Larger cities have banks, printing presses, the beginnings of paper money and stock markets, as well as nascent political movements. Enterprising people with sufficient funds in these enlightened regions are finding opportunities to build companies, invent things, and explore new ideas: Gunpowder, once commonly used before the fall of Blackmoor, has been rediscovered, and revolutionary thinkers are beginning to ponder theories of magnetism, gravity, and the more modern sciences of biology and chemistry.

While true nation-states and national identities are beginning to form and economic life picks up, cultural traditions do not always keep pace. People are finding their traditions being disrupted, and the first signs of industrialization are beginning to put people out of workor at least promise radical changes to how things get done. New social divides are beginning to fuel radicalism, while the increased movements of people stoke the fires of xenophobia. It is an exciting, uncertain time in a campaign world that is very much alive, where new ideas (and re-discoveries of ones that have been lost) happen all the time.

The challenge for characters in my Mystara is how they can get by when they are caught up in a tide of historical change that threatens to alter the world in ways that no one can foresee, and how they can protect what is important to them. Characters in my campaign regularly wrestle with the responsibility for taking actions that build a future that no one can be sure will be better than the past. Defeating evil and safeguarding the good that exists now isnt enoughfor better or for worse, heroes must fight for and defend a future that will not resemble the past, and which no one can yet envision.

A More Prominent Role for Lizard Men

I like reptiles. This probably stems from the obligatory childhood fascination with dinosaurs, combined with my ongoing interest inliving fossils” (prehistoric flora and fauna that, miraculously, have survived into the present dayhorseshoe crabs, coelacanths, sharks, and gingko trees are good examples of this). So, living in a mammalian world, I cant help but admire the reptiles for hanging on.

In much of fantasy literature, lizard men are either portrayed as savages, or the last remnant of an evil, decadent culture that was long ago displaced by humanity (the latter is very evident in the Conan the Barbarian stories). I saw interesting story potential in the latter interpretation, but modified it to match the other themes in my campaign. In my Mystara, most lizard men are the descendants of a nation that wielded magical and political power unknown to most human nations in the modern (AC 1000) period. This nation, Mogreth, was one of the few nations to weather the Great Rain of Fire reasonably intact, and in the power vacuum that was created following that event, built an empire that dominated large sections of what is now the Known World. While the sorcerer-kings of Mogreth were powerful, their rivalries, paranoia, and their allegiance to the Outer Beings ultimately led to their downfall. Modern lizard men are descended from the survivors, and while some did revert to savagery, others preserved what knowledge they could and retreated to build refuges for themselves. As a result, lizard men in my Mystara have a unique perspective on historythey understand better than most the nature of power and how it can corrupt, and their own experiences have led many to adopt a more spiritual philosophy towards life in order to seek balance. At the same time, there is an undercurrent of bitterness directed towards the modern nations, many of which are occupying lands that once belonged to them.

This added background gives lizard men the cultural depth to make them stand as one of the major races in my campaign, and as a result I include them as a fully playable player character race of fighters and shamans.

The Art of Getting Along

Mystara is a world of incredible racial and cultural richness, and my take on the setting takes it to another level with the formal incorporation of lizard men, rakasta, and other races. In my campaigns, I strongly encourage players to think extensively about their charactersbackgrounds, and how those backgrounds have shaped who they are right now. As a result, much of the in-character roleplaying in a typical session focuses on how and why a diverse group of characters can get along as an adventuring party. Much character development in our game is built around our characters learning to trust, bond, respect, and joke with their companions, while often challenging their own preconceptions of what makes a person (regardless of race) “good”, “trustworthy”, “civilized”, or evenlikeable”. Through this constant process of negotiation and relationship-building, our game illuminates the challenges of integrating people with vastly different individual and group identities into a unit that works togetherif not always cohesively. This focus on interpersonal relationships, overlaid by epic storylines, has led more than one person in our group to liken my take on Mystara to be, “D&D meets the Buffyverse”.

(Sidebar) Firearms:  Not the Ultimate Weapon

Firearms exist in my Mystara, and they work just as they do in real lifewith gunpowder, not smokepowder. I thought long about introducing this into my campaign, and the solution I arrived at to prevent the widespread proliferation of firearms works more on the basis of science and economics than fantasy metaphysics.

In my Mystara, firearms are a recently rediscovered technology (except to the dwarveswho have had them for centuries but have been extremely careful about not letting them fall into the hands of outsiders). The techniques for making firearms vary among arms-makers, which means that quality is highly variable (250 gp in the Dark Dungeons rulebook, for example, will get you a basic pistol in my campaigna good pistol that has less chance of misfiring will cost far more). Given the skill required to make them, and the lack of mass-production at this time, firearms (and ammunition) are available in only the largest cities. Good luck if you run out of ammunition in the middle of rural Karameikos (which is most of the country). Congratulations, youve just acquired a very expensive blackjack. Repairs are also prohibitively expensive.

As stated above, firearms are prone to jam and have dangerous misfires because the design kinks have not been worked out. In my campaign, a natural roll of “1” means that the round explodes in the gunutterly destroying it and wounding the wielder (with a 50% chance that the explosion will set off all the other rounds being carried). A “2” or “3” means that the weapon is jammedthe wielder must make a halved Dexterity roll to clear it in order to fire it again. Failure means either the weapon is damaged and must be repaired, or the round explodes as above (50/50 chance). Complicating matters further is the fact that gunpowder must be stored carefully. If it gets wet it is ruined, and as stated above it can be set off by any spark. Most people would be wary of going into battle next to a fusilier.

I also modified the mechanics of shooting to make early firearms less convenient. After shooting a rifle or pistol, a person must spend an entire round (10 seconds) pouring powder down the barrel, tamping it down, inserting a musket ball, tamping it again, and preparing the fuse to shoot the next round. The only way to get around this is to package a ball and powder together in a paper cartridge beforehand, and insert it into the barrel (doing so allows a person to shoot at the end of each round). Preparing shot like this takes time, and storage can be an issue.

Hardly surprising, then, that a noble would be more likely to hire a band of magic-using adventurers than a squad of fusiliersmagic, at least, is tried and tested!