Archives of Candlekeep: Mystara/Blackmoor
This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Eighty Nine on 17th November 2021.
Lennon: Um, Ostron?
Ostron: It was always that color, you’re just misremembering.
Lennon: You know, someday I’m going to actually know what you’re talking about when you say things like that, and I’m not sure if that’s going to be better or worse.
Ryu: Something I can help with?
Lennon: I don’t know, how much do you know about planets with two suns?
Ryu: Um…I’ve heard of them.
Lennon: And one of the suns is inside the planet.
Ryu: Okay, that’s a new one on me. Is this a Spelljammer thing? Didn’t Ostron say that kind of thing happens in Spelljammer?
Ostron: Yes, but if it’s what I think then we’re talking about the wonderful, happy time before Spelljammer was even a thing and D&D players weren’t afraid of math. Let me see that map.
Lennon: I want to go on record saying that is not a proper map, by the way. They aren’t supposed to be double sided with holes in.
Ostron: Well, unfortunately maps have to get a bit creative when they’re working with Mystara.
Ostron: Hang on.
Ostron: There we go. Here, pass around the notes.
Mystara is a part of D&D history, but it’s another one of those that got lost in the shuffle as D&D evolved. It’s also tied in with a setting called Blackmoor. That location is known to many D&D historians, and some even claim is the true original setting for and genesis of D&D.
If you go way back to 1970, Gary Gygax is part of a wargaming group called the Castle & Crusades Society. This group was made up of a bunch of guys who created a sort of persistent wargaming campaign where each of them controlled territory that could be fought over, developed, and explored based on the Chainmail game, which many may recognize as an original source for D&D rules. One of the group’s members is a gentleman named Dave Arneson. According to some sources, Arneson was actually the first in the group to begin changing the focus of gaming in his realm to having individual characters exploring dungeons and encountering monsters, supposedly inspired by Conan and H.P. Lovecraft. From 1970 to 1972, Arnesons dungeon exploration games got more popular and he began writing about them in a locally circulated wargaming pamphlet. Then he showed Gary Gygax what he was doing, and from there work on Dungeons and Dragons began.
For a while, Blackmoor was running as a sort of testbed campaign setting alongside Greyhawk, with Arneson and Gygax being the primary DMs for their own playgrounds. By 1975, play in the actual Blackmoor campaign had tapered off as participants moved away or got involved in other things, but TSR was publishing D&D and needed settings to place dungeons and adventures in. Working with Arneson, the Blackmoor supplement for original D&D was published.
After that, however, Blackmoor began fading as a major part of D&D lore. Arneson was not as directly involved with TSR as some other early creators, so he wasn’t pushing for Blackmoor to be a setting, nor was Gary Gygax interested in developing it as he was working on Greyhawk, among other things. Arneson did publish what amounted to a Blackmoor campaign setting book in 1977, but it was through a 3rd party publisher, not TSR. In 1980, Arneson left TSR and that may have been the end of the Blackmoor setting if Basic D&D hadn’t come along.
For those who may not remember, in the late 70s D&D was only in its original edition and the rules for the game were spread out among a bunch of different small publications, pamphlets, and gaming magazines. A man named John Eric Holmes wanted to put together a collated and simplified version of the rules to get people interested in playing and make it a little easier to get involved. TSR was working on a similar venture, but Holmes could do his work faster so they gave him their blessing. Holmes then went on to publish what is known today as the “Basic” version of D&D as an alternative to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, which would be the official 1st and eventually 2nd editions.
Because they wanted to make sure everyone knew the two sets were not the same thing, TSR didn’t allow Holmes to use the well-known Greyhawk setting for the game’s materials. Instead, Holmes and the rest of the developers of the Basic set created an entirely different world: Mystara. Mystara had a lot of the same basic features as any other fantasy world, including Greyhawk, but they included enough different races and creatures to make it distinct.
Mystara persisted as the main world all of the Basic set’s adventures took place in through to the end of the set’s publication in 1995. In that time it accumulated a lot of lore and history. As part of that, the Blackmoor setting was incorporated into Mystara’s lore as part of it’s history. The canon incorporation of Blackmoor stated that the land and civilization of Arneson’s campaign was an ancient one, and they had lived and achieved technological superiority until, as all good ancient civilizations do, they blew themselves up when the technology got too much for them. For a while that was the extent of Blackmoor’s inclusion, but in the mid 1980s there were a series of modules published for the Expert level set that allowed characters to travel back in time to Blackmoor and have a series of adventures there.
Mystara as a setting sort of died off when TSR pulled support for the Basic D&D line of products. Many people believe it was a factor of TSR’s failing business situation by that point, as there were multiple Mystara resources that had been announced and then never materialized.
When Wizards of the Coast bought TSR and the rights to all of their intellectual property, Mystara was left on the shelf; the CEO at the time and many of the developers felt that D&D had too many settings at that point and wanted to consolidate, so Mystara was left out. That said, there were several resources published in 3.0 and 3.5 that referenced things from Mystara, such as races, creatures, or locations that had been primary features of the setting. Despite that, no official Mystara-based resource was ever published for the 3rd editions. By the time 4th edition rolled around the vague references were the only things left, and even those had become debatable. The only things called out were some of the monsters, and since those had been published in official 3.5 materials they weren’t really unique to Mystara any more.
Ryu: So none of this explains the sun thing Lennon was talking about.
Ostron: That’s the publication history, move on to the actual setting information.
Mystara as a planet is at least mostly normal on the surface. Most of the material related to Mystara focused on the continent of Brun, specifically on the eastern regions, an area called the “Known World.” The Known World was made up of a number of groups and civilizations analagous to historical societies, like the Thyatian Empire that was much like the Byzantine Empire, and the Ethengar Khanate modeled after Mongol civilization. The Grand Duchy of Karameikos was where most of the adventures were set, many of them starting in the town of Threshold. Karameikos itself was modeled after southern Europe during the medieval period.
Like the sword coast for 5th edition, most of the attention and focus of Basic D&D’s adventures was on the Known World portion of the planet, so there were a lot of locations, civilizations, and groups built up in it, and overall was a traditional quazi-medieval setting with magic mixed in, much like the Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk.
The next most iconic location in Mystara is the Savage Coast. A stretch of coastline 2,000 miles long in the southern part of Brun, the Savage Coast is cursed. The Red Curse is something present in the rocks and dirt of the area that accumulates in people and eventually mutates and kills them. The only way to prevent that in most cases is wearing an exotic metal called cinnabril. The Savage Coast is also slightly more technologically advanced than the rest of the Known World; both seafaring and airship vessels are present, and gunpowder (or smokepowder in lore) is available enough to make firearms a regular thing. Out of universe this is clearly done as a way to allow for swashbuckling and steampunk-type adventures to take place.
As for the rest of the planet, there are two other continents. Davania is to the south of Brun and about twice as large. Mostly unexplored, the people of Brun only know about a region near their own continent called the Jungle Coast, which they consistently attempt to colonize with limited success, and the Serpent Coast to the west that has several semi-connected city states. The cities will trade exotic goods, but getting them back to Brun requires evading the pirates that roam that area. The southern area of Davania is mostly desert, supposedly covered in large ruins of a long-dead civilization.
The final continent on the surface is Skothar. Very little is known about that land because none of the resources since Mystara’s creation have ever used it, including the 3rd party ones that sprang up since it’s official retirement.
Now you’ll note we said the final continent on the surface. That’s because the world of Mystara is hollow. That’s right, if you go far enough down from the surface, you don’t start hitting increasingly hot and uninviting varieties of magma, you find an entire other “surface” on the other side of the planet’s crust, with a small red star in the center providing energy and warmth.
The world within the world is where the really unique stuff in Mystara lives. The unofficial situation is that anything that used to be on the surface and either disappeared or went extinct is present on the interior world. So that lost civilization on Davania? Some of them are down there. A few birds or fish that got overhunted? You can find them down below. Oh, and dinosaurs are everywhere.
This is all thanks to a being called Ka the Preserver. Ka is what is known as an Immortal, which in Mystara’s world are what passes for gods. They live on one of the planet’s two moons, but Ka spends most of his time in the so-called hollow world he discovered when a meteor hit the planet. He is the one that keeps bringing the dying or floundering species to the underside of the world, though he asks a few of the other Immortals for help too.
In addition to all of the extinct species, people also discover that magic is really hard to do in the interior world. Ka was the first being to figure out how to use magic in the Hollow World, which is one of the reasons he’s the unofficial Immortal in charge down there.
In game terms, no character was even allowed to use magic unless their character had a natural Intelligence of 16. That means before racial modifiers or ability score increases. Even then, there were only a few spells that would function for spellcasters. There’s no obvious pattern to which spells were allowed, but most spells that involved teleportation, planar travel, or psychic effects like charm were out, while most of the elemental attack spells and defensive ones were still functional.
With the combination of new godlike beings, new civilizations modeled on civilizations of myth and legend, and exotic locations with persistent curses and lost creatures and peoples, it’s not surprising Mystara garnered a lot of interest. It also probably helped that the D&D basic set was initially slightly easier to begin with than the main runs of the product, so people who learned on the Basic sets were far more familiar with Mystara than Greyhawk or the Forgotten Realms.
Unfortunately neither TSR nor Wizards of the Coast shared that interest. As mentioned, all official support of the “Basic” line of products stopped shortly before TSR was sold, and the only real reason Mystara or Blackmoor material has shown up in D&D since has been due to reprints of items from that setting.
However, the fanbase for Mystara and Blackmoor was large and dedicated enough that it hasn’t really died; it simply moved. Taking advantage of SRD for the d20 system, the 3rd party publisher Zeitgeist Games produced a number of Blackmoor-related resources for D&D edition 3.5 and a few for 4th edition, though their focus seems to have moved elsewhere since.
More work has been undertaken by fans. A web site, Pandius.com, currently contains resources for playing Mystara-based games using the original ruleset for the setting, and fan produced campaigns and setting information are still being updated, albeit without any real deadline or timetable.
It’s unclear if official resources will ever return to Mystara; so far no other materials have hinted at anything that specifically calls out the world or locations on it, but if you need somewhere both new and old to try out some new adventuring, it might be worth giving Mystara a look.
Lennon: Well that at least explains why this map was giving me headaches.
Ryu: You know that’s just a phrase, right? You look like you’re actually in pain.
Ostron: Also, is there a reason you’re holding two batteries?
Lennon: Hmm? Oh, this? Yeah, I took them out of the Carbon Monoxide detector, because all the beeping it was doing was giving me a headache and making me feel sick.
Ostron: Oooooohkay! Ryu, maybe we should use the outdoor Scrying Pool for this week’s feedback. Like, right now.