Monday, November 25, 2019

The Differences in Mystara, Greyhawk, and Forgotten Realms (Part 1)

D&D is a chance to share a world with people. So after an adventure, you probably want your players to remember the setting it took place it. The experience of being transported to that world is usually one of the important takeaways DMs want to instill in their audience. But unless your players are completely new to all fantasy fiction entirely (e.g. no real exposure to things like elves, wizards, dragons, orcs, etc.) then the baseline assumptions of D&D’s “implied setting” aren’t going to have that impact you’re looking for. You have to go a step beyond to make them feel the world as an element of the story.

So yeah, even in editions of D&D without an official default setting, there’s always one that dominates the narrative and, failing that, there will inevitably be implied default setting details that can be extrapolated from the core rulebooks. The Monster Manual is obviously the main source of this, since it is literally nothing but lore details for an implied setting. But even the inclusion of races, classes, and the base rules all imply a lot. If you want to make your setting unique, take nothing for granted. Everything in the Player’s Handbook could be changed in the interest of doing something to make your setting different.

One place I want to exercise this is for the three traditional “default” settings published by TSR/Wizards of the Coast: Mystara, Greyhawk, and Forgotten Realms. They’re more difficult to sell to someone than something wild and crazy like Dark Sun or Planescape.

Firstly, let’s list some of the qualities they have in common. These are all things that cannot really be made distinctive of any of these three settings.
  1. Every standard D&D class is included, and even many of the non-standard ones
  2. Standard D&D magic is assumed
  3. Most of the monsters are fairly classic
  4. They employ a lot of analogues to real-world cultures (e.g. “fantasy vikings, fantasy Arabs, fantasy samurai, etc.”)
  5. The cosmology is pretty basic
  6. They have some strange relationship to the real world of Earth…
Obviously there would be way more if we kept digging. We’re gunna put a pin in number 6 there, though. For now, here are some notable qualities I picked out for each of them based on my experience, occasional skimming of their respective setting guides over the years, and some cursory research for this article. 

Let's start with the original setting, Mystara, at one point called "the Known World." This is the default setting of the Basic D&D line and a lot of its details reflect that. If you were doing an "amusement park version" guided tour of all Mystara's greatest hits, you would want to include...
  1. No gods, only immortals.
    • This one is hugely important and the single biggest thing here that you could use to make the setting feel distinct. You can base a campaign around this, or at the very least change a lot about divine magic to reflect it. I would honestly only ever want to play Mystara in some older system with seemingly no level cap, like how BECMI D&D goes up to 36th level. I would want a system where the players can continue leveling forever so that they functionally become immortals, but entirely consistent within the rules of the campaign.
  2. Races
    • There seem to generally be more animal-folk ("furry races"), or at least they're more meaningfully integrated in the setting than how Forgotten Realms will mention, like, once, that, "oh by the way, there are some catgirls in there too, somewhere. We know you want catgirls. But anyway, here's 60 more pages of fluff about elves."
    • Ogres are a player race. I would definitely want this included.
    • The three traditional elf subraces are replaced with Forest Elves (which are like vanilla high elves, but with a bit of wood elf stuff), Shadow Elves (which are, like, non-evil, pale dark elves), and Water Elves (a race of seafaring merchants). Also, depending on the edition, half-elves may not be a thing. Elves + humans = incompatible.
  3. There are only 5 6 types of dragons [edit: I'm bad at counting]: White, Black, Green, Blue, Red, and Gold. In respect to default D&D, this would change quite a lot of things. If nothing else, the goddess Tiamat probably wouldn't work. Dragons in Mystara also have entire kingdoms under their control. Definitely need that to be a major plot element.
  4. Totally has airships like in old-school Final Fantasy. PCs need one of those eventually. Therefore, any Mystara campaign needs to eventually become pretty open-ended to explore the whole goddamn world. Don't worry, though. There are at least three major places even an airship can't reach...
  5. The two moons: one is full of immortal wizards and the other is invisible and only theorized by many. It's secretly the home of a fantasy Japan. I would try to include both of these.
  6. The Hollow World, also inaccessible from airship. This replaces the vanilla Underdark with a secondary world on the opposite side of the ground we stand on.
    • This is my favorite distinguishing aspect of the campaign setting. I use the Underdark a lot, and so I'd want a ton of interaction with the Hollow World. It was published as a supplement because it's a big enough thing to be a setting of its own. Do away with Mindflayers, Drow, Derro, and Duergar. Instead there are "beast men" (beefy Frank Frazetta bois). You get dinosaurs, a giant red sun, floating continents, and a lot of long-thought-extinct races and societies. Also, all magic down here is dampened as part of the preservative spell cast on the place.
  7. Home of Blackmoor and Keep on the Borderlands
    • Neither of them too major, but if you ran a Mystara campaign then you'd just have to feature these two, right? But if you want to, you could do a lot more with them.
    • "When the history of Mystara was codified, it was established that Arneson's Blackmoor had existed in the world's distant past, achieved a technologically advanced civilization, and then destroyed itself in a global catastrophe that shifted the planet's axis." You could make this event foundational to the current mysteries and complications of the plot.
  8. Another setting supplement is the Savage Coast, which has two major additions that I don't really understand why they'd be coupled together but boy does it make for a weird combo. This is 1) the Golden Age of Pirates addition (gunpowder rules included!) and 2) a land suffering a terrible plague called the Red Curse, inflicting on inhabitants mutations and death unless they wear a "Red Steel" metal called cinnabryl. This says that Mystara has permission to have slightly more modern technology and also you can use cinnabryl as a good plot device with a mechanical element. If I were playing Knave in this setting, I'd force players to always have a slot taken up by the Red Steel somehow or else they gain a new mutation every night. It would be in rare supply in the wilderness so you're constantly at risk of being robbed for it. Doesn't that sound like a fun way to spice up a hexcrawl?
  9. This may sound silly, but it's important to me. In my mind, Mystara is 100% old-school anime in its aesthetic. It comes from the Chronicles of Mystara arcade games mostly, but also seeing art from the Japanese versions of the old 1st Edition/Basic Edition rulebooks (which I'm sure is the same art that inspired works like Record of Lodoss War).
While the traditional old-school genre is the more low-scale "heroic fantasy," I don't see many of the qualities in this setting that compel such a genre. In fact, I see many ingredients for a high fantasy adventure that involves traveling the world, seeing its most incredible locations, uncovering ancient primordial mysteries and conspiracies, dealing with history-shaping immortals and dragon kings, and just generally determining the fate of the world.

I'll be continuing this series with my next article, which will examine Greyhawk and be a fair bit more substantive.



  1. Replies
    1. Thank you! Unrelated: I want you to know that 1) I'm a fan of your work, and 2) my co-writer and I had considered naming our blog "The Siege Penniless" among other options and I'm glad to see you staked the claim on a damn good blog name.

  2. Mystara was the setting in which I first played D&D, so it alwayds has a special place in my heart. However, my familiarity extends to the Gazetteer series, the Creature Crucibles and the first Poor Wizzard's Almanac, as well as the Voyages of Princess Ark, as serialised in Dragon magazine. Consequently I'm a little behind on later developments like the anime-style arcade game (totally missed that) or the AD&D 2e supplement, so apologies in advance if my subsequent remarks are contradicted by later additions.

    The Hollow World doesn't replace the underdark entirely, for there's an entire underground realm beneath the Broken Lands, and the kingdom of the Shadow Elves lies underneath that, and there's also the lost city of Oenkmar where aztec orcs and others humanoids live.

    You say there are only five types of dragon, then list six! There were also rules published (in the Masters set and in the Rules Cyclopedia) for six gemstone dragons (jade, Ruby, Crystal, Sapphire, Onyx & Amber), but perhaps more importantly, in relation to Tiamat, were the dragon rulers. Each BECMI alignment (C, N, L) had its own ruling dragon (Pearl the moon dragon, opal the sun dragon and Diamond, the star dragon respectively), all of whom were ruled over by the The Great One, the ruler of all dragons (alignment unknown, Hit Dice 40********(!))

    I love that you mentioned about the mysterious moons and the Empire of Myoshima!

    Also, you alluded to the real world connections common to the three settings, and it would have been nice to expand on that. Of course, the "real world" parallel to Mystara is the Dimension of Myth, which is based upon the work of Clark Ashton Smith (and the module Castle Amber): House Sylaire are effectively interdimensional refugees from real world France, albeit one in which magic is very real.

    Thank you so much for including the Japanese art. That was a new discovery for me, so thanks again and thank you for sharing your opinions and insights. I'll always love how low-key gonzo Mystara was just below its vanilla facade, something you've really picked up on here.

  3. Thank you for your comment! And thanks for the catch on the dragon thing, I had a brain fart.

    I was really hoping to get a veteran's insight on this setting especially, since it's the one I have the least experience with. As for the real world connections, I am actually going to go into that in Part 4 of this series, so stay tuned.

    Those three ruling dragons you mentioned might be the coolest thing I've seen from Mystara so far, actually. Immediately iconic yet distinct from vanilla D&D.