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The Case For Mystara in 5e D&D

I was a guest on the Round Table podcast last night and we speculated about future published settings for D&D 5e. There are various and sundry reasons for and against every setting we discussed, but I don’t want to go into those today. What I want to do today is make a quick case in favor of Mystara.

A Brief History of Mystara Products

elmore red box coverMystara is the setting that evolved out of the adventure in Frank Mentzer’s Red Box Basic Rules released in 1983. You know the one – it has the awesome/iconic Larry Elmore cover featuring an armored fighter facing down a red dragon (image at left). That boxed set is said to be the best selling RPG product in history and it is the one that brought legions of younger players into the game in the early 80s. That includes me – the red box was the first D&D product I purchased myself, though I had played Moldvay/Cook B/X with my brother previously, but I digress… The setting itself was expanded even more when the dark blue expert set hit stores later that same year, though at that time Mystara was simply referred to as The Known World.

blue boxThe famed blue set was also the introduction of the Isle of Dread, one of the most well-known and loved wilderness settings in D&D. Mystara went on to be featured prominently in several products and gathered many fans across the world. Early in the release cycle of 2nd edition AD&D the basic line was subsumed into 2nd edition, becoming the Challenger Series of products – a short-lived series that only released products in 1992 and 1993. A series of Mystara almanacs and boxed sets (with CDs) were released between 1993 and 1995 and then the line basically ended (more precisely, official TSR support ended). It was an unceremonious end to a setting that contained some of the best D&D setting products of the 80s (I’m speaking here specifically about the line of Mystara Gazetteers).

RC coverBruce Heard kindly pointed out that I should mention the Rules Cyclopedia in this article. He is absolutely correct, and its omission is an oversight that I will now correct. In 1991 TSR produced a compilation of the BECMI (Basic-Expert-Companion-Master-Immortal) line of products which started with Mentzer’s red box. This compilation brought together the rules in those boxed sets (and some info from the gazetteer line) into a one-book product – the Rules Cyclopedia. Actually, most of the information and rules from the gold box were not included in the RC but were released as a follow up boxed set (Wrath of the Immortals). The Rules Cyclopedia is possibly the best D&D rule-set published, and is certainly the most concise and complete in one book. The RC included rules for all classes, all spells, wilderness and dungeon exploration rules, an optional skill system, monster info and stats, and a fair bit of world information all in one tome. It was a glorious product and, as far as I’m concerned, doesn’t get enough love from the D&D fans. (Note, it is one of the few rule-sets you can buy in pdf on dndclassics.com – here is a link: D&D Classics RC Page) .

So that is Mystara. But why am I making a case for a return to Mystara in D&D 5e? 

1. Mystara is a setting with no gods. That is not entirely unique because Athas, the setting of Dark Sun, also has no gods. What makes Mystara unique is that it has immortals. Immortals are similar to, though not the same as, gods, but who once walked the world as mortals. The reason that is interesting is that it means player characters can become immortals. That is a fun and exciting twist that was available to PCs in Basic D&D (using the gold Immortals Boxed Set) and which would be awesome to introduce into 5e.

2. Mystara hasn’t been revisited in 3e, 3.5e, or 4e D&D. Unlike Greyhawk (the living campaign world of 3.x), Eberron (introduced and highly developed in 3e and updated in 4e), and the Forgotten Realms (which has 27 years of development and canon behind it), Mystara has not been explored or developed since 1995. That makes it ripe for re-exploration.

hollow world3. Mystara has a hollow center populated with ancient civilizations. This allows for a variety of play styles and populations to be used in the game world. It is wide open for exploration and expansion. This is also one of the things that makes the setting unique. There was a boxed set and a few modules describing the Hollow World, but that line ended in 1992. What’s more – if the DM doesn’t want to introduce Hollow World aspects to the campaign, they don’t have to – there is no requirement to include these in your game, but options are always nice.

4. Mystara has, to the chagrin of my fellow podcasters last night, a healthy fanbase that continues to discuss and explore the setting in unofficial ways. Check out The Piazza’s Mystara Forums and the Vaults of Pandius to see all the great stuff going on lately (including Threshold Magazine). Mystara comes with a healthy dose of nostalgia and hits the right notes for an awful lot of people. If Wizards of the Coast wants to bring in a “new” setting with old world charm and a lot of fans, Mystara is the way to go.

voyage5. Airships! The Voyage of the Princess Ark is one of the most popular serial stories published in Dragon Magazine and was turned into a very well done and popular boxed set  (Champions of Mystara) which was one of the last Mystara-based releases for the game. The story was about the exploits and adventures of the crew of a magical airship. The set included rules on constructing and operating such ships in the game world. What a great thing to be added to 5e! Of note, Bruce Heard, the lead designer of the Princess Ark boxed set (and the author of the stories in Dragon Magazine) has produced an homage of sorts to the world of Mystara and the airships that populate it, with the recent release of his new setting: Calidar – it’s a great product and if you are a fan of Mystara, I recommend checking it out. Here is a link to a page on Bruce’s website which provides all of the order information you need.  Also of note, Bruce tried to get Wizards of the Coast to allow him to  bring new stories/products based on the Princes Ark, and Mystara in general, but WotC declined, so he created Calidar instead.

keep on the borderlands6. Some of the most well received and iconic adventure modules were actually set on Mystara. I already mentioned The Isle of Dread, but The Keep on the Borderlands and The Lost City were also set in Mystara, along with one of the best Basic D&D modules of all time, Night’s Dark Terror. The great series that was X4 & X5 (Master of the Desert Nomads and Temple of Death) also took place in Mystara – that story-line was finished up in Red Arrow, Black Shield, which utilized the Battlesystem Fantasy Combat Supplement which allowed for mass combat in D&D.

So… There is my list of reasons about why Mystara would be a fantastic setting for 5e D&D. Do I think it will actually happen? I doubt it – I’m not delusional, I’m a realist. I know there are a lot of fans of other, seemingly more popular, and probably more well known settings out there who want their favorite campaign places updated for the newest edition of the game. The fans of Greyhawk are legion. The lovers of Ravenloft are very persuasive. Dragonlance has a platoon of loyal fans. Eberron fans are numerous. Dark Sun is surely on the minds of those who feel it got short shrift in 4e. Spelljammer fanatics are itching for an update.

What do you think? What setting would you like to see revised for D&D?

Until next time, I wish you good gaming!





DM Samuel is the Editor-in-Chief here at RPG Musings as well as the podcast editor for The Tome Show. He is also a host of the gaming podcast Play on Target. He plays all manner of role-playing games and boardgames and continues to learn new games all the time (and new things about old games, too). Sam lives in Upstate New York with his wife and their game collection. You can follow him on twitter @DMSamuel.

24 Responses to “The Case For Mystara in 5e D&D”

  • It was unfortunate that WotC didn’t to do anything at all with VotPA. I presume they had their reasons, though they didn’t actually share them other than the usual blanket statements about their sacrosanct policies. This reminds me of TSR’s negative attitude toward different sorts of game products when offered to them (like CCGs). In a way, this turns out to be a positive thing since Calidar was born of WotC’s refusal, which allows me to do what I want/need rather than being strung up with legal obligations/limitations. The onset of this event is described here: http://bruce-heard.blogspot.com/2013/04/OSK.html

    DMSam, thanks for sharing this bit about Calidar. :)


  • One more note — it may have been a good idea to bring up the Rules Cyclopedia in your articles, since it stands as one of the the best all-inclusive rulebooks on the market.

  • Hi Bruce – it’s a joy to have you commenting on my post – I’m honored!

  • Oh – good point about the RC – I should have mentioned it… perhaps an edit is called for!

  • OKay – I have updated the post with info about the RC – Thanks for the push, Bruce. :)

  • Speak of the devil, Sam: I elected to run the 5E campaign I am running in Mystara/Known World. And I too am specifically making use of the old Gazetteer books.

    My PCs are making their way around the border between Darokin and the Broken Lands/Thar. This is enabling me to make some use of one of my favorite TSR books ever, The Orcs of Thar.

  • I’m fully supportive of the case for Mystara!

    My expectation is that WotC will release single-volume sourcebooks for each of the settings mentioned on page 68 of the DMG, and that they will also follow the order of that list for priorities. That puts Mystara at the end of a seven-long list.

    Con: we have to wait a long time for any official Mystara content. Pro: the writers will have honed their design skills on six prior setting books and so the seventh should be high quality. Con: after having completed six books, the writers may rush the seventh book just to get it finished. (That last con doesn’t worry me too much, given that with 5E Wizards seem to be putting quality above deadlines – as per the slipped release date of the DMG.)

    I’m thinking single sourcebooks per setting because that fits in with the lean structure that Wizards have been promoting with 5E so far. Avoiding the bloat is good. But bloat may naturally occur anyway from third-party licensing arrangements. It will be particularly interesting to see if any of the canon D&D worlds are licensed out (like Ravenloft was to White Wolf during 3E, for example). Such licence agreements can greatly affect the content (such as White Wolf having to leave out Lord Soth and Vecna from Ravenloft).

    An interesting time for Mystara fans as the future holds exciting promise for active support, but also potentially risky if the support comes from a third party.

  • @Jeremy – excellent! I wish I was still in the area to play in that game. Orcs of Thar was an interesting book – lots of great fodder for orc-kind, but also full of parody and satire galore! It also came with a bunch of chits and its own separate mini-game if I recall correctly. Man those Gazetteers are great.

  • @Stelio Hmmm – I have a different take on their release plans. I don’t know if they are going to release full-on campaign setting books. I think they will release a player’s guide and an adventure-path type of book for each setting. The adventure path/story-line/campaign will have some setting specific stuff in it, of course, but only as it pertains to the story at hand. I think that matches their focus on “story first” for this edition. A book simply detailing every setting seems to fly in the face of story-based releases. But what do I know? I hope you are right! Except about the 7th in line part :)

  • Yes indeed. I’m not *quite* playing our campaign for as many laughs as Orcs of Thar would have me do so, but still, I keep it light. Not quite “Order of the Stick” but more Terry Pratchett, y’know?

    For the same reason, I love the useless but hilarious “Book of Wondrous Inventions”. Probably the most-purchased, least-used book in Basic D&D.

    Yes, many of the Gazetteer books–and other supplements of the time–included bonus map-based games. “Kingdom of Ierendi” had a colossal naval-combat game that came with it, with enough little cardboard ships to represent every single navy in the Known World (including some that I’d mistakenly thought were entirely landlocked like Ylaraum and Alfheim . . . hmm).

    But the even better insert in the Orcs of Thar was a hilarious ‘brochure’ for new recruits in the orc army. I *highly* recommend it. The whole supplement is on RPGDriveThru now.

  • Yeah – Pratchett is a good tone for Mystara-based campaigns that include Thar… Basic D&D/Mystara was amazingly flexible in the ways it could be run. You could run an entire campaign that was tongue-in-cheek to the point of being almost Gamma-World in its feel. On the other hand, you could also run a very dark campaign that included elements of major world war and corruption (Roman Empire, anyone? erm, uh, I mean Milenian Empire, andyone?). Anyhow – I consider that a feature, not a bug :)

    Gazetteer line was so good! I had them all in hardcopy as some point, but I sold them on ebay during what I call the “great purge of 2012” – I have no regrets… those aren’t tears, someone is cutting an onion… yeah, that’s it.

    Seriously though, I have bought a ton of Gaz books from dndclassic.com – it’s THE best source for basic D&D content right now..

  • I just received the 5th edition PHB for Christmas and took a quick look at it and I instantly thought “Mystara”. I DMed Basic/Expert D&D and 2nd Edition D&D in the Known World setting, usually Karameikos (Specularum/Mirros and Threshold!). Sometime in the future I guess I’ll do it, since we played 3rd edition until spring of 2013 and just started 4th edition Dark Sun in the fall of 2013, which we absolutely like after 3rd ran its course for 12+ years.

  • Great for Mystara/The Known World to get so much love on that podcast–didn’t expect it.

    One thing on some of the classic modules–KotB, In Search of Unknown, and the Lost City were officially located in Mystara (I believe their locations were set in the B1-9 supermodule) but I’ve always viewed that as a bit of a ret-con. There’s no mention of any canon Mystara material in the modules (other than the actual adventures themselves of course). They don’t seem to have been designed with the setting in mind but were placed in locations that only very loosely fit. I’ve always thought the placement of these modules was problematic. B3 was placed in the Known World.

    X1 is obviously set in the setting– in fact for many Mystara fans they were introduced to the setting by hte two-page map in the book.

    That said, I think the main reason these modules are associated wiht Mystara is the close link the setting has with the BECMI version of D&D which those modules were part of.

  • I can not put into words how i feel about this setting it is the setting i cut my teeth on with friends and my cousins. Iwould dearly love to see the Gazetteers updates however i don’t want want WoTC doing it their design crew is small and overworked i would rather they worked in conjuction with another company to bring mystara up to date or best case scenario put mystara into the public domain Do i see either happening …sadly no

  • I’m just sort of discovering Mystara now (and I’m pretty excited to get my hands on a copy of Calidar) and the setting definitely catches my imagination as a DM.

    WoTC’s 5e method seems to be to introduce settings via Adventure Paths, which I’m actually really digging.

    Princess Ark (which I REALLY want to get my hands on) seems much beloved — wouldn’t the obvious way to eventually re-introduce Mystara be to create a high quality Adventure Path with PCs playing out the Princess Ark voyages? Hopefully with Mr. Heard as a consultant, at least!

  • My only comment to WOTC on 5e Mystara would be “SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY.”

    We’re playing a 5e Mystara campaign right now based in Karameikos and traveling toward Thyatis- we’re attempting to pre-empt an Alphatian invasion, and this far we’re neck-deep in Traladaran-Thyatian politics.

    Mystara is well worth revisiting.

  • Lovely article! But here are a couple of notes for you…

    First, Mystara first appeared in the Moldvay/Cook edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The Grand Duchy of Karameikos was featured in the Expert set, while the Continental Map was featured in the first edition of X1: Isle of Dread. According to Dave Cook, the world was “made of whole cloth,” though Laurence Schick has mentioned that some of the names used came from a campaign setting he and Tom Moldvay used in the past…

    Second, the early B modules were indeed ret-conned into Mystara, with the Mentzer printing of the Known World, in the Expert book. There, modules B1 to B4 were placed on the map (they were not on the map in the Moldvay/Cook edition): B1 to B3 in Karameikos, B4 in Ylaruam. The X series was always explicitly from the first placed in (or near) the Known World, with X1 taking place south of the Continentla Map, X2 in Glantri, X3 in Vestland, and X4 and X5 set to the west (in Sind and Hule, though the Moldvay/Cook map depicts them as being to the north and west, where B3 was originally supposed to have been set).

    Third, the adventure included in the Mentzer Basic set, though not the origins of Mystara, added two important canonical characters — Bargle and Aleena. Bargle especially became quite important, at least in Karameikos. Aleena’s death was ret-conned out, and she actually appeared in the first Gazetteer — though with an option to change the character to another character, Anielle (perhaps her twin sister)?

    Of all the WotC owned worlds, I would most love to see Mystara released as a 5th Edition campaign. Thanks for the wonderful article!

  • Ach, I meant to note that the first *two* B modules were ret-conned into the Known World; from module B3 on they were explicitly placed in the Known World.

    B1 and B2 were originally designed for use in Greyhawk, though the connections are tenuous and not explicit. The connections are seen only in naming conventions and general geographical notes. They were not explicitly tied into Greyhawk as Greyhawk did not exist as a campaign setting available for purchase; it was, at the time, still Gary’s personal campaign setting.

    This is not at all surprising, considering that at the time, TSR was only starting to understand the viability of modules, let alone of the concept of a published campaign setting. Once they saw the money that was being made by Judges Guild with the Wilderlands campaign setting and associated series of Modules and Wilderness books (i.e., Gazetteers), they decided that publishing modules, and later a campaign setting, were worthy ideas…

  • Wow – such great info – Thanks James! And having Bruce Heard and James Mishler both commenting on my article made my day – thanks guys!

  • […] some Quickies… GeekDad debunks the “Danish Archer”,  DM Samuel rallies for good ol’ Mystara in D&D 5th (how much I wish that was true!) while the original Mystara coordinator and creator Bruce Heard is […]

  • 5e is closer to D&D than any edition since the A left the building. It looks and feels like Mystara should be the setting used. Please make this happen.

    I am lucky enough to have started a group again and I am using the BECMI RC rules with additional classes that were and were never printed. I am also playing in a 5e game. Being involved again is thrilling.

    If only I could get in the working group leading to design and printing

  • I tweaked the rc. Save tables replaced with player allocated points (+2pt/level) allowing unique saving throws. Apart from that, the rc is mostly flawless.

Sean Robert Meaney on July 4th, 2015 at 11:03 am