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
Mystara 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.
The 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).
Bruce 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.
3. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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!