Some time ago, during a gaming event, I was asked why I play D&D, and especially why I play in Mystara. Well, if you’re reading this article maybe you know why I play D&D, simply because it is the best game ever. If you ask me why Mystara, well, then I’ll explain it as if you were a child who has never heard of it …
Of all the settings created by Tactical Studies Rules for the Dungeons & Dragons game, Mystara is, probably, the most famous and played one by a big part of Italian players, now forty, that discovered the most beautiful game of the world in the eighties. The game was already out of his infancy, it was born a decade before or so, but it was having a huge success and diffusion, especially in the Anglo-Saxon scenery, in its “advanced” version, conceived by Gary Gygax himself . Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was available in Italy too but the reference game was, for the majority of the players, the “basic” version (known simply as Dungeons & Dragons) written only in a second time by Frank Mentzer, illustrated by Larry Elmore and Jeff Easley and, more importantly, translated in Italian by Editrice Giochi (EG) and thus available to all players.
It was different from the traditional formula, adopted for both editions of the advanced game and, lately, from the Third Edition onwards, with the division of the rules in three fundamental manuals (of the player, of the dungeon master and of the monsters). The rules were divided not by recipient but by levels of play in five gorgeous colored boxes: the red box for the Basic rules, the blue box for the Expert rules, the green box for the Companion rules, the black box for the Master rules and, finally, the golden box for the Immortal rules. It made sense, in fact: while AD&D had “only” 20 levels (it seems to be a commonplace today too …), the basic D&D had 36 levels for mortals + 36 for Immortals! Today this collection of rules is known simply by the acronym of BECMI, not to be confused – it often is… – with OD&D (Old Dungeons & Dragons), the oldest version of the game, at the beginning of the seventies.
Since the late seventies, many adventure modules started to appear on the market for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game but, also, entire new worlds (settings) where the characters (and players) had the possibility to interact, without the need, for each single master, to create his own setting/world. The first official settings were nothing else that the backgrounds created by the two main authors of the game, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, to play with their own friends’ parties: Greyhawk and Blackmoor. They are, even today, two of the most beautiful settings and a testimony to the greatness of these two storytellers and makers of Worlds. In over twenty years, many other settings followed in the wake: we mention only Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft amongst the most successful ones.
The basic game that up to this moment, had grown up in a quite haphazard and unfocused way, suddenly started to experience the need to define what was developed and inserted in a “known world”, having too generic a shape and feel. If we have today the setting of Mystara, it is essentially because of a team of people, mostly freelancers and fans, recruited for single projects by TSR: under the guidance and coordination of Bruce Heard [see the complete interview released by Bruce for us of EPK here], these people built the bases of what is today, I think, one of the biggest and loved settings of Dungeons and Dragons.
What are the secrets of the longevity of Mystara respect to other settings? For the Italian players the greatest attractive point was, imho, the fact that it was the first setting to come out (almost) completely translated, avoiding the hindrance of the language, often unsurpassable for the 13 or 14 years old kids of that era. Other important factors for this success were the immediacy and progressiveness of the rules. Least but not last, the quality of the products dictated the success of Mystara as one of the longest living and played settings: I think to very remarkable and celebrated modules like “X2 – The Castle of Amber”, “ B4 – The Lost City” and “ X1 – The Island of Terror” and, especially, to the Gazetteers series (if you have them, don’t sell them, CALL ME!). Each of them describing an entire region/culture to let you create specific characters of that area and play there with an extended background, NPCs, story plots and hooks, full adventures.
Among the aspects that make this setting unique is the amazing variety and the possibility to mix the most different cultures, inspired or taken straight from humankind’s history. [Examples? The Vikings and the Norse Gods (GAZ7 – The Northern Reachers), Egypt and its pantheon (HWR2 – Kingdom of Nithia), Mongolians (of Kublai Khan and Marco Polo time; GAZ12 – The Golden Khan of Ethengar), old Arabia (GAZ2 – Emirates of Ylaruam) and so on!]
In second place, that Mystara in an unfinished setting and, therefore, it lets a lot of “free” space for the tampering of its numerous fans. Large geographical areas and even entire continents of this wonderful and huge planet have never been “explored” and described by the authors of the time. [Maybe they had plans in their minds but, in many cases, we have only a few hints or nothing at all.] This has inevitably made Mystara not a unitary setting but a unique setting because of its diversity that has the only boundaries of the fantasy of his players and dungeon masters.
Mystara is, today, after more than twenty years from the publication by the TSR of its latest game expansion, a far from dead setting! Thousands of fans all over the world carry on its development, thanks to their work, purely out of passion. The official website of the international community of Mystara’s fans is Vaults of Pandius . Other pages worth mentioning are the facebook page of Mystara Reborn , created by one of the founding fathers of the setting, the aforementioned Bruce Heard, and the Italian fan page, on facebook too, Mystara Italy . Finally, for the Italian rpg fans, we have absolutely to cite the Mystara page maintained by Marco Dalmonte , one of its most active and fertile enthusiasts in the world. [The cartography too is a fascinating and rich area of debate and work for many people like, for instance, Thorfinn Tait. We are quickly reaching a full 3D mapping of both worlds of Mystara, a wonder unheard of in other settings of D&D.
Lastly and VERY important to us, is a Facebook page dedicated to Mystara and D&D 5th Edition  that aims to bring the ideas and concepts of the settings nearer to the rules of the last edition of D&D, trying to introduce younger people to the old manuals and restyle old ideas in D&D 5th edition form. The goal is to expand the diffusion of these great stories and ideas, not to steal them, off course! We of EPK love dearly Mystara and want and try to help you (and us too! We create rules for ourselves and give to you too afterwards) play Mystara-centered D&D 5th campaigns, through the adaptation of rules and adventure modules (you still need the manuals, we adapt what is needed, as I said) and through the publication of original material where the adaptation is unsuitable or unpractical or it’s all made in EPK! Some examples are our adaptation of the B11 – King’s Festival module (a huge success! almost 3k downloads today), our rules about Mystara Races (more than 2k readers!) and our publications in the next weeks, WARNING – SPOILER ALERT! : The Tomb (in English, after the Italian version), the Gnomes of Mystara (last race to introduce, with a LOT of new materials about inventions and magical materials too!), the Relics of the Demihumans, with some rules about artifacts, roleplay and Relic Keepers, and Serraine: the Flying City, adapted from PC2 – Top Ballista with all of our new Rules about Gnomes, Relics and so on. So stay tuned, a lot of new stuff is coming!
- Without going into too much detail as it is a fairly long and debated history I only say that the game began as Dungeons & Dragons by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax. The latter, founder and majority stakeholder of the TSR products, a few years later gave birth to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game (essentially for not paying royalties to the co-inventor of the game). Only several years later, comes out the Dungeons & Dragons game, previously developed by the Moldvay and Cook duo and later perfected in the final version of BECMI by Frank Mentzer: it is essentially a more comprehensive and simplified version of the original game.