Tracer Rounds: The Nostalgia of Mystara

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A photographic journey through an adventurous youth ~

Brant Guillory, 10 July 2017

Most images enlarge when you click them

This started as a set of pics for a personal inventory of the RPG collection.  It turned into about half of the collection – this isn’t even all the TSR stuff! – but I wanted to at least get a some of the collection archived.  Once I had the pics, though, I figured it was time to bring back at least one random episode of Tracer Rounds, and share some pics and commentary on the Mystara collection.

As an aside, for folks who are really interested in Mystara, you should check out the Bruce Heard episode of the GrogCast, wherein we ask about his background with Mystara, and get a few good inside stories from the glory days of TSR.

Mystara, for those that don’t know, was the expansion of the game world that was first introduced in the X1 module that accompanied the expert-level set of the original no-prefix D&D, starting around 1981.  As the rules grew from basic to expert to companion and beyond, the rules series became known as the BECMI series.

How many of us started our adventures here?

It was almost a throwaway map, listing a bunch of random countries in the area that you could meander about on your way to or from the Isle of Dread. I mean, it was a true mish-mash of countries, with a nation of desert-dwelling nomad tribes wedged in between a pseudo-Roman-inspired empire and Mystara’s vikings.

But the world grew, as the X-series modules slowly expanded the map around the edges, and somewhere along the way, Mystara (a) got a name, and (b) started to get some coherence, between the Gazetteer-series sourcebooks, and the Dragon magazine articles.  Bigger campaigns followed, along with some retro-fitting of the older B-series modules into the world.

Now, this isn’t intended to be an all-encompassing History of Mystara™ but rather a quick overview of how this entire gallery ended up in the same game world, and then, predictably, gets out of hand because I just can’t help myself.  However, if you want more of the inside stories about how Mystara became “MYSTARA!” there are a handful of great sources on the web, including the personal blogs of some of the original creators.

I’ve still got one of the boxes from 1981 with the (in)famous Errol Otus cover.  Inside I had copies of the ‘original’ Basic and Expert rulebooks, before the ’84-era Mentzer reboot that expanded into the full BECMI series.  Also in this box was an old blue-book cover D&D rulebook from the late 70s, right around the time of the AD&D / D&D split.  The modules that accompanied these rulebooks in their boxes – B2 and X1, respectively – are with their module series.  I got my original red box set in ’82 in California, while my dad was stationed at DLI.

Here was the box of rulebooks that I had not stored in the ’81 Basic Box.  I’ve got 4 of the ’81 red book basic books, but none of the ’84/Mentzer-era 2-volume red book basic books.  There’s 1 of each of the Expert books – the ’84 Expert book was the only of the Mentzer-era books to come in 1 volume.  I’ve got the Companion books, and somehow have 2 of the DM’s book.  There’s another old blue pre-BECMI book, a full set of the Masters books, and the black single-edition rulebook from the Big Basic Box (which we’ll see again below).  Many of these I picked up in the mid-’80s while my dad was stationed in Germany.

The B-series were how low-level characters built their way up early in their careers, and started crafting their reputations.  B1, 2, and 3 were not originally explicitly set in Mystara, but were later retrofitted.  B4 is missing from this photo; it was stacked up in another batch of books instead of being in here where it belongs.  That left-hand column is some of the AC-series (accessory) for the BECMI rules series.  Of note is AC3 – the “Dragon Tiles” – which exists in 2 different forms, both of them here.  What’s missing?  I need to track down AC1, the Shady Dragon Inn, with the rosters of pre-generated NPCs that we used for any number of adventures while riding busses around southern Bavaria in the summer of ’84 as a part of the Young Adventurers Summer camp in Garmisch while school was out.  I’ve extolled my love for B10 plenty of times in plenty of places, but I feel obligated to plug it again here, because it’s just so damned good.  B1,2,3, and 4 I picked up between California and Norfolk, VA in the early ’80s.  Most of the rest of these I rounded up in the early 90s while I was in college.

The X-series (for eXpert) were the modules that truly blew open Mystara, as many of them greatly expanded the original map in X1, and continued to expand not only what we knew of the continent, but also continued to fill in the backstory of Mystara, and start referring to lands off the edges of the map.  The vast majority of these were purchased at the Stars & Stripes bookstore at the American base in Giessen, Germany, which was the closest good-sized base to where my dad was stationed at the time from ’85-’87.  I read, re-read, explored, and re-explored the continent of Mystara, in large part because I was the only American kid attending the local German schools, so outside of soccer practice, I didn’t hang with the local German kids too much, and my American RPG’ing friends didn’t get home from school in Giessen until after 1630 most days, leaving me a lot of time on my hands to explore Mystara.

Modules X4, X6, X9, and X11 especially built onto the original X1 map, and stretched the known boundaries of the continent in different directions.  Meanwhile, X2, X3, X7, X8, and X12 colored in the existing map some in different places.  X10 was a wargame set in Mystara, a remarkable artifact today considering how stratified the RPG / Wargaming divide has become, with neither tribe willing to admit to much overlap with the others.

Mystara continued to grow in new and interesting ways.  The CM-series was introduced in the mid-80s with the Companion-level rules, at which point our heroes were now legends of some regard, and starting to attract followers, establish their own principalities, and tackle ever-more-impressive adventures.  It’s a little jarring to read some of the pre-generated characters that accompany these modules and see that they are equipped almost exclusively with magic items for their weapons, armor, and personal gear.  But then you do the math, and realize that if there’s a magic item at the end of every other adventure for each character, and that they’re level 14 or so at a minimum, so they’ve likely cycled through about 6-9 magic items already in their careers before settling in on what they’ve got now.  Of this batch, CM3 – Sabre River – was a personal favorite to play.  CM6 – Where Chaos Reigns – was a time-hopping romp through various locales with a metric crap-ton of maps accompanying it.  Some of the CM series I picked up toward the later part of our time in Germany in ’87-’88.  The rest I rounded up during college in the early 90s.

The DA series of modules were a challenging bolt-on.  You can find exposés elsewhere on the web about how Dave Arneson split with TSR and how the rights to Blackmoor stayed with the company, but TSR insisted on using them with BECMI (so Arneson never got any royalties for AD&D? some think so) and so that meant Blackmoor eventually had to be incorporated into Mystara somehow.  The secret was to set it not at another place on the planet, but at another time.  The four modules of the DA series form an entertaining campaign, but quite frankly, they don’t feel like Mystara because they really aren’t Mystara.

The M-series went past the Companion level and all the way to the Masters level, where the characters are world-spanning heroes facing off with literal existential threats.  It’s also here that some of the holes start to appear in the collection, as I’m missing M3 and M4.  The O-series were not explicitly set in Mystara (though O2 ties in better) but they used the BECMI rules for a one-on-one adventure w/ a single player and a DM.

On the left side are the DDA modules, part of the low-level series of modules that were from the ‘reboot’ of Mystara, post-Gazetteers, that explicitly set all the future BECMI-rules modules somewhere in Mystara.  These low-level modules gave players a variety of entry-points into the world of Mystara.

So here they are, the core of the Mystara world, the Gazetteers.  These take us back to the original X1 map, and they don’t just fill in some of the details, they fill in all of the details.  The maps are scaled at an unreal granular level – many of them at 8 miles/hex.  The movers, shakers, and key players are detailed for all these realms.  There are countless adventures hooks and an obscene level of detail in them.  GAZ5 – the Elves of Alfheim – was not numbered on the cover.  My copy of GAZ6 lost it’s cover somewhere along the way.  Apparently, I don’t have GAZ10, which is personally disappointing as I really thought I had a complete set until I was taking these pictures. (edit – apparently there’s a GAZ14!  I’ve got 2 of them to track down now…  le sigh)

Personally, my favorite of all these was the Northern Reaches, the Vikings of Mystara.  I really liked the mix-and-match of obvious historical parallels to the Scandinavian kingdoms of the early medieval period, with a smart integration of fantasy magic, and a good mix of seafaring and land-based adventures.

The GAZ series are the backdrop to RPG’ing in my college years, from ’90-’94.  (OK, OK, my first college years!) Every time a new one dropped, homework went on the back-burner while I devoured the new GAZ.  The majority of these were picked up at Foundation’s Edge, the excellent games-and-comics store on Hillsborough Street near campus, along with the boxed sets (below), the Trail Maps, and all the Hollow World material.  It got to the point that Rick, Roy, and Eric knew to just order an extra copy of all things Mystara and hold it for me.

Once you piece all the GAZ maps together, you get a pair of el-grande gargantuan Trail Maps.  Maybe some day I’ll lay them both out side by side and get my daughter in the picture for size comparison.  They’re bedsheet-sized.  Seriously.  I’ve got 3 in the picture because I’ve got that ‘extra’ Western Countries map.  I also have the FR trail map, but it’s not a Mystara product, so screw it…

And here, apparently was one of the maps from GAZ10 – The Orcs of Thar.  So somewhere along the way, I either had it, or at least had part of it. Or, hmmmm…  hang on a second…  wasn’t there an old late-80s Dragon Magazine with an Orc Wars boardgame in it?  Ah crap.  There is.  So this isn’t from GAZ10 after all.  But hey, it’s all set in Mystara, so we’re going to include it here.

So at this point, when the GAZ series conquered game stores around the nation, TSR actually put a little attention into tying all of the forthcoming BECMI material into the Mystara world, and my college years were consumed with tracking down and reading (if not playing) as much of the Mystara content as I could.  One of the best parts of this explosion of Mystara material was that a bunch of the new expansions were boxed sets as full campaigns.

First up, the Dawn of the Emperors Gazetteer box set.  If you look up above, the ‘missing’ nation from the X1 map that wasn’t a GAZ-series module was Thyatis.  Why?  In the intervening 10 years since the original X1 map, Thyatis exploded from a self-important peninsula on the edge of the continent to an expansive empire that stretches off the continent, and facing off with the Alphatians, an empire off the ‘original’ continent.  This box came with 3 books and a few GAZ-tyle maps.  Somewhere along the way I ended up with extra copies of books 2 and 3; I have no idea how.

The DDA series starts with DDA 1 and 2 set in Thyatis, and building off of this gazetteer, and the other DDA’s show up months later.

What does Mystara do for their next bit of wackiness?

Here comes the Hollow World.  Just like Skartaris of Mike Grell’s Warlord comics, the Hollow World was inside the planet.  The immortals are using it as a combination human zoo / museum for cultures that would’ve otherwise been wiped off the planet, and they, well, they’re pretty much direct analogues of ancient cultures from our world – the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Aztecs, etc.  And yes, there’s more coming from the Hollow World.

And here’s where Mystara gets really wacky.  The Wrath of the Immortals was a connected series of adventures designed to be dropped into the characters’ existing escapades at various times in their adventuring careers.  There were low-, medium-, and high-level adventures that all involved the player characters being entwined in the affairs of the immortals.  By the time it’s all said and done, the adventurers have been dropped into the Hollow World, played checkers with the Immortals (don’t call them “Gods”!), and, well, literally blew a continent off the map.  Seriously, Alphatia ceases to exist.

Again, somehow I ended up with an extra book (book two of this one) with no recollection at all of how that happened…

One of the key world-building elements of Mystara was Bruce Heard’s regular Dragon Magazine column about the Voyage of the Princess Ark, from issues 153 to 188.  The aerial adventures of Prince Haldemar of Haaken wandered all over the world, expanding the map, adding new civilizations, classes, races, and more.  The material from the magazines was collected into a boxed set and expanded, and the gaps colored in.  The skyships gave the world a new look, and our PCs a much wider reach.  By now, Mystara was a wide-ranging, unique, and detailed world, and it was fun.

The Hollow World got a bunch of adventures and sourcebooks with its own branding.  It was a little odd that it was branded as separate from Mystara, given that it literally takes place in Mystara.  I mean, you can’t get more in that inside the planet.  There were a handful of Hollow World References (HWR), and a campaign of Hollow World Adventures (HWA).  The start of a Hollow World Quest (HWQ) only got one release before it was canned.  The Creature Crucible series was a GAZ-style series for wild critters that didn’t have their own homelands or realms.  I’ve got 3 of the 4 – I’m missing the Night Howlers (PC4).

The Poor Wizards Almanacs were year-over-year updates to the Mystara game world, and eventually rebooted as a single edition of Joshuan’s Almanac, which gave you a bunch of GAZ updates, but not a lot of pure game-play information, and no true module adventures.  Some of these were purchased later, after I was out of college and stationed in California.

Around this time, TSR released the Rules Cyclopedia, the omnibus BECMI rules set, with a set of chunked-up trail maps in the back.  Once they did this, they also rebooted the “basic” rules from the old red box to a giant black box, and dispensed with the BECMI series of separate boxes.  There was also a series of other big boxes that were released around the same time, that play almost equally well as board games or as tabletop-heavy BECMI series D&D adventures.  Each box had 3 adventures around the same theme to connect into a mini-campaign.

In addition to the new black box, and Rules Cyclopedia, the adventures were rebooted, too.  Gone were the letter-number codes.  Now we had a series of consistent edge artwork known as the “cave mouth” modules.

So I’ve got 3 copies of the Cyclopedia, because I knew they were (a) fantastic, and (b) going to be hard to find.  So any time I saw one at a used bookstore for around $5-10 or so, I grabbed it.  I’ve also got the cave-mouth series over on the right.  The top one in the list is “Thunder Rift” – not to be confused with the Battletech book – a mini-gazetteer setting where the other cave-mouth modules are set, and where the big-box adventures above are also set.  It was a big BECMI/Mystara reset designed to give PCs a new ‘local’ starting point to build their campaigns.  And while Thunder Rift is set in Mystara, it’s also pretty self-contained, and could be easily dropped into any adventure world you want, which widened the potential customer base for TSR.  Again, these were virtually all bought at Foundation’s Edge, except the extra RC’s that I picked up along the way.

In the middle of the picture up there are a handful of stray books I had in another stack, including some other AC-series books, another ’84-era Expert book, and the B1-9 adventure book, collecting almost all of the early B-series modules.  B1 is in the title, but almost completely absent from the book.

And here it all falls to shit.  The BECMI series was discontinued.  Mystara was converted to ADD2e, and “updated”.  They started with the heart of Mystara, the Grand Duchy of Karameikos.  Oh yeah, lets rename the capital!  Why?  Who cares.  You’re now mucking with the game world we’ve just invested 15 years in learning, exploring, and weaving ourselves into the fabric of…  Yeah, some of the intro material was handy, but… a CD?  WTF?  Seriously, guys.

And what’s missing from the Red Steel box?  Oh yeah, THE F’N’ MYSTARA LOGO.  The Red Steel campaign takes place on the Savage Coast (see above, module X9) and is as Mystara as you can get.  Until TSR decides to kill Mystara because, well, I guess because it’s not Forgotten Realms.  At this point, not only was Mystara on the way out, but many long time fans had checked out, too.  I never picked up the ADD2e Glantri box, or the few modules they released before phasing out Mystara.

I did pick up the Players Survival Guide, but the only thing I have left from it is the deck of Fame & Fortune cards.  Click to (really) enlarge and see what was on the cards.

Not in the other, more-organized magazine-sorter boxes were a handful of stray Mystara-Connecteds modules, most of them pretty beat up. There’s a pair of X1s, an X2 and 4, my B4 (in the wrong place!) and a B9, to go with another ’81-era Expert rulebook.

Now, in all of this, what don’t I have.  I noted above, I’m missing GAZ10, and M3 & 4, and my beloved and long-lost AC1 as well as a few other ACs.  I thought I was missing B4, but found it elsewhere.  I need a new cover for GAZ6.  I’m missing PC4.  I’m also missing the entire run of Immortals-level everything.  I’m missing the Immortals book, and all the modules.  I’m missing a handful of the ADD2e stuff, but outside of collectible curiosity, I don’t know that I really want it.

If you’re looking for ‘new’ Mystara material, I recommend checking out the Vaults of Pandius.  I would especially recommend ‘subscribing’ to Threshold Magazine, and damn if I didn’t wish that I could just get a mailed edition of it show up at my house every quarter.  While you’re poking around in there, please forgive the crude files included in the mid-90s-era netMAGs, compiled for the old Mystara community on AOL.  And if you go poking around the old AOL board archives, I’m B1Bard. (edit: I should’ve mentioned The Piazza as another Mystara resource, along with the groups on FaceBook; since they’re more discussion-focused and less download-focused, I didn’t think of them in the same category.  My bad)

Now, a slight digression.  Around the time of the big box adventures, TSR also released the, well…  utterly dreadful DragonStrike boardgame.  It came with a videotape that included a little dramatic vignette of what the adventure action would look like as a part of a role-playing game.  DragonStrike included individual character cards, but no character progression.  Still, the maps, markers, etc, were all scaled to, and compatible with, the adventures, maps, and markers for the 4 big boxes, so you could mix-and-match components as needed.  Of note, TSR got -zero- money from me for the travesty that was DragonStrike; I bought it used, and immediately ditched the videotape and badly-damaged box.

There was a rulebook, a scenario book, a pair of mounted, double-sided maps, a DM screen, and a batch of character cards.  And let’s all take a moment and marvel at the joy that was the illustrations of the characters on those cards…

You think any of those guys include the DragonStrike video in their personal IMDB credits?  I sure as hell wouldn’t.

This week’s soundtrack:


Game that caught my eye:

I’ve got City of Iron from Red Raven Games, finally.  I’ve got to play it soon or I’ll go nuts.


What I’m doing this week when I should be playing games:

Working.  Yes, I have a job again.


The best thing I read this week:

A great article from the New Yorker about the possibility of hunting looted Nazi gold in the hills of Poland.


This week’s poll:


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