Saturday, April 7, 2012

Ode to Karameikos


I'm way behind on listening to podcasts.  The combination of fantasy baseball preparation and working my way through YSDC's Shadows by Gaslight audio recordings, has me way behind on gaming podcasts - so it was just the other day I listened to a Bruce Heard interview over on the Save or Die podcast*:  Bruce Heard on Save or Die Podcast

I've observed that many of the folks visiting here love the BX editions of the game, and probably know that Bruce led the D&D line during the late 80's and 90's, launching the gazetteer line, the Rules Cyclopedia, The Hollow World, and many other excellent products of the time.  If you like that stuff too, the interview is a cheerful peek into how some of those books came to be produced; I particularly liked the discussion of Dave Arneson's Blackmoor and how it was retrofitted into Mystara's past, showing up in Glantri, the Broken Lands, the Hollow World, and the DA 1-4 series of time traveling Blackmoor adventures.

One conclusion that emerged a few times in the interview was the importance and relevance of the gazetteers, and how underrated they were by gamers of the period, who were focused mainly on AD&D 2E.  I've been meaning to put together a retrospective on GAZ 1, The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, so this is a fine debarkation point.

Karameikos showed up in both versions of the expert rulebook (the 1981 Cook/Marsh version, and Mentzer's edit).  The 1981 version is extremely minimalist - we're introduced to Specularum, Luln, the Black Eagle Barony, and various humanoid areas stamped right on the map.  Mentzer's version adds a few more places, the towns of Kelven and Threshold.  However, it's the 1987 Gazetteer, The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, that really expands the setting and embellishes the culture and themes of the region.

Karameikos is a frontier of the Thyatian Empire, colonized by a Thyatian Duke that invaded the land 30 years ago after trading his ancestral (Thyatian) lands for the rights to rule the colony.  This sets up a simmering racial tension in Karameikos between the Thyatian Duke, Stefan Karameikos, his loyal nobles from the empire that accepted positions of nobility and power, and the indigenous people, the Traladarans.  It has echoes of the Saxons versus the Normans in 11th century England, with ousted Traladaran nobles, stripped of their titles, competing through mercantile tactics, crime, and banditry, against the interloping Thyatians.  There's a similar conflict between the imperialistic Church of Thyatis and the native Church of Traladara.

Make no mistake; the themes may echo from the Norman conquest, but Karameikos is not England; it's a misty, mountainous land of evergreen forests and things that howl at the night on the moors.  Vampirism and lycanthropy are common, and the setting introduces a new kind of vampire, the Nosferatu.  Some of those sleepy Traladaran villages, nestled in the countryside, are ruled by nobles that only drink… blood, like the Nosferatu wizard of the seaside village of Sulescu.  The Karameikan countryside evokes Romania or Transylvania, and the native people, the Traladarans, have a Hungarian or Roma quality to their names and dress and customs that would work well if one wanted to turn up the volume on the Gothic horror.  (As written, the setting is very much high fantasy).

The Gazetteer is an extremely well-rounded DM's resource for culture and verisimilitude; it covers customs, dress, coins, calendars, holidays, politics, names, religious organizations, thieves guilds, heraldry, even ancient history and mythology.  There's a large section on personalities, providing statistics and practical DM notes on staging Karameikos's powerful figures in games.

Quite a few of the classic modules from the "B" line were fitted into Karameikos, and the later modules in the line were explicitly placed there.  X1, The Isle of Dread, ostensibly departs from Specularum.  Of course, the absolute high water mark for adventures is B10 Night's Dark Terror, which embellishes much of Eastern Karameikos, and exploits the land's mythic past, introducing ancient ruins and a desperate race to find the ruins ahead of a gang of slavers.  It's one of TSR D&D's greatest adventure modules, bar none.  Just don’t try to find it a nice version on E-bay, unless you want to pay (a lot).

Karameikos begins the excellent practice in the Gazetteer line of providing battle ratings for the various military units in War Machine terms, and scenario seeds on introducing wars - and in Karameikos, that means the revolt of the Black Eagle Baron.  The Baron is a roguish Prince John figure rebelling against Richard Coeur de Lion - if not the historical version, at least the Prince John of Robin Hood tales and Errol Flynn movies.

Karameikos is one of my favorite Gazetters to this day, and it’s my go-to setting for pick-up games with the neighborhood kids, because it has such readily identifiable historical tropes and themes.  I should point out, the Gazetteer is not without a bit of controversy; the early versions of Karameikos in the expert sets were far more sparsely populated, and the populations were increased by a factor of 10 to support a more populous and cosmopolitan Medieval kingdom (or should I say, Duchy); one comes across such nitpicks from time to time where those things malinger, like older message boards.  Don't be dissuaded; The Grand Duchy of Karameikos is an excellent book.

Well, let's hope that the suits at WOTC do the right thing and reintroduce their electronic PDF program for vintage games.  The Gazetteers were well produced, professionally written, and deserve to be enjoyed by newer gamers rediscovering classic D&D.


*I don't regularly listen to Save or Die, though I do check out the related one (Roll for Initiative) from time to time, but the interviews are a great way to catch up with various TSR figures from back in the day.