At last! A world those hollow-earth guys can get behind!
There’s a Shadow Over Mystara this week, so make sure you’ve got enough quarters at hand, or we’re never going to make it past the first boss, let alone all the way to the end of the article.
That’s right, this week we’re talking about Mystara, one of the earliest (and technically the most basic) D&D worlds out there. Originally developed under the name of “The Known World” by Lawrence Shick and Tom Moldvay for their home campaign of Dungeons and Dragons, Mystara joined official canon once Schick (and later Moldvay) was hired by TSR to work on the Expert Set. They needed a world to use as the background material, and lo and behold, one was extant already, just waiting to be used.
Its first appearance was in the Module X1, The Isle of Dread.
The Isle of Dread is a pretty standard, downright simple adventure, designed to introduce concepts like wilderness exploration and mystery to groups only familiar with dungeon-crawl style adventures at the time. Remember, this was back in the day when dungeons had levels, and you had to go down a level if you wanted to level up, so exploring the overworld simply wasn’t done.
It may seem ridiculous now, since this is all but second nature to any party–but this was the first adventure of its kind to feature that. Players had to run around on a tropical island populated by dinosaurs (and other monsters that have since found their way into the annals of D&D, like the aranea, the phanaton, and the kopru), and learn the secrets of a hidden temple.
I would’ve finished the module if I’d just had enough pendants of life.
Just as important, this adventure included a map of “The Known World,” as it was called back in those days. The Known World would, over the course of the next few years, become Mystara.
Gorgeous map courtesy of Thorfinn Maps
Since then, Mystara has remained a part of D&D’s lore–it became the default setting for the Expert set in 1981, and continued its reign through the edition. Early Mystara was constructed piecemeal by the development team through modules and gazetteers. And from it, we got a world in three parts–the Outer World which consists of Brun, Skothar, and Davania; the swashbuckling Savage Coast (which is technically a part of the outer world), and Hollow World, which lies at the center of Mystara. There you’ll find dinosaurs, a red sun burning eerily, and all manner of other adventure. So let’s dive right in and see what makes this world tick.
The Outer World
As we mentioned, there are three main landmasses in the Outer World–Brun, Davania, and Skothar. Of these, Brun is the smallest, taking up roughly 1/4 of the map, but it is also the largest–it’s where most of the setting lore is centered.
Brun contains the Known World, a hodge-podge mix of cultures and kingdoms–there’s the Grand Duchy of Karameikos, which is a sort of default baseline fantasy setting. Karameikos is home to the town of Threshold, from which many an adventure is launched with a poetic, literary send-off. East of Karameikos are the Emirates of Ylaruam, in a massive desert basin. You can rest easily knowing that there are djinn and efreeti and all the rest located here. About what you might expect.
But then you get countries like the Principalities of Giantri, where magic rules (and everyone else, especially clerics drools). Imagine if Western Europe was ruled by Wizard-princes (so basically a bit like the Tevinter Imperium from Dragon Age), only they’re militantly anti-divine casters. Being a cleric is punishable by death, and there were rules to help power up your mage (though, really this was unnecessary) if you wanted.
The ethengar Khanate had your horse-riding horde needs met, while the Republic of Darokin allowed for mercantile misdeeds and musketeer-inspired missions. The dwarves had a kingdom, Rockhome here, as well as the elves in Alfheim–and the halflings had five shires all to themselves.
And further out there were the great wastes…and beyond them a mysterious land called Hule, ruled by a dark and patient threat, known as Hosadus, “the Master.”
Not much is known about Davania. It is a savage land of jungles and ruins. The Thyatian empire iin Brun (a bit like the Byzantines, but with magic) have a few colonies here, as they try and seize the northern region, known as the Jungle Coast. as you might imagine, they have had little success. Beyond them, the only true civilizations might be the city-states of the Serpent Coast, which lies to the west and his home to city-states like Kastelios and Garganin. Here you’ll find pirates and traders of exotic goods.
And in the South, vast sunburnt plains that butt up against the trackless desert. Said to hold massive ruins scattered among its rolling grasses, the southern regions of Davania hold whispers of a time when civilization had tamed this wild land.
Even less is known about Skothar. It was very rarely mentioned in official products, and even the fans have created little for this unexplored region.
The Savage Coast
First published in the titular adventure the Savage Coast, this region of the world is located 2,000 miles west of the westernmost part of Brun. It is off the charts, both literally, and in a metaphoric sense, as this setting could be considered a good deal more high-powered compared to the normal realms in Mystara.
To begin with, the entire region is operating under the Red Curse—there’s magical dust and stones that permeate the area, and are vaguely like living in a radioactive zone. Anyone who inhabits the place is afflicted by the curse. They can protect themselves with special metal, which if they don’t do they’ll end up dying–but–in exchange, all the latent power manifests itself as various legacies that characters could take. And indeed had to take.
In later publications, like Red Steel, the Savage Coast was more detailed. It had a technological level much more in line with the renaissance, complete with gunpowder and exploration and airships all as a part of the norm here.
Now, at last, we get to the good stuff.
Located, literally, in the heart of Mystara, Hollow World is a world within a world. It lies beneath the surface…a world lit by an endless red sun, one that serves as a sort of archive for civilizations and beings that might otherwise have disappeared from the face of Mystara.
Here the normal rules no longer apply. Prehistoric beasts abound–as you might expect, if you’ve read Journey to the Center of the Earth. But there are also missing civilizations here. The ancient peoples who once tamed Davania are mentioned as living down here. There are strange elves (and new player races) that make their home among the restless natives.
But most importantly is the fact that here magic works differently. Players are not able to call upon their powers as readily–thanks to the superior magics and intervention of the nigh-omnipotent beings known as the Immortals. In Hollow World, the Immortals are what pass for divinity. They are, in many ways, the creators of the place. In one very specific way, the entirety of Hollow World (and by extension everyone living inside) owes their existence to a pwoerful Immortal known as Ka the Preserver.
Ka the Preserver was an immortal who discovered the realm and decided to use it as a sanctuary. Ka the Preserver is benevolent. Ka the Preserver is also a Carnosaur.
Although he probably had feathers, let’s be honest.
It’s kind of amazing, actually. In the world of Mystara, Ka the Preserver was the first being to ever use magic. He grew in power and ruled as a literal tyrant lizard for a while, and basically became an ascendant deity of sorts, thanks to his use of magic. He became a living receptacle of knowledge–to this day he is ever seeking new information–and just as he was beginning to probe the multiverse with his consciousness, a massive meteor hit Mystara. Ka found the world Hollow, and thus he gathered up those in danger of dying out and preserved them there.
For being a carnosaur, Ka loves life–even rejoicing when new species are born. I guess having nigh-omnipotence and immortality will mellow out just about anybody.
And that is the world of Mystara. A lesser-known, but much-loved world. Home to all kinds of adventure–exploration is particularly fun here (fitting, given the nature of the adventure that introduced it), but any band of adventurers is likely to get something exciting out of adventuring here. You can find a more modern take on Mystara here, though there are plenty of other sources of information out there.