D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

D&D Classics Review: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos

gaz1It’s a quiet time for the D&D fan. 4th Edition is done, but the new version of the game (whatever it might be called) is months away. Coupled with this lull in activity is a sense of nostalgia due to the 40th anniversary. These two factors have caused me to turn my eye to the digital offerings at D&D Classics. Having the chance to purchase a few titles from the glory days of my youth is certainly worth a few bucks. Today, I am taking a look back at GAZ1 The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, a book I absolutely loved when it was released. Does this first Gazetteer hold up to the modern eye?

The first thing that struck me about reading through GAZ1 after all these years was the sheer amount of text. There are extensive sections without any illustrations, charts, maps, or anything of the sort. The first 25 pages are walls of three column text. It’s a lot to get through, in all honesty. The Player’s Background takes readers on a brief tour of the map of Karameikos before launching an interesting section for character creation. Players roll dice to randomly determine social standing, ancestry, and their home town. There are even special charts for the three demihuman races Basic D&D supports.

gaz1npcsRules for skills are also included in this section. At the time, I thought skills were a fantastic addition to the game, and never played without them. While I appreciate the inclusion, which added some depth to Basic, the three page rules here don’t really go into the depth that such a system requires. There is lots of room for interpretation, a bit more than what I am used to after the much stricter skill system in 4th Edition.

The overwhelming majority of GAZ1 is devoted to fluff, with a vast array of details giving background information to your campaign. A timeline of the region’s history is very helpful. A section devoted to politics includes an interesting sample story hook. One of the largest portions of the book details Karameikan society. And I mean, DETAILS, including social ranks, religion, military forces, the legal system, even fashion trends and a calendar. There is almost as much text describing Karameikan dress as there was about the skill system earlier in the book. The economy and major geographic regions, as well as information about communities scattered through the land, are also detailed. The end result is a very well thought out and highly realistic setting.

The largest section of the book is devoted to NPCs. There are dozens of characters in this listing, from the Duke himself all the way to suggested big bad evil guy, Baron Ludwig von Hendricks. For each person, paragraphs about history, personality, appearance, DMing notes, and game statistics are provided. There is a tremendous wealth of useful information here, and it would be easy to find an NPC for almost any need in your campaign.

gaz1heraldryGAZ1 closes with more crunchy elements. A list of suggested monsters is supplemented by two new creatures, the chevall (horse/centaur shapeshifter) and the nosferatu (variant vampire). A few final, very helpful pages with DM advice round out the book. I particularly liked the short adventure starters, arrayed in a nice progression from Basic to Master level. This is the sort of thing I craved when I was younger. Often, getting a good hook was the hardest part of making a new adventure.

So, does The Grandy Duchy of Karameikos hold up more than two decades later? For the most part, yes. The sheer amount of edition-free fluff makes it a good read no matter what game system you are using. But it really doesn’t do much as a supplement for Basic D&D. Later entries in the GAZ series would tend towards more crunch, but this first release is disappointing if you are looking for rules-heavy content. It is interesting from a historical perspective, and would be a solid campaign setting for any edition, even 4E or Next. But there’s not a lot of new ground broken here; Karameikos is the very definition of generic medieval fantasy, albeit one that is well designed. It’s certainly not nearly as unique as Dark Sun or Spelljammer. Unless you have a strong nostalgia for GAZ1, I’d suggest waiting to spend your digital dollars for more unique Gazetteers to come in the future.

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D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

D&Development: The Mystara Gazetteer Series

gaz13aIt has been quite some time since I’ve written an article in this series. The purpose of the D&Development posts is to discuss some of the biggest influences on me as a Dungeon Master from the earliest days of my time playing D&D. Previously, I’ve looked at favorite settings, books, the animated show, and even non-D&D novels. (You can find a list of the previous articles by clicking on the D&Development header above.) Today, I wanted to bestow some praise on the Gazetteer series of accessories, detailing the world of Mystara.

During my junior high years, unlike many of my friends and fellow players, who preferred AD&D, Basic D&D always had a soft spot in my heart. It wasn’t until 2nd edition that I really made the transition. As a result, in 1988 and 1989, when I was moving from junior high to high school, I was still entrenched in Basic through and through. As rich as the boxed sets and Basic adventures were, I was perfectly happy reading them and using them in my games. I did envy the greater options available for classes, spells, and skills from AD&D, however.


The Gazetteer series came along, and went a long way towards filling in the blanks of Basic compared to it’s Advanced sibling. Several new classes, particularly for non-human characters, became “official” with no house-ruling required. A system for skills was presented throughout the series, adding even more options for characters. Like any good supplement, the Gazetteers included many new spells, as well. From a rules perspective alone, the Gazetteers were amazing, and gave Basic a depth that, by this point in my DMing career, I craved.

But there was far more to the series than just “crunch”. The “fluff” was amazing, too. I spent hours and hours reading about all the different locations, people, and cultures across the default D&D world, which I now knew was called Mystara. The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, the first GAZ I ever picked up, gave details about the world that were only hinted at in the Expert set and other adventures. I set many of my adventures in the town of Threshold, which was obviously a pretty good home base for players to adventure out of.    It was a fairly standard fantasy setting, but I didn’t see any problem with that at the time, and still don’t today, preferring to set my 4E campaign in the Nentir Vale.


The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, great as it was, wasn’t enough, so I picked up other Gazetteers when I could. The supplements dedicated to non-human races truly hooked me on the series. The Elves of Alfheim, the Dwarves of Rockhome, the halflings in The Five Shires, and especially The Shadow Elves were incredible. The cultures were at once fantastic and yet still believeable, and went a long way towards distinguishing between one elf or dwarf from the next, which was difficult with the whole “race as class” issue in Basic.  I remember reading The Crystal Shard, and thinking how odd it was that Drizzt was dark-skinned, instead of light, like true underground elves were. I realize now how backwards that really is; the shadow elves were the imitation of drow, not vice versa. In any event, I read and reread these Gazetteers time and time again.

Perhaps the highlight of the series was GAZ10: The Orcs of Thar. Far more than what you might think from the title, this Gazetteer included rules for PCs of all the major humanoid monster races. Yes, you could finally run a campaign with a kobold, a goblin, an orc, and a troll as unique playable races. It was hilarious fun. The inclusion of the game Orc Wars was just gravy. I know PC dragons, a la the memorable Council of Wyrms boxed set, might be more epic, but it couldn’t have been more fun than humanoid PCs. Think the A-Team, but with bad grammar and bloodlust, and you’ll have a good idea of how much fun a monster campaign can be.


The remainder of the Gazetteer series was solid, though not as memorable as those I’ve already mentioned. Most of these books were basically D&D interpretations of real-life cultures, ranging from Vikings and Native Americans to the Greeks and Romans. It may seem at first glance that this practice was like putting a square peg in a round hole. In my experience as a novice, I found the material to be easier to assimilate into my memory because of the real world associations. It’s far easier to remember that Ylaruam was like the Middle East than it is to remember all the different factions in Waterdeep, for example. I’m not sure if this ease of use was the intent or not, but it made the Gazetteers very useful for me either way.

Overall, I have many fond memories of the Gazetteer supplements, and remember using them so much they were practically falling apart. All of the extra classes, skills, and spells added much-needed depth to Basic D&D, and the lore and other background information was extremely useful in my early campaigns. It was also fun to simply read through, whether I used it or not. I’m hopeful that the Gazetteers will be released digitally at dndclassics.com soon. If they are, I will enjoy rereading them, reliving the memories of my youth, and perhaps even running one more monster PC mini-campaign again someday!

D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

Legends, Lore and Basic/Expert/Companion/Masters D&D

This week’s Legends & Lore has stirred up quite a discussion. The overall concept behind Mr. Cook’s article is that rules should only appear when you need them. He uses damage resistance as an example. Damage resistance doesn’t typically appear too often in low level 4E play, but is very common (and important) in later tiers. It’s unclear exactly what Cook is suggesting, but the underlying implication is that more complex rules like damage resistance not be included in the core rule set, but rather in individual adventures, or perhaps something like a paragon-tier sourcebook.

It seems most people are opposed to such a system. I find this quite surprising. Scores of articles and blog posts have been written about how to streamline 4E D&D so it runs more smoothly. It’s a mixed message; most people want to reduce the complexity of many of 4E’s systems, but they are opposed to Cook’s suggestion of a way to do just that. It doesn’t make much sense to me to hold both positions.

Having a simpler set of core rules is of utmost importance for getting new players to become regular players. The Essentials Red Box did a fairly good job of this. Not every rule or circumstance was presented in the box, in order to keep running your first D&D game as easy as possible. Fewer, simpler character classes and powers, with a small selection of easy to run monsters combined for a very user-friendly experience. It’s not a perfect set, by any means, but it does manage to get you up and running a D&D game fairly quickly.

The next step in the Essentials Line was the Rules Compendium (or, alternately, the DM Kit). Here, a huge range of rules is presented, which is daunting enough. But compounding the issue is that you still need the Heroes books or a DDI subscription for perhaps the most important aspect of the rules: character creation. Don’t forget you will need the Monster Vault, too, to fill your adventures with foes. Each of these books has content from 1st to 30th level (though admittedly the latter levels are not as well supported). That’s a lot of material for someone to wade through.

Do you see the problem here? The needs of a DM running a level 2 adventure are vastly different than one planning for level 9, 19, or 29. Clarity is lost due to the breadth of the material. There is so much to comprehend in these rule books, it’s daunting. Wouldn’t a method of delivering rules that gradually scales up in complexity as a campaign progresses be a better way? What would such a product line look like?

In case you couldn’t tell from the title of this post, and the accompanying pictures, we’ve already seen a D&D product that broke the rules down into easy to digest chunks. The classic Basic/Expert/Companion/Masters sets from the 1980s did exactly that. Basic covered levels 1-3, Expert 4-14, Companion 15-25, and Masters 26-36. The Immortal set even let you go further, though it was largely a different game at that point. I’m pretty sure this is exactly what Mr. Cook is thinking about.

I am strongly in favor of breaking the rules system down in this way. It’s a natural progression, one that can be easily mastered, if you’ll pardon the pun. I am a teacher in real life, and one of the most important parts of my job is making sure my students understand concepts I teach fully before moving on to new material. When I teach division, I have to make sure my students have an easy understanding of the concept of multiplication first, or else they will be hopelessly lost. It’s the same when learning a system as complex as D&D; you have to learn the basics before you add in any complications or additional options. Dont we need to make sure DMs learn to walk before we tell them how to run?

In 4E D&D, even the Essentials line, after you are done with the Red Box, the entire ruleset is presented for you at once. There is very little guidance in how best to proceed. A modular system would be a better method for learning to play D&D. Complexity can be introduced gradually, with a flatter learning curve. Maybe Mr. Cook had the old D&D boxed sets in mind when he wrote his article; perhaps not. But these classic boxed sets presented the material in a way that was easy to understand, which is not exactly true of modern D&D. If 5th edition can fix this problem, it will become a better game as a result.

Thanks to The Acaeum for the pictures.

D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

D&Development: The D&D Basic “Red Box”

The first real Dungeons & Dragons product I owned (apart from Endless Quest books, I suppose) was the Basic Rules “Red Box” set, pictured above.  I distinctly remember driving to my local Waldenbooks to purchase it with some hard earned lawn-mowing money.  According to this ad from the time over at Grognardia, the total cost was likely just under $10.  This modest sum was easily the best money I have ever spent in my life, providing me a lifelong hobby that set my imagination on fire and sparked my creativity in a way nothing else ever really has.

As I’ve discussed here before, I had watched the D&D cartoon and played a bit of the original Ravenloft during recess at school.  My interest in D&D was quite high, already, but when I saw that glorious cover image for the first time, I was totally enthralled.  That dragon is huge, and check out those claws and teeth!  Look at all that treasure lying around, it’s like the ground is carpeted in gold.  And how brave this warrior must be to take on such a powerful foe alone!  The sword, the shield, the awesome horned helm, and best of all, the fact that you couldn’t see the fighter’s face.. that could be me!  It was too much for my 11-year-old mind to take.

I had to know what was inside this tantalizing scarlet box.  You could pick up any book off the shelf, stand there, and sample it for a while.  But this was a boxed set, wrapped in an unassailable plastic barrier.  The thrill of the unknown, of all the secrets of playing this mysterious game, added even more to my desire to own it.  After a couple of weeks mowing the grass, my dad provided the cash and a trip to the store, and I finally had it in my likely trembling hands.

I couldn’t wait any longer; on the car trip home, I opened the box began to read the books inside voraciously.  I marveled at the odd dice, and wondered what the crayon was for.  For weeks, I poured over every page of both the DM’s and player’s books, reading important parts over and over.  The sheer amount of content was amazing.  The illustrations were phenomenal.  I was totally hooked on Dungeons & Dragons, and would play it in some form for over a decade.

Last fall, I picked up the Castle Ravenloft board game, and it piqued my interest in D&D again.  While killing some time at my friendly local gaming store one afternoon, I decided to look at the used RPG section.  Lo and behold, there they were: a copy of the DM’s Book and the Player’s Book from the very set I had loved so much in my youth.  $3 each, and in decent enough condition.  I grabbed them, and spent the next few hours in a comfortable haze of nostalgia.  The new Essentials Red Box came out shortly thereafter, and just like that, I was back into playing D&D regularly again after fifteen or so years.

Looking through the Basic Set books now is an interesting experience.  Every page brings back some memory.  I’m struck by how well the books do what they are supposed to do: spark a new reader into becoming a dedicated player.  The introductory solo adventures, laid out very much like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, were a good way to introduce the concept of D&D to a newbie.  The progression of terms and gameplay elements in these adventures is very smooth, and quite logical, naturally building from one to the next.  Classes first, then ability scores, followed by hit points, the attack roll, then saving throws, and so on.

The story of the first adventure, with a beautiful cleric, hideous ghouls, and a foul magic-user named Bargle, was intriguing.  After the tragic ending of that tale, the second adventure was more open-ended, with many different options, and I remember playing through it over and over again.  Mapping out the dungeon was a key skill, and it was full of classic foes like rats, goblins, skeletons, and of course the dreaded rust monster, a level 1 fighter’s worst nightmare.  By the time you played through both these adventures, you were quite ready to create your own new character to go dungeon crawling again!

The picture above, from the cleric class description, is one of my favorites.  She looks tough, ready for anything, like someone it would be dangerous to mess with.  The scrapes on her shield and armor indicated she was a veteran dungeon crawler.  Many old-schoolers prefer the quirky, almost trippy art of Erol Otus and the other early D&D talent, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Elmore and Easley.  Their work literally defined my expectations of what fantasy as a genre really was.  The Red Box is full of black and white illustrations by these two, and this only adds to my appreciation of the set.

The Dungeon Master’s book was what really inspired me.  The sample dungeon provided just enough scaffolding and assistance to guide a new DM, but still allowed for plenty of customization.  After all, you were to create the third level of the dungeon yourself, including the final confrontation with the hated wizard Bargle.  Dozens of creatures, from the mundane to the monstrous, were available in the back of the book, with full stats and descriptions.  I don’t know exactly how many dungeons I planned out on sheets of graph paper using the guidelines in this book, but I’m sure it was far more than I ever had the chance to actually run through with players.

The Basic Red Box is probably my favorite Dungeon & Dragons product of all time.  It paved the way for my journey through the Expert, Companion, and Master sets, and then on to 2nd Edition AD&D, with side tours through Ravenloft, Dragonlance, and Dark Sun.  Even after my hiatus from playing D&D, the Red Box played a big role in getting me back into the game again.  Copying the look and feel of this set to introduce Essentials was a brilliant move.  If the intention was to get lapsed D&D fans to return to the fold, in my case, at least, it was a smashing success.  It’s amazing how much pleasure and fun I’ve had over the years from this game, and it all started with this little Red Box.