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

Dragonlance Finally Available Digitally!


In 2012, Wizards announced that they would go back to releasing select items from the back catalog digitally again. As an old school D&D fan, I found this news quite exciting. I immediately made a wish list of favorites I wanted to see at dndclassics.com. Two items on this list, the original Dragonlance modules and the Mystara Gazetteer series, were nowhere to be found in all of 2013.

I was thoroughly tickled, then, when both of these series were included with the first new releases of the year. It looks like one Dragonlance module and one Gazetteer will be available for download each week, if the current trends hold. I have so far downloaded DL1 Dragons of Despair and GAZ1 The Grand Duchy of Karameikos. I thought I would share my initial thoughts on reading these iconic though dated classics through the eye of a post-4E Dungeon Master. I will cover Dragons of Despair in this post, with The Grand Duchy of Karameikos to come later.


First off, a caveat: I never actually played through the DL series, either as a player or a DM. I did pick up a copy of DL5, Dragons of Mystery, which was basically a sourcebook, during the heyday of my Dragonlance reading frenzy. I had always supposed that the adventures followed very closely with the events of the Chronicles trilogy. This supposition was backed up by research in the past decade or so. Many people across the community have been unkind to the DL series, painting the picture that it is as railroad-y as adventures get.

I was honestly surprised then, by my first readthrough. It is true that the major events from the first half of Dragons of Autumn Twilight are here. The party encounters Goldmoon and Riverwind at some point, and they are driven by the dragonarmies to the ruined city of Xak Tsaroth. But that is basically the only real railroading going on here. There is a lot of room for exploration, flexible encounters, and really more to do here than you might expect from reading the novel.

The city of Xak Tsaroth itself is an enormous dungeon, filled with hordes of draconians, potential gully dwarf allies, and of course a mighty black dragon. It is an interesting setting, different than the standard dungeon, yet it still has that vintage crawl feel. I particularly appreciated the design of Onyx, the dragon, who interacts with the party from the beginning instead of merely waiting in her lair to be slain.

tassReading through DL1 was very enjoyable for me as a fan of the Dragonlance saga. While it is clearly a story-driven adventure, there is a good amount of leeway for the DM and freedom for the players. I am considering running the series myself, with a mixed group of some who have, and some who haven’t read the books. I think those who are familiar with the story would enjoy seeing it as a “what if” tale, especially if we used new characters. Those new to the setting would surely appreciate the epic nature of the saga. I am very much looking forward to picking up further releases in the series.

One last comment: it is quite shocking to see the stats for eight different PCs all fit on one page (front and back). It was originally a page intended to be cut out and passed to the players. Imagine being able to note a PCs relevant stats and abilities all on one small piece of paper, with only equipment and a background paragraph on the reverse side! How things have changed.

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

Ten D&D Products I Can’t Wait to Download

Last week, I sat down with my 11 year old son to watch Wizards’ keynote address at Gencon. (We had just finished watching an episode of Doctor Who; clearly I am raising this one right!) My three main take-aways from the presentation were a 2014 release for D&D Next, an impressive focus on the Forgotten Realms, and the digital release of the back catalog next year. A longer development cycle for D&D Next is certainly good news, though I am less thrilled by the Realms stuff, never being a huge fan. I was simply ecstatic by the announcement that older D&D products will become available for download digitally soon.

Though many of the details are unclear at this point, my mind is reeling with thoughts of what might become available. I realize that the releases will inevitably be a slow, steady stream, and also that it’s unlikely that everything I want will become available. Still, there are at least ten items that I would download immediately upon release.

Original D&D Boxed Set

There could be no better place to start than at the beginning. The original set of three booklets from 1974 set the tone for everything that would follow, and indeed, altered the landscape of gaming in general forever. As a fan of the history of Dungeons & Dragons, how could I leave this off my list?

Expedition to the Barrier Peaks

I’ve always been fascinated by this one, though I never read it or even saw a copy that I can remember. All that I know about it has come from online research, and it quite simply looks amazing. The genre-shifting environment is absolutely brilliant, and though some may call it corny or outlandish, I personally think a little bid of oddness and humor should be sprinkled through even the most serious campaign. Do they make a froghemoth miniature, because a 4E conversion could be really fun!

Fiend Folio

Purely a nostalgia pick. There are many other tomes full of monsters out there, but I have a very clear personal memory attached to this one. I was sixteen years old, a newly licensed driver, and my mother sent me to the butcher shop just up the road. Afterwards, with a bag of bologna and corned beef in hand, I took a quick detour into a used bookstore a couple doors down. A small section of RPG material included the Fiend Folio. Its fantastic cover and quirky selection of creatures impressed me, so I picked it up with the change from the butcher. I probably got into some trouble with my mom, but the Fiend Folio was so fun it didn’t matter too much.

Isle of the Ape

I am a min-maxer at heart, and thus this high-level adventure based on King Kong is a favorite. The adventure is a deadly challenge, but it was even more lethal when a friend offered to run it for my group. By the end of the night, the DM was clearly cheating to kill us. Worst example: knowing a room full of kobolds (don’t ask) were just beyond a door, the thief opened it, while the mage let loose a prismatic spray. “Well, all the kobolds were laying down on the floor, so your spray misses them. 120 of them stand up and hurl poison spears at you.” I learned much about DMing that night.

Manual of the Planes

One of my favorite books to just flipping through during my 2E days. The cover is gorgeous, and the sheer imagination on display inside makes it something truly special. While I appreciate 4E’s changes to the cosmology, particularly in making the planes more accessible at lower levels, there’s something to be said about the challenge of simply surviving in the planes as written in this book.

The Grand Duchy of Karameikos

The Gazetteer series is among my favorite D&D books of all time, and this was the one I used the most in my D&D Basic campaign. The world truly seemed alive, with so many allies and villains for my players to meet. It was an ideal setting for me as a beginning DM. Other favorites from the line include the Orcs of Thar (with the sweet Orc Wars game inside), the Shadow Elves, and the dwarf, elf, and halfling based offerings, which included new character classes for these races.

Dungeon Master Design Kit

This may seem like a very strange choice. The book was filled with forms and such that could be used to plan an adventure or even a full campaign. It’s unlikely the forms would be properly digitized, but still, the book would be useful. I learned quite a lot from it, in the days before there were dozens of DM advice websites available with the click of a mouse.

Rules Cyclopedia

Basic D&D is what I cut my teeth on, and will always have a special place in my heart. The Rules Cyclopedia combined all of the rules from the Basic, Expert, Companion, and Master’s boxed sets into one hefty hardcover tome. Of all the D&D stuff I’ve sold or lost over the years, this book is the one I miss the most.

Monstrous Compendium, Ravenloft Appendix

The looseleaf Monstrous Compendium releases were brilliant. You could mix and match the different versions depending on which setting you used, keeping all your monsters together for inspiration. It would have been best if each monster had a full front and back, for DMs who were picky about alphabetization, but I really liked the customization options. Wouldn’t mixing and matching digitally be a great solution? The first Ravenloft MC was particularly appealing to me because of the inclusion of monsters inspired by classic horror films.

Dragonlance Classics 1, 2, and 3

The Dragonlance saga, the Chronicles in particular, was my bread and butter for many years. To me, it will always be the definitive fantasy setting. My kids have enjoyed the books, as well, and I would love to run a campaign using the original modules with them some day. Yeah, it’s railroading, but when the view outside the window is this nice, I don’t think the players will mind too much.

Of all the items on the list, my guess is that the original boxed set and Barrier Peaks are the guaranteed to be reprinted, with the Manual of the Planes and the Fiend Folio a tad less likely. Everything else is a more unreliable, with the DM Design Kit having the smallest chance. In any case, the next year should be one of the best for fans of classic D&D, and I look forward to it very much.