Mystara / Known World Review

I've been anticipating reviewing "Mystara" as perhaps the most difficult of the setting reviews. 

Unlike most settings, it never really had a dedicated setting book. As the default setting for the "non-advanced" Classic D&D line, it grew from a couple of pages in the Expert Set published in 1981 up and ended as an AD&D in 1995. It is, perhaps moreso than any other setting, a product of organic development which grew and changed radically over the course of its different release cycles. 

Unlike the ham-fisted attempts at development and expansion in other settings (Forgotten Realms with its Time of Troubles, Maztika and Kara-Tur getting tacked on to the edges with cheap glue and then destroyed for 4e altogether stand out), this somehow worked out well for Mystara.

Perhaps because it is so non-premeditated and basically a collection of different authors having good ideas they wanted to throw at a setting and a setting that is very receptive to such treatment, combined with an editorial line that never took itself too seriously.

As such, it is also not quite possible to give a review of "Mystara" as a single setting, because "the setting" as a coherent entity never existed. It was always undergoing development and no attempt was ever really made to present a comprehensive snapshot of what mystara really is about the way most settings got from boxed sets and dedicated setting books

Different publication cycles however, can be identified, reflecting different types of products being released and accordingly they represent a different style added to the setting.

Map of the known world reflecting the Expert Set, by Jason Hibdon.

The Setting in Brief

No matter what version you prefer, they all share the same premise though:

Why are things the way they are in this world?


And so we have an arabic desert just next to the northern viking land in the earliest publication cycle, and later on samurai cat people flying space sailboats and living on an invisible moon. A nice side effect is that Mystara is less eurocentric than many other settings. You don't have to travel far beyond the known world to encounter faux mongolians (such as Tuigan in Forgotten Realms). The Ethengar Khanate sits right next to the rennaissance magocracy and viking land. And native-american-land is just west of hobbitland.

This unapologetic open-tent naivety works to create a kitchen-sink setting of vast incongruities, that holds an immediacy of pure unadultered D&D fantasy flavour that comes through with an almost childlike joy. Despite the utter lack of verisimilitude, it comes alive, you can feel yourself in that world.

And it makes Mystara a world I think could come closest to capturing the unique feel of the D&D genre as its own genre of fantasy (unlike forgotten realms which, though very D&D, is still its own thing), and still be loads of fun in play.

Its immediacy also means that when it hits the right notes, it hits them so cleanly, they become iconic.

The Grand Duchy of Karameikos is THE template for D&D adventureland. Everything about it sets it up as the ideal framework for basic and expert adventures, dungeon crawling and hexcrawling. 

The Principalities of Glantri are the most iconic magocracy you could wish. It captures such a society in all ways.

The Elves of Alfheim is the quintessential elven kingdom.

Other settings may try for this and so often it comes it a bit contrived, or imitative. But in Mystara, somehow, it works. It becomes not the imitation, but the iconic template that others end up imitating. The unapologetic embrace of D&D adventuring tropes lends Mystara its own brand of uncontrived authenticity.

The Four Cycles: From "The Known World" to "Mystara"

With that as a basic taste of what the setting is like, let's dig into the different publication cycles, as they could be said to be different settings, depending on how sharply you interpret your sources:

1. Expert Set and modules: The "Known World", that would later be called "Mystara" was introduced in Tom Moldway & David "Zeb" Cook's Expert rules set, giving just a few pages of description of the various lands and a bit more on Karameikos as the quintessential adventure land.

Over time, various modules would expand on all this, basically to fit in whatever they needed of backstory and setting for the module in question. B10 Night's Dark Terror stands out here for how it developed the grand duchy of Karameikos, but some modules also simply added new realms as needed, for example X11 dropping the elven realm of Wendar into the empty north, because it needed such a realm.

Mentzer's Companion set threw in Norworld, a true frontier setting made for higher level characters to develop their own domains.

2. The Gazetteer Era: In 1987, after Frank Mentzer left TSR, Bruce Heard became the new line lead of Classic D&D, and with him started a new focus on bringing more detail to the world, and perhaps also putting more of it fixed in place. He launched the Gazetteer series, which would in many ways become the defining feature of the Known World.

Although it may seem trivial to modern sensibilities, releasing a slew of sourcebooks each of which detail a single realm was unheard of at the time and a project unprecedented in scope. 14 gazetteers were released in total, no mean feat all told.

A lot of them were good. Some thoroughly missed the mark, some middle of the road. But it gave a depth of presentation to the world that few other settings enjoyed at the time.

There were a few alterations in tone and style in this era perhaps. Karameikos had its population numbers multiplied by then, changing its tone from a true frontier to something more of a settled realm with wilderness patches. Which was a pity honestly. 

And yet, GAZ1 The Grand Duchy of Karameikos is still an amazing setting book, one of the best ever, and stands out for how it wants to help gaming tables actually run D&D campaigns in it, complete with advice on how the domain rules fit in. This is not just a tourist guide, but a book that shows you how to run a full campaign here. 

Take note setting authors of today, whose ideas of "we need to add some game stuff to this snowflake setting presentation" is to add prestige classes and a chapter on how some of the rules are different (Tell me rather how the rules actually work in this setting).

As boxed set cover art goes, I rate this: meh

Hollow World: Of course Mystara is a hollow world, because the surface couldn't possibly have enough room for all the kitchen-sink stuff one might want to throw at it. The Hollow World is basically a museum. This is where the immortals whisk away dead cultures to in order to preserve them for posterity. A nice little twist on time travel in RPGs - All the cool stuff that happened in the deep past? You can still experience that here.
So after you have explored the Nithian (faux-egyptian) ruins of the known world, journey to the centre of the Urt (yes, that's the planet's actual name, and its a sentient being in its own right with a gazillion hit points) and meet the Nithians in high definition, just as they were 2000 years ago. 

It's an excellent take on the "Lost World" concept and Aaron Allston executed the boxed set with the same competent gaming-focused assurance as he did with the Karameikos gazetteer. 

Skyships. It's a thing around here.

3. Princess Ark: In 1990, the first entry of Bruce Heard's prodigious Voyage of the Princess Ark series was published in Dragon Magazine #155, with a new entry in every issue up until #188 in 1992. Over the course of these 32 articles, the known world was vastly expanded with travelogue entries of a multitude of weird and exotic lands. This would go on to be one of the most popular features in the history of the magazine and for good reason.

It was packed with what can only be described as frigging wild fantasy. We start softly with a magic skyship departing from the floating empire of a thousand archmages, before exploring realms of druidic knights, spider-wizards in diguise, winged minotaurs vs manscorpions surrounded by jungle orcs, skyship nazis, gnomes living in flying jet cities and giant robots, evil aztec elves,  spaceship nuclear reactors hding great secrets and yes samurai cat people flying space sailboats and living on an invisible moon. And so much more.

It seems Heard followed the same organic design principle of the earlier creators of focusing on awesome-first and let the scholars worry about how it all fits together in a coherent way.

One reasons this worked so well is that Heard would go to the Creature Catalogue, itself one of my favourite monstrous compendia, and develops critters from it that were otherwise entirely overlooked into wholesale cultures. The world beyond the Known World quickly become much less humano-centric and it was basically just cool and awesome. 

It was later compiled into the Champions of Mystara boxed set, although it does not contain the earlier entries from Dragon.

Of course, same as all TSR settings at the time, Mystara was also subjected to editorial mandate of needing to have a world-shattering event, "Wrath of the Immortals". It gave us a boxed set with an update of the Immortals rules and the status quo of what the world is like ten years after the original start date after the big empires of the setting have gone to war.  Although it was perhaps the least egregious of the editorial apocalypses visited upon all the TSR settings, that doesn't mean it was good or worth re-visiting. 

4. Mystara - AD&D: In 1994, around the time the basic D&D line was wrapping up to be cancelled forever, TSR decided to re-release the Known World under the new "Mystara" brand and now targeted for AD&D gamers.  Although the Mystara line managed an impressive 10 releases between 1994 and 1995, it was, all things told, a bit of a damp squip. Some re-hashed gazetteers, some unmemorable modules and a few odd supplements, it felt more like a tired re-make of a movie that no one asked for.  
It's AD&D 2e, so of course we must achieve full ren-faire-hood to proceed.

In sum, Mystara was never meant for AD&D and in the transition seemed to have lost its spirit. In truth there would be nothing lost if this had simply never happened.


Mystara is an odd size. Some can handle the incongruities, others can not. If you can, you get a setting that manages to unashamedly pastiche fantasy tropes and real-world cultures and somehow create something unique and glorious that still feels quintessentially D&D. From here, the setting gets a strong thumbs up and lands in a solid top 3 favourite D&D settings for me. 

Owing to its lack of a dedicated setting book, it is perhaps a bit difficult to discern how to get into it. I would suggest:
  • Get the Expert Set and read the basic stuff there. Bonus content: The Expert rules for Classic D&D and the Isle of Dread adventure module.
  • Get Gaz1 Grand Duchy of Karameikos. Enjoy.
  • Consider getting the Rules Cyclopedia for its five page appendix summarising the gazetteer era state of the Known World and the maps. 
  • See what else tickles your fancy. The following all come with Uncle Anders' stamp of approval:
    • GAZ3: The Principalities of Glantri
    • Dawn of the Emperors - Boxed Set
    • Hollow World
    • Champions of Mystara (ideally, read the actual Dragon Magazine articles)
    • GAZ7 The Northern Reaches
    • GAZ5 The Elves of Alfheim
    • Tall-Tales of the Wee Folk
    • B10 Night's Dark Terror
  • Explore the Vaults of Pandius. The fan community is very devoted.


  1. Hello! There is some stuff online about the pre-publication history of "the Known World," suggesting that it was designed to be a "coherent" setting in 1975 and 1976, its eclecticism notwithstanding. See this, by Lawrence Schick, one of its creators, for example:

    1. I am aware of it and enjoyed reading about it back then. But that is not the setting it became, much like the published Greyhawk setting was never the one Gygax actually used in his own campaign. And I do believe one should take the work as it's presented rather than what it may have originally been intended to have been (although peeking into its germinal origins provides interesting perspective).

    2. That's a good point: you are reviewing the products and not their background story or the pre-publication documents. Maybe somebody reading your post will be interested in the older stuff, anyway. It's a good post you wrote, and I think it characterizes Mystara fairly.


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