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Before the Hollow Worldby Håvard from Threshold Magazine issue 9
Before the Hollow World:
Aaron Allston’s first attempts at a Hollow World Setting
The concept of a world on the inside of the planet filled with prehistoric creatures and peoples is something that has been explored in the world of literature and comic books for ages. Journey to the Center of the Earth (Jules Verne), Niels Klim’s Underground Travels (Ludvig Holberg), The Pellucidar Series (Edgar Rice Burroughs), The Skartaris Series (DC) and the upcoming Iron Sky 2 are just a few examples of this idea. In the world of Dungeons & Dragons, there was some talk about giving Greyhawk its own Hollow Oerth beyond the Land of the Black Ice. However, it was Mystara, then only known as the D&D Game World© or the Known World that was finally selected to incorporate that concept. Product Manager Bruce Heard selected Aaron Allston (1960-2014) to create this subsetting to be published as a boxed set in 1990. While Allston had not yet become the famous fiction writer he would later grow into with his popular Star Wars novels, he was already a well established game designer, having worked with multiple companies. For Mystara, he had also designed essential products such as the Grand Duchy of Karameikos, the Dwarves of Rockhome and the Dawn of the Emperors Boxed Set.
However, the Hollow World boxed set was not Aaron Allston’s first attempt at designing a Hollow World-like game setting. Two other, earlier products by Allston are worth taking a look at for those who are interested in seeing how this concept had been developing in the author’s mind for years before beginning his work on the Hollow World Boxed Set. Those are Lands of Mystery for the Justice Inc RPG (Hero Games) and The Worlds of Ultima: Savage Empires PC Game.
Lands of Mystery (1985)
This hard to find campaign book was published in 1985 for the Justice Inc RPG, which was a rules light variant of Hero System. Lands of Mystery presents the Land of Zorandar, a world where primitive humans struggle for survival among dinosaurs. Zorandar is also home to ferocious lizardmen, and a despotic Roman Emperor with a legion of Roman soldiers in his service.
The book is both a sourcebook discussing the Lost World genre and how to create your own Lost World settings with it, as well as an adventure allowing the characters to explore the world of Zorandar. This 96 page booklet is filled with illustrations of lizardmen, cave girls and other Lost World tropes and also contains conversion guidelines for Chill, Call of Cthulhu and Daredevil RPG.
While this booklet was high quality for its time, some critics feel that the design choices used by Allston in the book have been copied so many times later that the book may seem less impressive to a modern audience than it would have done to those picking it up in 1985.
Comparing this book with the Hollow World Boxed Set, it is easy to note the presence of dinosaurs, lizardmen (Malpheggi) and brave natives (Neathar?) in both products. The Roman Legion has been replaced with the Milennian Empire in the Hollow World. Some critics felt that the Roman Legion was one of the elements that did not fit so naturally into Zorandar, but the Hollow World boxed set solves this by making the preservation of ancient civilisations a key feature of that setting. Beyond this, Land of Mystery’s section on Lost Worlds settings in general would have provided Allston with a lot of research that would have been very valuable for him when working on the Boxed Set. Zorandar and the Hollow World are clearly two different settings and two different products, but with the same author behind the two, it is easy to see the inspiration behind both. Whether the title Lands of Mystery had any influence on the eventual naming of the D&D Game World © setting as Mystara is not something we can confirm, but at the very least it is an interesting coincidence.
Worlds of Ultima: Savage Empires (1990)
This sequel to the popular Ultima Series came out in 1990. That was actually the same year that the Hollow World boxed set came out, meaning that Allston was probably working on the two simultaneously. It should be noted that Allston is credited for the story of the game, not its technical aspects.
Unlike the other Ultima Games, Savage Empires is not set in the land of Britannia, but instead in a place called the Valley of Eodon. This strange valley is filled with various primitive tribes and different breeds of dinosaurs, both hostile and peaceful varieties. It should be noted that most of the tribes are most likely descended from our own real world, but having at some point arrived into this strange valley. While it isn’t quite explained how this all works, the valley of Eodon exists on our own World although its exact location is unknown. Its inhabitants have somehow been magically transported there from various time periods and places on earth. Sounds familiar yet?
The goal of the game is to learn of the various stone age tribes and their jungle magic and find a way to fight the insectoid race known as the Myrmidex which have recently arrived to wreak havoc on the valley. Learning the secret behind the Myrmidex and their origin will allow the hero to restore peace in the valley.
Again, while this is a different setting and universe than the Hollow World, many ideas and concepts are similar. Not only do we have the presence of stone age cultures, Neanderthal like Brute-Men, dinosaurs and magic, but even the concept of tribes being magically transported and preserved in both cases. There is also the presence of science fiction style high technology in both settings. Without spoiling too much of Savage Empires, I can reveal that it does have something to the equivalent of the Blacklore Elves, even if those takes are fairly different in the two incarnations. Examining the tribes of the Valley of Eodon, it is even possible to find similarities between each tribe and the many cultures of the Hollow World. The Kurak are similar to the Oltecs, the Yolaru are similar to the Tanagoro, the Nahuatla are Azcans etc.
A professional game designer like Aaron Allston certainly did not just reuse old ideas and throw them into the Hollow World. Land of Mystery, Savage Empires and the Hollow World Boxed Set are three quite different products and settings. At the same time, comparing the three offers a chance to pick at the author’s brain a little and see how his ideas and inspiration worked their way into each game.
From a Mystara fan point of view, those looking for more inspiration to further develop their Hollow World or even Outer World campaigns might want to investigate more into these and other works by Allston. For the Hollow World specifically, it should be possible to incorporate material from Land of Mystery or Savage Empires directly in the Hollow World or simply use them as inspiration to get into the right atmosphere for a Hollow World campaign. Savage Empires is actually available for free from Gog.com
Read more on The Piazza:
Land of Mystery: http://www.thepiazza.org.uk/bb/viewtopic.php?f=25&t=13700
Savage Empires: http://www.thepiazza.org.uk/bb/viewtopic.php?f=25&t=13629