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Notes on the Isles of Steam:by Geoff Gander
Thousands of miles away from the Known World lies an archipelago unlike any other, known as the Isles of Steam. Nestled in the Sea of Steam, these islands are like a snapshot into the distant past, where adventurers can learn of vanished peoples, and what Mystara was like before modern civilisation spread across its surface.
The section below contains information that is readily available to players to venture to these islands; this is what they can learn if they study the place long enough. Afterwards is a brief timeline that contains the real story, which is for the DM only.
The Isles of Steam lie southeast of the island of Everfeed, which itself is east of the isles of Cestia and Oceania. They are almost impossible to detect with the naked eye, due to a natural phenomenon in the immediate area of these islands, in which the warmer currents from the southeast meet the cooler currents of the northwest, producing an impenetrable humid ring of mist, three miles thick, that encircles the entire archipelago in all directions. The prevailing winds draw some of this mist above the islands themselves, creating a dome of fog over the archipelago. This mist is pervasive on the islands themselves as well; it is impossible to see anything more than 500 feet away, and sunlight tends to be diluted somewhat, though vegetation thrives nonetheless.
Generally speaking, most of the islands in the archipelago are relatively low-lying and swampy; it is often difficult to tell where the sea ends and the land begins. Vegetation is tropical throughout, ranging from mangrove trees and other swampy plants on the coasts to palm trees, ferns, creepers, and giant trees in the inland regions. On the larger islands (the larger ones pictured on the map), there are occasional clearings where conditions are just right for small expanses of plains to develop, though these exist only on higher ground.
In terms of climate, the entire archipelago is hot and humid. There is a thick haze everywhere one looks, and the vegetation effectively blocks any breezes that might cool the islands. Steam rises constantly from the undergrowth under the harsh, though diluted, rays of the sun, and every afternoon torrential downpours cleanse the land, only to give rise to worse humidity afterwards. Only during rainstorms and at night is there any relief to the humidity.
The Isles of Steam are teeming with life. Here one can find all kinds of animals native to jungle, swamp, and plain terrains, as well as those animals inhabiting tropical seas. In this way they are much like the Thanegioth Archipelago, or Yavdlom. Thus, creatures found there may be found in the Isles of Steam - such as dinosaurs of all shapes and sizes, primitive mammals, tigers, jaguars, rhinos, hippos, alligators, wild boars, exotic birds, and others.
Today, there is not much amid the Isles of Steam in the way of culture, though many ruins dot the islands attesting to the former presence of it. Those lucky enough to make it to these islands will find the foundations on stone buildings in the heavily forested lowlands, and the swampy regions, though most of these have been covered by vegetation. Secluded in the mountains of the largest island are ancient ruins, which will be described later.
Among the more sentient inhabitants of the islands are several tribes of kara-kara, whose villages are scattered throughout the jungles on the largest islands. Also present are a few isolated phanaton settlements, high up in the trees. These two races war upon each other intermittently. Among the swampy, and smaller, islands are scattered lizard man villages, as well as the occasional dwelling of a mugumba mud-dweller.
The Isles of Steam have existed on the periphery of civilisation for millennia, even when it was occupied by inhabitants more civilised than those found on its shores today. Thousands of years ago, before many of the cultures we know of today in the Known World were even in their infancy, yet not long after the Great Rain of Fire obliterated the scourge of Blackmoor from Mystara's face, a mysterious people arose in the southern coastal regions of what we now call Brun.
These people were tall, thin, and grey-skinned, with heavily-lobed ears, and possessing six fingers on each hand. The called themselves the M'kar, and were a reclusive people, from another dimension, who looked down upon other races. This attitude brought them into conflict with other cultures on their own world, such that they sought to find a new home. Their greatest mages created dimensional portals to other realms, through which the entire race dispersed. Some came through one of the portals, and found themselves in the southeastern coastal region of Brun, where they built a handful of small settlements on the coasts and upon several islands. Centuries passed, and they came into contact with the Taymorans, whom the M'kar saw as inferior, and unworthy of contact. As the Taymorans expanded, the M'kar abandoned their scattered settlements and retreated to existing colonies on islands offshore. Eventually, even these became threatened by inquisitive neighbours, and the M'kar set out to find a new land where they would not have to deal with outsiders.
Eventually, the M'kar found an isolated island, far to the east, where no intelligent life (at least, as they knew it) existed. Having lost much of their magical powers since coming to Mystara, they set sail for this new land. Only a fraction of them survived the voyage, and those that made it to the island saw nothing but endless jungles and swamps, filled with hostile animals. The one interesting feature of the island was a mysterious ruin set atop one of the highest peaks, which showed signs of being of great age, though the M'kar could not decipher any of the writings found therein. The M'kar managed to tame some of the jungle, building their settlements of stone above and below ground, though they soon found they were not alone. The island was already populated by tribes of lizard men and mugumba mud-dwellers, who kept to themselves; and by kara-kara, who made war upon the newcomers. Though they managed to maintain their civilisation for many years, the M'kar had already entered an irreversible decline, and after only four generations they had forgotten much of the knowledge they had brought with them to their new home.
This decline was hastened with the cataclysm of BC 1750, in which southern Brun was broken up into the islands of Minrothad and Ierendi known today. The island of the M'kar found itself sinking slowly into the sea, until, by BC 1500, it was reduced to the modern archipelago. Many settlements had to be abandoned, and with them a vast store of knowledge. In this reduced state the M'kar lost so much of their knowledge that even their basic spells were forgotten. One by one their settlements fell to the kara-kara, and by BC 1300 they were no more.
In the subsequent centuries, the islands were visited by aranea, who, with their phanaton slaves, attempted to build a nation. They managed to enslave several tribes of kara-kara, who were put to work mining for precious metals, and tilling the fields on the araneas' vast plantations. Within 75 years this experiment failed, with the aranea being all but wiped out by the rebelling kara-kara, and those who were fortunate enough to survive were killed by vengeful phanatons, eager to repay the cruelty they were forced to endure. The kara-kara then tried to enslave the phanatons themselves, though this failed miserably. The phanatons then took to the trees, and tried to rebuild their culture as they remembered it, coming into contact with the kara-kara only infrequently.
The islands have remained in this state up to the present day. What will happen in the future is up to the DM, and to players as well!
Timeline of the Isles of Steam: (for DMs only!)
BC 9000: What are now the Isles of Steam is a large, temperate, uninhabited island, though several island chains bridge the distance between it and Everfeed, as well as Skothar.
BC 8800: Lizard men migrate from Davania to the island, and build small villages in the swampy regions.
BC 8600: The global climate warms, and the seas rise considerably, reducing the island to an archipelago even smaller than it is today.
BC 8100: Lhomarrian sailors land at one of the islands, and build a fishing station, where they can smoke or salt their catches in order to preserve them. No contact is made with the lizard men.
BC 8000: A fortress is built on the heights of one island by the Lhomarrian military, and a small village is established to support it.
BC 7900: Due to increasing hostilities with the Carnifex of Y'hog, the Lhomarrians transfer the garrison here to Davania. The villagers abandon their homes and return to Lhomarr.
BC 5000: The seas recede, and the islands assume their present form.
BC 3000: The Great Rain of Fire. Mystara shifts on its axis, and global temperatures cool. The Isles of Steam have now expanded to one large island once again, though not quite so large as before.
BC 2700: Mugumba mud-dwellers migrate to the island and settle its swamplands.
BC 2500: Tribes of kara-kara arrive on the island, and begin colonising it. They come into occasional contact with the lizard men, but each race respects the other's territory.
BC 2400: Elsewhere in the world, the race known as the M'kar arrive in southeastern Brun through a dimensional portal, and begin colonising the region.
BC 2200: The expanding Taymoran culture forces the xenophobic M'kar to retreat to their colonies on scattered islands just off the coast. One of these islands is the one featured in D&D module "X8: Drums on Fire Mountain".
BC 2100: The Taymorans expand still further, the M'kar seek a new home where they will not be bothered by anyone. Already they have forgotten some of the ancient lore; they cannot return to their original world, nor can they contact other groups of M'kar on other worlds.
BC 2070: M'kar mages discover a large island far to the east, which does not appear to be inhabited. A great voyage begins, though some remain on their island colonies. Most of those who remain eventually die out.
BC 2067: About one-third of those M'kar setting out for the island reach its shores. They find it to be a wild, dangerous place. They also discover the ruins of the Lhomarrian fortress, but cannot decipher any of the writings found there. They leave it alone. They also encounter the lizard men and mugumba mud-dwellers, but deem them too primitive to be worthy of contact.
BC 2000: By this time the M'kar have fought the kara-kara on numerous occasions, but are still managing to hold their own. They have built several settlements along the western coast, and are steadily encroaching inland.
BC 1900: Already the M'kar are weakening. Many of their higher-level spells have been forgotten, and outlying villages are being destroyed by the kara-kara. The lizard men and mugumba mud-dwellers stay out of the conflict.
BC 1750: Earthquakes break up large tracts of Brun's southeastern coasts, creating the islands of Minrothad and Ierendi. The island of the M'kar begins to disappear in the rising seas. Many coastal settlements are flooded, and the M'kar decline accelerates. Many great works are lost in the flooding.
BC 1500: The Isles of Steam assume their present shape once again. The M'kar have been reduced to scattered families living amongst the ruins of their settlements, having forgotten all of their magic.
BC 1300: The last M'kar settlement is destroyed by the kara-kara; the entire race has been wiped out.
BC 900: A group of Aranea arrive, bringing with them phanaton slaves. They build their settlements among the M'kar ruins, and proceed to enslave nearby tribes of kara-kara.
BC 850: By this time large tracts on forest on the larger islands have been cleared, and plantations have sprung up in their place. Kara-kara work the fields, and the mines, and grow more discontent every year. The phanatons are little more than pets, and are treated cruelly.
BC 830: The kara-kara revolt, killing every aranea they can find. The survivors flee their settlements for the jungles, only to be massacred by escaped phanaton slaves.
BC 810: The last of the aranea on the isles have been killed, though there are rumours among the kara-kara and the phanatons that some managed to escape to the forbidding ruins high up in the mountains of the largest island. Some did in fact escape there, and are amazed at what they find. They begin deciphering the Lhomarrian writings.
BC 800: Learning from their former masters, the kara-kara decide to enslave nearby phanatons. A bitter war erupts between the two races.
BC 700: The last of the major wars between the kara-kara and the phanatons is over.
BC 300: By this time most of the inhabitants have forgotten about the aranea, and the M'kar for that matter. The times have been harsh for the aranea up in the ruins, but those who survive have managed to learn some of the lore of the Lhomarrians, including spells.
BC 270: Divisions develop among the aranea of the ruins, with some advocating continued study of the lore, and others desiring to use their new powers to reconquer the islands. Relations among the islands' other inhabitants are quiet.
BC 265: The two aranea factions fight amongst themselves, unleashing destructive Lhomarrian battle spells. Large sections of the ruins are further obliterated. The lights discharged from the battle can be seen 20 miles away. The aranea advocating further study win the battle, and vanquish their enemies.
AC 500: Apart from the occasional skirmish between the different races, the islands are quiet. The magical battle has faded into legend, and many believe the aranea destroyed themselves.
AC 1000: The present day. The islands are still quiet, save for the occasional explorer, none of whom survive for long.
DM Notes on the Inhabitants of the Isles of Steam:
This section will provide some rough information on the activities of the various sentient inhabitants of the Isles of Steam.
Contrary to what local fragmentary lore says, there are aranea on the island. They number only around 150, and confine themselves to the Lhomarrian ruins and their immediate vicinity. The vast majority of them have occupied themselves in studying the lore that is to be found in the ruins. Over the centuries they have managed to decipher the Lhomarrian script, and have gained a wealth of information on magic, historical lore, and insights into a vanished culture. Their centuries of isolation have also left them a little paranoid. They now believe that they are the sole inheritors of Lhomarrian culture, and refuse to deal with what they see as "unenlightened barbarians", who only plot to steal their knowledge from them. They refuse to leave the ruins, or the catacombs beneath them. What will happen in the future is up to the DM, though certain aranea have been meeting in secret to discuss the possibility of using their powers to try to conquer the islands once again. As a side note, these aranea do not possess the shapeshifting ability common to their cousins living in Herath.
The kara-kara are the most numerous inhabitants on the Isles of Steam. They have several primitive kingdoms spread out over the larger islands, each ruled by a hereditary tribal chieftain. They frequently war amongst themselves, and with the phanatons on occasion, and in doing so do not pose much of a threat to the lizard men or the mugumba mud-dwellers on the island. Kara-kara legends do prophesise "the coming of a Great Chief from where the sun sets, and He will unite us". Should this come to pass, the 40,000 - strong kara-kara could become a force to be reckoned with. The kara-kara are neutral towards the lizard men, and are hostile towards the phanatons and the mugumba mud-dwellers.
The lizard men inhabiting the Isles of Steam are much like those found elsewhere on Mystara - they tend to live in the damper regions, such as marshes and swamps, in family groups. They live at subsistence level, catching enough food to sustain themselves, but little more. They generally keep to themselves, but will challenge anyone crossing their territories. The lizard men are on peaceful terms with the mugumba mud-dwellers and the phanatons, and are neutral towards the kara-kara. There are roughly 10,000 living on the islands, mainly on the smaller ones.
The mugumba mud-dwellers live alongside the lizard men, though their territories tend to be slightly drier. They also live at a subsistence level, though they will occasionally trade food with the lizard men. They are on peaceful terms with the lizard men and the phanatons, but are openly hostile towards the kara-kara, and will attack any found in their lands. There are about 8,000 mugumba mud-dwellers living on the islands, primarily on the smaller ones.
The phanatons have done quite well since they gained their freedom from the aranea. They have spread all over the archipelago - wherever there are healthy stands of trees in which to build their dwellings, they settle. They number approximately 15,000 now, and have arranged themselves into a loose confederacy of allied tribal kingdoms in order to protect themselves from both the kara-kara, and predators such as carnivorous dinosaurs and the like. They are on peaceful terms with the lizard men and the mugumba mud-dwellers, though they have little contact with them. The phanatons are hostile towards the kara-kara, and will hunt them down whenever they encounter them.