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Community Interview: James Mishler

from Threshold Magazine issue 12

Community Interview with James Mishler

As this issue focuses on Mystara’s Ages Past, we thought it would be interesting if we could have a discussion with James Mishler. James was around during the formation of the earliest online Mystara communities, and was also instrumental in fleshing out some of the earliest events in Mystaran (fanon) history. We are very excited that we had this opportunity to speak with him!

Threshold Magazine: Can you tell us what specifically drew you to the World of Mystara?

James Mishler: I got involved with Mystara at the same time I started playing Dungeons & Dragons, back in 1981. I received the Moldvay edition of Basic D&D for Christmas that year, and bought the Expert Set within a month. The very first campaign I ran was set in Karameikos, using the map including in the Expert book (page X61).

In fact, I set my first town setting, Geneva, on what would eventually become the Windrush, on the western bank between Verge and Rifflian. Thus, the Known World (as detailed in module X1: Isle of Dread) would be my first campaign setting. I would not acquire the Wilderlands from Judges Guild and Greyhawk from TSR until the following year…

How did you become involved in the Mystaran Community online? Also, you were one of the first Mystara fans to have an online presence. How do you remember those pioneering times?

I’d dabbled a bit in the BBS days ca. 1992 to 94, but graduate school kept me too busy to be really involved (that, and having access to only a 4800 baud modem). When I finally broke away from graduate school and got into the real world, and got access to faster Internet through AOL, I started posting in the Mystara section of the old TSR boards. This would have been ca. ’94 to ’96 or thereabouts. Bruce Heard was there, as were a bunch of guys from the day, most of whose names I sadly have forgotten (B1Bard, RLarue, others lost in the mists of time). Then the MML started up and things got bigger, with more people jumping in.

It was pretty wild and wooly. At the time, of course, there was no “fanon” for Mystara, as this was the era in which such started to be developed. Lots of interesting and weird stuff, much of which is lost in the mists of time. Many variant Mystaras, far beyond the different stuff available today; one variant was even known as “Heretic World.” We tried some interesting story-telling fiction, with each person writing a chapter and then handing it off to the next guy. And of course, there were arguments over what various bits of texts in the book REALLY meant, and so forth. If it seemed more civilized back then, I’m sure that’s just my poor memory clearing out the bad stuff and remembering the good stuff more fondly…

When many Mystara fans hear the name James Mishler they think immediately of grand Blackmoor era timelines, and ancient Mystaran civilizations (such as Taymor or the Golden Empire). Was that your favorite part of Mystara (the past)? Were there any other jewels of Mystara that you didn’t share with the community at the time (that you want to share with us now)?

My education was in Sociocultural Anthropology (particularly the process of cultural evolution, adaptation, and assimilation) and Humanities (Ancient Classics) and as such, the historical foundations of the civilizations of Mystara and their development to the current era was of personal interest; my personal desire to fully develop these cultures and their histories in order to provide a “realistic’ background drove that even further. So it wasn’t so much that the past was my favorite era as much as I felt the need to have a developed past to understand the present… the better to place ruins, develop artifacts and relics, and build conflicts within Mystaran societies and between them.

Blackmoor was of course the basal civilization for pretty much everything that came later (whether directly or through its influence on every other civilization then extant due to colonization, technological development, and barring all else, the global destruction of the Great Rain of Fire). So I felt I had to start from there to really understand what came after; thus I created the Age of Blackmoor to give me a broad base from which to build upon.

Taymor became important and I felt it required my attention because so much in the Known World depended or derived from it. Thus, it too needed to be more fully developed, especially as my core campaigns for Mystara always began in Karameikos (well, not always, but almost always). And to understand Nithia, and the Traldar, and the Thyatians, one had to understand what Taymor was, how Nithia arose from it, what it left behind between the Altan Tepes and the Sea of Dread, and what remains of it to this day, living or dead or undead.

Most of the peripheral realms, such as the Golden Empire, were developed to understand where various races and cultural elements came from, and what might be found in those regions “today” (1000 AC). Unfortunately, most of the material from that early era, if not found on the Vaults of Pandius, is lost… I’ve gone through so many moves, and so many computers, that much of it fell to the wayside and was lost. I think I still have some 5 ¼” floppies somewhere from that era, but would have no way to read them even if I could find them… and the 3 ½” disks I found recently were all post-2000…

One of your major developments in Mystara has been the Empire of Taymor (and its Hollow World counterpart, Bhalor). What were the major sources of inspiration, and what are your thoughts on Mystara in the age of Taymor?

Well, early Taymor was essentially, in modern terms, Mad Max meets the Walking Dead, with the Walking Dead controlled by liches. When things settled down again, after the fallout from the GRoF, the liches, built up cities and developed legions of vampires, mummies, and other undead servants; eventually the vampires rose to be the ruling caste, the Necromancer Kings, and the liches were “retired” to well-trapped vaults, and the classic Taymoran Empire came into being. Taymor was one part Hammer Horror, one part Vampire: The Masquerade, and one part Ancient Mesopotamia.

In my Mystara, Taymor was the only major civilization on Brun for many centuries, between the fall of Blackmoor and the rise of Nithia (from the ashes of Taymor). Elsewhere, to be honest, I recall little, if anything, that was going on in that period (ca. 3000 to 1500 BC). Skothar was a radioactive wasteland (very Gamma World, with magic); Davania was probably going through various dynastic throes between successor states; elsewhere on Brun the dragons were nearly extirpated and the dwarves were deep underground; and the elves were still on the move, likely due to all the convulsions in Davania. Taymor was kind of a calm eye in the storm, so to speak, even if it was an ugly, undead eye…

This very issue has two separate articles on that subject (Taymor). How do you feel that members of the Mystaran community have taken inspiration from your work and continued to develop it in their own styles?

I think it is pretty damn cool. It is always gratifying to know that someone enjoyed your work well enough to not only integrate it into their own campaign, but also to then run with it and develop something totally new and different.

We saw only some glimpses of the planned, and never produced, HackWurld of Mystaros (, do you have any additional information on the world you were planning beside that which you already shared? Do you have a favourite part of the planned product that you regret not having the opportunity to fully develop?

If I recall correctly… and we are talking some 13 years ago... the plan was to release the Guide to the HackWurld of Mystaros, which would be an encyclopedic volume detailing every region of the HackWurld, including Brun, Skothar, and Davania, each entry (detailing a state, such as Karameikos, Glantri, Bellayne, or what have you) having half to a full-page. The HackWurld itself was truncated, with most of western Brun, southern Davania, and eastern Skothar lost; it was essentially an alternate ending to the Wrath of the Immortals in which time was re-wound to 1000 AC, and as a result Alphatia was not sunk, though the Empire was destroyed and most of the continent reduced to a ruins-filled wilderness and petty warring states...

The Archduchy of Adventure was to follow, describing Karameikos in depth, with all the cultural variants I’ve included among the Traladarans and Thyatians, all the ruins (more extensive), all the humanoid tribes in detail, and so forth, with in-depth details on the City of Specularum (not Mirros). Imagine Karameikos done Wilderlands of High Fantasy style, with the City of Specularum done in detail like the City-State of the Invincible Overlord… that is what I had planned.

The third book would have been HackLords of Mystara, the rules on how to take your HackMaster characters to the levels of the Immortals, plus details on all the HackLords.

A lot of the Guide was done, some of the Archduchy was done, and I’d sketched out ideas for HackLords, when personal issues struck, and the project went on hold. Then it was on again, then off again, then on again. Then all the conversions from the old AD&D/D&D stuff to HackMaster 4th Edition ended, and not long thereafter, so did the whole line, and Kenzer & Company started work on 5th Edition HackMaster.

That I never completed the project was a blessing and a curse; a blessing, because it never would have seen the light of day due to the licensing issues, and a curse, because I let a lot of people down. Sadly, the HackWurld was not the only project I was working on from 2003 to 2005 that went completely into limbo… I was also working on Lejendary Earth and Lejendary West with Gary Gygax, and the Wilderlands of High Fantasy with Bob Bledsaw. While I later went on to work on the Wilderlands with Bob, I never got a chance to pick up my work on HackWurld, or the shelved work with Gary…

How has your early involvement with Mystara shaped the work you’ve done since then? Do you notice Mystaran influences seeping in when you work on your own worlds (for example Grymdark Lands, the 64 page campaign setting you’re working on now)?

A: Mystara is one of the two great influences on my work; the Wilderlands of High Fantasy is the other. The fact that they are such wildly divergent worlds – Mystara with its big nation-states and broad histories, the Wilderlands with its tiny city-states and savage wilderness – has always had a weird yin-yang effect on my writing and campaign development. It is hard to try to find a balance between the two. Such is my constant battle…

Grymdark Lands is along the lines of Mystara… as it is designed to be a 64-page product along the lines of the original Moldvay and Cook books, I am trying to keep that style of campaign development… sort of an overview of the Known World, if it had been written for 64-pages. Though that project has been on hold for a while now…

What exciting projects are you working on now, and do you still have an online presence? What is on the horizon? Any Mystaran influence in them?

My previous products, designed for the Wilderlands of High Adventure for use with Castles & Crusades, are still available through Judges Guild and Troll Lord Games.

I also have a few random bits here and there, now and again. I’m mostly working with Labyrinth Lord and Mutant Future right now; LL for the Olden Lands, LL and MF for Realms of Murikah. My wife and I also provided some monsters for Monsters Macabre for Cryptworld from Goblinoid Games.

My love note to Mystara is, of course, the Olden Lands, snippets and bits and bobs of which are available through James Mishler Games on DriveThruRPG/RPGNow. While work on the Olden Lands has been on hiatus for a while, I still work on it now and again, and hope to have the gazetteer released… someday. I really need to just publish a few small bits and pieces to get going with that again… hmmm…

Seems like it is time to get back to work!

I currently have three blogs:

My personal blog, Adventures in Gaming v2:

James Mishler Games:

and Grymdark Lands:

Chivalrous Realms won't have a blog until I release the first product, and that's if I can have a blog to support the product line under the terms of the DMG agreement (still not sure how that part works out)...

Thank you so much James, for taking the time to talk to us about your experiences with Mystara. Your work has truly inspired others, and we appreciate you sharing your thoughts with us!