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Interview with Sharon Dornhoff

by John Calvin from Threshold Magazine issue 15

Sharon, thank you so much for taking the time to answer questions for the readers of Threshold. Back in the days of the MML (Mystara Mailing List) your posts were always well thought out and very inspiring, from discussions of Outer Being dimensional mechanics, to an alternate version of the Ierendi Islands, and eventually the creation of the Hollow Moon sub-setting.

Threshold: Can you share with our readers how you became involved in RPGs, and what specifically drew you to the world of Mystara?

Sharon: I'm an "old school" gamer from the days of 1st Edition AD&D and the Basic/Expert boxed sets. I played my first game with my babysitter and her boyfriend, cluelessly getting my paladin killed in an attempt to rescue my little sister's elf from a fire giant. After that, I felt like I owed it to my unlucky character to learn the rules, so I wouldn't make the same sort of boneheaded mistakes again. :-)

Back then, most adventure modules were pure dungeon-crawls - no story, no context, no objectives beyond "find treasure" and "don't get killed" - but Isle of Dread, the one that came packed with the Expert rules, was different. It had a map with whole countries on it, each with its own cultural flavor! It had native villages, villages that weren't just generic medieval ones, with practical defenses against all the big monsters running around! It had dinosaurs, and freaky killer plants, and all sorts of new critters that taught me you could make your own monsters, not just be limited to the ones from the rulebook! It had ruins that seemed like they'd had a purpose long ago, rather than just being plunked down on graph paper to lead 5-8 PCs through a designated gauntlet of traps, orcs and goblins.

Later, when the Gazetteers appeared, naturally I gobbled them up like candy. Getting to see all those countries from the IoD map brought fully to life was one of the most rewarding experiences of my early gaming days, same as reading a novel or watching a movie might've been. Likewise, the Princess Ark article series brought color and activity to whole regions of Mystara that the modules had barely touched, and the Hollow World capped it off with an incredible depth of history. :-)

Threshold: You have mentioned before that you were inspired to created the Hollow Moon setting after seeing a detailed map of the lunar surface. Where did you draw inspiration from when deciding how to populate Matera’s interior with Mystaran cultures?

Sharon: Partly I was inspired by books I've read: some of them shared with Mystara's own writers, like Alan Dean Foster's Icerigger series that plainly inspired the cryions' original description; some of them pretty obscure, like the reference works on New Guinea that I consulted for the Ur-Carnifex, or a weird, long-forgotten knock-off of Gulliver's Travels I found in the UMass library, from which I frankly stole the Cacklogallinians. (Hey, if Bruce Heard could import Star Trek: Wrath of Khan battle scenes and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, why not? ;-D)

More often, I seized upon it as an opportunity to expand upon cultures that seemed neglected or incomplete in the existing products, or to plug holes in the histories that had already been written for Mystara's lands, peoples, and artifacts. Why were there an isolated population of human albinos on a sunny tropical island, of all places? Were all the shadow elves willing to concede to Rafiel's doctrine of infant and elder abandonment? Were the Modrigswerg always as inherently-nasty as Northman and Rockhome rumors insist? What was Herathian culture like before the aranea mastered their shapeshifting powers? Did it really take that many centuries for anyone to catch on that something as powerful as the freakin' Nucleus of the Spheres was down there? And what were those ruins on the Isle of Dread left over from, anyway?

Needless to say, I'd loved all the surprise revelations that the original Gazetteers' authors incorporated into their products, and had plenty of the same in mind. :-)

Threshold: During your work on the Hollow Moon you developed detailed entries for several of Matera’s inhabitants including the desert ghosts of the crystalbarrens, the pteryx, ur-carnifex, and (in collaboration with Geoff Gander) the troglodytes living in the Marsh of Putrescence. Which race would you have developed next?

Sharon: I'd planned to address the various races in chronological order, so people could see the Hollow Moon's internal situation develop as new species and societies arrived. Because they weren't as isolated by geography, and because the Spell of Remembrance wasn't nearly as stringent as the Spell of Preservation, there'd be a lot more potential for interaction and cross-pollination, like the kind that produced the Hollow World's pirate culture or its unique Krugel Orcs.

Going by that standard, the next race out of the gate would've been the cryions: Matera's only native humanoid race. Created from bats by Seshay-Selene, to occupy a habitat - the crystalbarrens - that no endangered Mystaran race would ever find suitable, they're nomadic herders of reindeer and musk oxen, the only animals that can cross the frigid crystal without losing their feet to frostbite. The cryion clans roam between patches of crystal-encrusting lichens and arctic grasses, following an 18-month cycle that carries them from their holy mountain, Mt. Copernicus, to the ice-rim of the central sea, to the far rim of the 'barrens where they harvest wood for their wind-powered sledges and skiffs. They've been feuding with the desert ghosts for millennia, because the ghosts hate the fire-poles they use to melt water for their herds, and the metal the cryions depend upon for tools and sledge-skates.

Incidentally, I'd made the Storm Cycle - the Materan year - an 18-month affair, specifically to accommodate the cryions. Their original description in the Creature Catalog says that they follow a 3-year migratory cycle, but the Mystaran races who think that's the case have only seen the half of it: the ones who migrated to Mystara wander back and forth through the polar openings, on the same 18th-month cycle as ever, so they spend half their lives in the Hollow World and half, in the outer. Which means all those explorers who've been struggling to get to the HW on foot could have caught a lift with the bat-folk, had it ever occurred to them to ask.... ;-)

Threshold: For a time you became very involved in the Ravenloft setting. Is there a chance that the two settings (the Hollow Moon and Ravenloft) could cross over? Have any Materans ever been pulled into the Mists?

Sharon: There's actually a canon immigrant to Ravenloft who came from Mystara, although he's purely an invention of the Ravenloft writers, so isn't referenced in any Mystara products. He's a bitter, misanthropic Alphatian necromancer named Meredoth, and he lives on a chilly deserted island called Todstein in a far corner of his rather large domain, the Nocturnal Sea.

In fact, when I was writing material for the Ravenloft fan group Fraternity Of Shadows, I was the one who compiled information on Meredoth and his domain for the fan-made Nocturnal Sea Gazetteer. (Yes, Mystara isn't the only setting to call its setting-books "gazetteers".) Anyone interested in the necromancer, his realm in Ravenloft, or the loads of Mystara-references I made sure to incorporate into his backstory and territory is welcome to stop by and download the pdf.

Threshold: Are you currently working on any RPG projects?

Sharon: I'm afraid not. My current work as a college anatomy & physiology instructor takes up far too much of my time and brain-space, and my interests have shifted away from gaming over the years. But I'm certainly pleased that others are still interested in my old Mystara projects; if anyone has expressed a wish to expand on Matera, I'd happily act as an adviser, and pass on information on where I'd meant to go with its various cultures and regions.

Thank you Sharon! The Hollow Moon has been a source of inspiration to many Mystarophiles over the years (myself included)! We really appreciate you taking time out to answer all of our questions.