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Community Interview: Marco Dalmontefrom Threshold Magazine issue 6
Community Interviews: Marco Dalmonte
THRESHOLD MAGAZINE (TM): We all know you as the compiler of the huge (and deeply researched) Codex Immortalis1, and you have been part of the Mystara community longer than most of us. Can you tell us more about yourself and how you became involved in Mystara?
MARCO DALMONTE (DM): I started playing in Mystara back in 1990, during second grade of high school, when a classmate invited me and another friend to try a new game he just acquired. It turned out it was the Red Box and that he had already been playing for some time with his dad as DM and wanted to try it with us. He gave us a couple of PCs each (my first characters were a wizard named Feidus and a thief named Malcolm) who were sent to explore the Caves of Chaos (B2) and finally ended up on the Isle of Dread (X1).
The first sessions were really funny, despite the DM not being really well versed in the rules, and it got me so hooked that when I came home I started writing down my own rules system, with classes and spells, to play with my brother. Some months after my mom bought me the Blue Box (Expert Set) for my birthday, and started discovering the marvelous world of D&D more in depth.
After six months of adventures, my friend asked me to DM in his place since he wanted to play and was not very good at creating new adventures, so I accepted and rushed to buy Basic and Companion sets, which at that time were the only ones translated in Italian. From that point, I began my DMing career which is still my biggest pastime even today.
TM: You have produced a number of manuals covering playable races, magic, religions and the Immortals, general skills, and weapon mastery, covering the main subsystems of BECMI. What are your plans for this series? Is there any other aspect of BECMI you would like to see revised?
DM: BECMI has some really great advantages over AD&D and 3E in my opinion: it's very flexible and not chock full with rules. This gives DMs plenty of space to introduce house rules to tailor the game to their own needs. However, BECMI also has some inconsistencies that always bugged me, like the race-class thing (Elf, Dwarf and Halfling) which admittedly made demi-humans great choices for the first 10 levels, but made them definitely not worth playing with Companion and Master levels. Also the spells were quite limited, so I started to plan a revision of all the rules that seemed inconsistent or broken to get a more streamlined and exhaustive version of D&D, and that is the motivation behind all my D&D rulebooks.
I am currently working on Monsters of Mystara, but I also plan to release a final manual to close my personal version of D&D rules, which will obviously handle classes and kits available for all player characters.
TM: You have also been working on a book on monsters. Can you tell us more about it?
DM: Monsters of Mystara is a huge work, I think it can compare to Races of Mystara, since it's over a year that I've been writing it and I'm just halfway from finishing it. It numbers 230 pages up to now and collects all monsters that appeared in official Mystara products, as well as famous AD&D monsters that can be encountered in Mystara (no Drow, sorry), plus some other interesting critters that I made up or that I found rather useful from 3E monster manuals. In particular, I added a great variety of constructs, demons and elemental creatures, and more challenging monsters for higher levels of play (Companion and Master), which were a bit lacking for my tastes. I also plan on adding an index with monsters listed by power level that may help all DMs tailor their encounters based on the party’s overall level (something which may be very handy but was not present in the original rulebooks). All entries will be presented in a way similar to Rules Cyclopedia, but the data will be more streamlined, all critters will have characteristics listed as well as a clear description of their appearance, habits, combat tactics and powers.
TM: Besides your magnum opus mentioned above, you have produced many other works, both in Italian and in English. Do you have a favourite?
DM: My favourite work is obviously Codex Immortalis, both for the final appearance of the manuals (thanks to the publishing skills of Axel Boucher) which makes them look official, and for the participation of many other Mystara fans in creating a really sound and detailed history behind all immortals. The discussions on the Italian and English Mystara Message Boards that allowed me to create the Codex went on for at least 2-3 years and greatly detailed the history of the campaign world, shedding light over obscure references and controversial points. I think the Codex embodies the spirit of cooperation between all Mystara fans that makes this campaign world so interesting and rich even after 20 years from its official end!
TM: You have been running a long campaign set in the northern regions of Alphatia, of which a brief excerpt can be found in the sidebar “On the Fey of Frisland and the Eye of Huldra”. Can you give us an idea of the main themes you have used for this campaign?
Sidebar: On the Fey of Frisland and the Eye of Huldra
by Marco Dalmonte
translated by Giampaolo Agosta
Excerpt from the notebook of Abraxas Ayendir, student of the School of Thaumaturgy of Gowola (Frisland), regarding the Eye of Huldra and the Fey.
Eimir 17th, Alphatian Year 1778
The Eye is named for the first Queen of the Fey, the mysterious Huldra, the alleged founder of the so-called Winter Court which ruled Frisland centuries before the Landfall. At the time, according to Yanni legends, humans and Fey lived together in peace under the enlightened guidance of Huldra, who thanks to the Eye, was able to foresee and prevent any threat to her people.
The Winter Court was composed by members of all Fey races: sprites and pixies, dwellers of forests and glades; wooddrakes and pooka, masters of shapechanging; tiny leprechauns, craftsmen of the Wee Folk; brownies, kind and hard-working; and last but not least, the true princes of the Fey, the fair Sidhe, similar in physique to elves but vastly superior in power.
Thanks to their amazing magical powers, the Fey made Frisland, then called Fridland (or Land of Peace, in the Yanni language), a true paradise where humans could raise cattle in green pastures and hunt game in the sprawling forests of the Fairy Kingdom. Everything changed with the Landfall of the Alphatians, who according to Yanni legends, had used force and trickery to steal the land from Fey and humans.
The Historical Annals of Frisland, compiled by Alphatian scholars, report a different version where the valiant ancestors of the current rulers of Frisland had entered an alliance with the Fey to settle in these lands, and were later tricked by the treacherous and greedy Fey who aimed at obtaining their superior knowledge and their vast treasures.
Anyway, both accounts mention the bloody war between Alphatians and Fey in the V century which led to the exile of the Fey, mostly slain and finally mysteriously disappeared, and the ascension to power of the first Alphatian king of Frisland, King Berisarde. Berisarde was a member of the House of Brissard, the first ancestor of the dynasty who had been divinised2. He later founded the Cult of Supremacy, and his dynasty reigned over Frisland for the next nine centuries.
According to legend, Huldra was murdered by Berisarde himself, who took possession of the Eye, used it, and passed it on to his descendents to protect the throne. However, with her last breath, Huldra cast a hideous curse on her assassins, transforming the Land of Peace into the Land of Ice. Fridland progressively became Frisland: the forests reduced in number and extension, and game migrated to southern wooded lands.
Alphatian historians consider the deforestation and lack of resources of the following centuries more a result of bad management policies by the rulers and a sudden climate shift than a result of actual fey curses. However, there is no doubt that from that time, Frisland became the coldest and least hospitable region of the entire Alphatian continent.
Later, Fey reappeared several times, trying to hamper the Alphatians by fostering insurrections and sowing chaos and trouble in Frisland. Finally, in 1000 AY, the Act of Protection was decreed, officially declaring all Fey enemies of the kingdom. This gave everyone the right to kill Fey without risking prosecution. From that time, Fey hunting was spearheaded by the Cult of Supremacy and the Eye of Huldra was used against its creators, leading to the extermination of all members of the Wee Folk that still dwelled in Frisland.
The Eye remained in possession of the House of Brissard, safely held in the royal palace, until AY 1400 when the catastrophe known as the Annihilation of Lagash led to the tragic end of King Gamorghast and his family, as well as the utter destruction of the first capital of the Kingdom, Lagash, and the death of all its inhabitants.
Before the kingdom could fall into anarchy -- before even the Emperor could name a new king, the Primate of the Cult of Supremacy brokered a deal with the Lords that ruled the other Frisland towns and, with the consent of the Imperial Crown, invested the late king's brother-in-law, Almarath the Seer, as the new king. Thus begun the dynasty of the House of Hazaran, which rules Frisland to this date. The capital was moved to Shiell, the see of the Iron Cathedral. Since that time, the Eye of Huldra disappeared from all chronicles and recorded history.
Theories that attempt to explain why first Huldra and then Gamorghast could not foresee their own defeat are, quite obviously, confused and discordant. The most widely accepted theories propose that, due to the divinatory powers that allow to see into the future and past, the mind of the user may be subject to temporal dislocation which, in time, makes it unable to perceive his actual position in the flow of time. Therefore, it is likely that both Huldra and Gamorghast lost their minds, becoming unable to effectively use the Eye which, rather than helping them in preventing their end, actually brought it.
Other scholars, on the other hand, believe that the Eye of Huldra might have absorbed or destroyed the Queen of Fey, and then sustained itself with her spirit. That would explain its later attempt to bring on the end of the House of Brissard which caused Huldra's defeat, and to fulfil her vengeance by causing the destruction of the old capital.
Theories on the powers of the Eye vary wildly from the bizarre to the cosmic. Some scholar believe that the artifact's powers have been largely exaggerated by Yanni superstition, as the Fey magic could not rival Alphatian knowledge. Thus, they see the Eye as an artifact of average power, and claim that Huldra ruled Frisland without problems just because she never faced a real threat. When the Alphatians arrived, the Fey yielded to the superior magic of the newcomers, and the Eye had not the power to stop them as well.
The Lagash incident, on the other hand, is still so covered in mystery that it is more likely that its cause was some powerful enchantment by Gamorghast. “Alphatian supremacy” fanatics dismiss the disappearance of the Eye as a mere accident.
Finally, others attribute to the Eye not only divinatory power but even time travel powers, in a climax of power that would allow its holder to crush the barriers of reality and reforge the flow of time according to his will.
Even the shape and appearance of the Eye of Huldra are matter of contention, a testimony to the fact that no document from the past left a complete description of the artifact and all but confirmation of its legendary nature. According to some, it would be a simple silver amulet in the shape of an Eye, holding a gem -- a ruby, sapphire or perhaps an emerald -- or maybe a drop-shaped pendant forged of the ancient eternal ice that covered the planet before the rise of man. Others propose it could be a crown or diadem, forged in a magical material from the Fey world. Some even mention the possibility is could be an actual eye, made of some strange living material (and likely as fragile as a common human eye), which should be installed in the user's eye socket to gain its powers -- thus losing sight from an eye to obtain the ability to see the future, matching the theme of the “blind seer” that appears in many human legends.
As to the method for destroying such an artifact, there are no legends to provide hints to its weaknesses. The only exception is a mention of the attempt by some renegades to "transfix the Eye of King Berisarde by the magic lance that bore the name of Gaebulga." Moreover, according to the same account, it was that same amulet, worn by the king, which allowed him to avoid the spear blow -- so the method does not appear to be especially effective.
There are, of course, the classical methods proposed in the standard handbook, "Death to the Tyrants: Guide to the Destruction of Despots, Divinities and Legends" of the late Professor Bruuthes. The first and simplest method is still the use of the most destructive element of this world: volcanic magma. Submerging the amulet in a sea of lava could help in destroying it, or at least put it permanently out of the reach of those who would use it. A second, similar method is to expose the item to the cross-fire of five elder dragons. In addition to the disadvantage of having to gather five dragons of such power, the method also exposes the bearer to the risk of being destroyed together with the Eye. Another recommended method is to have a Titan, endowed with the strength of a thousand suns, crush the object, or else break it with one of the legendary Alphatian weapons: the Flaming Sword of Ixion, Razud's Mace of Power, or the Heartbreaking Spear of Valerias. Obviously, this method has the non-trivial problem of recovering another artifact before attempting the destruction of the Eye, which means searching for it (in the case of lost artifacts) or obtaining it from the divine order that protects it (as in the case of the Mace of Power). The last known and reported method is to use a Sphere of Annihilation -- which can destroy any item created by man or Immortal. The blackballs, however, are uncontrollable and are found only in the most remote outer planes -- making this method both a difficult and risky proposition.
We can only hope to discover more about the actual powers of the Eye of Huldra once it will be examined by Master Apshai, to collect more hints to its weaknesses.
The last notes that Abraxas reported on his notebook are encoded, and look quite odd:
Whatever the truth about the powers of this artifact, it certainly has a primary role in the events that led to the creation of the kingdom as we know it now, and could certainly be used in the same way by any other noble house. It is certainly a difficult artifact to control, as the events it was involved it attest, but it could give its holder the power to rewrite history at will.
Currently, it is considered one of the most important lost relics of Frisland, and both the House of Hazaran and the Cult of Supremacy are looking for it, and would pay princely sums to obtain it.
DM: The current campaign I started back in 2010 is titled Blood Ties and revolves completely around the five main characters' personal background. It's been very rewarding so far both for me and for the players, since they've really seen their characters evolve both psychologically and powers-wise from the start as 16 year old boys at 1st level to now (they're 3 years older and have reached 10th level throughout a series of wondrous adventures that made them travel across five continents and meet a lot of friends and foes).
We touched a lot of mature themes during these adventures (the difference between vengeance and justice, love affairs and their consequences, the importance of family ties, blind ambition and the price for power) and the characters have solved most of the plots that made them gather together in the beginning and start their quest (finding out who killed the mages' mentor and why, discovering the real story behind one of their father's demise, reuniting with an old love only to discover she bears the key to the realm's downfall, defeating a seemingly unbeatable character that held them prisoners in his magical mountain for over one year). However other mysteries are still unsolved and at least one of them fears the moment of the reckoning that is drawing near and will change their lives forever, as well as Alphatia's geopolitical asset of the north.
TM: You have been part of the Mystaran Almanac team, which produced a significant development of Norwold. Can you share your thoughts on the development direction for this region?
DM: The idea was to have Norwold as playground for the players and DMs alike, making this a favourite setting to stage all skirmishes and wars between Thyatis, Alphatia and the Heldannic Knights. Staging a similar confrontation in the Known World would have had major impact on the setting that may not have been liked by the majority of fans, so this seemed a better solution for us all. We wanted to make Norwold seem more alive and kicking in comparison to what had been portrayed in the official supplements (PWA and RC), since it had a great potential as CM1 had already shown. I was happy to participate in the Almanac detailing the history for Wendar and Denagoth and add new schemes to make that part of the world interesting and fun to campaign in, and I did the same with Norwold, taking inspirations from my own campaign staged there, obviously. I hope the result was somehow intriguing and fun for those who read it.
TM: What are the themes and regions you favour when running campaigns in Mystara?
DM: I've always had a particular attraction for Darokin, because it touches all of the Known World’s main countries and can be used as a staging ground for so many different themes, from classic fantasy to horror to murder mystery to political intrigues. That's why most of my gaming groups started or passed through it one way or another. The last campaign is kind of an exception to this, since it's staged in Alphatia in the XVIII century AY, but I wanted to try that setting because it was basically an empty canvas to paint to my own desire.
I also find Ylaruam very fascinating (many adventures involving old Nithia can be staged there, as well as adventures inspired by the Arabian folk tales), Norwold as incredibly ripe for heroic campaigns and Glantri very useful for all kind of adventures (it's literally a Known World in miniature, much like Darokin, only with more magic).
The themes that I like to introduce in my campaigns usually revolve around the quest for power and the price that people are willing to pay to achieve it. It makes players think deeply before taking their decisions, especially when it comes to killing other people that stand in the way of their goals.
TM: Besides Mystara, which other settings are you interested in? Did you run any crossover?
I was in love with Ravenloft and run a three years long campaign there taking PCs from 1st to 8th level before they all got toasted by Azalin during the end of the Grand Conjunction series. I would never play a crossover between Mystara and Ravenloft: sending PCs to Ravenloft can really alienate the players, especially if they want to play in Mystara, unless you plan a simple one-shot adventure, that is.
Another great setting I loved is Spelljammer, and that's the only one for which I planned crossovers with Mystara (which in fact I did, albeit very briefly).
Eberron Always intrigued me, but since it's been written with 3E rules in mind, I never got the chance to buy anything related to that campaign.
All in all, I've always stayed loyal to Mystara all these years, and I know it so well that I would never change it for another setting
TM: In your production for Mystara and BECMI, it is possible to notice a first phase where you worked more on introducing new classes, races and rules, and a second phase where you focused more on a comprehensive restructuring of entire rules subsystems. What led you to focus in this direction?
DM: All in all, I can say I am a Lawful character. I like to live in a world where order reigns. That is so much true when it comes to rules for games. The problem I saw from the start for D&D BECMI was that all the options that expanded on the core rules were scattered throughout dozens of different manuals.Therefore I started to collect them in a single product and ended up translating them in Italian, a language that was easier to understand for my players. That is the purpose of the first manuals that I wrote (Tome of Magic, General Skills and Weapons Mastery Rulebooks).Once I put everything together and started using all the rules for added spells, skills, classes and such, I noticed the glitches and inconsistencies that riddled the system. At that point I became bolder and started to change the rules to fashion a more balanced and coherent rules set, and after years of playtesting I can tell we're really happy with the current system we use.
TM: Your Italian website is named after an NPC, Gargantua3. While the mad mage does not appear too often (he does make an indirect appearance in CM1 "Test of the Warlords"), he is a tantalizing character, whose mysterious motivations and huge powers make him all the more interesting. Why did you choose him, and what are your thoughts on this character?
DM: Now this is a really interesting question and I'm glad you asked. In my campaign and in my vision of this mysterious figure, Gargantua is not a mad wizard at all: quite the opposite, he is the ultimate mastermind. Gargantua is focused on one thing: gathering knowledge that will allow him to surpass even the Immortals. Obviously a man's life is not sufficient to complete this titanic task, not even an elven life for that matter! That's why there has been hundreds of Gargantuas in Mystaran history: it's more a role than a real name, and every pupil that succeeds his master takes the name of Gargantua to add more deeds to the myth. Now, in my campaign the lineage of Gargantua amassed an immense deal of lore in their lives, and each of the successors found it more and more difficult to navigate this vast collection of knowledge, eventually driving many of them mad. The last three Gargantuas had a great idea: since no human mind could understand and memorize all this knowledge, they would create a perfect being capable of doing it in their place, and use it to understand the real secret of the Multiverse and pierce the mystery behind the Vortex.The result of this research led to the creation of the Gargantuan monsters, the first failed attempts at building a creature with a bigger brain. In the end, the current Gargantua has managed to give birth to what he calls the Perfect Mind, an apparently common human being which has the mnemonic capacities of a hierarch Immortal but the wisdom of a baby. Gargantua instructed him to learn everything he could from his vast library, and this being, called Alom (from the first and last letter of the Greek Alphabet, Alpha and Omega), gradually pieced together a sort of message left by the Old Ones through the ages which indicated that the answer to all the questions of the universe lies in a mysterious Tower located far away in space, on a planet which apparently touches all the existing dimensions and multiverses ever created. Whoever will reach it will have the keys to unveil the secret of the Old Ones and rule the Multiverse...or so Gargantua thinks. The problem is that Alom also figured out that no one else but him is wise enough for this task, and inevitably he will stumble across the PCs and rally them for their wildest and most memorable adventure through time and space. And that pretty much sums up the preface of The Last Adventure I created to finish the campaign of my oldest gaming group, currently still in play (although we play only once a year), so I am afraid I cannot reveal anything else here...
2 See “Brissard” in Codex Immortalis, Volume I, http://www.pandius.com/Codex1e.pdf