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Community Interview: Bruce Heardfrom Threshold Magazine issue 1
We understand that you were deeply involved in the development of the Known World. Can you explain the origins of the Gazetteer line?
That was very straightforward. I didn’t like “generic” adventure modules, which formed the backbone of supplements in the D&D Game lineup. I wanted to be able to place them somewhere in a setting. The Expert Set map was great, but too little information was provided about the realms there. Before I came to Lake Geneva, I’d run a 1st Edition AD&D campaign set in Greyhawk for about a year-and-a-half.. This was my original background. No adventure ever went forth without being located specifically, or without some impact on the region. Factors related to the campaign set always influenced adventure plots and the heroes’ motivations. Transiting from this to generic modules could only lead me to seek a colorful and detailed development of the Known World, and of Mystara later on. Since Karameikos was the starting point in the Basic D&D Set, so it became the first of the Gazetteers.
You're listed in GAZ1 credits as coordinator. Could you tell us about your role in the creation of the Karameikos Gazetteer?
My previous answer actually starts to illustrate the extent of my role at that time. The function of product manager for game worlds did not yet exist officially at TSR. So the credit was labeled as “coordinator.” A number of us in the Games Division already acted as lead designers or “proto-line-managers.” We did a lot more than merely “coordinate.” Mine was a sideways entry into that field. I was first hired as a French translator and relocated from France to Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. I was laid-off for a few months and re-hired to “coordinate” freelance contracting for the Games Division—a tip of the hat to Harold Johnson who was instrumental in this decision. After Frank Mentzer’s departure from TSR, there was no one left to steer the Basic D&D line. It probably was a political hot potato that nobody wanted to deal with because of its link to Frank, and therefore Gary Gygax. By then, Lorraine Williams had taken over TSR’s upper management. Besides the political issue, most authors at TSR were more interested in the AD&D game because it had more bells and whistles to play with, and it owned a much greater exposure in the games’ industry based on general sales numbers. Since the vast majority of Basic D&D game supplements had to be farmed out to freelancers, by default, I became the “nanny” for Frank’s baby. This put me in the right place to devise the format for GAZ1, that is, its contents, length of chapters, general idea and goal, and physical components. I worked with the art manager at the time to select an outstanding internal illustrator, Steven Fabian, and with in-house cartographers to develop the hex-map style into a colored, poster-sized version. This was the beginning of a long and successful cooperation with the mapping department, which eventually led to the Mystara Trail Maps, the first in that format at TSR. I also worked with Clyde Caldwell to settle on a concept for the cover art. Finally, I picked Aaron Allston, with whom I had already cooperated in the past, as the author. Beyond the terms of the contract I issued him, I left Aaron a lot of leeway to further develop the concept and the contents, which resulted in the Karameikos we all know today.
Karameikos evolved quite a lot from the original map in the Expert Set to the Gazetteer. One key evolution was the introduction of the ethnic divide between Traladarans and Thyatians. Was there a specific interest in making the setting more attractive to a more mature audience?
I think the answer to this lies in my gaming style, but also in my choice of freelance authors, who were mature writers—Aaron Allston (Karameikos, Rockhome, to name just these two), Ken Rolston (Ylaruam, Northern Reaches), Steve Perrin (Alfheim), Ed Greenwood (the Shires), etc. I wrote the Gazetteers for Glantri and the Broken Lands, but my light-hearted approach didn’t always please everyone. These last two were nonetheless very successful, and GAZ3 set a new standard for this category of products, not just for Mystara, but other game lines at TSR and elsewhere.
In Wrath of the Immortals we saw Duke Stefan declaring himself King, and this evolution is already hinted at in the Gazetteer. Do you have any thoughts on where this young kingdom would go next?
It’s bound to remain at odds with the empire, which should continually seek to re-attach it to its mainland possessions. Karameikos holds a tricky position. It can’t defeat the empire militarily, therefore it must rely on diplomacy and strong links with internal forces in Thyatis, which would act on its behalf. Surrounding realms aren’t likely to side with Karameikos if a full-blown conflict developed. The solution for Karameikos is to negotiate with imperial circles while cultivating strategic ties, such as marriages and alliances with opposing parties in Thyatis. At worst, Karameikos could deal with Alphatia, but that would be counter-current to the aspirations of its people. It would be an act of desperation that would destroy previous associations with Thyatian parties and Karameikan aristocracy.
Why do you think Karameikos is such a popular gazetteer?
It’s the first in a series, it describes the starting point of the Basic D&D game, and it’s well done. The product’s style is spot on. The format is good. Art and maps are excellent. And the author’s concepts and interpretations add yet another level. Therefore, it’s natural that this would be a popular title. All that in 64-pages. It was a bit pricey, at $10.00 retail, compared with “Northern Reaches” which ran 96 pages and was packed with goodies, priced at $8.95 the following year. Don’t ask why—I don’t remember how that happened. I surmise that initial sales for Karameikos were seriously underestimated, resulting in a higher sales price. It had to be reprinted a number of times, and by then, the remainder of the Gazetteer series became a lot more credible in the eyes of TSR’s upper management. From a financial point of view, GAZ1 proved very profitable for TSR, and an auspicious start which earned upper management’s long-lasting support for this product line.
How did you first get into working with Aaron Allston? Do you have any particular memories of your working together on Mystara?
When I was put in charge of “coordinating” the Games Division’s freelance acquisitions, I went through a thorough process of identifying writers and evaluating their talents and experience. Aaron had an established record as a contributor to other publishers. He also came warmly recommended when I asked around. If I recall correctly, I hired him for N4 “Treasure Hunt” in 1986, then “Skarda’s Mirror” in 1987. Aaron did well in both cases, so I solicited his services once more that year, for Karameikos, which he executed very well. His reliability at the time was another significant factor that earned him eventually a lead position with the Mystara product line. Aaron was easy to get along with, willing to follow my initial directions, very professional, hard-working, down to Earth, a talented creative, and a reliable partner. I enjoyed his interpretations of the required assignments and had more than my share of chuckles when reading his first drafts. Besides, he has velcro-like hair, so when he sticks to you, you can’t get rid of him! Plus he lives in Austin, Texas, which is a cool place. Did I miss anything?
You've made your return to the Mystara community in great style, with the in-depth coverage of Alphatia and the Dog Days of Rougeain in your blog. What are your plans for the future of the blog?
Part of me wants to completely finish the topic of Alphatia, to the degree I’ve reached with the present chapters (Ar, Ambur, Frisland). This requires substantial writeups for Limn, Stonewall, Stoutfellow, etc. Also originally planned were surrounding colonies, such as Bellissaria, Qeodhar, Yannivey Islands, Aquas, etc. This is in question now, as the result of WotC’s refusal to work with me in reviving the “Adventures of the Princess Ark”. I wrote those for Dragon Magazine in the late 80s and early 90s, and therefore they became Dragon Magazine’s property. On a higher level, these stories were based on Mystara, which was a D&D Game intellectual property owned by TSR. All of it eventually went to WotC and is now unavailable for the foreseeable future. This situation prompted me to start a separate project with a new world setting, a new ship, and a new crew that would emulate if not improve upon the genre of the Princess Ark and Mystara. At least judging from the amount of material released, the result is a new series of adventures of a much greater scope to see the light both as e-books on Amazon.com and printed versions afterward. This is my present project. Concept work is now complete, graphic contributors have been selected, the logo is ready, maps are well underway, and efforts are in progress to budget the endeavor and prepare a credible Kickstarter campaign slated for later this year. I’ll make announcements on the blog about this as the right times come along.
So, what does this really mean for the blog’s Mystara content?
You might have noticed a slowdown in the number of posts these past few months. That’s because I’ve been busy working on the new project. I expect to continue contributing Mystara entries, at a reduced pace. Once the new project kicks in, there will inevitably be a growing number of posts about the latter. WotC may object to D&D-related articles because this blog will be promoting my project, rather than just Mystara. If Wizards intervened, I would be forced either to cease any further support of Mystara (likely), or move Mystara-related materials to a separate blog (maybe). You might also have noticed I removed the term D&D from the blog’s header. Eventually, I’ll have to change its look as well, replacing Clyde’s Glantri artwork (which I believe WotC owns) and using in its place what will be available from the new project. If Wizards does not interfere, I can go on contributing to Mystara on the side, which I would prefer. Mystara is a hard thing to give up.
You recently announced on your blog and elsewhere that you are working on creating a new setting and new stories. What can you tell us about this project? Do you think it will appeal to fans of Mystara and your work on Glantri and the Princess Ark?
The new setting, so far, is called Calidar, from the name of its main world. The present series of stories will have the subtitle “In Stranger Skies.” This universe is designed to promote airships and their voyages in the skies and through outer space. Major efforts were made during concept stages to emulate the Mystara genre and, of course, the Princess Ark stories. You might have noticed surveys I posted on Facebook concerning Mystara and the Princess Ark. These are tools to help capture the essence of these settings and what made them endearing to their fans. Copyright limitations prevent me entirely from using names, geographical features, or elements particular to Mystara and the Princess Ark; however, general analogies should help maintain a familiar feel and an easy transition. The Calidar series remain non-game-specific to avoid issues with the D&D product in general. The project emulates the approximate structure of the original Princess Ark stories in Dragon Magazine—a narrative followed by a world supplement, maps, and illustrations. The initial release will be a standalone title and provide a great deal more material than the magazine articles ever could. During concept stages, I focused on the rationale for converting characters, not from a game mechanics point of view, but from a plot-driven one. The supernatural directly governs who or what enters this universe, for which reasons, and in what form. It enables characters to remain fully aware of their journey into another reality and the changes that affected them, while other visitors can only sense their transformations (which may be substantial) without remembering their prior existence. Flashbacks help characters piece together some of what happened to them without revealing too much, as needed by circumstances, providing them with the impetus to go on a quest to find out more. Another high point of Calidar is a concept of epic heroes, demigods, and godly pantheons designed to provide a path from mortality to the divine. I can’t get into too much detail now, but I’d say that interactions between mortals and their deities are greater and more open than those between peoples of Mystara and their Immortals, yet similar in their intent. The links between people, their gods, and the worlds from which they all came are a centerpiece of Calidar’s universe. Finally, though this is a high-fantasy world, nothing happens there without a good reason, be it from a mechanical sense (laws of physics vs. universal magic) or a plot-driven one (motivations and dark secrets). Certain cosmic forces are at work in the background that explain and justify Calidar’s uncanny uniqueness.