"An Experiment in Divinity":
The Editors of the Mystaran Almanac
For years, readers have looked to the Mystaran Almanac for current events involving their favorite campaign setting. Conceived by Michael Roy as a follow-up to TSR's Poor Wizard's Almanac series and Joshuan's Almanac, this net production's annual release is considered by many to be the watermark of "new Mystaran" lore.
Tome of Mystara editor Jennifer Favia Guerra interviewed Mystaran editors past and present about their public, and personal, Almanac goals: founder Michael Roy; and current editors Herve Musseau, Marco Dalmonte, Geoff Gander, Fabrizio Paoli, and Andrew Theisen.
How did you come to be involved with the Mystaran Almanac?
Michael: Well, to be honest, I just wrote it. My own Mystara campaign was approaching the end of the official Almanac series, so I wanted to be prepared in advance before my players got there. I wrote a draft of a timeline and posted it up on the MML for comments and ideas. That's when I got massive feedback from both Brizio and Herve, the former for the way I was mishandling elves in general and shadow elves in particular, and the latter for my ignorance of Alphatian events. Using the comments they gave me, I made changes to my timeline and sent both of them my latest draft, which they gave comments on again. I realized that instead of doing this alone for my campaign only, why not get help and make it a bigger project? I asked Herve if he wanted to start this project. About a month later, we released the first edition of the Mystaran Almanac AC 1014.
From there we started work on AC 1015 [along with Fabrizio]. After a while we recruited a few others, notably Marco and Andrew. It was for AC 1015 that the Almanac team was truly created as we started dividing responsibilities and taking control of various parts of Mystara. Since I started the Almanac, I was given the responsibility of making the final decision of what would be and would not be accepted if the team could not come to an agreement. Lucky for me, I never had to make such a decision; a consensus was always reached, though sometimes only after several months of arguing! But everyone got along well on a personal level.
Herve: As Alphatia, which I like, was almost uncovered in Joshuan's Almanac, I decided to develop my own events for the Alphatian remnants for 1013 and created the NACE. Since back then there wasn't so much Mystara net-material, I shared it with the world by posting it on my webpage. Though I thought about writing a net-almanac then, but it seemed like an impossibly huge task to me.
I was later contacted by Michael Roy, who actually wanted to make an almanac for the year 1014, and use cooperative work to achieve it. That's how I became part of the project. I was in charge of Alphatia (NACE) back then, and the first almanac relied heavily on my previously-written stuff. That's why the first almanac is so rife with Alphatian material. Well, we were a small team then, and this was our first big project, so any shortcuts were helpful.
Fabrizio: I've always been a fan of the shadow elves, and in the early days of the MML, I even wrote about them (the most "famous" thing being probably the revised timeline of Alfheim Invasion that I wrote with Herve Musseau). When Michael Roy decided to write a Mystaran Almanac for AC1014, he asked my opinion on some shadow elf events, and also asked me to write a short article about the Rising of Aengmor. Later I was promoted as head of the shadow elf team; I even did a lot of work on economic stuff, proofreading and formatting for the 1015 almanac.
Andrew Version 1.1 of the almanac had been released to the Mystara Mailing List by Michael Roy. I noticed a lack of humanoid-related events in it, and so came up with several events to give them their due, which then got incorporated into the 1014 "net" almanac. After that, several of the other "after the fact" contributors and I got together with Michael to work on subsequent almanacs. It's been a bit disorganized at times, and we're a bit behind (the 1017 almanac would be out this December if TSR had kept them up, and we're just about to release the 1016 almanac), but I think we've done a pretty good job.
DM (Marco): I ran across the first almanac while surfing the net, back in 1996-97. I wrote him [Michael] expressing many opinions about his work, but the letter [received no] reply. Only by luck and perseverance did I later came in touch with another editor of the almanac, Fabrizio, who told me that Michael was interested in what I had written about Wendar and Denagoth. By that time I had written the complete timeline for that area together with Shawn Stanley and posted it to the MML. So I spoke with Michael and was later recruited as the expert of Wendar and Denagoth for AC 1015.
Geoff: I was contacted by Marco, actually. At that time (not long after the release of the 1014 Almanac), I was just wrapping up my collection of colour maps of Davania (a mammoth project!), and whenever I had finished one, I would send word to the MML where they could find it. Well, time passed, and word got around, I guess, and Marco made a proposition to me: How about doing up some nice maps for the Almanac? Sure, I thought, why not. It turned out that Michael had found my maps, and liked them, so he figured my efforts would push the Almanac forward on other counts.
Well, that's how it started, at any rate; it developed quite differently. It was around that time as well that my work on Varellya began to get noticed, and I had begun some work on Lhomarr and Y'hog (two simple articles which would ultimately form the core of my Selhomarr Gazetteer). I had also done some development work on the Heldannic Knights and Davania - specifically, fleshing out those cities listed on the map in PWA II in the latter case. Well, it was not too long before Michael made me another offer: How about writing some events for the Heldannic Knights in Davania to help advance a plot line (the regaining of their clerical abilities)? I took it up eagerly, devising a story and running with it. I guess everyone liked it, since I was offered the chance to develop Davania for the Almanac.
Since then, things have been on the up and up - my portfolio of tasks is expanding rapidly, and I've even done a map or two!
What is your personal gaming background?
Michael: Way back in 1982, my cousin gave me his old D&D stuff. He didn't like the game... go figure? I got together with my friends and GMed our first game. From the start, I didn't like things and started tinkering with the rules (why should my mage only be able to cast one spell? - Fantasy wizards weren't like that). I quickly learned what it meant to have balanced characters when my new rules often backfired dramatically!
When AD&D 2nd edition came out, I switched to those rules; about 4 years ago, I switched to GURPS. Around this time I also started moving out into the universe; that is, my campaigns have gone from Mystara-only to Spelljammer and Planescape with cameos from other D&D settings. It has currently settled in Planescape.
As far as being a player is concerned, I have rarely played. I've done a few AD&D games and also played Shadow Run a few times. I've since moved into live action games and I find I enjoy those the most.
Geoff: I started gaming (OD&D) around 1984. It was a tiny group (myself and the DM), and we were playing B2: Keep on the Borderlands. I even remember what my first character was - a magic user! We played a few sessions on and off, but then it faded off for a bit. I did have one more character, however - an orcish warrior. Didn't last long though - I ended up being turned into a donkey by a irate wizard. Around that time I also played Marvel Super Heroes on and off, though I didn't like it all that much. A few years later I got back into role-playing - still playing OD&D, and still adventuring in B2 (what luck!). I also picked up the game myself, and it all took off from there. Currently I am running an OD&D Mystara campaign (been going on for about three years now), but I also play in a Rolemaster campaign, plus a third role-playing group involved in all sorts of games.
Fabrizio: I've been playing RPGs for about 10 years; I started with D&D because it was the only one translated into Italian. At first it was generic D&D, then, as more Mystara modules and accessories (mostly in English) appeared, I moved to Mystara. About 5 years ago I had my first experiences as a player, playing a mad gnome fighter in the Forgotten Realms with AD&D rules. I also had a brief experience as Star Wars game master, before moving to lighter RPG systems where role-playing is more important than roll-playing. Currently, though, all my campaigns are dead, and I play almost exclusively at gaming conventions.
DM: I started gaming back in high school, as a player in my friend's campaign, some ten years ago (in 1990). But I soon took over as DM of that same campaign when I bought the Basic and Expert set. I started with a homebrew world, since in those old boxes there wasn't really anything said about Mystara, but in my mind I wanted my player characters to return to their "homeworld" (they had come to my homebrew world by chance and had to defeat a demon to find the passage back to their dimension). In the meantime, I accumulated and bought all the material about Mystara I could find, and came to know and love the Gazetteers. I still remember all those hours spent translating the Gaz, and I must thank them for improving my English vocabulary significantly! To make a long story short, when my group finally reached the end of the campaign and I was ready to bring them into Mystara, we finished high school and quit playing... I was a bit depressed, but kept reading about Mystara while hoping to restart a campaign someday. I had to wait only half a year, for then I found another D&D group; and we're still playing now after six years! The great thing is that in the meantime I founded other gaming groups and now I regularly DM three groups in Mystara, one in Ravenloft, and I'm about to begin my first Spelljammer campaign. I dare say that I'm really lucky as a roleplayer.
Andrew: My brother Scott introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons when I was 6 or 7. The first game I played in was running the NPCs Quillan and Ariel in the module X3: Curse of Xanathon. The DM, Greg, was fond of rolling dice at random moments and laughing evilly to keep us off our guard. Since then, I've gone on to play other RPGs, but OD&D and Mystara have always remained my favorite rules and setting.
Herve: I've been playing RPGs for about 15 years, using various rules and game worlds. I started playing in Mystara because a few modules were translated in French (I was young then). When I resumed playing AD&D and with more knowlegde of English, I browsed at my local store for various modules and stumbled upon Gazeteers and other modules that I recognized as taking place within the same world as ones I already had in French (and which were good). And bang! - I fell into Mystara.
I'm a bit special in the Mystara community in the sense that I don't used OD&D rules, and actually never did. When I started playing D&D, I had extensive rules from another game, and a copy of the Player's Guide (1E), so my D&D game were actually using in-house rules that combined both, plus personal additions. I then moved to full 1E, playing various settings. When I came back to Mystara, I switched to 2E. I've had access to OD&D rules (mostly by borrowing from friends) but why go back to them? My campaigns are currently dead though, as it's become near-impossible to gather my old group, and I never made a new one.
Many gamers find that, as they become "veterans" of play, their way of perceiving the campaign world changes, broadens. How has your view of Mystara changed over the years?
Fabrizio: It's not my view of Mystara, but my view of RPGs which has changed. My first group was all monster-bashing, getting treasure and earning experience points. As I became a "veteran" of play I moved to a more "mature" type of role-playing, where background and character personalities are more important that the numbers on the sheet, and the goal is not to get more experience or more money, but to create a story. I must say that being a member of an Italian newsgroup devoted to RPGs, taking part in Italian gaming conventions, and meeting many other role-players helped to change my mind.
Andrew: I'm not sure how to answer that. When I first began playing, the emphasis was certainly more on "hack-'n-slash" than it was on role-playing. As subsequent boxed sets of D&D came out, that view certainly began to undergo a change. By the time the Gazetteer series were published, I was definitely on the way to becoming a roleplayer as opposed to a "roll" player, but I mostly just read the materials as background and general interest in fantasy. I would occasionally DM my brother and a friend or two in Mystara, using the background material of the Gazetteer to flesh things out. Around that time, I started role-playing with some other friends, but I was mostly playing rather than DMing, and we played AD&D (1st and 2nd edition) "homebrew" games. Eventually, I started them in a Mystara campaign; by this time I was trying to emphasize storytelling campaigns, using the background provided by the Gazetteers. Even though we all went to college and were separated by long distances, we've still managed to keep that campaign going, to an extent. Nowadays, I don't roleplay much at all; I've done several PBEMs, but I find that the diceless games work better for that format (I've had several really interesting Amber games; I really love the antagonism that builds up between characters in those PBEMs.) I still toil with Mystara, fleshing it out and building it up, simply because I've grown to love the diversity of the campaign world, and would like to see it live on for others to enjoy, and to continue to play out, if only in my own head, the lives and adventures of the "people" who populate the world.
So, did that answer the question?
Herve: When I started playing RPGs, whether in Mystara or not, it was mostly monster-bashing, quickly turning into "monty-hauls". The goal was to get xp and money, and to become king. The setting had no true meaning, the NPCs were shallow. Teen RPG, really. Then I came to actually care for the setting, and my players did, too. The goal was to have the setting involved. The PCs actually interacted with the NPCs. Lately, I let my players choose their PCs' characteristics as they saw fit to their characters' personalities - and I actually had to up them so they wouldn't be too weak, rule-wise! Some PCs in my games have a one-page background at creation time! Now, that's mature role-playing isn't it?
Geoff: When I first started playing in the mid '80s, my DM never even explained to me how the funny shaped dice worked (or most of the rules for that matter): "Just roll the damned dice and tell me the number!" To this day, I sometimes wonder if he even understood what he was doing. Oh well.
In all seriousness, though, I used to be a bit of a combat monster. I enjoyed storming dungeons and methodically slaughtering all of the inhabitants, looting the place (even breaking up furniture to find treasure hidden in hollowed table legs, etc.), and then putting it to the torch. We even did this in Castellan Keep; we rationalised with the DM that since their political goals did not totally coincide with our own, we could consider them on some level to be evil. Therefore, we could kill them all with a clear conscience. Needless to say, our dumbfounded DM watched as we systematically depopulated the entire keep (using magic and subterfuge). Hey, we were 14 or so!...
It was really when I started reading the Gazetteers that I gained a real appreciation for the depth of Mystara. The Orcs of Thar really helped change my attitude; the critters we were killing had feelings, thoughts. They had depth. Needless to say, as time passed the feeling only grew, and I came to see Mystara as a very well detailled, highly political world in which nothing is black and white, where great enjoyment could be had in political manoeuvring. When I joined the MML a few years ago, this view only strengthened, once I saw how people could take the basic ideas presented by the world, and run with them! Mystara is a unique gaming world, we should feel privileged to have it.
Michael: At first, I had no clue what a campaign really was. I got lucky in the sense that the adventures I planned and wrote for my players were continous and often influenced the next adventure (treasures of previous adventures were needed to solve the current one, or old villains would return). In a sense, I had a campaign going, although no effect from the setting was important. It wasn't until the Gazetteer series came out that I started actually caring about the game world and put a lot more care into it. For me, the world and setting were important. My players preferred the "hack-and-slash, treasure, and XPs" adventures. Still, I tried to subtly get them into the setting by making them learn what was in which city on their own.
When I started GMing (or playing) in other settings, I came to truly love the setting of Mystara. No other AD&D setting could match it in the details or history. They took care of things like economy of nations, different types of coins and languages (none of this "everyone speaks common"!), and such a good interpretation of unique cultures.
I soon tired of AD&D rules, especially when my hack-and-slash players got to high levels. That's when I discovered GURPS and changed to those rules. My campaign had moved into the Savage Coast by that time, and I conviently used the "red curse" to explain the change in rules! I loved GURPS because it was much more realistic and deadly. When my players kept dying all the time, I lost several players...but I also discovered new ones who were actually interested in role-playing. And I've never been more satisfied.
Off-track from the question, I guess. So has my view of Mystara changed with time? Not much, since I've always loved details. But I have seen it change in my players, from the hack-and-slash to those who actually want to play a part in the setting.
DM: In a way, no, because from the beginning I've seen the campaign world as incredibly important and have always tried to make my players feel and know the world around them. I've always wanted reasonable backgrounds from my players, and I've always tried to play on the different characteristics of their PCs during the game, even if at the beginning they were more focused on hack-'n-slash, and I was sort of mesmerized by all the different kinds of magic items, and so gave them plenty to make them powerful and cool enough to face their enemies. But I've always tried to write intricate enough campaigns that could encompass many areas of the world and use many personalities of Mystara, so as to make my players feel that their PCs are living in a multifaceted and everchanging world. I think this should be the goal of all DMs: make the campaign realistic, funny, and playable at the same time.
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