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Interview with Aaron Allston

by Jennifer Guerra

To Mystara fans, the mention of the name "Aaron Allston" brings to mind gaming on a grand scale, world-shattering events, empires of staggering power. As well it should: Austin, Texas-based Allston can be considered the "Father of Mystara." His contributions include:

Skarda's Mirror
Grand Duchy of Karameikos
The Dwarves of Rockhome
Dawn of the Emperors
The Hollow World
Wrath of the Immortals
Poor Wizard's Almanac (I)
Karameikos: Kingdom of Adventure
Mark of Amber
D&D Rules Cyclopedia

No other writer has developed Mystara as much as Aaron Allston. But Allston is more than the Father of Mystara. He has authored numerous games for such companies as Hero Games, Origin Systems, Steve Jackson Games, and West End Games. And he is a successful novelist as well.

Born in 1960 in Corsicana, Texas, Allston studied journalism briefly at the University of Texas and worked for a year with the Austin-American Statesman before being hired by Steve Jackson Games, as circulation manager for Space Gamer magazine, in 1980. Over the next two years, Allston became assistant editor, then editor, of the magazine, and began designing game supplements on a freelance basis. In 1983, shortly after Space Gamer won the H.G. Wells Award for Best Role-Playing Magazine of 1982, Allston went freelance full-time as a game designer, working mainly for Hero Games and TSR.

Allston's first novel, the game-based Web of Danger, was published by TSR in 1988. In 1993, Baen Books published his second novel, the original fantasy Galatea in 2-D. Over the years, Allston gradually moved from game design to full-time fiction writing.

Allston has just finished writing Sidhe-Devil, an "urban fantasy" sequel to his 1995 novel Doc Sidhe (pronounced "she"). The Doc Sidhe world, in Aaron's words, is "sort of a crossover between Celtic mythology and the hero-pulps of the 1930s. The idea is that if Faerie is a world that parallels ours, but sort of hangs back chronologically so that everything seems antiquated (which is a common theme in stories of encounters with the fair folk - their dress and manners often seemed a bit dated), in the 1990s and 2000s, the world of Faerie would have much in common with our world of the 1930s and 1940s." For more information, watch Aaron's website.

Outside the realm of Faerie, Tome of Mystara's Jennifer Guerra asked fellow Texan Allston to step back in time a bit, to re-visit the world which he helped create, and which yet lives on in the imaginations of its loyal fans. Allston was happy to oblige.

JG: How did you come to be involved with the "Known World" setting?

AA: Actually, it came about because of role-playing work I was doing elsewhere.

In 1985, Hero Games published a game supplement I'd written. It was called Lands of Mystery, and it basically described ways to adapt the Edgar Rice Burroughs sort of "Lost Worlds Romance" setting to the Justice, Inc. role-playing game. I was really pleased with the way Lands of Mystery had come out, and it brought some unexpected benefits. At that time, a fellow named Michael Dobson worked at TSR. He read LoM, liked it a lot, and included a lengthy description of it in an article he wrote for Dragon Magazine - a piece on bad ideas that translated into good games. I also suspect he lobbied to use me as a D&D supplement writer.

TSR got in touch with me and asked me to write something a little new for them, a "zero-level" adventure for AD&D (it was published in 1986 as Treasure Hunt), and to pitch some supplement ideas. I proposed a dungeon master's guide book - basically, advice on how to run a role-playing campaign - and an adventure I called Skarda's Mirror. I don't recall now whether I knew originally that Skarda's Mirror would be set in Mystara, or whether I adapted it to the setting after the proposal was accepted; it's been a while.

At any rate, the down side to all that is that Skarda's Mirror was the last supplement I sold TSR that derived from an idea that I came up with. Every subsequent supplement was written to conform to an idea or product description that TSR came up with, and so I never got to write that DM's guide book.

JG: You are the single largest contributor to the Mystara setting, having authored everything from the first Gazetteer to Wrath of the Immortals and the Hollow World. Did you realize at the time you started that you would become much more than a game author - rather, a world-builder?

AA: No, I really had no idea initially that would happen. But as I began receiving more and more assignments dealing with Mystara, it became obvious that my contributions were a significant proportion of what was out there. That didn't really worry me. I'd done a lot of world-building as a game master. The difference between doing it for TSR and doing it for myself was that I had to be certain to generate specific types of material in a specific written format rather than keep so much of it as illegible notes and stray thoughts.

JG: How much of your contributions to the Mystaran setting were born of original ideas, and how much were directed by TSR? That is, did they hand you a full outline, or just an idea ("write a Roman-like empire")? Can you give a specific example?

AA: In most cases, they started off as product descriptions decided upon by TSR to fit within a very organized schedule of releases. TSR decided in general what the supplement would address, how big it would be, what components it would include, and when it would be released. They would then choose a writer for the project. After that, the writer had a lot of freedom to decide on details and development of the ideas, so long as all the development was consistent with TSR's concept of the setting and supplement. Sometimes TSR's concept was clear and well-realized; sometimes it was fuzzier and subject to revision at their end, meaning revision at the writer's end as well.

For example, with the supplement eventually to be known as Dawn of the Emperors (in the contract, it was the "Thyatis & Alphatia Campaign Set"), the description they gave me read like this:

"This is a campaign set for use with the D&D(tm) rules, from Basic up to and including the Masters rules (keep in mind the existence of the Immortal system). Its primary purpose is to detail the Empires of Thyatis and Alphatia as presented in the Expert Set and other modules published to date. Some neighboring areas have been referred to in Companion or Master level adventures and earlier Gazetteer supplements. The following parameters must be followed when designing this product.

"This set should cover the area of Thyatis in the D&D Known World, the Isle of Dawn, and at least the southern part of Alphatia. Thyatis should be specialized in all that concerns the fighter class in D&D, knights, and weapons. Alphatia should be a magocracy with new spells and magical specialties in the same spirit as those mentioned in Gaz3, The Principalities of Glantri. Both empires are rivals that are conducting campaigns against each other on a regular basis to defend their colonial interests. Reasonable modification of the current topography is acceptable. TSR will provide the author with original maps of these regions and other information."

That description, plus the requirement that the supplement substantially conform to details about Thyatis and Alphatia appearing in supplements published to date, was most of the information that originated with TSR. The rest was basically mine.

A lot of what was original with me tended to be inspired by details appearing in earlier supplement, of course. Here's an example. If I remember correctly, the concept of casting Karameikos in a political situation similar to post-Norman conquest England was mine, and based on the fact that some of the names of characters in adventures previously set in that nation were pseudo-Greek/Roman and others were pseudo-Slavic. I decided to present the nation in an early stage of cultural integration, with the Thyatian settlers in the role of the Normans and the indigenous Traldar population in the role of the Saxons. It provided for an interesting social dynamic and explained the very different-sounding names.

JG: What Mystara-relevant work do you consider your favorite? Which one do you consider the most symbolic of Aaron Allston as an author? Why?

AA: Tricky question. I probably have the most affection for Grand Duchy of Karameikos. It wasn't necessarily the best work I did for the setting, but I really liked the challenge of creating the template for Gazetteers to follow. I had to do a lot of thinking about the sort of information that DMs needed, and information that I thought DMs needed even though there hadn't been a lot of call for it in the past. For instance, most setting-based supplements describe what the locals wear, but I thought DMs also needed to know things such as what the coinage looked like, what laws were in place to restrict what citizens could wear (a medieval custom a lot of moderns aren't aware of), names of ancestral tribes (rather than just saying "elves" and "humans"), what the languages are (I don't believe in a "Common" - the language should have a name), and so forth.

I'm not sure that any of the supplements is most symbolic of me as a writer. Mark of Amber had the chance to be.

It was originally titled Return to Castle Ambreville, and it did all the things I wanted an adventure to do: it had a plot whose outcome was determined by player-character interaction but still functioned as a plot, it had a lot of material on handling crises resulting from PCs leading the events off into unexpected directions, it had a theme related to dealing with the consequences of one's actions, and so on. Unfortunately, after I turned it in, the decision was made to transform it into one of the interactive audio CD titles. This meant handing it off to other people for restructuring. The end result has just about everything I put into it, but its reliance on the audio CD is, I think, harmful to its usefulness, and it's just less "me" than I wanted it to be. So I'd say that the final draft I turned in was the one that was most symbolic of me...but nobody is ever going to see it.

JG: What is your greatest disappointment in regards to the Mystara setting?

AA: I actually have two great disappointments.

The first is that I burned out as a game writer while doing TSR supplements. In the later years, with each new supplement, it took more and more time to achieve the same results, meaning that I began missing deadlines, that my lateness understandably upset the line editor and damaged my relations with TSR. Burnout is something that is hard to predict, hard even to see when it's happening to you. There's really no blame for it - except that I probably should have begun refusing assignments sooner than I did. I'm largely pleased with the final results on the last three supplements I finished, but one thing that resulted from them was that my game-writing burnout got worse and my missing deadlines probably did irreparable harm to my relationship with the TSR editorial team.

The other disappointment involves novels. In 1987, TSR asked me to write the first novel for a new line of books supporting the Top Secret/S.I. game; it was published the next year as Web of Danger. Some time after that, rumors began floating out of TSR that they planned to sink Alphatia, a la Atlantis, in a big event that would include a game supplement and a trilogy of novels. I desperately wanted to do the novels, and thought that I had a crack at them, since I'd already done several supplements and a novel for the company. But I could never get a response from TSR Books - on that trilogy or any other proposal. It was sufficiently disheartening that it was actually a few years before I worked up the drive to write fiction again; my next novel wasn't published until 1993. And, of course, that trilogy of "Alphatia Sinks" novels never happened, with me or any other writer, unless they popped up while I wasn't looking.

JG: Has your work on Mystara influenced any of your later writing?

AA: That's hard to say. The world-building I've done, especially in Mystaran supplements, has certainly helped with world-building for fiction. But when I'm left to my own devices, I tend to steer away from fantasy involving elves and dwarves and gray-bearded sorcerers, some of the very staples of D&D. So I'd have to say that what I've gained from Mystara has been helpful in a procedural sense, but not in a thematic one.

JG: While the Wrath of the Immortals set altered Mystara drastically, the line was discontinued shortly afterward, leaving many questions unanswered. What were your long-term aspirations for the setting before its cancellation? Were there plans for you to write new material after the conversion to AD&D?

AA: That was always my expectation, even as late as Mark of Amber, the last Mystara supplement I did. But during the writing of my next two TSR supplements - The Complete Ninja's Handbook and I, Tyrant - the extent to which I was experiencing burnout really became evident. I accepted one more supplement assignment after that, a Planescape supplement, and began work on it, but it quickly became apparent that I wasn't going to be able to do a good job on it, so I talked to TSR about giving the job back so they could pass it on to someone who could do a good job on it. Fortunately for me, they'd already decided to delay the project for reasons unrelated to my own difficulties, so no one, as far as I know, was too inconvenienced by this. But the extent of plans for me to write new material went no further than the expectation that I would, some day. No specific assignments were discussed.

As for my long-term aspirations for's sort of hard to remember so many years later, but I did want to write adventures exploring the political changes to the outer world brought on by the loss of Alphatia. That sort of sudden power vacuum is a really dramatic circumstance.

JG: A design question: In Wrath of the Immortals - a world-altering product - timeline events were assumed to come to pass as written, even though they could (according to the same book) be stopped. Why was this done - or, at least, why were alternate events not included?

AA: I believe that the discrepancy arose because I have a hard time writing future timelines that consist of "greased-rail" events; in other words, material that requires the DM to put the players through these paces exactly as written. My expectation is that any DM should be able to take the adventure in a new direction of the players' actions so dictate. But, between WotI, Poor Wizard's Almanac, and future Almanacs to come, there wasn't really room to account for all the possible branchings from the official plotline. So I believe the attitude I had when writing Wrath was "Go off on your own course if you prefer, by all means...but be aware that there won't be much in official publications from now on for you to draw from, because we have to settle on an established timeline and follow it."

JG: In the first Gazetteer, Grand Duchy of Karameikos, the Immortals seem more like legendary heroes, who dabble very little in mortal affairs and whose churches are more of a generic set of moral and ethics than actual deity worship. Then, starting with Gaz6, The Dwarves of Rockhome, the Immortal Kagyar becomes a chief part of dwarvish life. By the Dawn of the Emperors set, the Immortals have become objects of clerical worship and organization. And by Wrath of the Immortals, they are very involved in mortal affairs. Could you describe what drove this evolution in how you viewed the Immortals?

AA: That came partly about because of TSR's needs and partly because of a perception of mine concerning the "life cycle" of heroes in Mystara. TSR's needs included an eventual reworking of the old Immortals set and a big adventure that would sink Alphatia, so for years I'd been operating with the knowledge that the Immortals would eventually have more and more to do with daily activities in Mystara.

As for that "life cycle" thing... In terms of fantasy fiction, D&D is virtually unique in the way the power level of its protagonists starts at "almost completely incompetent" and, if the characters are fortunate, climbs to "near-godlike." When you think about it, characters like Conan and Jirel of Joiry and Frodo Baggins increase their personal power within a much more limited range in the course of their adventures. What this has always suggested to me is that characters in a D&D setting such as Mystara are more likely to discover challenges suited to their abilities because of the recognition they receive as they accomplish tasks. In other words, first-level characters can have very rich and fulfilling adventures, but these won't be adventures involving mass combats with nests of vampires - that's too tough for first-level heroes. So, these heroes will get reputations as slayers of orcs and goblins, saviors of villages, rescuers of minor nobles. Later, as they become more experienced, they might pick up reputations as slayers of vampires, saviors of cities, and rescuers of princes and princesses. And eventually their exploits will attract the eyes of the Immortals and other beings who interact with them. The heroes will then be drawn into adventures involving these celestial beings and realize the extent to which the Immortals have been participating/interfering in mortal affairs all along - but the heroes just weren't in a position to recognize that involvement.

The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, although it included material for every experience range, still described the nation that had previously been used as a starting point for low-level characters. "Basic Set" characters debuted there, and it was a setting, because of its provincial nature, just didn't attract earth-shaking events. Other Gazetteers and supplements dealt with regions that had more and more international and magical importance. So, partly consciously and partly unconsciously, I wrote throughout my Mystara career with the expectation that the average experience level of characters in the setting was climbing, and that the characters were increasing their realization of and knowledge about Immortal influence. The idea was that player-characters would, in a sense, eventually slap their foreheads and say, "The Immortals are a lot busier down here than I realized - and it looks like they always have been."

JG: In the Dawn of the Emperors Gazetteer, no information is presented on many of the Alphatian nations. Judging from "hints" in the Poor Wizard's Almanac, it seemed as though there might have been a good deal of info on these nations, and that it was "dropped" from the Dawn box. What happened?

AA: It's been a while since I looked at that material, but my recollection is that there wasn't a lot of atlas-style material cut out of Dawn of the Emperors or Poor Wizard's Almanac. I would have liked to have been able to write more, certainly, but with space and time considerations (these supplements were written to fairly tight length requirements), I couldn't. When you encounter a reference that looks as though it might have been where longer material was originally written and then cut, it probably is instead a "hook," a sort of combination teaser and guidepost. Hooks are put in to try to keep a place or character interesting when there's not enough room to describe them at length, and to give subsequent writers dealing with those subjects something to springboard from.

JG: And, finally, the readers' number one question: Do you have any unpublished Mystara material - whole or in part? If so, are you willing to share?

AA: With just about every supplement, there were pieces left over at the end - cut out because of space restrictions, because they just didn't quite fit anywhere, or because TSR decided that they weren't appropriate. These ended up in files with the name "Outtakes."

For example, the one for Dawn of the Emperors includes two things: A set of fencing rules for magic-user characters and a character sheet for flying monsters. The character sheet was cut out because of space limitations, and the fencing rules because TSR didn't feel that broadening the rules so that wizards could use fencing weapons (rapiers and such) was appropriate. Other supplements also have outtake files, and the D&D Rules Cyclopedia has the biggest file of outtakes.

A side note: one of the things that was pulled from the Cyclopedia was material culled from the Monster List. In the original draft, every monster had a paragraph suggesting ways to use the monsters in an adventure. At one point I misspelled "giant slugs" in an interesting way. It was kind of surprising to me when one of my roommates told me that I'd proposed an adventure involving giant sluts.

As for the question of sharing that know, I wouldn't mind seeing some of it get out there into interested hands, but I can't distribute it without TSR's explicit permission. Perhaps I'll be able to talk to some of the Wizards of the Coast people at Gen Con this year and see what they think about that.

Editors Jennifer Guerra and Kevin Turner thank Mr. Allston for his time, and for his willingness to give Tome of Mystara's readers a glimpse behind the scenes. Oh, and Aaron...let us know about those outtakes!

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Copyright (c) 2000, Jennifer Guerra. All rights reserved. Used by permission.