Guest Writer: Nick Monitto
When I started playing Dungeons & Dragons, I jumped in with the relatively new Basic and the very new Expert boxes, a nice foundation to learn. But I was quickly drawn upward to the large books and supplements of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rule set. At that time, I found much more material there to help along my gaming and support my eventual creative efforts. Having left the D&D part behind, I missed the huge revolution that would come with Frank Mentzer’s rules rewrite and expansion. Thirty years later, I am getting to see the start of what was a major setting for the game, one which rivals the Forgotten Realms and my beloved World of Greyhawk from AD&D.
GAZ1, Aaron Allston’s “Grand Duchy of Karameikos” was published in 1987 as a sixty-four page book with a cover wrap and large separate map. In the PDF version I received for review, the large map and several smaller ones were presented on eleven letter-sized pages. The overwhelming amount of the book, sixty of those pages, is the general “Gazetteer”.
The introduction mentions how the Mentzer Expert set introduced a game world for D&D with just a few maps and pages of text. Some TSR modules branched out from there, getting into some very different areas. Believing that there would be Dungeon Masters who wanted a comprehensive guide to this overall game world, the GAZ series was created to present all of its nations and empires, giving a framework and information to support a campaign there. Logically, they began with Karameikos, the home duchy of Threshold, which was the starting city for players described in that rule set.
If you have never read the World of Greyhawk set, the Forgotten Realms set, or any similar products, you may be in for a surprise here. The gazetteer is a book of tremendous detail! A DM would probably have to read it two or three times before really making use of what’s inside it. It eases you in slowly with a section of Players’ Background. This gives a little history of the region, skimming over the origins and development, and then telling how the Royal Family came into power. Next it gets into some of the finer details. The region features two humanoid races, as well as many demi-humans, all of which may be options for the players. It then walks you through the giant color map, highlighting several of the major areas before you learn more about them later.
Help with character creation guides the players & DM in determining things like social standing (i.e. family wealth), family background (which of the humanoid races, if the player goes that way rather than demi-human), and one’s home town. It also has some suggestions on names, the spells that would be available from the area’s schools, and a few pages on including skill abilities relevant to the region.
With that out of the way, the gazetteer begins to dive deeply into describing the region for the DM. When it really gets down to it, most of what’s found will relate to the cities, overwhelmingly the Royal Family’s home of Specularum. The History section has a small part that can be imparted to the players in some way, but far more detail for the DM, including a timeline spanning hundreds of years. A section on Politics describes the Royal Family itself, and shows some ways that the players could get drawn into adventures related to them.
The Karameikos Society section has a huge amount of information on organizations like the church, the military, and the Thieves’ Guild. You find out about the social ranks, rights of the citizens, and the workings of the court system… even several sections to detail how the different groups of people would dress! An included twelve month calendar can be used as a guideline for keeping time in the campaign, featuring dates of importance found throughout the year.
Further sections give detail on the region’s economy, and its terrain & features. As with the earlier sections, most things do relate specifically to the main city of Specularum, but there are descriptions for other key cities, along with military keeps and strange unusual locales.
The Characters section goes into great detail on the Royal Family, but also describes a variety of religious folk, ambassadors, and the leaders of various guilds & clans. A few of the most noted people from other cities are also mentioned. The final part is a page on monsters, with a guide to note the ones that will be most often found, and detailing two new monsters unique to the region.
The last four pages of text are the “Adventure” portion. Much like the famous “Certain point of view” quip from Obi-Wan Kenobi, this section may seem quite small, but I would argue that it is huge for its value. When it comes to running role playing games, one can encounter strong arguments about things like ‘railroading’ or using ‘sandboxes’. Opinions will vary, but at times the strongest voices for sandboxes are opposed to the idea of using company published materials. They fear that it takes them too far towards that dreaded railroad. If that would cause those DMs to shun a product like this, I’d say it’s a shame. I would argue that these pages are some of the most sandbox’y material I have found in a company book.
This portion, meant to give ideas for adventures in Karameikos, starts right at the beginning. Hints are given with some examples the DM can use while being involved in character creation as noted earlier. They give a chance for the player to have a say in other members of a character’s family, and the past results of their social standing. Suggestions are provided for how to explain the different characters being brought together in the first place. For example: two Magic Users may turn out to have been apprenticed to the same master.
Next come the adventure seeds, the core to my contention of this being a sandbox environment. With a ‘good things in small packages’ approach, this part begins with nine adventure seeds appropriate for Basic range characters. The titles are intriguing, like “The Sins of Valdo Tisza” and “Poisoners in the Night”. Each has a couple paragraphs of detail, mentioning the setup for a story and possible persons, factions, cities, etc. of Karameikos which would be part of it. These are followed by ten more seeds, intended for the early range of Expert level characters. Several are noted as stories which would be of great importance to the Royal Family. Besides the usual treasure and coin that can be earned, those are ones where characters may also increase their standing in the community and perhaps curry favor with the powerful Royals.
There is not as much presented for characters in the Companion Set or Master Set ranges, though. Characters of those levels are thought to be spending time on larger personal projects, such as maintaining a stronghold or seeking a path to the Immortal range. Players at this point would be delegating a lot to their subordinates, more likely to engage in large scale battles when they would get involved with the Duchy’s matters.
Finally, as a nice touch for the DMs who want to use them, the book presents tie-ins to four modules that were available at that time: B6 The Veiled Society, B10 Night’s Dark Terror, X10 Red Arrow, Black Shield (actually mistitled in the book), and X12 Skarda’s Mirror. All four are noted as having ties for the Royal Family, each description telling how you can slip them into a campaign. Theoretically, X10 is supposed to take place some 200 years later than everything else in this, but a clever Dungeon Master can always find ways to adapt to issues like that, yes?
Reading and reviewing this set had me feeling sentimental for what I missed the first time around. I certainly enjoyed my time playing AD&D, exploring the Forgotten Realms and World of Greyhawk. The book here, though, gave me the sense that I would have enjoyed gaming in this land as well. It gives a lot of material to work with, from which you could take the simplest aspects, or go deep into every detail. All of the information is nicely grouped, making for a pretty easy reference. While largely intended for the Dungeon Master’s eyes only, there are some things to be shared with the Players to guide them with characters that are made to come from here.
Back in the day, even as vast as this game world is, I might have felt compelled to own every volume and have another complete world to game in. I did resist a lot of the big supplement series from that period, so it’s a pretty big deal that I feel so drawn to this one. While not a ‘fun’ book for reading, I absolutely enjoy digging my way through it. It made me feel that it was a very worthwhile product, and has me now wanting to look into more from the series. Without question, this is a great reference for those running old D&D and other similar systems.
Nick Monitto is a gaming geek who came of age on the classic games of the 1970’s and 80’s. He lives among the theme parks of Central Florida, and believes his younger self would be totally stoked that he is now writing for TSR!