Sunday, May 13, 2018

Failed Interview about Mystara

An interview of Matt Sernett on Dragon Talk came to my attention yesterday. I was particularly interested in the part dealing with Mystara. Skip directly to the 55:45 point (click here for the interview). I found it to be seriously lacking. Here’s what I have issues with.

When asked about Mystara, Matt hesitated, obviously trying to think about something to say. He then stated “Mystara had some not so great products.” This is an awkward way of introducing an IP owned by his employer. The truth is that Mystara had a lot of great products. He failed to mention the flagship Mystara product line—the Gazetteers, which were hugely popular.

He moved right along with this statement: “[Mystara] leaned very hard into the sillier elements.” Mystara never was meant as a gritty, dark setting. It had several light hearted entries, but that’s not enough to tag the whole product line as “silly.” Nonetheless, those light hearted entries were popular with core Mystara supporters, and did well enough sales-wise. Alas, this interview involves someone who focuses on a narrow aspect of a series, while ignoring what made Mystara great and long lived at TSR in the first place.

Matt then meanders at length about the development of the Red Steel setting under the AD&D banner, saying “[it] kinda showed a lot of that,” as an attempt to make his point about his perception of silliness, all the while admitting the setting wasn’t particularly silly a few seconds later. Why Matt brought up Red Steel as a way to characterize Mystara as a whole probably had more to do with his ignorance of the setting. Red Steel depicts a region of Mystara. As a matter of fact, the Know World core setting has nothing to do with it. Matt then goes on rattling off the idea of red steel as a cursed metal, the various non-human races of the setting, and its swashbuckling genre; in the process, he fails altogether to demonstrate what he felt was bad or silly. He doesn’t like the art. This is a matter of personal taste. There are plenty of Forgotten Realms’ entries with abysmal art in my opinion—clearly this does not mean that these products are all bad. Somehow, in Matt’s mind, that’s enough to warrant criticism however.

I understand Matt is a former editor for the Dragon Magazine. I find it curious that he would bring up Red Steel's AD&D later development without realizing maybe (?) that it was originally designed in one of the most popular features of the Dragon Magazine, the Voyage of the Princess Ark series. More than one subscriber stated they kept buying the magazine mostly for this series of articles. It too was somewhat light hearted and quite popular back then. It's where Red Steel came from.

Matt moves on to the audio CDs, which were an experiment TSR’s CEO forced upon the AD&D portion of late-years Mystara. These CDs weren’t at all representative of the bulk of the product line, something Matt continues to fail to bring up. But even then, his criticism of the audio CDs falls flat. Matt makes fun of the actors’ accent imitations, somehow having an issue with their flamboyant style (it’s a swashbuckler setting, remember?) I could think of a number of other things to say about these accessories; the voice impersonations are not an issue. 

Matt returns to the matter of artwork in the AD&D Monstrous Compendium. Again, it’s a matter of opinion. If Matt knew anything at all about art in Mystara, he should have had a look at the Gazetteer covers by Clyde Caldwell and the illustrations by Stephen Fabian. Those were certainly a lot more meaningful and representative of Mystara than the one-off MC that he personally disliked.

Matt goes on to say that product lines at TSR were aiming for the dark gritty style (Dark Sun and Ravenloft), assuming this was the only correct way of developing campaign worlds, because in his view, “everybody” was going for that style at the time. Gotta love that lemming mentality I guess. So then, how was it that Forgotten Realms didn’t also turn into a vampire/werewolf/zombie-palooza? Mystara was a mainstream, high fantasy setting aimed at a long-established fan base. Ravenloft and Dark Sun were later entries in TSR’s lineup, respectively 1990 and 1991, whereas fourteen Mystara Gazetteers had already been in print by that time. It would have been silly to “darkify” Mystara at that point. 

Matt then brings up the issue of Spelljammer as being another demonstration in silliness, which he claims “wasn’t something people wanted.” (Oh, really?) The interviewer intervenes and justly points out that Spelljammer was nonetheless very popular. (So much for not being dark and gritty.) And Matt instantly agrees—wait, what? I guess he didn’t really mean what he just said, or maybe it was okay for Spelljammer to be light hearted but not Mystara? For that matter, Mystara was indeed popular. It was one of the older game worlds at TSR, and it survived because of decent sales. It did well despite the fact that the original setting was written for the Basic/Expert sets, which was a challenge in itself. In this respect, Mystara very much accomplished the job it was intended for. A good number of AD&D players picked up the setting anyway, because they felt is was pretty damn cool, in fact. So much for not being what people wanted.

After the interviewer’s more even-handed remarks, Matt finally admits that he was only blaming “a couple of products really, but, umm, there’s lots of great stuff in Mystara.” (Well, how about that?) How did we get to this admission from the opening statement about Mystara having not-too-great products? Why did Matt not bring up core Mystara products, focusing instead on half-baked criticism? I suspect his personal bias and ignorance have something to do with it. This becomes evident when he states that Mystara has “a weird crossover with Greyhawk.” Matt meanders some more on the issue of Mystara’s origins, bringing up Arneson, Blackmoor, and then Mystara becoming its own thing. That was all pretty clueless. 

For the Record: The Known World was originally described as a brief summary in the Expert Set. The setting’s core was developed directly from that small part, which led to the popular Gazetteers. Arneson’s material came in after the Expert Set’s release, as a result of TSR’s lawsuit settlement, which led the company’s management to want to incorporate Blackmoor to the Mystara setting. The reason was to keep any Arneson connections away from the AD&D IP for obvious legal reasons (and especially away from TSR’s Greyhawk, which sat ostensibly in Gygax’s copyright sphere). Blackmoor was therefore retrofitted to Mystara and positioned centuries before the Know World’s timeline, since Blackmoor and Mystara had nothing in common. This happened around 1986, and involved all of 4 accessories (compared with more than 40 core BECMI/Mystara titles).

Matt then goes back to the audio CDs, claiming they were developed around that time. No they weren’t. They came up about 10 years later, around 1994, after Mystara was relaunched under the AD&D banner. All in all, this was an inappropriate way to describe Mystara. It seems to me Matt would have been better off declining the opportunity to speak about something he clearly knew too little about. The interviewer and the interviewee could have coordinated this better. Either this, or there was an intent to criticize gratuitously from the beginning. Either way, based on the reactions of present Mystara fans, the interview is quite poorly received. This does nobody any favors. Fans are upset. Matt appears as incompetent on the subject and rather tone deaf. The podcast disseminates misleading information to say the least. This could have been done much better. Is it a policy at WotC to shoot itself in the foot about IPs it owns? This makes no sense to me.


  1. I started buying Dragon when princess ark articles started, but stopped buying anything from tsr (including Dragon) when they "upgraded" Mystara to the AD&D system.

    I guess I'm a BECMI fan, have most of the products but no AD&D.

    I listened to an SOD interview and they gave Gaz3 3.5 out of 5. I feel it was a very subjective review, the reviewers seemed younger than the book. I feel it was the single best RPG product ever released. GDW had a few too like "Path of Tears" and some other TNE products. Some of the other gazetteers were also in the TOP 10 best ever RPG books.
    The cyclopedia is the most comprehensive single-book RPG and overall the Mystara BECMI line is the most comprehensive rpg ever (equal to Traveller 1st or 3rd editions) and yet it is so open to tinkering and modification. Whether it is mass combat or dominion rules (Most RPG's never have these) or the flying ships and magic research, campaing rules for humanoid characters and a slightly less derivative fantasy world, at least in terms of Elves and Hin histories and cultures. Dragon rulers and their politics, Noble intrigues and becoming immortal and what happens afterward! How many other RPGs have all that? Not one that I am aware of although Traveller does something similar for the Sci-Fi genre.

    -Magenta Mage.

    1. BECMI D&D always got a poor treatment by a majority of people, either in the 80s and 90s by folk would could not see past their AD&D filters, and today by others who will judge material written in the 70s and 80s on the same footing as what comes out in the 21st century. They miss the point for the most part. It is a tribute to BECMI D&D and the game world primarily associated to it, Mystara, that so many people still use/revere these titles. Some even return or "discover" BECMI and enjoy what it was created for: a simplified, yet colorful version of D&D.

      After all those years, though these titles were produced before many gamers (if not most of them) were even born, they still work well! :-)


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