Gaz 1 The Grand Duchy of Karameikos (1987)
Aaron Allston (TSR)
The Gaz series was TSR’s attempt to flesh out, in order, the many different lands described in the sample B/X boxed sets. The overall result was a mixed bag, though there were certainly some gems in there. The Grand Duchy belongs without a doubt to the latter category. I’ll try to put into words why it works.
There are reasons why Gaz 1 probably should not have worked. It is a pastiche, cobbled together from sparse information in the B/X set and modules in the B and X series. That means that the focus of Gaz 1 is not on all the exciting adventure locations dotted around The Grand Duchy, but rather, everything around those adventures, setting up the framework for the adventures to take place in. In the hands of a lesser man, a boring encyclopedic recitation of meaningless and sometimes mutually contradictory drivel. In the hands of Aaron Allston exercising full editorial power, the whole becomes compelling and gains a depth to it that would seldom be seen again in the Gaz series.
I think part of Gaz 1’s success is that it knows very well what parts were needed to turn the bulk of the B series into an overlapping campaign setting. It then adds a layer of ambiguity and nuance to the writing that makes it somehow more plausible. AND it does this in about 70 pages. It works because A) It’s relatable, B) It’s intelligently written and C) It knows almost exactly what information it needs to present in order for you to have a deep ass nerd sandbox campaign in Karameikos.
Karameikos is a wild place, a sparsely populated coast, connected to mines and logging camps in the mountains via a single road carved out by its duke, surrounded by deep and dark forest, inhabited by monsters. The native Traladarans live in uneasy peace with the Thyatian colonists that captured it but there’s also a sense of optimism. For the first time in centuries, the nation is prospering under the leadership of Stefan Karameikos. The writing is good, nuanced and with shades of grey, there’s little hints of a medieval grimness to the setting though it stays far away from grimdark crapsack fantasy that has become something of a standard.
Setting history is given in broad sweeping strokes that serve the goal of hinting at prior ages from which the GM may readibly draw inspiration for a whole flock of dungeons. Less then two pages cover the nation’s hero’s of legend, their fight against invading hordes of Beastmen (describe in the Song of Halav, which every Traladaran child knows) and the ensuing dark age, culminating in Traladara’s rebirth as the young Thyatian Duke Stefan Karameikos trades his ancestral lands against this wild and untamed land, and with the aid of hordes of volunteers and adventurers, proceeds to colonize it. An odd mixture of fantasy Eastern-Europe with some Roman colonists. It reminds me of a more optimistic Sapkowski’s Witcher or Pratt’s Well of the Unicorn with its quaint medieval villages, humano-centric focus, shades of grey and monster-infested forests.
Gaz 1 is an odd beast because it doesn’t have to introduce us to a whole slew of new items, monsters, classes, races and other content you generally see in new campaign settings. Instead it focuses on existing elements of DnD and how they fit into this setting. Where do the Elves live? How do they interact with the duke? Do they pay taxes? Do wizards get to build a stronghold etc. All this stuff helps give the setting a grounding that you don’t often see.
One of the first thing it focuses on is how to make characters in the setting. Its clever. The native Traladarans have a custom called the Shearing, which involves kicking your sons (and sometimes daughters) out of the house (though he is considered a family friend) and not letting them return until they have made big earnings joining a trade caravan or otherwise having found a way to earn their keep (such as adventuring). It makes less sense that you’d do this to your daughters since they’d probably get knocked up and I don’t think Karameikos enforces custody laws outside of wedlock but to Allston’s credit he does say women are not Sheared though they may ask for it themselves. The Thyatian colonists have naturally enthusiastically adopted this practice.
I’m less enthusiastic about tables for starting character family wealth. It’s mostly fluff as it doesn’t affect your starting GP at all, which I think is a missed opportunity. Why not WHF it up?; if your family is penniless you start with a shirt on your back and an alms bowl, if you start as a direct descendant of the Duke (1% chance) you start with a full plate, a masterwork zweihander and a warhorse in barding. But that wouldn’t fit the American Dream type of epos that Karameikos is espousing, where all men are not brothers, but at least making an effort. Allston knows what he is doing. My recommendation is to skip all this random table bullshit, which the gazetteer fully admits you may assign if that seems a better match, MAYBE give the PCs some relatives if you wanna go through the hassle. I likes me some immersion but Allston really cut the brakes on the simulationist-train with this one.
Perhaps far more interesting, Allston also introduces a nascent non-weapon proficiency system  that would become mostly standard operating procedure from 2e onwards  and was originally seen in Oriental Adventures. This version doesn’t have an exhaustive list of proficiency to choose from and expects the GM to come up with them on the fly, which can create some problems but its a nice addition to B/X. Full disclosure, I always go full on Rules Cyclopedia no-holds-barred Non-weapon-proficiencies and I have not looked back since. Skills in DnD are a godsend.
There’s layers to Karameikos that are intriguing. As we have read in B10, the actual history of Karameikos is much different. For long centuries the primitive tribesmen were slaves of a race of fox people, who taught them pottery, bronzeworking, architecture and so on. Some of the natives still resent the Duke and the Thyatians for the casualties they inflicted when they took over Specularum and some of the rampant pillaging and disowning of land that happened under his watch…but his policies HAVE made things better. Banditry and humanoids are driven back, tax money has gone into roads, fortresses and a professional army…
Part of what makes this setting compelling is the human elements. There’s a vast amount of potential conflict in the setting that can be mined for adventure seeds. The big bad in The Grand Duchy is not a 20th level Lich in a fortress of doom , it’s Karameikos’s psychopathic 15th level ftr nephew Ludwig Von Hendriks and his dastrardly thug turned wizard Bargle the Infamous, who has turned his barony into a fantasy north korea and is engaging in gleeful slavery, piracy and other atrocities that the Duke does not fully know how to confront. It’s the second in command of the old Patriarch, who has always hated Traladarans and will put pressure on them to outlaw their church and start a holy war if anything happens to the old Patriarch. It’s the Veiled Society, led by old Traladaran merchant houses, fomenting dissent and plotting assassination and terror. Like in any good S&S setting, the human conflict takes precedent.
When I talk about depth I mean that Gaz 1 covers areas of a campaign setting that would come up in a game where PCs are expected to eventually gain a name for themselves and gain a domain in their own right, which Gaz 1 does. There’s FULL coverage of the process of rising from Freeman  to Baron, it covers the rights and oaths of fealty, it goes into laws and punishment in the Grand Duchy…and its done in but a few pages. So many campaigns don’t give a fuck about mundane elements that cover BASIC BUILDING BLOCKS IN A CAMPAIGN WORLDS MAKE-UP. At the same time you never get the idea Allston is just jerking off, he takes pains to explain that the purpose of law and procedure in a game of DnD is to lead to exciting adventure not a thing an sich. What if you are an elf? What does the trip from Court Lord to Baron look like? What are some other major players in the game besides the nobility? What if I don’t join a Thieves Guild? All answered.
There’s an element which I am sure some might find jarring, that in Basic DnD powerful characters are almost always high level, but in Karameikos it kind of makes sense. Almost all the nobles in the Grand Duchy are second-born nobleman’s sons and adventurers that carved out their baronies by hook and crook and most are friends of the Duke. I’d gripe more about the plethora of high level female fighters in the setting, something of a jarring side effect of assuming character generation rules apply to NPCs and represent average ability distribution, but chances are you already know how that argument goes down and have formed some sort of opinion on it.
Religion in all of B/X is handled weirdly in that the game as a whole seems strangely reluctant to declare whether or not clerics are in fact worshipping the Immortals  or are only sponsored by them. This is how The Duchy can have two major churches and one cult and go into their belief systems but neglect to mention what Immortal is even payed homage too. The interesting thing is that both the Church of Karameikos and the Church of Traladara seem to worship more or less the same pantheon of Immortals (Halav, Petra & Zirchev among others) but are completely at odds in how they view Sin, Personal Responsibility and marriage among other things. The Cult of Halav is presented as a bunch of cranks that believe the Duke is the reincarnation of King Halav, and are meant for laughs, but I think an opportunity is missed here to make them be something more.
Much more interesting is Gaz 1’s curious reluctance to go into the philosophy of the badguys. You will occasionally find evil clerics in the B series but there’s rarely any explanation of what they believe in or serve beyond Chaos, which I suppose will have to serve. I’ve always thought this a missed opportunity.
So unlike other weak ass settings with limp wrists and flacid weiners Gaz 1 has a complete listing of all its major military forces using the too-rarely-used Warmachine stats that essentially enable you to turn your dnd campaign into a full on war game complete with chits, single diceroll battle resolutions and other autistic shit that has fallen out of favor with the newer Avengers-in-Loth-Lorien version of DnD. I’m not kidding its all here, different units, stationed in different fortresses, what time it takes to mobilize additional troops etc. Do you know how long that takes? 2 pages.
I miss this type of craftmanship in newer campaigns, even though I understand full well that the type of play this supports has become Niche and most games are Murd3rh0b0z t1ll w3 D13. If you are going to do a module, do flash and bang and ooh and aaah. If you expect people to invest time and effort into your setting which is to be able to handle multiple adventures, you better make sure it doesn’t fall apart at the first scrutiny.
There’s some fluff stuff that I suppose was obligatory to put in your Serious ™ campaign setting but that could have been shortened without too much loss of value. Notes on dress for Thyatians, Traladarans, nobles, commoners, different classes and so on. Talk of coinage that you can attempt but that most of your Players will probably flat out refuse to adopt , even if a sensible point is made that clearly precious metal in Mystara is much more common and thus its value is comparatively less, an explanation that is as good as any other I suppose.
There’s a Calender with important holidays and events (i.e. tax collection, something that WILL be applied to PCs, otherwise the GM is to make sure they have to go to a lot of trouble to avoid it) which is nice, but the use of a different calender is jarring, even if 12 months with 28 days each seems more convenient at first. I think people don’t fucking realize the immense hassle it is to switch to a different calendar. I’m not even sure Middle Earth has a different calendar. If any of you would be setting writers read this DON’T FUCKING CHANGE THE CALENDAR.
Contrary to what you might believe there’s actual content in this damn Gazzeteer as well. The capital city of Specularum gets an extensive treatment in terms of neighborhoods, main streets, ducal palace etc. There could be more hooks but the clearly defined areas, underworld neighbourhoods (The Nest), crime riddled immigrant’s quarter, street of soothsayers and magician’s and other features that make the place come alive, and render it suitable for sustained campaigning. A true gritty medieval shithole with narrow streets, filthy open sewers and crime. My kinda place. Many of the hooks presented later on focus on city adventures as well, which is a nice touch, since these are often a bit too straightforward for presentation in a separate module but can nevertheless be worked out into an interesting night of adventure.
Hooks are alright in this section but could be stronger. Allston will off-handedly point out that here and here is the original site of Lavv, birthplace of King Halav and there might be haunted ruins here or that this site suffers from humanoid attacks but its very light. The most interesting locale is probably Korizegy Keep, site of a cursed castle, where a dynasty sought to forge a pact with the forces of darkness and was cruelly punished by immortals for their infamy, now famously haunted, followed closely by the vampire ruled village of Sulescu. Korizegy keep has a map and some 1 sentence encounters but fuck that, make your own Keep.
What is probably better is that every little settlement fits, is intelligently placed (i.e. trade routes and bodies are considered), has distinguishing features and has a place within Karameikos. Its a coherent whole. It feels GROUNDED.
If the locations were fairly tame, the section on Characters is positively riddled with potential adventure hooks, which is fortunate since it is the longest section in the book. The Royal Family is described, as well as barons, ambassadors, merchant houses, street beggars, leaders of thieves guilds, noblewomen with a grudge, Chamberlains etc. etc. For a dungeoncrawling campaign? Probably too much. For a dungeoncrawling campaign that slowly turns into a game of gaining influence and intrigue? Perfect. The low point is the ambassadors, some of which are boring and add little, clearly meant to be people the PCs can extract information from. Just do a few sentences and ditch. A hotbed of intrigue and potential conflict with far-reaching ramifications. A noblewoman is finally giving her meltdown speech in the public square before a vast crowd, infiltrated with her soldiers, and starts the riot of her lifetime because the Duke killed Daddy 30 years ago! The Chamberlain’s assistant is selling information to the merchant houses! Sheik Abdallah Ibn Hamed is considering kidnapping the Ambassador of Glantri for his hareem. The ambassador of Thyatis is a fucking asshole and he hates your guts! Some of the other ambassadors seem like boring pieces of shit. Oh the Elf ambassador is quite the dandy and doesn’t like dwarves? How novel. Please excuse me while I take my cyanide!
But Prince these sound like hooks for city adventures?!? What about muh dungeons! Ah, says I, but this setting was made when the B10 came out, and there was plentiful access to dungeons using Karameikos as a default setting. Allston collated that and instead gave us EVERYTHING around it.
The Gazzeteer concludes with a shitton of maps of the city, the grand duchy (in full hexmappery, beautiful), notes on what monsters to use and how frequently they appear in the grand duchy (very intelligent, thank you!) and 3 pages of short adventure seeds.
These I am least enthusiastic about. Some of them amount to little more then EXPLORE ZIS AREA FOR ZE BARON or ESCORT ZE GNOMISH CARAVAN and the note “have the advantage that they can be repeated” is a bug not a feature in my eyes. There are, however, plenty of quaint adventure hooks that a novice GM should be able to make into something good. One of the character gets mistaken for a gambler, mysterious notes are found hinting at the treachery of the councillor, murder and intrigue in the streets, ancient sorcery unearths legions of undead humanoids buried in a chamber under Lavv, people are hired to infiltrate the Black Barony etc. It ends appropriately at Companion level adventures (levels 15 – 25), when the Barony seems appropriately small for the PCs. All Companion level hooks are setting altering events, which serves as a good indication of what scale is appropriate for what levels.
These hooks are not brilliant. They are however, perfectly suited to their goal, which is to help the GM use this setting to have his players have exciting adventures. This they do admirably and rather well.
Grand Duchy is a fine example of a good campaign setting. Its low brow but not stupid, its barrier of entry is low, it has plenty of adventuring possibility yet treats the world as a living, real thing, not as a pretext for adventures, its structure allows for a depth that is almost unheard of in these depressing times and despite its focus on the human elements it still provides plenty of hooks. If you want to take your campaign to Werewolf-haunted, orc-infested Karameikos and you feel like taking your game outside the Dungeon and into the street, and later the court, this baby is EXACTLY what you need.
Last but not least, and since I had a short discussion with Ash Adler on the subject, the topic of Raise Dead is not mentioned in the Gazzeteer, even though there are numerous examples when such a spell would be of immense use, suggesting that it is a rare art indeed, employed cautiously, if at all. Music to my low fantasy ears.
Its got its warts, the writing’s balls still need to drop and at times it goes on about what the Traladarans dress like, but if you want to turn Karameikos into a big boy setting I think you could do a hell of a lot worse. As a standalone product it would be pretty cool, but as an addition to what has already been laid out in the B series and the B/X expert set its exactly what the doctor ordered to put Mystara on the map. For under 70 pages, damn fucking useful, especially if you are a novice GM. ****
 A skill system for all you new kids out there
 I recall the 2e PHB listing NWP’s as (optional) but almost everyone I know who played 2e used them.
 There’s a vampire in charge of a village somewhere but he just pretends he is is son and mostly rules the village fairly well, albeit it there is a voluntary curfew.
 There is no slavery in Karameikos
 Unlike most DnD settings, all of Mystara’s Immortals are ascended mortals and the true nature of the universe is left more or less open
 No seriously. Try getting your PCs to call Gold Pieces Crona or Royals or Floopzars or something. The best thing you can do is stubbornly refer to it yourself and MAYBE your players will eventually adopt it but for the most part it adds comparatively little and is more cumbersome then the instantly recognizable GOLD PIECE.