Lands of Mystery Lost

Recently, with the release of both The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide and Volo’s Guide to Monsters, the D&D fanbase has become agitated once again. “What do you allow in your games?” and “I ban this because that.” Discussions have become rampant as the world of Toril, home of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting begins to open up once again after the disastrous 4e effort. But that’s not what I want to talk about today. Today I want to talk about the accidental world that was created in the waning days of 3.5e D&D, a world without a name, but with immense potential, that quietly disappeared in the thunder and crash that was 4e’s release.

3.5e D&D was the tweaked and “fixed” version of 3e, correcting some issues that had gone unnoticed in the playtests prior to release. However, the biggest act it took in the base books was the delinking of the deities in it from their former home of Oerth (The Greyhawk Campaign Setting) and turning them into a generic pantheon for D&D. At the time this wasn’t widely remarked on, after all, Greyhawk was still the default world and subject of the fascinating Living Greyhawk campaign, run by the RPGA Network for Wizards of the Coast (WotC). I didn’t think much of it either, until Dragon, Dungeon, and finally WotC began revealing a new world.

Before Paizo Publishing went on to rock Pathfinder after being released by WotC, they produced Dragon and Dungeon magazines. Dragon was aimed at players, and provided new races, prestige classes, expanded class information, and clarifications for the most part. Dungeon was aimed at DM’s, and offered new or updated monsters, and simple module style adventures. Which was all well and good, until you started to notice that a lot of it was setting free, or made to be as easily transferable as possible, or so you would think. In reality, and unconsciously I believe, they had begun to craft a world that any player might want to play in, one largely free of the narrative baggage, stereotypes, tropes, and history that sometimes bogs down play or immersion.

Now, at this point, I was starting to become suspicious. But was this really a world or just what it was being presented as, a collection of adventures and updates for existing official and homebrewed campaign settings? Then WotC released a series of books that nailed it for me. A new world was being created, and no-one was noticing it. There were eight books in all. When combined with the core three D&D books, they created an initially map free campaign setting, nameless, formless, and intriguing. These books were the Races of Destiny, of the Dragon, of Stone, and of the Wild, in conjunction with Frostburn, Stormwrack, Sandstorm, and the Planar Handbook. What these books did was greatly expand the generic lore of the core player races, and then added more. They also dramatically expanded the now generic D&D pantheon to include dozens of new gods and goddesses.

Map by Ben Wilson From Ben Wilson's Pintrest Page

Map by Ben Wilson
From Ben Wilson’s Pintrest Page

I was puzzling this all out when WotC announced that Paizo Publishing would no longer be producing work for them, and the last issue of Dungeon was released ahead of the launch of 4e D&D. Issue #150 included a small but beautifully rendered map of a new world, delinked from any established world, much like the material from the core books and eight I mentioned. It was not a large world, only part of the northern hemisphere, but it was a world. It was called the Lands of Mystery. I realized this must be that generic world. It may not have been. Certainly the creator said that it was part of an effort to create worlds using only maps, but it just fit too well.

For many years, D&D had lacked, and still lacks, a simple, wide open sandbox of a setting for players and DMs to embrace. All of the established worlds are heavy with history and baggage (Krynn, Oerth, Toril), and/or hamstrung by the limitations of the creators imaginations or by the theme of the setting (Red Steel, Mystara, Jakandor, Ravenloft, Planescape, Dark Sun) . Then along comes a series of books, adding new races, mythology, and depth, inadvertently combining with the delinked information in the core books. The result just needed a map for definition, one helpfully provided by Ben Wilson in the final issue of Dungeon under Paizo Publishing. The result was brilliant, and unnoticed for the most part, with players and DMs simply picking choosing what to include or exclude instead of seeing what had fully happened. Then, in a flash, 4e D&D was released, and everything from 3/3.5e D&D was relegated to the dustbin of D&D history.

So, there it is. A world created by accident, filled with races that had little connection to traditional worlds or ideas about D&D. I’m genuinely sorry that this new world was never fleshed out or explored, because as a game, D&D has been stuck in a serious rut for some time now, and needs to do something to create something not locked in its current tropes to attract more players.