Internet rage goon
Thanks to Stelio for the image!
Bruce Heard isn’t the best known of the TSR-era D&D designers, and the setting he so closely oversaw – Mystara – isn’t the best-known of D&D’s many settings. But Mystara, and Heard, have a hard core of very devoted fans, of which I sit somewhere at the fringe.
In the not-so-distant past, Heard attempted to acquire to rights to develop Mystara from WotC, and when that didn’t work out he hatched his own setting: Calidar: In Stranger Skies, which he launched with a Kickstarter last year. In Stranger Skies is the first game book for the setting (there were some promotional short stories and blog content released along the way), appearing in late 2014. It’s an almost system-free look at the world (there is one chapter with Pathfinder Roleplaying Game (1st Edition) stats for monsters and NPCs, but everything else is system-free).
Heard’s dedication to Mystara and continued engagement with its fanbase generated a lot of (well-deserved) goodwill for him. Calidar came across as a spiritual continuation of the themes Heard loved in Mystara. But Mystara is a massive setting, which changed substantially over its years of product support, especially after the massive magical injection of Dawn of the Emperors: Thyatis and Alphatia. Heard is perhaps best known as a writer for his “gameable fiction” series of articles about a skyship’s voyage across the fringes of Mystara, The Voyage of the Princess Ark (some of which were later collected in Champions of Mystara: Heroes of the Princess Ark).
Unsurprisingly, Calidar focuses strongly on these themes of high magic (by which I mean Everest-high), skyships, and game fiction. While it’s a beautifully presented product that displays lots of imagination, it fails to provide a juicy and immediately accessible gaming world (partly because of the lack of rules for skyships, partly because it is such a bird’s eye view, and partly because the fiction plays such a key role). It feels more like an exercise in world-building than a handbook for generating adventures – a fun read, but not something I will use in play.
Calidar: In Stranger Skies is available as a pdf and as a print-on-demand product (with both hardcover and softcover versions). Being on the fringe of Mystara fandom, I only have the pdf and will be reviewing that.
The pdf is 141 pages long, with almost all of that content (including the half-page ad for RPG Geek!). It’s nicely laid out, with a three-column format, parchment background, and a decent amount of black and white illustrations. The editing is excellent, though I have issues with the organization. The pdf is fully bookmarked as well.
What really stands out about Calidar are the maps, which are simply gorgeous. Thorfinn Tait has done some absolutely beautiful work, as you can see in the example below (though this is actually the poster map that you can purchase separately). There are several area maps like this, but there’s a lot more too – climate and ocean current maps, a couple of maps of Calidar’s solar system that rival astronomy textbook images for artistry and clarity, and six pages of skyship deckplans. Honestly, despite my issues with the book, the purchase was worthwhile for the maps alone. They are that cool!
The first thing you need to know is that In Stranger Skies opens with a 50-page story (with the same title). In very brief terms, it follows a group of people catapulted into Calidar’s solar system and onto a skyship, the Star Phoenix. They all come from different worlds (that they don’t remember) but operate like a well-oiled crew. The story essentially follows their first adventures in and near Calidar, introducing us along the way to many of the important elements of the setting.
So. Game fiction. I’m not, in general, a fan, and while I found the story reasonably engaging (at least until the terrible ending), I don’t think it serves as a very good introduction to a game setting. (To be fair, I’m also not a fan of fantasy fiction – other than Terry Pratchett, the only fantasy novels I’ve read in the past five years were the last books of the Wheel of Time series, and that’s only because I am subject to the sunk cost fallacy.)
One problem is that the information is disbursed in a process that serves the fiction rather than reference at the table; while the second part of the book helps with that, there are lots of details contained here (and only here). Second, the crew of the Star Phoenix comes off as the main characters of the setting. Although the story stops short of being world-shaking, it feels like this crew has a key role to play in Calidar’s future.
The remaining 80 pages of text are more of a traditional setting book. It’s a fully-realized setting; below I’ll comment on the main themes, triumphs, and obstacles I spotted.
The Overview: Calidar is actually the largest world in a solar system (around the star Soltan). A key conceit of the setting is the existence of skyships, some of which are fitted for (mostly) magical space travel. All of the worlds are inhabited, and political conflict is quite stark. Calidar itself is clearly intended as a land of adventure: the settled area is relatively small (the Great Caldera pictured on the map shown here), and the surrounding Dread Lands are continually reclaimed by the planet’s “world soul,” leaving lots of room for monsters and ruins.
As the introductory book, In Stranger Skies tries to present all of this, and therein lies my primary difficulty with the book: the discussions are generally so cursory that they present some interesting ideas but fail to make them sing for an RPG campaign. You get two paragraphs noting that there’s an asteroid full of dog-people, which mostly gives geography and some strange but unobservable magic that shrinks everything that lands. The book fails to provide any hook or reason why I should actually care to use this civilization in a game.
To be fair, the book is constructed so as to zoom in on one particular kingdom in on the world of Calidar itself. So we get one chapter on the solar system, one on Calidar, and one on the Kingdom of Meryath (with significant detail on its capital city and personalities). Meryath provides a somewhat detailed home base, but given that all of the threads seem to point outward from there, the detail didn’t help me much to envision an adventure or even campaign. It feels more like a lot of time spent on the Keep rather than the Caves of Chaos (that’s a B2 reference for the uninitiated).
High Fantasy: The next thing you need to know is that Calidar is quite possibly the highest-fantasy setting I’ve ever seen. We first see it through the lens of space travel, which isn’t exactly common but certainly isn’t rare either. There’s a planet full of dragons, entire worlds that are alive, and the land of the dead fulfilling the role of hyperspace. If you want gritty, run screaming for the hills and try to outrun all the skyships….
Personally, I like high fantasy quite a lot – epic magic and dynamic landscapes are quite fun. But Calidar is the sort of fantasy that makes high magic commonplace, baked into the fabric of society. That makes the PCs rather insignificant parts of the world, much like the 1,000 36th level wizards that led Alphatia (in Mystara) did. So it’s magical high fantasy, but not epic fantasy, at least so far as the PCs are concerned.
Bureaucracy! There’s another level to this, which is just how organized everything is throughout Calidar. This extends from religion – the section on the deities explains how member deities of a pantheon must donate one-tenth of their magical power to the pantheon’s leader – through to just about everything else. Or consider this excerpt from the gazetteer to Glorathon, Meryath’s capital:
Glorathon is wealthy in large part due to the efforts of the tax collectors, assessors, engineers, surveyors, and other experts who work to make Glorathon ever greater. Their paper-littered, map-hung, busy offices are here…everyone loves a large desk, but that’s because it can be stacked with more paper…. The secret of Glorathon’s success is that its civic officials work fairly well as a team, with infighting and turf battles kept to a minimum. This passage (and a few others) gave me Phantom Menace moments…when your epic story of desperate battles against evil turn into…well, discussions about trade and taxes. There’s a lot of this sort of thing in Calidar, which I suppose lends it some verisimilitude, but it’s not something I want in a fantasy setting.
The most obvious example of this is in the structure of the kingdom of Meryath, which has a guild of dragonslayers and is led by the most famous adventurer. (Other adventurers, if they are famous enough, get votes in the Hall of Heroes.) It’s all just so organized! It feels like PCs have very particular organizations to which they should belong, goals to which they should aspire, etc. But along the way they’ll just be tiny little cogs in this adventuring machine. That kind of bureaucratization of adventure isn’t my thing.
A Broad Brush: In Stranger Skies paints with a broad brush in a couple of ways. As mentioned above, it’s a relatively brief overview, so we don’t get into many details. At the same time – and perhaps it’s just a lack of space – we don’t get any depth to the various civilizations. The elves are kind of nasty, the humans are religious, the dwarves like to fight, there’s an Asian-analog planet, there are Vikings, etc. Mystara did this as well – many of the nations were clearly closely inspired by real-world civilizations – but the detail lavished on each of these in the Gazetteer series made them elevated them to interesting and playable locales. That could very well happen in this world, but In Stranger Skies doesn’t succeed in bringing them to life in this way. Even in the Meryath section, where there is some detail, the names clearly refer to native Polynesian or Hawaiian culture, but that isn’t developed in any interesting way.
Opportunities for Adventure: In Stranger Skies also fails to deliver clear and actionable adventures. Again, because it is such an overview, most of the setting feels like it contains juicy macro-scale conflicts, but it doesn’t offer any specific, small-scale adventure seeds. At this point in my life, I’m a fairly lazy GM, and I need that level of detail – even if is woefully incomplete, focusing on small parts of the setting – to help me to bring it to life in play. Calidar feels more like an exercise in world-building than an aid for jumpstarting your game.
The Kingdom of Meryath chapter does zoom in and offer some detail, and once it starts introducing characters there’s some intrigue and potential. But it’s pretty disconnected from skyships and vine-covered ruins, which I think is what the setting should mean to me, not courtly infighting.
No Secrets: To its credit, In Stranger Skies doesn’t feel like it’s holding back key elements of setting canon to be revealed in later stories (or held hostage by the creator while fans clamor for it…). There are a lot of key elements of the world that could remain mysterious but are laid out in plain English. That makes the setting book great for a GM, but of course it means your players have easy access to the same information.
System-Agnostic: I’ve already mentioned that In Stranger Skies is mostly system-free. There is an eight-page chapter that provides Pathfinder stats for some characters and for eight new critters. I think that a system-free setting book is a great idea…in principle. But the problem is that key parts of this setting are both unique and very, very important to establishing its tone – like the idea that fame makes heroes stop aging, and can eventually push them to godhood. Asking the GM to codify that is challenging – but then consider the elephant in the room, skyships/spaceships! It’s very difficult to pull off vehicle-based adventuring in any RPG, and the D&D family has never had good rules – in fact, aside from Spelljammer: AD&D Adventures in Space, I can’t think of any that achieved any level of popularity. To make Calidar work for me, I’d need to generate entirely new skyship/spaceship rules. And that’s hard. I guess system-agnostic is a good direction for vanilla settings, but I think you really do need mechanics for the unique parts.
The Bottom Line
In Stranger Skies is an intriguing exercise in fantasy world-building that breaks many of the conventions you might expect. It’s a beautifully produced book (did I mention how gorgeous the maps are?) that does a lot of the basic things well. It’s unapologetically high fantasy – in the “magic everywhere” sense – that tries to build a complex world that nevertheless has some level of verisimilitude.
Unfortunately, it also leaves some gaping holes that prevent Calidar from being a compelling game setting. The lack of specific adventure hooks, depth to the cultures, and especially mechanics for making skyships and space travel part of your adventure make this very hard to use out of the box. If the conceits of the setting appealed to me more, I might be willing to put in the work to make that happen. But this flavor of high fantasy just isn’t my thing, as much as I like Spelljammer.
Which leaves one important question: does Calidar manage to evoke Mystara? In a sense, yes – you can see the clear influence of the patchwork of well-defined cultures that Mystara had, for example. You also see a lot of influence from the Princess Ark years of skyships, exotic voyages, and high magic. The earlier books in the Gazetteer series presented a much more “conventional” fantasy setting, and those early days always appealed to me a lot more – it’s my Mystara, if you will. I see only faint echoes of that in Calidar.
I also see Calidar as a platform for Heard’s fiction. Nothing wrong with that, especially for the large fraction of gamers who enjoy fantasy fiction – and the book doesn’t feel like it holds back much to be revealed in the fiction part of the product line later on – but it means extra reading for those of us who want to cut straight to the heart of the matter for our games.
If you’re looking for a genuinely interesting take on high-fantasy worldbuilding, you could do far, far worse than In Stranger Skies. If you're looking for cool maps, you can't do much better - anywhere. But the setting misses the bullseye for me, in its overall tone (too much bureaucracy, not enough heroism), lack of adventure hooks, and mechanical execution (please, tell me how to use a skyship!).