Gods need more agents in the world than just clerics and paladins. A goddess’s chosen people might wander anywhere across in many lands, but a goddess’s chosen sites are fixed in place. To guard these—particularly after a deity’s mortal congregations have long since moved on—the gods rely on immortal servants: divine guardians.
So it’s a template. And a pretty neat one. I like the easy customizability of the creature’s subtype. The various senses, defenses, and spell-like abilities all make sense for an immortal guardian. Even the Divine Swiftness (Ex) and +5 racial bonuses on Perception and Sense Motive checks are a nice touch—just what you’d expect from a difficult-to-fool, shockingly fast tomb guardian in an old Conan story.
With their eternal lives counterbalanced by their fixed locations, divine guardians are also a great hand-wave for a GM. Got a perfect monster for that final boss encounter but no logical reason (let alone a logical food supply) to have it stuck that deep in a dungeon? Make it a divine guardian—bam, problem solved. It’s also nice to have a firsthand witness to history that’s not an elf (or an ageless enemy that’s not a lich or outsider). And since the gods sometimes use divine guardian status as much as a punishment as a reward, it’s a good way to put PCs into conflict with a monster they might not otherwise have reason to fight (or be forced to parley with a monster they would ordinarily slay).
One last note: What I especially like about the example divine guardian hydra is Shreya Shetty’s art. Because it’s not a hydra; it's this regal crowned multi-headed cobra…thing. Which is fantastic. Because yes, there are going to be some divine guardians who were once normal creatures invested with power: “To guard the Moon Maiden’s Promontory, I will make you The Best Werebear Ever.” But in most fantasy stories, especially old pulp stories, old religious sites are never guarded by a Slightly Better Monster…they're guarded by strange serpent lords and space elephants. So I like the idea of divine guardians that are unique in the world. No one ever has to know your Scion of the Cobra Lord is a variant hydra but you. Better yet, layer on more than one template. An earth element-infused (from the Advanced Bestiary) divine guardian behir for instance, might be completely unrecognizable to players by the time you’re done tweaking it, and all you have to do is add a couple of numbers.
The triton sorcerer Loeb mocked his people and what he deemed their superstitious faith. As a punishment, the Wavelord banished him somewhere he disdained even more: the surface. Loeb has put his centuries guarding the Wavelord’s grotto of sacred pools to use, learning fire magic in a petty defiance in the aqueous power the suffuses him. Now he is a master of scalding steam and boiling waves as well.
A divine guardian kitsune left her shrine in order to pursue a tomb robber…and ended up chasing her quarry through a portal to the other side of the world. She dispatched the thief and reclaimed the stolen scrolls, but now she is half-mad in her desperation to get home before her divine status is revoked. Adventurers encounter her as a magist’s men-at-arms are unceremoniously hurling her out of their master’s villa. When she changes form in anger, the men-at-arms ring the bell signaling for help against a werewolf. With only four days left to return to her shrine, the mad kitsune seeks first escape, and then another portal home…and the adventurers are in her way.
Noted divine guardians of Areth include Five-in-One, a cobra-headed divine guardian hydra who guards a grove where the blue-skinned avatar of Marda manifested for the first time; Vagzin, a divine guardian girtablilu who hopes each day that the blood-splattered calendar she guards will foretell her death; the Maestro, a divine guardian clockwork mage who plays the carillon atop a chapel that only rarely exists in this reality; and Stormcloud, an avatar of thunder and lightning (treat as a divine guardian half-blue dragon roc), sightings of whose rooster-headed form on Mt. Geirhorn inspired the first weathercock.
—Pathfinder Bestiary 4 60–61
I believe a similar template appears in Green Ronin’s Advanced Bestiary.
Sacred Geographies was one of my favorite classes in college. So yeah, I like these guys.
So I still have weeks of reader comments to get to—for you new readers/commenters out there, I do read everything, and I respond as best I can—but David Fanany asked a question that pushed him to the top of the queue:
I came to Dungeons & Dragons in the late 1990s, after Mystara. What would you recommend someone in such a position read to learn more about it?
As I started to say last week, there’s an easy answer and a complicated answer.
First, background: When I talk about Mystara, for the most part I’m talking about the D&D products for D&D’s Known World, which was eventually named Mystara. There were very few products actually labeled “Mystara” on the cover. The ones that do exist were AD&D reboots of the D&D material. I never read any of them (except the Mystara Monstrous Compendium Appendix), so I can’t vouch for their quality; I believe their big hook was that the box sets came with audio CDs. The 2e Red Steel/Savage Coast products were set on a distant coastline in the same world. I skimmed those and wasn’t impressed; unless you’re a diehard 2e player, stick with the Dragon Magazine Savage Coast material instead (more on that later).
Okay, enough vocab. Let’s get on with it.
The easy answer is that Mystara fans are amazingly loyal and dedicated and have collaborated to create Vaults of Pandius: The Official Mystara Homepage. If you’re into fan communities, this is the place to start. It’s got an FAQ. It’s got those gorgeous maps I pointed you to the other day. It’s got a complete list of Known World/Mystara products for your eBay/online shopping needs. Want to know more about Mystara’s little-described southern continent? They put out an entire fanzine on PDF describing it. When it comes to starting points for your exploration and for new fan-produced content, Vaults of Pandius is perfect.
But…what if David is like me?
I prefer published books. I don't do well with reading online. (The irony of that statement appearing on a weekdaily blog is not lost on me.) So while VoP is amazing—and it is amazing; I don’t want to knock their hard work in the slightest, and would love to talk to some of those creators—I can't take their PDFs with me into the bathtub.
So if you’re like me…that’s where my answer gets complicated.
Like Greyhawk’s Oerth, Mystara grew organically in bits and pieces scattered throughout modules and sourcebooks. It’s not the polished setting we’re used to these days. The core of the Mystara setting, D&D’s Known World, was a dozen or so lands that basically only existed so the creators of the Expert Rules could show off as many different kinds of governments and cultures as possible. Logic went out the window in favor of playability and convenience, which explains why three Norse-like countries border a khanate and a fantasy Arabia with only a few miles of mountains between them. (This kind of thing continues elsewhere. The Isle of Dawn has Egyptian pyramids in the south, and Welsh/Cornish place names in the north. Granted, it’s a big island.)
Worse yet, there was no one overarching book. Instead, from that initial map the world got sketched out piecemeal: first in modules, then in the Gazetteer series, and finally in some box sets and “The Voyage of the Princess Ark” and “The Known World Grimoire” series in Dragon Magazine. For a reader/player at the time, it meant the world slowly unfolded for you in a series of exciting installments. But for someone going back like David is, there’s no easy starting point or reference book. There are a few pages and cramped maps crammed in the back of the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia, but you’d get just as much information in Vaults of Pandius. And the Gazetteer series, which would seem to be the logical beginning, is 14(!) books, often of varying interest level depending on your tastes in races/cultures/freelance authors (and often rather expensive, too).
In other words, if you’re a fan of carefully curated online material and fan contact, Mystara has a whole community waiting for you. If you’re a fan of physically published content and canon, there is seriously probably no worse setting to begin exploring in the entire D&D/AD&D/Pathfinder continuum.
So why do Mystara fans love it so? And why should David persevere despite everything I’ve just said?
Because it was a labor of love. Bruce Heard, Aaron Allston, and a legion of freelancers put their hearts and souls into the setting. They found ways to make a fantasy Arabia stuck between fantasy Scandinavia and fantasy Rome make sense. They took the limitations/peculiarities of the D&D rules sets (nonhuman races are the same as classes, all elves are essentially fighter/wizards, clerics can become druids halfway through their careers, PCs can go past level 36 and become immortal, etc., etc., etc.) and worked with them or around them, like poets working first in the sonnet form, then outside it once the rules had been properly respected. When 2e AD&D players were getting the Forgotten Realms, then Dark Sun and Spelljammer and Ravenloft and Al-Qadim (seriously, they were so spoiled for choice they got two desert settings) and Planescape and Birthright, the writers in the D&D line said, “Your game system and your world are just as good, just as worthy, just as serious—and we will prove it to you.” And prove it they did, turning out excellent supplements and the single best column Dragon Magazine ever ran. They did so well that the Known World even got promoted into two AD&D lines, Mystara and Red Steel. (That those brand extensions withered and died there has more to do with the glut of settings and the RPG market at the time than the world’s own merits.) The Known World/Mystara was the underdog that made it—and that made us feel good about sticking with our world and our old-fashioned rules system. (Come to think of it, that underdog appeal could be part of why I bonded with Pathfinder, eh…?)
So…that was my “O Captain! My Captain!” speech. Now that I’m up on this desk…well, I better come up with some options for David, huh?
One good place to start might be the Poor Wizard’s Almanac & Book of Facts by Aaron Allston. Most of the Mystara books were set in the year AC 1000, but a big new set of immortals-related rules and adventures called Wrath of the Immortals bumped the timeline up to AC 1010. The PWA&BoF explored the next few years in three installments, each one serving as part-guidebook/part-calendar of the year’s events. Best of all for your purposes, they're super-cheap (starting less than $5 used!) and unless you’re a diehard collector, you only need one, since only that year’s events/calamities change, not most of the details on the countries and personalities involved. In other words, it’s a great starting point to just browse and see if you like spending time in this world.
(Note there was a 2e Mystara-branded follow-up called Joshuan’s Almanac, but I can’t vouch for it because I’ve never even seen a copy).
The other good place to start is to simply dig up old installments of “The Voyage of the Princess Ark” and “The Known World Grimoire” series. Start with Dragon Magazine #153; the series runs in almost every issue through #188 (with a bonus flashback in #344), to be followed more intermittently by “TKWG” through issue #200. You can easily find PDFs of these issues online, and plenty of physical copies will be sitting in your gaming store’s bargain bins as well. In fact, I just saw some of the best issues in this run selling in my local shop for a dollar. (Confidential to anyone in Baltimore: I will seriously go to Collectors Corner with you and physically point at the issues you should get. I’m that crazy about this series.)
(Note that you can also find most of the “VotPA” stories (but not the companion articles about the lands) replicated in the box set Champions of Mystara. It’s gorgeous and has new lands and maps and ship layouts to show off…but you won’t like the price tag.)
After that your next target should probably be the box set Dawn of the Emperors: Thyatis and Alphatia, also by Aaron Allston. With two player books, a hefty GM book, and huge maps, there’s plenty here to keep you busy, and since these empires are so large, you’ll get a decent sense of the world…if from the arrogant perspective of two continent-conquering military and magical powers.
After that, look for the Hollow World Campaign Set by…you guessed it…Aaron Allston. (This is no accident. Aaron Allston was pretty much the only person who could match Bruce Heard’s ability to deliver a world’s worth of cultures and locations, and his breezy style that hid lots of information in easy-to-read prose was pretty much the template for entire D&D line.) This box set covers the hollow inside of Mystara, created by the immortals to preserve cultures (and dinosaurs) that would otherwise have been lost to time. Again it’s two gorgeous maps and three outstanding books—one with more player races/classes than you can shake a stick at, one with monsters, and one GM book that manages to be a treatise on the Known World’s entire history and divine pantheon and describe the entire Hollow World and is still a joy to read. So you get a whole lush interior world to explore that also tells you much of what you wished you knew about the surface world—all in one amazing box! (In fact, maybe even get this before DotE:TaA.)
Finally, you can look for the Gazetteer series. You will pay a mint for ones in good condition, but if you’ve come this far it might be worth it. Age of Ravens has an outstanding rundown on his blog—I’ve only skimmed the entries and can’t vouch for every word/opinion, but they're pretty solid and should be the first place you go before spending the money and energy tracking these books down. I’d say Bruce Heard’s GAZ3 The Principalities of Glantri is an absolute must-buy, the apex of the series, followed by Ed Greenwood’s GAZ8 The Five Shires (because of the classic Greenwood dramatis personæ and adventure seeds) and Carl Sargent and Gary Thomas’s GAZ13 The Shadow Elves. (I’m also a fan of Heard’s GAZ10 and how Ken Rolston really dives deep into single adventure locations in GAZ2 and GAZ7.)
By then, you should be good to explore on your own. From there, the rest of the Gazetteers, Creature Crucible books (hell yeah Tall Tales of the Wee Folk), modules, and accessories are up to you.
(And if anyone has an extra Five Shires map, my copy didn’t come with one, and I want it… Just sayin’.)