Thursday, March 21, 2019

Revisiting Karameikos

Sometimes (often?), when I have a blog idea that really gets me jazzed up, I end up doing a bunch of "research"on the subject, that can distract or derail me for days (or weeks) on end. Such is the case with this post, which has been sitting in "draft form" since January 18th. While this info doesn't matter all that much to the subject at hand, I feel like folks might be interested in the fact that I'm not (always) pulling these missives out of my ass, and that when I have a delay in posting it's (sometimes) due to me trying to get more info for my readers' benefit.

[BTW: I put "research" in quotes, because a lot of my study is simply culling and collating stuff from various places on the's hardly locking myself in some shadowy corner of the library. Not trying to put on airs, people!]

GAZ1; Published 1987
The Grand Duchy of Karameikos is a campaign setting that's been around (in published form) at least as long as I've been in the hobby. As I mentioned the other day, Aaron Allston did the bulk of the work fleshing out the Duchy in the BECMI supplement Gazetteer #1 of the same name. I won't go over too much of what's covered in the Gaz; interested folks can get a brief overview of the setting from this podcast (which draws from multiple sources post-1983, i.e. after the advent of Mentzer's BECMI edition).

[there's another video review specific to the Gazeteer itself, but while longer it has a lot of extemporaneous nonsense, ranging from opinionated asides to factual errors regarding both the setting and the game's development...I gather Mr. McCoy is more of a 2E/Forgotten Realms enthusiast, so his musings may be pertinent to folks interested in his perspective]

Karameikos first appears in published form in 1981, both as a territory of "the Known World" in module X1: The Isle of Dread, and detailed as a "sample wilderness" in the Cook/Marsh Expert set (the "X" rulebook of B/X). As has been noted by others, the Known World setting was originally created by Tom Moldvay and Lawrence Schick for their home campaign and in that setting (per Schick's old notes) Karameikos appears to have been little more than a Thyatian city-state existing on a skinny peninsula.

Besides changing the city to a Grand Duchy (and much larger territory), the Expert rulebook offers the following details of the land of Karameikos:

"The Duchy is a large tract of wilderness and unsettled land claimed by Duke Stefan Karameikos the Third. Although he claims control of a large area of land on paper, large portions of it are held by humanoids and monsters. The two main settled areas are the coast near the main city of Specularum and the Black Eagle Barony on the Gulf of Halag.

"The weather throughout the area generally temperate and mild with short winters of little or no snowfall and long summers. Rainfall is ample but not heavy and easterly winds blow cool breezes from over the sea.

"The mountain range running along the north edge of the map is known by different names by the peoples of the territory including the Black Peaks, the Truth Mountains, or the Steach. The two large river systems that provide drainage from the area are left for the DM to name.

"Due to the climate, large sections of this map are heavily forested. Humans engage in lumber operations near the edges of the forests, but are loathe to venture too deeply without good cause. Timber, both hardwood and softwood, is a prime resource of the area, and is either exported or used to build ships in the shipyards of the port of Specularum."

- D&D Expert Set, Page X60

In addition to this overview of the territory, the book (briefly) describes the three areas primarily inhabited by humans (Specularum, the Black Eagle Barony, and Luln) and the gnome community residing in the foothills of the mountain range (north of the coastal capitol). The map shows three inhabited castles (not counting the Duke's fortress), two ruins (Wereskalot and the Haunted Keep from the Basic set), and several humanoid areas within the Duchy: two forests of "elves," three different tribes of "goblins," some "orcs," and a region of "frost giants" (!!) in the mountains of the northeastern border.

I'll discuss the "human lands" in a later post. What's most interesting to me, in light of the development that has occurred in the years since its first appearance, are all the things that are NOT mentioned in the description here that became later "plot points." Missing is any mention of a Thyatian connection, nor is there any discussion of conquest or of an indigenous (Traladar) people. There is no discussion of native religion, mythology, or history...the Lost Valley (site of the 1986 adventure module B10: Night's Dark Terror) isn't even part of the territory (being located over the northern border). No familial connection is made between Baron Ludwig and Duke Stefan, and the baron isn't portrayed as quite the "scheming villain" he becomes later in the Gazeteers (also: no mention of any mage named "Bargle"). The gnomes are not the Duke's silver-smiths...they don't even seem to be allied with Karameikos at this point, though this appears to be a possible adventure opportunity (building an alliance with the community). For folks only familiar with Mentzer's Expert set, there is no mention of Threshold at's not even on the map (and I'm inclined to believe it was entirely a Frank Mentzer invention).

Mainly, Karameikos is presented as an underpopulated area ripe with adventure opportunities; a place to be explored and (at higher levels) settled by the player characters. Specularum appears far more of an Old West style "border town" than a place rife with intrigue and feuding merchant clans (as detailed in B6: The Veiled Society and GAZ1). For me, a guy who mostly ignored BECMI when writing my "what-could-have-been" B/X Companion, I find myself intrigued by the possibility of re-inventing (re-imagining?) Karameikos along my own lines...something a little less "good two shoes" with its O So Noble Archduke, his pleasantly banal family, and the mustache-twirling Baron of "Fort Doom." While I did play a good deal of BECMI in the past, my players never spent much time in Karameikos (at least, after exploring the various scenarios in Threshold and the Keep on the Borderlands), instead spending most of their time in Glantri, Darokin, and (to a lesser extent) Ethengar. I think that the Grand Duchy, even with slight twists to the existing "canon," could be a pretty neat setting for a campaign.

I'd definitely like to dig a bit deeper into it.
: )


  1. Intriguing post. I rather like the less detailed area described in the Expert set. So much more potential.

  2. My own take on Karameikos was that it'd be most tolerable as fantasied up Balkan kingdom under Ottoman dominion.

    A place left to its own devices as long as the voivode can keep the trouble to a minimum - and if the voivode can't the merciless horse legions get called out of the Imperial garrison and ravage whatever the trouble spot is annoying the distant emperor and disrupting the flow of taxes and child draftees to the legions.

    The PCs of course would be trouble shooters in the employ of the voivode (or his local representation) - hushing up rebellions, giants incidents, cult fanatics and whatnot.

    1. Yes, I've read (and thoroughly enjoyed) your take on the setting as you described in your old review of King's Festival; it's the perfect way to run that adventure.

      That being said, I'm NOT a big fan of "fantasy Transylvania" in general (which is kind of what Karameikos has been billed as since the mid-1980s). Now...can I think of a better idea? Not sure I can answer that in the affirmative.

    2. Not especially Fantastical Illyia? The constantly invaded, sort of classically Roman/Greek hinterland where Merchant sea Oligrachs, A surly religious holdout feudalistic neo-Empire rump state lingering from the collapse of the final sort of the classical golden age empire and the new rising formerly horse nomad now highly cosmopolitan empire on the rise are all squabbling to take over?

      If you want to pull from modern history a autarky that was sealed away under a mad, monument/fortification obsessed ruler while the world moved. Suddenly opening up and just sort of getting overrun with grifters, ponzi schemes, a smuggling mafia spearheaded by former wrestling champions and all that sort of wildness?

  3. I wanted to tell you I am really enjoying this Karameikos series. Looking forward to more. I am going to check out the linked vids too. I know others would enjoy it too so I linked to this post on my blog and mentioned it on my podcast this week.

  4. Interested in seeing where you go with this.