Reflections on Karameikos

So, GAZ1: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, published in 1987 by TSR. What a book. What a gloriously imperfect, yet exciting book. As someone whose gaming supplement standards are informed by the likes of Yoon-Suin and Kevin Crawford’s Sine Nomine products, it’s difficult to not be a little frustrated by GAZ1. Information is generally provided in a text-dump expository way; there are very few tables to generate new content; it lacks many of the innovations and conveniences that modern OSR publishing has pioneered. The text is somewhat unpleasingly presented in many places, and conveyance suffers from the usual lack of clean formatting and highlighting of important bits. But faulting the book for this would be like faulting for 1939 Chevrolet for not having air conditioning. What’s there is there, and what’s there is pretty great. And I find myself thinking and daydreaming much, much more about Karameikos than I ever anticipated.

A lot of the interesting bits of the book stem from how author Aaron Allston’s vision of Karameikos is delightfully messy. What does it mean to be from Karameikos? It depends on whether you’re a Traladaran, or a Thyatian settler. It depends on whether you approve of Grand Duke Stefan or not – and whether you consider him the prophesied reincarnation of King Halav. If you’re a thief, which of the three guilds do you belong to? If you’re a magic-user, do you roll your eyes at local superstitions or do you abide by them? If you’re a cleric, which church do you belong to, and do you subscribe to any secret doctrine?

Interior art from GAZ1: Grand Duchy of Karameikos, © Wizards of the Coast.

Playing in Karameikos immediately invites you to interrogate your character concept on the setting’s premises without too much long-wrought exposition or setting lore mastery. GAZ1 hits the sweet spot here, and adds one pinch of spice to perfect the dish: no one has perfect information about everything from the beginning.

Karameikos is deceptively complicated to just the right amount that it becomes a story machine as soon as you insert some player characters. It conceives of the Grand Duchy as anything but monolithic. Because Allston does not structure the region around modern conceptions of nationality and nation-statehood, Karameikos appears much more authentically medieval than many other takes on adventure-friendly feudal polities. Like Capetian France and Norman England, Karameikos is animated by the interactions and tensions between constituent groups and factions, and more than any dungeon (a subject the book is surprising sparse about), sociopolitical messiness provides the stimulus for adventure in the Grand Duchy.

A normal day in Karameikos. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In fact, delving and dungeoneering seems almost like an afterthought in Karameikos. The provided list of adventure seeds almost all deal with some kind of social or political theme. I can’t help but think that Karameikos in many ways would make a better Burning Wheel setting than it would a D&D setting. Or a reskinned game of Pendragon, where the players take on the role of knights in the service of Stefan III. The setting just seems to lend itself very well to characters who have stakes in the social situation.

I’d happily participate in a D&D/OSR game as well though – in fact, grabbing Kevin Crawford’s An Echo Resounding and an assortment of sandbox toolkits, populate the wilderness, and roll up some new-freshed adventurers sounds like a hell of a time too…

Damn. I kind of want to run a Karameikos game now.

Any older publications that unexpectedly inspired you recently?

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