Recently some old friends in Akron, Ohio, turned up a few pages of the pre-TSR homebrew Dungeons & Dragons rules created by Tom Moldvay and me in the mid-1970s. I was delighted to see them, as I thought all of our early collaborative work had been lost to history.
I first encountered Tom Moldvay in late 1973 at a meeting of the Kent State University Science Fiction Club. We hit it off right away, and quickly decided we ought to collaborate on something — we just weren’t sure what.
In early ’74 Tom came back from an SF convention with Dungeons & Dragons in its original white box edition. He DMed a session, I DMed a session, and suddenly we knew what we were going to create together: a fantasy world setting for D&D.
We had both read widely in world history and mythology, and enjoyed a lot of the same fantasy fiction; we traded Lin Carter’s Ballantine Adult Fantasy books back and forth until we’d read them all, as well as everything we could find by Howard, Lovecraft, Tolkien, Merritt, Haggard, Harold Lamb, Dunsany, Hodgson, Machen, and Zelazny.
We were both nuts about Clark Ashton Smith, Tom was a Michael Moorcock and Philip José Farmer fanatic, while I could quote chapter and verse from the works of Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber. So we knew what we wanted to create: a single world setting that would enable us to simulate the fictional realities of these, our favorite authors.
It was going to have to be a big world.
[Click on the images for bigger versions.]
Most fictional fantasy worlds, of course, are based on aspects of our own world and its history.
For example, all the states in Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian setting are based on real-world cultures, simplified and boiled down to their easily-recognized essences — clichés, in other words, but in tropes that were instantly familiar to Howard’s readers. We decided we could do the same thing, adapting from historical sources, so our first task was to make a list of world cultures that would be useful templates for fantasy gaming. The list looked something like this:
- Ancient Mediterranean (Greece/Rome)
- Ottoman Empire
- Mongolian Tribes
- Aztec Mexico
- Han China
- Celtic Wales
- Pharaonic Egypt
- Hanseatic League Baltics
- Carolingian France
- Ancient Persia
- Dutch Republic
- Mughal India
We decided to plot out a single giant Pangea-type continent on which there would be fantasy-fictionalized versions of each of the above cultures. We also added homelands for the nonhuman races: Orcs, Goblins, Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, Lizard-Men, Deep Ones, Kzinti Catfolk, and Barsoomian Tharks, as well as a pirate kingdom, and areas where prehistoric creatures were the norm. Plus in every land there would be hidden cults that worshiped Lovecraftian Elder Gods.
We dubbed this setting the “Known World,” to imply there was more out there yet to be discovered, because we didn’t want to paint ourselves into a corner. It was our intention to use the Known World in ongoing open-ended campaigns run by multiple DMs, in which player characters could go back and forth from one DM’s game to another. Moldvay and I were already running our own campaigns this way, and we hoped to bring other DMs on board as well, so we’d all be playing in the same giant sandbox.
Known World Map 1
That meant we were going to need detailed write-ups on each of the various Known World cultures, so there would be consistency in how different DMs depicted different areas. For every culture we needed to specify how it was organized, who ruled it and by what methods, what gods the people worshiped, what their economies were founded on, what other states were their traditional rivals or allies, what their geography and environments were like, key cities and fortresses, important events in recent history, and so forth. Setting out to do this for two dozen homelands was pretty ambitious, but why the hell not? We were college students with plenty of time on our hands.
Moldvay and I had complementary skills and personalities, and we worked well together: where I was meticulous, organized, and precociously professional, Tom was brilliant, creative, and indefatigable.
Known World Map 2
We made a great team. Moldvay did most of the initial culture write-ups, whereas I created the leading non-player characters in each homeland; I was also the Name Guy and came up with most of the location names, drawing on Dunsany, Vance, and Clark Ashton Smith for inspiration.
X1 Isle of Dread map of the Known World
We were also inspired by how H. P. Lovecraft and his circle all drew from each others’ works in creating stories set in a common setting. We thought, by imitating that approach, we could create something the sum of which would be greater than its parts. And it would be an open setting that drew in the work and creativity of whoever wanted to contribute to it.
It took us two years and countless revisions, but by the end of the summer of 1976 we had the Known World documents and maps in a state we were satisfied with. Other local DMs were already using the setting from preliminary write-ups, and players in campaigns in Akron, Kent, and Cleveland were all playing in a shared world, adventuring together in the Republic of Darokin, the Emirates of Ylaruam, the Ethengar Khanates, the Principalities of Glantri, the Grand Duchy of Karameikos, and the Empire of Thyatis. What we’d set out to do had succeeded.
In early 1979 I went to work at TSR Hobbies as a designer for D&D and other games.
I was rapidly promoted to director of the Design Department, and in 1980 I brought Moldvay in to join us as a game designer. At that time we were preparing a revised version of the D&D Basic Set, as well as a companion box, the Expert Set, which would introduce players and DMs to wilderness adventures in the wider world.
So we were going to need a wider fantasy world to put them in. Up to that point most of TSR’s scenarios had been set in Gary Gygax’s World of Greyhawk, but we couldn’t use that, as it was Gary’s personal campaign setting, and was reserved for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game products.
I can’t remember whether it was Moldvay or me who suggested it, but we proposed dusting off our Known World documents for use as the new, standard D&D campaign setting. This got approved, I think by Mike Carr, and a revised version of our campaign map was hexed-up by the Art Department for use in X1, The Isle of Dread module, which was designed by Moldvay and Zeb Cook to be included in the Expert Set box.
If you look at the original Kent-era maps that illustrate this article, you can see for yourself how Schick and Moldvay’s Known World was adapted to become TSR’s Known World (and eventually Bruce Heard’s Mystara).
Ah, the memories it evokes. I just wish Tom Moldvay was still around to share them. I miss him.
Lawrence Schick is a game designer mainly known for his work in role-playing games. He also writes and edits historical adventure fiction under the name Lawrence Ellsworth, where his latest title is The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure, now available from Pegasus Books. His last article for Black Gate was Compiling The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure. Lawrence Schick also writes and edits historical fiction under the name Lawrence Ellsworth; his website is Swashbucklingadventure.net.