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Art of the Genre: Maztica Memories

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011 | Posted by Scott Taylor

Fred Field's wife?  Only he can tell us...

Fred Field's wife? Only he can tell us...

After taking a moment to pull down the Dragon Mountain Boxed Set, I thought it might be fun to do the same with other lesser known boxes that came out of TSR around 1990. That period was actually the beginning of the end for the role-playing giant, Gygax ousted, sales flagging, and the need for fresh ideas and worlds seemingly all that the company could see as its savior.

As we are well aware, the next wave in the gaming industry wouldn’t come from the RPG table, but instead from cards, ala Magic the Gathering, but still TSR struggled to not only survive but come up with something fresh enough to gather new players.

It was here that we find various new titles rolling hot off their press, but many of the games in that period simply turned into boxed campaign settings along the lines of Maztica, which in itself is set in The Forgotten Realms.

This campaign was written by TSR staff author Douglas Niles, and although not as famed in novel fiction as Weis and Hickman, by 1990 Niles was pleasantly entrenched in the Forgotten Realms with his Darkwalker on Moonshae Trilogy. He also penned the Maztica Trilogy, including Ironhelm, Viperhand, and Feathered Dragon, but I’ve never read these three books so I can’t speak as to their worth for the purpose of supporting this setting.

Niles was challenged in this project to create a Mesoamerican world that mingles with the fantasy setting of the Forgotten Realms. In my opinion, after several so-so attempts at reading this set, he fails to deliver on what would make such a setting uniquely cool, ala demi-humans! The work tends to bog down in a kind of repetition of real-world conquistadors waging a campaign against indigenous peoples of the far south continents where the only change in the story line is that the priests actually had working magic.

I have no idea where this computer image is from, but it's clearly Forgotten Realms, and perhaps the best image ever of what Maztica should have been...

I have no idea where this computer image is from, but it's clearly Forgotten Realms, and perhaps the best image ever of what Maztica should have been...

In all I’m unimpressed with the work, and the artwork is no less appealing save for the box’s cover which was done by Fred Fields. His work is admirable, and I’ll go so far as to say I’m a fan of that cover, but his later paintings for the covers of two of the interior booklets leave much to be desired. The box cover is an interesting study, however, and the more I’ve studied it the more I think the woman portrayed on the cover is actually Fred’s wife, which may be the very reason it’s so inspired.

I have no idea where this computer image included in this article is from, but it’s clearly Forgotten Realms, and perhaps the best image ever for what Maztica should have been…

As for interior work, well it’s a complete failure for the sake of inspiration, with too few images and those that do grace the pages are clumsy and without any real spirit. [In a funny publishing glitch, Jeff Easley is credited with doing the interior color work for the first two booklets, and yet neither includes any color art. I suspect a dwindling budget cut such things from the project right before production] These b/w images were done by freelancers Valarie Valusek, Laurie Yockey, and Newton Ewell but they give me no reason to desire more of their work on any other projects. There is nothing new here, nothing trend-setting or even truly inspired Mesoamerican, and that world is such a colorful and diverse one it makes me all the more sad to see it go to waste.

If you looked at something else that came out during this gaming time period, Shadowrun, its obvious FASA’s art director ‘got it’ about how to portray Native Americans in role-playing, be they from North or South America. TSR squandered this opportunity with Maztica, and I’m sorry to say that this is one supplement I would recommend passing on if you ever see it 2nd hand.

6 Comments »

  1. I think this would have done better if they had just made their own mini setting for a Mesoamerican type game. I think setting it in the FR made it come off as cheesy.

    good review though

    Comment by Glenn - November 30, 2011 10:42 am

  2. I think the concept of “Fantasy Meso-/South-America” could have worked in FR, but Maztica was just too dull and derivative. If we’re going to have fantasy analogues of Real World stuff (and I’ve no theoretical objection), then it would be nice to mix things up a little. Say, if the pseudo-American cultures had been dropped onto the map in place of the pseudo-Arabian cultures (FR’s Zakhara, etc.). Sure, putting pseudo-America in direct contact with pseudo-Eurasia probably demands some changes. We’d have no excuse for denying our pseudo-Americans horses or cows, or wheeled vehicles, or metallurgy … but that would just sort of add to the fun. What _would_ a Mayan “cataphract” look like? :) Ah well. (And, yes, Shadowrun did its American stuff in a more interesting way! But there’s really no excuse for FR not having done it better.)

    Comment by carlaz - December 1, 2011 12:04 pm

  3. Glenn: Agreed, what they tried to do just didn’t really fit with the world they were building in the standard FR and even Kara-Tur…

    Comment by Scott Taylor - December 1, 2011 11:54 pm

  4. Carlaz: I like your ideas of the subject matter. Perhaps TSR might have lasted a few years longer if you’d been working for them 😉

    Comment by Scott Taylor - December 1, 2011 11:54 pm

  5. 😉 Or maybe not! I think TSR’s problems ran deeper than a lame Maztica — or perhaps they ran higher, seeing as many seem to have fluttered at the executive level …

    Still, I was thinking that Gygax would have done this sort of thing better, though he might have needed to be teamed with someone else in order to keep it all from going off the rails. :)

    Comment by carlaz - December 3, 2011 7:14 pm

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