The early 1990s marked the last part of the expansive history of the ‘classic’ TSR. New lines were being created all over the place, and most previous lines were kept fresh and updated. TSR’s financial collapse is mostly blamed on the novel publishing side of things, but I can’t help but think that the ever-expanding universe of game worlds they were trying to promote had to cause a great deal of over-extension on its own.

One of the odder niches in the TSR lineup was Mystara, a world that mostly grew out of the ‘wilderness adventures’ that made up most of the line of modules for the D&D Expert Set. It was never very well developed until the late 1980s when the Basic/Expert line was revamped and expanded, and the Gazeteer series of setting modules started.

At this point the world of Mystara was a fairly static place. Some modules introduced world-shaking events, but the big one, X10 Red Arrow, Black Shield, was quickly disowned from the main part of the timeline and asserted to actually happen a couple centuries later, so as to avoid shaking up the world in too many unpredictable ways (as the war in the module was heavily dependent on player actions).

With the release of the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia and Wrath of the Immortals, this changed. Massive changes were introduced to Mystara with the latter (including the removal of a major empire and the continent it was on). Which brings us to the current product under consideration: The Poor Wizard’s Almanac was a one-volume guide to Mystara, incorporating all the latest changes, and this review will focus on its utility as such.

But—the idea was to do a series of these books, one per year, each one advancing the game-world date one year, and giving the major events of the year, and updating the rest for the changes that happened the previous year. As I only have one of the series, this leads to the question I cannot truly answer, was it worthwhile to get a new Almanac every year?

On to the Review:
The Almanac comes as a very attractive looking half-inch thick 9″x6″ book with a full color folded map bound into it. Note that the latter has to be removed (via perforations) to be unfolded and is about 21″x17″.

The first 150 pages are the “Atlas of Mystara” and is mostly dedicated to a series of short entries on the various countries of the world. These entries are too short for anything beyond generalities, but they do a good job, and I found (as a former Gazeteer fan who missed Wrath of the Immortals) that they are excellent for providing the current essentials and showing just what had changed (and there is a note that some parts are purposefully trimmed back, to provide information on new areas being explored, also shown in the color map—nice touch, but if that keeps happening the page count has to go up at some point…). There is a good overview of the structure of the world, which is handy if you didn’t have the Hollow World Campaign Set. Less successful are sections on who’s who, and the militaries of the world. The latter is handy when you need it, but otherwise is just a dull repetition of facts, unlike the other sections that are generally a joy to read. The who’s who gives basic system stats, and an overview of the character; however, I found these not to be well enough done to feel like I could handle any of them as an NPC.

The second section (some twenty pages), Miscellaneous Information, gives the calendar and holidays, economic information, and climate info. All very well done, and more organized and concise than I generally see in products like this.

The final section is Current Events. Sixty pages of ‘headline news’, and the core of what makes each volume different. These are very well done, each entry organized chronologically, with references to the other entries that directly impact on it (before and after), and ‘adventure hook’ thoughts where appropriate.

So What’s it Mean?
I found the Almanac to be a great product. I’m also the type of person who loves reading through setting supplements, and suggestion-ridden meta-plots. For someone who likes reading up on settings in general, for whatever reason, this presented a lot of value for its original $10 price tag. The format and the writing do an excellent job of making a traditionally static setting into a living, evolving world.

The problem becomes, was it sustainable? Was it worth getting one each year? That is harder to answer. The bulk of the book does not change much from year to year, and only the last 70 pages (of 240!) are entirely unique. I have a feeling (but nothing to back it up) that the first one probably did quite well for TSR, but sales dropped off each time as saturation set in.

I would like to point out to anyone thinking of presenting their own setting to the rest of the world, this is not at all a bad format to do it in. I think a GM could run with all that is given in here and flesh it out his own way quite easily. Forget overproduced $20+ boxed sets (the typical TSR package of the time), this $10 book does well on its own. PoD/PDF seems like it would be an answer to someone wanting to follow the ‘almanac’ approach. Make the current events available separately, and allow people to buy the full version only as often as they think they need to for an updated ‘reference copy’.

Going Forward:
I should also point out that while both Basic/Expert and Mystara were among the things dropped after the collapse of TSR, the Almanacs and the history of Mystara do continue, after a fashion. The official fan site for Mystara has created new almanacs for the next six years. However, I have yet to really go through them, and can’t speak to the quality.