Back when I started in tabletop RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons was coming to the end of that strange split between plain old Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – which, after the simplifications made for 2nd Edition, wasn’t actually all that much more complex than vanilla Dungeons & Dragons.
The D&D which was on the shelves at the time wasn’t OD&D, or the Holmes Basic Set, or the Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert rules – all of those predate me substantially. Nor was it the Frank Mentzer-designed rules, as sold in five different basic sets (Basic, Expert, Companion, Master and Immortal) – I was too little for those. No, when I came to the hobby TSR was selling a version of basic D&D which isn’t quite as widely spoken of as the earlier basic sets – to the extent that unlike Holmes or B/X or BECMI it doesn’t have a fun codeword. That was the version divided between a beginner’s line supporting the “big black box” Basic Set, with rules covering levels 1-5, and the Challenger Series, a run of supplements supporting the full version of the rules as published in the Rules Cyclopedia (the first RPG book I ever owned!), which was Aaron Allston’s condensation of the Frank Mentzer rules.
Perhaps part of the reason this era isn’t considered a distinct edition of the game is how closely it’s based on BECMI, except the emergence of this new take on the game also saw a shift in the supporting product line. In the late 1980s to early 1990s, the BECMI line had been supported by the Gazetteer series, a line of supplements describing the setting of Mystara. Initially the setting of Lawrence Schick and Tom Moldvay for their OD&D games back in 1974-1976, Schick and Moldvay dug the idea of making their game world a “shared world” setting that others could contribute to, and got their chance when they were taken on by TSR; with the Greyhawk setting reserved to AD&D, Gygax’s playground, the duo were authorised to make Mystara the default setting of Basic D&D, and locations and concepts from the setting were mined for ideas for D&D products as early as 1981, but largely in the form of settings for adventures or examples of overland settings and the like.
The Gazetteer line was an attempt to provide a more systematic presentation of the game world, with each of the 14 booklets in the line describing a different nation. As fun as this idea was, keeping the Gazeteers in print when the D&D line was already fading next to AD&D was a bit of a tall order. An appendix giving a brief overview of the setting was provided in the Rules Cyclopedia, but this only scratched the surface. What’s more, not even Dungeons & Dragons managed to avoid the 1990s craze for metaplot – with the Wrath of the Immortals boxed set, the expansion to the Rules Cyclopedia which provided a comprehensive rework of the Immortal rules, depicting major changes to the setting, even rendering some of the setting information in the Rules Cyclopedia appendix out of date.
The Poor Wizard’s Almanac & Book of Facts was an attempt to redress this by providing a supplement giving a comprehensive overview of the Mystara setting as it existed in the year AC 1010, a year after the events of Wrath of the Immortals come to a close. Folks like me who came to the party a little too late to catch the Gazetteers could use the book as a setting guide; Gazetteer users could also use the book to see how the setting had changed over and above what was presented in those supplements.
Penned by Aaron Allston and emerging in 1992, the original Almanac set the model for those that would follow. There’s an overview of Mystara and its cosmology (including the bizarre realm of the Hollow World), profiles of most of the nations of the setting, overviews of the armies of the world (relevant for high-level characters running their own domains), profiles of significant NPCs, and then perhaps the most exciting part of the book – a list of events that happen over the course of the year, each entry broken down in terms of what people witness, what the events actually mean, and where relevant how PCs could conceivably get involved.
As well as offering a rich source of adventure hooks, by having these events occurring as your campaign goes on it can really give the impression that your campaign is ongoing in a real world where there’s a bunch of stuff going on beyond their immediate sphere of influence. It also provides Allston with plenty of scope to flesh out the aftermath of the Wrath of the Immortals, which doesn’t hurt. This feature of the Almanac in particular was so popular that Mystara fans have kept the chronicle of years going on a fan basis since TSR stopped doing the annual Almanacs.
Annual Almanacs? Yes, annual! From 1993 to 1995, Ann Dupuis would take over from Allston to provide annual updated Almanacs for Mystara. Poor Wizard’s Almanac II was the last published for vanilla D&D, and largely follows the format of the original Almanac; this means that a lot of information is repeated from the first, but the “here’s what happens this year” section is obviously all fresh and the geographic overview includes some more details on Mystara’s hitherto-undetailed southern continent, so there’s at least a good chunk of stuff that those who bought the original won’t have seen, and the approach does mean that if you didn’t get the original, you can just get the new Almanac and have all you need to run a Mystara campaign right there.
By the next year, though, Mystara’s fortunes had shifted. TSR decided to discontinue vanilla D&D; because the AD&D audience seemed to have an insatiable appetite for campaign settings, Mystara was repositioned as an AD&D setting, with Poor Wizard’s Almanac III being the first Almanac to be statted up with AD&D stats. 1995 saw the series rebranded as Joshuan’s Almanac and presented as commentary by in-world NPCs rather than an omniscient, referee point-of-view overview, whilst 1996 found Mystara mothballed as TSR spiralled into the financial crisis which would ultimately see it bought out by Wizards of the Coast.