Monday, April 1, 2019

A Return to Maztica

Around the year 1990, TSR started producing a number of expansions to the Forgotten Realms which were based on historical cultures. These included Kara-tur (based on East Asia), The Horde (Mongols), Al-Qadim (based more on the Arabian Nights tales than the historical Arab world), and Maztica - based on Mesoamerican cultures in general and the Mayans and Aztecs in particular.

I bought and read the boxed set when it was first published in 1991. I enjoyed it well enough at the time, but looking back I must say that it has not aged particularly well. One reason is that the state of historical knowledge has increased drastically those past 28 years, and obviously the Maztica Boxed Set couldn't take recent discoveries into account.

Yet in my opinion the biggest problems derive from the author's decision to not only introduce a setting based on the historical Aztecs and Mayas, but also re-tell the story of Hernando Cortes' Conquistators and their conquest of the Aztec Empire within the Forgotten Realms (in the Maztica novel trilogy, which serves as a prequel to the boxed set). While the outcome eventually differed from real world history, this decision nonetheless has profound implications for the setting.

For starters, the storyline needed to explain why the invaders succeeded with their conquests against such overwhelming odds. In our worlds the invaders had a technological advantage with steel weapons armor, and horses, and this is also the case in Maztica. But the Conquistators also had the advantage of a massive smallpox epidemic wrecking the native population, and this should be less of a concern in a world with magical healing - indeed, neither the boxed set nor the Maztica novels mention any kind of plague. Thus, there needed to be other explanations:

  • The native Mazticans had no knowledge of and exposure to arcane magic (and indeed, the novels feature such classics as "let's have our invisible wizard teleport within range of their leaders and throw fireballs at them until they are charcoal!").
  • While the natives do have a unique magic of their own - plumaweaving and hishnashaping, which draws on the power inherent in feathers and talons - it is vastly weaker than other forms of magic (indeed, its foremost practitioners were represented by Rogue kits).
  • To add insult to injury, even the native clerics are weaker than their counterparts from mainland Faerun, having access to far fewer Spheres of clerical spells and no special powers. The Spheres of Summoning and Necromancy are even completely banned to native priests - which means, among other things, that no native priest can raise the dead!

This is of course frustrating for those who want to play native spellcasters in a campaign where both natives and invaders are present - why settle for the weaker spellcasters when the invaders have magical superiority on their side? But the problems with the storyline do not end there - throughout, the native characters show little agency of their own and are usually pushed or manipulated by external forces - whether the invading Golden Legion, their own or foreign gods, or even drow (!) exiled from Faerun which set up the human sacrifice cult for their own purposes and manipulated the natives into this activity. That the climatic events of the series culminated in the members of said cult being transformed into orcs, ogres, and trolls only added insult to injury - as if implying "the natives can only be a real threat when they are transformed into monsters derived from European mythology and folklore!".

Additionally, neither the novels nor the boxed set really engage with the topic of human sacrifice in a serious manner - their stance is basically "It's evil, but it was all instigated by outsiders anyway, and now most natives refuse to do this evil thing any more!" This does not really represent how pre-Columbian Aztecs viewed the practice - as a conscious decision to harvest the energy of rival city-states in order to feed and strengthen the gods and the cosmos as a whole in order to delay the inevitable dissolution of the current world a little while longer (admittedly, it was a pretty effective intimidation tactic too - "send us tribute, or we will rip your hearts out!").

Eventually, Wizards of the Coast also presumably came to the conclusion that Maztica wasn't one of the best work done for the Forgotten Realms. Which is why, when they published the 4th Edition of the Forgotten Realms, they sent the entire continent to the twin world of Abeir and replaced it with a new continent named Laerakond. Oh, and they also introduced a hundred-year timeskip, in addition to numerous other changes.

Most fans were not amused. Thus, Wizards of the Coast undid most of these changes for the 5th edition (as presented in the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide) - without, however, returning to an earlier time. Maztica too is back, though beyond a few references indicating its return there is nothing known about its precise state.

Which means that now is a perfect time to start developing a new version of Maztica - and that is precisely what I am planning, with the eventual goal being a series of publication on the Dungeon Master's Guild.

Of course, there already is an interpretation of Maztica for the 5th Edition era - the True World series by Jon Hild and others (and you should go and buy their stuff right now). So what will my project, which I call "Returned Maztica", bring to the table? Mainly, a difference in approach.

The True World series an approach similar to the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide - while the timeline has advanced, many of the changes are rolled back and the setting now largely resembles how Maztica was in the era before or immediately after the conquests of the Golden Legion. There are some chances, but they are comparably minor. This is a legitimate approach (and follows the lead of Wizards of the Coast), but I wanted to try something different - inspired by the book 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles M. Mann.

This is one of the most gameable nonfiction books I am aware of - among other things, it contains such tidbits as "there were Japanese samurai guarding silver shipments in 17th century Mexico" (and why this hasn't been turned into a manga or anime, I will never know). But the main lesson for me is this:

You cannot really rewind the clock. Once the "New World" is "discovered" by outsiders, changes will inevitably follow. Technologies will be exchanged, creatures will be introduced to new habitats, new modes of thought and belief will spread among the people.

But change is always a source of conflict - and thus, adventures. Therefore my vision of Maztica will not portray a pre-colonial or colonial setting, but a post-colonial setting - one that has been recently liberated from its oppressors but now struggles to define itself and its place in the world. My basic outline is this:

When Maztica was transported to Abeir during the Spellplague, the colonies established by nations from Faerun were cut off from their home countries and rapidly lost most of their power and influence. However, new overlords soon appeared - dragons who sought to claim the riches of Maztica for their own. Their fighting was fierce, but eventually seven ancient dragons survived and divided the nations of Maztica between them, setting themselves up at the top of the traditional tribute chains that tied the towns and cities together. To administer their conquests, they brought clans of dragonborn sworn to their service with them who collected the tribute, stopped any uprisings, and made sure that trade and commerce (and thus, treasure) kept flowing. And for the most menial of tasks - such as working in the vast silver mines of Lopango - they introduced genasi slaves from Shyr. One people placed above for the natives to resent, and one people placed below for the natives to look down on - this way, the dragon overlords distracted the Mazticans from their ultimate oppressors and kept the mortals from uniting against them. And it worked... for a while.

But ill omens continued, and though the priests of the High Gods were no longer able to channel miraculous power, the people of Maztica never completely abandoned their faith. Did not the philosophers claim that the gods needed to be empowered by ritual and sacrifice to give them the strength to keep the world turning and prevent cosmic disaster? And wasn't the shift of Maztica to Abeir precisely a cosmic disaster that the philosophers had warned about?

Then the couatl reappeared and whispered to select heroes: "Strive to become dragon slayers, for when the dragon overlords are slain, their evil vanquished, surely your faith and devotion will be rewarded and Maztica will be returned to its rightful place!" And when a group of mighty heroes assembled, they were gifted the long-lost Cloak-of-One-Plume and proclaimed the Feathered Champions - the saviors of Maztica. And indeed, after a series of mighty battles the Feathered Champions were able to slay six of the seven dragon overlords, although most of the Champions perished in the final battle, and one of the dragons... turned out to be not quite dead enough.

And after the final battle, the skies lifted and Maztica returned to the shores of Toril. Now the dragonborn trading houses send out their great ships to Faerun and even more distant shores to establish new trade routes, while the cities, nations, and empires of Maztica eye each other and contemplate the future they will want to build.

That's the basic background - for much more detail, you can visit this forum thread at the Piazza forums, as well as the other threads linked there. But first, here are my design goals for this project:
  • Developing a unique, compelling vision for each of the regions of Maztica which supports not only adventures, but entire campaigns taking place within that region. The writeups for these regions should emphasize both their Mesoamerican roots and the fantastic nature of D&D settings - "Aztecs meet Morrowind" is the vibe I am striving for.
  • Developing a Maztican view of the gods, the world, and everything in it that is derived from Aztec metaphysics and in no obvious way "wrong" or "lesser" when compared to that of mainland Faerun.
  • Developing explanations for how all D&D 5E player character classes (including the Artificer and the Mystic from Unearthed Arcana) and most of their subclasses fit into the setting without seeming out of place for native characters.
  • Using the sojourn on Abeir to introduce all sorts of fantastic new creatures to Maztica - staying away from the more "common" creatures prevalent in Faerun and instead using more obscure creatures from D&D lore (such as those from the AC9 Creature Catalogue) and bringing them to the 5E rules if necessary.

My plan is to write a series of supplements for "Returned Maztica" - starting with a rules supplement that presents the plumaweaver and hishnashaper as new 5E subclasses to test the waters, which will then be followed by a Player's Guide giving a top-down overview of the setting and its changes.

So what are your thoughts? What do you want to see in a revised Maztica setting? Comment here, or in the forum thread that started it all!

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