Books of Magic: The Voyage of the “Princess Ark”
(Images by Jim Holloway and Thomas Baxa come from PDF scans of Dragon Magazine, are © Wizards of the Coast or their respective copyright holders, and are used for review purposes.)
This time, I want to tell you about a series: Bruce A. Heard’s “The Voyage of the Princess Ark,” which turns 30 years old this very month.
TVotPA ran in the pages of TSR’s Dragon Magazine nearly every month from January 1990 (Dragon #153) through December 1992 (Dragon #188). A serialized travelogue and adventure story told in 35 installments over three years, TVotPA was part Master and Commander, part Star Trek, and part The Adventures of Asterix (the last two of which Heard explicitly cited as inspiration in his letters columns). It follows the saga of Prince Haldemar of Haaken, an Alphatian wizard who recommissions an old skyskip and sets out to explore the lesser known regions of the Dungeons & Dragons game’s Known World, which would soon come to be known as Mystara.
Some background might be necessary for those of you who aren’t familiar with the chaos that was D&D at the time. In the 1980s and 1990s, Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons were two different games. I’m simplifying the chronology here, but basically in the late ’70s D&D was meant to serve as a simplified gateway to introduce fans to fantasy role-playing before guiding them on to AD&D. But in the 1980s, thanks to the release of the Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert Sets, and then the five Mentzer box sets (the ones with Larry Elmore dragons on the cover, now referred to as BECMI D&D—for the Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortals Rules澳门英皇娱乐 box sets), D&D had become a viable game in its own right, with its own world, referred to only as the Known World.
The Known World—particularly as it was showcased in the Expert Rules—was a mess: more than a dozen nations slammed together in the corner of a continent to illustrate for young DMs the various forms of government you might find in D&D beyond kings and queens. Along the way, these nations also served as analogues for real-world societies ranging from Western European countries to Native American nations to the Mongolian khanate. But it was a glorious mess, thanks to a series of excellent Gazetteer supplements that had rounded out and mapped these nations in great detail, capped off by a box set, Dawn of the Emperors澳门英皇娱乐, that described the Known World’s pseudo-Rome, Thyatis, and its rival empire Alphatia, a nation of wizards across the sea.
By the end of 1989, then, D&D was at a crossroads. It was clearly the unloved child, seen as “basic,” best for beginners. Its setting did not have the novel support of Dragonlance or the energy of the surging and more thoughtfully conceived Forgotten Realms, then only two years old. The Gazetteer series had covered nearly all the known nations (two more would come later thanks to popular demand). And even Dragon Magazine rarely carried D&D material—a fact that was excruciating to me when I started picking up issues in late 1988 as a 5th grader.
Into this void stepped Bruce Heard. He’d been the architect of the Gazetteer series, had written some of its best installments, and was the overmind behind the D&D line at the time. If I’m remembering my history correctly, he approached the editor of Dragon, the amazing Roger Moore, about supplying a column that would provide regular D&D content for that starved segment of Dragon’s audience. In his editorials and answers to reader letters, Moore had made several mentions of needing more D&D content for the magazine, so he was a receptive audience. Heard got the green light, and “The Voyage of the Princess Ark澳门英皇娱乐” was born.
I still remember where I was when I realized this was happening. I missed the series launch—with my tiny allowance, I could only justify buying Dragon issues that really interested me, and Dragon #153 hadn’t leapt of the shelf at me. (Not having the Masters Rules box at the time, I didn’t realize the illustration of a continental map plastered with “WRONG WRONG WRONG” was referring to the D&D world.) I did have Dragon #155 (still one of my favorite issues of all time), but somehow I skipped past TVotPA Part 3—I wasn’t reading issues cover to cover yet and somehow didn’t grasp what was going on.
Then came issue #158. I was away for a week at Boy Scout summer camp, and I’d brought the June issue of Dragon with me. Having torn through the articles about dragons (June’s theme was always dragons), I turned to an article illustrated with a wizard and an ogre/elf cross riding pelicans. Better yet, they article had stats for playing these ogre-elves as PCs.
THIS WAS A D&D ARTICLE!
And it was part of a SERIES!!!
With some effort, I tracked down the issues I’d missed—no easy task for a just-finished-6th-grader—and soon was buying Dragon every month. Moore and Heard’s plan had worked. I was hooked on both TVotPA and Dragon from then on. (The next time I missed an issue, I’d be a college freshman and the industry was on the verge of collapse.)
Most installments of TVotPA followed a simple template: The Princess Ark would fly to some new spot on the map, the crew would get into some trouble (usually brought down on them by the actions of Captain Haldemar himself), and then more or less get out again, either due to a last-minute save by Haldemar or some surprising turn of events. All this played out in the form of log entries—originally by Haldemar, then supplemented by other crewmembers as the cast expanded—that allowed Heard to deliver both in-world descriptions and rollicking action at the same time. The article would then offer back matter containing rules content or setting write-ups, and sometimes conclude with a letters column of readers reacting to the setting or seeking clarification on some arcane point of D&D rules and lore.
While this template was simple, it was never boring. The episodic nature of the series let Heard play in a variety of tones and genres: lost-world pulp, courtly drama, horror, farce, even a Western—heck, he slipped in an homage to the Dark Crystal (which at the time I didn’t get, not having seen it) as early as Part 5 (Dragon #157). As well (without getting into too spoilery territory), various overarching antagonists and plot threads—including a threatening order of knights, a devious dragon, two major status quo changes, and divine machinations—kept things simmering in the background from episode to episode. The characters likewise became more developed as Heard’s writing grew in confidence and ambition, and reader affection grew for side characters like Talasar, Xerdon, Myojo, and the rest. Once the series was up and running at full speed, it was a sure bet that if you didn’t like that month’s story, you’d dig the rules write-up, or vice versa. And when the story, setting, characters, and rules all came together, such as in Dragon #177, an episode would just sing.
Once again, I can’t tell you how thrilling this series was to 6th–9th-grade me. First of all, it came along at the perfect澳门英皇娱乐 time. Heard’s writing literally matured just as my reading did, so the series and I literally grew up together. 6th grade was also the year I discovered comics, so this was also the era of my life when I was falling in love with serialized storytelling. Similarly, it was my first time really embracing the epistolary form.
Perhaps most significantly for this blog and my freelance career, the column was also an early primer for me on game design. Watching Heard tweak D&D’s simple rules to evoke a more complex world, especially when looked at in concert with D&D’s Gazetteer and Hollow Word supplements, gave me the courage to think about tweaking/inventing lore and systems myself. Heard also made a habit of pilfering monsters from the Creature Catalogue, seeing potential in them no one else had, and then suggesting entire cultures for them. (If that doesn’t sound like someone you know…what blog have you been reading?) He made creating a world seem easy, because he did it month after month after month.
Finally, TVotPA was thrilling because it was clear proof that someone took “basic” BECMI/Rules Cyclopedia-era D&D seriously. And that meant someone took us, the fanbase, seriously too. Back then, I couldn’t afford AD&D. Even if I could, I didn’t want to mess with all the complexity. Plus, I loved the Known World. I loved the Gazetteer books and the Aaron Allston box sets. By writing and publishing TVotPA, Bruce Heard and Roger Moore made me feel like they cared about and for fans like me. I didn’t have Raistlin, I didn’t have Elminster…but I didn’t need them, because I had Prince Haldemar of Haaken and his magical Princess Ark.
In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that falling under the spell of Dragon and TVotPA澳门英皇娱乐 were some of the most magical and mind expanding moments of my middle school years.
But what does this mean for you, the current Pathfinder or D&D fan? Should you read “The Voyage of the Princess Ark”?
Obviously I’m going to say yes, for all the reasons I’ve listed above. If you like maritime adventures, steampunk, or pulp adventures, this is obviously the series for you. If you like Pathfinder/D&D where a wizard is as likely to throw a punch as he is to go for his wand, this is the series for you. If you like on-the-fly worldbuilding, this is the series for you. If you like setting, story, and rules expansion all mixed together every month, this is the series for you.
TVotPA has never been collected in its entirely (more on that later), but there are PDF scans of all that era’s Dragon issues online. Start at Dragon #153 and keep reading. I’ll warn you that the first installments are a little slow, but I’d be surprised if you aren’t pulled in by the end of Part 8 (Dragon #161). If you’re the sort of reader who wants to sample a series running on all four cylinders before committing, I recommend Part 18 (Dragon #171), set in the pseudo-Balkan nation of Slagovich, or Part 24 (Dragon #177), when the crew encounters the Celtic-influenced druidic knights of Robrenn, as great places to get a strong first impression.
To my eye, “The Voyage of the Princess Ark” consists of four major arcs, plus a smattering of follow-up material that owes a debt to the series. If you do decide to dive in, here’s a quick reading guide:
Arc 1 / Parts 1–10 / Dragon #153–163 / This arc launches the series and introduces us to several major antagonists. The first few installments are slow going, but by Part 6 (Dragon #158) or 7 (Dragon澳门英皇娱乐 #160) we see signs of the series as it will be in its prime.
(Dragon #158 also looks at D&D’s immortal dragon rulers; some of this info will later get superseded by a more canonical article in Dragon #170 a year later. Don’t sleep on Dragon #159—though it doesn’t have an installment of TVotPA, there is some fun Spelljammer content in that issue. Speaking of Spelljammer, Dragon #160 also has a companion article entitled “Up, Away & Beyond,” that serves up rudimentary rules for space travel in D&D in tandem with the action in that month’s TVotPA.)
澳门英皇娱乐As you have probably just gleaned, this arc also takes the Princess Ark briefly into space and introduces D&D’s second, secret setting, the Hollow World, which was being launched at that time .
Arc 2 / Parts 11–15 / Dragon #164–168 / This short arc deals with the ramifications of a major status quo-altering event at the end of the previous arc. As the crew comes to terms with their new circumstances, Haldemar learns more about the ship itself and the magics behind her. The arc ends with yet another status quo shakeup and detailed maps of the Princess Ark.
Arc 3 / Parts 16–28 / Dragon #169–181 / Hex maps! One of the calling cards of the D&D Gazetteer series was its gloriously detailed full-color hex maps, so it was kind of a disappointment when TVotPA served up only rough sketches of coastlines and mountain ranges. Part 16 gave us what we’d wanted all along: glorious hex maps (detailing the India-inspired nation of Sind no less!). They weren’t always perfect—several issues in the #170s had the wrong colors for mountain ranges, or even seemed crudely painted with watercolors—but by Part 24 (Dragon #177) we got the crisp, expertly designed nations we expected in our Known World.
Early in this arc, we also get a passing of the torch between artists. Parts 1–17 were illustrated by Jim Holloway, who I like for his action scenes, his expressive faces, and the classic stern captain’s look (complete with mustache) he gives Haldemar. (Holloway also does the best dwarves, gnomes, and halflings in the fantasy business.) Starting with Part 18 (Dragon #171), we are treated to the more angular, stylized look of Thomas Baxa, with Haldemar losing his mustache and gaining a silver-streaked ponytail. Terry Dykstra takes over in Part 25 (Dragon澳门英皇娱乐 #178); his style is more cartoony (his Myojo really suffers from this), but he keeps Baxa’s character designs till the end of the series.
Now that I’ve totally buried the lede, let’s unearth it: This arc is, for my money, the series at its absolute prime. Action-packed stories. More characters in the spotlight. Meaty setting descriptions and rules content. New PC races and classes. Even heraldry for each nation! Heard also continued his habit of dredging up D&D creatures from the Creature Catalogue and loosely tying them to real-world cultures for great effect. I suspect many of you will love the French dogfolk of Renardy or the English catfolk of Bellayne, not to mention the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reference he sneaks in there.
(By the way, it should be noted that today in 2020 we’re more hesitant to do such A+B design. But remember, 1) 1990–1992 was a different time—by ’90s standards, Heard is engaged in pretty solid, multiculturalist worldbuilding, and 2) Heard grew up in Europe (France originally, I believe), so while some of the characterizations and comedy is broad, the settings are grounded in both on-the-ground familiarity and good research, and the humor is affectionate and of a piece with works like Asterix that any European reader would be familiar with. In other words, don’t stress it and just enjoy that the dog-dudes are shouting “Sacrebleu!澳门英皇娱乐” The one exception might be the depiction of Hule, an evil D&D nation that has always been hung with vaguely Persian or Arabian trappings…but again 1) Heard was working within the established canon, and 2) the Known World setting more than balances that out with the Emirates of Ylaruam, an Arabian/Persian-inspired nation that was depicted with lots of sensitivity and care by Ken Rolston and others, to be followed by the amazing Al-Qadim setting for AD&D. So I don’t think there’s much in here that should raise alarms from a cultural sensitivity perspective, but if something does strike you discordantly, remember we’re talking about works that are 30 years old and make allowances as you feel you can.)
Along the way, you’ll also get a sneak peek at what would become AD&D’s Red Steel setting and the Savage Baronies box set—including some of the first Spanish and Moorish-inspired nations you’ll find in fantasy RPGs of this era—learn a bit about the Known World’s afterlife and undead, and even get an honest-to-Ixion cowboy shootout, as well as lots of PC options and deck plans for the evil knights’ flying warbirds, which put the Klingons’ warbirds to shame. (Oh, and while you’re reading, don’t skip the two articles about the Known World’s dragons in #170 and #171!)
Arc 4 / Parts 29–35 / Dragon #182–188 / Dragon #158–181 is among the best two-year-runs Dragon Magazine ever had, and TVotPA is a large part of the reason. But a lackluster issue #182 was a first quiet sign of a long slow downturn to come. The fact that that issue’s TVotPA entry was only a letter column portended even more dire things. In fact, three of the seven installments in this arc were purely letters columns, which was a huge disappointment at the time: We’d waited a whole month and got…just letters?!?
By this point, I think we knew the Wrath of the Immortals box set was coming—one of those world-shattering setting updates that was being pitched as a relaunch of the setting, but which could also serve as its climax. My hope at the time was that Wrath of the Immortals would kick things into a new, higher gear for both the Known World (which by then we knew as Mystara) and TVotPA, especially since the D&D Rules Cyclopedia澳门英皇娱乐 had only come out the year before. But alas, it wasn’t to be.
Thanks to the three letters-only entries, the writing was on the wall. In Part 35 (Dragon #188), TVotPA wound its way to a close that felt appropriate but not properly climactic. God, what I wouldn’t have given to have traded those three letters columns for one last showdown with a certain dragon, those dastardly knights, or any other more suspenseful end! The end we got was nice and tidy enough (and took us to fantasy Louisiana, Australia, and Endor), but it wasn’t the end we wanted…in part because we didn’t want it to end, ever.
Arc 5 / Coda & Part 36 / Select issues of Dragon #189–200, Champions of Mystara, Dragon #237, #247 & #344 / In 1993, TVotPA was replaced with “The Known World Grimoire.” This was a grab bag of announcements, letters columns, nitty-gritty details on running dominions (Companion and Master-level D&D players got to have their own lands, castles, and even kingdoms if they so wished), and other sundries. Most of these are skippable. Four exceptions are four “Grimoire” entries which could practically be TVotPA installments: Dragon #192, which covers the manscorpions of Nimmur, Dragon #196, featuring the orcs of the Dark Jungle, an article on D&D heraldry in Dragon #199 (which is an edge case, but I’m including it here because the rules could be applied to the coats of arms of the various Savage Coast nations), and Dragon #200, which looked at the winged elves and winged minotaurs of the Arm of the Immortals. Coming out as it did in the giant-sized issue #200, this last article felt like what it was—a last goodbye to D&D’s Known World/Mystara as we knew it before Mystara’s relaunch as an AD&D line.
(Dragon #200 also had a nice article on making magic-users in D&D more distinctive. There was also “The Ecology of the Actaeon” in Dragon #190, one of the only D&D ecologies to be published in Dragon’s 2e AD&D era. Somewhere in this time we also got the news that the Known World would be relaunched as AD&D’s Mystara setting, whose products were famous for coming with audio CDs and not much else.)
Around this time TSR also published its TVotPA-inspired—and utterly maddening—Champions of Mystara澳门英皇娱乐 box set. I say “maddening” because, at least to me, it clearly felt like a “Sure, here fine, have your dang box set” product, a too-pricey production made because fans demanded it, but not out of real love from anyone at TSR but Bruce Heard himself and co-designer Ann Dupuis.
(Let me be clear: This is all speculation; I can’t confirm any of that; I’m just saying what it felt like.)
Among the reasons for my disappointment: There was no new content featuring Haldemar and his crew. One of the booklets reprinted most of TVotPA…but not the first 10 or so entries (so it wasn’t even the complete epic! *headdesk*) and none of the ancillary material, just the story logs. Another booklet was deep in the weeds of skyship construction—hell yeah, you could build your own skyship!—but gave little content to, say, inspire lots of fun skyship-to-skyship adventures in the vein of Spelljammer, such as tons of skyships from other nations. The box did contain eight standalone cards with other ship designs, but most of these were one-off constructions by solitary wizards and rajahs, not enough to really launch a campaign. My favorite booklet was the “Explorer’s Manual,” which gave us some new setting details we hadn’t seen before, including an amazing subterranean nation of elves and gnolls that I still think about to this day…but again, it was all too little, too late—for this fan, at least.
In other words, don’t try to buy the Champions of Mystara box set—at time of writing it’s crazy expensive and not worth it for anyone not actively playing BECMI D&D right this minute. If, after reading the entire series, you’ve fallen in love with TVotPA (which admittedly was my goal in writing this) and absolutely must have Champions for that nation of elves and gnolls, get the PDF on DriveThruRPG.com.
Years later, as Dragon was limping through the late ’90s before its rejuvenation in 2000, Heard provided 2e AD&D rules for Mystara’s lupins and rakastas in Dragon澳门英皇娱乐 #237 and #247, including writing up tons of subraces inspired by actual pet breeds. If you’ve ever wanted to play an anthropomorphic St. Bernard or Siamese, these are the articles for you.
Finally in 2006, when Paizo had taken over publishing Dragon, they invited Heard to deliver one last TVotPA entry in Dragon #344…giving us, if not a climax, definitely one last burst of palace intrigue and action to bridge the gap between the series proper and the events of Wrath of the Immortals. Over and above all the other coda material I’ve mentioned, this actually fits in the saga—it’s even labeled Part 36. If you want to ship out one last time with Haldemar and his crew, track it down.
Finally x2, there is the world of Calidar. After being thwarted for several years trying to get permission to write new TVotPA content, Bruce Heard has created his own game world filled with skyships and adventures. I own the books (which are rules-light so fans of any system can use them), but haven’t had time to read them yet; hopefully you will be a more determined fan. Keep an eye out for his various Kickstarters and definitely show your support.
Finally x3, if you think I am the only diehard Known World/Mystara fan out there…wow, no, not by a long shot. The Mystara fan community is one of the most dedicated in gaming. In addition to holding a torch for BECMI/Rules Cyclopedia-era D&D, they’ve taken it upon themselves to continue mapping and describing the remainder of Mystara as part of the fan community based out of the Vaults of Pandius website and the stunning fanzine Threshold. I’ve only skimmed Threshold a little, but it is stunning work on par with the Pathfinder fanzine Wayfinder澳门英皇娱乐 for the amount of effort the fans put in and the quality that comes out. Kudos to everyone involved!
“The Voyage of the Princess Ark” is a testament to the creative heights one writer could achieve in a fantasy world.
“The Voyage of the Princess Ark澳门英皇娱乐” deserves to be spoken of in the terms we use for Pathfinder’s Golarion; AD&D’s Dark Sun, Planescape, and Al-Qadim; and Vampire the Masquerade’s World of Darkness. And Bruce Heard deserves pride of place in the company of Greenwood, Grubb, Weis, Hickman, and others of his era.
Heard showed us that simple rules didn’t mean a less complex world. Heard showed us that a few lines of monster description could be blown out to fill entire nations. Heard showed us that the cultural diversity of our own world could inspire our fictional ones. Most importantly, he showed that if you put in the work month after month, you could achieve amazing things. And he did it for a neglected fanbase of underdogs and windmill-tilters. He championed an audience and a world when no one else would.
“The Voyage of the Princess Ark” is also why I spent nearly seven years serving up monster ideas for another underdog fanbase. And the inspiration and work ethic I took from it is a big part of why I’m lucky enough to occasionally be freelancing on a professional basis today.
Three years isn’t a long time in fantasy fandom. If Elminster and Drizzt are Star Trek, perennially chugging along, and Harry Potter is Star Wars, a brilliant core surrounded by progressively less compelling follow-ups, then “The Voyage of the Princess Ark” is Firefly, a ragged crew whose sojourn was cut short, but whose legacy far outstrips its impact at the time.
Or at least, that’s the way its legacy ought to be.
Give “The Voyage of the Princess Ark” a try.澳门英皇娱乐 Maybe I’m overselling it. Maybe years of nostalgia have painted a picture rosier than the original could ever live up to. Maybe, in an era where outstanding fantasy worlds and strong writing are almost commonplace, current readers can’t perceive the lightning-in-a-bottle magic that was this series.
Maybe. But I think there’s something more there, something perennial, something of value even when placed side by side with the embarrassment of riches that is Pathfinder 1e/2e and D&D 5e.
The only way you’ll know is if you book a berth on the Princess Ark and see for yourself.