It’s January of 1990 and Poland has withdrawn from the Warsaw Pact. The US is invading Panama, and we are watching it on TV. Most importantly to me right now though, Dragon Magazine 153 is published, containing Bruce Heard’s very first Voyages of the Princess Ark article.
Unlike a lot of my peers, I didn’t discover Dungeons & Dragons just yet. I was devouring the Dragonlance books, drawing my own comics, and designing maps of worlds that never existed. Eventually I will get to that, but suffice to say, I didn’t get a chance to read any of the Voyage of the Princess Ark for several years after it’s debut. It would, in fact, be years until I consumed every article in the series.
That was then and this was now… And now is time for my review.
We begin with Bruce giving us the reason for the series of articles. It is a delight fun mix of the real (only so much of the Known World has been developed by TSR) and the fantastical (I discovered these scrolls in a drawer). Personally I love the framing of “discovered artifact,” particularly for a series of fiction articles centered in a game world. For myself, it is an unspoken, but underlying conceit of all my own artwork.
That aside, it also sets up the opportunity to address the travesty which is this map from the Master DM’s Book:
The rest of this first article dives right into the fiction, introducing us to our POV character for the rest of this ride right up front with a little typographic divider:
PRINCE HALDEMAR OF HAAKEN
Lord Admiral of the Mightest Empire
Captain of the Ever-Victorious Princess Ark
Imperial Explorer, etc. etc.
And that my friends is how each journal entry starts. It is filled with an implied pomp that evokes the British Navy during the Age of Sail. In many ways, this entire article series is just that, intended or not, the colonizer’s view of the fantasy world.
We see it overtly in the the disdain our protagonist has for the “map maker’s” mistakes he aims to correct, but also in the very nature of the description we get of the society he is from. He describes the queen in much the same way Sir Walter Raleigh described Elizabeth I of England. He celebrates the use of slavery, “Finally, she is airworthy again! It took no less than 35 master crafters and 300 slaves to refit the beautiful ship.” to get the Princess Ark ready for his grand discovery of people already in a place.
Our journey begins with a jungle coast, an unnamed people descended from slaves (who are savages ugh), and the loss of some unnamed red shirt crew members to some sort of beast. We don’t get the follow up set of rules and monster entries like we will later in the series, so we can only speculate at this point, what the hell a Cestian Gobbler is. We just know it is awful, killed some dudes to move the story along.
As a kid in my teenage years, picking this up with issue 176 (several years later), the problematic nature of sentences like that or phrases like “the unruly slaves” didn’t register. Even in the liberal bubble I grew up in, education still celebrated monsters like Columbus until you got into the AP history courses (if you were lucky). Now, as a grown ass, educated, more self aware adult, these things jump out at me, twist my stomach, and tarnish the nostalgia that triggered this entire exercise.
All that said, this first article is a perfect pastiche of the frame of the “noble explorer” writing in their journal. Who knows what we will discover next time?