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Nerd Nostalgia: Remembering Maztica, the D&D Setting that Featured Mesoamerica

I grew up a poor hillbilly kid from a holler in West Virginia and I hadn’t ventured much further than those West Virginia mountains by the time I was ignoring my mother’s fears and playing D&D.

Because I hadn’t seen much of the world outside that West Virginia holler, I was also fascinated with history and other cultures, regularly reading the encyclopedia for fun, just to learn more about people and the world. You know, when they still printed those things.

But by the time I was approaching young adult age in the early 90s, I had decided girls were my primary interest, so I wasn’t playing D&D as much. Although I was still reading D&D books cover to cover, along with any fantasy novel I could get my hillbilly hands on.

It was in this context that I first read the Maztica novels and setting book.

Maztica (mahz-TEE-ka) was filled with Tabaxi, jaguars, and jungles. It was designed for nerds who were fans of Crystal Skull, The Mosquito Coast, Apocalypto, and Lost City of the Monkey God as much as they were fans of Lord of the Rings. Maztica was D&D meets the Maya, Aztec, Inca, and Miskito.

It makes sense. Take the words Aztec and Maya, and smoosh them together. That portmanteau, my portly dudes, is Maztica.

Maztica is a really deep cut, so let’s trip through a little D&D history. During the early 90s, D&D game designers were actively looking at real-life Earth cultures, ethnicities, and histories for inspiration. This period brought an Oriental Adventures source book and adventures that was inspired by Asian culture and folklore, as well as the Al-Qadim boxed set that featured the high adventure of Arabian legends by showcasing genies, magicians, and ghuls.

Douglas Niles was a prolific D&D developer at that time who had taken up this task of filling in far-off lands in the Forgotten Realms setting with historically-inspired flavor. He first tackled the distinctly Celtic-themed Moonshae Isles. Zeb Cook followed that with The Horde, a boxed set inspired by the Monguls, then with Kara-Tur shortly thereafter.

The next year, beginning with three Forgotten Realms novels to add flavor to the setting, Douglas Niles penned Maztica, shifting the geographical focus of the Forgotten Realms, the popular setting for Dungeons and Dragons, once again. While the traditional fantasy styling of elves and dwarves were centered around the Forgotten Realms’s Sword Coast and Niles’ previous Moonshae regions, Maztica offered roleplayers a Mesoamerican flavor, something that was unique in roleplaying at the time.

Maztican character races includes desert dwarves, halflings, and Tabaxi. There were two warrior types: The Eagle Knight and the Jaguar Knight. You had the Green Folk and Dog People. And much, much more.

Although names were changed, Maztica hewed really closely to the history of Mesoamerica. It even featured Conquistadors. According to historian Shannon Applecline: “The conquistadors were a particular interest for Niles, who says, “I’d always thought the conquistadors were the closest-thing to a real-life D&D story. I just wanted to give the story a better ending.” However, he also spent extensive time and effort getting the Mesoamerican cultures “right.” While preparing to write Maztica, he toured numerous archeological sites such as the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, Tchitchin Itza, and Uxmal, as well as lesser-known locations in Tulum. He even made multiple trips to Mexico’s National Museum of Archaeology.”

Maztica book covers
Photo courtesy of Wayne’s Books.

This prolific period of adding real-life-culture-inspired content was for the 2nd edition of D&D and it brings me no pleasure to report that Maztica was largely forgotten by 3rd edition and completed skipped over in 4th. In fact, during the Spellplague era of Forgotten Realms, Maztica was teleported off world or something, but all that Spellplague business was so confusing I just skipped it entirely. However, I can report that Maztica has received glancing mentions in 5e materials, particularly in Volo’s Guide to Monsters.

Maztica is still remembered fondly to this day. There were so many Mesoamerican inspired details that went into Maztica that elements of it still spring forth here and there in roleplaying products. An analog from the past is the The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan module for the Greyhawk setting of yesteryear. A modern product is the Sun Empire of Magic: The Gathering‘s Ixalan expansion.

But the most detailed Mesoamerica treatment today is in Paizo’s Pathfinder, as its Golarion setting resembles the wide open feel of the Forgotten Realms, although amped up and magnified even further. The Mesomerican analog in Paizo’s Golarion is called Arcadia. I invite you to explore Arcadia and related products if that interests you.

Remember, I was nearly college-age when Maztica was released, so my only wish was to meet as many girls as possible. Still, I remembering flipping through the Maztica boxed set and being mesmerized by it. So even though I didn’t get to play in the setting, I still remember it fondly.

Products that are so steeped in the histories of a particular ethnicity and culture aren’t received in the same way that they were decades ago, so I’m skeptical that a relaunch of Maztica will ever happen in a modern D&D 5e product.

But it’s fun to look back. I continue to be mesmerized by the history of Mesoamerica, even recently reading Lost City of the Monkey God as a little support reading for my latest visit to Maya ruins. Needless to say, if they would re-release Maztica today, I wouldn’t let anything stop me from rolling up a character for the setting.

The good news is what appears to be a fan-driven effort to update the old setting to 5e is available on online for free. You can – and should! – check it out here.

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