Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Me and the DL (DragonLance)

I have to admit: I kind of love DragonLance.

There, I said it. Reading through Ye Old Blog, I can see I've got more than few posts carrying the label "DL" where Weiss and Hickman's work/world gets mentioned, and you can kind of (maybe) read between the lines to read my thoughts as complimentary. But I don't think I've ever just come out and declared my feelings on DragonLance which are, admittedly, far more positive than negative.

[by the way...some folks might be wondering if this has something to do with this series of posts I started back in July that I never finished. The short answer: NO. While I discussed The Forest Oracle and how, as a product, it was conducive/indicative to a particular style of play, the other two products were NOT DragonLance-related. For the curious they are the 1981 Chaosium source box Thieves World and the (2018?) book Operation Unfathomable by Jason Sholtis. I still plan on discussing these at some later date, as I still have a lot to say...both about the products and the style of play they promote]

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's first DL novel Dragons of Autumn Twilight was published (late) in 1984...which means it would have come out midway through my 6th grade year of elementary school. This was a seminal year for me in gaming. I'd finally managed to get a copy of the AD&D Players Handbook (with the 1983 Easley cover), allowing us to take our game "fully advanced" (previously, we'd been playing B/X with only the DMG and MM). The Marvel Superheroes RPG came out (my younger brother got a copy for Christmas), and several of us were playing that. We'd acquired and experimented a bit with the James Bond 007 role-playing game (none of us had Top Secret). One of my longtime friends (and earliest gamer buddies) was drifting away, especially as his family got deeply into their (new) Born Again Christian faith (which also ended up introducing me to Dragon Raid, another game I have to blog about some time). It was also this year that I would start feeling a bit of ennui regarding Dungeons & Dragons and would turn over the DMing reins to Jocelyn, my best friend outside of school (back in those days).

Man, I love the cover art, too.
Jocelyn was actually the person who introduced me to DL...she was the one who picked up the novels (and loaned them to me to devour). They were the first outright gaming stories (i.e. published novels based on RPGs) we'd ever read, and they greatly informed our gaming of the time, showing us the potential of Dungeons & terms of world building, character development, and melodrama. Sure, we had (what would become) Mystara (from our Expert books), but it was just geography back in those days...a wilderness to explore in search of dungeons. We had no sense of history or politics back then (insert snarky comments about elementary school curriculums); statements like "their culture is similar to medieval Iceland" or "the Central Asian city-states of Palmyra, Damascus, or Samarkand" meant nothing to us, and went straight in one ear and out the other.

[to be fair, these were pre-internet days. If kids today picked up a copy of X1 and read that the Republic of Darokin's culture "resembles that of Venice or Genoa in medieval Italy," it would be a piece of easy to open up wikipedia and read all about that period and place of world history. Back in those days, if you weren't already knowledgable (perhaps because of your undergrad major?), you'd be needing to trek to the local library and HOPE you could find a reference text or two that could give you a good overview. Good luck with that! We're talking about 10 and 12 year olds...we just wanted to get to that dragon's hoard!]

Reading a book that provided a D&D setting...a world with its own geography, history, politics, and conflicts...wrapped around an exciting adventure story, was a great way to open our eyes to the possibility of the Dungeons & Dragons game. None of those beloved adventure modules we were playing back then (Tomb of Horrors, Keep on the Borderlands, etc.) were doing that. Weis/Hickman's Dragons of an Autumn Twilight and its sequels were the perfect gateway fiction to a wider role-playing perspective. Gygax's first Greyhawk book (Saga of Old City publishing in 1985), helped cement the concept.

So I give DL credit for that. I realize there are some folks out there who probably read and used Tolkien's LotR and Silmarillion to achieve the same end, but we (my friends and I) never got to those books till high school. We liked the animated Hobbit features, of course (and were inspired by them), but it's hard to get a real sense of Middle Earth's millenniums-old conflict just from watching the Rankin-Bass Return of the King.

Now, the actual adventure modules/gaming product TSR published for DragonLance back in those days was a bit of a crap sandwich; we owned a couple-three of the modules, but we never ran any of them, nor did we use the DL setting for any of our games. We used the map of the High Clerist's Tower as a design for one of our high level character's strongholds, and the kender race became the more-or-less default model for the halfling race in our games (as opposed to Bilbo Baggins) as far as temperament. That's about it. Most of the best stuff from DL (from our point of view) was already in AD&D...dragons and death knights and whatnot. Even as pre-teens, none of us were interested in playing or running railroad-y adventures; certainly none of us wanted to "play the novels" with Tanis and Caramon and all those dudes. We'd already read the books...we wanted to play our own characters and create our own melodrama!

I loves me some acid-wash.
Even so, as said, there's a lot I kind of love about DragonLance: I see a lot of potential in the DL-setting, both pre- and post-War. I really like the idea of false clerics (characters that advance and adventure as clerics but who have no spell-casting ability). I dig on the whole Tower of High Sorcery and color-coded sorcery-thing. Ruined, post-Cataclysm cities make great excuses for dungeons. Dragon High Lords are great (anyone who scoffs at a dragon-mounted, dragon-scale clad bad guy has no soul for fantasy)...heck, having a justification for higher-than-usual dragon-density is pretty cool. And draconians are just about the only type of "dragon-born" creature I can stomach in a fantasy adventure game (as creatures to be expunged with extreme prejudice).

I do find the steel-piece currency kind of dumb...more of a "grim statement of a grim world" just for the sake, grim-ness.  This kind of thing might work on a metal-poor world (like Darkover or Athas), but while I can see a post-apocalypse fantasy world turning from gold to a barter system, I'm not buying a wholesale currency conversion to a metal that's (presumably) available in every bandit-adventurer's scabbard.

Likewise, I'm also not a fan of kender as a system-supported concept. I could enumerate the problematic aspects of such a species, but I do like the idea of re-skinning traditional Tolkien-tropes to fit the setting, but I'm going to do halflings differently. I'd take 3rd edition's halfling over DL's kender.

[I have similar problems with gnomes...they're just a little too whimsical within the setting as written. "Gully dwarves" are okay, but as a pathetic race to be pitied rather than unrelenting comic relief]

Even the titular dragon lances are cool (folks probably noticed the knock-offs I included in my B/X Companion). Many of the magical items in DL are nice, as they've taken rather standard items and made them unique: there is only ONE staff of the magi, there is only ONE dragon slaying sword (Wyrmslayer), there is only ONE staff of healing (the Blue Crystal staff), etc. Yes, I know that in the adventure modules there are plenty of +1 and +2 blah-blah-blahs floating around...but there doesn't have to be. I really like the idea of a setting that's so magic poor (with regard to enchanted items) that Raistlin can bribe Astinus for the location of the Portal to the Abyss with a crystal ball (the "Globe of Present Time Passing"). That's pretty cool.

I know that GusL isn't blogging these days, but his posts on the DragonLance modules (found here and here) are still two of the best, inspirations for how one might make good use of the DL setting and its (otherwise worthless) adventure modules. I find myself tempted to do some B/X conversions for DL, more for the fun of it then out of hope of someday running a Krynn-based campaign. However, it would probably be easier to simply poach ideas from DL than to re-do the entire world. I don't know.

That's just one of the (many) things I'm thinking about this morning.


  1. I recently experimented with putting the DL1 dungeon in my 5E West Marches game. Like Arnold, I had come to the realization that kicking the modules off the rails might be fun.

    My players did indeed treat the draconians and gully dwarves as factions (they haven't encountered the spectral minions yet) and are trying to see how they could play off one side or the other to pull off a heist of the dragon's treasure.

  2. Sorry, I meant GusL, not Arnold in my comment above.

  3. I've long thought of doing something similar with magic items, in order to make the players less dependent on them. One thing I've never liked about 3e and its descendants is that the EL/CR mechanic is based on the players having plenty of magic items as they get into the upper levels.

  4. The Dragonlance novels -- The Legend of Huma in particular -- were my first experience of D&D. I read the books as a child of about eight or nine, and I had no real idea that they were associated with a game; I didn't get around to playing D&D until a number of years later.

    I'll always have a bit of a soft spot for the books, but I've never had any urge to play in the setting. That said, the spin-off game Fifth Age is one of my favourite rpgs, although more for the system than the setting.

  5. Dragonlance novels are literally what got me into D&D. As a child, I happened upon Time of the Twins at my library, and my nearly three decades of gaming are the direct result of that chance encounter. From 5-12th grade, I read boatloads of Dragonlance novels.

    Weirdly enough, I never once actually played Dragonlance as an rpg. I did play that wonky NES Dragonlance game, though...

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  7. I am late to the party as I am only just catching up on months of posts here, but I likewise always had a lot of love for the setting, sans the railroad and heroes of the lance fixation.

    Often overlooked is that the Tales of the Lance boxed set actually had a quite interesting sandbox for low-level play. I wrote a bit about that a while back:

    1. I'll be sure to check it out. Thanks for stopping by, Anders!
      : )

  8. I've been in touch with Harold Johnson about doing an interview about the box and specifically the thoughts behind the sandbox. Hopefully it pans out in the not-too-distant future.