Friday, May 7, 2021

Making The Insanity Work

This is more about this nonsense posted earlier.

I'm going to come right out and say it: I have a newfound appreciation for Dragonlance, the project/product. There is a crap-ton of work that was put into these original adventure modules by the staff at TSR...the artwork, the maps, the story line, the box texts. Just immense. So much, in fact, that if one considers their objectives with regard to the publication, one could almost forgive the thing's failings as an actual D&D adventure. 


But "appreciation," I say, and I mean it: a lot of brows sweated to create this thing. There's a lot of crappiness in it, I won't lie, but they get props for the effort in the undertaking. Truly.

Making it work for my own game is pretty ridiculous. There is...hmm...just so little that is actually of use, given that I'm not even intending to use the world of Krynn. And there are LOTS of folks (I can think of one for sure) who would reach through my computer screen, grab me by the lapels, and give me a good shake if they could. Yell in my face, "My God, man! Make your own silly campaign! Don't sweat over this pile of horseshit!" Call it my way of honoring and paying back the enjoyment I received from the DL novels 'back in the day.' I owe those folks, something. Maybe.

But let's talk about these (first world) problems in depth. I've got four modules I'm working with: Dragons of Despair, Dragons of Flame, Dragons of Hope, and Dragons of Desolation (collectively: DL1-4). I do have a practical reason for limiting myself to these four: the only DL products I own are DL3 (picked up a while back from a used bookstore), and the Dragonlance Classics Volume 1 collection (originally published for 2nd edition) which includes all the info found in DL1-4. This one I also picked up used, but it's more or less word-for-word the the original modules; you just don't get the PC updates.

[not that my copy includes the PCs anyway...that handout was lost sometime before I ever picked the thing up in a bargain bin]

My "Series Bible"
Each of the four modules features a string of quantum events (the "Dragonlance railroad" one hears so much about) based on the ongoing "story" of the series, and each features a single dungeon. By "dungeon" I mean a static adventure site with a keyed map that includes traps, monsters, and treasure...often plot required treasure.
  • In DL1 Dragons of Despair, the dungeon is Xak Tsaroth, a ruined sunken city. A black dragon has been tasked with guarding platinum "holy disks" that could usher back faith in the True Gods to the people of Krynn. PCs are expected to kill the beast and retrieve the disks.
  • In DL2 Dragons of Flame, the dungeon is Pax Tharkas, a mountain fortress. The PCs' hometown was wrecked by an evil priest (and his red dragons) and characters are supposed to infiltrate and free the enslaved townsfolk form his clutches.
  • In DL3 Dragons of Hope, the PCs are presumed to be leading a ragtag band of 800 refugees, liberated from Pax Tharkas. Hoping to find a place of protected shelter, the dungeon they plumb is Skullcap, the ruined fortress and last resting place of the archmage Fistandantilus, which supposedly holds the key to finding the secret, lost dwarf city of Thorbardin. Spoiler alert: yes, the key is there, as well as Fistandantilus (now a demilich). 
  • In DL4 Dragons of Desolation, the dungeon is a floating tomb that holds the hammer of Kharas, a magical artifact players need to recover to pay off the dwarves for letting the refugees stay with them. The tomb has a bunch of traps, but only a single creature (a gold dragon) that the PCs probably shouldn't be fighting. 
These adventures are pretty terrible. I know Bryce doesn't do reviews of old stuff, but I'm sure he'd have a few choice words here regarding usability, linear nature, lack of factions, and overuse of "box text" (among other things). Of the four dungeons, the one I find most interesting is Skullcap (from DL3): it has some of the more interesting encounters (a shadow dragon, stone golems, skeletal warriors!), interaction with potential NPC allies, some gigantic treasure hoards (nearly 500K g.p. worth of non-magical items), and a potential TPK in the Skullcap itself is perhaps the most evocative of the Krynnish dungeons, even if it is (in many ways) a bit of a Tomb of Horrors knockoff. 

Still, I can't see how most DL campaigns wouldn't END after a foray into Skullcap, either due to a total party kill (more than one encounter here is pretty deadly for the 6th to 8th level range of the module) OR because the characters are going to pick up a vorpal longswords, plate +3, and multiple dwarven artifacts.

[seriously: a stone golem? and not one fire-breathing 12 HD iron hydra but two? And the party magic-user is 5th level with only tongues and phantasmal force as his top spells? Come on, Hickman...looks like you got tired of the project by DL3 and wanted everyone dead!]

But...whatever. Here's the thing with regard to MY campaign: I don't intend to run the thing as a railroad, nor even as a larger "war story." So there's no pressing need to - for example - find the "lost dwarven kingdom" or the dwarves' missing artifact of power. And because I'm not running the War of the Lance, there's no urgency in involving the PCs in politics, trying to organize elven allies or send missions to Palanthas, Solamnia, and Tarsis...not that these places even exist in Washington State (my default map).

Oh, there can still be a sense of urgency with regard to Wenatchee being burned to the ground and its people being hauled off to Cle Elum (about where I'd put Pax Tharkas), but this isn't the post-Cataclysmic world of Krynn. Rescued refugees could be taken to Ellensburg or Yakima (albeit with similar food issues if winter's coming on), but PCs could just as easily choose to flee to greener pastures...the Tri-Cities to the south or the Red Empire (Spokane) in the east...rather then stick around. Verminaard's band of fanatics will be able to conquer the area within a day's flight from Pax Tharkas, but overextending his "army" would show, well, a profound lack of wisdom for a cleric.

SO: enemy stronghold (Pax Tharkas)...check. Ancient lich-ridden ruins (for high level characters)...check, by placing Skullcap in the foothills east of Yakima (same area as the tomb of Bendan Fazier). Sunken ruin with black dragon overlord? Checkity-check...deep in the swamplands surrounding Lake Chelan (not the jet-ski vacation spot of 21st century Washington).

And, sure, I've even got a Thorbardin-like dwarf city (which may or may not have a floating tomb citadel in a nearby, hidden valley) is the ONLY pass through the Cascades unless someone wants to take a hundred mile detour south through Yakima, and Rimrock Pass is full of giants and monsters and whatnot. Currently. the [yet unnamed] "dwarfgate" remains closed...not because of any Dragon War or Cataclysm but because few folks are willing to pay the exorbitant tolls the dwarves demand. It is, however, the most expedient passage to western Washington (Sea-town and all the rest), which PCs will surely want to visit at some point. 

[however, I somehow doubt the dwarves will want PCs despoiling the magical tombs of their fallen heroes]

If all this seems like a very small scale operation compared to the Dragonlance saga (even just the first four modules): it isn't. The places I'm choosing to place these locations are quite to scale with "the lands of Abanasynia." I mentioned before that Washington feels a little too "small scale" for a campaign world, but Krynn is REALLY small.  Distance from Solace to Xak Tsaroth? 40 miles. Distance from Solace to to Pax Tharkas? 60 miles. Distance from Solace to Skullcap? 100 miles. That's only a five day hike from your idyllic fantasy treetop village to the blasted, ancient fortress of Krynn's (historically) most powerful archmage! There's even a decent road to ride on for most of the way! The fantasy equivalent of taking Interstate 5 from Seattle to Bellingham (on the Canadian border)...something we'd do on a Friday night back before we were old enough to drink legally in the U.S.A.

[actually, we'd go all the way to Vancouver...about 150 miles. But we'd be back in Seattle the next day in time for brunch]

That's the thing: if you remove the idea of the Krynnish gods invading the world and massing an army of dragons and whatnot...well, all you're left with is kind of "small potatoes" adventures. Ones with neat maps and some interesting antagonists, but nothing particularly epic. And that's okay, because my players aren't at a level where they need anything "epic." Let's just give them some interesting things to explore (hopefully with decent loot to acquire). That should be enough...for the time being.

Anyway, that's the progress report. Happy Friday!


  1. A lot of people sweated over the construction of the Kingdome, demolished when I was last in the city of Seattle, March 26, 2000. A lot of people sweated over the Alaska Way Viaduct.

    Aren't you glad these things are gone?

    1. I actually LOVED the viaduct. Not only was it a fast way to get across town but it had fantastic views of the water. Many a time, entertaining out-of-town visitors, we’d take them to and from the airport along the viaduct. No...I did not vote for the boondoggle tunnel that replaced it (and that I now must pay a toll for every time I cross town to take my kid to a soccer practice in Georgetown or South Shore). The only people that benefitted from its destruction were the property owners along the waterfront...even the small businesses that lease space (like at the Pike Place Market) ended up getting jacked by the viaduct’s demolition.

      The Kingdome...well, I grew up going to games there in the 80s (and I’m...ya’ know...nostalgic), but the place was literally falling apart. That being said the new stadiumS (they built TWO where the one Kingdome previously sufficed) ended up mostly financed by public money in a way that *I* didn’t support...and voted against, sports fan though I am. The majority of Seattle voted against the new stadiums in fact and the state government rammed through bills to build them anyway.

      Generally, I prefer a “reduce, reuse, recycle” policy...and I suppose I extend that mindset to large public works and large RPG products, even those that are old, ugly, and poorly designed. “Waste not, want not.” I’m incorrigible that way.
      ; )