My Silly Dragonlance/Ravenloft Theory

As promised in my Dragonlance and Ravenloft articles, I’m going to get self-indulgent here and share my personal fanfictiony idea about the link between the two campaign settings.

A health warning applies: this theory combines the worst habit of Dragonlance fandom (hyping up how totes kewl Raistlin is) with a cardinal sin of Ravenloft fandom (making a specific assertion about the identity of the Dark Powers). Then again, these are both sins that those who write for those settings have committed in their own right – “Raistlin is kewl” was the basic premise of the second Dragonlance trilogy, and the Ravenloft authors did occasionally slip into presenting theories about the identity of the Dark Powers, though in the latter case they seem to have had the good taste to retcon that away.

It is also a headcanon which, if made true, would have no real effect on either setting, and there’s no real way anyone could find it out or do anything useful with the information.

Oh, and spoilers for the second Dragonlance trilogy will follow.
Continue reading “My Silly Dragonlance/Ravenloft Theory”

Dragonlance – Quintessential 2E?

So far, Wizards haven’t offered that much in the way of setting material for 5E, but with the release next week (or this week if you happen to be close to one of Wizards’ favoured shops) of the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide that’s rather changing. On top of that, Wizards evidently intend in the long run to explore more settings than just the Sword Coast region of the Forgotten Realms; there’s an appendix at the back of the Adventurer’s Guide giving guidelines on using the information in there in EberronDragonlance and Greyhawk, and I can’t believe they’d have gone to that effort solely to to please fans of old settings – particularly considering that two of those haven’t had any official love from Wizards since the 3E days (and they farmed out the development of 3E Dragonlance materials to third parties).

The thing is that, in between the safe harbour of the OGL and the fact that IP protection for game rules tends to be quite weak, Wizards must know that they can’t keep 5E ahead of the pack forever solely on the strength of its rules. It makes sense that the second prong of their strategy for 5E, after presenting a solid set of rules that brings together the best of all past editions whilst reversing the tendency towards ever-increasing complexity that the 3E and 4E eras saw, is to use those rules to leverage the potential of their various settings as much as possible. After all, you can retro-clone old editions of D&D as much as you like, but there’s no open licence to go and revive Birthright or Ravenloft if you take a fancy to it.

This may be part of the reason why 5E aims to combine its 4E rigour with a 2E feel; whenever I see people discussing what they like about their favoured editions of D&DAD&D 2E‘s supporters tend to make a big deal about the setting material put out during that time period, and with good cause: at no point in the game’s history did the official publisher support such a numerous and broad range of campaign settings. Of course, trying to support all those lines at once is part of what buried TSR in the first place, so a full return to that model almost certainly isn’t on the cards, but 2E fans aren’t just fond of the number of settings on offer – lots of fans of the settings in question consider their 2E incarnations to have been their best and most interesting eras.

This may particularly be the case for Dragonlance, since it’s been argued that the particular style of Dragonlance in itself predated some of the stylistic changes that 2E would exhibit. Moreover, Dragonlance as a setting seems to have hit its peak sometime during the 2E period; once it was a sufficiently prominent game that it ended up getting a whole game system of its own for Dragonlance: The Fifth Age, but as mentioned during 3E its development was farmed out to Margaret Weis Productions and during the 4E period it laid fallow entirely.

If Wizards want to bring Dragonlance back for the 5E treatment, their best bet is probably to look at its presentation during the 1E and 2E eras, during the peak of its popularity. As it happens, I recently scored some old Dragonlance core materials at a steal, so what better time to review it?

Dragonlance Adventures

This was part of the distinctive orange-spined hardbacks that comprised the central pillar of the AD&D line from 1983 (when the previous hardbacks – except for the Fiend Folio – got reissued with new cover art and the orange spine treatment) until the release of 2E. In fact, when Gary Gygax returned to TSR HQ from his stint in Hollywood in order to put the house in order, one of the moves he mandated was the release of a stream of new orange-spined hardbacks to set up a continued revenue stream.

The end results were decidedly mixed – Unearthed Arcana and the two Survival Guides in particular get a lot of stick – and whilst some books seemed intended to provide an expanded core for AD&D, others were much more setting-specific. Dragonlance Adventures, for instance, was intended to provide a definitive core sourcebook for the setting, with authors Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis compiling a range of material published in a slew of earlier products and filling in the gaps.

However, although published for 1E, the end product actually works in many of the distinctive features of 2E. Part of this was down to the inclusion of nonweapon proficiencies, which had been introduced to the game in prior orange-spines, but that’s not the whole story – on top of that, the book provides a preview of the sphere/school breakdown of cleric and wizard spells which would be one of the few major additions 2E would make to the game. The authors thank Zeb Cook, who was working on 2E at the time, for keeping them up to speed with the revisions to the system, and the end result is a book that works equally well for 1E or 2E, and indeed which if run as written will feel a lot like 2E anyway.

Structurally speaking, Dragonlance Adventures tends to be weighted towards material for players. You get the full lowdown on the races and classes unique to the world of Krynn, often with expansive essays going into their histories and cultures in great detail, along with lots of attention given to how some classes are affected when travellers from other realms end up visiting Krynn.

Compared to this, the DM-facing materials here are comparatively sparse. There’s a brief monster listing that doesn’t offer very much beyond the truly iconic monsters of the series, and likewise the NPC and magic item listings can be a bit thin (particularly if you don’t want to use the stats for the heroes of the Dragonlance novel series presented, which tend to reflect them at the end of their adventures and therefore are a bit overpowered). Whilst some notes are given about the lay of the land both just prior to the Cataclysm that shattered the world some 350 years before the events of the novels and the state of the realm just after the War of the Lance, offering two distinct and interesting time periods to set campaigns in if desired, setting detail given in these sections is actually incredibly sparse, with the nations of the continent of Ansalon not fleshed out at all beyond being summarised on a table. It’s almost as though Weis and Hickman started with the races and classes, realised they’d not left space for the DM’s information, crammed in a contracted skeleton of what they intended to fill the rest of the book with as a placeholder, and then had TSR rush the book to print before they could do the necessary revisions to rebalance it.

In addition to this, I kind of have to address the elephant in the room here: Dragonlance as a setting includes a whole bunch of stuff which, whilst intended as whimsical comic relief, I personally find incredibly irritating, and which so far as I can tell I am not alone in despising. All of it is here, extremely prominent and not even slightly toned down. Fizban, the infuriatingly fake-senile wizard who acts as one of Paladine’s avatars (because dementia is so gosh-darn funny), appears in a cameo to personally introduce you to the setting. Gully dwarves are prominently featured; they are effectively dwarves with profound learning difficulties, again played for comic relief.

Dragonlance is notable for kicking off the portrayal of gnomes in D&D as being tinkers who create outrageously fantastical technology. The implementation of the tinker gnomes here, however, leaves a lot to be desired. It seems that Weis and Hickman liked the idea of tinker gnomes but were petrified of players injecting masses of modern technology into the setting and completely warping it. As such, they end up providing an extensive system for designing gnome contraptions but throw in stern guidance that all gnome devices should basically fail in practice, making the tinker gnome a class with precisely one power which they are never allowed to effectively use.

To be honest, I think they are missing a trick. Technology as such doesn’t necessarily have to transform a campaign world into something like Eberron; mass produced technology will, but mass production requires a very particular set of social and economic and demographic conditions to function so if you just say that the gnomes don’t have that and don’t want it then you’re good. Make them emphasise exclusivity and craft mastery: each device is a work of art that demands high training and precision and a long time of labour on the part of its owner, each device is unique in some way because there’s no artistry in cranking out the same model twice. Even if you understood how that gnomish airship worked in principle, you couldn’t mass produce it because you can’t afford to staff a factory entirely with extremely trained artisans, and if you try making it with less trained people they won’t apply the precision and skill necessary to make it work. The ancient Greeks were able to invent a mechanical computer without it changing their world, after all.

To be honest, the tinker gnome is perhaps kept as an NPC-only character concept, like sages or the various experts hired in the building and management of a castle. The other infuriating character type in Dragonlance is the kender, perhaps the feature of the setting that most people have a problem with. Kender are what Krynn has instead of halflings, despite being extremely similar aesthetically speaking bar for the fact that they wear shoes and are more slenderly built. The big thing with them is that they are ridiculously cutesy in their depiction, they’re deliberately written as being infuriatingly annoying to the point where they have taunting as a racial power, and they’re also raging kleptomaniacs, though they don’t consider it to be stealing so much as “borrowing” and “handling” stuff they find to be of interest. They have no sense of personal property and are basically either ragingly culturally insensitive or have some sort of learning disability which renders them unable to understand why other people don’t find their bullshit stealing and their bullshittier excuses to be at all endearing. Frankly, entire communities of kender should be walking around without hands and the prisons of every town should be filled to the brim with the little bastards.

When you take all of this shitty comedy and add to it this whimsical cutesy demeanour that the series often takes when addressing its more comedic or cheerful aspects, Dragonlance risks turning into the fantasy setting equivalent of a Thomas Kinkaid painting – all kitsch coziness and warm glows and no spontaneity, teeth, or anything resembling actual fun or genuine amusement. So, why care about Dragonlance in the first place?

Well, for one thing despite all this it’s a historically significant campaign setting in terms of the development of AD&D. As much as the super-linear, railroady series of adventure modules that kicked off the setting might be derided these days, they were hits at the time, as were the novels, making Dragonlance one of the first major crossover hits to come out of the tabletop RPG hobby. It was also the first campaign world to see official support from TSR that wasn’t Greyhawk, and as such it presented an ethos that (when not ruined by stupid comedy) tended more towards high fantasy with a touch of romance than the sword and sorcery D&D had previously leaned towards.

Above and beyond all this, though, there’s just a lot to like about the series. I dig the Knights of Solamnia as a model for an order of paladins, I like the idea of alignment-coded Orders of High Wizardry whose magic is tied to the phases of the moons, I like the idea of a world with armies of dragons threatening to snuff out all that is good, I like Lord Soth and I think he makes a great villain (and I also dig Raistlin, though not as a PC – remind me to tell you about my nerdy headcanon about Raistlin being the link between Dragonlance and Ravenloft).

I particularly like the way the setting handles its deities. Having the gods represented in the night sky by the moons and the constellations is neat (as is having constellations disappear when the gods are walking the world), and the idea of the gods turning away from the world during the Cataclysm and only recently returning opens the door for all sorts of fun cleric-focused adventures. The dogmatic presentation of the nature of Good, Neutrality, and Evil here might be hard to reconcile with people’s personal sense of morality, except that if you read the background the three are distinguished by what intentions they had for the souls of the peoples of Krynn and what gifts they gave mortals when they first gave the souls bodies, so you can kind of see them as political parties (and I would be personally tempted to jazz things up a little by renaming them accordingly and perhaps tweaking some alignments here and there). For instance, the Neutral gods gave people free will and maintain the cosmic balance, and it’s made explicitly clear that if the cosmic balance is wrecked then the universe will utterly go to crap – but if that is the case, then aren’t the Neutrals essentially being Good on a cosmic scale, seeing how they’re doing what is required for anything and anyone to exist in the first place? It’s easier if you see the Good deities as being more like interventionist utilitarians, Neutrals being libertarian sorts who are generally against intervention unless not intervening would lead to greater damage to the cosmic balance than intervening would. and Evil as being social and cosmic Darwinists with a might-makes-right, proto-fascist attitude.

Yes, as I mentioned in my review of the movie there’s some odd racism here and there in the setting that seems to be derived from Mormon ideas, like pseudo-Native American characters with white European features, but this doesn’t seem to be hardwired into the setting itself – it all comes down to how you portray the culture in question at your table. Likewise, in principle it should be possible to run a kickass Dragonlance campaign by toning down or editing out the silly bits (“kender don’t exist in my version of the game world”) and emphasising the awesome. It’s just that this hardback kind of does the reverse.

On top of that, it also has a rather sternly dogmatic take on the setting that seems designed to prevent players from throwing it too out of whack in people’s home campaigns, a motive which is frankly baffling. For instance, there’s a rule that says that once characters get past level 18, unless there is a special destiny for them the Gods of Krynn banish them to some different world. (Naturally, several of the exceptions to this rules are characters from the novels.) This is a particularly pointless rule for a whole bunch of measures:

  • If it’s intended to make Krynn a world of more low-powered heroes, it’s immediately subverted by having a bunch of characters walking around who break this rule.
  • For that matter, the epic scale of Krynn doesn’t really scream “low-powered, less superhuman heroes” in the first place.
  • On top of that, if you’re going to set a bar to limit AD&D characters’ power to keep things a bit more low-key, 18th level is a ridiculously high place to set the bar – it doesn’t even block off access to top-level spells, for instance. If excessively powerful characters are really a problem in your Dragonlance campaign, you’re going to be dealing with that problem for a good long time before anyone gets beyond 18th level.
  • If you start at 1st level – or any reasonably low level at all, for that matter – it’s going to take a very long time to get to the threshold of 19th level, so the limit will be purely theoretical for many campaigns anyway.

The combination of this, plus the awkward implementation of a bunch of ideas which would get a much smoother implementation in AD&D 2E, plus the way all the worst bits of the setting get the most spotlight time, means that Dragonlance Adventures is one of the less essential of the orange spine volumes of latter-day 1E. It’s not quite as altogether useless as the two Survival Guides, and it’s a little bit less overboard on the nitpicky rules and overprecision compared to Unearthed Arcana, but it hardly shows 1E at its best.

Tales of the Lance

By 1992, the orange spines were being retired and the time had come for a new Dragonlance core set – particularly since a number of contradictions and inconsistencies had come to light which could do with addressing. Doug Niles took on the task, and this boxed set was the result. As well as including a set of lavish maps, a DM screen with a trippin’ balls illustration on it, and a collection of cut-out components including index cards for significant Dragonlance NPCs, trifold stand-up minis to represent them, and a set of cards useful for IC fortune telling and for adventure construction alike, the Tales of the Lance boxed set also came with a thick softcover book that resembled a reorganised, revised, and in some portions substantially expanded take on Dragonlance Adventures.

Some bits of Adventures don’t make the cut, mind. The invention creation system is gone, meaning that there is even less reason to play a tinker gnome, but the fact that they are tucked away under a subcategory of “normal” character classes for nonadventurous noncombatants (along with the equally suboptimal Commoner class) rather suggests that they are intended for NPC use in this version, even if it doesn’t state this explicitly. Kender are still here, though since there’s even more race and class options available this time they’re even easier to ignore entirely.

On top of that, Doug Niles not only does an excellent job of rearranging the components of Dragonlance Adventures to a more logical order, he also trims them back and works in some alternate viewpoints and allows the referee a bit more scope to decide what’s true for their campaign. For instance, in discussing the Cataclysm, Niles addresses the mild theodicy involved in the whole thing – namely, if the gods of Good were truly Good, why did they a) allow things to get to the point where the Cataclysm was considered necessary in the first place and b) willingly take part in the withdrawal of clerical power and divine contact from Krynn, even though this would inevitably result in numerous people who had nothing to do with the Kingpriest’s usurpation of power from the gods being punished for his sins. (They did Rapture away a bunch of Good clerics before the Cataclysm hit, but that still left a whole bunch of Good people in the lurch.)

This is the sort of thing which might not cause you too much trouble if you are also willing to consider the Old Testament God to be inherently good by definition and are therefore fine with Sodom getting nuked or the entire antediluvian population of the world being drowned except for Noah and his family – except, of course, those narratives make it absolutely explicitly clear that everyone who dies was utterly corrupt and evil, whereas this transparently isn’t the case in the narrative given in the Dragonlance timeline for the Cataclysm. This is one bit where thinking about the three blocs of gods in the setting as being political parties who aren’t necessarily aligned the way the books say they’re aligned actually makes helps you make sense of it; as part of usurping the Gods the Kingpriest was doing stuff like making non-Good thoughts punishable as thoughtcrimes and so on, so if you see the Kingpriest as a “Good” extremist and see the “Good” gods as representing a sort of interventionist utilitarianism this ends up making total sense – the Kingpriest was being just as interventionist and greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number as his gods wanted him to be, the Cataclysm was necessary to save the cosmic balance from being destroyed, and the gods of Good had to withdraw from the world because they were being punished too, either by a coalition of the Neutral and Evil gods or by the Highgod who rules over all of the deities. If you don’t want to go in that direction, though, Niles has your back – offering a bunch of different rationales for why the Cataclysm ended up panning out the way it did which don’t require you to decouple the gods from their alignments.

On top of that, the wider range of character races/cultures and classes presented, and the revised takes on the setting and history which tone down some of the more whimsical and silly aspects of the setting (the story of the Greystone, for instance, whose passing caused many transformations in the races of Krynn, is here presented without the overtly goofy elements of the original rendition), this is a rendition of Krynn that I can get behind much easier than that of the previous book. (For instance, it’s even easier to ignore Kender or Gully Dwarves when there’s so many other PC races available in the book.) Niles also redresses the balance between player-facing and DM-facing material, with more magic items, NPC descriptions and monsters provided and actual details on the nations of War of the Lance-era Ansalon. (There’s even a better-realised description of what the pre-Cataclysm world was like, so whilst the focus of the set is the War of the Lance era it actually provides somewhat better support for running games set close to the time of the Cataclysm than Dragonlance Adventures did as well as vastly improving on its support for War of the Lance stuff.)

The descriptions of the gods have been tweaked to fit better with the 2E-era practice of not statting up the gods themselves directly but giving stats for their avatars, who act much like high-level characters, rather than providing direct stats that present ridiculously high-level capabilities for the gods themselves like 53rd level whatevers. (Not a joke – there is at least one 53rd level character in Dragonlance Adventures.) Thus, Niles is even able to improve on the presentation of bits of the previous setting guide I actually thought were quite good.

The character cards provided in the cut-out section offer decent stats for the protagonists of the novels at earlier stages in their level development, making it more viable to use them as NPCs without overshadowing the players, and the provided card deck and associated card-based adventure construction system represents an early experiment with card-based randomisation in RPGs which would reach a culmination in a Dragonlance context in Dragonlance: the Fifth Age, using TSR’s short-lived card-based SAGA System.

Although that game and subsequent releases have offered updates to the setting taking it beyond AD&D 2E, it feels to me as though the Dragonlance setting, at least as presented here, is perfectly pitched for 2E. With the setting’s focused on tightly plotted sagas as opposed to a more freewheeling sandbox style of play (and more idealistic characters than the mercenary types earlier editions of D&D seemed to cater to), Dragonlance seems to have tapped into trends which would later inform the development of 2E, and in that sense what you get here can be seen as the quintessential 2E setting. As such, were I to get the urge to run or play some Dragonlance, it’s likely to be my preferred starting point, unless Wizards are able to bring out a 5E version of the setting which outshines this rendition.

Leaves From the Inn of the Last Home

Emerging in 1987 alongside Dragonlance Adventures, this was part of a range of Dragonlance materials aimed more at fans of the books than gamers. It consists mostly of a mixture of essays that would be reproduced in Dragonlance Adventures, short stories by Weis and Hickman, and more whimsical entries like Krynn-themed recipes, notes on herbalism and astrology, runic fortunes told for the characters, and a whole bunch of songs (complete with stave notation). Perhaps some parts would be useful for a LARP based on Krynn, but the cover art rather says it all – this collection leans sufficiently heavy on the Thomas Kinkaid and comic relief aspects of Krynn that I personally can’t stand it, and I suspect that if, like me, you enjoy the Tales of the Lance incarnation of the setting more than the Dragonlance Adventures one odds are you will feel the same.

Atlas of the Dragonlance World

Another part of the wave of Dragonlance material put out in 1987 to try and crossover between the gamer audience and the novel series’ readers, Atlas of the Dragonlance World provides both an atlas-style overview of the continent of Ansalon and heaps and heaps of maps of more specific locations like cities, the Inn of the Last Home, and other iconic locations from the series. These gorgeous maps were produced by Karen Wynn Fonstad, who used her rigorous academic background in cartography to produce a successful series of atlases of fantasy worlds in the 1980s and 1990s, beginning with the well-received Atlas of Middle-Earth; engaging her services for this product was a really clever move by TSR, because not only did this naturally help to elevate Dragonlance alongside Lord of the Rings and the Pern series simply by being part of Fonstad’s series, but it also yielded heaps and heaps of excellent maps which they could reuse in subsequent products, though Dragonlance Adventures and Tales of the Lance both only comprise a fraction of the material on offer here. The utility of this book in a gaming context is obvious, and it’s perhaps one of the best map supplements ever produced for a gameworld.

Time of the Dragon

This is a bit of an oddity, since it’s a Dragonlance product which takes place away from the continent of Ansalon and instead details the continent of Taladas, which is way off in the northern hemisphere whilst Ansalon is off in the southern hemisphere and partway around the world. When the Cataclysm happened, whilst Ansalon had a bunch of meteors dropped on it, Taladas was hit by one single meteor which smashed its way through the planet’s crust itself, with only the power of the gods stopping the entire world from exploding. The modern continent of Taladas is a big circular set of land masses surrounding the hellishly hot lava ocean at the centre of the continent, which is a massive gateway to the lower planes, where the assumptions underpinning life on Ansalon come into question and a range of novel cultures exist.

This product was designed by David “Zeb” Cook and came out in 1990 – close enough to the release of AD&D 2E that the cover proudly proclaims that it is compatible with both 1E and 2E (a statement which could probably apply to most products from those two editions given how similar they are). In fact, it’s so close and there’s enough material in here that Cook must have either been working on this stuff during the process of putting 2E together or knocked it together at breakneck speed once the project was done, and I’m not entirely sure which is the case.

On the one hand, the idea of expanding the Dragonlance setting beyond Ansalon and detailing other continents of Krynn probably seemed like a good idea at that time, and in principle I can see its merits. Setting aside a portion of the world where the same underlying principles apply, but which is distant enough from the action of most of the novels that home groups can feel like they can really make the territory theirs without paying any regard to ongoing canon feels like it could have been a sensible way to expand the setting and counteract the perception that Dragonlance was all about the War of the Lance and the heroes of the novels.

However, aside from this supplement, a brief storyline in the Dragonlance comic book to promote it, and a trilogy of novels in the mid-2000s set in Taladas (plus the bug-ridden PC game Dark Queen of Krynn), Taladas didn’t get that much love, and has rather faded into obscurity. Whilst this might have been partially planned if the intent was to keep Taladas as mainly being a place for home groups to set their own homebrewed stories, at the same time I can’t help but think that this is due to three major problems with this supplement.

The first problem is that it’s boring as shit. The guidebook that gives a rules-free overview of the setting mostly consists of long, dense writeups of the local cultures, with little regard paid to working in useful adventuring opportunities or interesting conflicts. Perhaps the most interesting culture here is the League, a Roman-inspired empire ruled by minotaurs, but they’re a rare gem in a series of utterly dull riffs on real world cultures.

The second problem is that it doesn’t feel like Dragonlance any more, with Cook working in ambiguities into the setting which were not there in Ansalon-based materials. Whilst there is a certain extent to which this was probably necessary to differentiate Taladas from Ansalon, at the same time too many of the things Cook contradicts or questions were previously presented as defining axioms of the setting, without establishing new and similarly compelling axioms to take their place. The result is a setting where, whilst each individual culture has its own flavour, there’s no overarching tone or flavour to the whole thing. Whilst I know what a by-the-book campaign set on Ansalon would probably feel like, for better or worse, I have literally no idea what Taladas is for.

The third problem is that where familiar elements of the setting are addressed, seeing the Taladas perspective on them doesn’t give us an interesting alternate take on them so much as it just complicates things needlessly. For instance, we learn that the goddess of healing secretly kept her cult going on Taladas whilst the gods were supposed to be leaving Krynn alone because she didn’t believe the people of Taladas deserved to be punished for the sins of Ansalon. This sets up an impossible paradox: if she is not justified in doing this, how can she be said to represent unstinting cosmic good? Conversely, if she is justified in doing this, how does she justify punishing the innocents of Ansalon for the crimes of the Kingpriest?

Ultimately, whilst Time of the Dragon is a neat idea in theory, in practice if you want to play Dragonlance you kind of want to play in Ansalon, or at least a place similar enough to give the same sort of feel, whilst if you want to play in a setting that doesn’t resemble Ansalon you probably don’t want to play Dragonlance in the first place.