Dragonlance occupies several strange and important places in my gaming history. It was, I think, my original introduction to D&D. I was browsing in a Waldenbooks or some store like it in a mall with my parents and I came across the book Kaz the Minotaur. I’m not sure exactly what about that book caught my attention. Perhaps it was the stone dragon on the cover. When I brought it to my parents, they wouldn’t buy it for me because it was Heroes II, volume 1. They thought I should begin with Heroes I. So I ended up walking out of the store with The Legend of Huma instead (which, in retrospect, is a better novel). I was around 10 at the time. After that, I began to devour other Dragonlance books, including the main two trilogies (The Chronicles & The Legends).
There are actually a number of elements I like in the Dragonlance setting. For example, the three orders of magic, and how magic is tied to the moons. I have borrowed the institutions of the wizards of high sorcery for several of my own settings. The basic idea is that magic is considered too dangerous for individuals to do as they please with. Instead, a monopolistic organization arose to self-regulate wizards. Upon reaching third level (in game terms) a wizard must take “the test” which controls entry into the the three orders (white, red, and black robes, corresponding to the three moons, three gods of magic, and three alignments). Presumably, this test also would allow the order to screen out the truly psychopathic or insane. Any wizard that does not take the test and join one of the orders is hunted down as a renegade. I also like the background of the Kingpriest’s hubris and the resulting cataclysm sent by the gods to punish the mortals. I like the fact that the “immortals” D&D endgame is actually played out within the Dragonlance Legends.
Speaking of the Legends, lets talk about the Raistlin books. The Chronicles are often criticized for being warmed-over epic fantasy; rather than Sauron, there is the evil goddess Takhisis. Our band of heroes has to recover some artifacts and defeat her and her minions, thus saving the world. Rather than orcs there are draconians. Yes, that is rather derivative, but it is only the first (and less interesting) part of the story. And, the heroes are not victorious due to their valor or character. In fact, they would have failed if not for the actions of Raistlin, who only aided the companions to further his own ends. For all the poor plotting, stilted dialogue, and cliche setting elements, this story still resonates with me. It’s not about a quest to destroy a dark lord. It’s about jealousy, and lust for power, and adventure.
Raistlin was probably the first character in literature that I really identified with. I went on to read many other Weis & Hickman books, including the Death Gate Cycle, which is also flawed but still great for inspiration. What about the DL series Dragonlance modules? I never played them. The idea of playing through or running a story that I had already read was deeply unattractive to me. I rarely used modules at all back then; I developed my own settings and locations. So the “railroad” aspect of Dragonlance was not something that I absorbed.
(The staff in that picture above actually lights up. I built a penlight into the top part. It was pretty cool.) Then, there was Time of the Dragon. Check out the excellent retrospective of this boxed set over at The Mule Abides. The Time of the Dragon is a setting that details the continent of Taladas. It was, if memory serves, the first published D&D product that I owned. I didn’t have a PHB or DMG to begin with, so I needed to make up anything that wasn’t in the The Rule Book to Taladas. There were only 8 monsters detailed in the back of the Rule Book (each taking an entire page, as was the custom back in the 2E days), so those monsters showed up quite frequently in my early games. All the interior art of The Time of the Dragon is done by the fantastic Stephen Fabian, who happens to be one of my favorite fantasy artists.
The main events in the Dragonlance novels take place on the continent of Ansalon, so there are few “canon conflict” problems with running a campaign in Taladas. At least, as presented in this boxed set. I don’t know what they did with the setting in more recent products. Other than the background of the cataclysm, there are not many connections between the two continents. Like the ties between Roman and Greek mythology, the gods even have different names. There is a priestly kingdom of necromancers (Thenol), a sea of lava in the middle (Hitehkel), and a great glaciers in the north sailed by ships with blades like ice skates (the glass sailors). The only weakness of the setting is the minotaur empire which is basically just Rome, but with minotaurs. For some bizarre reason, this was the only part of Taladas that really seemed to get any support or attention from TSR.
I was just looking through this boxed set again for this post, and man is there a lot of content in there. Some highlights. There is an elevation map of a gnome citadel in the sea of fire just begging to be turned into a vertical megadungeon. Included are also several level maps, one of which is a fungus farm level. With encounter tables. There are 8.5 x 11 cardstock pages with paintings of people from various cultures, some with NPC details on the back. There is a full unkeyed dungeon map called “Tomb of the Great King.” There are schematics for gnome inventions, including hang gliders and lava guns. There is a full city map easily usable as the base of a campaign. And I am just scratching the surface. I totally did not intend this post to be gushing about Time of the Dragon, but damn. This is one high-quality product. For more photos of the stuff in this boxed set, check out this post.
I sold most of my books when I went off to university in 1999. I didn’t play much over the next few years, and almost missed the Third Edition years entirely. Between 2000 and 2009, I played one session of Shadowrun (which I hated), one session of Midnight (which was cool), and one session of Ars Magica (which was complicated and didn’t go anywhere). Some time in 2006 or 2007 I did buy a copy of the 3E core books, which I read and admired for their elegance compared to the 2E of my youth, but I never used them to play and ended up selling them.
Fast forward to some time in 2010. One of the guys in my office decided to run a Fourth Edition game. It lasted for a few months, and I played in it for the first half (eladrin warlock, if you must know). Then, in the summer of 2011, for no particular reason, I thought it might be fun to run a D&D game of my own for my office mates. I decided to use 4E as it was the most recent edition and I still was not very familiar with it. The best way to learn something is to do it, right? (This experiment turned into the Nalfeshnee Hack.) I started to follow some Fourth Edition blogs. At this point I still didn’t know Moldvay B/X or OD&D from a hole in the ground.
One site I was reading (I think it was Square Fireballs) linked to a post How Dragonlance Ruined Everything at some blog called Grognardia. Thus was I introduced to the OSR. The more I read about “old school gaming” principles, the more I saw these principles at work in my own most successful past games. And the things that I didn’t understand back then (save or die, level drain, oracular dice) did actually have an inner logic, even if the books often didn’t do a good job at communicating that logic. Within the gaming community online, it seemed like all the interesting ideas, all the interesting innovation, was coming from the OSR. And so, Dragonlance has been my gateway into the realm of gaming twice now, though in dramatically different ways.