The new and improved defender of RPGs!

Friday, 10 February 2017

Classic Rant: Have I Come to Bury Dragonlance? Or Praise it?

Only a few weeks ago I wrote a review of an old-school book, Isle of the Unknown, where I trashed it as just about one of the worst old-school gaming products I'd ever seen (for good reason). The author, Geoffrey McKinney, responded by a vicious retort that I didn't get it because I "wasn't a true old-schooler"; and then he used the absolute worst insult any OSR-guy could probably give: he called me a Dragonlance fan.

That's a sign of how low an opinion the old-school scene generally has of Dragonlance. A guy who writes RPGs unapologetically featuring demonic child-rape and human sacrifice thinks that "dragonlance fan" is the absolute worst thing you can accuse someone of being. 
But we forget sometimes that for the rest of the gaming world, Dragonlance was something of a success story; and there are people who look back on it fondly. So much so, that this guy at the AV Club has written an article about how wonderful it was.

So are we wrong? I mean, the original trilogy was a hugely best-selling set of novels; which sold better than quite a few of our beloved fantasy novels. It made TSR millions. But more importantly, it created a second wind for D&D.  As much as for many of us the old basic box or the AD&D 1e manuals were our first great experience that drew us into the hobby, there is a whole generation for whom their gateway into D&D was Dragonlance. You can forgive them for looking back fondly at it.

Plus there was Raistlin.

As the essay does a good job of explaining, there was certainly a lot that young and often outcast teenage nerds could sympathize with in Raistlin. These novels were hardly works of great literature, but they were also very far from pretentious dreck; if anything, they were archetypal dreck, really masterful at using all kinds of fantasy stereotypes that, importantly, were being used by old-school gamers all over the place. Look at just about any Dragonlance character, and you can see a pastiche of a mix of characters that appear in (arguably better) novels from the DMG's Appendix N. 

There is in fact an argument to be made that Dragonlance was in many ways the culmination of the entire D&D experience up to that date.

But that argument is also incomplete, and thus ultimately wrong. Because the conclusions Dragonlance generated in gamers, game designers, and TSR, ended up being the wrong conclusions on almost every level and led the hobby in a troubling direction. 

Dragonlance was a story first and foremost. Thus, it convinced a generation of gamers that D&D was about "playing a story"; its modules were the worst kind of railroad ever. And it began the trend in D&D (and other RPGs) where adventure modules stopped being about adventuring and started being about trying to tell a really clever literary tale.

Worse, as a setting, Dragonlance became all about adjusting to the developments of the novels. Since the novels were so central, there was relatively little for PCs (who weren't Tanis or Tasslehof or whoever) to do. The core of the action gets resolved by these literary characters in the novels; the PCs are stuck adventuring in the before or the after. This infection quickly spread to just about every setting TSR would go on to produce.

And from a business perspective, it was that obsession with novels that ultimately destroyed TSR. It created a situation where the production of novels (and the quick influx of cash created by successful novel sales) started to overshadow the actual RPG as a priority. From the game perspective, this meant that almost all the game designers were also (usually frustrated) novelists and insisted on treating their rpg material as novel-substitutes. Many of them were just waiting around for their chance to try to write their own trilogy. From the perspective of the business as a whole, this ended up being TSR's doom, because many of these game designers were actually very shitty novelists; and the rush to produce reams and reams of TSR novels of increasingly dubious quality meant that the quick flush of cash from sales of successful novels turned into a quick plunge into debt from unsuccessful book returns. As much as the original Dragonlance trilogy was a triumph, it ultimately destroyed TSR.

Fans from that era can still feel free to look fondly on those books or on those characters; but ultimately, it represented more clearly than any other single moment in D&D's history the start of the wrong-turn that was ultimately the fount of some of the worst ills in the hobby.


Currently Smoking: Ben Wade Canadian + Image Latakia

(Originally posted June 13, 2014)


  1. Maybe it's just me but I always found it annoying when a "D&D" book would refuse to obey any of the class restrictions and rules and had to include a bunch of new bad guys like draconians (or whatever they were called) instead of using the nifty orcs and goblins we all know and love. Or using kender instead of hobbits. Why?

    1. we sat about trying to work out what gord was supposed to be in gygax novels - i tried reading one of gord short story comps a few years back ugh

  2. Like a number of other things in gaming (see Werewolf the Apocalypse), Dragonlance was a mixture of the pretty damn cool (flying castles, dragons, dragon riders, Elmore and Easley) with the execrable (Kender, Mormon proselytising).

    1. Mormon? Can you give an example? I don't remember that

    2. Okay I'm probably being unfair here (because the authors are Mormons) but there's very much a 'true faith returns to thwart the false gods' theme, plus those Disks of Mishikal (or whatever they were) sound a bit similar to Joseph Smith and his golden plates...

    3. You aren't being unfair. There's a wide variety of Mormon allegory in this. About as much as in the original Battlestar Galactica.

      Mormons are apparently better at making fantasy/sci-fi than other Christians (yes, Tolkien was very Catholic, but he mostly cribbed from existing myth, the 'catholic' part of it is just the Hobbits). I guess it makes sense given their origin.

    4. Is Ender's Game worth reading? And no I don't care if Orson Scott Card is a homophobe or not.

  3. I recall being invited to play Tanis in a Dragonlance game, shortly after the adventures came out. The DM thought my own personality was a good fit for that, apparently. Mind you, I may have been the only person in the group who had never read the books, and you can imagine how it went at the table. "But that doesn't make any sense. Why would we go that way?" "We just have to!" Round and round it went. I think that game lasted a single session, and no matter how good or bad the books might have been, my interest in Dragonlance evaporated. I haven't played anything in the Forgotten Realms, but because of my brief experience with Dragonlance, I got where you were coming from in your post on how to make the Realms cool again. It made me want to play in just such a game as you described.