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Friday 13 June 2014

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 satanic 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 this guy:

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 reached 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: Lorenzetti Solitario Volcano + H&H's Beverwyck


  1. This viewpoint has always bothered me, particularly as someone who had read and enjoyed the Dragonlance novels as a kid. We played two separate campaigns in that setting and used the background in the novels and supplements to make great games. Between time travelling, dragon hunting, meeting famous characters, Wizard's Tests, even trying to be Raistlin's successor, we had an amazing time.

    It's like the people who say you can't play in Star Wars games or in historical settings because "you won't be the big players"; patently ridiculous, Pundit, as you've proven yourself in your Roman game.

    Yes, I'll agree that the actual modules were very railroady and simply followed the plot of the books, but we never played those and I'd bet that plenty of people played their own games in the Dragonlance world without ever apeing the story like puppets.

  2. I'm sure that there were a lot of people who had successful campaigns in Dragonlance without running into the Novel-Plot (at least not excessively), just like you can do in Star Wars.

    However, I think that the fairly stunted history of Dragonlance as an RPG campaign shows just how much more limited it was. Unlike the Forgotten Realms (which got more novels overall) or Star Wars (which not only has all the films,shows, and novels but tends to have everything really important always happen to the same cast of characters), the big difference was that Dragonlance failed to develop a real sense of a larger world beyond what was needed for the plotlines of the novels. In the FR or SW there's a lot more room to maneuver.

  3. Railroady adventures aren't really a bad thing for new players and GMs. Sometimes there being 18 different things a GM has to keep track of in a published adventure is simply too much work and if there really is no layout for the adventure or the PCs wander too far off the map, then a DM is left scrambling and helpless.
    So basically moving the PCs from situation to situation can be a lot of help.

    I think the novels were good for getting a lot of young players into the game. Most people who read them enjoyed them. I read the main trilogy in middle school. My teacher lent them to me.

    You know, I really thought any criticism of the Dragonlance setting would have noted how cartoonish it was. It had races that were primarily defined by weird personality shticks that were often detrimental-- Kender, Gully Dwarfs, Tinker Gnomes, possibly others. They had a united villain army that was evil simply to be evil in an often cartoonish way (then again, this is true in most RPGs) and the heroes were expected to be kind of generic good guys unless they were going the "get magic, become god" route.

    Sure, it wasn't deep-- but I think the setting was solid for what it was-- a setting for beginners and particularly young gamers. As far as I am aware, it succeeded in that. In fact, between Forgotten Realms, GreyHawk, Dragonlance, Ravenloft, Planescape, and Mystara, I think virtually all the TSR settings had good points.

  4. I might have read the original three...but maybe not as I don't like fantasy novels very much in general. I remember I liked the Larry Elmore drawings. I didn't know they made a game out of it. But it sounds like you're conflating the novels with what TSR chose to do with its game product line. Was that your intention? Were the novels' authors in charge of TSR's output? I don't know much about TSR; I wasn't even aware they were defunct until recently as I don't really follow modern game industry developments.

  5. Yes; the novels and the modules were written by the same people: Weis and Hickman.

  6. There was an article on i09 not long ago about Dragonlance, which I discussed on my own blog:

    I consider my blog a bastion of Dragonlance love, indeed! Here's another recent post:

    Ultimately, I am one of those lonely nerd kids who found his way to D&D via Dragonlance. In fact, as I've blogged about before, the first fantasy novel I remember reading as a wee lad (probably in 4th grade) was the obscure but excellent Dragonlance novel "Stormblade."

    And you know what? I had no interest in the Dragonlance modules, and therefore never fell for the "story game/railroad curse" of said modules. To sit back and blame those modules, the novels, or any other Dragonlance material as ground zero for the RPG cardinal sin of player agency theft is laughable. Way to take the free will from the human players involved in the game. It's time to take responsibility for your roleplaying, rather than blaming published fiction and game material.

  7. Keep in mind I did try to leave space for all the people who came to the hobby through dragonlance. I'm not saying you and people like you are bad people or the problem. the problem was some of the mentality and habits that Dragonlance's success engendered into D&D.

  8. The early modules of D&D were more sandbox than anything else. Sure, there was some plot, but how that plot was resolved depended entirely on the players' actions and how the DM thought the monsters would react. The Slave Lords series illustrate this: the first two modules were example of sandbox dungeons while the third and fourth (especially the finale of the third module) were railroading adventures.

    The Planescape modules are among the worst D&D adventures ever written as the players are often just onlookers. That was when I too, come to the conclusions that many of the module designers were frustrated writers.

  9. I think many people mistake linear adventues with railroad adventures. It object A is obvious and obtaining it gives players the information to know that objective B should be next, but there is nothing actaully forcing them to proceed in a ceratin manner or through certain planned events, that is linear. On the otehr hand is PC X and NPC Y cannot be killed because in room 5676 PC X is given the magic toothbrush by the god q-tips and NPC Y will be appreaing in teh next module, so if he get's killed between now and then just hand wave him back to life, that is a railroad.

    The originall DL modules were a railroad. It wasn't just want you were supposed to do that was dictated, every step you took was specified. If you deviated from the script at all no information was provided other than suggestions on how to force you back onto the path.