Thursday, October 14, 2010

Remembering: Dragonlance


In 1984, a 13 year old kid spent an entire week over summer vacation tucked away in an intolerably hot upstairs bedroom of my aunt's 200-year-old house in north Florida with an oscillating fan, a clock radio that seemed to play nothing but "When Doves Cry", and a copy of Dragons of Autumn Twilight, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.

As soon as I (in case you haven't guessed what 13-year-old I was referring to) was done, I immediately started over and read it again. I think I read it about five times that summer. It wasn't so much that it was a great book, or great writing, as much as it was the fact that this was a book about D&D. As in: a D&D campaign in novelized form.

For someone who had been led to D&D by fantasy fiction, it was quite an event for my young teen gaming-and-reading-obsessed mind to see it come full circle. I had already devoured any book I could find that featured an "earthly" role-playing group transported, somehow, to "D&D land" (and there were several out there at the time, Andre Norton's Grayhawk-session-inspired Quag Keep and Rosenberg's Sleeping Dragon notable among them), this was fantastic!

Weis and Hickman did a marvelous job of working the iconic elements of D&D into their novel - I knew what spells Raistlin was casting, I knew this guy was a Ranger and that chick was a Cleric, etc. Not to mention goblins, black dragons, etc, in their "traditional" D&D forms. Back then, I don't think I really noticed that Hickman was the same guy who wrote Rahasia and Ravenloft, two adventures I had run and played in respectively over just the previous school year, and would go on to play in the Pharaoh series while reading the rest of the Dragonlance trilogy.

The Dragonlance adventure modules, on the other hand, while a joy to read through and steal ideas from, were a horrible rail-roady experience to play (but we F'ing tried several times nonetheless!). I read and re-read DL 5: Dragons of Mystery as a sort of companion to the novels, as it featured specific write-ups of the characters and places in the novels. We played the excellent wargame from DL11: Dragons of Glory over and over again, coming up with our own new elements to make the game trickier. The dungeon adventures, though, were a good idea in theory, perhaps, but even back then I knew I preferred sandboxes and site-based adventures to acting out someone else's quests or following a script, no matter how much breathing room was available.

Ultimately, the novels outlived the adventures, spawning some 50+ books. I loved the first trilogy, enjoyed the second (which focused almost exclusively on the twins Raistlin and Caramon), read a couple more books out of boredom, and finally gave up on the series altogether. The last time I picked up a "current" book of the series, maybe 8 or 9 years ago, the world that 13-year-old fell into back in '84 was all but unrecognizable, having been destroyed and reborn or something like that.

I picked up the original Dragonlance trilogy again at a used book store last year, and have tried to read that very first book a couple of times since then, but just did not catch hold of that same old magic. Whether that's because the subsequent releases somehow spoiled it for me, or the fact that I'm just a whole different person than I was 26 years ago, I don't know.

But damn, I loved that book back then!

17 comments:

  1. I loved the first two trilogies the most too.
    And I even enjoyed the TSR modules! There, I said it and I'm not ashamed. Okay, I could never get into the 3-D maps, but I liked them anyway.

    Thanks for the memories...

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  2. I was introduced to D&D a little before Dragonlance, but the series helped to immerse me into world building. I think it gets way too much flak from grognards in my opinion.

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  3. I enjoyed the first trilogy as a teen and found the second more challenging and mature. I tried to read Autumn Twilight again some years ago, and found the dialogue utterly awful, and the story a cartoonish parody; right down to Caramon knocking heads together.

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  4. Dragonlance started out as a great concept. Adventures to play, novels for a bit of background and atmosphere. Then, it just went silly. Too many novels, too much background... in my opinion anyway. Forgotten Realms went that way too.

    You need some gray areas.

    Mentioning cartoons, I really had hopes for Dragonlance when they animated it. Unfortunately, the animation was horrible. It was worse than some of the stuff back from the early 70's. Ugh!

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  5. What killed the animated Dragonlance was the identity crisis in the animation. On one hand, you had animation roughly equivalent to the 1980's TV series. On the other, you had 3D CGI. The two did not meld seamlessly together, and the CGI was low quality in general. Had they just stuck with the 2D traditional style I'd have had no problem with it. Still, they did a good job adapting the story and I liked the voice performances, particularly Kiefer Sutherland's Raistlin.

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  6. Your experience is very similar to my own. I fell in love with the first trilogy as a young teen and enjoyed reading the modules very much. We attempted to play them but only really got serious enjoyment out of the wargame (which was fantastic). I still fondly recall the first module's dungeon, but I no longer recall anything about the railroady plot. And I never read any of the other books in the series.

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  7. I reread the original trilogy just a few years ago in the annotated hardback. Maybe the annotations helped, but I still really enjoyed the first two books and they were enough to give me the momentum to power through the third.

    I tried to go from those to the second trilogy, Time of the Twins or something like that. I'd heard it was better in some ways than the first trilogy, but I couldn't get through the first book. Ah well...

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  8. I also loved Dragonlance. But, looking back, my fond memories are tinted by the fact that those Dragonlance modules (and the accompanying books) kind of killed the "Sandbox" style campaign. At least in my experience.

    My group of players (in which I was the youngest by a looooong way) gradually moved on to the linear "you decide to go here", style of gaming not long after our DM bought the first few Dragionlance modules. I'm still convinced that Dragonlance was the reason our characters suddenly felt like characters in his book rather than our parts in an improvised theatre play. I was too young to realise it at the time of course. But thats how I remember things now.

    I was eight when I first came across Dragonlance. The graphic novel of Autumn Twilight came with the red box set that my cousin gave me. I haven't a clue if it actually came with the purchase when he'd bought it, or if he just added it to the box afterwords. But readng that graphic novel was enough to inspire me to read my first adult book.

    Yes, you guessed it: Dragons of Autumn Twilight.

    I still buy every new re-iteration of that campaign, from the 25 year anniversary AD&D edition to the 3rd ed trilogy. Now I'm older, I'm man enough to admit that the writing wasn't that great as novels go. But that book (and that setting) still has a fond place on my book shelves.

    Even so, I havent played a game in that setting (or even wanted too) for a very long time. It was a very simplistic setting, good vs evil with very little grey. I suppose that, as I got older and learned that life is rarely that simple, I simply outgrew it.

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  9. We read aloud after dinner and I'm reading this book right now. The party is about to descend into Xak Tsaroth.

    I read these over and over when I was 13 or 14, and also enjoyed the second series. I think I only read about 3 or 4 others, though.

    I'm surprised at how shaky a lot of the writing and pacing is. But it's still great fun.

    Since the first book leaves out modules 3 and 4, I'm considering playing them, having my kids pick up where the book leaves off. (I think the traitor and Verminaard are revealed and finished off in the novel, so that might take some fixing...)

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  10. While I had a dim awareness of D&D from all the adverts for the Red Box which appeared on the back cover of my Marvel comics every week, it wasn't until a good few years later that I first encountered an rpg, and that was via the traditional British route of Fighting Fantasy.

    As such, it took a very long time for me to realise that the novels I'd been reading as a child (I started with The Legend of Huma at about nine) were in actual fact game fiction.

    I went back and read them again as an adult, and after becoming familiar with rpgs, and it was much more obvious in hindsight.

    I admired the before-its-time attempt at post-apocalyptic fantasy in Dragonlance, but it became too sprawling, and the iconic heroes became too prominent, and it all got a bit safe and dull. This is all based on the novels, by the way, as I have never played the game itself, until the reboot came along.

    Shaking it up again with another apocalypse was too little too late, but I really did like the Dragonlance Fifth Age game; it had an elegant design, and lots of clever bits, and I wish it had been more successful.

    But the setting? Yeah, went off that very quickly, and gave away all the books.

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  11. I had completely forgotten the animated Dragonlance movie. I rented it and fell asleep after 20-30 minutes, and never could work up the ambition to finish it.

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  12. Hmmm.sounds like Dragonlance is ripe for an Old-School campaign thought experiment.

    Maybe take the first three books and try to puzzle out how the modules might have been written had Judges Guild not TSR released them.

    The DragonLands of High Adventure
    or
    The WilderLance Chronicles
    or maybe
    DungeonLance?

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  13. Remove the story, play your own characters, and use the maps as "location based" adventures and its not so bad.

    Man, Dragonlance rocked my world back in the day, but I know better than to try to read the books as an adult. I still occasionally read through the adventures, especially the first 4, for inspiration.

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  14. I introduced my 50+ year-old boss to tabletop RPGs (Labyrinth Lord) back in 2008. Him and his wife never played before but were immediately hooked.

    I lent them the original DL Chronicles and they LOVED them ("This book is just like what we are playing!" his wife said, with a wide smile).

    So although I can understand why people can't "go back" and enjoy the series like they did, but maybe it is because RPG playing was so fresh to us old-schoolers at the time. RPGs were new to my boss and his wife, and again, they ate those books up.

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  15. A "Dragonlance Sandbox" campaign has been in the back of my mind for some time. Don't know if I'll ever get to it, but there are a lot of great seeds and (obviously) an overarching background.

    Just start out the PCs as 1st-levelers at about the same time as the Dragon Armies hit the Solomnia/Solace/Qualinost area and let the players decide what to do and where to go. With so much background info and timing of what the Dragons (and Knights and everyone else) are doing, the DM would have a huge amount of background to draw from.

    There's nothing that says you can't be a bunch of sword-and-sorcery type dungeon explorers while the Dragon War is going on. In fact, it would have a lot more potential for hooks and "mission"-type scenarios than basic fantasy kingdom settings.

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  16. Thomas Denmark said...
    Remove the story, play your own characters, and use the maps as "location based" adventures and its not so bad.

    Ha! That's exactly what I did.

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  17. I absolutely loved the first two trilogies myself. Re-read them recently, and they didn't hold up quite as well as I'd thought. The second trilogy did seem to be trying too hard to be more "adult." I've tried running, and playing in, the campaign modules, but never got too far into it either way. But definitely the story was a huge part of my life.

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