Monday, April 28, 2008

How Dragonlance Ruined Everything

How's that for hyperbole? And it is hyperbole. Dragonlance didn't ruin everything, but it did exert a baleful influence over the development not just of D&D but also roleplaying in general. In part, that's because it was such a brilliant idea and succeeded so well at its intended goals as an early foray into the creation of a "multimedia" campaign for an RPG. They didn't call it such back in the day, as the term hadn't been invented so far as I know, but that's what it was.

wasn't just a collection of adventure modules; it was also a series of fantasy novels -- phenomenally successful ones at that. One of the things people can easily forget is that, before D&D, and especially before Dragonlance, the "fantasy" genre was pretty small and paled in importance compared to science fiction. Sure, there as Tolkien and Howard and handfuls of pulp fantasies left over from the late 60s and early 70s, but, by and large, most "fantasy" novels were written by SF authors and they weren't (generally) what people would recognize today as fantasy novels, either in content or style.

Dragonlance changed all that. No, it didn't do that alone, so please don't harangue me with dissertations about how the Shanarra series came out seven years earlier and sold X number of copies or whatever. I am aware of these things. Remember, this entry is partially hyperbolic. But here's the thing: whereas Shanarra and Dragonlance are both quite obviously Tolkien knock-offs in broad outline -- being epic fantasies whose settings are pastiches of Middle Earth -- Dragonlance, by being associated with D&D, is the one that probably formed the imaginations of more future fantasy writers. This next generation of writers would, instead of imitating Tolkien, imitate Weis and Hickman, thereby starting the process by which D&D -- and fantasy RPGs in general -- would be snakes swallowing their own tails creatively. That process continues to this day, with D&D ever more influenced by its creative progeny rather than either cleaving to older traditions or creating its own.

On the gaming front, though, Dragonlance commits even greater crimes. Firstly, the original Dragonlance modules were unique in that they presented not merely an entire campaign story arc -- what we'd today probably call an Adventure Path -- but, more importantly, it was an arc written for specific characters who had specific fates. Gamers love to bemoan "railroading," but few adventures were as railroad-y as Dragonlance, a series whose every dramatic element was mapped out in advance. There were, as written, few or no provisions for deviating from the planned story arc or introducing new characters into the saga. Goldmoon would always be the first cleric since the Catalcysm, Raistlin would always slowly descend into evil, and poor Sturm Brightblade was always doomed to die.

Now, at the time, Dragonlance was an amazing innovation. I don't believe there was anything like it and, playing through it, even within its heavy-handed restrictions, simply felt awesome -- especially if you were smart enough to pick one of the cooler characters who didn't die due to dramatic fiat. For the first time, D&D had its own Lord of the Rings, complete with D&D staples like metallic versus chromatic dragons. What wasn't to love? Plus, the Dragonlance modules were well presented, with gorgeous art -- they even made a calendar -- terrific 3-D maps, and a host of hand0-outs and other paraphernalia. In short, Dragonlance was exactly what D&D players had wanted for so long and it was a huge success for TSR.

And like many things D&D players want, it turned out to be a deal with the Devil. From that point on, "story" came to dominate the way D&D and other RPGs were presented. No longer were adventures "modules," implying they could be swapped in and out of campaigns with minimal impact. Now, they had to tell a coherent narrative that was dramatically satisfying. Instead of "just a bunch of stuff that happens," adventures had to make sense. Worse still, the success of the novels meant that, inevitably, there would be more novels and these would alter the game setting in ways meant primarily to sell more books, not necessarily to retain the coherence of the original adventures. Railroad-y the modules may have been, but at least they ended and the players could take pride in having shared in an epic story with a beginning, middle, and end. The novels, though, ensured that the modules meant nothing and that no victory, even one scripted from the start, would remain so. Newer and bigger Cataclysms would be visited on Krynn on an annual basis to sell more books and whatever charm Dragonlance had as a D&D setting was sacrificed on the altar of a profitably exploitable IP.

If any of this sounds familiar, it should. Dragonlance represents the point where D&D definitively took a turn into becoming not merely a brand name with which to sell lots of things unassociated with roleplaying but where TSR decided that the mere making of money was more important than making money by selling fun games. Very few people realized this at the time. All they saw was an epic storyline illustrated by Larry Elmore and Keith Parkinson, with novels whose sales put them regularly on the New York Times bestseller list. I don't think anyone can be blamed for thinking this was all a good thing. D&D had become a huge mainstream success and Dragonlance was a vital part of that. Dragonlance also set the tone for much of what's happened in the hobby since then, mostly for the worse from my perspective, but I'm sure WotC's book department would say otherwise.

Like all "unified field theories," the one I present here has holes large enough to drive Mack trucks through. I don't mean to imply that all that's wrong in the hobby today -- i.e. all I dislike about the hobby -- can be directly connected to Dragonlance. There were precursors to it that set the stage and there were successors that did what it intended better and probably more thoroughly. However, Dragonlance is an important touchstone in the history of RPGs. It certainly represents the end of "old school" as a mainstream part of the hobby. It also marks the time when the fate of RPGs became tied to non-RPG products in a definitive way. I think it's fair to say that, as a hobby, RPGs exist in a post-Dragonlance world, for it changed roleplaying's face forever.


  1. You make some excellent points, James. Lately I've been somewhat disheartened with the direction D&D is heading. D&D certainly seems to be progressing (devolving) even further into something which I believe does not embrace the original spirit of the game. Maybe I really am just an "old guard, veteran, grumbler" after all.

  2. Even after all that, about the only thing I can summon up is a resounding "Blah".

    I know what you are saying despite the hyperboles, but I just don't care, in the end. Yes, DL took D&D in a direction of stories, epic adventure, and - SHOCK AND HORROR - stuff that made sense.

    People like stories. They like epic tales. They like heroes. They like stuff that "makes sense". It's just plain old human nature, and if it "ruined everything", well, tough.

    I have respect for the old-timers, and I think those games are still great - a set of rules does not become un-viable just because of age. But seriously, it's 2008. There are literally hundreds of RPGs out there, big and large, home-made or backed by big business, and everything in between.

    Gaming, even modern tabletop (ignoring computer RPGs) has moved on, and there have been some terrific ideas out there in the last 30 years. Saying that DL "ruined everything" in Gaming is, not to put too fine a point on it, akin to taking a big dump on several decades worth of creative effort, even if you are being only half (ok, maybe 3/4ths) serious.

    And if you think that's really true, that we'd all be better off if RPGs hadn't evolved past the early 80's, well, I kinda feel sorry for you.

    This is a great blog, and I'm really enjoying what you have to say about a lot of things, but rants like this, even an acknowledged hyperbole, are a bit of a disappointment. I'd think focusing energy on more productive areas would be more beneficial.

    But hey, in the end, it's all good. We all need to rant sometimes, right?


  3. Re: "story"

    I think perhaps my intent wasn't clear. I don't object to a coherent story in a RPG. What I do object to -- and what DL offers in spades -- is someone else's story, rather than one that organically develops through play in the interaction of players and referee. DL isn't merely a top-down model of story; it's a pre-packaged, nice and tidy model of story with a set beginning, middle, and end. So far as I'm concerned, that's the antithesis of what this hobby is about. That is the real reason why Dragonlance ruined everything: it made this approach to roleplaying far more commonplace and, in some areas, the norm.

    (I also object to the notion that there is such a thing as "evolution" in gaming. Games in 2008 are different than they were in 1978 but they aren't more evolved, but perhaps that's a rant for another time)

  4. Grrr! Gah! Story! Blech!

    Seriously, I hate the word. Story has no place in games! Games are about choice.

    Situation? Good, because that implies an uncertain future.

    Conflict? Great, because that implies action, choice, and struggle the players can really sink their teeth into.

    Plot? Hell no! If your "game" has a plot, it's not really a game. It's a story with meaningless choices tossed through it. If the choices the players make do not alter the story, then what you have is "story time" rewards that happen after the players do the fun stuff. That's what passes for "story" in most computer games.

    Pta! Pta! Cthulhu ftagn! /foaming at the mouth crazy rant>

  5. I think one of things people need to realize is that what we today call "roleplaying" is in fact a conglomeration of several related forms of entertainment that are all descended from D&D and that emphasize different styles and in-game elements. The older style, the one pre-Dragonlance D&D emphasized was "sandbox" play -- here are the raw materials; go and make something out of it yourself. "Story" or indeed meaning of any kind evolved organically, if it did at all, through the interaction of the referee and players' decisions in-game. It mirrored pulp fantasy adventures, which were simple, exciting adventures whose larger meaning, if any, only came with time and the slow accumulation of details.

    Much of what we call "roleplaying" today, though, doesn't really follow this model. There's nothing wrong with alternatives as such, but I don't think those alternatives play to D&D's strengths as a game system and players realize that too, which is why post-DL D&D continues to stray ever more mechanically from the very simple vision of Gygax and Arneson.

    If one prefers that older style and laments its loss, it's hard not feel that Dragonlance really did effect a change for the worse.

  6. Just for the record, I skimmed the DL modules a little while ago, because I was thinking of stealing the maps for an upcoming game (I lurve their maps), and while I 100% agree with their railroady nature being a minus, especially at the start, I was surprised at how innovative they were in other ways. There were dream sequences (including a massive dreamscape adventure), rules for keeping the refugees from Pax Thrakas alive, alternate identities for the traitor in book one or for the silver dragon in book two, not to mention alternate explanations for Fizban, encounter flowcharts replacing maps in places, integration with Battlesystem, and multiple story options for how to do the final adventure in Takhisis' temple.

    But your points about how it did change the way D&D was made and marketed are all valid.

  7. Has anyone noticed the strong parallels of the first three DL books to the Lord of the Rings? To me there is no question there are many similarities, and at some points they are so strong it almost makes me wonder of they replaced "halflings" with "kender" for copyright reasons.


    Strider = Tanis
    Gandolf = Fizban
    Gimli = Flint
    Arwen = Laurana

    ...and onward. The similarities are so strong I can't believe it wasn't intentional.

  8. The original Dragonlance were amazing things. Compared to what had come before them, they could un-ironically be called "state of the art." I know I loved them as a kid; they were a revelation to me. Everything about their production values was top-notch and, as you rightly say, they were innovative. I don't begrudge anyone who looks on them with fondness and goodness knows I had a blast with them back in the day.

    But the reality is that they were the thin end of what became a much larger wedge. They convinced lots of game companies that the key to success and what gamers wanted were epic, sprawling storylines whose outcomes were driven by NPCs rather than PCs. Just as bad, they turned RPGs into IP mines for far more successful novels. I won't say DL is solely responsible for these things, but they set the tone for what came later and has come over the last 25 years.

  9. Quote: Plot? Hell no! If your "game" has a plot, it's not really a game. It's a story with meaningless choices tossed through it. If the choices the players make do not alter the story, then what you have is "story time" rewards that happen after the players do the fun stuff. That's what passes for "story" in most computer games.

    I'm sorry, what? That makes no sense. I don't even think you're talking about the same thing I'm talking about.

    People make stories. It's ingrained in our nature. Show a kid a picture of something and ask them to tell you what's going on and that little kid will weave together a story about what they see. It's part of being human.

    What you are obviously complaining about is railroading the "plot". I agree, it's not a very compelling method of running a game, but I also feel that its prevalence is vastly overestimated. Frankly, I see it mostly as a bogeyman brought out whenever someone has an axe to grind.

    Beyond that, sure "story" has a place in role-playing games. Otherwise, seriously, what's the point? Your PC wanders through an imaginary world where nothing really matters? All you foster is a Groundhog's Day mentality where "I can do anything because whatever happens to my PC, it doesn't matter because I can just roll up another PC". Might as well just have your PCs run around stabbing each other in the eyes all day long. Sure it's free choice. It's also blindingly stupid.

    In the good games I've been in, there HAS been story, but it's not a railroaded plot-line, it's the story our characters create through our interactions with the people and places within the campaign world. How is that not a story? If Gilmore the 1st level fighter and his buddies come into a village, hear about a cave full of goblins that have been attacking the villagers, then go and clear it out in order to protect the townsfolk, that's a story. If the village mayor then provides the PCs with a writ of introduction that helps get them a job working for the lord in the next town (if they want it), that's also part of the story. If the PCs save a noble lady on the road while moving on to the next town and she makes Gilmore an Honorary Champion of the White Hawk for his bravery, that's part of the story.

    Now, Gilmore and his buddies were more than able to tell the villagers to buzz off, burn down the village, loot everything, kill the noblewoman as they meet her on the road, and in general stomp all over whatever adventures or encounters the DM had in mind - that's free choice. But then, it's now the story of Gilmore the rampaging brigand.

    And this all supposes you're playing D&D or some other semi-generic RPG. If you're playing something a little more focused, like Call of Cthluhu, Savage Worlds of Solomon Kane, Spirit of the Century, Gear Krieg, Feng Shui, Millennium's End...well any of a lot of other games out there, there are indeed some pre-determined "story" elements built into the game, but the "plot" is still whatever the players and the GM create out of their adventures. Again, it's free choice, but free choice directed towards creating something the players and DM find interesting.

    That isn't "railroading", and it IS gaming. Anyone who thinks a good, solid CoC adventure isn't gaming...well I'd just shake my head and move on from there.

  10. Re: "story"

    I can't speak for Trollsmyth's specific intention, but what I assumed he meant was that there's a difference between establishing an initial starting situation for an adventure (i.e. a conflict) and plotting out how that situation will unfold regardless of what the PCs do. Adventures where NPCs either must live or die regardless of PC wishes, for example, are true railroads because they impose a specific narrative on the adventure that has nothing to do with player choice. That's what I mean when I criticize "story" in roleplaying adventures.

  11. Right, and I think that's a long, long way from "story has no place in gaming". I'm fine with "a predetermined plotline that the PCs can't change has no place in gaming", however. The PCs should be masters of their own destiny (well, as much of a destiny as they are able to achieve for themselves), but the success or failure of that journey IS a "story" - just not one that is scripted whole cloth before the adventure begins.

  12. but the success or failure of that journey IS a "story"

    That's certainly one way to define "story" and I can't really argue against it, but we're getting into semantics here. I suspect Trollsmyth's central point -- and certainly mine -- is that RPGs rest on a foundation of player choice. When there are no meaningful choices or when choices are restricted because of the demands of a plotline, then you're no longer playing a RPG in the sense we understand it.

  13. What James said. Seriously, that was a foamy rant, and thus was labeled such.

    Story is a by-product of RPGing. You shouldn't know what the story is going to be before the players impact the situation. You might know the themes that y'all will be playing with, dictated by the setting or the rules set. You might be thinking a step or two ahead of the party, considering what reactions the NPCs will have to the actions of the PCs.

    But if your plot dictates that NPC Bob is going to die no matter what the PCs do, that's almost certainly beyond the pale. At that point, you've got your toe in novel-writing territory.

    And I recognize, when I say stuff like that, that most folks can't play that way. I enjoy listening to the Fear the Boot podcasts, but I consider their plot-driven adventures far too constraining for my freebooting, freewheeling sandbox ways. But I can play by the seat of my pants and pull stuff out of thin air at the drop of a hat. Not everybody can, or even wants, to play that way. So yeah, I'm a foaming at the mouth lunatic, and I recognize it.

    The real heartbreak for me was how cool the Dragonlance stuff was. The Hickmans made some of the most amazing, innovative adventures out there. There's a reason Ravenloft expanded into an entire setting. But I never could have played the things as written. My group would have lynched me.

    - Brian

  14. Quote: But I can play by the seat of my pants and pull stuff out of thin air at the drop of a hat. Not everybody can, or even wants, to play that way. So yeah, I'm a foaming at the mouth lunatic, and I recognize it.

    Nah, that's not foamy lunacy, that's just a gaming style. I confess I fall somewhere in the middle. When it comes to "setting the stage", I tend to like having some ideas floating around in my head and ready to go. But I can't force myself to prepare for everything and anything, and there's really no point for me in trying - sometimes what you make up in the heat of the moment is far more interesting than anything you might have noted down the night before.

    So in the end, I look at what comes out of a series of adventures and I call that a "story". But that is the end product, not a foregone conclusion.

    And if there is no "story" to laugh about and reminisce about at the end of the day, there's no point in it for me, because if there's no story to look back on, that means there was no fun or adventure worth remembering.

  15. And if there is no "story" to laugh about and reminisce about at the end of the day, there's no point in it for me, because if there's no story to look back on, that means there was no fun or adventure worth remembering.

    I won't argue there. Circumstance is the seed, consequences are the bloom, and the stalk and roots of it all are the PCs thrashing about like bulls in a china shop. ;) Afterwards, it may look like a carefully crafted tale. Heck, I've even had folks point to things that looked like foreshadowing. But that's just the human brain, building patterns and stories because that's what it does best.

    - Brian

  16. I've done a lot of improv over the years, and it's actually really helpful in getting past the idea that "story" means "plot". This is a bit long, but...

    Improvised or semi-improvised play runs the risk of feeling like exactly that—just a bunch of random, unrelated events. How do we turn those events into a story, with a beginning, middle and end? Well, a story ends when most of the important elements introduced at its beginning have been used in a way that resolves the problems and events that occur throughout its course.

    That doesn’t mean that an ending is pre-ordained. There’s usually more than one way to end a story. If the campaign opens with the Sudarshan Empire invading the city-state of Chiraput and Princess Nandita escapes just ahead of the army, that doesn’t mean that she has to regain her throne at the end. Perhaps she’ll seek enlightenment at a Sujahnist monastery, and come to realize that all worldly power is fleeting. Perhaps she’ll penetrate to the heart of the Snake Cult and slay Vasudha on his throne, only to be cut down by his guards immediately after. The story ends when the Fall of Chiraput no longer matters to her, because the questions raised by it have all been resolved.

    Here’s the key: as a GM, you don’t need to know how the story will end when you start it. It’s probably better if you don’t. What I am saying is that the situations you introduce over the course of the campaign will point everyone toward a satisfactory resolution without you needing to plan it.

    Let's look at a more-or-less random sequence of events and show how re-incorporation can turn it into a story. You break into a house. You find a gem. The owner walks in. You run. You duck into an alley. You get attacked by a giant snake. You flee from the snake. You get on a ship and sail out of town.

    Is that a story? Not yet. After all, I can continue adding new events, one after the other, pretty much forever. A giant bird flies over the boat. It swoops in for a landing and turns into a man. Suddenly, a kraken attacks the boat…

    To turn all of this into a story, we need to start investing these events with significance and meaning. That doesn’t mean that we have to decide what the story is “about”—in fact, I recommend against doing anything of the sort. What we need to do, instead, is to find an ending, and we need to connect that ending to what has gone before.

    We do this through re-incorporation. Right now, we have a bunch of questions that need answering. What is the significance of the gem, if any? Where did the snake come from? Who is the guy who transformed from a bird into a human, how did he do that, and why is he here? And why is a kraken attacking this ship? Re-incorporation occurs when I take a story element I’ve already introduced and use it to answer one of those questions.

    The scenario I outlined above was written off the top of my head. When I began it, I honestly had no idea where I was going with it or what the outcome was supposed to be. However, by looking for ways to connect them together, I can start to come up with the beginnings of a plot. I’ve had two giant versions of normal creatures try to attack you. Why would that happen?

    • The gem mystically summoned them.
    • They were normal-sized creatures that the gem magically enlarged.
    • They’re illusions from the sorcerer that owned the gem.
    • When you touched the gem, you were sucked inside of it and now you’re in a pocket dimension within. Or, as a variation on that idea, only your soul is trapped inside.

    Similarly, the simplest explanation for the bird-man landing on the boat is that he’s looking for the gem. He could be the person you stole it from, or he could have somehow learned of the theft and wants it for his own purposes, whether good or bad. Taking all of this together, I could have the sorcerer tell you that he kept the gem in a magical field to stop it from creating giant monsters, and if you give it back to him, the monsters will stop attacking. If you then return it, we have a complete story. I can find a theme in it (“Don’t mess with things you don’t understand”) and it does have a beginning, middle and end. Interestingly, I didn’t start with that theme in mind. It just emerged from the choices we both made.

    I admit that it’s not a very good story at this point. All I did as a GM was say “you shouldn’t do that” and you complied. In the end, there was no conflict, because I re-incorporated all of the story elements into an ending before the supposed protagonist had the opportunity to make any real decisions. But it should show what I'm getting at.

  17. dang. Kevin Brennan's post is beautiful. Have you written that up for a mag?

  18. Afterwards, it may look like a carefully crafted tale. Heck, I've even had folks point to things that looked like foreshadowing. But that's just the human brain, building patterns and stories because that's what it does best.

    Indeed. In my experience, the most fun campaigns I've ever played acquired "stories" after the fact, through the slow accumulation of adventures, NPC encounters, and random events that, in hindsight, took on a coherence and unity that helped make it more than the sum of its parts. That is the kind of play I prefer and that, to me anyway, is why I roleplay. Anything more organized than that, anything that smacks of too much planning on the part of the referee to push the campaign this way or that isn't what I want. If I wanted that, I'd read a novel.

    I think Kevin's post about improv is closer to my ideal, though I think I still prefer my gaming a fair bit more random than improv allows. Even so, he hits on some excellent points and I can get behind the main thrust of his argument. It probably helps that he's part of my gaming group and what he says is in close to the ideal we all strive for in our games.

  19. Wow. Nice post!

    I think Badelaire is right to an extent. DL didn't ruin gaming. I own and play games that were released after the 80s and I have a lot of fun with them.

    On the other hand, James Maliszewski is right (IMHO) that DL did ruin one roleplaying game: Dungeons & Dragons. It's incredibly easy for me to perceive the schism it created.

  20. There is an additional piece that should be noted - DL came in at the end of TSR v1, and the real marketing blitz hit during TSR v2. DL is directly responsible for the open-ended Forgotten Realms that was initially conceived changing into the novel-writer mecca it is now. DL is responsible for Greyhawk changing from being open to From The Ashes/Living Greyhawk that survives today.

    Those now in charge are firmly in the 'GM writing the novel' tradition. I think that's why so many of us are rebelling against the various changes that are happening. I admit, I have my own urges to do this as well. It is a very tempting path to follow as a GM, where you control the flow so the players don't 'mess up' your grand designs. The key is to react to your players, and not the other way around. Change what's happening in the game around what your players are doing, and not your scripted actions.

    This is the way I am going to be handling future campaigns of mine, no matter the rules system.

  21. I think I can break down James's critique of Dragonlance into two points:

    1. DL promoted the 'tie-in' approach to product marketing in the tabletop RPG industry, whereby you build interest and loyalty with an anchor product and then get the revenue stream flowing by leveraging their loyalty into as much swag as you can get them to commit too. (BTW, in this sense, TCGs are to tabletop what MMOs are to PC gaming. A deployment model that builds-in recurring expenses).

    2. DL promoted a more restrictive model of game design in which the designer expects the players to conform to a specific plot sctructure, i.e. "railroading."

    Most people seem to have skipped over the first critique, which I think reflects a general consensus of "nyah, greedy rat bastards" and focuses on the second more controversial aspect of gaming. For me personally, I am a big "story" person myself and for example was a big fan of the whole White Wolf system back in the 90s. However, the question of railroading is one of those gordian knots of game design. After all, we live in a universe where time is linear and therefore reality is, in PC terms, WORM(Write Once Read Many) technology. You make a choice, you live with the consequences.

    Therefore, every game designer and every GM share in the essential dilemma of deciding how much pre-planning to do in order to produce a cohesive narrative. If you want to see a fantastic example of a carefully constructed narrative gone horribly wrong, I'd point you to Don't Roleplay the Bugs an excellent article from The Escapist published a couple years ago.

    For me, the answer to the dilemma that I use in tabletop is to create antagonists with 1. goals, and 2. plans to acheive them. Then I stick our players, the protagonists, in the path of those goals, and let them go at it. Since I am "playing" the antagonists I have an opportunity to adjust their plans to the players actions, and the ending can write itself from the result of the "competition" between the protagonists and the antagonists. And with the power of GM Deus Ex Machina, if the players choose to venture down an unplanned route, I can ultimately hang new costumes on my already built antagonists, and then recycle my prior labor. In the end, the major story elements I have built persist, but the players retain freedom of choice... or at least a passable enough illusion of freedom that they don't feel constrined.

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  23. think there are several things to take from this post. This is especially considering it has been more than a year since you wrote it.

    Definitely DR changed everything in gaming. Fantasy world and the novels are now tied together. You can't run a game in those worlds without running in fans of the novels. Players expect you to read all the damned novels.

    There's another more insidious trend that I am not sure DR was to blame. It seems most people game for escapism. Nothing wrong with that, fantasy is designed for escapism. However, there seems to be a general love in the gaming community for the bad guy. In the DR series, Raistlin is this bad guy. Not only is Raistlin a bad guy, but a badass who's an arrogant jerk. Raistlin also constantly breaks all the rules as written. Players want to play this type of character.

    I hate this player.

    What is so wrong with playing heroes like Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca?

  24. "...the process by which D&D -- and fantasy RPGs in general -- would be snakes swallowing their own tails creatively. That process continues to this day, with D&D ever more influenced by its creative progeny rather than either cleaving to older traditions or creating its own." think this applies to the fairly recent Eberron campaign setting as well?

  25. think this applies to the fairly recent Eberron campaign setting as well?

    I see no reason why I wouldn't, since Eberron, from what I've gathered, was designed specifically to be a setting where whatever is in the D&D rules had a place. Thus, the game has primacy over the setting itself.

  26. SPOILERS! D:

    Nah, I actually read many of them, and I don't intend to go back to the series, and it's an old series, so whatever.

    I think some of the books had occasional cool things, but largely they were just ... alright. Sort of like watching the cartoons you didn't like in between the ones you did. At least it's a cartoon, right?

    But you summed up something that was bugging me at the time, and which I forgot about, concerning the Dragonlance modules. Every one I played in seemed horribly linear. As a player I couldn't help but feel like, by the end, we were just walking through a dream that we couldn't interact with. As if, regardless of whether there were seven of one or thirty of us, everything would have worked out the same.

    Obviously now I get what was going on and why I was dissatisfied. But I had put it out of my mind until just now.

  27. Dragonlance is based off Krynn. LOTR series is based off the (possible) ancient history of this planet. Make no mistake, we have lost a lot of history over thousands of years.

  28. James, I think it's important to note that the Dragonlance modules were written in such a way that they allowed for new characters, even completely original ones, to pass through the adventure. I know that back when the modules first came out, that was the majority of experience for gaming groups I knew of. Many people chose NOT to play Raistlin, Tanis, etc for the same reason that people like to make up new Star Wars characters rather than play Han Solo and Luke.

    Perhaps the problem is that the reception and later interpretation of what Dragonlance gave to the hobby became distorted over time. For instance, you only have to say "kender" to some people and they froth with hatred. Why? Because kender players felt like they had an obligation to steal from the party, or so you'd be lead to be believe, anyway.

  29. Let's look at it from a different perspective for those who can't see that James is 'spot-on' with his hyperbolic observations.

    A Game of Monopoly

    Ok 'Car' you're first, Roll and let's get rolling.

    Great, I'm on Vermont Avenue, and would like to buy it.
    You can't actually do that, you need to be on Reading Railroad, so let's just say you rolled a Six instead.

    The End

  30. BrainMartians, a fine analogy.

    I only played the opening Dragon Lance adventure, and that was two years ago using 3.5 rules (which I am not fond of.) However, I have read through many of the originals.

    I do not recall it ever being said that one had to play the preset characters, and I never met anyone who played the adventures following the preset plot.

    I look at Dragon Lance as the high point in TSR's work. Grognardia's hyperbole seems rather spot on that DL was the turning point for TSR, thereafter pursuing nothing but profit, hanging much on publishing novels with retread plots, etc. However, that doesn't take away from the DL modules being some of the finest work put out by TSR. Once you have reached the pinnacle, the only place to go is down.

    cousin gave me when I was six years old -

  31. "...Raistlin would always slowly descend into evil, and poor Sturm Brightblade was always doomed to die..."

    I don't remember there being any mechanics in the Dragonlance adventures to promote either of these outcomes. There's no automatic death for the Sturm character at any point, and no automatic turn to evil for Raistlin.

    You're correct about Goldmoon having to be the first cleric, but for the other two I suspect you may be conflating the novels and adventures. (You wouldn't be the first to do so.)

  32. Late to the party, but feel compelled to chime in:

    My first foray into Weis and Hickman's work was having a friend introduce me to the Death Gate Cycle. At the time I found the characters decently portrayed, the plot pretty compelling and the world extremely intriguing.

    Years later a different acquaintance touted the positive qualities of the "Dragons of [insert seasonal noun here]" books. Trusting the work of Weis and Hickman as I did, I really tried to get into them, read through the first three. But simply could not see what all the fuss was about.

    The world of Dragonlance was a little quirky and occasionally there was an interesting detail here and there (Rastlin entertaining the bar with illusions, the Kender eternally wondering what might be on top of some pillar they encountered). But even at the time the novels struck me as sort of railroady, with the characters thrown together and painted with a thick layer of attention-grabbing tropes (though at the time I'd never heard of the word "railroad" in that context and didn't know what a "trope" was).

    But your article above sheds a new light on the issue. I'm generally more willing to accept the failings of a product if it's attempting something that's never been done before. So I have more sympathy for the series based on the knowledge that what I saw at the time as a mediocre-fantasy media tie-in was actually just one facet of an offering that, for its time, was cutting edge work.

  33. I used to play RPG with this rather railroady DM. Although he was creative, skilled and devious (this was the good part of him), I used to get bothered by his "milestones" along the way.

    One day, talking informally between sessions, he told me about his DMing style. He confided me three basic things about his personal method:

    1) The plot was the most important thing to him in a campaign.

    2) To 'safeguard the railroad', he'd use "milestones" within his story arc. In his words: "I have in my booklet that in today's session the characters should meet John Doe, find the magical gem stone of Blah and hear about the town of WhereverVille. But how it is going to happen and the chronological order is all decided by the players' choices", he said proudly.

    3) He despised the "luck element" in a game (I.e. rolling dices, hoping for results etc.). He actually said "I wish everything could be narrated, no need for saving throws at all". This way, he was totally against "fumble rolls", since it could ruin the action or drama of a "beautiful sequence". Oh, and by the way, a character never died in his campaigns, because that would seem "ugly to the story and totally uncalled for."

    4) If a player decided to go off the railroad (ex: to refuse a quest, to do something against a key-NPC etc.), he would 'punish' him somehow (by grounding the player with no gaming while narrating other characters' parts endlessly or by making his character have a hard time with wealth, health etc.) Quotes: "If the player doesn't want to tag along, why does he come to play in the beginning?! If one wants to bust other people's fun, his character will have what it deserves."

    Eventually, months later, my character “dropped off the railroad” and we came to an argument during one session. Though we keep in touch until nowadays, we never played together again, which is sad. Ever since, I've thought a lot about the matter. And what I have to say is:

    He was a frustrated novelist (and still is), like many others out there. If one wants to build a perfect and beautiful epic, go write a book. Gaming is not about that.

    Though I love a good story, what first attracted me to RPG was this "free will" thing. That made it different from every board game I had tried until then (and so far). That's why I just hate videogames and computer games. Because, in order to "win" (which is not really a matter in true RPG), you have to follow the damn railroad. Important note: I believe in player's free will, BUT IN ACCORDANCE TO HIS CHARACTER’S NATURE, BACKGROUND, ALIGNMENT AND WHATEVER. This, my friends, is role-playing.

    Regarding the luck element, I also disagree with that guy. The throws are those exact moments when no one has control over the situation, of what will happen next. And this is so... RPG! It is like saying "I don't know what this chest contains, let's find it out together" or "Your character is badly hurt, so if you don't do well in this climbing roll, there is a chance he falls and dies." I believe each player has to feel the dangers his character is facing. "A challenge in which a successful outcome is assured isn't a challenge at all", as Alex Supertramp properly stated once.

    I do enjoy good Stories. I do. But, on the other hand, I HATE railroads, milestones or anything alike. When I plan a campaign, I usually specify where things are and don't change them along the way, just to mold the plot around the party. And I’d never get pissed with a player who didn't follow the storyline. AT ALL. Finally, RPG does involves improvisation, all of the time, and I’m glad for that. But... that's just my point of view on the matter. And I'm not as experienced as you all, by far.


  34. Haerviu Aed, Fighter in KrynnApril 19, 2012 at 7:50 PM

    I agree with Trystero. There is a fine line between player knowledge and character knowledge. There is always hope for a character and their futures will never be set in stone. All Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman gave the world  was one potential outcome.

  35. Of everything that Dragonlance may or may not have done to D&D, the only thing I hold against it is changing Halflings from Hobbits into Kender.

  36. as a player and dm at the time this was a revolution at the time!!!! before this it was go here kill that!!! DL changed all that !! D&D BECAME ABOUT THE STORY!!!! not just ok here we go again this week guys!! It made things better, not worse....taught DM'S story was better then hack and slash Campinas!!that was the whole intent...

  37. Even as a kid I knew the DL modules were completely bogus. I never went within 10' of one despite the fact that I adored the novels. I guess real gamers can intuitively separate the wheat from the chaff...even when they're 10 yrs old... :)

  38. No one here is probably ever going to see this, seeing as I'm posting in 2020 (hello from the future, Donald Trump has been president for 4 years and there's a virus spreading like wildfire across our planet. please take me back.) But I just wanted to put this in as a pretty new Dungeon Master that fell down the rabbit hole which is DragonLance. This one forum has taught me more about running a game of D&D than my last 4 years of playing. True wisdom was spoken in this forum and I just wanna say I really appreciate this contribution.

    1. Thanks for stopping by!

      (I wish I could take you back, but my time machine has been on the fritz for some months now)

  39. I have fond memories of Tas, and I remember the campaign setting as it was delivered to AD&D, and how having the extra rules and restrictions made for tonnes of world-specific flavor. I didn't play any of modules, though. Didn't realize they were even a thing until happening by this thread, in search of something called the "Hickman Manifesto". Like Steven, I was hooked by the article, and drawn in by the ensuing conversation. It was nice to see opposite perspectives genuinely acknowledging each other respectfully. As I'm sure Steven will agree, polarity is a much more serious issue these days than it appears to have been back in 2008-2012, and this thread - on that alone - contains many bittersweet sequences that I tip my hat towards.

    I've always been a settings guy. If an RP resource comes out (by the way, as of this writing, we're about 6 years into D&D 5th Edition, which is enjoying a wave of mainstream popularity that D&D has never known before) then I apply two criteria to the resource:

    1 - Can this resource be attached to any setting, and enhance the player immersion experience? or

    2 - Is this a setting that the DM can pick up quickly, that lends itself to a rich, character-driven story, while not making the players feel restricted?

    If a resource doesn't fit into either category, then I don't buy it. That being said, I don't tend to buy modules unless I find their structure particularly compelling, mostly because if the setting itself is good enough, then story plots should naturally present themselves.

    DL, in my opinion, presented interesting options for storytelling as a setting in and of itself, and as I'd also come to appreciate the world through the novels, it wasn't difficult to weave plots that gradually brought players closer and closer to the events of the novels themselves. In my observation as a long-time DM, this increasing interaction between players and well-known characters from the novels is a huge hook for players, like a constantly evolving fan-fiction. Who wouldn't want to meet Galadriel, or Han Solo? The tension from settings tended to build not from storyline so much as from the players gradually becoming every bit as powerful and compelling as the heroes found within the novels. Players may have enjoyed Raistlin Majere and Drizzt Do'Urden, but the real fun was in getting to meet - and tell a story alongside - these characters. It gave the forever-DM an enjoyable opportunity to put their own spins on well-known characters, and add both believability and weight to the stories they were co-creating. But most importantly, it gave players something to shoot for that wasn't just murder and loot. Many of the best parts about a good setting were the NPCs that encouraged players to see "the bigger picture" and that seems to be a large part of the Hickman Revolution. Where it appears to have fallen by the wayside is in its capitulation to capitalism, where a perfectly good setting seems to have gotten wrung out like a damp cloth in the ongoing quest for more revenue.

    I don't know, though, as I've never played their modules. I've only used Krynn as the setting, and in that regard, while there might be more compelling settings out there, there are few characters that made the players want to meet them more than the cast of the Dragonlance novels. They, in as much as the rules and restrictions that made up the world of Krynn, were what made players want to come back, week after week.

    Thank you for this thread, people!