Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Retrospective: Dragons of Despair

Let's cut to the chase: I don't hate this module.

I do, however, hate the shift in adventure design -- and Dungeons & Dragons itself -- that it heralded. When it was released in 1984, Dragons of Despair was a revelation to me and, I suspect, many other gamers. We'd already seen glimpses of the coming paradigm shift in earlier work by Tracy Hickman, such as "The Desert of Desolation" series and, of course, Ravenloft, but neither of those precursors was as ambitious or as ultimately successful as was the Dragonlance series of modules.

Consisting of fourteen modules published over two years, the DL adventures chronicled -- and that is the right word -- the exploits of a group of pre-generated heroes as they attempted to battle the forces of evil that arose in the aftermath of an apocalypse that left the world of Krynn bereft not just of hope but of the power of the gods themselves. Along the way, these heroes acquire not only experience and power but also a variety of plot complications that propel them into the heights of fantasy melodrama that left many gamers begging for more. Whether they knew it or not, Dragonlance was exactly what a sizable portion of the D&D-buying public wanted and these modules were among the most successful ever made by TSR.

I fell under the sway of Dragonlance too, but the magic of these modules wasn't all-encompassing. Even at the time, I chafed at the pregenerated characters and their predefined relationships and story arcs. I also found the world of Krynn a bit too "twee," as our UK friends might say. So, I chucked the setting and the characters and transported the core of the adventures to a world of my own construction, using characters of my players' own devising. Thus, there was no Tanis Half-Elven or Tasslehoff Burrfoot in my Dragonlance -- indeed they were no kender at all (or tinker gnomes, for that matter). There were characters in my campaign that were somewhat like their Dragonlance counterparts, but that was inevitable, given that Hickman drew on the same fantasy archetypes as my players. The main difference, as I recall it, was that my players -- then, as now -- tended to create somewhat more morally ambiguous characters than those first appearing in Dragons of Despair. This worked rather well, since the cleric of the party (he had no spells, as per Dragonlance canon) was something of a con man and snake oil salesman. That he should become the first true cleric in a generation -- and the cleric of the goddess of healing, no less -- made for some great roleplaying. Indeed, watching what was, in many ways, a rather typical D&D adventuring party slowly become heroes in spite of themselves was one of the primary joys of my ill-fated experiment with Dragonlance.

And that's a terrible shame, because I think, in principle, that Dragonlance could have been one of the most amazing things ever attempted with Dungeons & Dragons. It could have been a glorious framework for the creation of a grand epic involving your characters in your campaign world rather than an exercise in heavy-handed auctorial fiat. My own Dragonlance campaign eventually died, because, as more modules were released, it became ever more clear that each character had a plot arc that the modules simply assumed would be accepted, even when that arc involved the death of said character. That made it increasingly hard for me to adapt the rest of the module material, however much I liked it (and liked it I did in several cases). After a while, it didn't feel like we were playing D&D anymore so much as acting out a fantasy novel that someone else had written.

Of course, that's exactly what Dragonlance was and it's the reason I talk such smack about it. I don't think the idea of Dragonlance is a bad one -- far from it. I do, however, think the implementation of it by TSR was exceedingly poor and fostered and encouraged many baleful trends in the hobby. Had this series included more -- any! -- tool kit material to help the referee adapt it to his own campaign and players, I'd probably still be a Dragonlance fan today. I know, in hindsight, that what I wanted could never have happened in 1984. Heck, I'm not convinced it could even happen in 2008, given both gamer tastes and the difficulty in producing what would essentially be a customizable series of campaign aids rather than an "epic in a box."

Still, a guy can dream, can't he?


  1. No doubt Xak Tsaroth was a well-done dungeon, but this is where I do have to start hating in earnest when it comes to Hickman.

    While I found Ravenloft and the Desert series to be more useful game content than not, this is really where that balance shifted the other way, and that I can't find it in me to be apologetic for. That is a just plain fatal flaw for a D&D module; a "dealbreaker", if you will.

  2. You're right, of course, that this is Ground Zero for the shift in dungeon design and for that it does deserve a fair dose of opprobrium. My only "defense" of Hickman and company is that they probably didn't realize what they were doing would have such far-ranging -- and deleterious -- consequences. They may have wrought great chaos, but they did so accidentally.

    At least, I hope they did.

  3. I suppose, but I would not really hesitate to hold fast to that criticism as a "stand alone" assessment of the modules themselves, regardless of anyone's intent and their future repercussions.

  4. I remember when Dragonlance was first published. I was in high school and some of my gaming friends explained it to me. I was immediately turned off to the idea of pre-generated characters and a canned plot. I didn't like the smell of it and I never bought a single module.

    Nevertheless, I eventually bought into the idea of RPGs needing to have pre-planned stories. But not as rigid as Dragonlance. It got to the point where I decided that I couldn't be a good GM without being a good writer. Combined with having to write up stats for characters, balancing it for fair play, I eventually gave up on gaming altogether.

    When I got back into gaming in 2005, I enjoyed being a D&D player again. And last year when I wanted to start my own group, I re-examined what gaming was all about. It wasn't until recently that I realized that I enjoyed that 2005 campaign so much because it was what I now know as essentially an old school styled sandbox campaign. And you don't have to be a brilliant writer to DM a sandbox campaign. Just a basic working sense of improvisational creativity. (As you explained in your "Secret of My Success" blog entry.)

    As I've said before, how can adventure paths be called a game? Especially with the Dragonlance series. What's the point of rolling any dice at all? It just becomes a game of guessing the rest of the DM's story. It's gaming entertainment. Not a game.

  5. Enjoying the books, I was looking forward to getting my hands on the modules. I was expecting a D&D campaign that had inspired the books.

    I was disappointed when I got DL1 and found the opposite.

    I expected the characters from the book as pre-generated PCs. I didn’t expect to be advised to use them rather than my players making their own PCs. This was the first sign to me that the truth was novel → module rather than module → novel. Providing pre-gens, sure. Recommending them?

    That may have been the first moment a thought like “this is not D&D” floated through my brain.

    Still, I also ignored that stuff. Like any good gamer. Smile and nod at the designer’s quaint ideas, then ignore them. I still think there’s a decent module in there if you skip those bits.

    It was when I got DL2 that I gave up on the modules. It was just too clear to me that these modules were pretty much the opposite of what I’d expected.

    I wonder about their success. I mean, no doubt the whole DL franchise has been successful. I don’t know a lot of gamers, however, who played or enjoyed the DL modules much. If DL really changed the landscape, perhaps it was more through influences on FR and later products than through the DL modules themselves.

  6. I gotta wonder about their success as well. Are there two types of gamers? Those who are happy to go to a con or whatever and run some pre-gen a time or two; and those who are only happy with characters they design, or DM's players design, themselves? Characters they will always remember, and proudly display the figure on the book shelf?

    To me the biggest joy of the hobby, 30 years ago and now, is that players create and grow a character. I feel that making modules with pre-gen a necessity is a giant step away from what I get out of gaming.

    I have always had the same game world since childhood, and I have been able to adapt any module adventure, including those for Runequest and other games, into my world. I really want to check these modules out to see how hard they would be to cram somewhere in my world for a long-term campaign.

  7. I wish I could remember which DL module I played. What I remember best was an NPC waitress who wielded a frying pan for 1d8. This was about the time we decided that we really needed to invent our own adventures-- something with more gravitas.

  8. I purchased the first five or size modules, and the hardcover. I don't think I ever use much from the modules.

    I definitely recoiled from the heavy handed plot of these modules. These modules weren't my first encounter with this style of "gaming entertainment" (to use M.gunnerQuist's words), but they certainly signaled this style was gaining popularity.

    It was after this time (late spring of 1987) that I started to abandon AD&D. The next two years, I mostly ran Cold Iron (with some interludes for Traveler and Top Secret S.I.). In 1990, when I moved to North Carolina to start work, I sold most of my AD&D books (all but the PHB) and the modules I saw little use for. I wouldn't play D&D again until late summer 2003 (and even then, Arcana Unearthed not D&D 3.x).

    Now through all that time, I have borrowed heavily from D&D modules, sometimes even heavily plotted modules. I did really welcome Dungeon magazine because it's shorter modules didn't tend to have room to force much plot. Also, shorter modules are much easier to convert to game systems with complex combat systems (which sort of stuns me that by the 3.x days, the Dungeon adventures had become longer and not as well suited to the new game...). I am happy that the ending of Dungeon magazine occurred about the same time I abandoned Arcana Evolved. I would have agonized over letting my subscription lapse having been a charter subscriber.

    Now that storyline games seem to have gained popularity, I have become a lot more careful of which games I buy. I got sucked into Deadlands and 7th Sea. Top Secret S.I. was my first game with only heavily plotted modules in support, but I got some decent play out of using Top Secret modules.


  9. Wondering out loud, I think it would be interesting to know for how many groups was Dragonlance the death knell for AD&D showing up at their table.

    Speaking as a player in DL1 when it first came out, I bailed halfway through it. The rest of my buddies bailed somewhere farther down the line. I don't believe any of us went back to a regularly(or at all) played AD&D game after the DL "experience".
    We had no shortage of other RPGs to play even in the fantasy world (Elric, Rolemaster, Runequest, etc.)

  10. For me, while the growth of storyline modules did coincide with my abandoning D&D, and did affect my purchasing habits and such, there was actually a different cause of my abandonment of D&D.

    The problem was I got tired of the overpowered magic, and the fact that I was radically changing rules to keep magic in check. These days I realize what had really happened. I had jumped on the bandwagon of "appropriately challenging" encounters, and dropped the fluff encounters. The problem is that D&D doesn't work in this environment because a single encounter that's challenging enough to make the mage sweat as to whether he has enough spells isn't playable. So what happens is you have a challenging encounter, the mage fires spells with wild abandon. Then the PCs go off and rest. It's damned hard to keep the pressure up.

    These days I realize that all that filler stuff, random encounters, loads of traps, and such serve to make it costly to have this shoot your wad in one encounter then go hide until you recover.

    On the other hand, the other games I was playing, Cold Iron and Rune Quest, allowed for a single challenging encounter.


  11. I do think it would be interesting to know how many people bought DL stuff and played it vs. people who bought it and just read it.

    I pretty much agree with James on this. I'll add one stupid little thing that bugged the hell out of me: the first module said that steel was so scarce that it was used as currency instead of gold. That seemed so cool to me, until I realized that everybody still had steel armour and weapons. That bugged me to no end.

  12. For me, while the growth of storyline modules did coincide with my abandoning D&D, and did affect my purchasing habits and such, there was actually a different cause of my abandonment of D&D.

    I just wanted to add that for us as a group, AD&D was already on it's last leg. The DL modules was just the final punch (to the groin?).

    I'll add one stupid little thing that bugged the hell out of me...

    This is all from my foggy memory, but I think for me it was one of the boxed text (for a PC, nonetheless) entries, that had the PC respond "Dragons!?!?! Ha Ha Ha, There's no such thing as Dragons!" which is a bit hard to swallow as a player in a Dungeons and DRAGONS game in a module called DRAGONlance. But it's an old saw we pull out time and again in various different games and have a chuckle.

    The other memory I have of playing the DL modules (or in my case, module), was the few people that had read the books and then played the modules, were pretty much sitting around not doing anything as they were bored out of their skulls by the similar(exact?) plotline as compared to the books...

  13. Wait, you actually HAD to kill one of the PCs if you followed the storyline?! Is that really true? How did they manage that? Did anybody accept that with no bitterness?

    I wonder if this is the source of all the "module-hate" I discovered in the online gaming world. I always really liked modules, but I stopped buying them way before the DL stuff came out and considered them to be fundamentally malleable. So it sort of surprised me to hear the entire format quite regularily denigrated.

  14. I also found the world of Krynn a bit too "twee," as our UK friends might say.
    Me too. It's awfully cuddly for an allegedly post-apocalyptic setting, isn't it?

  15. That the non-Gygaxian influences, and Hickman/Weis line and the Dragonlance line in paticular, are the central influence flowing into AD&D 2E in my charts, is no coincidence. While the rules as developed in 2E were mostly derived from 1E via the Oriental Adventures-derived line, the core assumptions and spirit of 2E were entirely from Dragonlance and such "novel-driven" works.

    Lots of folk blame Forgotten Realms, but the real culprit was Dragonlance; though Forgotten Realms became the true novel machine in time, in the original work you can see how classical the structures were, even in the face of the setting's origins long before as a setting for Greenwood's stories. He designed FR as a setting for his own writing, but when he ran it as a D&D setting, he let the players make their own stories (this I know from several conversations with him), he did not dictate that the setting drove their stories. Much like Gygax and Greyhawk, though in FR even in the day the retired hero/Mary Sue factor was turned up to 11 (versus the 8 to 10Gygaxian factor for Bigby/Mordy, etc.)

    Marry the predestination gaming of Dragonlance to Forgotten Realms, and there's the 2E spirit...

  16. I did not buy any of the DL modules becase of the predefined story. I had a chance to flip through the first one, and it was not that bad, but you could see where it was going. DL was just too heavy handed in this regard.

  17. I had all 14 DL modules and we ran several of them BITD (I remember running at least DL1, DL2, DL7, and DL8, and perhaps 1 or 2 others). We used the pregen characters and treated them as a series of tournament-style one-offs, more or less. We didn't keep track of treasure or XP; if a PC died in one module but was listed in the pregens for the next one he showed back up, etc. I remember DL1 and DL8 both being pretty fun (especially the latter because we ran it including all the optional Battlesystem scenarios), the others less so (especially DL2, where literally half the module goes by before the players are actually allowed to make a choice). Nowadays they're boxed up in my mom's basement back in Indiana, alongside my 2E stuff, old Dragon and Polyhedron issues (both c. 1988-92), and whatever else I decided I no longer wanted that I can't even recall anymore what it was.

  18. For the record, I wouldn’t really blame FR for anything. I never used a lot of the supplemental material anyway, and FR was close to the time when I left AD&D for other games. So, I really can’t speak much about it.

    I did used to really love Ed Greenwood’s Dragon articles when we got glimpses of FR long before it was considered for publication.

    For me and my group at the time, DL was really a non-entity. We played one session of DL1. We kept playing AD&D and even some 2e including one really good and lasting (for us) campaign.

    Two or three of us who read novels read the DL novels and enjoyed them, but DL never really had a direct impact on the game for us.

  19. Another point that perhaps marks my group's experience with these modules as a little different from everybody else's: we read and played the adventures before reading the novels. I distinctly remember liking how in the first part of the first novel they followed the adventure exactly -- you could trace their path through the module, and I was surprised when they did some things differently than how our group had -- and being disappointed when the novel ended abruptly at the end of the second module (not least because I liked the third and especially fourth module (with the floating dwarf-fortress) and was looking forward to seeing them "in action." I'm also pretty sure we had already played through DL8 before I read (or at least finished) the second novel, again being disappointed that there was basically nothing about exploring the High Clerist Tower dungeon, and surprised when Sturm died (because I was 9 years old and not familiar enough with literary cliche to realize that he had "doomed" written all over him from page 1) -- he didn't die when we played it! Either DL10 or DL12 (note DL11 wasn't an adventure, it was a strategic scale wargame) was the first module I read after having already read that part of the novel, which likely suggests why we never had any desire to play through those last few modules (even though IIRC there was some fairly cool (i.e. seemed cool at the time to my 9-10 year old self) stuff in DL12 that wasn't in the book).

  20. Love the story it spun, but playing the modules really sucked. The story was already foretold and about rail roaded...

  21. Are there two types of gamers? Those who are happy to go to a con or whatever and run some pre-gen a time or two; and those who are only happy with characters they design, or DM's players design, themselves? Characters they will always remember, and proudly display the figure on the book shelf?

    I do in fact believe that there are at least two distinct types of gamers and attempting to cater to them all at once is one of the things that's done a lot of violence to games widely perceived as "generic," like D&D, since the game tries to be all things to all men and, in the process, loses sight of its origins and purpose.

  22. What I remember best was an NPC waitress who wielded a frying pan for 1d8.

    That NPC was, if I recall, Tika Waylan, who eventually goes on to become available as a PC.

  23. Wait, you actually HAD to kill one of the PCs if you followed the storyline?! Is that really true? How did they manage that? Did anybody accept that with no bitterness?

    I honestly can't recall how it was handled in the module. I remember very clearly, though, that at least one PC from earlier modules -- Sturm Brightblade -- is simply dropped from the list of pre-generated PCs on the assumption he died in an earlier one. It's been years since I owned this modules, so perhaps I am misremembering.

  24. I don't believe you were actually required to kill off Sturm, but you were absolutely required to split the party up early in DL6, sending half of them south then west into the rest of DL6 and DL7-9, and the other half east into DL10-13 (before everybody meets back up for DL14). The pregenerated PC lists in those modules only included the appropriate half of the party (i.e. you couldn't play Tanis or Raistlin in DL7 and couldn't play Tasselhof or Gilthanas in DL12).

  25. What gets me is that, with so much Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms fiction on which to draw, the D&D movie was so lame. The DL novels in particular seemed to appeal to a wider (especially more female) demographic than the game.

    The modules rubbed my group of AD&D players decidedly the wrong way, though. Sing alongs? "Let's not, and say we did!"

  26. Dwayanu, it's not surprising the D&D movie was lame. Hollywood as a general rule does not "get" fantasy, and D&D, strictly adapted, does not lend itself to great screen entertainment (there's no real "plot" and certainly no definable structure).

    Second, the DL novels are also lame. :-) They're not good writing, and wouldn't make good films, either. As some here have done, you might be able to use some of the basic ideas or fundamentals of the DL campaign world and craft a fun movie, but the novels are about the same level of quality as other gaming fiction.

  27. I did used to really love Ed Greenwood’s Dragon articles when we got glimpses of FR long before it was considered for publication.

    I did as well. They were absolutely a joy to read and inspired me like few things back in the day. It's a pity that the Realms eventually proved so successful that TSR (and then WotC) wound up destroying most of what made it such a charming setting.

  28. I don't believe you were actually required to kill off Sturm

    You've probably seen the modules more recently than I. My recollection was that he disappeared as a pregen character and this coincided with when I read the book where he died, so I may have simply connected the two things unnecessarily. In any event, the modules simply made too many narrative demands on me and my players to work, so we abandoned them and went off in our own direction, eventually creating a campaign that was wholly unlike Dragonlance.

  29. And that's a terrible shame, because I think, in principle, that Dragonlance could have been one of the most amazing things ever attempted with Dungeons & Dragons. It could have been a glorious framework for the creation of a grand epic involving your characters in your campaign world rather than an exercise in heavy-handed auctorial fiat.

    That's a question that my Silver Age novel series has raised in my head. It came up as "how do I play the Belgariad without Belgarath, Polgara, or Garion". Lately it has been how do you write a quest module that is as easy to drop into a campaign as a location based module.

    My current thought is a series of encounters which have a "natural" linear organization but also have variant paths described. Instead of locations you can drop into your campaign it would be a bunch of encounters to drop into your locations. Like a location module it need to have not doing it as an option.

  30. For me, when I want to run an epic campaign these days, I just try to create epic bad guys. I set up their machinations. Then I have them react once the PCs decide to engage. (Which, with my current group, they will do.)

    In the last one, the PCs took a path I would’ve never anticipated. It didn’t matter, though, because I’d only planned what the bad guys would do. I didn’t plan what the PCs would do.

    I think I could take the same NPCs, their goals, their motivations, their minions and their strongholds and drop them into just about any world without too much work.

    That said, I’m coming to terms with running a more “railroad” style of epic campaign. My current group can enjoy that type of thing, so why not? Of course, unlike Dragonlance, I’m perfectly willing to let a PC die or even let the whole party fail to live up to their “destiny”.

    In fact, it can be interesting when the next party has to deal with the consequences of the last one failing.

  31. You don't have to kill off Sturm. He disappears as a pre-generated character in DL10-13 because those modules are about the other half of the party, who went east from Tarsis when Sturm, Laurana, Gilthanas, Tas, Flint, and Elistan (and the two other Solamnic knights who joined them in Tarsis, Derek Crownguard and Aran Tallbow) went south to Icewall. Sturm is on the list for DL14, when the whole party reunites for what should be the final battle of the War of the Lance, and the incursion into the Temple of Neraka that will determine the fate of Krynn. Raistlin doesn't have to turn evil, either, and didn't the time I ran the series all the way through to its conclusion (and certainly won't in my current game, where I'm his player -- I don't do evil PCs).

    The modules, while they have a very strong, "railroady" story-line, do in fact diverge far more from the novels, especially after the first book, than you are remembering, and have a good deal of flexibility for taking the story off the original rails entirely, depending on the outcomes of the battles of the High Clerist's Tower, Istar of the Deep, and Neraka (all of which were meant to be run with the Battlesystem Mass Combat rules, with at least some of the PCs on the field as commanders or heroes).

    The High Clerist's Tower, especially, can go a bunch of different ways, and the Dragon Orb is actually the weakest of the artifacts the heroes may find in the Tower -- if they get hold of the Crown of Yarus and the 33rd Khas Piece, the most likely outcome of the next engagement is the total destruction of the Blue Dragonarmy as a coherent fighting force, in which case Kitiara and Skie probably have to desert and drop out of sight to avoid being executed for incompetence by Ariakas. (To be continued: comment got too long for the site to accept.)

  32. As a matter of personal taste, I disagree with almost everything that's been written in this thread. I love narrative gaming, and I love the Dragonlance modules -- I've DM'd them twice, and I'm playing Raistlin right now in a campaign derived from the Silver Anniversary "Saga" edition (which is different enough from the originals to keep it interesting and ensure a few surprises) that started with characters at 1st level, and is about to launch into "Dragons of Despair" now that we're all at or very close to fifth. The group doesn't including any of the original pre-gens except the Majere brothers, but our next session will begin with the fateful reunion at the Inn of the Last Home -- we'll have to see who actually shows up in this iteration of the story. One of these days I'm going to run the modules again, using the Sovereign Press 3rd-edition updates.

    My experience with the pre-gen characters has been that that using them leads to more interesting, story-oriented role-playing. A lot of players (including some of the ones I'm playing with now, unfortunately) don't give a lot of thought to developing the characters they make themselves into more than just a miniature and a statblock -- but give them one of the Companions, with a Larry Elmore portrait and a whole page of background on the character's history, personality, and quirks, and even if they haven't read the books they tend to start acting the part instead of just rolling dice and worrying about tactics and wealth acquisition.

    It probably didn't hurt, the second time I ran them, that half the players were theater majors. It also didn't hurt any that Annie and Amanda, the players running Goldmoon and Laurana, respectively, had both the looks and the dramatic talent to have played them in a live-action movie (not that we'll ever get one, after the well-deserved failure of the execrable animated version of Dragons of Autumn Twilight), or that Amanda was dating the guy who ran Tanis in real life. That campaign only lasted through DL4, because real life intervened and the group split up, as tends to happen with gaming groups that large, but man was it fun, for everyone involved, while it lasted.

    On balance, I'd much rather ride a railroad through landscapes as interesting and varied as those of Krynn than wander around in a sandbox that, because the vast majority of DM's do not have the creative chops of even a modestly talented hack novelist like Hickman, rarely has much in it other than sand. I'm loving the Paizo adventure paths for the same reason -- when I'm not playing Dragonlance, I have one character running through Rise of the Runelords, and am about to start another in The Shackled City. No DM I've ever met or expect to meet has either the talent or the time to create a setting as detailed and fully-realized as Sandpoint or Cauldron and their environs. Vive la Railroad!

  33. That's fair enough. I think the majority of us self-identified grognards, old-schoolers, etc.,. can't stand railroads, but it's worth reminding ourselves that there are people who like them. It would never have become so popular if there weren't.

    Enjoy your game.