Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Retrospective: Time of the Dragon

When I first started writing these Retrospective posts, I set myself some broad historical parameters, in order to pare down the absolutely immense number of potential games and gaming products about which I could write. Those parameters were (very roughly) the first decade of the RPG hobby, meaning the years 1974–1984, which maps pretty closely to what I've previously called the Golden Age of Dungeons & Dragons. Like all such parameters, mine was somewhat (though not entirely) arbitrary and, over the years, I've deviated from it when I felt there was a worthy product whose publication date fell outside that range of years. 

For the most part, though, I've stuck to my original framework, if only out of habit and some degree of stubbornness. However, a conversation with a very old friend of mine reminded me that the early years of 1990s were more than thirty years ago. Likewise, the first non-TSR edition of D&D was released just shy of a quarter-century ago, making it almost as old today as OD&D was at the time 3e was published. Shocking though these reminders were to my increasingly aged self, the served a valuable purpose in giving me some additional perspective on the history of the hobby. 2024, after all, marks the 50th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons and I'm still focusing very narrowly on a small sliver of that half-century. Perhaps it was time to expand Grognardia's gaze a little further into the future past – to the end of TSR's existence, at least.

And what better way to kick off the expanded coverage of the Retrospective series than a post about my favorite Dragonlance product, 1989's Time of the Dragon? Yes, you read that right: my favorite Dragonlance product. I know that I am well known as a Dragonlance hater, but the truth is that my feelings toward the setting and line of AD&D products is rather more nuanced than simple hatred. I don't actually hate Dragonlance itself so much as what its popularity and success did to the subsequent direction of Dungeons & Dragons, nudging it down the road toward whatever it is that it's become in recent decades. 

Time of the Dragon is the brainchild of none other than David "Zeb" Cook, which may explain why I've always had such an affection for it. It's also one of those glorious boxed sets that TSR produced in large numbers during the 2e era, something no one else in the hobby (with the possible exception of the Chaosium of old) has ever done as well. Consisting of two books – the 112-page Guide Book to Taladas and the 48-page Rule Book of Taladas, along with 24 full-color cardstock sheets and 4 poster maps – Time of the Dragon presents for the first time another continent of Krynn, the aforementioned Taladas. Like the more familiar Ansalon, Taladas suffered from the events of the Cataclysm, when a single huge meteor fell from the sky and nearly sundered the continent. However, Taladas has its own unique races, cultures, and history, not to mention relationship with the gods that set it apart from Ansalon.

That's a big part of why I retain an affection for Time of the Dragon. Whereas Ansalon and the modules focusing on the War of the Lance have a faux-Tolkien-meets-Ren-Faire vibe to them, Taladas is a darker, harsher place, owing in part to how it experienced the Cataclysm. The meteor strike caused massive terrain-altering earthquakes, resulting in lava flows and volcanic eruptions that blackened the skies. Survival in this environment required hard decisions by the peoples and societies of Taladas, making it a crueler, more pragmatic and occasionally xenophobic place. In some respects, Taladas anticipates many aspects of the later Dark Sun setting, though admittedly lacking in the more sword-and-planet feel of the latter.

Consequently, Taladas feels very different from Ansalon, almost to the point of feeling as if the continent were not located on Krynn. Its peoples and societies deviate from the standard assumptions of both AD&D and Dragonlance. For example, the majority of the elves of Taladas have a nomadic, horse-based culture quite unlike those of Ansalon, while a minority of the race are reclusive tricksters who steal human babies to replenish their own sickly stock. Similarly, the dwarves of Taladas do not dwell underground and, in fact, have a fear of subterranean locales. Kender – much disliked in many gaming circles – barely exist in Taladas and those who do lack the carefree attitudes of their Ansalon cousins. Taladas is also home to numerous new playable races, like goblins, ogres, lizard men, and minotaurs, the latter of which rule a Roman-inspired empire. Combined with several distinct human cultures, likewise inspired by historical antecedents, Taladas would never be mistaken for Ansalon.

Time of the Dragon is also notable for its various rules changes and alterations to 2e. The one I remember most are its kits, an innovation most AD&D players would probably associate with the interminable The Complete X Handbook series, but which, so far as I recall, debuted in this boxed set. At any rate, it's the first place I encountered the idea of kits and I was immediately taken with them. For those unfamiliar with them, a kit is a set of small tweaks to a standard character class to reflect the idiosyncrasies of a particular race and/or culture. For example, there's a kit for the horse-riding bowmen of the Uigan culture and another for the gnomish Companions of the Dead, an elite group of fighters. What I think works about these kits, as compared to those that appeared later, is that they're all very specific and serve to ground the character that possesses one in the setting, which is something I find very agreeable.

I don't get the impression that Taladas was very well received by Dragonlance fans in general, though, as I recall, there were a handful of supplements produced to support it during the 2e era. If my assessment is correct, I can understand why that might have been the case. Aside from a few high-level connections to standard Krynn, such as the influence of the three moons over magic, Taladas might as well be its own unique setting. Even the signature draw of Dragonlance – the dragons – are downplayed and re-contextualized so that, if it weren't for the DL logo on the box, one might be hard pressed to recognize it as taking place on Krynn. That might also explain why I was (and am) so fond of Time of the Dragon: it's a fascinating experiment in building a distinct and unusual AD&D setting that doesn't quite fit into the usual array of building blocks, which is itself a feature of the entire 2e era of AD&D.


  1. Interesting. I avoided this like the plague when it came out assuming it was more cashing in on Dragon Lance fever. By this time I was sick of the meta plot railroad of Dragon Lance.

    Also not going to lie, the cover makes it look like a YA romance and not a gritty darksun esq setting

    Thanks for this

    1. The cover is not a good fit with the content at all.

  2. Me and my brother owned a copy. It never quite clicked for me, I felt it lacked something to make it cohesive.
    If TotD didn't bear the dragonlance logo I would probably have liked it more.

  3. That awesome cover by Robin Wood originally came from Dragon magazine #97. :-)

  4. I didn't buy this as there were so many settings being published by TSR. Spelljammer, Mystara, Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms and Kara-Tur were all competing for my attention. This was shortly before Birthright, Ravenloft and Dark Sun were released. I decided to focus on Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk, and I do not regret my choice. But since you've spoken well of it I might pick it up as a PDF.

  5. I think my feelings were similar to yours. I had very little interest in Dragonlance (felt much like the Star Wars movies do now, repeatedly focusing on the same thing over and over), but this was Different. One of my favorites.

  6. Though I have to admit that the totality of my knowledge about Dragonlance comes from reading your posts, this actually sounds like a great setting; almost 'post-apocalyptic' even ? , but without the encumbered parts of a setting like Dark Sun (slaves ? I and think even cannibalism ? I might be wrong here.)

  7. My problem with Dragon Lance was not the metaplot, but the existence of just ONE story, and the fact that it was not yours (of course, it could be yours, but you actually needed to play with THEIR chacters). I understand that people loved the novel and the characters, but oh boy, they were so bad and boring! And the humor was so terrible!! A Dragon Lance free from that story sounds amazing! I think I'll buy the PDF and read it. Thanks for the review!