Friday, December 26, 2008

Ten Things I Like About Dragonlance

For some gaming bloggers, taking potshots at Dragonlance is such a common occurrence, and done with so much venom, that you'd think the campaign setting pinched their kid sister's bum, got their dad fired from the mill, tripped their mom on the way back from the store, and got their older brother sent off to die on the front lines, all before lunchtime. Go figure. I guess some people just need to buy slacks that aren't so binding.


Way back when, in one of the first posts here at the T&B, I talked about how Dragonlance, specifically the Dragonlance novels, were one of my earliest gateways into fantasy, and essentially, gaming. Oddly enough, although I've owned DL gaming material since almost as soon as I started gaming, I've never played in a Dragonlance campaign. Actually, as it now stands, I'd like to try a DL game some time putting Castles & Crusades in place of D&D. I think it'd port over pretty easily, and I've found C&C dead easy for new players to get a handle on.

And with that in mind, I wanted to present a list of ten things I like about the Dragonlance campaign setting. This isn't "ten great things about Dragonlance that make it better than other campaign settings", this is just ten things that I, personally, like about the setting.

1. The Cataclysm. Nothing says campaign backstory like dropping a crapton of giant freakin' rocks on a planet cuz the gods are angry. Actually, I think it's not a bad idea at all - if you're running a game set around the War of the Lance, the 'clysm happened only a few hundred years ago - long enough for ruined cities and other abandoned places to, ahem, take on new residents, but not so long ago that nothing would remain of what was left behind. Perfect dungeon-delving idea fodder.

2. No Orcs. It's not that I've got a problem with orcs, it's just that it's kinda nice to have a D&D setting without them. Some settings work fine with the "crack open the Monster Manual and go crazy" idea, but others work best, I think, when the designers (and the GMs) make a conscious decision to restrict the monsters that you'll find in the world. Also (again, not that there's anything wrong with it), avoiding orcs allows DL to take a (small) step away from Tolkien (and since it's based around a big huge epic struggle of Good vs. Evil and championed by a ragtag band of heroes, sometimes it needs all the distance it can get).

3. No Hobbits. Hey, those fuzzy-footed, curly-haired, roly-poly dudes who like to hang out and have four breakfasts and a nice pint and just chill out are totally fun, but I just don't get 'em as "adventurers" outside of The Hobbit and LotR. I've never really liked 'em in D&D, ever since that one time at band camp...okay, never mind. Circle of sharing, circle of sharing.

4. Kender. No, I am totally serious on this one. I like Kender. Not in that way, pervert. I actually think they fit the D&D dynamic a lot better than Hobbits, at least in Krynn. They are natural "wanderers", they steal stuff and are so good at it even THEY don't even know they're stealing, and they have no fear. At all. Totally fearless. Suck on that, Frodo. Actually, the only problem with Kender, in my mind, is that the people who want to play Kender are always the people you DON'T want playing Kender, because instead of grooving on the chance to have fun and explore that whole childlike innocence / comic relief thing, Kender PC players are usually total prats who just want to have an in-game excuse to annoy their fellow players and the DM while stealing from the party.
On a more serious note, Dragonlance is, to me, a campaign setting with a strong thematic current running through it regarding the death of innocence in a world. Between the Cataclysm and the loss of the favor of the gods, followed by the terrors of the rampaging Dragonarmies and their winged namesakes, being able to play a character who just doesn't "get it", who's full of hope and visions of adventure and glory, and then let's face it, make 'em watch you kick the puppy (figuratively speaking) can be a pretty cool idea. Actually, it's what I think made Tasselhoff (believe it or not) one of the (secretly) best parts of the first three novels - the times where he encountered real sadness, encountered pure evil and tragedy, and realized that the world was NOT a fun place - it was actually kinda cool. Does that make me a bad person? Hmmm...moving on.

5. Draconians. I dig these guys for a couple of reasons. One, because each of them die in such a way as to mess with (and possibly kill) the people who did them in. Two, they're monsters that are directly tied into the history of the campaign setting, assuming you're gaming around the time of the War of the Lance. Three, they are monsters that you can actually develop into interesting "characters" of their own, since several of the Draconian breeds are specifically mentioned as being used as spies, assassins, generals, etc., meaning that a good DM can build them into more than just another cool monster. You can have that Aurak Draconian general who's the party nemesis, PCs being hunted by and hunting in turn a Sivak shape-shifting spy in their midst, or suffer repeated attacks from a particularly resourceful Kapak assassin.

6. Minotaurs. Although I'm not huge on the whole "other campaign setting on the other side of the world" thing, I do dig minotaurs as a PC race. I dunno why, but I've always thought minotaurs were cool, and the thought of being able to play one is kinda awesome. The idea that they have a sort of proto-Roman society and are all arrogant and badass makes them even more cool in my mind. Oddly enough, I did have a Minotaur PC once, but it wasn't in DL - it was in a friend's short-lived homebrew campaign, where all the PCs were humanoids. Kind of a bummer that the game fell through - my Minotaur cleric was pretty badass.

7. Orders of High Sorcery. Some people like the idea of having a "wizard's guild" thing going on in their campaign, some don't. I think all too often this idea gets implemented into a game, but in the end doesn't really have an effect on the PCs. However, I think the OoHS are significant and structured enough that they create real choices and consequences for a magic-user PC. Once you hit 4th level, you either make a choice as to your order (and go through the trials), or you go rogue and suffer the consequences if you get caught. I also think it creates a good dynamic for the Illusionist to exist as a class apart from the magic-user, as a sort of rogue Order apart from the "true" orders, if one is so inclined.

8. The Dragons of Krynn. I think in too many campaign settings, Dragons are portrayed as little more than a big-monster-guarding-treasure adventure plot point. There's the usual "ancient and powerful creatures who once ruled the earth but now are few and far between, yet fearsome and nigh-unstoppable when disturbed", stuff, but then it tends to not go anywhere. DL actually took all that backfluff and did something with it. Some people think that's part of what makes the setting so craptastic, but eh, a lot of those people also didn't get hugged enough as children.

9. Tinker Gnomes. I dunno why I like these dudes, since they're kind of annoying, but I like them anyhow. I suppose a lot of people DON'T like them because many feel you can't have "comedy" or whatnot in a serious epic-battle-against-evil campaign setting. Well, like Kender, I think the problem isn't so much Tinker Gnomes themselves, as it is the people who always WANT to play Tinker Gnomes. I guess the biggest problem is that, if you go by the canon of the rules, Tinker Gnome inventions essentially never work, at least not the way they are supposed to. I'd be nice if, in fact, some of the Tinker Gnome devices did what they were intended to do, and could aid the rest of the party in their adventures.

10. Rarity of Clerics. If you're playing a campaign set around the War of the Lance, there really should be only a handful of "good" clerics around, and most of them will be involved in the war effort. I've always found the whole "clerics as medics" thing fine during adventuring, but if even low-level clerics in city or town temples have the ability to cure diseases and heal wounds, the social dynamics of a lot of campaign settings should really be a lot different. Even a 1st level cleric (assuming a version of the rules that allows 1st level Clerics to cast spells) would make a tangible difference, being able to heal a lot of injuries that would normally kill your average medieval peasant. Being able to create water during a drought, or purify food and drink - a lot of things that would change the way such communities would work. In Dragonlance, there's actually a pretty good reason that Magic-Users are feared and Clerics are rare (or just don't exist, depending on the time frame). However, I think that if I run a DL campaign using C&C rules, I'd have Druids still exist even after the Cataclysm, although they would be rare and very reclusive (the druids drawing their magical power from "nature" rather from the gods, or in a way, from the gods through a proxy, thus getting around the whole "punish the humans for their hubris" thing.

All right, that's that. Dragonlance isn't the best setting ever, and I will agree that it has its flaws, but I do think there is plenty to like about it, and the setting is perfectly usable as background for a good campaign - even one not set during the War.

As always, questions and comments are welcome.


Anonymous said...

I'm with you 100% on this. Dragonlance rocks. The books themselves are sadly under-rated and unfairly criticised, usually by people who've never read them.

I love it for all the reasons you do; the setting works, it's got history, and it's consistent.

Oh, and one more reason. Gully Dwarves. I adore gully dwarves :D

Jack Badelaire said...

Holy crap, 14 minutes after I posted the column - I think that's a record.

Thanks for the kind comments. I know where the whole "Dragonlance shot my dog and ruined my life forever" crowd are coming from, and in a certain light I understand what they are saying.

But on the other hand...some people just need more hugs and ice cream in their lives.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

I'm curious how you would run the DL series as a "non-railroad"?

I read the books, at least about the first 10 to 12, then I realized that they were all starting to read the same, so I put them down. Some interesting ideas, good standard fantasy fare, but nothing that really shook me one way or the other.

I don't have the experiences that others have in talking about how DL affected D&D, so I can't comment aside from that when my friends and I looked at the DL series, we just didn't like it - we didn't like being told how our PCs would act.

Jack Badelaire said...

"I'm curious how you would run the DL series as a "non-railroad"?"

You mean the DL adventure modules?
Why would I use those anyhow, when I have the setting material on it's own?

"I don't have the experiences that others have in talking about how DL affected D&D, so I can't comment aside from that when my friends and I looked at the DL series, we just didn't like it - we didn't like being told how our PCs would act."

Again, why do that? I've got the Dragonlance Adventures hardcover and the Tales of the Lance boxed set, as well as several other odds and ends. Nothing in any of that says boo about railroading your characters to fit a particular storyline.

Yes, the War of the Lance has a big affect on a campaign IF your campaign takes place when the War is going on. However, I'd gladly bitch-slap any DM who felt that they HAD to play out a DL campaign during the War of the Lance the way it turns out in the canon history simply "because".

This is where my biggest beef with the whole DL-hating crowd lies. They point at the modules and cry "Railroading!" and hiss and spit, whereas I look at my 1987 DL Adventures hardcover and see nothing but a cool bunch of possibilities - there's nothing in that book that HAS to be used.

In the end, no one is putting a gun to your head and making you play anything but what YOU want to play, and regardless, there's a big difference between a series of modules and the campaign setting as a whole.

Alfredo Amatriain said...

Personally I loved the whole "go to war riding a freaking dragon and trying to impale your enemy with a huge lance" thing. That's pretty badass in my book.

Anyway, I must confess I haven't been following DL fluff after the War of the Lance. I know they expanded the game world with the "other continent" stuff, which I've heard people say is no great, and (relatively) recently there was some "fifth age" thing which supposedly was a great cataclysm that deeply changed the setting. Anyone can drop a word about whether any of the iterations of the setting is worth checking, besides the war of the lance?

Anonymous said...

Yeh. Don't use the modules, use the setting.

The modules aren't exactly the high point of scenario design, and while they're fairly ok for introducing new players to the game, any more experienced gamer will immediately spot how railroady they are, and react against that. There's a problem just waiting to happen.

It's a much, much better idea to revel in the world of Dragonlance, create your own adventures and keep the "canon" plotline well alone.

Anonymous said...

I'm not really big on DL.....But to each their own. All the best to you and other Krynn-lovers...


thekelvingreen said...

Being a Brit, my gateway was quite different (Fighting Fantasy into Games Workshop stuff, and then into proper rpgs), but I did read the Dragonlance books as a child, and enjoyed them. As I got older and more familiar with the fantasy genre, the many flaws became apparent. Even as a child, I hated Tasslehoff Burrfoot, however, coming across as something from Pratchett only without the humour.

All that said, the setting has potential. I too like the minotaurs and draconians, and the lack of gold and orcs (a strange deviation from stock fantasy when the rest reads like LotR-lite), and I really admire the attempt at post-apocalyptic fantasy; it comes through well in The Legend of Huma but pretty much nowhere else in the DL canon.

Dwayanu said...

The "railroad" aspect of the modules is as far as I've seen THE big issue with "Dragonlance" in D&D terms, not a book published in 1987. Old-schoolers can likewise be fans of the World of Greyhawk while deprecating such modules as "Vecna Lives."

Donny_the_DM said...

Hell YES! Dragonlance was one of the first influences I came under when I first started gaming.

The stories were fantastic! The RPG...not so much.

DL and spelljammer were my first boxed sets as a kid, followed by the old FR grey sir, have tickled my nostalgia bone! play that all plainsmen party again...good times indeed!

Brandon said...

I don't think railroading is always a bad thing. If you have the right players and they want to play a particular environ/story and understand things will be a bit directed, railroading can be lots of fun. It's just not the sort of thing you spring on your players unannounced.