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Thorsteinn Mar

Thorsteinn Mar

Mar 5, 2024  ·  23 min read

Dragonlance Classics


Dragonlance Classics, by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis, is among the most successful yet underrated D&D modules ever published. Known as the DL module series, it's epic in scale and nature.

In the dimly lit corners of my childhood room, surrounded by stacks of well-thumbed and dog-eared fantasy novels and scattered dice, a world of imagination and adventure unfurled before me. This was a sacred ritual, one that had me poring over the well-worn pages of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) Player's Handbook with the fervor of a scholar studying ancient texts. It was here, amid the arcane symbols and detailed rule sets, that I embarked on a meticulous journey to create a character who would leave an indelible mark on my heart and the fantastical realms I yearned to explore.

This character, whom I affectionately named Roy the Victorious—I know, I know, not the most original name out there—was more than just a set of stats on a sheet of paper. He was the embodiment of nobility and courage, a warrior whose greatest ambition was to ascend to the esteemed ranks of Solamnic knighthood. Crafting Roy's persona and backstory wasn't a task I took lightly; it was a labor of love and imagination. I spent countless days, my hands moving almost of their own accord, writing and re-writing, tweaking and perfecting. The process was arduous, filled with moments of doubt and inspiration in equal measure, but as the final touches were added, I knew Roy was ready to step into the annals of my personal legend.

Introducing Roy the Victorious

The journey to introduce Roy to the world—or at least, to my circle of friends—was as memorable as the character creation itself. Clad in layers to fend off the biting cold, I trudged through the wet snow that blanketed the world outside in Reykjavik, Iceland, a physical obstacle that mirrored the anticipation and trepidation swirling within me. My destination was a friend's house, a place that had become our makeshift tavern and battleground, where stories were born and legends made.

That evening, as we gathered around the table, the air thick with the scent of anticipation and the warmth of camaraderie, I unveiled Roy the Victorious. The module of the night was "Dragons of Despair," the herald of the Dragonlance Classics series published 40 years ago or in March 1984, a campaign that promised to immerse us in a world teetering on the brink of darkness and redemption. Little did I know, this introduction was not just a beginning for Roy but a gateway to one of the most epic sagas in D&D lore—the War of the Lance.

War of the Lance

The tales of the War of the Lance, woven into the fabric of D&D history by the masterful hands of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, stand as towering monuments in the landscape of fantasy literature. Alongside revered narratives like the Prism Pentad of Dark Sun and the saga of Drizzt Do'Urden, the Dragonlance saga occupies a place of honor. The Classics modules, while tracing the broad strokes of the novels' epic narrative, offered unique deviations that allowed players like myself to carve our own paths through Krynn's war-torn realms.

To say that the characters of this saga—Raistlin Majere, Tanis Half-Elven, Sturm Brightblade, and their companions—are well-known would be an understatement. They are icons, etched into the collective memory of a generation of gamers and readers. Their stories of courage, sacrifice, and transformation resonate deeply, offering both escape and reflection. As Roy stepped into this storied landscape, I couldn't help but feel a profound connection to this rich tapestry of lore, a sense of belonging to a community that had grown up alongside these heroes, sharing in their triumphs and tragedies.

It's not the destination…

The Dragonlance (DL) series emerged as a groundbreaking phenomenon within the world of tabletop role-playing games, a dazzling fusion of elements that collectively forged an experience unparalleled at its time. The initiative embarked by TSR (Tactical Studies Rules) to synchronize an expansive, epic module series with a suite of accompanying novels represented an audacious leap into uncharted territories of fantasy storytelling and game design. This was a bold venture, diverging from the company's traditional offerings and setting a new precedent for integrated narrative gaming experiences.

Initially, TSR's commitment to the Dragonlance project was tentative, perhaps reflective of the inherent risks associated with pioneering such an ambitious crossover between literature and interactive play. However, as the elements of the series coalesced—the meticulously crafted modules, the visually arresting artwork of Clyde Caldwell, Larry Elmore, Jeff Easley, and more, and the compellingly written novels—a synergistic magic took hold, for example, prior to the publication of Dragons of Despair, TSR published the short story “Test of the Twins” in Dragon Magazine, probably to create more interest for the module. This multifaceted approach not only captivated the imaginations of players and readers alike but also transformed the Dragonlance series into a resounding success that reshaped the landscape of fantasy role-playing games.

In a bold move, TSR expanded the Dragonlance universe beyond the confines of modules and novels to include a variety of branded products, such as board games, a strategy not previously employed by the company. This diversification further cemented Dragonlance'splace in the hearts of fans, making it a cultural touchstone within the gaming community and beyond.

Leaving the dungeon

Prior to the advent of the Dragonlance series, the majority of TSR's modules were largely concentrated on the classic dungeon crawl experience, titles like "Tomb of Horrors," "Ravenloft," and "Keep on the Borderlands" epitomized this focus. While these adventures offered thrilling explorations and challenging encounters, they often followed a formulaic progression that, over time, could blend into a somewhat repetitive tapestry of trap-laden corridors and climactic confrontations with a Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG). The appeal of such modules, though undeniable, bore the risk of becoming monotonous for players seeking a richer variety of narrative and engagement.

The Dragonlance series revolutionized this paradigm by shifting the narrative emphasis from the dank, confined spaces of underground labyrinths to the majestic and awe-inspiring realm of dragons. This was not merely a cosmetic change but a profound reimagining of what a Dungeons & Dragons campaign could entail. Dragons, previously encountered as rare and singular adversaries, now took center stage as pivotal characters and formidable foes, weaving a complex tapestry of mythology, politics, and morality into the fabric of the game. The series offered a narrative depth and a scale of adventure that was previously unheard of, enriching the D&D experience with a saga where dragons were not just occasional challenges but the very heart of the story.

In doing so, the Dragonlance series not only fulfilled the promise implied by the name "Dungeons & Dragons" but also expanded it. It underscored the potential of role-playing games as a medium for storytelling that could rival traditional novels in depth and complexity. The series invited players and readers alike into a richly detailed world where their actions could influence the course of an epic narrative, offering a sense of immersion and investment that went far beyond the dungeon's walls. In essence, Dragonlance didn't just change how stories were told within the framework of D&D; it transformed what those stories could be about, marking a defining moment in the evolution of role-playing games.

…but the journey!

The Dragonlance series fundamentally altered the landscape of role-playing games by reimagining the essence of adventure. Where previously the rhythm of play had been dictated by a rapid succession of dungeon crawls, pushing player characters (PCs) from one subterranean challenge to the next with scarcely a breath in between, the Dragonlancenarrative expanded the scope of adventure into the vast and vivid world of Krynn. This pivotal shift transformed the journey itself into a vital component of the story, enriching the gaming experience with expansive outdoor explorations and adventures that unfolded under the open skies of Krynn.

In this newly envisioned world, the narrative wasn't confined to the dark, narrow corridors of dungeons. Instead, it embraced the grandeur of the natural world, with its sweeping landscapes and diverse ecosystems. Whole chapters of the adventure were dedicated to events taking place in the wilderness, on the road, or within the bustling walls of cities and towns. This was a significant departure from the conventional module design, where the outside world served merely as a brief interlude between dungeon crawls. It allowed for a more dynamic and flexible storytelling approach, where the environment itself became a character, full of secrets, dangers, and opportunities for discovery.

The Role of the DM

The traditional role of the Dungeon Master (DM) was also profoundly impacted by this shift. While the option for rolling random encounters had always been a tool at the DM's disposal, the emphasis on outdoor and journey-based narratives introduced a new level of complexity and creativity to their role. No longer confined to designing encounters within the structured environment of a dungeon, DMs were now challenged to conceptualize adventures across the sprawling landscapes of Krynn. This required a different set of skills, demanding a deeper understanding of the world's geography, politics, and history to craft engaging and coherent narratives.

Incorporating travel and exploration into the heart of the Dragonlance series breathed life into the world of Krynn, making it a living, breathing entity that players could interact with and influence. As PCs journeyed through the rich tapestry of this world, from the mysterious depths of the Darken Wood to the majestic spires of Palanthas, they encountered a diversity of cultures, races, and conflicts. Adventures took them through the haunting beauty of the elven forests of Qualinesti and Silvanesti, where the ancient schism between these two nations added layers of intrigue and history to their quest. Such experiences not only deepened the players' immersion in the game but also fostered a sense of belonging and significance. The PCs were no longer merely adventurers plundering isolated dungeons; they were integral figures in a complex, interconnected world, shaping the course of its history with their actions.

This shift towards a more narrative-driven, journey-centric approach in the Dragonlanceseries allowed players to forge deeper connections with the world and its inhabitants. It emphasized the importance of the journey itself, not just as a means to an end but as an adventure filled with potential for discovery, growth, and storytelling. By expanding the scope of adventure to include the rich, diverse environments of Krynn and integrating the journey as a key element of the narrative, the Dragonlance series set a new standard for role-playing games, where the adventure was not only about reaching the destination but also about experiencing the world in all its complexity and wonder.

Older modules and Railroading

Some time ago, an intriguing conversation unfolded within a Facebook group I am part of, centered around the Dragonlance Classics. The discourse veered towards an unexpected revelation for me: numerous participants expressed their perception of the modules as being "railroaded." Having journeyed through these modules myself, both as a player and a Dungeon Master (DM), this sentiment initially took me by surprise. My experiences had never aligned with the notion of railroading, which led me to ponder why our perspectives diverged so markedly.

Upon reflection, a critical distinction emerged that shed light on my differing experience. Unlike many players, I had never navigated the Dragonlance saga using the pre-generated characters that the modules provided. Instead, I always embarked on these adventures with characters of my own creation or encouraged my players to bring their unique heroes to the table when I assumed the role of DM. This choice inadvertently steered us away from a predefined path since the original modules scripted specific moments of triumph and tragedy for certain characters, including their potential deaths. This scripting could understandably lead players who adhered strictly to these pre-generated roles to feel funneled along a predetermined course, constrained in their ability to forge their own destiny.

Playing Style vs. Narrative

This insight led me to a broader contemplation on the nature of railroading in tabletop role-playing games. From my vantage point, the issue of railroading stems less from the modules or their narratives and more from how the game is conducted by the DM. A skilled DM possesses the remarkable ability to transform even the most rigidly structured module into a vibrant, dynamic world teeming with possibilities, where the players' choices and actions have meaningful impact. Through creative interpretation and adaptability, a DM can ensure that players remain the architects of their adventure, never feeling as though their freedom is curtailed by the narrative's demands.

The expectation that a module should account for every possible player action or decision is an unrealistic one. Crafting such an all-encompassing narrative would be an insurmountable task, and arguably, it would strip the game of its inherent dynamism and the collaborative storytelling that defines the role-playing experience. The beauty of tabletop RPGs lies in the shared creation of a narrative, where the unpredictable elements introduced by player agency and DM creativity converge to produce a unique and memorable adventure.

In light of this, my stance is that while modules like the Dragonlance Classics may provide the scaffolding for an adventure, they are not the arbiters of its flexibility or openness. The essence of a truly engaging and immersive campaign is not found within the pages of a module but in the collaborative interplay between DM and players. It is here, in the shared imagination and collective storytelling of the gaming table, that the magic of role-playing games truly comes to life, far beyond the constraints of any perceived railroading.

Shadow of the Dragon Queen

Over a decade ago, the Dragonlance Classics experienced a renaissance under the stewardship of Sovereign Press, alongside Margaret Weis, one of the original co-creators. This revival saw the beloved series updated to align with the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 edition ruleset, breathing new life into the iconic adventures of Krynn. Amidst this resurgence, I had the opportunity to shepherd a group of eight intrepid players through the revitalized world of Dragonlance. Due to the size of the party, it became necessary to bifurcate the group into two quartets, each embarking on their own parallel journeys through the meticulously crafted narrative. This endeavor proved to be an exhilarating experience, although it was not without its heartaches—particularly when one faction met their demise at the hands of the nefarious dragon, Cyan Bloodbane.

Reflecting on the Classics, their brilliance is undiminished in my eyes. They serve as a wellspring of inspiration, a treasure trove I frequently delve into, whether for the purpose of sparking creativity in my own module design or enriching the campaigns I have the privilege of DM-ing. The timeless appeal of the Dragonlance saga continues to resonate, its narrative depth and intricate world-building offering endless possibilities for exploration and adaptation.

In recent years, there's been a noticeable resurgence of nostalgia within the Wizards of the Coast (WotC) initiatives, suggesting a fertile ground for the Dragonlance series to be reimagined once again, this time for the 5th edition of D&D. The rumblings of a potential Dragonlance movie have been circulating within the fan community for years, gaining considerable momentum following a speculative article by Geek&Sundry. This speculation was further fueled by a tweet from Joe Manganiello, an American actor known for his passion for Dungeons & Dragons, lending credence to the possibility of a Dragonlance adaptation. Despite the growing excitement, the latest developments indicate that the proposed television show adaptation of the Dragonlance Chronicles has been shelved, leaving fans to ponder what could have been.

Time for a re-publish?

In December 2022, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) unveiled a captivating addition to the Dragonlance universe with the release of "Dragonlance – Shadow of the Dragon Queen." This innovative module presents a fresh narrative that, while not a direct continuation, resonates with the thematic essence of the classic War of the Lance saga. Set in the beleaguered region of Kalaman in Solamnia, player characters (PCs) find themselves thrust into a critical juncture of history, standing as the last line of defense against the malevolent draconian forces of the Dragon Queen's armies.

The storyline of "Shadow of the Dragon Queen" masterfully crafts a scenario where the stakes are monumentally high, evoking the spirit of desperate heroism that is quintessential to the Dragonlance setting. The PCs are not just adventurers seeking fortune or fame; they are beacons of hope in a time when darkness threatens to engulf the world. The backdrop of Kalaman provides a richly detailed setting for these endeavors, serving as a microcosm of the larger struggle against evil that pervades the Dragonlance universe.

The introduction of this module adds a new layer to the already complex tapestry of Krynn, offering players the opportunity to explore familiar themes of courage, sacrifice, and resistance against a seemingly insurmountable foe. "Shadow of the Dragon Queen" leverages the iconic premises of Dragonlance, where the conflict against dark forces is not merely a backdrop but the very canvas upon which the tales of heroes are painted.

Krynn still draws players to the gaming table

Critically, the module has been warmly embraced by the Dungeons & Dragons community, e.g. earning an impressive score of 4.7 out of 5 on Amazon. This reception underscores the careful balance the creators have struck between honoring the legacy of Dragonlance and introducing new elements that enrich the lore. Fans of the series, particularly those with a deep affinity for the intricate narratives and rich world-building of Dragonlance, have lauded the module for its engaging storyline and adherence to the themes that have made the franchise beloved. However, there exists a sentiment among these enthusiasts that the adventure could have benefited from further expansion—additional pages that would delve deeper into the lore, characters, and setting of Kalaman, offering an even more immersive experience.

Despite these calls for more content, "Shadow of the Dragon Queen" stands as a testament to the enduring allure of the Dragonlance setting and its capacity to inspire new stories that echo the grandeur and moral complexity of the original saga. It serves both as a homage to the rich history of Krynn and as a bridge to new adventures, ensuring that the legacy of Dragonlancecontinues to thrive and captivate both old fans and newcomers to the world of Dungeons & Dragons.

Regardless of whether WotC decides to reissue the old DL series for the latest or the upcoming edition, or to venture into the realms of cinema or television with the Chronicles, the legacy of the Dragonlance Classics is secure. They remain a cornerstone of the D&D canon, their influence permeating the design and storytelling approach of modern modules in ways that perhaps go unacknowledged. The Dragonlance saga, with its richly developed characters, complex moral dilemmas, and epic narrative scope, has left an indelible mark on the world of fantasy role-playing games. It has shaped the imaginations of countless players and DMs, ensuring that its legacy will continue to inspire and entertain for generations to come, irrespective of the medium through which its stories are told.