Thursday, July 3, 2014

General Gamery: 30 years of Dragonlance

Today is Dungeons and Dragons day, with the release of the 5th edition of D&D, or D&D Next as it is called. This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the long-running, ever-changing game system. But as much as I love the imagination engine that is the ampersand of doom- and more importantly to me, the vast, innumerable game systems that have been created as a result or in spite of it- there is one aspect of D&D that far outshines its Ruby anniversary for me. This year also marks the 30th anniversary of my favorite shared campaign world- Dragonlance.

A Bit of History

In the early 1980's, TSR had a dilemma. There were more than enough dungeons in its flagship game, but there wasn't exactly an abundance of dragons. But filling this need had eluded the small company to this point. Enter Tracy Hickman.

Based on some modules he had written for the company, Tracy was hired on as one of TSR's writers/line developers. While Tracy and his wife, Laura, made the move to Wisconsin, the seeds of Dragonlance were planted in their discussions. Upon his arrival, Tracy pitched their idea as a twelve module series- each one focusing on a different dragon. TSR entertained the idea, putting him in charge of what was then called Project Overlord, alongside TSR staffers like Roger Moore, Larry Elmore, and Douglas Niles.

The Project Overlord team eventually came to the conclusion that a series of novels would help to flesh out the world they were inadvertently developing, and while the higher-ups at TSR weren't exactly excited with the idea of novels, they nonetheless gave the green light, hired an author, and assigned Endless Quest editor Margaret Weis to edit the project. This was an expansive project for the company- not only modules and novels, but lead miniatures, board games, and eventually other support projects like art books, calendars, and even a DC Comics line would find their way into what was beginning to be called Dragonlance.

While the team worked on the finishing touches for the first module, DL1: Dragons of Despair, Weis and Hickman were finding that the original author didn't exactly see eye to eye with their shared vision. Reports are fuzzy as to the specifics, but it became apparent that the editing team were better off simply writing the first novel themselves. Despite the legends to the contrary, the Dragonlance team did not write that first novel based on their actual play sessions for Dragons of Despair. Instead, over a weekend, Weis and Hickman pounded out the prologue for the novel based on the Dragons of Despair module they had already completed. TSR liked it enough that they fired the author and set Weis and Hickman to the task of writing the book on their own.

After two years of writing, editing, and re-writes, TSR published the first Dragonlance novel, Dragons of Autumn Twilight. TSR didn't quite expect the demand, so they had to order a second printing just to make up for their initially small printing of the novel. But in a masterstroke, The first Dragonlance novel was published, followed soon after with two more novels to round out the Chronicles trilogy.

As the decades passed, TSR found success in novels as well as games, and Dragonlance became the first of its shared universes. Not only were modules written by many different teams of writers, but the novels themselves would have names like Douglas Niles, Jean Rabe, and Cam Banks grace their covers. While not all books were gems, even the bad Dragonlance books far outshone the miasma of drek that graced most sci-fi/fantasy shelves at the time. Over the years and dozens of books, the novels endured and like Robotech, became a multi-generational extravaganza.

TSR even launched a somewhat experimental card-based version of D&D called the SAGA system with the Fifth Age of Dragonlance as its basis. While the old guard of Dungeons and Dragons players seemed to balk at the SAGA rules, for me personally, this system opened my eyes to opportunities and ideas that D&D never attempted to create for me. And while I preferred Dragonlance's fourth age (the age that the Chronicles novels inhabited), I enjoyed the way the Fifth Age setting fit the rule system.

Eventually, Dragonlance gaming was updated to 3rd edition D&D by Sovereign Press (the company that would one day become Margaret Weis Productions). Under Sovereign Press' watchful eye, all ages of the Dragonlance world were updated to the D20 format and some of the best adventures for the game system found print.

All was not golden for Dragonlance, however. Despite great voice actors like Michael Rosenbaum and Kiefer Sutherland, a terrible animated movie was made of Dragons of Autumn Twilight. No, seriously, it was horrible.

Moving on.

Dragonlance was exceptional not only for the memorable characters, fully realized world, and world-spanning plotlines, but for the marriage of game to fiction in much the same manner that Forgotten Realms, Birthright, Ravenloft, Dark Sun, and Eberron would eventually follow.

A World Apart

The bulk of the Dragonlance novels are set on the continent of Ansalon on the world known as Krynn. Chronicles starts three centuries after an event called the Cataclysm had not only terrorized and reshaped the peoples and lands of Ansalon, but had taken Krynn's gods with it. Instead of fat, lazy, Tolkienesque halflings, Krynn had the fearless, childlike kender to romp alongside its disparate tribes of elves, mountain and hill dwarves, minotaur, ogres, goblins, dragons, a new race of dragon people called draconians, and all sorts of other peoples and monsters. Wizards were organized into small sects in the often hidden Towers of High Sorcery. An ancient knighthood struggled to hold onto its ancestral home in the land of Solamnia on the northern portion of the continent while fould armies of the Dragon Highlords massed to the west.

All the while, a small party of adventurers returned to their quaint home in the trees of a town called Solace after years seperately seeking any sign of the return of the old gods. Their escapades would lead to the greatest conflict Krynn had seen since the Cataclysm- the War of the Lance.

There's so much to love from this period in Krynn's history- and while the novels eventually spanned much of Krynn's history both before and after the War of the Lance- most readers relate to this time in particular. Like me, most readers started with the Chronicles series. The overarching plot alone would have pulled me in, but it was the well developed three dimensional characters that got me to stay. Krynn was filled with believable personalities. Perhaps it was the flaws- a reluctant leader cursed with self doubt, an overly ambitious wizard teetering over the edge of evil, an ancient dwarf preparing for his last great adventure, a party of adventurers wholly unprepared for the adventure that awaits them. Yeah. I'm sure that was it.

There's a lot of characters to love in Dragonlance. But I'm not going to talk about my favorite...because.. well.. he dies and it's kind of a big spoiler. This should surprise no one. My favorite character usually dies- Boromir, Ned Stark, seriously.. if they ever make a Dragonlance movie, I'll have to lobby for Sean Bean...but I digress. Let me talk instead of my favorite hero and villain that are not my fallen friend.

For a hero, I'll go with Gilthanas.

I can hear the groans already, but hear me out. Gilthanas is the spoiled elven prince, second son of Solostoran, Speaker of the Sun and ruler of the not quite high elves called the Qualinesti (think of Rivendell elves). When he is introduced, he is an arrogant ass, full of piss and vinegar and especially disapproval for his little sister's love for the half-elven leader of our heroes, Tanis. And eventually he falls in love with a young wild elf, Silvara. This changes his outlook greatly. Over the series, Gilthanas undergoes  massive growth as a  character and becomes quite the hero himself in his search for his lost love. There's a lot more to it, but I'm trying to be all un-spoilery. Character growth like that is rare in most fiction, let alone to the degree that Gilthanas changes.

Okay let's talk villains.

Lord Soth.

Bet you thought I was going to talk about Raistlin, didn't you? Look the wizard is a fine good, bad, good, bad guy. But I love fallen figures. And Soth fell harder than nearly anyone. Lord Soth was once a Solamnic Knight of the Rose, dedicated to chivalry, honor, and all those knightly virtues. Well, sort of. Soth wasn't exactly the nicest fellow and had.. well let's just call it a lapse of good judgement. This caused him no end of turmoil and despite his desire to atone, he would instead rise as one of the undead- a death knight, dark, bitter, and full of hatred for the living. Lord Soth eventually fell so hard that he ended up in Raven loft. Yeah. That guy.

There's only so much I can put into my little blog to gush about this world. There are elements of Krynn that stick with me, not only in games, but in writing, character development, heck I even have a Dragonlance tattoo.

To this day, Krynn has my favorite knighthood. More than Round Table knights, Bretonnian Knights, even Jedi Knights, I love the Solamnic Knights above all- from their structure (Knights of the Crown, Knights of the Sword, and the highest order, Knights of the Rose) to their design (Gothic fantasy meets fantastical Norse nobility with audacious Germanic mustaches) from their oath (in Solamnic, "My Honor is My Life") to their often tragic history.

Seriously, go out right now. Find Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Weis and Hickman. You'll thank me later.

Est Sularus Oth Mithas.