Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The Worlds of D&D: Dragonlance

The History of Dragonlance

In January 1984 a rather minimalist advert appeared in the pages of Dragon Magazine, the monthly Dungeons and Dragons periodical published by TSR. This advert informed the reader that something called 'Dragonlance' was 'coming soon'. In March, the magazine published a short story called 'The Test of the Twins', written by Margaret Weis, and had a feature on the forthcoming new game. It was revealed that Dragonlance was going to be a line of epic D&D adventure modules set in a brand new world and featuring an ongoing storyline the players would get embroiled in. The first Dragonlance product, the adventure Dragons of Despair, appeared later that month and was a success, spawning no less than thirteen sequels that combined to form one huge story arc, a first for the D&D game at that time.

The first Dragonlance product, released in March 1984.

Dragonlance was originally the brainchild of Tracy Hickman and his wife Laura, who brainstormed the concepts behind the setting during a long drive from Utah to Wisconsin in 1981. Hickman proposed the series of modules to TSR the following year, and won the approval of TSR boss Gary Gygax, who had long planned to do a series of modules where each adventure was based around one of the twelve dragon types from D&D's Monster Manual. A team was put together consisting of Hickman, top TSR artist Larry Elmore and several other writers, including Jeff Grubb. As the project expanded in scope and ambition, it was given the code-name 'Overlord' and more writers were brought on board, including Margaret Weis and Douglas Niles. What had started as a linked series of adventures about dragons had become something much more massive: no less than The Lord of the Rings of fantasy role-playing campaigns.

Given that huge numbers of D&D players were also fans of the works of Tolkien and some other epic fantasy authors (the works of Stephen Donaldson, Raymond E. Feist, David Eddings and Terry Brooks were gaining enormous popularity at the time Dragonlance started development), it was inevitable that something along these lines would happen. The previous 'main' D&D world, Gygax's Greyhawk setting, had been defined as a setting which would handle lots of different stories along the lines of Howard's Hyboria or Leiber's Nehwon. This new setting, however, was defined and driven by one large storyline, that of the War of the Lance, and the various roles that player-characters could take in that story.

For a lot of people, where Dragonlance really began.

Whilst the adventure modules were rolling out, TSR decided that the story was big and interesting enough to be turned into a series of novels. After the initial writer they hired didn't meet their expectations, they fired him and assigned Weis and Hickman to the job. They decided to base the book on the first two adventure modules and it was published under the title Dragons of Autumn Twilight in November 1984. It was followed by Dragons of Winter Night in April 1985 and Dragons of Spring Dawning in November 1985, bringing the epic story to a conclusion (although the modules wouldn't catch up until later in 1986). The trilogy, known as the Dragonlance Chronicles, became one of the biggest-selling epic fantasy sequences of all time, shifting four million copies in its first five years. In total, the thirteen Weis and Hickman Dragonlance novels have sold a massive 22 million copies to date.

In 1987, with Gygax departing TSR and Greyhawk's future being uncertain, the company released Dragonlance Adventures, a book that opened up Krynn as a world for many different stories outside the War of the Lance. Additional Dragonlance novels were solicited, with Weis and Hickman penning the well-received Dragonlance Legends trilogy (Time of the Twins, War of the Twins, Test of the Twins). Not tied to any adventure modules, this was a 'quieter' but still important story focusing on the fan-favourite character of Raistlin, a sickly but powerful mage, and his brother Caramon, and is certainly a more interesting story than the more traditional original trilogy. However, Weis and Hickman then decided to break with TSR and begin penning original-fiction novels for other publishers, going on to deliver the best-selling Darksword and Rose of the Prophet trilogies and the well-received seven-volume Death Gate Cycle through the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The Heroes of the Lance.

Other writers carried on the Dragonlance name, with the novel range eventually encompassing a colossal 190 books. However, a key weakness in the Dragonlance setting was exposed in the process. The Dragonlance world had been created to tell the story of the War of the Lance and the various attempts to turn it into an 'open' game world where any story could be set never really seemed to catch on, possibly as D&D already had Mystara, Greyhawk and, after 1987, Forgotten Realms to fulfil that function. Dragonlance's selling points were its epic history, memorable characters and the vast scale of the War of the Lance, and the various novels and further RPG materials kept falling back on those elements, making the setting rather insular and self-referential. It became difficult for newcomers to break into the setting. An attempt to create a new continent across the sea, Taladas, in the expansion product Time of the Dragon for AD&D 2nd Edition, also failed to garner much attention. As the 1990s rolled on, the setting seemed to have become somewhat moribund.

In 1996, TSR resurrected Dragonlance. Accepting that the setting's strength was its story, they wooed Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman back to the fold and they wrote a new novel, Dragons of Summer Flame, as a follow-up to the original series. This epic novel introduced the Fifth Age of Krynn's history and severed its ties to the D&D game, with a new, diceless RPG rules system called Saga introduced to carry the roleplaying side of things forward, whilst other writers wrote new novels. Unfortunately, this burst of activity came just as TSR entered a period of financial crisis. The new novels and the Saga game died an unexpectedly early death and with TSR going down in flames, it looked like Dragonlance was going to go down with it.

Wizards of the Coast swooped to the rescue and bought out TSR, resurrecting D&D and introducing a new 3rd Edition of the game in 2000. With Wizards of the Coast deciding to concentrate only on Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms as their core settings, the other gameworlds were up for grabs, and several third-party publishers licensed various settings for their own purposes. Seeing an opportunity to regain creative control of Dragonlance for the first time in fifteen years, Margaret Weis founded Sovereign Press and licensed the Dragonlance setting for her own use. She and Hickman published a new series of novels, the War of Souls trilogy, to take Krynn into a new era whilst Sovereign Press re-established the setting as a D&D gameworld, to great success. Wizards of the Coast used its financial muscle to re-release many of the original Dragonlance novels, building up some excitement over the setting that finally led, in 2007, to the long-mooted animated Dragonlance movie, although this was not very successful. In 2008 Wizards took back control of the Dragonlance licence from Sovereign and published a 4th Edition of D&D, leading some fans to believe that Wizards are planning new Dragonlance material for release in 2011 or later. So the setting is on hiatus again at the moment, but it appears that it will make a reappearance at some point in the future.

Fanon map of Krynn, with Ansalon in the south and Taladas to the north-east.

The World of Dragonlance

The Dragonlance saga takes place on the world of Krynn, a more-or-less Earth-sized world consisting of three or four major continental landmasses, although only two - Ansalon and Taladas - have been developed in any detail. Ansalon, a fairly small continent in the southern hemisphere connected to the southern polar icecap, is the primary setting for Dragonlance material.

Since Dragonlance was designed as an attempt to convey the traditional epic fantasy story in a roleplaying setting (as opposed to the likes of Greyhawk, which took its sword 'n' sorcery cue more from the likes of Howard and Leiber), it has a fairly detailed and involved backstory. The major event in the history of the world is the Cataclysm, which took place roughly 300 years before the events of the original books and modules. A powerful kingdom, Istar, angered the gods to the extent that they dropped a hail of flaming meteors across the planet, devastating large portions of it and severing all ties between the gods and their followers, removing clerical magic from the world. At the time the books begin, the many-headed draconic god Takhisis (a Krynn-based representation of the more traditional D&D deity Tiamat, made famous by frequent appearances in the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon series) has decided to breach the ban of the gods from influencing Krynn and has had her followers amass a vast army to conquer the world. Takhisis' opposite number, Paladine (a Krynn-specific version of the draconic god Bahamat), has decided to also take a part in events to balance out her influence, and eventually the other gods are reluctantly drawn back into the affairs of Krynn.

Ansalon, the main continent of Krynn, at the time of the War of the Lance. It gets blown up a lot.

Takhisis' legions of 'draconians' (human-sized dragon-like creatures), human and goblin followers supported by several powerful dragons overrun much of Ansalon, but thanks to Paladine's machinations a band of heroes escape the conquest of their homeland, Solace, and join forces with local dwarf and elf communities to form armies to slow down the enemy advance. They also undertake dangerous quests to win the allegiance of the 'good' dragons and recover the dragonlances, powerful weapons that can be wielded from dragon-back. Eventually this 'War of the Lance' is concluded with our heroes victorious, but not without a cost. Several of them die in the war and its aftermath, and one of their number, the wizard Raistlin, develops a somewhat disturbing interest in raw magical power. Later Dragonlance works focus on Raistlin as he his torn between his lust for power and his former friends, most notably his noble brother Caramon who tries to 'win him back'. This personal story rapidly became Margaret Weis' favourite storyline, along with many fans, and satisfyingly addresses the question about what happens when the heroes who have become so powerful they can defeat a dark god decide they have come to enjoy their immense power and influence a little bit too much.

"Excuse me, do you have five breath mints?"

Later Dragonlance materials focus on the Second Cataclysm, which takes place 25 years after the War of the Lance, and sees the world severed once again from the gods and forced to endure forty years of darkness and war before the epic War of Souls restores the gods (yet again) and sees Ansalon united under a new empire after the final defeat of Takhisis.


Many fantasy fans who entered the genre in the 1980s and 1990s likely did so with the Dragonlance Chronicles and Legends trilogies as early reading material. I actually didn't read them until some time after I'd gotten into fantasy via Terry Brooks, Terry Pratchett, Tolkien and R.A. Salvatore, but still found them quite enjoyable. One of the more interesting things I found in the books was that the writers didn't try to depict every single event and front of the war, and they constantly reiterated that whilst the core cast of heroes was vital to the war they couldn't have succeeded without the help of many other characters fighting their own battles elsewhere. Of course, I learned later that this wasn't for artistic purposes but was simply done because the novels couldn't fit all fourteen of the original adventure modules into a trilogy, so they just left several of them out and referred to their events obliquely instead.

As a setting for stories, Dragonlance is a fairly decent world with a broad, if unoriginal, history and an interesting focus on dragons. One of the reasons TSR liked the original proposal was because they felt the game had concentrated on the 'dungeons' to the exclusion of the 'dragons' over the years and this was a good way of redressing the balance. However, as a setting for roleplaying campaigns Dragonlance is problematic.

As I indicated earlier, Dragonlance was built around its story, the War of the Lance, and whenever the focus moves away from that story the elements that make the world different and interesting compared to other D&D settings promptly vanish. In short, unless you are specifically going to tie your campaign into the Dragonlance metaplot, there is very little reason to adventure in Dragonlance and not in, say, the far larger and much more varied Forgotten Realms setting, or the more old-school, swashbuckling Greyhawk world. If you are going to tie your campaign into the history of Krynn, this is great but this option brings its own challenges. Players are much more likely to have read the Dragonlance books than any other D&D tie-in fiction out there, and if you get details wrong or go off-story you may find players not liking that (and of course if you are trying to stay on-history, you may find players not liking that either and getting annoyed at being railroaded). This makes running a Dragonlance adventure or campaign difficult, to say the least.

Another problem is that following the story forwards after the War of the Lance leads into a rather repetitive cycle of peace, wars, cold wars, the gods withdrawing or returning to the world on a giant cosmic yo-yo and confusion over the status of different characters (so is Raistlin dead now? Or is this when he becomes trapped in another dimension? Does he become a god at some point or was that someone else?). In short, the success of the original Dragonlance story turned it into a franchise, and like all franchises at some point originality has to be chucked out of the window in favour of what the suits think sells, and in this case it seems to be repeating the War of the Lance with the serial numbers filed off, which gets rather old.

There is also another problem with the setting:

Have you seen this kender? You have? And he still lives? Why?

Jar-Jar before there was Jar-Jar, Tasslehoff Burrfoot may actually be the single most annoying character ever created in the entire history of Dungeons and Dragons and all of its spin-offs over the past forty years, with the Dragonlance wizard Fizban coming in at a close second. When the writers become a little too enamoured of their annoying comic relief sidekick character and start having him save the day every other book, you know something has gone wrong somewhere.

In the final analysis, the original Dragonlance saga is an interesting and enjoyable story for YA readers first starting out in epic fantasy. The original adventures and their various remakes under 2nd and 3rd Edition D&D are also enjoyable, if a bit rail-roaded and limited in giving the players free choice about what to do next. However, I remain unconvinced that there is much more that can be done with the setting outside of its core storyline and characters. If Wizards can find a new, fresh angle to explore the setting from in 4th Edition, Dragonlance's inevitable return could be a very good thing, otherwise it seems a little pointless.

Next time, we will journey to the continent of Faerun, home of beholders, author-insertion mages and a ridiculously large number of emo-riven dark elves. Seriously guys, you get to live for 400 years, girls like you and you can do magic tricks. Cheer up!


Nick said...

Adam, this really is a superbly detailed summary and overview, impressive stuff.

Jeff said...

Yeah man, kudos to you. You're a wikipedia onto yourself when it comes to this sort of thing. While I never played any D&D growing up I did read a few of the novels and played some D&D computer games so found this interesting. Well done!

RobB said...

To use an American phrase, "You knocked it out of the park" with this one Adam. I read and re-read the Chronicles quite a few times. ... and Darksword, which rarely gets mention.

Jebus said...

I've read a few of the DL books but could never really get into them, I much preferred the FR novels especially from Douglas Niles and the conglomerate that wrote that Avatar quartet. I do enjoy Salvatore but he's not the be-all and end-all when it comes to FR.

Marc said...

I'm the target audience for Dragonlance. I turned 14 during the summer of 1984 and I avidly read Dragon Magazine. The previews for Dragonlance left me eager to see the product, but what really got me excited was the calendar TSR released around May or June that year. All those gorgeous paintings had hints of the plot in their captions.

My father died in early December of that year, just days before I acquired Dragons of Autumn Twilight. That book really helped me through my grief, as did the continuing line of modules. It was all so epic that I didn't mind how contrived the line was. It gave me hours of entertainment and enjoyment, and that was good enough.

By 1987 and 1988 I was entering college and moving on to other things, including discovering Glen Cook's Dread Empire books. I moved beyond good versus evil quest fantasy, and have never gone back. But as you suggest, Adam, the orginal book trilogy is still worthwhile for younger readers just discovering imaginative fiction. Thanks for this trip down memory lane!

Patrick DeLise said...

Great post! I have always wondered the name of the outside fantasy writer who was originally hired to write what became Dragons of Autumn Twilight. Does anybody know the name of the fired writer or this top secret information that no one will reveal over 20 years later? That must be one heck of a nondisclosure agreement!

Erik Wilgenhof Plante said...

Great history man, it took me back to the days (or nights) I spent with my buddies devising and unraveling plots plots and destroying beasties ranging from goblins to beholders. In my mind, Maladin the Sorceror in Greyhawk and Moshe, the Jewish halfling in Dark Sun (don't ask..) are real people even though I created them myself. No MMORPG can ever take the place of D&D, Shadowrun and Gurps. By the way, Tasslehof Burfoot wasn't that bad. He was a lot more intelligent than JarJar ever was.