Tuesday, 22 September 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 13

When they came up with the name "Dungeons and Dragons" for their roleplaying game in 1974, Gary Gygax and David Arneson envisaged heroic adventurers entering vast underground labyrinths in search of treasure and battling mighty dragons. It turned out this didn't happen too often, as their dragons were incredibly tough monsters, best-handled by heroes only after many months of adventuring and acquiring magical weapons.

In 1982 TSR, Inc., the owners of Dungeons and Dragons, decided to restore the game's focus on the mighty winged beasts. They had developed an elaborate number of different types of dragons, some good, some evil and some indifferent, and wanted to draw them together with a cohesive backstory and mythology. They also wanted to create a grand story using the D&D brand, rather the smaller-scale, sword-and-sorcery adventures that most players had been enjoying up to this point. So was born "Project Overlord", an attempt to turn D&D into an epic saga.

To bring this project to fruition, TSR turned to Tracy Hickman. A (relatively) new employee at TSR HQ in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Hickman and his wife Laura had conceived of a new campaign idea during a lengthy car journey. This campaign had been unfolding in D&D sessions run by Hickman for his friends and co-workers, and would now serve as the basis for "Project Overlord". Hickman was put in charge of the project, along with Margaret Weis, an editor working for the company. This was going to be a multimedia project, incorporating a series of a dozen or so roleplaying adventure modules and a series of novels. TSR had limited experience in this field, so brought in a professional author to write the books. Weis and Hickman felt that this author didn't get what they were trying to do, and in the end fired him. Over the course of a weekend they together wrote the opening chapters of the first novel themselves. Impressed, TSR hired them as the authors for what would now be called The Dragonlance Chronicles.

Red dragon pulls off the best portraitbomb ever.

Dragons of Autumn Twilight

The world of Krynn is suffering in the aftermath of the Cataclysm, the devastation of the landmass of Ansalon by the gods, furious at the temerity of a human empire which had challenged their power. The gods have turned their backs on the stricken continent, which has sunk into war and conflict. When the dark goddess Takhisis secretly casts her influence over Krynn once again, sponsoring the rise of an empire allied to the dragons of chaos, it falls to a band of heroes to save the world. However, the heroes are divided by internal conflicts and their would-be allies are scattered and leaderless.

Dragons of Autumn Twilight certainly didn't win any awards for originality in its setting or general storyline. But it did do things a little differently to other fantasy stories. The magically-enhanced genetic engineering of a race of human-dragon hybrids was fairly unusual for the time and the story took a number of unexpected, dark turns. A major character died unexpectedly in the cliffhanger to the second volume (more shockingly, killed by one of his own former friends and allies), and there were a number of epic dragon-on-dragon battles. That said, these flourishes were more about rearranging the furniture than totally rewriting the rules.

What made Dragons of Autumn Twilight and its immediate sequels, Dragons of Winter Night and Dragons of Spring Dawning, such a success was the marketing. The books were pitched at a young and teenage audience, many of them already familiar with dragons and Takhisis (in her core D&D guise of Tiamat) from the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon series that had started airing in 1983. The focus on dragons and the cross-marketing with the adventure modules also proved extremely successful. Sales of the Dragonlance Chronicles shot through the roof, helped by strong sales in the UK thanks to a team-up with Penguin Books. Sales increased again a few years later when the trilogy was repackaged and sold in an omnibus edition.

By 1991 there were over four million copies of the Chronicles trilogy in print, giving it a claim to being the biggest-selling epic fantasy trilogy of the 1980s. It helped revitalise interest in both dragons and the D&D game, as well as serving as the entry-point for hundreds of thousands of young and new fantasy fans. It also kick-started the collaborative writing career of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. They followed up on the initial series with an expectation-defying sequel trilogy, The Dragonlance Legends, comprising Time of the Twins, War of the Twins and Test of the Twins (1986). The original trilogy had been a war epic of massive scale and scope, but this was a far more intimate story focused on the intense and complex relationship between the heroic Caramon Majere and his brother, the sickly, morally-compromised wizard Raistlin, whose antihero antics had made him easily the most popular character in the franchise.

Weis and Hickman then edited some additional Dragonlance books before striking out to write original fiction for Bantam Books, including the hugely popular Death Gate Cycle, before returning to the Dragonlance world for more novels around the turn of the century. With sales approaching 30 million, they the most successful collaborative writing team in the history of epic fantasy and one of the most influential.

The success of the initial Dragonlance books led to more, a lot more, written by numerous authors. Almost 200 Dragonlance novels have now been published, ranging over a span of time from millennia before the Chronicles trilogy to centuries after, but none have repeated the enormous success of Weis and Hickman's books. It would take another four years - and a completely different world - for that to happen.

The Crystal Shard

Ed Greenwood had started writing fantasy stories in 1967, at the age of eight. Over the course of years he built up and created his own fantasy world, telling stories about characters like Mirt the Moneylender, a cheerfully roguish adventurer-turned-merchant who was actually one of the secret lords of Waterdeep, the City of Splendours. In 1978 Greenwood converted his world into a setting for his homebrew games of D&D and started publishing gaming articles in Dragon Magazine. Over the next seven years or so he became one of the most prolific and popular contributors to the magazine, making frequent references to his home setting.

In 1985 TSR bought the rights to Greenwood's fictional world and turned it into an official D&D campaign setting. The idea was that Dragonlance had become very narratively centred on the War of the Lance (covered in the Chronicles books) and its aftermath, and TSR wanted a much bigger world where they could tell a wider canvas of stories. Greenwood and designer Jeff Grubb set about this project with enthusiasm, releasing in 1987 the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. It was accompanied by novels, both a trilogy by Douglas Niles about the Moonshae Isles and a stand-alone book by Greenwood called Spellfire. These did okay, but were not huge successes. It was the next book published in the setting that established its popularity.

Robert Salvatore was 28 years old and had sent TSR a novel on spec, Echoes of the Fourth Magic, about a research submarine and its crew which are transported into a fantasy world. It wasn't TSR's normal kind of thing, but it was enough get the attention of editor Mary Kirchoff. She gave Salvatore a large map of the Realms and asked for ideas. The one he came up was for a sub-arctic tundra setting, an evil magical gemstone of enormous power and a young barbarian hero. The editor bought the idea, but later on had to reject one of the sidekick characters. Five minutes late for a marketing meeting to discuss the book, she asked for Salvatore to create a new character on the spot. His panicked response was to suggest a dark elf ranger named Drizzt Do'Urden, which he didn't even know how to spell. On that random moment, Salvatore's entire writing career was set in motion.

Published in 1988, The Crystal Shard was a slightly unusual D&D novel. The frozen setting, the characters who are twisted versions of standard fantasy archetypes (the dark elf character suffering from racial prejudice and a halfling who's a shrewd trickster and thief rather than a cosy hobbit) and an unusually proficient ability at writing action sequences set The Crystal Shard apart and made it an enormous success. Two sequels followed, but it was the Dark Elf Trilogy (1990-91), which abandoned the epic scale of the earlier books and delved deep into Drizzt's personal backstory, which took the character and made him iconic. Almost thirty years later, approximately 30 million copies of Drizzt's adventures have been sold, making him the most popular-ever D&D character and Salvatore the single most successful author to have worked in that fantasy universe.

By the late 1980s epic fantasy was now firmly established as a marketable, popular genre. There were a few bestselling authors working in the field, critically-acclaimed novels and books which did things a bit differently. But it was still lacking a work that would build on Tolkien's legacy and take it to another level. But at this point there was not just one but two authors working on books and series that would be defined by their extraordinary lengths, their enormous popularity and the huge impact they would have on the genre.


Colin Santos said...

Hi there, thanks for writing these history posts. It's fun to look back on the greatest hits with a critical eye.

Anonymous said...

Love the Dark Elf trillogy, glad you mentioned it, it was pretty uniqe for its time.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how accurate your first paragraph is. Gygax and Arneson definitely stated preferences for the aesthetics and morality of sword and sorcery rather than epic fantasy. Fafhrd and Conan rather than Aragorn and such. It was by design that the game would take a lot of playtime (and many character deaths) before you got to the bigger stuff. Many D&D players preferred the Tolkien mode to the Howard mode, yeah, and DL was presumably launched to capture that audience. But it's not like Gygax was all "I designed this game to be able mighty heroes having epic quests and fighting dragons, but it turns out that, as written, it's mostly about tragicomic murderhobos. Oops."

Ghost said...

Dragonlance was first known as Project Overload? I didn't know that. Oh, the trivia you learn from this series. HA!
For me, Dragonlance is where it started. When Sturm got killed by Kitiara, I was like WTF! Not in that language of course, I was only 13-14 back then. Oh, the memories!

Adam Whitehead said...

Yes, Gygax and Arneson definitely envisaged D&D as more S&S and less Tolkien: Howard Leiber and Vance were stronger inspirations than Tolkien, and Gygax was outspoken about how he disliked LotR (but he did like The Hobbit). So D&D was much more about going into dungeons and if there was a dragon around, it was more like a boss fight than a world-threatening terror. After Gygax ended his day-to-day involvement with TSR in the early 1980s to focus on Hollywood, that's when TSR went for the epic side of things instead (arguably unwisely, certainly in the case of how that affected Forgotten Realms later on).

Anonymous said...

And so you agree that your first paragraph is kind of inaccurate?

Adam Whitehead said...

How so? The game was about dungeons and dragons, hence the name. I think you've taken the first paragraph to mean "fighting dragons" as "having some epic quest to save the world", when dragons in original D&D were presented more as tough monsters at the end of a particularly tricky dungeon raid, more like the tougher creatures someone like Conan might end up fighting who might pose a threat to him but not be out to enslave humanity. I meant them fighting dragons IN the dungeons btw, not as some separate thing.

DRAGONLANCE's change to that formula was to have absolutely tons of them fighting for a dark goddess and trying to enslave the planet, which started the process of moving D&D away from sword and sorcery and more towards epic fantasy, at least in the traditional European medieval fantasy core worlds.

Don Gallager said...

Love this series of articles. So far it led me to discover the broken sword by poul anderson which was fantastic

Russ said...

A lot of people don't realize that when the first Dragonlance books came out, they were like a drink of water after a long walk in the desert. Fantasy books, at that time, were not nearly as numerous as they are now.

Marketing was a part of it, but an equally big part of their success is that they existed at all. It also didn't hurt that the first Dragonlance trilogy hit a lot of notes just exactly right, and the biggest one was that it was a good story, well told.