Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Dragonlance Adventures

OMG, guys! Dragonlance is bad!

I knew that was going to be a possibility, going into this. In fact, it was more than a possibility. It was a likelihood. I remember reading a huge number of Dragonlance books in high school, where I was a late-blooming nerd with an incredibly shallow reference pool. And my recollections of these times were (hell, are) fond.

Poor little Tasslehoff, crying about his friend's death and thinking deeply about mortality for the first time. It really got to me.

And Raistlin, the scrawny dweeb who was bad at sports and yet still managed to be a sexy bad boy (seriously, a major plot point in one of the novels is the way he manipulates a beautiful priestess with his sexual wiles, which . . . um, okay) who took no shit from anyone thanks to THE POWER OF HIS MIND - somehow that spoke to me in a very personal way.

But I was just a boy. I'd not yet read Paradise Lost (though to be fair, I didn't accomplish that until I was, like, 30). I had almost no exposure to serious history or philosophy or the classics of the western canon. I'd never even heard of Terry Pratchett. I did not have the tools to discern good from bad.

Of course, over the years, I grew up. My experience broadened. My standards became higher. I never revisited the Dragonlance books, primarily because I had 1001 other interests that took priority, and so they stayed, in the back of my mind, as something cute and fun, and maybe a bit shallow, but generally okay. Yet there were moments, when I'd remember some plot point from the books and I'd experience a moment of dissonance. "Was Dragonlance bad?"

My first version of this review was incredibly snarky. There's a lot here to pick apart - attempts at humor that ranged from the eye-rolling to the offensive, worldbuilding that never goes anywhere, and a frankly nonsensical take on the alignment system.

But that would have been too mean. For all of its faults, Dragonlance is undeniably earnest, and I can't hate it for that. You take something like the Knights of Solamnia and they don't really make much sense as an organization. How are they funded? How can they be both the righteous defenders of the innocent and hated almost everywhere? Why would the Knights of the Rose have ever required royal blood? Where were all those nobles coming from? And so on. But then you realize that their real purpose is just to embody the tropes of chivalry while also having plenty of excuse to hang around with a party of weirdos (the odd thing about reading this book so soon after Pendragon is that it was incredibly obvious that the Dragonlance knights were skin deep, but also that the thing I'd wished for at the end of Pendragon - the romance and idealism of Arthurian fiction, without all the historical baggage - was a pretty misguided thing to want).

And a lot of Dragonlance is like that. Something that seems cool from a kneejerk reaction (the Orders of High Sorcery - Wizards who get their powers from the three moons), but then falls apart if you put even ten seconds of thought into it (wait, one of the Orders is openly and explicitly evil and people are okay with this this? They just go around wearing black robes and thus easily identifiable at all times and the reason that they're not instantly burned at stake is because the "good" and "neutral" wizards will come to their aid, in defense of the craft of magic, without regard to how it's used?")

I'm saying, in other words, it's an easy thing to sneer at, but its style-over-substance approach does have one benefit. It is easy to get into this setting's way of thinking. It does some things weird, but rarely are even those weird things unexpected. Play an Irdra, which is basically an ogre, but they're beautiful because they turned good before the ogres were totally corrupted by evil, and they have unique shapeshifting and magical powers, but these beautiful, talented, good-hearted people are outcasts from society, hunted wherever they go, so they must bear the burden of being scorned and hated, despite their abundant natural gifts.

And I'm doing it again. I'm going to the snarky place (and I haven't even touched on the small races, which are uniformly cringe-inducing). But I was on my way to a point. Dragonlance is bad, but it has a constituency. And I don't want to go too much into why I think the setting appeals to them, because it will surely be undeservedly condescending on my part. But this Dragonlance constituency is good. I like them. I used to be one of them. They should be able to have their fun without some pretentious blogger shitting all over them.

That being said, Dragonlance fans should not get Dragonlance Adventures. The book is a mess. The mechanics are mostly functional in that AD&D 1st edition way where balance is naught but a dream, but the bulk of the text is devoted to recapping canon. I dinged Pendragon for being too canon-conservative, but this book is a whole other level. It's less that it holds the events of the books sacred than that it doesn't bother engaging with the material as an rpg-resource. The city of Palanthas is mentioned several times as a center of trade and culture (and thus somewhere you might want to feature in Dragonlance adventures), but Dragonlance Adventures only mentions it in relation to prominent historical events. Despite being the largest surviving pre-Cataclysm city on Krynn, there's nothing about its population, major landmarks, laws, customs, fashions, or politics.

Over and over again, the book will present some setting element, but instead of providing descriptions of how it looks from a player-eye level, it talks almost exclusively about plot. That would be a weakness in any book, much less one about a setting as aggressively unambitious as Krynn. So if you're interested in Dragonlance (and despite all my mockery, I still have a fondness for it), I would suggest looking towards later supplements. This one is barely helpful at all.

UKSS Contribution: I'm going to go with Dargonesti. They're elves that can shapechange into dolphins. That's a pretty neat image, and an interesting idea for a fantasy society. I'll probably twist it, though and make Ukss' version into dolphins that shapechange into elfin-type creatures when they want to deal with humans. Put more emphasis on the alien nature of these majestic creatures.

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