Feb 3, 2012

Dragonlance: One Story to Rule Them All?

In his recent Dragon magazine editorial, Chris Perkins talks about many of WotC's older campaign settings. In particular he sites the Dragonlance Chronicles as the "most iconic D&D story". However, he then goes on to assert that the Dragonlance setting is hamstrung by that fact that it only has one story to tell (the aforementioned Chronicles).

I disagree wholeheartedly with Mr. Perkins' viewpoint. Dragonlance supported a huge number of books and even today there are many fans still wishing for more content about this world.

Furthermore, Mr. Perkins asserts that after the world spanning War of the Lance storyline, everything else feels subpar. I would ask then, based on that same premise, if the Forgotten Realms were rendered moot after their epic world spanning Avatar Trilogy, or Horde Invasion?

Where he sees the end of story potential in the Dragonlance setting with the War of the Lance, I would say that the War opened up vast areas for epic stories focusing on:
  • The return of the Gods and the reestablishment of their churches throughout the continent.
  • The return of dragons of all colors and alignments and the awe, fear and mistrust they create.
  • The rise of new nations and new political intrigues.
  • Rebuilding after the epic war
That last bullet point, I should point out is also one of the very corner stones of WotC's last fully developed campaign setting, Eberron. Based on the above points, I therefore can't subscribe to Mr. Perkins' notion.

There is one point where I actually agree with Chris Perkins; the idea that the Dragonlance setting was hamstrung, not by story potential as he believes, but rather the way it was handled by TSR (and later WotC).

For instance, while the Forgotten Realms debuted with a lavish box set, with large maps and plenty of world detail, Dragonlance didn't get an official source book until three years after it debuted. And even then, much of the book was repackaged information from the original module and novel series as well as articles from Dragon magazine.

Later, rather than build out more details about the setting, like the Realms was doing through the FR series of sourcebooks, TSR abandoned the well known Ansalon continent in lieu of Taladas, a hitherto unknown continent that had minimal connections to the lands, people and stories that were the basis of all previous Dragonlance material (in today's vocabulary, we might call this a "reboot"). At the same time the Forgotten Realms was being further expanded with the Hordelands and Kara-Tur settings.

Two years later, in 1992, TSR would go back to Ansalon with the release of the Tales of the Lance box set. This was followed up with another box set and a handful of modules (again, including a pair of mini-module anthologies). But this was short lived, by 1993 TSR stopped developing any material for the setting outside the successful novel line.

In 1996, after the much heralded return of Weis and Hickman to the Dragonlance setting and the release of their new novel, Dragons of Summer Flame, rather than relaunch the setting using the AD&D rules, instead the decision was made to revive the setting, but now with a completely new set of game mechanics; the diceless, card-based SAGA system.

While the SAGA system still has a small but loyal fan base, most D&D gamers didn't take to the new rules engine. This was unfortunate as a good deal of content was developed for the setting under the SAGA rules. I strongly believe that if the same material had been developed with the D&D rules, it would have been much more acceptable to the role playing fans that were already invested in the D&D mechanics, and not a new unproven diceless game.

When 3e arrived, Dragonlance was one of the many "orphaned" settings, but a few years later, when 3.5 was released, WotC entered into an agreement with Margaret Weis to allow her company to develop 3.5 content for the setting. And develop they did, releasing a number of detailed sourcebooks (the likes the setting hadn't ever really had) covering the most popular time periods from various novels, as well as books focusing on the most popular character classes, like mages, clerics, and Knights of Solomnia.

And for a couple of years everything seemed to be going great... until WotC pulled all their license deals, and basically closed ranks prior to the release of 4e.

As you can see from the above time line, there are many different places where I think TSR, and later WotC, mishandled the property, including:
  • Failure to further develop the setting with details on the lands, cities, and peoples not covered in novels.
  • Failure to explore the exciting logical themes that came out of the War of the Lance (as mentioned above).
  • The decision to reboot the franchise with the Taladas continent to the exclusion of new game material for Ansalon.
  • Later, the decision to relaunch the game using the SAGA rules.
  • And lastly, not allowing the setting to advance to 4e either in house, via article continent in Dragon and Dungeon magazine, or through a third party license.
In conclusion, I think there was (and still is) great untapped potential in the Dragonlance setting, but a failure to nurture it properly ultimately lead to its marginalization, not any inherent deficiency in the setting.