Monday, December 3, 2012

Reading Dragonlance modules for Salvage (today, DL1)

Dragonlance sure gets a lot of hate on the internet.

I kind of understand why, although we loved the first six books and the couple of short stories when I was a young teen (and a bit beyond).

The modules, though, are especially subject to vitriol. Part of that I also understand - they're very railroady, and assume you do X and Y and Z in a certain fashion the previous module, and keep you on the story no matter what. They aren't exactly alone in that, though. The A1-A4 series did that in spades, but were still loads of fun.

They also choked some plot down your gullet. No matter how hard you tried to kill name NPCs, they'd always return because they were plot dependent. Certain things happened and you couldn't avoid them at all.

They even had songs - and music scores, because nothing said "Take my fighter off to fight dragons" like a song about NPCs cooler than you. Or delivering the backstory of the world in song - yeah, I skipped the songs in LOTR, I'm not reading yours either.

And for goodness' sake, they made steel the main coin with gold worth a fraction of a piece of steel (they say gold is "worthless" repeatedly, but it's actually worth 1/10 of a steel piece). Weapons were made of steel but cost less than their weight in steel pieces. And they basically downplayed killing things and taking their stuff.

But they aren't all bad.

I know some of my friends played through most of them, using their own homemade PCs, and had a wild time smacking around dragons with dragonlances, chopping up draconians, and otherwise doing adventurer stuff. I don't think they knew they were supposed to resent the story-rails or even cared - fight monsters, get some stuff, go fight more monsters.

I played a couple of them, as evidenced by hand-written notes in the margins, crossed-out HP of monsters (heck, someone killed Fewmaster Toede in one shot based on my HP count for him! 22 HP be damned!), and notes about loot. I know that game didn't last long, but it wasn't the modules' fault.

Plus the products were really attractive in some ways, and heck, one even came with a fun wargame (we played it to death, so much so some counters fell apart and got lost).

But I don't think anyone would be swayed into thinking these are masterpieces of gaming goodness that should be taken out, re-evaluated, and then put up on a pedestal. Maybe if one of the cool kids said so, sure, but not some GURPS player. However, I think they have some bits of pieces of value in them.

So I'm going to go through my Dragonlance modules (I have more than half of the series) and highlight what I think is good and useful for bringing to another game.

I'll start right now with the first one, and see what's worth saving and re-purposing.

DL1 Dragons of Despair

What's good and useful:

Maps - The inside cover is a big 3-d map of the caverns of Xak Tsorath. It's a 70+ room dungeon (more if you count 10x10 cells as "rooms" or collapsed rooms as encounter areas) spread over multiple levels. While there are few ways from one section to the next, once you get into the dungeon there are a few paths you can take, and some choice areas you can bypass. The map is done by Diesel, too, and his maps are always attractive. This map is an easy grab, too, even without the text. It is numbered oddly, since the module numbers everything in it with one count instead of by-area or by-dungeon.

The swampy ruins above Xak Tsorath is also a very easy grab!

Xak Tsorath - the big dungeon isn't bad, actually. You'd probably want to change the details and put in treasure, and read less of the boxed text. But it's got some good stuff:

- a dragon really using a multi-level dungeon with airborne access to defend itself and who uses a magic item.
- rickety floors that could collapse
- an elevator (of sorts)
- slides
- a spirit guardian you can fight or negotiate with
- generally logically placed treasures and opposition
- foes with "allies" you can potentially split off

Some of those would follow the map if you pulled it out by itself, but the map key does really explain some of them well.

It does have Gully Dwarves (comic relief more than anything else) and Kender and all of that, though, so you'd probably want to swap them out. I'd go for cowardly but treacherous goblins, myself ("These guys are cute and scared of us, I'm sure we can trust them with our backs turned . . . ")

Draconians This module introduces the Baaz and Bozak draconians. These guys are pretty cool - they have limited flight, claw or weapon attacks, and pretty solid anti-magical defenses. The Baaz turn to stone when slain, possibly trapping weapons. The Bozak cast spells, and explode upon death. If you can't find a way to port dragon-men who turn to stone (or just that when-slain effect on another monster) or who explode (ditto) you just aren't trying. (My players are hereby warned.)

Odds and Ends A few lesser bits:

- Spectral Minions. Basically, low-rent ghosts, which show a way to use weaker spectral undead in a lower-level adventure. Plus these ghosts aren't all malign, so they make a good potential "friendly ghost" encounter or informational encounter. I also like the idea that folks who die with a weapon in their hands can fight in ghost form with a ghost weapon for real effect.

- Solace. The descriptions of the tree-town of Solace could be pressed into service for your local Ewok Village/Robin Hood tree lair/Elf city as needed.

- The rarely used idea of different currencies in different areas. The exchange rate they have can be lifted and the coins changed easily.

- They tell you how much the steel doors are worth if you carry them to town and sell them. Clearly, they played with my group.

- A couple good Easley illustrations that show adventuring locales (I'm thinking pages 12 and 19.)

All in all, DL1 has some good stuff you can steal if you've got a copy lying around or one you can get on the cheap. It's not the best adventure to play through, although in retrospect it does a good job of bumping you towards the end instead of ramming you there (lots of NPCs either push you or pull you towards the goal, and players seeking adventure are likely to take the hint about where the action is). Still, the maps, the draconians, and some of the bits of the final adventure are really worth using elsewhere.

The Rest of the Series:

DL1 Dragons of Despair
DL2 Dragons of Flame
DL3 Dragons of Hope
DL4 Dragons of Desolation
DL6 Dragons of Ice
DL7 Dragons of Light
DL8 Dragons of War
DL11 Dragons of Glory / DL12 Dragons of Faith


  1. Some of the best maps and some great scenes but less choice than a choose your own adventure book. Actually more like reading a script. The big wall fort dungeon was nice too. The dragon shaped tomb was my other fave. All the players i knew in the day didn't like story or world or pregens or clerics without spells. RQ gamers particularly mean. Played first 4-6 or something. But when i got over being 16 i kinda had to agree. Elmore really suckered me into this with his great art.

    1. I agree it was plot-railroady. But I came from the era of A1-4, G1-2-3 and D1-3, the U-series, and UK2 and UK3 combo, and others. They were location-based but it was pretty simple - follow the plot or else go off the rails and find a new module. Each following module assumed you did certain things in the previous module. Some of them (G1 notably) had an "adventure . . . or else!" background.

      These just went a bit beyond by assuming that certain plot events had to happen. It was a big change, but I think changing the trimmings on the railroad and making more NPCs plot-critical is what makes them feel worse. At least in the earlier ones, you could get away with doing things differently and still progress. These didn't allow for much done differently than the assumed plot, which was a big mistake. These would have been much better jf they'd given you different ways to get to the end and not just slid you right back onto a rigid plotline. Bumpers instead of rails, basically.

    2. Though dungeon then dungeon then dungeon module never seemed so rail roady - saltmash and giants didnt kidnap you they said monsters and loot thisway. Slavelords killing then escaping was tough but for a tournament or novelty id let it happen. Im a sandbox man nowdays and run cities and big dungeons and regions as such. But i like a nice map or monster. Please keep these up!

    3. The only bit of Slavelords that really annoyed my group was the end of A3/start of A4, but that was just one bit of forced plot in an otherwise pretty inoffensive series.

    4. It's a bit worse in the A1-4 Scourge of the Slavelords. And in GDQ1-7, too - there are some Important NPCs you shouldn't kill and "the players will do this, if not, make them" instructions.

      The thing about the A3/A4 transition was it was ham-handed. I don't mind "it was all a trap" but it's annoying that they want it both ways - you can have a big fight but then it's all a trap, and you can't avoid it.

  2. Replies
    1. That's the one. I don't think I ever saw anything like it before DL1, except I6 Ravenloft (and I'm not sure which of those I saw first!)

  3. A railroad is only a railroad if you notice the rails (what's a mystery adventure but a railroad leading to the bad guys getting caught or killed?) - but in Dragonlance the rails are polished to a high chrome. I think what put me off was the idea that there was a single specific story that had to be told, over a twelve-module series (at least that was the original plan), so what might be tolerable in A1 ("you will go in through the secret entrance") was excessively stretched out when it was in DL1-12. Yes, there'd been large module series before, but nobody would pretend that the G-D-Q series is telling anything like a coherent story beyond what the PCs bring to it.

    Still, I remember the wargame module as being half-decent.

    1. I think it's the "plot is on rails" instead of "dungeon is on rails" that makes it annoying.


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