Thursday, 3 August 2017

Dragonlance was a Unique Sandbox

Dragonlance has a bad rep in some old school circles. For me, it has always been one of my favourite settings. It certainly has its flaws, but it had a brand of fantasy that mixed coming-of-age stories,  faerie tales,  romantic sagas and plain D&D in a way that spoke very viscerally to my sense of wonder and... well, fantasy. The novels helped create a sense of immersion and of an intertwined and living world with its own mysteries and concerns.

Not the Chronicles/Legends (or their spinoff railroads) mind, though I read and enjoyed them (they now figure prominently on my 'not sure I want to ruin childhood/teen memories by re-reading in my 30s' list). That story was too big really to be about anything other than the heroes it featured. It was never really what Dragonlance as a world was about for me. It was all the other ones, the small tales, that grabbed me and pulled me deeper into the setting.

And of course Tales of the Lance, the boxed set:
Some people hate the Elmore quality of this - I love it
As a kid, this set was my most treasured tome, to be poured over countless times and always returned to after exploring other things. For several years, there was one section I always ignored as uninteresting though: "Using the Adventure map and Talis".

I've blogged before on how the setting map in Tales of the Lance has loads of adventure potential. If you flip it over, you get a hex map of Solace and its surroundings:

What's the deal with the "story track" section? It was never explained anywhere.
Once I  actually paid attention to this section, I realised I had been ignoring the most gameable part of the book. I didn't have the concepts for it back then, but this section presented a wholly traditional sandbox, complete with terrain types, interesting locales (each entry with a mood, likely reaction, move cost, chance of getting lost and chance of events), index-cards for a variety of NPCs (also work for PCs for quick-start if needed) and the hex map above. Looking at this today, this was made by a seasoned sandboxer. It has all the info you want to run one well. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen any TSR product present such a well-structured and easy-to-run sandbox as this one!

It is not quite an 'old school' sandbox though, in that it has some unique features - The hex map is intended to be shared with the players at the table (it also doubles as a battlemap). And not only do they have a clear overview of the landscape, it also reveals the location of all the sites of interest and provides detailed maps of several of the sites!

It makes it very easy for beginners to get into this style of play - Take a look around the map, what looks cool? What would we like to explore next? It gives players a lot more to go on than a blank hex map they have to fill out themselves. Actually, it's a format I'd consider using myself.

It also makes a lot of sense, in-game, for the genre it wants to sandbox. This is not a game of exploration of an unknown borderland frontier for gold and glory. It's a game of coming-of-age exploration of the many adventure sites to be found in the vicinity of a backwater town, in the style of the excellent Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures OSR game. It is to be expected that the PCs would know what's on the map from growing up in the town and hearing the local folklore and legends about these places. This is not about exploring the unknown as much a it is exploring the history, folklore and mythic fabric of their home community. Sandbox-style.

It is certainly a different genre to old school D&D. But Dragonlance didn't just 'ruin everything' with railroad modules. Though hardly noticed (did anyone actually use this sandbox?), it gave a unique and very well executed take (ok,the talis cards were a bit weird) on how to use the sandbox format for completely different genres.

Besides the actual hexmap and sandbox chapter, the setting map littered with terse adventure sites, here's some more proof that the authors of Tales of the Lance very much intended their product to be used in an open-ended explorative sandbox format. Take a look at this section of the DM screen that came with the box:

Whoever made this, wanted to use it for sandbox gaming.
The back of the world book is a frigging random encounter chart and we also get to large maps which is just a bunch of adventure locations with no descriptions. Go crazy.

I always felt Dragonlance before the war was a great setting for gaming - If I were to run it today, I'd run it in that period, with a clearly stated premise that there was not going to be a War of the Lance on the horizon. No dragonarmies, no world in need of saving, no heroes of the lance. It is however, a world at the dawn of a new age. The rousing of the world from the cataclysm would be a more gradual one, and the conflicts erupting, though reflective of a wider dawning of a new age, more local in scope.

The year is 340 AC, the latest news in the town of Solace are gloomy as a ragtag band of local adventurers, including the local dwarven blacksmith, were all killed on their latest quest.

Clerics have begun to resurface in pockets across Ansalon, but they are far and few in between and far from everyone believe that the old gods have actually returned. A PC cleric would be rare and controversial, but hardly unique.

Dragons have been sighted across ansalon in recent years as well. Not enough to convince most people that they are anything other than stories from a former age. But sighted nevertheless. tales of obscure 'Draconians' are also emerging.

I'd run them through the local sandbox at low levels, then begin to introduce some more regional threats. An evil priest of takhisis has allegedly allied with a red dragon and occupied an old dwarven fortress and using it as a base for invasions into Abanasinia. This is what rams home that a new age is dawning and that both the gods and dragons are well and truly back. Play it by ear from there, steal various plot hooks from later developments, but make them more local.

Maybe I'd use Beyond the Wall to run it. But actually I've felt for a while that 5e was more suited to dragonlance than any other edition.