Friday, 13 December 2019

More Thoughts on How to Run a Proper Dragonlance Campaign (and how it all went wrong)

One of the blog entries I find myself returning to is the one I wrote about Dragonlance being a unique sandbox setting. I ran it as a kid and it's a campaign I'd love to run again as an adult. Here are my thoughts on where it all went wrong for Dragonlance and how to fix it to run a proper campaign that feels like a dragonlance campaign.

My main frustration with Dragonlance as a setting is how unrealised its gaming potential is. 

There's the issue of the novels, obviously, and the iffiness of how to set them aside in a way that makes the world more open to player characters. 
And how the original adventure that mirror the novels kind of ends up being the only story worth telling in the setting. It's not of course, but the setting has continuously struggled with its identity as a gaming world in light of this. How to escape the novels and make the setting itself greater than the original adventure path?

They've tried, but the attempts have been hamfisted. An opportunity for it was sensed perhaps, when the novels moved the timeline 25 years into the future and showed the descendants of the Heroes of the Lance able to have regular adventures free of the yoke of the "War of the Lance". This perhaps could be a time where the setting could find itself as a more open-ended one, primed for gaming. 

But no, this was just a stage for "DL is epic right? That's how we started. Let's make an even bigger more epic plot to fix things (hint: epic != bigger)" and then they blew up the setting beyond recognition with the War of Souls novels.

Game designers took a stab at evolving this into a setting more suited for gaming with the "SAGA 5th age" game. Succeeded in part, but also went down the "no wait, we need something even bigger". Setting barely recognisable, game system changed. What was even the point anymore?

"Fine, we will push the reset button to go back to something more recognisable. By going BIG one last time".
Which ended up with a setting that had been so fucked in the *** that the "reset" result was still a very weird place, that you needed to squint with some good will to really recognise, but good enough for the fans to go "good enough if they will release some game books, I suppose".

But the overall result of all this is that the first exercise a DM must undertake when starting a Dragonlance campaign is to trim the radioactive fat of all the nuclear explosions the setting has been exposed to. More on how to do this further below.

And then there is the question of what kind of adventures to run and how to do it. 
Dragonlance as a world is obviously ill suited for running your classic old school "plunder dungeons for gold and XP" campaigns that D&D is quintessentially built to run. 
How to capture the feel of a fantasy saga that you'd want to play, where the evanescent guiding touch of the deities and myth in setting the stage is felt at the edge of vision, but the heroes' own actions are what decide the outcome; that the PCs are playing their part in the weaving of history against the echoes of a rich past, without having to go to the scale of getting your faces etched into Mount Rushmore for your deeds.

A lot of the attempts have been disappointing on account of simply being uninspired. The original Dragonlance Adventures, while a decent enough setting book, set the tone by making a book that was essentially "crunch for playing knights of solamnia, etc, History section, geography section, gods, NPCS, magic items, the end." Not a wit about the feel of adventures in the setting and how to achieve it.

Most disappointing from this perspective was the 3e run. It was all about crunch and setting material and more than any edition, I felt like the setting had adapted its tone and character to the system, rather than any attempt at the reverse.

Before going into how to actually run a campaign, let's take a look at two products that actually made proper attempts to help make Dragonlance adventures feel like dragonlance:

SAGA - the 5th Age

SAGA, the game that was launched between AD&D 2e and D&D 3e that replaced dice with cards, was a valiant attempt. It's been much maligned and there are things to malign. 
The cover of the boxed set

The Fate Deck - Surprisingly good quality
The 5th age as a game setting had some nice ideas - some hooks on dragons actually play an integral part of the setting, opening the world for gaming potential rather than a stage for novels. But it was too different from the original. Dragon Overlords had transformed half the landmass of the continent, no gods, new magic. If they'd toned down the dragon overlords bit, it could have been something I reckon. As it was, it got reset with another push of the nuclear button.
And the system itself - It had potential. It really did allow for a different style of play, one that felt closer to the kind of stories Dragonlance wants to tell. But it had two problems:
  1. It was immature. Although it was developed over time in the subsequent supplements (all of them small boxed sets. I loved that), there were too many lacks and flaws. A second edition could have been a great system, but that never materialised.
  2. It wasn't D&D. It may have been more suitable genrewise to Dragonlance than D&D as a system, but at the end of the day Dragonlance wasn't a setting that attracted players who then picked up the system to play there. It was a setting that attracted D&D players who wanted to play D&D in that setting.
But, god damn it, it tried. It wasn't just crunch and tourist guides, like DL succumbed to in its 3e years. From the original boxed set and throughout the subsequent supplements, the focus was clearly on helping DMs answer the question of "how do you play the kind of game that Dragonlance as a setting wants you to play?" Both in terms of discussion of how to run adventures, but also in how the system can support the style of play.

And they made this supplement:
Any Dragonlance campaign I would ever run would absolutely make use of this book
Which is probably the most dragonlancey book ever made. It had a fair new rules crunch to patch some of the holes of the SAGA system to make it a kind of "SAGA DM's Guide" , but it also had stuff like this:
  • An extended system for creating character immersive backgrounds (see also Beyond the Wall which occupies the same genre space and has similar mechanics), complete with family, friends, enemies, companions and life-defining events. Unlike old school D&D, where the virtue is to discover your character in play, the kind of sagas Dragonlance wants to play calls for this kind of fullfledged characters from the outset. This is the only book that gives you that.
  • A whole chapter of random encounters that are more than "1d6 goblins", but can be story hooks, challenges, something from one's background popping up
  • Advice on how a GM can narrate games to make them more immersive.
  • An analysis of how to use Joseph Campbell's The Heroes With a Thousand Faces as a template for creating good adventures (seriously! good shit).
These three chapters here sit at the core of what Dragonlance adventures should be about.  William H. Connors, take a bow.

Tales of the Lance

I've enthusiastically blogged already on the sandbox found in the Tales of the Lance boxed set. If you haven't read it already, go read it, because I will assume you've read it from here on out. Go on. I'll be waiting.

Tales of the Lance represent the only other remotely qualified attempt at helping DMs run a campaign that feels like a dragonlance campaign. It is berated by Dragonlance purists for its issues with 'canon' (groan) and it carries a lot of hallmarks of being a bit messy and incomplete. Rushed out the door a bit too quickly perhaps.

The open sandbox is innovative and explores a style of play that is quite rare for D&D. One that really cuts towards what Dragonlance is about - Exploring the mythic and historical fabric of the land and in the process having a heroes journey with meaningful interactions with other characters.
Stuff like how all entries in the sandbox section have a Mood and Response descriptor helps set the tone.

The Talis Deck, like the Fate Deck in SAGA, is also used for generating adventure hooks, motivations, omens (a great lever to pull to create a more mythic atmosphere), rumours, quests and fortune tellings. The story track section on the map also hints at further use of the deck that was never realised. Overall, it adds a nice flavor element, which is what you need. And if the Fate Deck went a bit too far in the non-D&D direction by removing dice altogether, this perhaps is a good supplement.

Its main contribution is showing that Dragonlance adventures done right do not need to be scripted railroads - But can in fact be open-ended sandboxes. It turns the focus away from the grandiosely epic continent-wide adventures, to the local more faery tale-inspired coming of age tales and does it in an open-ended manner. 
Beyond the Wall does similar and accomplishes this by making the sandbox creation a collaborative effort between players and DM. Tales of the Lance accomplishes it by making the hexmap fully open, even with details of the adventure sites that can be explored. The result in both cases is a sandbox where the players have an in-game and out-of-game awareness of the their local landscape.

How to actually run a campaign that feels like Dragonlance

Alright, enough analysis and pontification. Let's get to the meat of this.

A campaign that feels like dragonlance should have the following elements:
  • Characters that start out with a background story and connections to other people. These should be elements that are activated in play. Players should know their local NPCs and be connected to them.
  • Adventures that are about exploring the mythic and historical fabric of the land.
  • Heroic quests that involve personal challenges and growth, overcoming of obstacles and meaningful interactions with other characters.
  • These adventures should be tied to the local community in some way. The net outcome of most quest, besides character growth, should be that one's heroism has had a tangible impact on the community in need of heroic intervention.
    Quests that do not may happen, but should be more akin to side treks and vignettes in the campaign.

Choice of system:

Beyond the Wall is a really genre appropriate system for all this and it should not be difficult to re-work its chargen system for the setting to include knights of solamnia, wizards of high sorcery and (depending on timeline) holy orders of the stars.

But I feel 5e is also a suitable system. It's much less character crunch oriented than 3e (which made 3e a very bad fit) and strikes a nice balance of starting characters being solid enough to be able survive their initial adventures and higher levels not running amok. Restrict multi-classing and splat books and cut down on classes, since the focus of the game should not be game widgets for the players to game, but the characters roles. 

Or (PSA: shameless self-promotion:), just use Into the Unknown as a suitably lighter version of 5e. Reskin Halflings as Kender and write up some new backgrounds to use as templates for Knight of Solamnia, Wizard of High Sorcery, Ranger, Barbarian, etc. Maybe add some light mechanical bennies for these backgrounds for a bit mechanical flavor in the role.

In either case, I recommend picking up Tales of the Lance for the sandbox treatment of the Solace area and A Saga Companion for the character background and random events generation and adventure creation advice. You can easily substitute dice rolls for draws from the fate deck the Saga Companion might want you to make. 
But if you have a fate deck, I recommend using it at the table and find other ways in the game to make use of it as a bit more flavorful alternative to dice rolls. I am envisioning letting the players influence outcomes by drawing from the deck, having the draw then also serve as a kind of premonition for that character.

Choice of Setting:

I discussed above the difficulties dragonlance has with situating itself as a world open enough for gaming. My recommendation is to start the campaign in pre-war-of-the-lance years and use the open sandbox map found in the Tales of the Lance boxed set. 

Personally, I would also make a show of opening the first session with the news that a local group of adventurers, including the local blacksmith, have tragically disappeared (if the PCs decide to explore the Sanguine Manor location, they will find the would-be Heroes of the Lance animated as undead by the vampire lord there and get to kill them to send them to their final rest - that's about all the interaction I care to for a campaign to have with characters from novels).

Besides the sandbox hexmap being set in this time, there are many excellent reasons that capture the essence of that dragonlance feel to set it here:
  • Pre-war Ansalon is a slumbering world, held back by prejudice, low level of trade and travel and a skepticism towards many supernatural/mythic phenomena that can at times escalate into persecution of wizards and followers of the old gods (I quite like the inversion of the superstition-as-the-peasant-fallacy trope. In pre-war Ansalon, the woke are those who actually believe in magic).
  • This makes it an ideal setting for low-level coming-of-age adventures where the PCs start out as adventurers somewhat outside the boundaries of a local ordinary community that they are nevertheless strongly connected to, exploring the liminal realm of the wider mythical world of Ansalon that most people don't really believe in anymore.
  • Such crossing-overs into the mythic landscape are almost transgressive acts against the ordinary community they come from ("I am telling you, the undead of Sanguine Manor are very very real and they will prey on us if we don't do something!" "And I say young troublemakers who conjure up fanciful tales to frighten children should be run out of town till they get their heads straight!").
  • Nothing big has happened yet. The impact on the world is for the PCs to make.

Where to go from here:

As the players level up, they will no doubt set their sights beyond the immediate surroundings of Solace and expect adventures of wider impact.

I recommend simply not having a War of the Lance arch and making this clear to players from the outset. Ditch the railroad. Instead, take the good elements of it and convert it to a sandbox. Make adventure hooks and Fronts out of them that the PCs can pursue at their leisure. 

A lot of these elements can make for really good adventures, but there is no real reason that they must be tied into a grand "One Threat to Rule them All" story arch with a forced pacing of "the war of the lance means the world needs saving right now" and strict sequence, nor does a campaign need a culminating result of saving the world and becoming alltime great heroes of the world.

In fact, I would argue they become a lot more meaning without it, when they are adventures that the PCs choose themselves, that unfold at a more natural pace with adequate time given for these events to soak into the unfolding of the campaign. 
It still makes the world one that is awakening to a new age of dragons, but rather than a dramatic all-in-one event, it is a more gradual unfolding. A series of independent streams of events that each in their own way herald the dawning of a new age, that need not happen in any particular sequence, where there is no mandate for all of them to happen, nor any specific outcome for them to happen in.

With that said, I would plunder from all future events in the SAGA as possible hooks and fronts. Here are my ideas for it. Plenty more could be added to it:

Adventure Hooks & Fronts:

  • [hook] Re-discovery of the True Gods - With a focus on the impact of bringing the news back to Seeker country.
    A quest to Xak Tsaroth seems like a good way to do this. This would also make an excellent stage for encountering their first dragon. The PCs are not necessarily the ones who bring back the gods to all Ansalon, but they can be the ones bringing it to their region. Maybe the quest is spurred by rumours of clerics returning in other faraway lands.
  • [Front] Lord Verminaard in Pax Tarkas - rumours of an evil priest of Takhisis with a red dragon having taken over the fortress of Pax Tarkas down south and using it as a base for slave raids and maybe even conquest.  This one would have a series of portents for the PCs to act on before it would blow up. I am thinking the trigger for this front would be PCs discovering the true gods.
  • [Front] Draconians & Dragonlords - I am stealing from the 5th age here, since I think it is a cooler concept than mixed dragonarmies ruled by humans. A front where the appearance of Draconians is the first portent of the return of dragons. They can meet them in Xak Tsaroth and Pax Tarkas as well.
    This escalates into very large dragons, dragonlords, seizing territories around Ansalon with their draconian armies and select human minions (yes, the human "dragonlords" are minions to dragons). Nothing like the scale of 5th Age or even the war of the Lance. Plenty of scope for regional conflicts, but this is not a coordinated continental war. But plenty of scope for the PCs to get involved here (especially if they have dragonlances. see below).
    This, alongside the hook below, is the main signifier of the dawning of a new Age of Dragons.
  • [hook] The return of the good dragons - an adventure site that comes into play after PCs have encountered draconians. A nest of dragon eggs, a ritual altar. Maybe the PCs get to witness the process. PCs should be able to recognise the eggs as metallic from stories and rumours told to them prior to this (sandbox style). Option for pursuing a quest to the dragon isles. If good dragons return, they will take their grudge to the dragonlords. A few will also set up shop as benign protective dragonlords. Sometimes to the chagrin of "good" nations as well when they take over part of their land.
  • [hook] The Dragonlances - Seed rumours of these and where to find them. It's a good adventure on its own. Should only come into play once Dragonlords have started making an impact on Ansalon. Up to the PCs to decide what to do with them once they have them and who else gets to play with them. Might be triggered by an adventure involving the Silver Arm, so they have that before they set out to find these.
  • [Front] The Dark Knights - I am unsure of how to play this one. I like the 5th age way of simply disconnecting these from the dragonlords and they are a kinda cool conceit. But maybe it is too much. If introduced, I would put them up as adversaries to both dragons and normal lands alike, coming out of Neraka.
    But also as prophets, missionaries and manipulators.
    A first encounter with Knights of takhisis would probably be far away from Neraka with a few spreading the gospel of the great queen takhisis and offering conversion. Rather than straight up invaders, I'd play them as insidious and subversive.
    Protection rackets, divide and conquer tactics, push outside threats on local communities that the knights of takhisis are conveniently there to protect against when no one else is there to help.
    An enemy that is not so straightforward that you just draw swords, but rather a malign insidious growing influence across Ansalon, who pop up wherever solamnic knights are not plentiful enough to eject them, manipulating their way into more control and power over local communities. But also with enough upsides to them (they do actually protect, they do have their own honor codex, it might actually appeal to some PCs) that it is not a simple matter.
  • [hook] Silvanesti & Cyan Bloodbane - this is also an excellent adventure, with Cyan as an emergent dragonlord with eyes on the elven woods for his domain. As with all these, there is no reason this one has to happen as part of any particular sequence of events. Can happen whenever the PCs are in a good position to act on it. And if they don't act right away, then the silvanesti are just in exile for a while longer. The payoff here is of course discovering a dragon orb and saving the elven lands.
There is also no imperative for any of this to actually happen. If the campaign takes a turn where the stories unfolding are too good to be jerked around by the coming of dragons, then maybe dragons aren't coming anytime soon in this campaign and this remains a campaign of adventures in the later years of the Age of Despair. That's the whole point - an open-ended campaign, with a wealth of possibilities to draw from in the back catalogue, but nothing that has to happen.

Idea: Time Travel as re-enactment

This is more of a stray thought. But if you are into the whole re-enactment of epic events thing that the original adventures propose, a way of doing that that actually has in-world substance to it is time-travel. The laws of time travel means that you can't really change what happens, as we find in the legends trilogy where the heroes find themselves bound into almost inevitably enacting the roles that they have now filled in place of historical characters.

It's something I think is actually quite thematically appropriate to a world like dragonlance, as a kind of Journey into Myth, exploring the mythic fabric of the world by re-enacting the history of it through time travel. It would have to be something more haphazard and mysterious than "let's travel to the second dragonwar and be like Huma", more like the accidental crossings into faerie of medieval lore. I am seeing a lot of parallels in this kind of mythic quest with Glorantha. Anyway, just an idea for what could be a cool way for PCs to connect more deeply with the world and its history.

Conclusion

That's it, basically. In sum:
  • Ditch the railroad War of the Lance and make the campaign an open-ended "Dawn of the Age of Dragons" sandbox, with a slower pace and little attention to sequence or outcomes. There is plenty of very good adventures  to use from the back catalogue once you unhinge them from their railroads.
  • Focus on how to create these tales meaningfully. Focus on character development, community interaction and engagement and exploration of the mythic and historic fabric of the world.
  • Use a system that will lend focus to richness of character over richness of character options. Use a detailed character background system such as found in A Saga Companion or Beyond the Wall. Do not use Pathfinder or 3e or other games where character optimisation is a mini-game unto itself.

7 comments:

  1. Great write-up! Dragonlance has always been a head-scratcher for me. So much potential there. I've thought of doing a campaign alongside the War of the Lance, where the party's campaign runs on a tangent, occasionally intersecting with the standard campaign.

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    1. Yeah, it has been a frustration for me over the years too. It's only lately that it has really distilled for me what the world is actually all about for me.

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  2. Interesting read.

    Dragonlance is a huge influence on any campaign I run.

    I think also what makes it is that magic, as least in the lore, is strange and dangerous, and the world is much more 'low magic' then things like the forgotten realms.

    And of course no clerical magic changes everything.

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  3. Very interesting stuff. My experience with DL is very counter to your own: I find most all of the stories/novels after the first two trilogies to be tedious beyond belief...just bland fantasy. But I was growing up (and already a D&D fanatic) when the original books and adventures arrived on the scene with their innovations.

    At the moment I am re-examining the whole DL concept. While I understand your point that the world is “ill-suited for the typical” old school D&D campaign (given the objectives and direction of the authors, the concept, and TSR at the time), there’s still a part of me that wonders “why not?” I feel like there’s a reclamation project here that would be pretty sweet (if one could pull it off), setting the game in the War Years of post-Cataclysm Krynn.

    Over at the old Dungeon of Signs blog, GusL had some great ideas on the subject but (eventually) became fatigued with the actual adventure writing found in the DL publications. Still, I’d use his thoughts as a jumping off point for any sandbox campaign.

    Thanks for writing about this...I’ve had a hard time finding ANY blogger willing to put down more than a few words of gushing (or condemnation) on the setting. Your post is a bit more practical!
    : )

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  4. Sorry to necro this, but when you say say "avoid the railroad," does that mean stripping away everything from the pre-war of the lance story. Are you indicating there shouldn't be a blue crystal staff? No staff of magius? No tome of fistandantalus? Or just use those things in a more open-ended fashion? My players have no idea what krynn is or what the dragonlance stories are, so while I want to upend the stories, I also think some of those elements are worthwhile. Anyway, let me know what you think!

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    1. I'd still totally use these things, Or perhaps more accurately "mine" the books and adventures for these things, and then seed them into a more open-ended sandbox format.

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  5. Great read Thanks for this content.

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