Journey Fantasy (or: Clarifying the Nebulous Pull of Dragonlance)

I have blogged several times about Dragonlance in the past. The broad theme I've struck up is that it gets unfairly judged on the railroad nature of its eponymous modules and the straightjacketing nature of its novel series, around which the world seems to revolve. To me, i's a distinct and worthwhile brand of fantasy once you open up the world and look smaller than the grand themes of wars and stopping gods.

It was never really the Heroes of the Lance, or even the War of the Lance, that drew me to the world. It was the more earthy stuff, such as the coming-of-age sandbox in the Tales of the Lance boxed set that enchanted me. Today it dawned on me why Dragonlance had such a strong pull on me as an adolescent and still tugs at my heartstrings today:

Outside the epic tales that steals the headlines, Dragonlance represents a distinct and different kind of gaming fantasy than the rest of D&D - What I am here calling "Journey Fantasy".

What I mean by this term is not the kind of exploration implied by hexcrawling, such as the West Marches, in the Lewis and Clark sense of charting an unknown frontier (usually because Here Be Dungeons). Rather, the kind of fantasy where journeys become ends in and of themselves. Distance here is not a necessary factor. Myth and magic can be so embedded in the local areas that the Unknown and Wondrous may lie just beyond the village, rather than something requiring an expedition to the Deep Wilds.

In Dragonlance (as I envision it, at any rate) a trip to the elven lands beyond the hills can be an adventure for its own sake - To see the elven lands. To encounter wonder, to meet with mystery, magic and the unknown for no better reason than to have such encounters. You don't do it for the riches, to become all-powerful one day, fighting evil or to help the village in danger. These things may occur in Journey Fantasy too of course, but are more side effects of the main motivation - To explore and be shaped by such journeys.

Much of my favourite fantasy art is less about situations and more about scenes and the sense of wonder

In Dragonlance, this is of course best exemplified in the shape of Kender, who have this motivation baked in by design, in the form of Wanderlust. Dragonlance for me is the kind of setting where the heft of an adventurer is not defined by the battles fought, riches won or feats accomplished, but by the sights seen, wonders experienced and mysteries unfolded before one's eyes. 

Consider how significant a part of the hobbits journey it was when they met a troupe of elves on the road and listened to their songs in Fellowship of the Ring. Or their time spent with Tom Bombadil. All of it still inside the Shire even. That in many ways epitomises the kind of fantasy I am talking about.

"You see an enchanting elf troupe coming down the road in the moonlight and gain 5 XP."

This of course, necessitates a different reward system in the game. XP for gold incentivises dungeon crawling. XP for kills incentivises combat. So how does one incentivise Journey Fantasy?

Jeff Rients gave a bare-bones model for such a thing which I liked so much that a form of this also ended up in Into the Unknown. But it is perhaps better suited for Lewis & Clark expeditions than "last night I saw the faeries dance in the ring under the full moon" or "I snuck into the wizard's tower and drank one of his magic potions without knowing what it was" or "I met an ent and talked to it". A system that not only rewards such experiences, but is granular enough that it awards more XP for the PC that went and joined the faeries in their dance. Perhaps something like this, which I feel is granular enough to matter, but also simple enough to adjudicate instinctively on the fly:

  • Minor Experiences (1 XP)
  • Significant Experiences (5 XP)
  • Epic Experiences (25 XP)

What grants experience points would change with experience. A first encounter with elves on the road may be Significant. A second encounter a Minor experience. A third would not merit any XP.

Witnessing the epic landscape and a dragon flying overhead gave this party more XP than fighting the necromancer

Of course quests, combat and riches happen along the road in such a setting too. Dealing with a combat encounter is mostly a Minor experience (and would remain so for all but the most trivial fights), although the first encounter with something new and scary would be Significant. As would any Boss Monsters at the end of the dungeon. 

To illustrate with Dragonlance examples:

Meeting and fighting draconians for the first time? Significant. Succeeding encounters with them? Minor. Seeing the Blue Crystal Staff in action for the first time and coming to understand what that means? Significant. Recovering the Disks of Mishakal as a result of this discovery? Epic.

In general, I would be generous with Minor experiences. Any kind of creative play, unusual situations etc can be a quick yield of 1 XP. The first time one manages to secure a treasure haul would be Significant. Succeeding ones a Minor event. Same with magic items.

Meeting a hobgoblin for the first time when you've already fought a dragon (something epic) would also be no more than a minor event.

This has some nice effects - Low level characters would likely gain more experience than higher level ones from the same adventure, so new PCs will catch up quicker.

This also makes it possible to create an advancement table based more on intuitive measurement of accomplishment. Let's keep title for each level as oD&D did for each class, to give an idea of what kind of in-game heft a given level has. But more generic. Here's a first draft:

A novice then, has had five minor and two significant experiences. Sounds about right for a decent adventure or quest, or two lesser ones. An adept has done that twice. The adventurer has perhaps supplemented that with an epic experience. From 5th level onwards, levelling up slows down (10 epic experiences are not easy to come by) which fits this type of fantasy quite well - Spending most of one's time in lower mid levels seems like the right kind of fit for the genre.

Besides, this isn't really the kind of setting where high levels are an aim in itself. They are more like a function of one's experiences accumulated (which are the main point). To reflect that (and perhaps also to help the DM), I'd add a separate Experience Sheet to the character sheet, wherein one notes down every Significant and Epic experience one has received experience points for. A sheet that incorporates character journal and XP tracking into one function and really makes clear what Journey Fantasy is about.

Since progression slows down mid levels and such a campaign isn't really about gaining levels per se, I think I'd also have to come up with a system for spending XP, so that they can have a function in the game at that level beyond the long slouch to higher levels. Some sort of "buy a special feat" mechanic perhaps, that makes that given character unique in the setting, along the lines of Pathfinder's Mythic rules framework (which is Paizo's attempt at an epic level framework that runs parallel with level progression).

I am quite satisfied with the above draft. I feel that if my adolescent DM self had access to this, it would have supported the kind of adventures I was running in Dragonlance back then much better than the existing rules.

We weren't plundering dungeons much, or fighting obvious evils. We were discovering hidden valleys,  uncovering forgotten ancestral secrets, seeking out dragons to meet them rather than fight them (and hoping to ride one) and investigating remote wizard towers just because (ie, not necessarily to kill them take their stuff - just going there to find out what happens when you go there). Along the way were dungeons to be raided, and obvious evils to be fought. They were not evaded, but neither were they the main point of adventuring. 
This Barbarian fought many monsters to get here, but only gained a level when he beheld this vista.

And it was cool to gain levels of course, But it was really more about gaining enough to be able to hold on your own and survive making mistakes - At around 7th lvl, interests went in a lot of different directions that had little to do with level gain.

I looked up Beyond the Wall and Adventures in Middle Earth when writing this blog post, since they are very much games designed for these kind of adventures (it is not coincidental that I always felt Beyond the Wall would be a great fit for Dragonlance), to see how they handled XP and was disappointed to find that this seems to be the one arena that both have absolutely skated past. 
Beyond the Wall gives some token recognition of different ways to gain XP, whilst AIME dodges the question entirely. Perhaps because the designers have not truly internalised that XP is not an in-game mechanic for how characters advance, but mainly a gamist mechanic for incentivising certain behaviours. So for sure, if I were running these games I would be looking to use this framework as a starting point.


  1. You should definitely take a look at "The One Ring" which makes 'Journey Fantasy' a key mechanic.

    1. Can you sketch it out for me? I assumed since AIME was so sparse on XP (advancement / incentive mechanic), The One Ring would not be much different.

    2. TOR uses a two-track XP system with Skill Points (unsurprisingly used to upgrade your skills) and Adventure Points, which are used to upgrade you combat bonuses and to improve Valor and Wisdom, which are secondary stats that are pegged to character progression. Each point of Valor earns you a magic weapon or piece of armor, and each point of Valor gets you a new character ability (analogous to TOR’s version of feats). You gain a standardized amount of Skill and Adventure points per game session, which are then spent during the Fellowship phase. You also gain bonus Skill points based on your Wits ability score during the “year’s end” Fellowship phase.

      So the rhythm is to go on an adventure, where difficulty is roughly pegged to how long it will take to complete in real world time, then you rest and reflect on your experiences in order to improve. Skills will level up slightly unevenly between characters, but the big ticket Adventure Point upgrades will remain even between all characters who have played in the same number of sessions. Rewards don’t scale but the cost to improve does, so your pace of advancement tapers off as you go.

      TOR and AIME are in effect pretty similar, but TOR’s experience system is much cleaner because AIME needs to use ad-hoc XP rewards to force 5e’s advancement into a similar shape.

      It’s worth noting that while both games have a lot of mechanics that could support player-driven exploration, their adventures and XP system assume a mission-based structure to game.

  2. Great post. I've been thinking about this a lot over the years. See e.g. here:

    1. So, I found myself scrolling through a few years of your blog last night, and came upon a few entries that I think touch on the subject, albeit in different ways. Wall of Text warning, but this hit a groove for me:

      This is an excellent capsule of journey fantasy I think. And based on the comment "You could argue that Yoon Suin is a TBG generator" I finally went ahead and bought the pdf. X-D

      Rather the contemplate "what happens when the elves disappear, I actually think tourism is the main adventuring motivation for elves (at least as I envision them in the Poul Anderson B/X way, where aesthetics > morality), which of course makes them a good fit for such a style of play.

      The rustic article for me touches a bit on the "distance is not a necessary factor" in this. It's what I like about the Sandbox in Tales of the Lance ( I find the rustic setting in many ways an almost necessary juxtaposition for Journey Fantasy - Without being already steeped in the earthy and mundane, venturing into the wondrous and otherworldly becomes a mundane activity itself. I would even say continuous connection to the mundane/rustic is a big part too of maintaining this wonderment- Hence, local adventures holding being forays into the unknown being such an excellent setup for such a campaign.

      Here we come to a crux of it:

      "I call this the Mythago problem, after Holdstock's Mythago Wood books. The Mythago Wood books are great, but they aren't gameable. That's because the eponymous wood - a faerie otherworld if ever there was one - isn't a world in which typical D&D concerns (wealth, war, politics, quests, etc.) matter. It's a world where emotional concerns like father-son relationships and the growth from adolescence to adulthood matter. It's about expressionism. It's not about gathering XP. Play a game of D&D in Mythago Wood and it's not Mythago Wood anymore. It's just a wood full of stuff to kill, rob, play politics with, etc."

      But here, I disagree somewhat. Of course, standard looting or domain play D&D is a poor fit, but I feel D&D as a system can service such a setting well enough.
      A central pillar of Mythago Wood (and Journey Fantasy) to me is that, whilst the events within the otherworld may (or may not) be cyclical regurgitations of each other, the impact it has on the quester is not. It is really more about the experiences, and how they transform the heroes, than their impact on the world itself.

      Level gain in such a setting is really more about how characters are transformed by, and become imbued with, the mythic fabric of the unknown they venture into - And perhaps also how they in the process become increasingly alienated from the mundane world they grew out of (a feature of both LotR and Mythago Wood).

      High level play in journey fantasy then would be about that dichotomy more so than domain building etc. Ie, if low-level journey fantasy is exploring wonder and the otherworldly, high level journey fantasy is about *becoming* it. Or else, to leave it behind and exert oneself upon the mundane world. (


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