I was originally going to write a post called “In Defense of Dragonlance,” and make my best attempt at crafting a manifesto of sorts. I imagined that I would, with one post, make a bold stand against all the supposed haters of that setting and sweep away their arguments in one fell swoop.
But I’ve thought better of all that. Mainly because I realized that I don’t really have any problems with what I’ve seen written about Dragonlance on gaming blogs. Specifically, a post entitled “How Dragonlance Ruined Everything” written by preeminent RPG sage James Maliszewski was going to be a particular target of my nascent ire. How dare he state such a thing?!
I took some time to reread his post, since I hadn’t read it in a long time. And I came to remember what I had forgotten: what James discusses in his post and what I feel about Dragonlance literally exist in two different realms.
James approaches the setting from a practical direction. The gist of his post, to try and simplify it for the sake of brevity (I encourage you to read it for yourself), is that Dragonlance set into motion some bad trends for Dungeons & Dragons. TSR used the setting to springboard into a direction that saw the game become less about sandbox play and more about creating “story,” in a negative sense. By “story” I think James is referring to the pitfall of railroading. Story here refers to a trend toward consciously trying to “force” a D&D campaign to make some sort of narrative sense from game session to game session. For James, the “story” of a roleplaying campaign should be something that one sees in retrospect, after many game sessions have passed and the players’ characters have gone through many adventures.
This is really no different from the process of writing a novel. The author must complete the writing of the novel before it truly becomes a cohesive story. One can also look at the events of the Lord of the Rings books. The novels that compose the series are actually the recounting of the quest to destroy the One Ring by Frodo Baggins as a sort of memoir. This memoir would eventually become a book called the Red Book of Westmarch in Frodo’s world (the Red Book also includes Bilbo’s own tale, There and Back Again, which in our world is The Hobbit).
So, to relate all of this to roleplaying, the exploits of player characters in a campaign are what become the story. One should never worry about creating a cohesive story while a campaign is being played.
So, I agree with James. I’ve looked through the original Dragonlance modules over the years and I have to say, I do not like how they were executed. Why were they so geared toward pregenerated characters, having players adhere for the most part to how events unfolded in the novels? There was no need to have done things that way. TSR could very well have published modules that, for instance, were set during the War of the Lance, but the players could be given the choice of what they wanted to do during the war. In other words, TSR could have made it clear that there was no need to adhere to the Dragonlance canon, and that they could create alternate events in the war in the usual organic way that RPG campaigns play out.
Yes, in reading James’ post again, I can’t say that I can refute any of his opinions. And actually, I wouldn’t want to do so. This is because my connection, my affection, for Dragonlance has nothing to do with the practical end of things. It has nothing to do with the modules, TSR’s potential use of the setting as a means of creating a “franchise” that would generate steady revenue, or the impact of the setting and the novels on the course of D&D’s evolution.
I can read James’ post and agree with it freely, because my approach to Dragonlance is purely emotional, rather than practical. You might even call it nostalgia, but I believe it’s the good kind of nostalgia. I’ve stated before on this blog my thoughts on how there are different types of nostalgia. Nostalgia that is an obsession with one’s long-lost youth is negative. Nostalgia that is a subtle and grounded cherishing of what once was is, I believe, positive, and may even give rise to a new perspective on the object of one’s nostalgia. This refreshed view of something from one’s past may even be a means of reinvigorating what was long lost from one’s life.
This is how I view rolelplaying in my current life. I had spent years mourning over how long it had been since I roleplayed. Once I gave that up, I was free to set aside thoughts of the hobby for some time, and then return to it again years later with a more positive attitude. It is this attitude that I am now fostering, and I see it as the energy behind my current return to the table-top.
So it really doesn’t matter to me whether or not Dragonlance had an adverse effect on D&D or the hobby as a whole. Indeed, as a side note, I’ve always thought of roleplaying as a grass roots effort at its heart. Once you get the rule books home from the store, you can choose to shut out the future developments of the game and its publisher and do what you want with it, with no ill effects. You don’t need to go to conventions, you don’t need to buy every splatbook, unless that’s how you approach the hobby.
What really matters to me is that Dragonlance novels were the start of my lifelong love affair with fantasy. Now, I know that some would argue that that is a sad fact. It would have been better if I had discovered Tolkien, Howard, Leiber, Vance, or any of the other luminaries that are credited with forging the foundations of fantasy literature as we now know it. I refute such a thought, because as I sit here today, I have far more books on my shelves that do not carry the Dragonlance logo. The novels by Weis and Hickman, and other Dragonlance authors, brought me into the genre. From there, I moved on to discover the classics as well as the writings of more recent generations of fantasy authors.
As I stated in my gamer testimonial on this blog, Stormblade by Nancy Varian Berberick was the first Dragonlance novel I read. It was the first fantasy novel I read. I remember feeling a strong connection to the genre from the very first chapter. I intend to reread the novel, having read it over 20 years ago. I don’t know if it will stand the test of time as far as its actual execution as a novel, but I know that that won’t change the place the book has in my personal evolution. I’ll always have a soft spot for it, and the other early Dragonlance novels.
I want to chronicle my rereading of Stormblade here on the blog, to give you my thoughts and impressions as I go through this seminal book in my personal gaming life.
I’ve also been feeling like I need to resurrect my plans to run a campaign set on the world of Krynn. But I will be sure not to railroad my players. I will be sure to tell any players who are well versed in the Dragonlance setting that they should not expect my campaign to adhere to the developments in the novels.
In all, I do feel it’s high time for me to revisit my Dragonlance roots. That means some rereading. And this rereading, like nostalgia, may lead to a new appreciation. And perhaps something more…