My sister Kelli just gave me Dragons of Summer Flame by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman. She got it for $1, and it’s a beat up paperback, and has been sold more than a few times from the looks of it. Anyway, a Dragonlance book, and I haven’t touched Dragonlance for years. Decades. The floodgates of memory open wide…
Back when it was new, I ran the Dragonlance campaign. It was my first story based, rather than encounter based, campaign. I know we made it to DL 8 (Dragons of War), but can’t remember where the campaign fizzled.
I have both fond, and not so fond, memories of the adventures. This has me thinking about story based adventures. And giant campaigns made of linked adventures, or adventure paths. I’ve got some adventure design coming up after The Gods Have Spoken, so what lessons can I learn from my Dragonlance experience?
As a player, I love to feel I’m part of some big epic story. I also want to feel I’m in control, not a passenger on a railroad.
If you never played the original Dragonlance, it was very much a story. TSR released three novels, and each novel covered four adventure modules worth of epic feats and terrible dangers.
The players started off with pre-gens, the heroes of the novels: Tanis, Raistlin, and the rest. This took the character creation away from players, but they got to see your character in the classic 1980s rpg art. Caramon the fighter (2nd from the left) was all about the mullet. Business in the front, party in the back.
Look at all that variety. Unless you want to play a humanoid of color, or a woman whose armor covers her actual flesh.
I gave Raistlin the evil mage to a good friend. A good friend who dropped out of the campaign without a word. The story often turned on Raistlin, so that didn’t work so well.
The characters came with serious backstories, including who hooks up with who. Some great family ties, history to live up to, and the cleric who had to rediscover clerical magic which had vanished from the world many years ago.
In many ways this was a serious railroad. Of course my group went off the rails all the time, but as we moved to the next module I would yank them back. Eventually we lost interest. But not before having some great times.
All this nostalgia got me thinking about how to make a compelling story based adventure while preserving player agency.
Rather than focusing on mullets and railroads (plot, gender, and ethnicity), what worked?
- Roots. These characters had deep backstory. One of the characters, Sturm Brightblade, a knight of Solamnia, got to go to the Tomb of Huma, the founder of his order. A large part of an entire module revolved around the backstory of one character. Sturm’s player loved it, and it was fun for the whole party.
- Epic plot arc. Dragonlance created the format for all the adventure paths that came afterwards. No longer was a campaign a collection of dungeon crawls with no overarching plot arc. Each session was about winning the War of the Lance. Dragonlance showed us PCs that were anything but murder-hobos.
- Variety. Dragonlance had dungeon crawls, politics, war, diplomacy, magic that felt magical, mystery, and intrigue. Every module had a different focus, and kept the game fresh.
- A world. Krynn, the world of Dragonlance, was massive in scope and history.
In some cases, I think we’ve learned some better ways to get achieve some of these effects, but they are great effects.
Anyway, if your sibling gives you a dogeared Dragonlance paperback, go ahead and take the time to dig in. You may find ideas for your own games.