Dragons of Despair

n my teenage years, my life revolved around school, Boy Scouts, the strange neighborhood I live in on the east side of Staten Island, and the Fantastic Store.

The Fantastic Store was a dream spot for a geek like me. It sold comic books, pulp novels, roleplaying games, and an assortment of other nerdy goods. To say that the Fantastic Store was a formative would be an understatement. My friends and I poured quarters into its Gauntlet Video game. I bought Unearthed ArcanaTemple of Elemental Evil, my first Dragon magazines, Talisman, the Citadel line of D&D and AD&D miniatures, Battlesystem, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser novels, and countless other treasure at the store. Hell, James Doohan signed my FASA Star Trek roleplaying books at that store. It was a wonderland that paid its bills, at least in part, with my allowance, lunch money, and bribes for good grades.

It was at the Fantastic Store in 1984 that I discovered Dragonlance. It was a weird year for me and D&D. Unknown to my 13-year-old self, earlier in that year, TSR had a massive employee purge. While some gems were released that year (B4 Veiled Society being one of them…but I’ll cover that sometime soon), that year seemed to be entirely dedicated to Dragonlance. The year before, I had purchased the World of Greyhawk boxed set, and it set my mind on fire. I was fully entrenched in that world. And while the confusingly titled WG5 Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure was released in 1984 (After finding WG4 Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun a year or so later, I kept on searching for WG1-3—I later learned that 1-3 were supposed to be Village of HommletTemple of Elemental Evil, and Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, but they all received different designators), I was hungry for more Greyhawk. The next year I would get my wish, but until then, each time I went to the Fantastic Store, Dragonlance was all that I could find.

Goldmoon! Where are your pants?

Somewhat grudgingly, I plopped down a fistful of bills and quarters for DL1 Dragons of Despair. But even stuck in its glossy shrink, it has some allure. The Clyde Caldwell cover and graphic elements designed by Larry Elmore were pretty fucking cool. A group of adventurers fighting a sinewy black dragon. Part of me wondered why the woman on the cover wasn’t wearing pants, but part of me was happy she wasn’t. I was 13, after all. All in all, I wasn’t sure what I was getting into, but maybe it had promise.

Tearing open that shrink, I was impressed at first. The inside cover map was the coolest thing I had seen since I6 Ravenloft—all 3d and full of fun. The interior pencil art by Jeff Easley was phenomenal and inspiring. At first blush, I was pleased with my purchase. And then I read the module.

My reaction to Dragons of Despair was similar to my thoughts on it today.

First off, the adventure is very ambitious. Within 32 pages, it has to present the basics for a new world, cover a complicated plot, and give the DM everything she needs to help it come alive. Back in 1984, I found it interesting that this was the first in a series of modules (the entire series was 14 modules by the time of its completion in 1986—there were two other modules in that line released in 1988, but the plot of the adventure line wraps up in DL14 Dragons of Triumph) because it was designed for six to eight characters levels 4 to 6. Now, there are dragons involved. Back in AD&D, dragons were not something you threw at low-level characters, so I got it.

Strangely enough, given that the game was called Dungeons & Dragons, there were very few dragons in most published adventures. This would be a constant subject in various brainstorming product and project meetings I would have later in my years at both Wizards of the Coast and Paizo—putting dragons in things, especially starter sets. Looking back at the art of many TSR offerings in 1983 to 1986, there was a concerted effort to slap as many dragons on covers for significant projects, so I imagine sometime in the early 80s, especially after securing a stable of fantastic artists up to the task, someone in Lake Geneva said let’s dragon up this motherfucker (or some 80s Midwest version of such sentiment).

Okay. Dragons. I’m in. Let’s delve deeper.

Dragons are back, son!

In exemplary form, Dragons of Despair lets us know how this new world—Krynn—is a little different than your standard D&D fare. Elves are a bit different, and there are no standard halflings; instead, they are kenders—fearless little trash-talkers who wear shoes. Interestingly, it doesn’t mention kenders’ interesting view on larceny and the nature of personal property, something when it was fully revealed caused kenders to be banned on many tables. Personal property is a serious issue in life and on the game table.

But these were lesser considerations. The first three difference were:

1. Gold has no value in this world. Each place has its own currency and its own value for trade (these are explained in Appendix 1). What one country values may be worthless in another.

2. Clerical spells have not existed for nearly 300 years. Some people still call themselves clerics, still bellowing to worshipful orders; however, all of these have turned their backs on the true gods in search of other, less demanding gods (which don’t exist). These pseudo-clerics use the same combat table as true clerics but have no spell abilities. PCs brought into Krynn from other campaigns lose their spell-casting abilities at once. Never fear: it is the goal of this adventure to regain these abilities.

3. No dragons have existed in Krynn for over 1000 years. As a result, more people in this world smile when dragons are mentioned believing they are only folktales to frighten children. Few believe that dragons ever did exist; almost no one believes they exist now.

I found the first one really strange. And when I read Appendix 1, I found it even weirder that in some places that gold does have (a reduced) value. One, it seemed overly complicated. Two, within the aforementioned appendix and the introductory read-aloud text, you find out there is a steel coin standard; you find that currency is on a steel standard because it is the most valued metal (or rather alloy) due to its utility. Then why would anyone make it a coin? Monetary denominations are—at their heart—rather useless: They are tokens, symbols, and are becoming more abstract by the day. Why would you tie up the most practical alloy in the world into currency?

And yes, my 13-year old self thought this. D&D has increased my desire to learn why things work in the world, and I had access to some pretty good libraries.

Anyhow, that was the first thing I decided to ignore if I was going to run this adventure. The second difference I found interesting but worrying. Clerics have always been critical to the game, and arguably, even more so in earlier editions. I was thinking, Krynn better have a franchise of potion shops or clerics better come back early in the story because this bastard has at least one dragon in it.

The last one I found interesting, but the first thing that the players were going to laugh at. “Wait, man, you mean we are playing a thing called Dragonlance, with some bad-ass serpent dragon on the cover, and you’re telling me no one in this place thinks dragons are real.” I know, it’s the kind of metagaming that aspires to comedy, but it was sort of like the trailer spoiling the big reveal.

Okay, interesting. Let’s unleash the adventure.

Dragons of Despair is split into four chapters. Chapter 1 is The Road Travels East, 2 is Lost City of the Ancients, the third is Decent into Darkness, and the last is Lair of the Dragons. The first three chapters start with a full-page pencil illustration by Easley (there is quarter page illustration for Chapter 4 that was probably supposed to be a full page, but sometimes back then, you just ran out of room–layout in the 80s was still being done cut and paste). Each is evocative and a bit ballsy. That’s a lot of real estate for art in a 32-page adventure. But on the other pages, the words were dense, well written, and in a smaller typeface, and presented in three columns. And the information was presented in a way similar to Ravenloft. Say what you will about Tracy Hickman; that man had a vision for adventure writing. He’s one of the pioneers who showed D&D you could have a thematic, story-based adventure that was interesting and fun. I was excited. I really liked Ravenloft.

I was let down on the first page of the adventure. I found the read-aloud (what we called boxed test) tedious and fumbling. Whatever…I usually skip that anyway. But directly after the first bit of read-aloud, I found out that this adventure really wants you to play its pre-generated characters. Up until this point, progenerated characters were provided incase someone new came to the game mid-play—sort of the cannon fodder of good manners. Each one of these characters—who were nobody to me at the time (I’ve met kids named Raistlin since) each had a background. A lengthy background with a bunch of world information on it. The players were going to read it aloud. There was no way that was happening. Not with my group. We were 13; it would have been screw-ups and snickers the entire way. If you played your own characters, the adventure said you had no “stories to tell,” even though it assumes you were off looking for gods during the past five years. It may be the most realistic thing I’ve read in a D&D adventure, but it was harsh.

Why not make story archetypes that keyed to main character types and have both the progenerated characters use the archetypes and then let other people play their character. What I didn’t see coming was that Dragonlance was an entirely different line for TSR. It was books, adventures, calendars, tie-ins. It was the first push toward what TSR would be in the late 80s and 90s. And while I would really buy into that model once Forgotten Realms got off the ground (and enjoyed Greyhawk sticking its toe in with Saga of Old City and Artifact of Evil), I was not having it right now. It just came off as odd and forced and seemed not to understand how folks played the game. At least the folks that I knew. I didn’t read (and thoroughly enjoy) the Dragonlance novels until a few years later.

From there, things get jumbled and weird. You fight some hobgoblins lead by a jerk who is searching for a blue crystal staff. There is this Goldmoon character, who has the crystal staff, who may be an NPC or could be played by one of the characters that shows up at some point, but exactly when is confusing. Goldmoon sings a song (that has music in case the player is musically inclined and decides to sing it for the other players). The players read a canticle (a fucking canticle) that’s a history and mythology lesson. Things turn cold, there’s a thunderstorm, and the dragon armies are on the march in the lands around you. During these events, there are many places you can visit. You can see the Inn of the Last Home and hear a bunch of rumors, wander out in the land and come across hooded strangers that turn out to be disguised draconians, get in trouble with the local clerics, meet some farmers, stumble upon refugees, or meet a unicorn. It’s strangely sandboxed.

Eventually, you’re supposed to go to the ruins of Xak Tsaroth.

Crawling under Xak Tsaroth

The city’s upper ruins are presented as a rough hex-crawl, where the characters come across more draconians who wish to capture them, especially if they have the blue crystal staff with them. These draconian have a wicker dragon but also, toward the end of the crawl, the characters find out there’s a genuine and mighty dragon living under the ruins.

The adventure concludes with a dungeon crawl when their characters learn that there are these golden (worthless!) disks that hold the secret for returning clerical magic. You endure gully dwarves, fight more dragon dudes, see some spectral folk doing spectral things, deal with the dragons, and find those disks. It’s straight forward and has some fun highlights.

Overall, I found the entire thing puzzling at times, fun at others, and not really something I would want to run. I had the distinct impression I was not getting the whole story. I felt oddly left out.

While I eventually read and enjoyed the novels (I’m currently re-reading the original trilogy) and recommend them to many friends over the years, the adventure offerings were never my thing. They always seemed to want to tell me a story instead of letting my players create their own stories. They tended to lack player agency and tried to drag you toward its own conclusions.

I never ran Dragons of Despair or any other Dragonlance adventure or set any campaign on Krynn. It was always novels for me.

Delving For Yourself

Dragons of Despair and many of the classic and supplementary material for the campaign setting for Frist First and Second Edition AD&D can be found on Drive-Thru RPG. You can also find the various sets for the SAGA Edition of Dragonlance. Wizards of the Coast produces a 3.5 sourcebook for Dragonlance. Under a license with Wizards of the Coast, Sovereign Press released several conversions of the original adventures and other supplements for Dragonlance. They can also be found on Drive-Thru RPG. Many of the novels are available in Kindle, Audiobook, and hard copy.

Interesting Stuff

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or focused on more important stuff) for the past week, you probably have heard that Margret Weis and Tracy Hickman, the authors of the Dragonlance novels and the prime movers of the setting, have filed a lawsuit against Wizards of the Coast regarding a new trilogy of novels they were apparently licensed to write. If you want a long, though, compelling summary of the legalities involved (at least we can tell by the filing), check out this video.

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