Apr 3, 2015, 1:08:34 PM4/3/15
How's that for hyperbole? And it _is_ hyperbole. Dragonlance didn't ruin
_everything_, but it did exert a baleful influence over the development
not just of D&D but also roleplaying in general. In part, that's because
it was such a brilliant idea and succeeded so well at its intended goals
as an early foray into the creation of a "multimedia" campaign for an
RPG. They didn't call it such back in the day, as the term hadn't been
invented so far as I know, but that's what it was.
Dragonlance wasn't just a collection of adventure modules; it was also a
series of fantasy novels -- phenomenally successful ones at that. One of
the things people can easily forget is that, before D&D, and especially
before Dragonlance, the "fantasy" genre was pretty small and paled in
importance compared to science fiction. Sure, there as Tolkien and
Howard and handfuls of pulp fantasies left over from the late 60s and
early 70s, but, by and large, most "fantasy" novels were written by SF
authors and they weren't (generally) what people would recognize today
as fantasy novels, either in content or style.
Dragonlance changed all that. No, it didn't do that alone, so please
don't harangue me with dissertations about how the Shanarra series came
out seven years earlier and sold X number of copies or whatever. I am
aware of these things. Remember, this entry is partially hyperbolic. But
here's the thing: whereas Shanarra and Dragonlance are both quite
obviously Tolkien knock-offs in broad outline -- being epic fantasies
whose settings are pastiches of Middle Earth -- Dragonlance, by being
associated with D&D, is the one that probably formed the imaginations of
more future fantasy writers. This next generation of writers would,
instead of imitating Tolkien, imitate Weis and Hickman, thereby starting
the process by which D&D -- and fantasy RPGs in general -- would be
snakes swallowing their own tails creatively. That process continues to
this day, with D&D ever more influenced by its creative progeny rather
than either cleaving to older traditions or creating its own.
On the gaming front, though, Dragonlance commits even greater crimes.
Firstly, the original Dragonlance modules were unique in that they
presented not merely an entire campaign story arc -- what we'd today
probably call an Adventure Path -- but, more importantly, it was an arc
written for specific characters who had specific fates. Gamers love to
bemoan "railroading," but few adventures were as railroad-y as
Dragonlance, a series whose every dramatic element was mapped out in
advance. There were, as written, few or no provisions for deviating from
the planned story arc or introducing new characters into the saga.
Goldmoon would always be the first cleric since the Catalcysm, Raistlin
would always slowly descend into evil, and poor Sturm Brightblade was
always doomed to die.
Now, at the time, Dragonlance was an amazing innovation. I don't believe
there was anything like it and, playing through it, even within its
heavy-handed restrictions, simply felt awesome -- especially if you were
smart enough to pick one of the cooler characters who didn't die due to
dramatic fiat. For the first time, D&D had its own Lord of the Rings,
complete with D&D staples like metallic versus chromatic dragons. What
wasn't to love? Plus, the Dragonlance modules were well presented, with
gorgeous art -- they even made a calendar -- terrific 3-D maps, and a
host of hand0-outs and other paraphernalia. In short, Dragonlance was
exactly what D&D players had wanted for so long and it was a huge
success for TSR.
And like many things D&D players want, it turned out to be a deal with
the Devil. From that point on, "story" came to dominate the way D&D and
other RPGs were presented. No longer were adventures "modules," implying
they could be swapped in and out of campaigns with minimal impact. Now,
they had to tell a coherent narrative that was dramatically satisfying.
Instead of "just a bunch of stuff that happens," adventures had to _make
sense_. Worse still, the success of the novels meant that, inevitably,
there would be more novels and these would alter the game setting in
ways meant primarily to sell more books, not necessarily to retain the
coherence of the original adventures. Railroad-y the modules may have
been, but at least _they ended_ and the players could take pride in
having shared in an epic story with a beginning, middle, and end. The
novels, though, ensured that the modules meant nothing and that no
victory, even one scripted from the start, would remain so. Newer and
bigger Cataclysms would be visited on Krynn on an annual basis to sell
more books and whatever charm Dragonlance had as a D&D setting was
sacrificed on the altar of a profitably exploitable IP.
If any of this sounds familiar, it should. Dragonlance represents the
point where D&D definitively took a turn into becoming not merely a
brand name with which to sell lots of things unassociated with
roleplaying but where TSR decided that the mere making of money was more
important than making money by selling fun games. Very few people
realized this at the time. All they saw was an epic storyline
illustrated by Larry Elmore and Keith Parkinson, with novels whose sales
put them regularly on the New York Times bestseller list. I don't think
anyone can be blamed for thinking this was all a good thing. D&D had
become a huge mainstream success and Dragonlance was a vital part of
that. Dragonlance also set the tone for much of what's happened in the
hobby since then, mostly for the worse from my perspective, but I'm sure
WotC's book department would say otherwise.
Like all "unified field theories," the one I present here has holes
large enough to drive Mack trucks through. I don't mean to imply that
all that's wrong in the hobby today -- i.e. all I dislike about the
hobby -- can be directly connected to Dragonlance. There were precursors
to it that set the stage and there were successors that did what it
intended better and probably more thoroughly. However, Dragonlance is an
important touchstone in the history of RPGs. It certainly represents the
end of "old school" as a mainstream part of the hobby. It also marks the
time when the fate of RPGs became tied to non-RPG products in a
definitive way. I think it's fair to say that, as a hobby, RPGs exist in
a post-Dragonlance world, for it changed roleplaying's face forever.
"If Barack Obama isn't careful, he will become the Neville Chamberlain
of the 21st century."