Friday, April 22, 2022

Returning to Krynn

WotC just dropped news that they'll be bringing back the AD+D 2e settings of Spelljammer and Dragonlance. You can read all about that over at EnWorld if you're so inclined. 

I never got into Spelljammer -- I missed a chance to pick up some of the old boxed sets for literal pennies, and I still kick myself for it -- but the concept still holds loads of intrinsic appeal to me. I don't feel like I've seen a satisfying treatment of naval play in a D+D framework yet, and I'm curious to see how WotC approaches it. (I suspect that their approach to voyages and space probably won't be one that quite scratches the yearnings I have, but seeing how they tackle it certainly isn't a bad thing.) 

But Dragonlance? Dragonlance was one of my main entrypoints into D+D. I started off with the superlative Return to Brookmere, certainly, but Dragonlance was one of the core lenses for my understanding of D&D in elementary and middle school (only getting displaced by the Forgotten Realms after I picked up Baldur's Gate). I went hard into the TSR novels as a kid, y'all. Even the clunkers. In some ways, it takes on the role that I think Greyhawk does for some of my friends - the intro setting that dominated a lot of our early gaming visions. 

In the light of my thirties, the Dragonlance of my youth seems excruciatingly twee in all of the Renn Faire ways that late AD+D could hit. But I think there are still some glimmerings of compelling ideas in the thousand-foot pitch, and hell, getting a trailer from Shohreh Aghdahloo goes a long way.

So instead of turning up my nose, I ask - what could a revision of the Dragonlance setup look like in a context that wouldn't make me balk? Here's my initial stab at it:

  • Under the Dark Fist*. The original Dragonlance books open with evil on the rise. The dragonarmies stand poised to roll over the continent of Krynn; they've got organization, divine backing, and a gazillion evil dragons all working to crush out the various points of opposition to Takhsis. I think that there's a lot of potential in having a setting where evil begins as being triumphant or in control, and players are placed in a framework of organizing and leading resistance. It works quite well for Star Wars, after all. (For a fantasy context, see FFG's 'Midnight' setting for 3e, or the Black Company books, for other examples of the evil overlord having won as the starting point.)

  • Apocalypse Then / When In Rome... Others have written about the post-apocalyptic nature of AD+D, but Krynn very much seeks to foreground it -- theoretically, at least. At the start of the War of the Lance, Krynn is still making its way out of the big old world-wrecking Cataclysm. In the original Dragonlance materials, the main ways this was showcased were the absence of the gods and their associated cleric-y/paladin-y powers, the physical wreckage of the continent, steel coins instead of gold, and Lord Soth the death knight (Dragonlance's own Darth Vader). These feel a bit underwhelming, honestly, and I find myself of two minds about how to reframe this part of the setting. On the one hand, I'd like to see more treatment of overcoming scarcity and cultural adaptation to their surroundings, taking an apocalypse's effects seriously. On the other hand, there's definitely more than a little Rome in the presentation of Istar, and now I'm curious about how a treatment of post-Cataclysm Krynn informed by more recent scholarship and discussion about post-Roman Europe would turn out. (Solamnia as the cultural equivalent of Byzantium...?)

    The Doom Brigade
    Margaret Weis & Don Perrin
  • We Are More Than Our Past. D+D has been struggling with the 'hard-coded biological alignment' for a while. Dragonlance is somewhat infamous for the magically mandated obnoxiousness of the kender, gully dwarves, and gnomes, along with the standard goblins and hobgoblins being always evil cannon fodder, so it might seem like this setting would be likely to continue putting its foot in it. All that said, Krynn might actually be a pretty good setting for seriously wrestling with this, if folks wanted to put the time in. I remember seeing the pitch for The Doom Brigade as a kid and being curious -- how would former bio-engineered soldiers of the evil overlord be presented as sympathetic protagonists? What's more, some of the major pieces of the setting are all about beings long dismissed as "evil" breaking past societal and/or divine hierarchy treatment and doing good - the red dragon Flamestrike striking down the villain of the first book because of his threats to children, Raistlin's soft spot for the downtrodden and oppressed, and even the nonsensical Green Gemstone Man trying to fix his original sin and serving as deus machinae prohibitus. (Please don't ask me exactly how little of that I had to look up.) 

    In practice, I see this as an opportunity for D+D to explicitly push back against some of the missteps of the past, and of Dragonlance in particular. In the specific context of Dragonlance, this might look like less focus on good and evil as specific cosmic teams with their own bioengineered servitor races (elves and metal dragons for Team Good, minotaurs and chromatic dragons for Team Evil) and more on individual choices and sway. 

  • Si vis ludem, para bellum. Dragonlance is a setting designed around grand sweeping conflicts (not to mention dragon dogfights and flying citadels). It makes sense that a modern treatment of DL would feature some serious thought of how to meaningfully integrate that sort of conflict into the standard scope of play. It's no surprise that my thoughts turn to wargame integration at the drop of a hat, but it seems WotC is at least looking in that direction as well, with a planned mass combat system ("Dragonlance: Warriors of Krynn") to be released.
Those are my initial thoughts. I don't know that writing this all out makes me motivated to go out and run something in Krynn just yet, but I'm thinking about what might do that. Certainly I'd give it a go if I could get Shohreh Aghdahloo voiceovers...

* Sorry-not-sorry. It's far too good a title to leave languishing as a Spelljammer module.