Dragonlance Classics, or the DL module series, is among the most successful modules ever published for D&D, still not many lists of the best modules ever published for D&D include any of them. Written by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis, the series were epic in scale and nature.
Many years ago I created one of my most treasured characters. I remember spending days going through the AD&D Player’s Handbook, writing and re-writing the character over and over till it was ready, just hours before I waded through wet snow to my friends house. There I introduced Roy the Victorious (I never said it was original), a noble warrior, eager to become a glorious knight. The module the DM brought to the table that fateful night was Dragons of Despair, the first module in the Dragonlance Classics module series.
The War of the Lance, its heroes and the epic novels written by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, is one of the titans of D&D literature, up there with Dark Sun’s Prism Pentad and Drizzt’s story. The Dragonlance Classics roughly follow the same story line as the novels, with a few deviations. There are probably few players my age that haven’t read the novels, or at least don’t know what the story is about. At least most of them have heard of Raistlin Majere, Tanis Half-Elven or Sturm Brightblade.
Leaving the dungeon
What made the DL series special was not just one thing, but a combination of many different things. TSR had until then never published such a comprehensive and epic module, supported by novels. At first TSR’s faith in the project was somewhat limited, but when it all came together, well written modules, great artwork and enjoyable novels, it became a success. TSR even produced all kinds of branded products, e.g. boardgame, something the company had never done before.
Up until the DL series was published most of TSR’s published modules were focused on dungeon crawling, e.g. Tomb of Horrors, Ravenloft and Keep on the Borderlands. As much as those kinds of modules can be fun to play, they can also get a bit too much of the same. After a while, the rooms tend to meld together and if you manage to steer clear of the traps, you’d meet the BBEG in the end. In the DL series the focus shifted from dungeons to dragons.
This was huge. Of course, there had been modules where the PCs needed to fight a dragon, but there hadn’t been many where the PCs needed to fight dragons. You could say that with the advent of DL series D&D finally became Dungeons & Dragons, not Dungeons & perhaps the occasional dragon.
The narrative took a huge turn with the DL series. Many modules until then had focused on getting the PCs as fast as possible from one dungeon to the next, but in DL this changed. The journey was a larger part of the narrative and there were even whole chapters that took place outdoors.
Dungeon Masters had always had the possibility to roll for random encounters, but the narrative had until then mostly been focused on events in dungeons, which meant that the gilded cage was a lot tighter. Removing the dungeon called for a different approach. After all, you’re in a wide open space and that can be quite intimidating and challenging for a dungeon master.
By making the journey a rich part of the narrative the world became much more alive. The PCs learned about the world’s history by visiting the many realms and kingdoms of Krynn, e.g. their trek takes them to both Qualinesti and Silvanesti, giving them opportunity to learn about the schism between the two elven nations. This made the PCs feel a part of something large, something larger than themselves.
A few days ago there was a discussion in a Facebook group I’m in about the Dragonlance Classics. And I have to admit it astonished me to see how many talked about that the modules were railroaded. I never experienced this when I played through the modules.
Then it hit me. I never played through the story as one of the pre-generated characters. Even when I’ve DM’d the Classics I’ve asked the players to make their own characters. In the old modules it’s pre-scripted when certain PCs will die, so it’s not that difficult to imagine that some players may have felt railroaded.
Still, I’ve always felt that railroading players has nothing to do with the modules or the narrative, but is first and foremost a DM problem. I mean, a good DM can make a hell of a lot out of a poorly written module, making sure that the players never feel railroaded. Perhaps I am wrong, but I don’t think that a module is supposed to be written so that every contingency is taken into account. It’s impossible!
The Dragonlance Classics were republished by Sovereign Press and Margaret Weis few years ago, updated for D&D 3.5. I ran it for a group of 8 players, which split into two four-player groups. I had a blast, though one of the group was mercilessly slaughtered by Cyan Bloodbane.
The Classics were brilliant and I still think they are. Every now and then I read through parts of it, if not only for getting ideas for the modules I’m writing or DM-ing at the time.
And since WotC are heavy on the nostalgic part, I wouldn’t be too surprised seeing the DL series updated for 5E. There has been talk on the internet about a Dragonlance movie for years and the chatter got louder last April, when Geek&Sundry posted an article, where speculations about this get wind under their wings in a tweet posted by the American actor Joe Manganiello.
Whether WoTC will re-publish the DL series or fund a movie based on the Dragonlance Chronicles, the Classics will stay classic and a huge part of D&D canon, a part that has probably had more influence on modern modules than we truly realise.