Wednesday, May 21, 2014

DL 2 - Dragons of Flame - Review



A while back I tried to give a fair review of Dragon’s of Despair; to express what I liked about the modules, to look at where it went wrong and to see what could be salvaged.  To reiterate, the fundamental problem with the Dragonlance modules (as far as I can tell from reading two of them) is that they are story and hero driven high fantasy epics masquerading as 1st edition AD&D Modules.  This isn’t to say that the story is bad, or that such epics might not make a good table top game, but it’s certainly hard to fit the epic ethos and genre conventions into a high lethality, combat adverse system like 1e AD&D or the B/X and OD&D that it derives from.

NICE THINGS ABOUT DRAGONLANCE
!Fantasy Apocalypse, takes an idyllic high fantasy world and reveals both its troubles and doom.
!Good Enemies, The party fights dragons, and dragon men who present some fun tactical challenges.
!Solid Worldbuilding, There is a sandbox under the railroad waiting to be played with many cool ideas.

HORRIBLE THINGS ABOUT DRAGONLANCE
!Saccharine Tone, High fantasy bathos is overwhelming and painfully clichéd.
!Forceful Railroading, forces player decision making and goals along a single storyline.
!GM PCs, Precious little plot immune horrors that must survive to force players down the rails.
!Lack of Meaningful Factions, There is bad and good, sometimes good is grumpy, but it’s very clear.

DRAGONS OF FLAME
Why does Dragon decor consist of Dragon skulls?
The second in the Dragonlance Series of modules Dragons of Flame was written in 1984 by Douglas Niles and continues the story right after Dragons of Despair leaves off.   Player Character clerics, or at least the insufferable singing cleric Goldmoon, can now cast spells thanks to some platinum discs. Niles has an even heavier hand then Hickman at forcing the party into a series of chutes leading to heroic adventure, and he’s content to emulate the maundering pretentious language of Dragons of Despair as well. What’s worse is that while Dragons of Despair only required the railroad by necessity and encouraged the use of the novel derived pre-generated characters, Dragons of Flame actively creates all sorts of Quantum Ogre situations (events/encounters that occur regardless of PC action) and railroading while actively discouraging the use of anything but the pre-gens, some of whom “must survive”. 


The party begins gazing dully about in the war-torn wastes after returning the gods to Krinn via magic discs, which make clerics and issue them id passes in the form of platinum amulets. The party then gets to wander about the destroyed landscape until they set off for a town. The town they set off from has been reduced to ruins, and even the lone survivor they discover dies as a plot point regardless of the players actions (even the expenditure of magical healing) after he imparts a few brave and sad words.  This is something that creeps me out about these modules (and much high fantasy), the actions of the heroes must be lubricated with the horrible deaths of a large number of faceless, nameless peasant types to show the gravity of the situation and to provide proper motivation.  In my own experience playing D&D players are a pretty callous lot when it comes to fictional persons, but not as callous as the Dragonlance modules.  

It’s totally unnecessary and a slap in the face of player morality and agency to have a victim/mouthpiece who dies automatically no matter what players do.  The adventure is in no way harmed by the story advancing old man being unsaveable.  The most effect his survival will have on the game is to maybe provide the characters with a 0-level henchman.  This is a small thing but symbolic of an attitude that’s shot through the two Dragonlance modules I’ve read. The players can’t win at the small efforts of goodness or humanity they might choose to have their characters undertake, only the big epic adventure goals.
When I compare this with something in the new Old School, specifically an LOTFP product because LOTFP has a reputation for being gruesome and to some flirts with being the ‘bad D&D’ that Mazes and Monsters warned us all about, Dragonlance comes up short.  This is interesting because Dragonlance was conceived by a writer who I suspect is a very moral person, and some of its appeal to TSR undoubtedly came from the clear “good v. evil” lines drawn by Dragonlance.   Yet looking at Death Frost Doom (which is apparently getting a Zak Smith rewrite [hopefully redraw as well] and general improvement), known as one of LOTFP’s best products, a serious OSR experience and emblematic of the heavy metal, gore soaked LOTFP worldview, I don’t feel the same kind of twitchy moral repugnance that this one scene in Dragons of Flame gives me.  In Death Frost Doom there is an annoying old man at the bottom of Mt. Horrible, and every bit of raving lunatic warning he gives is basically correct.  Besides stinking, ranting and grabbing adventurers, holding them back from adventure, Zeke is a total pacifist who is trying to help.  Many parties end up killing him, because that’s the nature of the murderhobo mind, but the module never assumes that Zeke’s fate is foreordained for effect.  He might not even be around when the party stops by his creepy hut, he has his own plans that likely will lead to his death, and he’s unlikely to survive the coming apocalypse, but the module doesn’t kill Zeke.  Player choice, callousness, greed or bad decision making kill Zeke. 

Likewise, there is a heroic choice for many parties at the end of Death Frost Doom.  By the module's climax the party has released an undead army on the world, and is likely to be trapped inside the ancient tomb complex where thoroughly evil creature offers the best potential for escape.  The ‘good’ choice here is to turn the vampire general down, and go down fighting.  This is heroic, and a rare party might even fight their way free, yet the choice most adventurers take is to survive and release a greater danger onto the game world.   Dragonlance never allows this choice, it doesn’t allow the party to either save the lives the module deems insignificant or heroically lose the lives that the module deems valuable.  The two modules present similar apocalyptic scenarios, but for all its gore soaked Finnish umlaut ‘evil’, Death Frost Doom makes player decisions and judgments the moral locus in its world, allowing everything from doomed nobility to black-hearted evil (Some party has surely pledged themselves to serve the undead general?).  Dragonlance instead prevents certain kinds of good acts, punishes bad with death by endless encounters and forces the players into the high-fantasy heroic mold by making it the easiest and often only option, which both cheapens heroism and prevents players from having to say “Nope, there are some fictional acts that I just won’t do, even if it would benefit my fictional avatar.”

Back to Dragons of Flame.

Discovering the nearest town has been sacked the party can wander about, but it will be captured in an automatic encounter with two huge red dragons, and thrown into a slave caravan.  Likewise the party can head back to their former home base, Solace the Ewok village, which still remains somewhat intact and is occupied by Dragonmen.  It’s a bit of a catharsis for those who have seen the Star Wars Ewok TV shows to imagine the Ewok village burnt and destroyed, but that life is going on amongst the burnt stumps of the giant high fantasy tree town is a good metaphor and image for the world that the evil dragons are making.  In Solace programmed encounters will lead the party into a situation there where a former  1HD barmaid from DL-1 (now 3rd level thief and 4th level fighter, with a frying pan that is as effective as a longsword), will win the party’s hearts with fried potatoes before she gets them into trouble and captured.

All choices lead to the slave caravan, overseen by the hobgoblin boss who briefly appeared in DL-1.  The only thing I like in this part is the idea that the Dragon armies are not simply a plague of destruction, they are occupying areas and trying to turn the populace to their purposes as slaves or subjects.  Once in the slave caravan an important elf prince and random dude from the novels (who actually lacks plot immunity) get tossed into the cage cart with the party.  A set piece escape, which is not itself bad, follows as elves go all French Resistance and shoot up the slave caravan.  Personally it gets better if one thinks of the Elves as being Yugoslavian – because why are elves always French, and wouldn’t fantasy Tito be pretty awe inspiring – heck maybe they are Maoist elves, and Dragonlance is the Japanese occupation of China, not the Eastern Front. 

Either way, in Dragonlance the elves are not Tito’s partisans or Mao’s cadre – they are high fantasy elves, they live in the forest, protect blonde elf princesses and have a golden tower.  The elves ooze ancient nobility and sadness, but without any of the even vague weirdness that Tolkien would have implied. A kindly elf princess is introduced, but she is immediate kidnapped by dragon fait.  Elves tell of mines with slaves, and captive innocents, including the captive elven princess! Get aboard the Dragonlance Express, next stop heroism!  Strangely the module gives the players a ‘chance’ to refuse this quest.  If the party refuses the elves will be grumpy,noble and double-plus sad.  The elves will try, but will be wiped out in 2D12 game days as they lack plot immunity and the players can leave quietly where they will be ambushed every time they do anything by identical gangs of draconians “until they are dead”.  The GM can then fold his jerk arms and say “Never get out of the Boat”, because in Dragonlance if you don’t want to save princesses when the module says 'save princesses', you want to be dead.

DL-2 with all the player choice of a 90's video game
If the players decide not to die, they meet a special NPC, who is of course caught in a melee with dragonmen, but since he can’t die, because plot (he has to betray the party), a smart meta-gaming party would just sit back and watch him win the lopsided fight. Now the party is past the Dragonman rear gates, and there are native trolls, because fighting dragonmen is boring eventually.  How these obviously bloodthirsty to the point of stupidity trolls are alive is a mystery, why they are more sore at the party then at the dragonmen squatters on their ancestral troll bog is unfathomable.  Troll allies – who hasn’t wanted some since they saw a drawing of a D&D troll?  Dragonlance won’t give you the chance. There’s tiny tomb to go through and some standard tomb denizens after the troll ethnic cleansing.  The only good part of the tomb is the room with 250,000 GP in gold bars which are useless to the PCs, both because Dragonlance, and because by now the players should realize there’s an electric third rail that leads to death by endless ambush if they step away from the railroad to heroism for even a second.

Secret door into Dragonman mine fortress. Monsters never find secret doors, it’s just a rule.  In the mines the Dragonmen behave badly towards ladies, not super badly, but in a rude fashion at least.  The ladies suggest dressing up in drag to sneak up and free the miner men types because that’s how fortresses are invaded.  There’s an evil priest and a Red dragon with 88 HP (the red dragon maximum I think), there are hobgoblins.  The dragon likes children though so in the climactic ending scene, without aid from the PCs, red dragon No. 88 saves the children by attacking red dragon No. 2. Presumably at this point the party has an angry dragonman army following 800 tired out slave followers, including children on foot with little or no food, it’s a victory for good!

Fixing Dragons of Flame
While Dragons of Flame is worse than Dragons of Despair it does offer some interesting ideas of what the Dragon Army is like as an occupying force.  More Mongol Hoard then Roman Legions, they don’t salt the ground, they behave badly on an individual level and try to squeeze useful production out of their captives.

The GM now knows how to handle the character’s inevitable capture.  Slave Caravan and mines.  These are a decent thing to add to ones slowly growing map of Krinn burning.  Following the plan I decided on in reviewing Dragons of Despair, the towers/mine and other occupied lands become more areas on the hex map.  The Draconain plan progresses and as their front line armies move on, they bring in local auxiliaries in the form of hobgoblins. The party’s carefully constructed place in the world of occupied Krinn falls apart as the hobgoblins are really poor occupation troops and the Draconians wither now have the resources to hunt partisans or push untrustworthy human mercenaries (the party) off to the side.  The elves provide a refuge if the party can add to their fighting power, but the elves have an ideology as well.  Partisan Elves are pretty much jerks, high on the rightness of their cause, and intent on massacring the ‘collaborator humans’ that remain in Solace and destroying the mines (regardless of the fate of the human slaves there, as human slaves are war materials just as much as iron is).

So it’s hobgoblins and elves ruining any equilibrium the players may seek, and a danger of capture.  Lets make the trolls more interesting, because presumably Dragon’s aren’t really pro-troll and to the Draconians troll tribes are just less common stupider slave subjects.  This would help make Dragonlance interesting, alignment basically rewritten into ‘dragon’ and ‘not dragon’, with only holdovers like the elves unable to realize that their traditional gripes about chaotic good v. neutral evil are meaningless in the face of dragonized warfare

I really have less to say about Dragons of Flame, then about Dragons of Despair, as it’s a worse module. The railroading has taken on an ugly tone and there is less going on in Dragons of Flame because the module is even more narrowly focused on forcing player actions and creating a specific scenario.

4 comments:

  1. Sadly, it actually sounds like a pretty cool setting the way you describe it. Or at least, an interesting draconic paradigm squatting on a more generic fantasy setting. Would the game still be playable if the DM knocked off the rails and opened up the world? Or does everything depend on the straight and narrow road to the kingdom of Niles?

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    1. No Arnold, Dragonlance could make a heck of a sandbox, if you bumped up faction play (including Draconians as potential allies) and simply got rid of the rails. The dungeons are mostly decent enough even.

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  2. I hope you are planning to continue this series of reviews. I see DL2 as very much the nadir, with the later modules being more interesting.

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    1. Tom, it's possible, but since I find the writing style rather painful, it's not likely to be a regular feature. I'm also not sure how many times saying "file off the railroad bullshit and use this as a sandbox" is helpful.

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