What is a Dragonlance-style adventure?

I was mostly DM'ing when DragonLance came out and when I was subjected to a Kinder PC playing as I was told a Kinder acted (stealing everything for fun), I stopped immediately.

So, um, what is a Dragonlance-style adventure?


  • Linear and railroady—are two words that come to mind immediately.

    *I loved the maps and much of the artwork
  • Some, not all, of the DragonLance modules were more railroaded than other modules at the time. They had a pre-supposed idea of "first the PCs do this, then they do that, then they do this".

    They were pretty salvagable compared to what later became the standard adventure format. But. They were among the first (not the very first) modules made this way.

    Before, modules were a place that you explored.
    Room A has this, room B has that, room C has this.

    After, it was a sequence of events.
    First they go to Cairo and they see this clue. Then they go to Madrid and they see this clue. Then they go to Moscow and fight the boss.

    Again, not every module in the DragonLance series was this way. And, a lot of people have conflated the linearness of the novels with the linearness of the modules.

    Still, when we talk about DragonLance-style adventure, what we mean — fairly or unfairly — is an adventure that has events arranged in a sequence, rather than spatially.
  • Ah, thanks!

    Yeah, I never ran any modules (not out of some egalitarian bent, just couldn't afford it, lol.
  • A lot of my thinking on Dragonlance is just me parroting Grognardia. And the comments section on that post is interesting too.
  • I'm beginning to understand that there was a version of ttrpg before Dragonlance that I know nothing about. I had barely ever heard of Dragonlance before joining this forum, but now I'm realizing it was the progenitor of the DnD tropes I'm most familiar with. I wish there was a dispassionate and scholarly history of the hobby, but for now I'll keep cobbling together memories of The Before Time from blogs.
  • I'm beginning to understand that there was a version of ttrpg before Dragonlance that I know nothing about. I had barely ever heard of Dragonlance before joining this forum, but now I'm realizing it was the progenitor of the DnD tropes I'm most familiar with. I wish there was a dispassionate and scholarly history of the hobby, but for now I'll keep cobbling together memories of The Before Time from blogs.
    That's pretty much the most important single fact to grasp about this topic. I think that this blind spot exists for rather many of us younger gamers who didn't live through the '80s changes in the creative nature of the hobby. The old style got so well buried that the hobby nowadays is full of people who simply cannot conceive of how little they know about one type of tabletop roleplaying - it's like thinking that you're good at music, except you don't even know that classical music exists. The fact that the very terminology of the hobby has been repurposed doesn't help things - you can think that you know what "Dungeons & Dragons" is, all without knowing that a rather different game used to be played under that title. The OSR people have had to essentially invent a new parallel terminology ("old school" and all that) just to be able to talk about the older era distinctively.

    Once you know that you don't know, like Socrates, you might have a shot at educating yourself a bit.
  • D&D modules tended to be site based. Other games rapidly experimented with other options.

    Sometimes the hybridized versions are hilariously goofy. I was looking at the 1st edition Top Secret intro module last weekend ( Sprechenhaltestelle) and was reminded of just how bad a fit a site based sandbox can be compared to other options for that game.
  • Any suggestions on where to look now I know I should be looking at all, Eero?
  • Any suggestions on where to look now I know I should be looking at all, Eero?
    Read the Keep on the Borderlands for an early product that tried to be newbie-friendly and captured much of the early vision of how to play the game.

    Read the original '74 D&D, connect it to its wargame context to your satisfaction.

    Read the first Dragonlance module, or something similar from the era, to discover the specific way in which new ideas were introduced to the hobby at large by then, a decade after the birth of the hobby.

    That seems like a fair starting point for figuring out the world of the ancients. I know that had I gotten the idea of reading the Keep on the Borderlands (why would I?), I could have gotten on top of this stuff a decade earlier than I did - it's really a quite good text in its context, I found it very easy to understand what it is trying to do, and why.

    Fill in the holes with ancillary reading, whatever you need - iterations of the Basic texts, AD&D 1st edition, third-party supplements, more adventure modules, magazine stuff from the era, memoirs of the people who were gaming then, OSR historical revisionism, Grognardia-style historical analysis...

    In fact, you could just skip all those primary sources and read Grognardia if you're just interested in the OSR "standard interpretation" of it all. There's other stuff at that blog as well, but I think it does a good job of presenting the history, interpretation and its own reasoning.
  • This is great, thank you :smile: I had never heard of Grognardia before 2097 linked them, and I probably would never have landed on Keep on the Borderlands. Between the two of you, I have my reading cut out for me now.
  • edited May 2018
    There are a few other good and concise/useful resources:


    (A summary of "the original D&D setting". It links to a Google doc PDF.)


    (A local thread linking to a "historical" account of early D&D play, in excellent detail.)


    (Another local thread; this one links to a modern, highly entertaining account of gamers rediscovering - or just discovering - "by the book" old-school play.)
  • I'm beginning to understand that there was a version of ttrpg before Dragonlance that I know nothing about. I had barely ever heard of Dragonlance before joining this forum, but now I'm realizing it was the progenitor of the DnD tropes I'm most familiar with. I wish there was a dispassionate and scholarly history of the hobby, but for now I'll keep cobbling together memories of The Before Time from blogs.
    I was introduced to D&D and the Dragonlance novels at the exact same time--that is, 1994, when I met my friend Adrian. I was 10 years old at the time. Accordingly, the Dragonlance novels shaped my interpretation of what D&D was supposed to be about. This was also the 2nd Edition era, and--if memory serves--the game texts largely reinforced the idea that D&D was about heroes going on epic quests to save the world. Or at least, they didn't disabuse me of the idea. ALL of the campaigns I DMed from age 10 through university were, in one way or another, predicated on the Dragonlance model.

    Interestingly, a year or two after I started playing (let's say age 12) I had the opportunity to play in a campaign DMed by my friend's uncle, using B2 Keep on the Borderlands and 1st Edition rules. I remember writing a two-page Code of Chivalry for my Paladin character (as recommended in the 2E Complete Paladin's Handbook, only to have him killed by a stirge on his first foray into the swamp the party was exploring. Needless to say, it was a bit of a play-culture shock. Despite the frustration of frequent character death, I enjoyed playing in this campaign for a couple of years.

    I discovered the OSR around the time that 4th Edition D&D came out, as I was looking for alternatives. At that time, I ran a campaign based on the aforementioned Keep on the Borderlands and using the 1983 Basic rules. Aside from any potential nostalgia, it was only by playing the older style of game again that I really came to understand its appeal, as well as how truly different it was from the kind of D&D I had (mostly) played up until that point in my life.

    Eero is spot on in recommending B2. I also recommend Matt Finch's Quick Primer for Old-School Gaming: http://www.lulu.com/items/volume_63/3019000/3019374/1/print/3019374.pdf
  • I'm a huge Dragonlance fan and I was line developer and lead for much of the 3rd edition D&D editions of the setting. Alongside Marvel it's one of the two things I allow myself to feel like an expert about.

    I'm often confronted by people about how the Dragonlance modules were a railroad, when there was a considerable amount of exploration and freedom of play in them. Even in the first module, Dragons of Despair, the quest is clearly laid out in front of the players, and there's a huge army approaching, so those exist as constraints. But the immediate setting around the town of Solace is fairly extensive; there are other settlements to visit, places to explore, options for which way to go. Ultimately you're supposed to go to the swamp where the great sunken city of Xak Tsaroth can be found, but once you're there it's a standard D&D dungeon. Sure there's a big dragon in it, and it comes out early on to take a swipe at your party and retreat to its lair, but I don't see much difference between this scenario and, say, the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (which similarly has a wilderness trek constrained by events to a big underground dungeon) or any of a number of other modules of the pre-DL classic era.

    Dragonlance made use of the idea of using certain timed or sequential events, which was a way to plan out encounters separately from the dungeon map. That was a neat innovation, but hardly new to DL - older modules had similar concepts. And the amazing art and isometric maps had already been tried out with modules like Rahasia for Basic D&D and the Desert of Desolation modules (which were Tracy & Laura's first forays into module writing, and presaged a lot of what would end up being common practice for DL and onward).

    Dragonlance also had pregenerated characters with names and identities, but, just like everything else, this wasn't new. The are pregenerated characters in a lot of older modules, though none with as much attention to back story and plot. But if you didn't know any differently, you'd have no less trouble choosing one of the Heroes of the Lance as you did grabbing one of the pregens from Tsojcanth: Cathartic (Female Human Cleric 7), or Ethelrede (Male Human Fighter 8), or Arocken (Female Human Ranger 6), or Weslocke (Male Elf Fighter 4/Magic-User 9).

    My point I guess is that the gloss and attention to draw people in with attractive art and maps, a compelling new setting and story, and a focus on the things the game was supposed to be about (dungeons and dragons) might have created a turning point for module publishing at TSR, but there's nothing in the DL modules that strikes such a renaissance in the game that wasn't immediately altered or overshadowed by the release some years later of 2nd edition.
  • I was out of gaming for the entire time Dragonlance was the big thing in D&D and have only the foggiest idea of what it was all about. For me D&D starts with the blue book and ends with AD&D and... that's about it.

    That said, there were some interesting posts about it in Grognardia which suggests that the "Hickman Revolution" had a lot to do with introducing story and narrative arcs into the culture of D&D. I would be interested to see what people think of this take!


    Of course, the same blog also has "How Dragonlance ruined everything"
  • Interesting, yeah, I never played or ran Modules because me and my friends barely had enough money for the books, much less the modules.

    Dragonlance seemed interesting, but my bad experience with a Kinder PC scared me off of it. I have heard good things about the books, but never got around to reading any of them.

    Cam, what you said makes sense. I wonder if something in the way it was written or the desire for a DL fan to reproduce the books sparked a DL DM to railroad maybe?
  • Cam, what you said makes sense. I wonder if something in the way it was written or the desire for a DL fan to reproduce the books sparked a DL DM to railroad maybe?
    I suggest reading them for yourself to determine whether the DL modules are just business as usual or not. They are well worth a read, very interesting as works of the craft - it is very obvious in them how much care and concern went into designing and writing them, in a way that's not always evident in TSR products. One of the items on my personal bucket list is to get to play the Dragonlance modules at some point with a patient and dedicated crew.

    In my judgement they are at the radically experimental edge of what would be normal for a '70s D&D adventure module, bold in what they demand and expect of a D&D group. They are definitely a transitional product, rather than a fully formed example of the railroad-plot culture, but I think it'd be misleading to insist that they aren't radical. They were not the first, but Dragonlance was easily the popular break-through product for a new, fresh way of roleplaying that is fundamentally at odds with the likes of the Keep on the Borderlands.
  • I don't really recommend the novels, unless you're interested in them from a "historical study" point of view. Otherwise, I would rate them as "not good enough to merit the time investment unless you are 13 and there's not much else you want to read at the library".
  • In fairness, that's almost exactly the age and situation in which I read them!
  • I concur about the novels with Airk, that is a precisely my assessment on them. Serial fodder, essentially. Not so absolutely awful that you couldn't appreciate anything in them, but entirely unremarkable in the wider context of world literature.

    Of course I, like many others in my age group, got Raistlined so hard as teenagers that you can't really expect us to be objective about it. I have much more emotional baggage about Dragonlance (and consequence ability to enjoy it, even if it is a rather self-aware enjoyment) than the quality of the novels justifies.

    I wouldn't want anybody to get the impression that our collective enchantment with Dragonlance is due to some perennial literary quality. It's just like He-Man and such, the nostalgia factor is what makes Dragonlance useful for those of us who got exposed as kids. If you need to pick up a gaming fantasy myth cycle for some reason or other anyway - to game with, for instance - then why not pick something like Dragonlance where the nostalgia factor will at least keep you entertained...

    The adventure modules, though: this judgment does not apply to them. These are different artistic mediums, and the fact that the literary elements are merely mediocre takes nothing away from the ambition of the gaming vision. I would even argue that being any more ambitious as literature would actively take away from Dragonlance as adventure modules - they are already very radical as is in what they expect the players to accomplish and experience, anything more would be straight out wishful thinking.
  • I read the Dragonlance novels before I read any fantasy, so I thought they were the shit. Weis and Hickman aren't what I would call hack writers either.

    Still, when I got exposed to real Tolkien, it did make me look back on Krynn as a ripoff. A Tolkienish ripoff that I still have fondness for, however.
  • I agree with @CamBanks and @Eero_Tuovinen here.

    I went back and re-read them years later I realized how radically they messed with the spatial-temporal ideology of D&D. They are pretty brilliant. A nice mix of event-based, location-based, and temporal challenges.
  • I'm not sure where the linear adventure format I have such a big problem with really originated. It's old for sure.

    Also, Danny, I already linked to that page & also encouraged people to read the comments — where we find you, Cam! You were on the ball♥
  • edited June 2018
    I think the key difference is that earlier modules had essentially had the tropes of Sword and Sorcery. You travel to a forgotten ruin, where you battle monsters to return with loot. Dragonlance wanted to do heroic fantasy, where the PCs were not Conan but Frodo and Gimli.

    Figuring out how to do that pulls you away from the sandbox settings that work well with S&S to something that resembles a 'story' more in that there is a plot, moments were PCs get to do something heroic etc.
  • I hold that map+encounter-table doesn’t have to mean location map and monster table. You could just as easily explore a relationship map (a la Block by Bloody Block) or a conspiracy map (a la Night’s Black Agents).

    Porte-Monstre-Trésor is my favorite model for GM/PC-split RPGs, it marries agency with ease-of-prep.

    Porte or nodes, places, times, as a frame to make the game into a “pull” rather than a “push” model, the PCs explore it at their own pace. Could be witnesses to visit in a Sherlock Holmes game for example.

    Monstre, obstacles and allies, give the place some life. The “dialog based” trap searching discussed elsewhere almost makes the environment itself into an NPC to talk to. And, “wandering” Monstres or NPCs will give life to exploration.

    Trésor, rewards and tools. Provide both motivation and increased agency (with the gold they can buy plate, or diamonds for their spells, with the xp they can cast more spells etc).

    I don’t think it’s limited to sword&sorcery.

    The GM/PC-split is well suited to exploration-based play (since it’s one of the few playstyles that benefit from hidden info) and exploration-based play is in turn well suited to a combo of map+encounter-table. I.e. nodes you explore by actively activating them (“rooms” you “visit”) and nodes you explore by letting them happen on the encounter table (by lingering in a region or just being lucky/unlucky).

    You need a sitch (“map”) and you need life (“encounter-table”). That’s the rocket fuel for exploration-based play.

    If you don’t want to do exploration-based play then you don’t really need a GM/PC split. You can play Before the Storm or Microscope or other epic story games. Arguably Chuubo’s since even though there is a HG, players are the ones that create their stories.

    There is this sorta hybrid model where the group sets up one situation or “scene”, with a question, add NPCs, location aspects etc etc, play that out, and then after it they set up a new one in the same way etc etc. When I first read MHR I was confused, I was like “What is this raily mess?” when reading the “Breakout” event. Rereading the book having this hybrid model in mind, I instead realize that the event is meant as a collection of resources to use when setting up scenes one at a time in this way. “Let’s do a scene on the landing deck. The question is: where do the heroes want go from here, and can they do so? I’ll add in Electro etc etc”

    This hybrid model where scenes are framed aggressively, as if it were a story game, but then played out mechanically, I think Fate and MHR is built on it but it took me a long time to wrap my head around. Arguably the intro adventure in Feng Shui (the old one) is similar. The games are intended to be action games and once the “playing pieces” are in place, the fun starts. With less consideration put on what goes on between these action scenes. You use the outcome of one to get ideas for setting up the next, together with ideas from the module. A set piece model.

    Compared to something like Barrowmaze where our PCs were putting up trip wires and glue for skeletons, the interaction wasn’t contained in atomic units.

    To bring it all together, the “Portes” in those games aren’t arranged in an player-explorable structure, there can’t be the “push”-model of players visiting nodes in the order they want. And the “Monstres” are packed in together with the “Portes” into framed “Scenes” instead of being decouplabe / “wandering”. (Ofc they are reusable for future scenes as long as they are alive.)

    In a game like MHR or Fate, you have lots of agency within the scene, with plenty of meaningful micro-choices to affect your outcomes (“do I activate my limit right now?” etc etc). But in a game with a P-M-T structure you also have agency with the structure as a whole, not just in invididual scenes. And arguably that’s more appealing to me. I dunno maybe I still have a lot to learn about the Framed-Scene model. I just love D&D so much T_T

    In the Framed-Scene model, it’s arguably a good thing to follow the suggestion in “Breakout” where it says “it’s best if a non-flying hero witness [name elided b/c spoilers] departure”. That’s what creates the most interesting next scene. In the P-M-T model it’s instead just… what happens happens. If a monster flies away, then whoever sees it sees it. That’s just how it is. Arguably more agential for exploration-based play.

  • Even for an exploration game, you don't need (one) GM. Hidden information, with the afferent prep, can be distributed amongst the players.
    The models you describe are that of a "pseudo world" (a relation map, agents) tailored for Drama (fantasy adventure mystery) and the hybrid model is that of a wargame / video game. I don't see how the relationship map model couldn't be added "on top" of the other.
  • Games where most participants control 1 character each are fun to me
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