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Reviews of 'Dragonlance Classics 15th Anniversary Edition'

Dragonlance Classics 15th Anniversary Edition

by Steve Miller & Steven 'Stan!' Brown
DLC - Dragonlance Classics, Volume 4


Reviews of 'Dragonlance Classics 15th Anniversary Edition'

Here are the visitor reviews we have of Dragonlance Classics 15th Anniversary Edition. For more information about this title, please visit the item detail page.


Reviewer: Matthew L. Martin

Rating: Stars

Retrospective:

Twenty-five years ago, when Dave Arneson, Gary Gygax, and friends were launching the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game, my parents were dating steadily and a few months away from getting engaged.

Fifteen years ago, when DL1 Dragons of Despair was released to begin the DRAGONLANCE Saga, I was just finishing up preschool and heavily into Star Wars and Masters of the Universe.

Ten years ago, as DRAGONLANCE was in the midst of succeeding admirably as a novel line and trying to save the game line with Taladas, a couple of new friends of mine mentioned these novels they'd been reading and that they thought I'd like, with specific reference to the character of Raistlin. After some cajoling, I convinced one of them to lend me Dragons of Winter Night, which I swiftly devoured, and followed up with Dragons of Spring Dawning. Those two books, some of the first fantasy novels I'd ever read, set me off on a near-fanatical interest in DRAGONLANCE. I got Dragons of Autumn Twilight for Christmas, Test of the Twins and War of the Twins for my birthday that next January, and more DL books and comics as the months passed. In the summer of 1991, though, I'd grown disappointed with more and more of the books I read, as they seemed to lack what attracted me to the saga in the first place. After picking up Kindred Spirits, I drifted out of DRAGONLANCE fandom.

Three years ago, as I left Rochester Community College for Coe College, both DRAGONLANCE and my interest in it were about to hit a revival. I'd only bought four DL products between 1991 and 1996--Leaves from the Inn of the Last Home, The Second Generation, The History of Dragonlance, and Dragons of Summer Flame--but this new 'Fifth Age', with a new take on the setting and revolutionary new system, sounded interesting. Thus, I kept a close eye out for the boxed set and novel, picking them up about two days after I arrived at my new school. The Fifth Age box fired my imagination; although I haven't gotten around to running a DL campaign yet, I quickly became one of the staunchest supporters of the Fifth Age and the SAGA System, and once again a hardcore fan of DRAGONLANCE in general.

Now, as DRAGONLANCE prepares for what looks to be another major change in the forthcoming War of Souls, and I graduate from college and prepare to enter the work force (as well as pondering how much longer I want to keep up with official DL material and remain an active fan), we receive Dragonlance Classics 15th Anniversary Edition (hereafter DLC15A), which is intended to return to the 'old days' and retell the story that started it all and that hooked so many of us, while adding room for each group to expand that story and make it their own.

How well does it do?

Review:

I'm not going to do my typical chapter-by-chapter breakdown; there's just too much here to do it that way. I'll do a general look at the sections of the book, though.

We begin with the well-known and loved Authors' Foreword, in which the two authors do a general retrospective of where DRAGONLANCE started from, how it's lasted fifteen years, and why they decided to take this approach for a celebration of that anniversary. They also take a moment to look forward to the thirtieth anniversary of the saga, which I thought was a nice way to bring it full circle. As we've come to expect, the Foreword gives us insight into the motives and desires of those who worked on the project, and in this case, we also get a nice look back at the Saga. I found it touching and inspiring, but I'm a sentimental sort.

We also get "Reflections from the River of Time", where a lot of the original design staff--from Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman to Mike Breault, Bruce Nesmith, and Dennis Kauth--share some of their recollections of designing that classic series. Some interesting details--such as the origins of Krynn's gods and of Rakath the mummy--are revealed therein, as well as some puns and jokes, such as "Froggylance" and "Dragonlunch".

Following that, the Table of Contents, and the "Canticle of the Dragon" (a nice touch, that), we have an Introduction, which provides information and advice on running the campaign. Some of this stuff is familiar, while other information is new. It can be divided into two sections: mechanical advice and game-mastering advice. The former involves the random encounters, magic guidelines, and advancement rules. I must say, I was impressed with the random encounters in this product--instead of simple 'here's another draconian to beat up' (although some encounters like that are present, I believe), many of them add flavor or story elements to the adventure. The guidelines for using SAGA for pre-Second Cataclysm magic were sparse and somewhat disappointing, but useable with a touch of work. Goldmoon might provide a bit of trouble, since there are no spell lists provided for her. It shouldn't prove too hard to work out, especially for fans with knowledge of the Saga or AD&D, but perhaps some guidelines should be placed in Legends of the Lance or online. The advancement rules feel a little slow, but I'm sure they were checked in playtesting, and since there doesn't appear to be as much combat in these modules as in the originals, it's not as much a concern.

The second part of the Introduction deals with running the game. Much of this is familiar from DL5 Dragons of Mystery, but new elements and tones have been added. Both provide advice for using the Chosen Ones or new heroes, but where DL5 strongly discouraged the players creating new champions, DLC15A subtly encourages it, suggesting it may reduce predictability and keep the campaign alive longer. The famous advice on obscure death reappears, and we receive a brief history of the Innfellows, and a valuable piece of advice: "This is your DRAGONLANCE campaign. No matter what TSR may have printed about the world of Krynn, the only truth that matters in your campaign is the truth that is accepted by you, as the Narrator, and by the players in your game." This is a point Steve has been trying to hammer into our heads for years, and it's nice to seem him get it into print.

Following that, we receive the write-ups of the Chosen Ones in both AD&D and SAGA stats, as well as background and roleplaying information, in a format that will be familiar to SAGA fans. Most of the information is likewise familiar. The artwork is new, though, and quite nice. Dennis Cramer did some good nice pictures of our beloved heroes, although I'm not sure Caramon and Tasslehoff look quite right. Tanis and Gilthanas are particularly impressive, though, and Raistlin, Sturm, and Laurana are also highlights.

Then, we begin the adventure, a thirty-six chapter epic spanning the length and breadth of Ansalon and which allows the heroes to experience many of the encounters and areas that the original modules and Chronicles made famous, from Xak Tsaroth and Pax Tharkas, to the Tomb of Huma and the Silvanesti Nightmare, to the epic climax at the Temple of Darkness in Neraka.

Some changes have been made, though. Areas from both the novels and adventures have been removed, such as the Floating Tomb of Derkin, undersea Istar, and the Glitterpalace. Likewise, some characters are missing, most notably Eben Shatterstone and Berem Everman. Other locations and characters have their roles expanded and revamped; there's more time spent on Qualinesti, for example, new characters show up, such as the eccentric red dragon Firestorm, and Fizban, Kitiara, and Verminaard all get more to do here than in the originals.

Regarding those three, I have to say, I like what was done with them here. Fizban gets a somewhat larger role, and some really great lines. Verminaard becomes a personal nemesis to the party, menacing them in Pax Tharkas, Thorbardin, and the Silvanesti Nightmare (only as a dreamshadow in that last, though). The real kicker begins in Flotsam, where the heroes have a chance to contact "Sevil Rev" for information and get caught up in his schemes. If they travel with him to Neraka (and possibly even if they don't), he subtly begins to cause trouble for them, and at the climax of the campaign in the Temple of Darkness, he openly turns on the heroes, reveals himself as Verminaard, and confronts them one last time. Recurring nemeses and betrayals like that strike me as an excellent way to get the players personally involved in the campaign, and some of the staging (such as Verminaard's reappearance in Thorbardin, and his presence in the climactic scene) feels very impressive.

Kitiara, meanwhile, plays a less predictable and more friendly role than she ever has before. At several points during the campaign, the Chosen Ones run the risk of being captured by the dragonarmies. If so, they find themselves brought before the Blue Lady, who reveals herself to be Kitiara--and offers them a chance to join the Blue Dragonarmy and help bring order and peace to Ansalon. The module actually allows the heroes to accept this, and gives rough guidelines for how to handle it. They anger Kitiara if they refuse, but they wind up even worse off than they accept. This, IMHO, is the best use of Kitiara and her relationship to the Innfellows in the history of the DRAGONLANCE Saga, as an old friend who's gone over to the 'dark side' but who still holds respect for and loyalty to the heroes.

A return to this subplot plays out just as the heroes reach Neraka and prepare to enter the Temple of Darkness. Kitiara offers to help the party prevent the Dark Queen's return, as she's caught between Ariakas' anger and Soth's unholy lusts. This sets things up to proceed in a fashion similar to the end of Dragons of Spring Dawning . . . but this time, Kitiara intends to not only use the Chosen Ones to eliminate Ariakas, but then turn on them and let the Dragonqueen enter Krynn. This adds another layer to the climax, which I'll discuss more below.

There's also an appendix which includes statistics and brief background write-ups for the more important NPCs, stats for a lot of magical items, and notes on the dragons of the campaign. Guidelines for running dragons are provided, as well as an optional rule that feels so right I can't believe I didn't think of it before. The designers recommend that you only allow dragons to be killed by other dragons or by dragonlances. This doesn't mean the heroes can't hurt dragons, or even beat them--most of the dragons the heroes encounter are designed to retreat once they take a certain amount of damage. But it helps keep the image of dragons as near-invulnerable engines of destruction, and consequently makes the dragonlance that much more important. Combined monster charts are included on the inside covers; though lacking in detail in some cases, they provide a handy quick reference for monster stats.

A small map of Ansalon's included as a pullout; it's not terribly detailed, but it's nice-looking and gives the Narrator a feel for the course of the action. I like the smaller size, actually; it's not nearly as cumbersome as most TSR maps. The reverse provides a map of Pax Tharkas, which is clear, well laid-out, and nicely done.

Now, on to more general stuff.

Problems:

There are a couple of areas that I felt were problematic, most of them coming between the escape from Pax Tharkas and the entrance to Thorbardin. The system for determining the party's political influence feels too clunky and complicated; although it's probably lifted from DL3, I think it's the kind of thing that should have been revised. In addition, Skullcap and the encounter with Whisper feel underdeveloped. These are the only real major complaints I have after two read-throughs and a few scans of the module. There are some glitches and errata, but nothing that looks like it would terribly impede game play. Despite the handy 'Continuing the Saga' bits and the numerous guidelines for handling and substituting characters and events, it can be a little hard to follow everything sometimes, but that's nearly inevitable in a product this size.

High Points and Notes:

I've already hit some of the high points above, and I'm saving one more for the end of this review. Here are some others:

  • The quotes from Chronicles and other novels were well-selected, for the most part, but the new quotes, 'history' selections, and journal entries are just as interesting, if not more so, giving insights into the characters, locations, and events of the War of the Lance.
  • The adventure hooks and possible variations in this module stagger the imagination. While it's true that the heroes start in Solace and usually end in Neraka, they can travel to vast numbers of locations in the meantime. It's possible for the Chosen Ones to visit every location described in the adventure, to go straight from Qualinesti to Southern Ergoth, or to skip Xak Tsaroth and find the True Faith on the Plains of Dust, as just a few examples. Not only that, but numerous smaller encounters and locations provide possible side-quests and points to revisit. The one that particularly sticks in my mind is the town of Hopeful on the way to Tarsis, a small village that has been subverted by draconians and become an xenophobic and complacent cult enclave. I expect everyone will find a similar throwaway bit that captures their imagination or sparks the interest of their players.
  • The module accommodates both those who want to play Chronicles to the letter and those who want to step away from that story. The main flow of the campaign is similar to that trilogy, but rather distinct from it, but most chapters include a 'Playing the Novels' sidebar that tells the Narrator how to restructure things to keep closer to the three novels. I noticed that the sidebars don't always conform completely to Chronicles, but that appears to be in the interest of playability. The one glitch that comes to mind, in fact, is simply that Raistlin's placed in a few places he 'shouldn't be', and that appears to be to avoid taking a hero out of the campaign for the last quarter and then bringing him back.
  • Speaking of heroes and divergences from Chronicles, all eleven heroes are available for play at the beginning of the story. I like this, simply because it allows things to start flowing quickly and easily; you don't have to force players to wait a few sessions to bring in the character they want to play, or saddle them with one of the original eight when they really want to play Gilthanas, Laurana, or Tika.
  • I had the chance to acquire a copy of Dragonlance Classics Volume III shortly after I picked up DLC15A, and I've done some comparing of the Silvanesti section in this product with the reprint of DL10 Dragons of Dreams in the DLC3. The Nightmare can still be a challenge to run in this new version, but not nearly so much as it looks to be in the older one. The more confusing rules from the original are removed, the encounters have more 'punch' to them and more integration with the general story, and most of all, if I'm reading DLC15A right, the Narrator only has to run one group through the Nightmare, as opposed to five.
  • As we'd heard about earlier, characters introduced later in the Saga are retrofitted into the War of the Lance here. Dalamar makes a cameo if the heroes escape from Southern Ergoth; Ladine Dralathalas shows up and can play a significant role, even filling in for Alhana at some spots; Morgan di Kyre is leading Khurrish rebels; the PCs from the DLE series make a cameo appearance on the Plains of Dust; and Ariakan can be encountered in Neraka. The campaign even notes that in the wake of the Temple's destruction, the heroes have a chance to face Ariakan and, if they wish and are lucky, change the course of Ansalonian history.
  • Eben's removal doesn't seem to hurt the story. With Gilthanas available as a hero from the beginning, there's no real need to try and add confusion about who's the traitor. In addition, as Steve pointed out to me, Eben's linked to Berem, who's also been removed. That leads me to the last major part of this review . . .

The Climax:

The climax in the Temple of Darkness is my favorite part of this product, so much so that I'm saving coverage of it for the end of this review. There are two major elements to the climax: the clash between the Chosen Ones and the Dragon Highlords, and the confrontation with Takhisis, Queen of Darkness.

At the start, things flow pretty much as they do in Dragons of Spring Dawning, as Tanis or another hero (it should be noted that of all the pre-generated heroes, Tanis is probably the only one who could pull this off) approaches and attacks Ariakas, with the spellcasters in the party dispelling the Emperor's magical defenses. At that point, though, things start to change. Verminaard and Kitiara's lieutenant Ettel betray the heroes and Kit, Soth decides to claim Kitiara, and everything erupts into utter chaos. The Chosen Ones, Ettel and Verminaard, and all the Highlords (except Toede, who's hiding behind his throne) fight one another, while the Dark Lady's forces turn on the other dragonarmies in the background, and Lord Soth approaches Kitiara through the fray. It's a very impressive scene that feels like a climactic confrontation between Light and Darkness, Good and Evil.

And then, the gate begins to open . . .

For those of you who don't have the original modules, DL13 Dragons of Truth provided a choice of one of six ways to close the gate and prevent Takhisis from entering Ansalon. Five of those ways centered around NPCs. In addition to the one presented in the novels, there was also the possibility that Berem's gemstone had to be shattered on the Anvil of Might in the Temple to destroy the possibility of the gate being opened fully. Other options included Berem as Paladine or Fizban as Paladine being brought into the Temple to close the gate, or Waylorn being revealed as Huma and using a dragonlance to close the gate. Steve and Stan! went with the six option presented in the original modules, though.

Through all the chaos, which is complicated when Kitiara claims the Crown of Power and starts using its powers to force everyone to kneel before "the Empress of Ansalon", a hero has to take a dragonlance and enter the gate. Overcoming the magical and physical wards around the gate, as well as fear of Takhisis, who is approaching the portal rapidly in her Chromatic Dragon form, the hero pierces the gate with the dragonlance, closing it and sacrificing his or her own life for the sake of the world.

Evil turning upon itself. Good redeeming its own. The use of the dragonlance as the key to the struggle. And the importance of a single person's free choice to determine the fate of the world. This climax epitomizes many of the themes of the DRAGONLANCE Saga to me. Thank you and well done to Douglas Niles, Tracy Hickman, Margaret Weis, Stan!, and Steve Miller, who created the ingredients and brought them together here.

In any case, this review has gone on far too long, so I'd better wrap it up. This is quickly becoming one of my favorite DRAGONLANCE products ever, and has given me numerous new insights on the world, the characters, and the era, as well as sparking my imagination about them. Thank you very much to Stan!, Steve, Sue, Miranda and all the others who worked on this to make it a celebration of the entire Dragonlance saga to this point.


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