In 2012, Wizards announced that they would go back to releasing select items from the back catalog digitally again. As an old school D&D fan, I found this news quite exciting. I immediately made a wish list of favorites I wanted to see at dndclassics.com. Two items on this list, the original Dragonlance modules and the Mystara Gazetteer series, were nowhere to be found in all of 2013.
I was thoroughly tickled, then, when both of these series were included with the first new releases of the year. It looks like one Dragonlance module and one Gazetteer will be available for download each week, if the current trends hold. I have so far downloaded DL1 Dragons of Despair and GAZ1 The Grand Duchy of Karameikos. I thought I would share my initial thoughts on reading these iconic though dated classics through the eye of a post-4E Dungeon Master. I will cover Dragons of Despair in this post, with The Grand Duchy of Karameikos to come later.
First off, a caveat: I never actually played through the DL series, either as a player or a DM. I did pick up a copy of DL5, Dragons of Mystery, which was basically a sourcebook, during the heyday of my Dragonlance reading frenzy. I had always supposed that the adventures followed very closely with the events of the Chronicles trilogy. This supposition was backed up by research in the past decade or so. Many people across the community have been unkind to the DL series, painting the picture that it is as railroad-y as adventures get.
I was honestly surprised then, by my first readthrough. It is true that the major events from the first half of Dragons of Autumn Twilight are here. The party encounters Goldmoon and Riverwind at some point, and they are driven by the dragonarmies to the ruined city of Xak Tsaroth. But that is basically the only real railroading going on here. There is a lot of room for exploration, flexible encounters, and really more to do here than you might expect from reading the novel.
The city of Xak Tsaroth itself is an enormous dungeon, filled with hordes of draconians, potential gully dwarf allies, and of course a mighty black dragon. It is an interesting setting, different than the standard dungeon, yet it still has that vintage crawl feel. I particularly appreciated the design of Onyx, the dragon, who interacts with the party from the beginning instead of merely waiting in her lair to be slain.
Reading through DL1 was very enjoyable for me as a fan of the Dragonlance saga. While it is clearly a story-driven adventure, there is a good amount of leeway for the DM and freedom for the players. I am considering running the series myself, with a mixed group of some who have, and some who haven’t read the books. I think those who are familiar with the story would enjoy seeing it as a “what if” tale, especially if we used new characters. Those new to the setting would surely appreciate the epic nature of the saga. I am very much looking forward to picking up further releases in the series.
One last comment: it is quite shocking to see the stats for eight different PCs all fit on one page (front and back). It was originally a page intended to be cut out and passed to the players. Imagine being able to note a PCs relevant stats and abilities all on one small piece of paper, with only equipment and a background paragraph on the reverse side! How things have changed.