DL1 Dragons of Despair: A Trip Into Nostalgia

Guest Writer: James Brady
The Dragonlance series came out early in my gaming career, so I was still pretty new when I played DL1. Because of this, some of what I have to say about it is out of a sense of nostalgia. I’ll try to get that out of the way right at the beginning.
I was there when my nextdoor neighbor got DL1 in the mail. He had told me about the background, what little we knew at any rate. Gaming news was tough to come by in smalltown America back then. But I waited with bated breath as he opened it and tore through the cellophane wrapper. He read through it and showed me some of the illustrations. I know; a cardinal sin between a DM and a player, but we were kids. Hahah. The plan was to get the group together Friday night and push through in one go if possible. A commendable goal. Things didn’t work out that way, but that’s a story for another time…
Dragons of Despair cover art © Wizards of the Coast

Dragons of Despair cover art © Wizards of the Coast

So we waited, the five of us. Alan, our DM started by handing out pregenerated character sheets. What’s this? This was new to me! “These are the characters from the stories, and you’ll be playing them. So I’ll give you some background.”

“Wait!” exclaimed Lee, my little brother. “Goldmoon? I have to play a girl?”
“That’s right. You’ll have to butch it up a little, princess.”
(Much laughter from the rest of us and scornful looks from my little brother)
Ah, nostalgia.
The Characters:
Tasselhoff Burrfoot: a thief more by nature than by trade. He really just found it on the ground and was keeping it safe for you… As a Kender, he literally knows no fear. Smartass. Trouble-maker. Fun to play if you live long enough!
Tanis: a fighter. Being half-elven, he is outcast by both elves, who look down on him as being tainted by human blood, and humans, who fear him for being half elf. He is the common sense of the group.
Caramon: a fighter. He is the muscle of the group. A bit hot-headed at times, but with a heart of gold and a swordarm of iron. He is very protective of his twin brother who is physically frail and weak.
Raistlin: a magic-user. He is Caramon’s twin brother, and never were two twins more dissimilar! While frail and weak, his magicks may one day be stuff of legend. Bitter. Sarcastic. He both loves and resents his twin brother, while also looking down on him as a lumbering hulk.
Goldmoon: a cleric. A member of a tribe of barbarians from the plains. She introduces the other characters to the backstory for this adventure and is the spark that sets the fire. Gentle and kind.
Riverwind: a ranger. A member of the same tribe as Goldmoon and her lover. He is a man of few words. Often sullen at times. He distrusts these other “civilized” folk.
Sturm Brightblade: a fighter. Possibly the last Knight of Solamnia and the Order of the Rose. “My honor is my life!”
Flint Fireforge: a fighter. The party’s only dwarf. They’ll only need the one…
The Setting:
On the world of Krynn, dragons are gone; knights are gone; the gods are gone; magic is gone. In fact, merely speaking of any of these things as if they may have ever existed can get one branded a heretic, possibly even burned alive.
Our characters have spent several years seeking out anybody with healing power. But it seems as though the last of the old gods’ clerics are gone from the world as well. Until one day, a barbarian couple comes into town and turns the world on its collective ear when the female, Goldmoon, heals an injured man…The heros’ quest is over!
Or has it just begun? Goldmoon and her partner Riverwind tell their new compatriots a story out of legend. A story of the old gods and of magic. And of dragons! And so, suiting up once more, our party sets off into realms of peril. The road before them is full of monsters, both human and non-human.
Dragons Of Despair is heavy on story and character developement. Everything about the module itself speaks of quality. The physical materials are heavy duty paper. The writing is professional (as it should be since its author, Tracy Hickman, is a professional author) and the details are well fleshed out. The illustrations are topnotch. It tells the story of the return of dragons to a world that has not seen dragons in living memory. This is high fantasy as it aught to be!
Now as a seasoned gamer, the rub lies here: IT tells the story. In much of my gaming since, the DM and the players tell the story using the framework given in the module, and no two gaming sessions turn out alike. Not so with the DL Series. You, as the players or as the DM, are merely vessels through which the story is told. That’s fine if you are aware of it going in. But you should be aware that you are an actor on a stage telling the author’s story. If you enjoy that sort of thing, then Dragons Of Despair, as well as its eleven sequels, is your cup of tea!
As the story unfolds, there are clear goals the players must achieve. NPCs are in place both to help and to hinder the players in these goals, and it all unfolds in a very novel-like fashion. As such, it is a lot of fun and excitement, with plenty of opportunity to role-play the heck out of the characters you’ve been given (there are eight of them) Because of this, however, the game plays out in a very linear fashion. If it is played as given, that is…
Now here is an idea that some DMs may wish to take under advisement: Have the players generate their own characters and then you play the pregens as NPCs. This will give more of a feeling of ownership to the players. I’ve found this works very well with intelligent players (and most of them are) who like a feeling that it is THEY who are making the story. Just a thought for throwing in some variety.
No matter how you play it, have fun. Wade right in and get wet. This is Advanced Dungeons & Dragons play on a high art level. Paint your part of the masterpiece!
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