The first Dragonlance novels gave Dungeons & Dragons a new dimension

The first Dragonlance novels gave Dungeons & Dragons a new dimension

The Internet is choked with nostalgia for the youth-oriented entertainments of the not-too-distant past: Tumblr blogs regurgitating images of half-forgotten toys; YouTube compilations of long-lost TV-show intros; countless blogs playing “Remember when?” with movies and video games whose rose-colored recollections aren’t always properly earned. With Memory WipeThe A.V. Club takes a look at some of our formative favorites with clearer eyes and asks that all-important question: Were they really that great to begin with?

When I was 12, just one thing kept me from being the most devout Dungeons & Dragons player the world had ever known: I had never actually played Dungeons & Dragons.

I turned 12 in 1984, and by then, D&D had already snuck into the national consciousness like a Halfling thief. Today we like to think the whole geek-gone-mainstream phenomenon is something new, born of 21st-century superhero blockbusters and the runaway success of Game Of Thrones. Not so. Granted, when D&D—the template for institutional geekdom—became a household name in the early ’80s, it wasn’t exactly positive. In 1982, the made-for-TV movie Mazes And Monsters (starring a young, wizard-robe-rocking Tom Hanks) exploited the fears that Reagan’s conservative America had about D&D—which surely had to be some kind of Satanic cult, just look at it. As with heavy metal circa 1982, demonizing D&D only made kids want it more. As if to spit in the face of all the fearmongers, only cutely, CBS debuted its short-lived, Saturday morning cartoon adaption of D&D in 1983. Even at that young age I realized that the D&D cartoon was a candy-coated version of the game, which indeed was kind of dark and demonic-looking. But hey, I was a preteen. I still had a sweet tooth.

It just so happened that 1982 was the year I bought my first D&D Basic Set. Two years later I’d already moved on to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, or AD&D. Thusly matriculated, I created a range of new characters and adventures, equally at ease with being either a player or a dungeon master. Only I wasn’t either of those, really. I had the manuals. I had the miniatures. I had the dice. I had the graph paper. Lord knows I had the inclination to sit indoors for hours on end with my nose buried in a book, stewing in my own imagination. What I didn’t have, though, were any friends to play D&D with.

Released in 1984, Dragons Of Autumn Twilight is the first installment of The Dragonlance Chronicles Trilogy, and by extension the first D&D-related novel. Thirty years later, it’s still widely read, as are the dozens of D&D novels written by various authors since then. The original trilogy was penned by the team of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, who’d developed the Dragonlance setting as part of a game module they’d created—and extensively play-tested—for D&D’s parent company, TSR. It was Weis and Hickman who pressed TSR into letting them write novels based on their Dragonlance milieu. Looking back, it may seem like an obvious next step in the merchandising of a rising brand. But if CBS’ D&D cartoon had already taught hardcore fans anything, it was that sometimes a bad adaptation is worse than no adaptation at all.

There was another, more fundamental concern about Dragonlance Chronicles. D&D was based on role-playing and interactivity. Sure, there were rules and systems, not to mention ready-made adventures that lazy DMs could use instead of making up their own. For the most part, though, the sequence of events—the plot—of a D&D campaign was collaborative. What was the point of reading a prose version of what amounted to someone else’s D&D game?

As it turns out, the books filled a very real void. I wasn’t the only person out there who was creating characters in solitude every weekend, geekier than the geekiest geek. I bought Dragons Of Autumn Twilight right when it came out, and I snatched up the second and third books, Dragons Of Winter Night and Dragons Of Spring Dawning, the instant they hit the shelves. There was no game shop in the small Florida town where I lived; I bought all my D&D supplies, dice and all, at the tiny bookstore in the our tiny mall, and the novels were conveniently stocked right next to the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide. Of course, you didn’t have to be a lonely, friendless follower of D&D to love The Dragonlance Chronicles. But it helped.

I recently reread the original Dragonlance trilogy for the first time in over 25 years. In that intervening quarter-century, I’d become even more immersed in fantasy fiction. My reading preferences now lean more toward George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series—the source of the aforementioned Game Of Thrones—as well as other contemporary fantasists like Joe Abercrombie, Patrick Rothfuss, and Scott Lynch. But I still regularly revisit the old-school canon, from Fritz Leiber to Michael Moorcock. And while The Dragonlance Chronicles doesn’t really rank up there in terms of quality or significance, they’re a hell of a lot better in hindsight than I thought they’d be.

The premise didn’t surprise me as a kid, and doesn’t surprise me now. It isn’t meant to. In a nutshell, the books follow a group of adventurers—led by a half-elf fighter named Tanis, a man torn between his human and elven heritages, because of course he would have to be—who become enmeshed in a battle against the forces of evil striving to take over the dual-mooned, pseudo-medieval world of Krynn and rule it as only the forces of evil could.

The clichés keep on coming. In Dragons Of Autumn Twilight, the adventurers meet up in a tavern—even if it is a tavern that’s nestled in the branches of a giant tree, something my 12-year-old self thought was super cool. (My 42-year-old self agrees, although my days of getting drunk way up high up in a tree are starting to wind down.) Orcs, in the Tolkien tradition, are draconian. As in A Song Of Ice And Fire, there are old gods and new gods that vaguely mirror the conflict between paganism and Christianity in ye olde Europe—and dragons are creatures thought to have disappeared, only maybe the reports of their extinction have been greatly exaggerated. The treetop town where that homey tavern is located is called Solace, and that sums up how on-the-nose Weis and Hickman render every detail of their story.

But those details are rich, and they work. There’s a cohesive, stick-to-your-ribs quality to Krynn that compensates for its flagrant lack of originality. This was, after all, a book based on an existing intellectual property—and D&D borrowed heavily from other sources in the first place, up to and including the aforementioned Tolkein, Leiber, and Moorcock. What could have been an echo chamber of tired tropes becomes an amplification of them. Much has been made over the years about the fact that Weis has a darker sensibility as a writer, and Hickman a lighter one. That’s evident in the series most compelling characters, the twin brothers Caramon and Raistlin. Caramon is a large, powerful, goodhearted, slightly childlike warrior; Raistlin is a sickly, complicated, mysterious, morally iffy magician. The dynamic feels like it’s lifted straight from Thor and Loki, and that archetypal resonance is what Weis and Hickman are obviously shooting for. And almost entirely hit.

Charismatic characters abound. The barmaid-turned-swordswoman Tika—whose no-nonsense fierceness and agency, not to mention her job as a waitress, reminded me of my mom when I was a kid—gets a compelling story arc. It isn’t exactly as evolved in terms of feminism as it could be, but is still miles ahead of many popular fantasy novels of the era. And Tasslehoff Burrfoot, the group’s token member of the hobbit-like kender race, winds up being a source of real pathos after a rocky start as a kleptomaniac punchline. But let’s not kid ourselves. Bad boys always attract us the most, and Raistlin is Dragonlance’s sarcastic, scene-stealing son of a bitch. Having traded, in essence, his humanity for power, the mage with the hourglass-shaped pupils broods and takes cheap shots at everyone, only occasionally showing a glimmer of compassion to the downtrodden—in particular, the simpleminded gully dwarf Bupu, of whom Raistlin is ferociously protective.

The plot is pushed along in a hurry, but that’s a good thing, even when centaurs, unicorns, and pegasi are all flung at the reader in the span of 15 pages, reducing their mythic impact to items on a checklist. But the character development across the three books in the trilogy—especially Raistlin’s—is handled at just the right pace. Considering that a huge portion of fantasy novels I read back then had little to no character development at all, it made Raistlin, the eerie, complicated protagonist-bordering-on-antagonist who didn’t do much to hide his contempt for people and lust for power, that much more dimensional.

I won’t lie: I related to Raistlin. At the age of 12 I was skinny, withdrawn, and sarcastic, and I had a streak of misanthropy in me that may or may not have had something to do with my failure to find anyone to play D&D with me. As much as I love how geek culture has grown in visibility over the past few years, the D&D-centric episodes shows like Freaks And Geeks and Community only convey a fraction of what it felt like for me in 1984, reading Dragonlance partly because it was the only way I could interface—albeit one-sidedly—with others who loved D&D as much as I did.

Before I make that sound more pathetic than I mean to, let me state for the record that I eventually did find other kids to play D&D with on a regular basis, even if it wasn’t until I moved to Colorado and got into high school in 1986. (I still play tabletop RPGs with those same friends from high school, only we’ve grown up and moved on to pretending to be superheroes, like any sensible adult.) The second Dragonlance trilogy, Dragonlance Legends, was published that year—and while I haven’t reread them since, I remember liking them even more than Chronicles, probably because they focused far more intently on Raistlin, who had clearly already become Dragonlance’s breakout star. As soon as I had people to play D&D with, though, reading D&D-based novels seemed redundant, and maybe a little more obsessively geeky than I felt comfortable with. Which is really saying something.

Dragonlance is a bit outmoded when stacked against, say, A Song Of Ice And Fire, but it hasn’t been forgotten. Every time I talk with someone who was into fantasy in the ’80s, I discover another zealous member of Team Raistlin. A feature-length, animated adaptation, Dragonlance: Dragons Of Autumn Twilight, came out in 2008; it went direct to video, and for good reason. It’s terrible. Not even the voice-acting talents of Kiefer Sutherland and Lucy Lawless can save its shoddy, out-of-date animation and flat storytelling, which isn’t much of a step above the ’80s D&D cartoon. And a lot less sweet.

Earlier this year, iO9’s Lauren Davis listed her reasons why Dragonlance should become the next major fantasy-film franchise. There are some legal hurdles that may prevent that from happening any time soon, but mostly it’s Dragonlance’s own insular appeal that might keep it from ever seeing the Guillermo Del Toro or HBO treatment. Not that it matters. The books remain, and they’re still relatively good. And just as it was 30 years ago, playing D&D to enjoy them is strictly optional.

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