plundering Dragonlance: whistling in the dark

Monday, August 12th, 2013
This entry is part 2 of 11 in the series dragonlance

I read a Dragonlance novel when I was a wee lad, and I didn’t think much of it (putting me on the other side of the gender divide, I guess). My memory is that Tanis spent a lot of time standing on battlements brooding about his half-elven nature, the kender was irritating, and Sturm was a big dull dud. Now, I loved knights acting on punctilious points of honor, so Sturm should have been right up my alley, but I couldn’t like him. Maybe it was the moustaches.

(Dragonlance experts: Did Tanis ever actually stand brooding on battlements? I have a very specific memory of battlements.)

Raistlin I liked, up to a point — and that point was True Neutral. I was a sanctimonious child and couldn’t really get into an evil antihero.

Recently I decided to reread Dragons of Autumn Twilight. I’m finding that I like it more now than I did as a kid. There are some things done well, and the writing isn’t as bad as I remember (or I’ve read a lot more bad writing in the meantime). As a novel, it’s decent. As D&D adventure material, though, it’s inspiring. Not surprising, since the first book is, I understand, basically a novelization of an adventure module.

Even if you’re not using the Dragonlance campaign setting, there are some pretty good DM tricks in Dragons of Autumn Twilight – just remember to file off the serial numbers. Chances are, at least one of your players read these books as kids.

I’ll probably write a couple of posts about Dragonlance tricks for non-Dragonlance campaigns. Here’s one:

goblin whistles

What are those sounds?” Goldmoon asked the knight as he came up to her.

“Goblin search parties,” Sturm answered. “Those whistles keep them in contact when they’re separated. They’re moving into the woods now.”

This is cool, and a little spooky. A DM could add some atmospheric dread, I think, by using whistles to indicate that the PCs are being hunted. It could either be used, with frightening effect, as the signature of a pack of some horrifying hunting monsters, or used, as here, to spice up the lowly goblin. It’d be best used repeatedly: you’ll get some tension out of the first escape scene punctuated by whistles, but a session or two later, when the PCs think they’re safe, and they hear that whistle again: that’s your payoff.

This trick would work best with a DM who could actually whistle. “You hear a whistle” doesn’t have the same effect.

plundering Dragonlance: how not to do dwarves

Friday, August 16th, 2013
This entry is part 1 of 11 in the series dragonlance

“Bah!” Flint snorted. “If a gully dwarf can open this, I can open it. Stand aside.” The dwarf elbowed everyone back, plunged his hand into the water, and heaved. There was a moment’s silence. Flint grunted, his face turned red. He stopped, straightened up with a gasp, then reached down and tried again. There wasn’t a creak. The door remained shut.

Dwarves are often treated without dignity. As far as I remember, Gimli wasn’t a comic-relief character in the Lord of the Rings books, but movie Gimli fared much worse. The repeated dwarf-tossing jokes in the movies had to be a low point of… well… anything. Just a universal low, low, low point.

Flint gets pretty much the same deal as Gimli. He actually gets tossed a couple of times during the course of Dragons of Autumn Twilight. He’s hilariously short. In his very first scene, much comic hay is made of the fact that he can’t see over people’s heads, and he has to ask his companions what’s going on!

As is ancient dwarven tradion, Flint has a phobia: as Gimli fears forests, Flint fears water. At one point, when he hears a lake is nearby, he actually runs in the other direction. He’s also allergic to horses. He can’t catch a break, travel-wise.

I wonder if Mr. T is a dwarf? Sure, he’s tall, but he’s burly, bearded, and has an irrational fear of a means of transportation that causes comic inconvenience to his party.

plundering Dragonlance: how to make first level characters seem awesome

Friday, August 23rd, 2013
This entry is part 4 of 11 in the series dragonlance

“Ast tasarak sinwalan krynawi,” Raistlin murmured, and then moved his right hand slowly in an arc parallel to the shore.

Tanis looked back toward land. One by one the goblins dropped their bows and toppled over. […]

“What did you do to them?” asked Tanis […].

“I put them to sleep,” Raistlin hissed through teeth that clicked together with the cold. “And now I must rest.” He sank back against the side of the boat.

Tanis looked at the mage. Raistin had, indeed, gained in power and skill.

OK, Raistlin had gained in power and skill since when? Exactly what level was Raistlin when Tanis used to adventure with him? Sleep is a FIRST LEVEL SPELL. If Raistlin wasn’t high enough level to put goblins to sleep, what was he casting back then? Cantrips?

Later on:

Caramon was even snoring. The kender remembered Raistlin’s sleep spell and figured that was what the draconians had used on his friends.

I guess every draconian is also an unusually promising student whose power frightens even the mages of the High Tower or whatever it is called.

plundering Dragonlance: the stag sturm can see

Friday, August 30th, 2013
This entry is part 3 of 11 in the series dragonlance

At one point in Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Sturm, wounded and weak, sees a white stag leading him into the forest. No one else can see the stag. This is worthy of imitation in a D&D game.

For one thing, the divine stag hunt is a great literature trope, and every D&D player should get to be a part of it at some point. Second, a lot can be done with the idea of a path that’s only visible to some people. My blogofholding buddy Rory’s campaign world has a desert that can only be crossed with a madman as your guide. I like the fact that, as with Sturm, only a damaged guide can see the path.

What about this for a dungeon: an invisible, branching path across a chasm: only characters who are at half hit points or less (bloodied in 4e) can see the path. Other characters must follow in the footsteps of their wounded allies, or risk falling into the chasm.

Sure, if people are willing to smack themselves with swords, everyone can bloody themselves and pick their way ably along the path. But when they reach the inevitable combat halfway along the bridge, it will be inconvenient to have everyone starting at half hit points. (Maybe the combatants are also invisible except to bloodied PCs?)

PCs might walk by such a path many times and never know it until they happen to get damaged by a dangerous encounter or hazard. Or they may have heard rumors that the Bloody Path only appears for those close to death, and may purposely seek it.

A path or guide might appear only to PCs suffering from other effects besides bloodied. Blind is an obvious one. Immobilized or paralyzed could be interesting. Sleepwalking could be fun.

plundering Dragonlance: fear is the shepherd

Friday, September 6th, 2013
This entry is part 6 of 11 in the series dragonlance

At one point in Dragons of Autumn Twilight, the heroes encounter a black dragon, and, under the influence of its fear aura, scatter like the comically low-level PCs that they are. Some of them make for a mysterious temple, in which they may face even more sinister threats.

Except they don’t. It turns out to be a Good temple filled with plot-advancing blessings. But there was an opportunity there to really put the screws to the players.

A dragon (or another monster, or a magical effect) that causes fear can be used to herd players in a direction that they really don’t want to go. Imagine if the heroes had peeked into the temple, and seen eldritch creepiness and wrongness of all sorts. As they try to leave, the dragon pops up. Characters who fail their saving throws are under movement constraints: their movement must take them farther from the dragon, if there is such a path available. Characters who pass their saving throw might still think it’s a good idea to move away from the dragon.

Movement away from the dragon inexorably draws the PCs closer to the entrance of the evil temple.

The really frustrating thing here is that the DM doesn’t move the PCs into the temple; they go themselves. Their options are limited to standing to face the dragon and entering the temple under their own power.

Here’s another fear-based DM trick inspired by the dragons of Dragons of Autumn Twilight:

So terrible, so agonized was the scream that Tanis dug his fingernails into his palms to keep from adding his own voice to that horrible wail and revealing himself to the dragon.

The PCs are hiding in the dark from a monster. (Maybe this is one of these encounters that is a little too tough to face head-on.) The monster has a fear-based attack that imposes penalties on the PCs: maybe attack penalties, maybe movement penalties.

The monster has another attack, used for locating cowering prey. It can attack the minds of anyone within a certain radius and make them scream in terror. It uses the scream to home in on its victim.

Here’s an odd note: in the original game module, we find this text: “The dragon wears a ring of darkness which projects up to a radius of 100′.” ON WHAT?

plundering Dragonlance: superstition and magic

Friday, September 13th, 2013
This entry is part 5 of 11 in the series dragonlance

“She steps on it when she gets close to the door and waves that thing.” The kender giggled. “She probably tripped it once, accidentally, while carrying the rat.”

This embarrassing gully-dwarves-are-racially-stupid comic relief might actually contain a useful NPC interaction and semi-puzzle.

Superstitious rituals can develop from unpredictable events. Socks worn while you pitch a no-hitter become your lucky socks. In the D&D world, a lot of superstition is true: those socks might actually be socks +1. But sometimes, maybe it’s still just superstition.

The peasants tell the PCs that in order to open the gate to the Well of Life, a true-hearted maiden must ride a cart backwards to the gate and then tap on it with an ash rod. Maybe, though, the gate only opens one time in 10, and the rest of the ritual developed through experimentation.

After the PCs quest for an ash rod and a true-hearted maiden, and then a truer-hearted maiden, and they still can’t get in, maybe the rogue will examine the gate and find that the mechanism includes a gear with 10 teeth, 9 of which are broken.

plundering Dragonlance: how old are these rotted furnishings?

Friday, September 20th, 2013
This entry is part 8 of 11 in the series dragonlance

In Dragons Of Autumn Twilight, the companions stumble into a bakery in a city which has been abandoned for 300 years. They get comically covered with flour (of course).

Is flour still good after 300 years? or has it totally rotted away? Can I really eat bread made from flour that was ground in 1713? That sounds awesome.

PCs are always adventuring in abandoned buildings, and so it’s useful to know stuff like the time-to-live of various household goods.

  • How long does flour, or other kitchen goods, last, and what does it turn into? (I don’t know about flour, but honey famously lasts forever.)
  • How long does it take copper to turn green? (about 20 years.)
  • If the bed’s canopy and bedclothes are “rotted”, how old does that make them? How old is the skeleton’s rusty sword? (Depends a lot on the water content of the environment.)

    Of course, a lot of this is for the amusement of the DM. Most of the time, no one will blink an eye if you have copper-colored copper in the 4000-year-old tomb. There’s always that one player out of a thousand, though, who will try to draw reasonable conclusions from environmental cues. “Hey, if no one has been in here since the last millenium, why are torches burning?”

    While we’re on the subject of traces of the past, here’s one of my favorite area descriptions from the game module:

    33. Kiri Valley
    The forest darkens and thickens beside an ancient trail. A cold, dry stillness hovers in the air, and the trees are knotted and bent. Everything seems to watch you. An evil wizard died here long ago. Only his essence remains.

    I don’t know how long essence remains vis a vis flour – I’m guessing longer. I like how this area isn’t important to the plot, but we still get a little throwaway hook to hang DM creativity on. What exactly is the wizard’s essence? It might just manifest as a cold, dry stillness, or it might manifest as a ranting ghost. The detail is there for the DM to expand or ignore.

  • plundering Dragonlance: don’t steal these names

    Friday, September 27th, 2013
    This entry is part 7 of 11 in the series dragonlance

    “Highbulp!” Bupu glared at him. “Highbulp Phudge I. The great.”

    There are no great insights to be drawn from this passage from Dragons of Autumn Twilight, except maybe one about how not to do comic names in fantasy. Don’t have a name be a misspelled version of a comically non-genre word.

    I first ran across this advice in the 2e Campaign Sourcebook: “Keep the names consistent with the world. Fearless Phred, may seem cute initially, and generate a few chuckles, but eventually, the joke wears thin and the DM is stuck with an NPC who has a stupid name. Regardless of Fearless Phred’s prowess or power, the PCs will never take him seriously.”

    Let’s overlook the obvious point that such a name is dumb, dumb and stupid. The other issue is that D&D is a spoken game. When spoken, Phudge sounds like Fudge. There’s really no reason to spell it differently except to amuse the DM.

    Another comic-misspelling offender: R. A. Salvatore, who has a dwarf named Pikel. (Doesn’t he also have another dwarf with a stupid name, like Hiyaa or Kaboom or something? What is it with people and their rank contempt for dwarves?)

    Also, how do Weis and Hickman think “Highbulp Phudge I” is pronounced? “Highbulp Phudge The First”? “Highbulp Phudge One?”

    plundering Dragonlance: odd dialogue

    Friday, October 4th, 2013
    This entry is part 10 of 11 in the series dragonlance

    “No, Tas.” [Tanis] grabbed hold of the kender and dragged him back down the ladder. “The fighters go first- Sturm and Caramon. Then the rest.”

    Reading Dragons of Autumn Twilight, I’m finding a lot of inspiring ideas, and also a lot of “what not to do”s. In the latter column is this passage, which has characters use the class name “fighters”. This shows an odd knowledge of game mechanics from within the fiction. Sure, “fighter” is kind of a generic term, and maybe it’s not being used game mechanically. But we all know that it is.

    The other odd thing is that it’s being used wrong. If you take a look at the character sheets printed in the Dragons of Despair module, you’ll find that Sturm, Caramon, Tanis and Flint are all fighters.

    I can see Tanis forgetting to put himself on the list: you always forget to count yourself. But what possible reason is there to exclude Flint? More unconscious dwarf racism, is what it is.

    “Powerfully built, he was dressed in the black robes of a cleric of the Queen of Darkness. A black and gold cape fluttered around him. His face was hidden by a hideous horned mask fashioned in black and gold to resemble the” [etc etc]

    This overwritten passage is actually from dialogue. An elf is telling a story about a cleric he saw.

    This is not a natural way to tell a story. For humans, anyway. From this passage, I infer that the characteristic of Dragonlance elves is that they overuse adjectives in conversation. If I ever play in a Dragonlance game, I’ll try to work that in.

    For the record, Dragonlance elves are also liars:

    [To Tika:] “We will provide what we can,” Gilthanas said, “though I doubt if we have a full set of armor small enough.”

    Gilthanas took the helm and shield from the elf. “I have yet to thank you for saving my life in the Inn,” he said to Tika. “Accept these. They are my mother’s ceremonial armor, dating back to the time of the Kinslayer wars. These would have gone to my sister…”

    In Passage 1, Gilthanas (an elf) is claiming that he doesn’t have any armor small enough for Tika (a female human).

    In passage 2, Gilthanas apparently HAS some armor that would fit Tika.

    Putting aside his convenient selective memory, how is Tika too small for any elf armor? There are clearly female warriors among the elves. Female humans are smaller than female elves? Or is Tika a midget? She can’t be, because we all know that in the world of Dragonlance, short people are comic relief (Flint, Tasslehoff, gully dwarves).

    There’s only one possibility. We already know that Dragonlance elves love adjectives. Now we also know that male elves alternately lie and tell the truth, and that female elves are big and burly. Now we’re getting closer to a setting that I’d play!

    plundering Dragonlance: destroy the treasure

    Friday, October 11th, 2013
    This entry is part 9 of 11 in the series dragonlance

    Raistlin clutched at him. “Help me find the spellbook!” he hissed. “Who cares about that?” Caramon roared, reaching for his brother. “I’ll get you out of here!” Raistlin’s mouth twisted so in fury and frustration that he could not speak. He dropped to his knees and began to search frantically through the pile of treasure. Caramon tried to draw him away, but Raistlin shoved him back with his frail hand.

    Inevitably, your PCs are going to defeat an enemy inside an eldritch temple. And inevitably, that temple will start to collapse.

    That’s when the PCs spy the treasure. (Or the area that they need to search – perhaps multiple times – to find the treasure.)

    The DM should give the PCs all the information they need to make agonizing choices: what their chance of search success is, and the dangers of tarrying for an extra round or two to search.

    I did this when my PCs fought Tiamat. They flew into Tiamat’s mouth and fought a pitched battle against one of her aspects on Tiamat’s beating heart. Tiamat offered knowledge to the wizard: a library containing every spell ever, if the wizard would waste actions during the battle to read them. The library was still there when Tiamat died and her body begain to collapse. The wizard resisted the temptation to search for books, but the ranger HAD to have one of Tiamat’s heads as a souvenir.