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Vaguely Related Review: The DragonLance “Age of Mortals Campaign” Trilogy

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By Nelson Schneider - 07/20/14 at 04:17 PM CT

May 2014 saw the end of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign I started running in August 2009. It was great to get back to the tabletop for some gaming after a ridiculously long hiatus that saw me bereft of this type of experience for almost all of the 7 years I spent as a college undergrad and grad student. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to keep playing tabletop games, it was simply a matter of impracticality… and the glaring fact that everyone I played tabletop games with had either moved to another state or otherwise dropped off the face of the Earth after high school. I graduated high school in 1997, so there was no TwitFace or Big Brother to help us keep tabs on each other. It was as if my admittedly-tiny social circle was there one day and gone the next.

Likewise, my beloved DragonLance Campaign Setting was also going through quite a few growing pains at exactly the same time my tabletop gaming group was in crisis. In 1996, TSR, in a desperate attempt to return to profitability, decided that (thanks to competitor Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: The Gathering) cards were the hot new gameplay mechanic and used DragonLance as the guinea pig for the introduction of the new SAGA System. At the time it felt like my world was crashing down all around me. Not only was the SAGA System completely awful when compared side-by-side with AD&D, the new DragonLance novel story arc that was kicked into motion with “The Second Generation” and “Dragons of Summer Flame” was horrible as well. Things didn’t improve over time, as Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman (the original DragonLance creators and authors) bowed out after those last two (likely compulsory) novels and allowed a series of upstart authors (like Jean Rabe) run rampant with their world, ruining almost everything that made the setting a grand pinnacle of achievement in pre-packaged genre fiction.

For years, DragonLance, the fantasy series that actually made my middle-school self enjoy reading for the first time ever, was dead to me. I stopped following new releases for both the novels (since I didn’t want to read anything that followed the storyline of the “Dragons of a New Age” trilogy) and for the gaming supplements (since nobody in their right mind should ever want to play a SAGA System game). As a high-school senior and college undergrad, I just didn’t have time to keep tabs on stuff I used to love that had flushed itself so deeply down the toilet. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I discovered that TSR actually produced a series of four AD&D/SAGA cross-compatible supplements for the “new” DragonLance, as well as a SAGA System DragonLance bestiary that was written less like a supplement for an abominable game system and more like a short novel. Of course, I never would have been cruising Amazon Marketplace in search of out-of-print DragonLance products had D&D 3.x Edition not returned the setting to most of its former glory.

After years of disastrous mismanagement (during which time I had taken my extremely sparse tabletop gaming into a fully homebrewed campaign setting based on the Classical Greek literature I had become absorbed by during college), Wizards of the Coast brought Weis and Hickman back on board to pen the “War of Souls” trilogy, which more or less retconned every bad decision out of the DragonLance setting while maintaining the collateral damage as a monument to what can happen when fanfiction becomes canon. With Weis and Hickman righting the ship with regard to the novels, a fresh batch of young upstart game designers set about the task of creating playable DragonLance content for the new version of D&D.

Naturally, the first thing anyone should do when converting DragonLance to a new system is to create an updated adaption of the original series of 14 modules that were novelized as “The DragonLance Chronicles” trilogy. Thus a new trilogy of fat modules, named closely for the individual novels, appeared.

But DragonLance fans had been without any significant new content for a very, VERY long time. Something new was in order – something new that would lay open the “present” world of the DragonLance setting to players who had been roused from their long torpor by reading the “War of Souls” novels. That something was the DragonLance “Age of Mortals Campaign,” written by a new face in the tabletop games and novels industry (at the time), Cam Banks.

The “Age of Mortals Campaign” actually has a short prologue included at the back of the “DragonLance Campaign Setting” sourcebook for 3.5 Edition. Carrying on from there, the “Age of Mortals Campaign” consists of three increasingly-thick modules: “Key of Destiny,” “Spectre of Sorrows,” and “Price of Courage,” with one volume released annually between 2004 and 2006. My reconvened tabletop gaming group – consisting of fellow MeltedJoystick staffer, Chris, and erstwhile MeltedJoystick videographer, Matt – began playing through this beefy story in August 2009 (not that long after the release of the final volume – what’s a few years?), and just finished up in May 2014. We took so long, unfortunately, due to scheduling issues that only allowed us to gather for a game once a month, whereas in the halcyon days of my AD&D DragonLance campaign in high school, gaming was a weekly affair. Of course, we, like most DragonLance fans (or DragonLance neophytes in Matt’s case) are getting older. For a series that began in the 1980s, it’s no surprise that the aging fanbase doesn’t have the time to commit to it that they used to. Indeed, it seems that the production of any and all new DragonLance media has been stalled for several years. If the “Age of Mortals Campaign” was to serve as the setting’s last hurrah, Mr. Banks certainly did a solid job of it.

Presentation
As a tabletop game instead of a videogame, the presentation largely revolves around the physical quality of the books, the quality of the included maps, the care taken in editing the final product, etc. Unfortunately, this aspect of the product is where the “Age of Mortals Campaign” really falls down. There are a number of maps, but none of them are pull-outs and most of them are confusing to read. The lamination layer on the third volume has a nasty tendency to peel off, and there are numerous typos and omissions, not to mention numerous errant page number references. I don’t think this overall feeling of a lack of polish has anything to do with the “Age of Mortals Campaign,” specifically, or Cam Bank’s body of work. I have found that ALL of the 3.x Edition DragonLance sourcebooks, which Wizards of the Coast outsourced to Sovereign Press/Margaret Weis Productions, are equally lacking in editorialship. This lack of polish in all DragonLance 3.x books leads me to believe that this essentially “Indie” production outfit didn’t have the budget to hire experienced editors or layout designers, nor the time to redo things that turned out badly.

Story
The “Age of Mortals Campaign” picks up right after the “War of Souls” trilogy of novels. The world of Krynn has been returned to more-or-less proper working order, the gods and magic have returned to the people after decades of absence and/or wonkiness, the Dark Queen of the evil deities has been slain (finally putting a stop to her world-botching machinations), Paladine – leader of the good deities – has stepped down into mortality in order to maintain the balance, and the mortal races of the world are set upon resolving their own political disasters while the gods of light and darkness squabble over who will ascend to the top of the good and evil pantheons.

This backdrop sets the stage for a group of player-created heroes to find themselves abruptly mixed-up in the workings of this divine power struggle along with a secret society of assassins who serve a powerful mortal master. It is interesting that the “Age of Mortals Campaign” is one of the only major DragonLance story arcs that doesn’t provide a roster pre-generated characters with pre-written backstories for the players to chose from. Because of this (and because I wanted to mix things up and keep the game a little bit weird), all three of the player characters (technically, these modules are for 4-6 characters, but with only three players, we had to make due) had their races and classes randomly assigned. Thus we ended up with a Thanoi Warrior, whom I named Garum (he didn’t stay a Warrior for long, but ended up as a conglomeration of prestige classes and became the party’s de-facto merchant and golem fanatic); a Troll Cleric of Chislev, whom Matt named Timaeus; and a Tinker Gnome Sorcerer, whom Chris named (highly abbreviated) Slipstream. The dice were kind to use and gave us a well-balanced party of Tank/Healer/DPS (in “World of Warcraft” terms).

The main narrative of the “Age of Mortals Campaign” is a world-spanning trip that leads the party of characters from a small desert frontier town called Pashim, all across the continent of Ansalon in a meandering loop before coming to a significant forking point in the city of Kalaman. Up until Kalaman, the narrative is very linear and doesn’t provide the players or DM with a lot of information about extraneous activities the party might want to do. This linearity dominates the first two volumes and the first chapter of the third volume. The rest of the chapters in the third volume, however, can be tackled in any order of the players’ choosing and take place in far-flung locations both on and off the planet Krynn.

As a result of the story’s linearity and the time windows the DM must keep track of in the non-linear parts, the entire experience feels very urgent, almost to the point of rushing the characters to take action when they really need to take some time to research spells or craft some magic items for themselves. At the same time, this sense of urgency can be considered a good thing, as having a human mind (as the DM) running the show in an adaptive manner forces the party to deal with the consequences of dawdling or taking too many sidetracks that are traditionally absent from videogame RPGs, which actively encourage players to ignore the main story in favor of puttering around, essentially freezing time for the player’s benefit.

As the Dungeon Master, I didn’t find the “Age of Mortals Campaign” to be particularly easy to run. Aside from the editorial issues mentioned above, I found that each chapter in the three volumes included far too much information that I found irrelevant and far too little information that I would have liked. For example, each chapter that takes place in a new city provides the DM with a short history of the city and its surrounding area. This kind of information is something the players will NEVER see, and should be easy enough to find in a separate sourcebook (that is, if the sourcebooks weren’t woefully incomplete) with a simple cross-reference to a volume and page. Important non-player characters (NPCs), however, get brief write-ups, painfully detailed 3.x-style stat blocks, but absolutely zero information about their personalities… which makes it very difficult to role-play them. As a result of this lack of NPC detail, my group was surprised to find that random, unimportant NPCs and characters that I ad-libbed or made-up seemed far more interesting and integral to the story than actually-important characters that ended up getting hand-waved into the background. Sure, there are a few encounters with famous characters from the DragonLance Saga, like Lord Toede the hobgoblin, where my knowledge of the novels helped me flesh-out the characters, but for a new DM who hasn’t read over 100 DragonLance novels, I feel like running this series well would be impossible.

I was very pleased, however, that Cam Banks drew from a wide variety of old AD&D and SAGA sourcebooks when creating story elements for the “Age of Mortals Campaign.” Some of the story elements and characters that I initially thought were ass-pulls or retcons turned out, after a bit of online research, to be extremely minor parts of older books and game materials that I had either not read yet or had forgotten about. This attention to the setting’s history reveals that the author truly cared about what he was writing and wasn’t just doing it for a freelance paycheck.

Overall, the three volumes of the “Age of Mortals Campaign” are a long, slow burn that doesn’t really catch fire until the final volume. Throughout the first two volumes, the players are essentially yanked around like a dog on a chain without knowing who their enemies are, nor who is pulling the strings. The final volume, which finally coughs up the big reveals, also provides a classic DragonLance style randomizer that allows for one of four different ending sequences (of course, these differences only really affect the final chapter of the final volume). This series of modules provides a long, involved story that will keep both the players and the DM guessing about what will happen all the way until the end (provided they can remember what happened session to session).

Gameplay
Since the “Age of Mortals Campaign” is a D&D 3.5 Edition set of books, anyone who has played any form of 3.x should know roughly what to expect from the gameplay. There is a constant stream of tactical battles, as well as plenty of options for stealth, magic, and straight-up knowledge to provide players with advantages outside of combat.

I have two main issues, however, with the way the gameplay in the “Age of Mortals Campaign” is balanced:

First, while there are a few difficulty spikes, most of the enemy encounters are fairly easy. 3.x D&D never quite managed to figure out that a party that can handily defeat 5 weak goblins can just as easily obliterate 100 equally-weak goblins. Thus the “Age of Mortals Campaign” is filled with enemy encounters that only meet their Challenge Rating via sheer numbers. The more challenging encounters with boss-type enemies are also frequently hamstrung by the game system’s obsession with the Power Attack Feat. This Feat was reworked in Pathfinder, but in 3.5, it allowed players and enemies to take massive To Hit penalties in order to gain equally massive damage bonuses. Since most enemy stat blocks in the “Age of Mortals Campaign” had boss monsters taking their maximum Power Attack, I constantly had to recalculate their stats to REMOVE Power Attack so they would have a snowball’s chance in the Abyss of hitting anything.

Second, the final volume, “Price of Courage,” introduces a hideously complex Faction System that allows the players’ party to gain/lose reputation with a number of organizations across the continent of Ansalon based on their actions. Reading this section gave me a headache, and I simply rolled my eyes at the irony of the sidebar that appears at the end of the Factions and Intrigue section titled, ‘Isn’t this too complicated?’ Yes, the Faction System is too complicated. Fortunately, Matt expressed an interest in setting up his character, Timaeus the Troll, as the leader of a mercenary army. Thus the Faction System was killed and ‘Titan’s Fölly’ was born. Instead of doing… whatever nonsense was detailed in the Factions and Intrigue section, I allowed the party to directly recruit for this army, required them to procure funding for this army, and replaced two of the intermediate chapters in the final volume (which had timed out due to the party being elsewhere when major events occurred) with mass-combat operations using the Pathfinder compatible “Warpath” sourcebook. The results of this change were far closer to the army-scale operations in the very first series of DragonLance modules and ended up working quite well, despite requiring a hideous amount of prep-work to setup.

Overall
The DragonLance “Age of Mortals Campaign” trilogy provides the one and only adventure for D&D 3.x Edition players in the up-to-date world of Krynn. It’s a well-written, but slow-burning narrative that scrimps on details where they are needed and provides unnecessary info-dumps when they are not, yet still manages to remain engaging and somewhat unpredictable to the very end. Unlike the original DragonLance “War of the Lance” campaign, this series of modules doesn’t have a set of companion novels, so we’ll never know what the official canon storyline is, but with the future of the setting in question, I suppose that doesn’t really matter. I was just glad to be able to jump back into my favorite fantasy franchise and see it returned to its former glory, even if the books aren’t exactly perfect, and the gameplay isn’t exactly balanced.

Presentation: 2/5
Story: 4/5
Gameplay: 4.5/5
Overall (not an average): 4/5

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