Monday, March 26, 2018

DragonLance Chronicles: Dragons of Winter Night #3

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DragonLance Chronicles: Dragons of Winter Night #3

The ’50 Shades of Grey’ of Fantasy Literature

"The Ninth Head that Couldn’t Die”
Story – Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman
Adaption Script – Andrew Dabb
Penciller – Steve Kurth
Colorist – Nei Ruffino
Letterer – Brian J. Crowley
Editor– Mark Powers
November 2006

This review will be late.

There’s no other way around it. This review will not come out on time. Likely it won’t even come out the week it is started. I have plenty to say about Weis and Hickman’s DragonLance book series. Not to mention that this comic, based upon the second book in the first series, has 48 pages and most of them (44) NOT advertisements.

But there’s another reason, too. The book series gives me tired head.

It didn’t always. Right after devouring the Amber books in the wake of getting my college degree, I started in on TSR’s book series. DragonLance was available at the public library. I plunged in with both feet and read all six of those first books set in the world of Krynn. They were “Summer beach reads.”

Get this: they happened at a time that I was SO INTO reading that book two (or maybe it was three) had this glaring, slap in the face part that so annoyed me YET I didn’t drop the series after getting past it. It was a “take you out of the story moment” that requires a bit of setup to understand. Give me a bit of rambling and I’ll get to it.

First off, the books are little better than what I allude to in the sub-head: 50 Shades of Grey. They are slightly better written, I mean at least Weis and Hickman own a thesaurus, but no better in creating arc or suspense or proper climaxes. Not those kind of climaxes. The reason for that is because Weis and Hickman developed the story based upon actual game play from their D&D group's adventures in the world of Krynn.

That’s a horrible way to write something. D&D gameplay is one thing and writing novels is something else. Novel writing should include timing and development of motivations. It should be structured within the writer’s head, not based on arbitrary rolls of a twenty-sided dice. If a thing happens in a novel, it should be meant to happen owing to plot/character action/themes/metaphor/etc, not some weird chance based upon a character taking too much damage or something just as screwed up.

That thing I mentioned that bothered me? One of the characters is explaining to another how they got away from this encounter that took place between books that the audience didn’t see. Likely they didn’t see it because it was a bunch of mindless hack and slash. Character A says something like “I would have died, but someone said it was divine intervention that saved me.” Divine intervention is a Dungeon Master breaking the rules of D&D to keep a character alive who should rightfully be dead given their rolls.

It was dumb to have a character state that. Dumb for the authors to feel they had to include it. Characters in a book are there at the AUTHOR’s whim anyway. They exist to tell the author’s story. If there is a reason for them to die, you kill them. If they become uninteresting or have nothing else to add about a given plot or theme, you silence them. They are part of the clay you are using to sculpt your piece of artwork. You don’t leave stray bits of them attached that aren’t necessary.

D&D is a game. In it, if your character makes poor choices or rolls, they can be killed in situations. They may have storylines that are left unfinished or be working toward goals that they never make it too. That’s all fine and good. It’s a game with storytelling elements, not the other way around.

That’s why basing a story taken so word-for-word from play sessions is a bad idea. You dilute both mediums, forcing characters down paths that work toward climaxes you as the DM need to happen for your story to complete itself in a rational, logical way, ignoring all the other paths your characters might want to travel down. OR the opposite happens and you end up with a story that doesn’t have well-defined arcs, themes, tone, or character development. A jagged road for your reader that twists in ways that seem unnatural, spends too much time on unimportant details while the main thrust of the storyline appear at random and are gone just as quickly.

The first three DragonLance Chronicles do just that. It’s been years since I read them and I primarily was interested in the world Tracy Hickman had created for the AD&D system. Hickman came up with a place where dragons had fought a war between good and evil in the distant past, with the humanoid races serving as both fodder and as mounted warriors, sitting astride the great beasts. That was eons ago and now we have a new conflict as evil dragons reappear in the world, aided by a mysterious undiscovered race of draconian-human hybrids. The entire world seeks the ancient powers of the dragon orbs and the mythical dragonlances that will control or destroy the evil dragons.

Oh, and Kinder! I wanted to find out more about Kinder, the race added specifically for this campaign setting. Kinder are smaller than humans, yet bigger than dwarves and have the emotional attitude of a young child. They are all kleptos, immature, and prone to getting into trouble. Kinder sounded like fun. I hoped to get a good feel for them through the Dragonlance novels.

What I didn’t expect was the story to have this many main characters…

Ten! It has ten main characters. And before you start drawing comparisons between Dragonlance Chronicles and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, DON’T. Tolkien has character arcs for every single one of his people that matter in the context of the story and world they inhabit. Not to mention every single side-character and anyone else we meet along the way. And we care about them all. The companions in Dragonlance don’t work that way and there are moments where we realize certain characters don’t interest us at all.

The standouts in the first series are Tasslehoff the Kinder and our pair of polar opposite brothers; evil mage Raistlin Majere and chaotic good barbarian Caramon Majere. The second Chronicles is vastly more enjoyable because it focuses on a conflict between these two brothers and cuts out all the extraneous other characters.

As for where this book takes place in the timeline of the story? Not completely sure. As I remember it, there was a bunch of running around trying to convince various tribes of people to work together to stop the evil dragons, including elvish communities and Knights of Solamnia. Which is basically the same story as Lord of the Rings if you replaced Sauron/Saruman with versions of the dragon villain from The Hobbit.

But the books never generated the needed synergy to feel authentically grand or imposing, no matter how many characters or crisis points Hickman and Weis threw in. It felt as small as people playing a game on paper and just as disposable. We will wander through this issue, which appeared at random in the crapbox, and I will hit some of the high points. At 48 pages, you can tell this is a massive undertaking. There were four of these that covered the second book in the trilogy and much of the comics still feel like filler. I’ll hit a few plot updates that I feel are relevant and move through quickly.

We begin with the companions split into two parties searching for the legendary Dragon Orbs, which are relics that can control dragons. Both parties find one, but currently the team headed up by Laurana has run into the worst bit of trouble, so the issue kicks off with her. Laurana’s team stole a Dragon Orb from the Qualinesti elves. Their king is Laurana’s father. But daughter or not, they WILL be getting back that orb.

So this band has to run, which would be okay except they have two knights in full plate armor and a dwarf with stubby little legs with them. And their pursuers are all forest elves. Doesn’t look good. 

I mean both their situation and the art. There is something a bit crude in the pencil-work or inking on all the faces that just messes with me. Specifically, they seem unnaturally flat and the eyes dead. Also the backgrounds don’t feel correctly proportioned. Take the way the trees look in that third panel as Flint stands near the edge of a cliff. The angle looks all wrong and stuff. Perhaps it is just that Nei Ruffino’s colors covering over Steve Kurth’s pencils doesn’t mesh well. Either that or Kurth just isn’t as polished here. I’m not sure, but I don’t like the graphics throughout the book. I’ll point out the places of extreme dislike as we go through.

Anyway, this group is in hot water. Some infighting among the group starts because the only confirmed Knight of Solamnia, this dick named Derek, thinks Strum Brightblade shouldn’t be a full knight and wants to attack the group following them rather than tromp around in his heavy plate armor anymore. Because these are Laurana’s people, they decide to split up into two groups so that one group can get away with the Dragon Orb while the other leads the elvish pursuers on a merry chase. 

Strum goes with dick Derek while the elf of a different tribe, Silvara, leads the others to a hidden place known only to her people where they will be safe from the pursuing elvish forces. This feels less like good plotting and more like DM shenanigans.

On the way up the mountain, two characters who we care absolutely nothing about start to fall in love. This would be Laurana’s brother elf Gilthanas and Silvara who…yah know, I have no fricken idea where Silvara got picked up or how the group met her. That is one problem with the books – lots of side characters who you meet briefly and supposed to care about immediately.

Which leads to much manufactured character drama.

Like this bit where Laurana wakes up to hear her brother profess her love and wish to marry Silvara, who then starts crying (or perhaps silver is flowing from her eyes, who can tell with art like this?). And that last look from Laurana says that she knows secrets about Silvara that means that things will definitely not be alright.

Because the next night Silvara leads them to this bridge (with no handrails) over a smoking pit of sulfur that Silvara states the MUST cross because they have been summoned and then sets the sulfur on fire to make it HARDER to cross. And note here that the dwarf, who typically has a lower center of gravity and racially works in mine shafts, was having second thoughts about crossing the damn thing BEFORE you set it on fire…I’m just saying that tossing a torch into it didn’t make your point any easier.

They DO cross though because the flames reveal the mountain is actually the Tomb of Huma, a Knight of Solamnia who road dragons and did awesome shit decades (centuries?) ago. So I guess points back to Silvara for lighting up the lake like that.

Pointing out the faces in that top panel are all pretty much high school doodle-on-social-studies-notebook quality. Ugh, so nasty looking.

They all go inside. Tasslehoff, the kinder, says Strum would have loved to have seen this, and then he gets warned not to steal things or fall in holes because he’s like a hyperactive seven-year-old. And then things get a little batshit crazy.

Silvara, who claimed her people built this tomb, casts a sleep spell on everyone and starts talking to herself like she’s gone nutso. She goes on about how she has sent the Orb away from this place but can’t bring herself to kill the companions because she LURVS Gilthanas so much…and these aren’t even main characters in the book is all I’m saying. So much crap goes on in this.

The kinder is the only one not affected by the sleep spell, so he tosses himself down the hole rather than…oh, I don’t know? Knock out the crazy elf who lead you all here and then cast a spell on everyone? Wouldn’t that be prudent? She has her back to you and you’re a thief/rogue – you do the math on what should come next. 

But no. We throw ourselves down a hole of unknown drop without a rope. Prepare to take 1d8 worth of damage for every 10 feet fallen.

The DM decides to be lenient to the only character capable of saving everyone not just by allowing him to survive the fall and discover the dragon tapestry, …

…but also, by sending in the DM Ex Machina, Fizban the wizard. Fizban is supposed to be like Gandalf: wise, all-knowing, and a bit of a mischief maker. But unlike his LotR look-alike, Fizban never feels like a real character and receives no personal moments to round out his appearances to move the plot along.

In fact, adventure-wise, for most of the running length of these books the plot felt very on-a-rail. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed playing D&D games where the end results were set before the start of the campaign. Yet this was supposed to come from Weis and Hickman’s actual RPG sessions. And the books were turned into modules, if I remember correctly. I’ve never read them and never wanted to. Given how the plot of the books made certain actions necessary to rally Krynn behind the companions, the modules must have been very closed-ended.

Fizban takes Tas back up the hole and breaks Silvara’s spell. Everyone awakens while he is chewing her out for “walking the world in another body, meddling in the affairs of men” which sounds a bit pot calling kettle black. Anyway, Laurana asks Fizban why he isn’t dead, since the last time the companions saw him…something, something…and he appeared to have perished. 

That’s not a great answer.

Then the DM tells them what they have to do next before having the NPC disappear again after moving the plot along and helping people who couldn’t make a saving throw against a simple sleep spell. 

Oh, and he nabs Tas to take along with him because taking him makes the group 50% less interesting. Flint and Laurana explain my feelings about this turn of events. 

Moving on…Silvara reveals she is a silver dragon (all metals are good, all colors are evil) by having the group use a torch to cast her shadow on the wall…

…and as a dragon she swore some kind of oath to not act against the evil dragons but before we can get to that Gilanthas has his Oscar moment…

...after which Silvara explains that the good dragons are hamstrung by some oath and all she could do was to work at uniting the elvish tribes, which she sucked at. But now that the companions have made it to the tomb, she can give the silver-armed guy THIS:

ROLL CREDITS! God, how I wish this was the end.

But it’s not. The good news is that we are now following the two people who have the best arc in both chronicles series, the brothers Majere. Caramon, barbarian warrior, and Raistlin, the mage who IS slowly turning evil make up all of Chronicles II’s major conflicts. Here, however they are a part of Tanis Half-Elven’s troop. The group is stranded in a town and have no money for food.

And since they won’t accept food without payment, Raistlin does some cool parlor tricks with his magic.

If that were all, I would have been fine. Raistlin solves their issue of lodging for the night and fills their bellies. Instead, we have what amounts to weeks of this:

And this…

…which is pure bull plop. While their friends are risking their lives stealing Dragon Orbs from their families, the other group has turned into a traveling performing troop, doing whole acts in front of crowds of people. I don’t remember in LotRs the part where Sam and Frodo took a few weeks off of their quest to Mount Doom in Mordor to hone their skills at Filk-singing. Yeah, because stuff like that tends to make the audience lose any feeling of urgency in your quest.

This was dumb in the novel as well. As many problems as I had with the story, it is a testament to how much I missed reading novels that I finished both Chronicles trilogies. They are true “beach-read” quality at best. You know, the books you don’t care if they wash out to sea or fill up with sand.

Realizing this part of the story has gotten boring, the book turns to Strum’s struggle. Dick Derek has formal accused him of being a coward, something that would strip Strum of his knighthood if proven. The Knights of Solmania hold a trial and Strum looks to be handily defended.

And we get a good dramatic moment out of all this pomp, which the book desperately needs at this point. The judges are out to get Strum too, having allied themselves with Derek’s family.

In the end, they both get what they wanted…sorta.

Although, we learn in a bit that the cost one of Strum’s friends a pledge that could cost his own knighthood, should Strum not meet the Order’s idea of bravery and honor.

This is the best part of this issue and reminds me that not all of Weis and Hickman’s stories were characters running around and being moved like chess pieces on a board. They had a few honest emotional moments and those were what kept me hanging on.

And while those knights prepare to attack some place or some such in the next issue which I don’t have, Raistlin takes time off performing to get sucked into a dragon orb.

He learns a few things about how they work, but the orb also tempts him with forbidden knowledge…

…and Raistlin is not one to say no to hidden knowledge. 

While the mage is passed out in his trailer, his brother is brushing off the affections of another of the companions. 

All because he has to be his brother’s strength. It doesn’t have a very happy ending, I can tell you that folks. It’s as ugly an ending as the art on Tika’s face here.

So Caramon leaves her and we switch over to Tas and Fizban arriving at meeting among the goodly races. The Qualinesti elves are there, as are the Knights of Solmania, and they are quite pissed that the Knights have shown up with their stolen Dragon Orb. A fight breaks out among ALL the tribe of men, elves and dwarves, so Tas decides to “break it up”…

And they proceed to run Tas through with about a dozen sword thrusts.

I wouldn’t argue with that, but instead Fizban starts talking (ulk! That FACE!)…

And while he does, something unseen hits the rock-boulder-alter thing behind him…

…which trumpets the arrival of the player characters who have figured out how to make more Dragonlances, weapons that do way more that 1d10 in damage, apparently. 

That’s where the 48-odd pages of story takes us, through a good chunk of the novel’s late middle. If you liked this, there were four books in this series and the other Chronicles books were serialized in comic form as well. Aside from the horrid art, the story is pretty much intact and receives a good treatment from what I remember. These aren’t breakthrough novels and they don’t really work as good ideas for modules. They do introduce the world of Krynn pretty well, although they don’t make me especially excited to journey there. They fair better than Spelljammer but not as good as Dark Sun, in my opinion.

I’m sure many thousands of Dragonlance players would disagree with that.

1 comment:

  1. During my days of playing AD&D, I loved the first trilogy of Dragonlance novels because they were exactly like reading a game in progress. You could almost hear the DM telling the players to roll a Dexterity check. I picked up a combined and annotated hardcover edition of the first Dragonlance Trilogy last year on the cheap at a flea market. . .a HUGE hunk of book! I quickly discovered that what I loved about it then I hated about it now. They are practically unreadable. I couldn't even get all the way through the second book. Thanks for another great review!


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