With Shadow of the Dragon Queen it looks like the next stop on the 5E grand tour of Dungeons & Dragons settings is Krynn, the world of the Dragonlance Saga. Nothing could possibly be as exciting to me as the upcoming Planescape book, but Dragonlance – first appearing in 1984 – is also a favorite of mine. Although the setting has an extensively detailed past and future as well, the heart of the setting has always been the War of the Lance and the years immediately before and after it. During this Age of Despair, Krynn (or, more specifically, the continent of Ansalon) is something of a wreck. It has never really recovered from the Cataclysm, an event several hundred years ago where the gods destroyed the height of civilization for its hubris … and then left. It is a world where honorable orders of knights are viewed with scorn because they couldn’t prevent the Cataclysm, where there has been no divine magic for hundreds of years, and where the learning of arcane magic has been largely reduced to a single Tower of High Sorcery. But the evil god Takhisis – head of the dark pantheon and goddess of the chromatic dragons – has devised a scheme to return to the Krynn. Evil dragons have been seen in the world again. Sinister draconians have appeared to carry out her bidding (sorry, dragonborn, but you weren’t the original draconic humanoids). And five armies spread across the world to conquer in her name.
The story of the War of the Lance is one of the best-known in the history of Dungeons & Dragons (only R.A. Salavore’s Drizzt books have outsold Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance novels). The original novelization in the Chronicles trilogy (Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Dragons of Winter Night, and Dragons of Spring Dawning) is, in the humble opinion of your reviewer, the most impactful piece of Dungeons & Dragons fiction ever. The Companions – Tanis Half-Elven, Sturm Brightblade, Caramon and Raistlin Majere, Flint Fireforge, Goldmoon, Riverwind, and the kender Tasselhoff Burrfoot. It featured epic villains as well, from Kitiara Uth Matar to the epic death knight Lord Soth (and, of course, Takhisis herself). The Fizban of Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons is from Chronicles as well. All of these characters got their own prequel (and sometimes sequel) novels. The Companions herald the return of divine magic, create new versions of the eponymous Dragonlances, restore the pride of the Solamnic Knights, free the elven realm of Silvanesti, and ride the returned metallic dragons to victory.
The glories of Chronicles has also, to some extent, been a limitation for Dragonlance. So much of what’s known and loved about Dragonlance is specifically these characters and these events. The most popular Dragonlance D&D modules were standing in the shoes of the Companions and mostly work through the plot of the novels. The fantastic SSI Gold Box series of video games (Champions of Krynn, Death Knight of Krynn, and Dark Queen of Krynn) was set immediately after the War of the Lance but hit a lot of the same story beats (evil armies try to restore Takhisis, Soth must be dealt with, final confrontation to stop Takhisis from being re-embodied on Krynn). (You can pick up the whole trilogy on Steam for $10). So going into Shadow of the Dragon Queen a big question on my mind was how this adventure module was going to relate to that story. If it’s set in the War of the Lance, how does it distinguish itself from the existing story? If it isn’t set during the War of the Lance, can it capture the magic of Dragonlance?
Thankfully (from my perspective) they just went ahead and set the adventure during the War of the Lance. Rather than trying to capture the entire spectacle of the war or have the characters replace the Companions, Shadow of the Dragon Queen has the characters tackling a more narrow objective – the attack of a division of the Red Dragon Armies (they are now “Dragon Armies” instead of “Dragonarmies”) on the city of Kalaman (for those of you keeping score at home, that makes the leader of this army a subordinate of Dragon High Lord Verminaard, who is the primary villain of Dragons of Autumn Twilight). Shadow of the Dragon Queen then goes on to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis for the entire adventure. You want there to be some familiar faces, but this needs to be the characters’ story. You want the characters to feel epic, but without them being able to do something like kill off Lord Soth (he’s featured on the covers and, yes, he shows up in the story). And you want the characters to feel important, but without disrupting the established story of the War of the Lance.
I think that Shadow of the Dragon Queen accomplishes that threading of the needle. There are a lot of ‘previews’ of what will happen in Chronicles – like the player characters encounter some early version of a tactic employed at larger scale later in the war. It even starts out with the characters gathering in a small village and getting attacked by Draconians on the way, which has a very Chronicles sort of feel to it. It’s possible that Dragonlance purists will get a bit grumpy. You don’t have to be a wizard to join a Tower of High Sorcery (which is a thing that a character can do during the adventure). You are allowed to play a cleric or other divine caster. There is a special prelude scene to go along with this to make it feel special, but it does contravene the notion that (other than a few clerics of Takhisis) Goldmoon was the first cleric in hundreds of years.
Of course, there’s more to being a good adventure that making Dragonlance references. The thematic component that stands out here is the “march to war” part. This is D&D, not a wargame, so all of the combat is still at the individual level. But a good number of those individual-level combats take place during battles. And each of these battles has special rules. So, for example, the characters might be facing off against a handful of individual Dragon Army soldiers, but an arrowshot from the larger battle might strike one of the combatants or an injured dragonnel might crash onto the battlefield near the characters. The player characters also might serve as scouts for larger army formations or army irregulars – or they might use an entire army as a distraction to set up their heroic assault. If you buy the deluxe version, there’s even an entire board game (Warriors of Krynn) that you can incorporate into the D&D campaign – basically whenever there’s a big army battle you go play the battle with the board game (including the ability to port your characters into the board game), and then that has an impact on the D&D campaign. This impact is along the lines of reputation and a magic item – the D&D adventure wouldn’t work if you could just do really well at the board game and drive off the Dragon Army without it ever getting to Kalaman. This is ultimately nice, as it makes the board game element a nice bonus if that’s interesting to you, but not something that makes the D&D campaign feel in any way incomplete if you don’t want to incorporate it. (The deluxe edition is also where you get the Dragonlance-specific DM screen).
Not that it’s all war. There’s the seemingly-obligatory “get to know the people of the town” to start off the adventure. There are gnome contraptions for both comic relief and serious firepower. There are tombs to explore to learn about the past glories you might end up restoring part of or the past tragedies you might help redeem. There’s a big wasteland area to explore and strange magic to discover. Also there’s a kender vampire. I’m not making that up. She’s a real chatterbox. I would be all excited about getting draconian stat blocks, but we got them before.
You’ll also get the usual assortment of mechanical options. There are, of course, stats for the aforementioned kender, who are fearless, get a free proficiency, and have their signature taunt ability to draw fire, although they can’t just use it all of the time. There are feat chains for the Solamnic Knights and the Mages of High Sorcery. And you can actually take a feat chain, because in Dragonlance everyone gets a couple of free feats during early levels. There’s also a lunar sorcery sorcerer subclass. Standing alone, the subclass is cool. You basically have three sets of abilities – full moon, new moon, and crescent moon – each of which grants access to a few more spells, makes your metamagic better for a couple of spell schools, and at higher levels adds on more abilities. By default the character can change between ability sets after a long rest, but it can eventually be changed on the fly at the cost of a sorcery point. However, as a specifically Dragonlance thing it’s hard to get enthused – arcane magic in Krynn is tied to the moons, but not in a way that’s anything like Lunar Sorcery (or anything having to do with sorcery, given that wizards were the only game in town when Dragonlance was introduced). I get why you would want to open up the magical formalities of Krynn now that there are so many more types of ‘full casters’ than there were back in the day, but it would have been cool if this subclass was based more around the Dragonlance gods of magic.
All told, Shadows of the Dragon Queen delivers a lot of cool moments. I like how setting certain combats within larger battles is mechanically handled. Several of the dungeon-crawls-by-another name have interesting characters and puzzles to be found. There are some epic magical moments. There are some recurring NPCs who the characters will really connect with – or who they will really love to hate (although there aren’t as many of these as the book pretends there are; as usual the cast of villages will require a lot of extra effort on the part of the DM to actually incorporate them into the story). The adventure preludes set the characters up to be tied into the setting – I would strongly recommend that the party include a cleric, a Solamnic Knight, and an arcane caster who wants to join the Mages of High Sorcery. Feel free to throw in a hyperactive kender as semi-comedic relief. There’s a reason that sounds an awful lot like a traditional D&D party – that’s exactly what Dragonlance was designed to be.
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