Who remembers Choose Your Own Adventure? Pick-a-path books were a huge part of my childhood. Dungeons & Dragons decided to get in on that bandwagon with Endless Quest. This was the spinoff series, proper gamebooks with character sheets and dice and rules and everything. They were called Super Endless Quest, but fortunately someone realised that was a terrible name and it got changed pretty quickly. Four of them were Dragonlance tie-ins, so that’s what I’m reading this fortnight!
A change of format for this one: since I’m reviewing a number of short books, I’ll do a section on each one of them, where I’ll look at them holistically, rather than breaking each one down into good, bad and neutral. I’ll do the same thing when I reach the short story anthologies.
Also, this is the first time that I’ll be skipping a book! Alas, I don’t have a copy of The Soulforge by Terry Phillips. This book is about Raistlin’s backstory, written by the man who was instrumental in shaping the character during the early playtest sessions. However, since the same story is covered in a short story in The Magic of Krynn, and then expanded out into a full novel, The Soulforge, I don’t feel too bad about missing the gamebook version. If I ever find a copy, I’ll come back and do a review of it.
Prisoners of Pax Tharkas, by Morris Simon: This is the first book in the entire series. I’m not sure if they wanted to use this to get people into Dragonlance, or if they wanted to use Dragonlance to get people into this series. The cover is by Keith Parkinson, who’s usually pretty good, but… oof! I guess everyone has an off day. Awkward poses, cheesecake art, and that moustache! Claire says: “HAHAHAHAHAHA wow, this is beyond 80s! This is some He-Man stuff. It is everything.”
In this book, you are Bern Vallenshield, a ranger, and no one will let you forget it – seriously, everyone uses your full name at every opportunity. It is set just between the two parts of Dragons of Autumn Twilight, in the town of Solace. Somehow, you don’t seem to know about the Heroes of the Lance, even though they’re all adventurers of the same age as you from the same small village. They get mentioned in passing at one point as having just left town. Anyway, you return to Solace one day to find it burnt down by the Dragonarmies, and your kid brother Kegan has been captured and taken to the iron mines at Pax Tharkas! The first time I played, I caught up with the prison wagon and rescued him without too much trouble before they ever reached Pax Tharkas, but the book hinted that this was not the ‘ideal’ ending, so I tried again. The second time, I got captured too, escaped inside Pax Tharkas, met Willow Lighthand the kender and Essa the elf, and then did a little dungeon crawl through the fortress and the elvish secret entrance, ending by finding the secret tomb of the elf-king Kith-Kanan.
This book is not great, guys! Bern Vallenshield is an extremely dull character. That’s pretty standard for a pick-a-path protagonist, since the reader has to be able to project on to them. The supporting cast are equally dull. Your brother has no personality either, and the other two NPCs that you meet are ‘a kender’ and ‘beautiful’ – that’s the extent of their characterisation! The mechanics of the book are clunky too. You roll one die and add your skill to resolve a task, but in combat you roll two dice. In addition, if you fail a combat roll you can reroll until you succeed, taking damage until you succeed, but the book does not make this clear in each paragraph. The book fits awkwardly into continuity with Dragons of Autumn Twilight too. You visit many of the same locations as the main characters do, but are unable to enact any sort of change, since it’s up to them to defeat the Dragon Highlords and rescue the rest of the prisoners. Nothing very exciting or dramatic happens. I did see that you can fight the Dragon Highlord Verminaard and his dragon, but that you’re destined to lose, no matter what, if you do. The worst example of this railroaded lack of agency is when you find the magic sword Wyrmslayer. Even though your companion came here specifically to find it and use it against the dragons, you all decide to leave it behind, so that the Heroes of the Lance can find it.
I also wonder who this book is meant for. The earlier Endless Quest books were definitely aimed at children, just like the Dungeons & Dragons TV show (anyone remember that?). However, the Dragonlance series, with its more mature subject matter and Tolkienesque tone, is definitely for young adults. I can’t help but feel that anyone who enjoyed this would find Dragons of Autumn Twilight boring, and vice versa. Also, because it covers so much of the same ground as the novel and the adventure novel that it’s based on, I can’t help but feel that it’s just giving a whole lot of spoilers for them.
I also noticed a small continuity error: the dragon Matafleur is consistently referred to as ‘Mataflure.’
All in all, one Disk of Mishakal out of five. It’s not actively offensive, but it’s about as exciting as a dry piece of toast.
Lords of Doom by Douglas Niles: This is the tenth book in the series, but the second one that is (a) based on Dragonlance and (b) in my possession. In Dragons of Spring Dawning, an important plot point – the secret of the Draconians, the dragon-man foot soldiers of the bad guys – is glossed over quickly. This is the full story of how Gilthanas and Silvara infiltrated the stronghold of the Dragon Highlords, the volcano city of Sanction, discovered the origin of the Draconians, and won the aid of the good dragons for the war. It’s a pretty straight adaptation of Dragons of Deceit, the D&D adventure module, and even by the same author! The cover to this one, by Larry Elmore, is much better than the cover of the previous book, with an exciting action shot of our heroes on the deck of a ship, watching flying draconians heading their way from an enemy ship. Claire and I agreed: there’s just one problem… “Uggggggggggh that is too much cheesecake. I quite like the action poses of the ship, the enemies, the people except for Silvara. She’s in a stupid boob/butt pose, though it’s the less common sideboob pose…”
This is a definite improvement over the previous book. It tells an important part of the story, and your actions actually have consequences for the greater narrative. I criticised Prisoners of Pax Tharkas for not knowing who its audience was – this one is solidly aimed at Dragonlance fans who want to discover the missing piece of the story. It’s still not great at characterisation – few gamebooks are. Gilthanas and Silvara have an unrequited love for one another but this is just a narrow slice of the story that plays out in the other books, and has no pay off or development here. However, Fizban the Fabulous is a lot more fun than any of the companions from the last book. There’s also a choice about which route to take to get to Sanction, which is a classic gamebook strategy to enable replayability. The sea route is the more enjoyable of the two. The land route is dull as heck.
That said, this book felt extremely easy. I rolled very, very badly, and I was absolutely convinced I was done for, but I still made it through to the end without a problem. Apart from the decision of which way to travel at the beginning, there seemed to be fewer branching paths this time around, and I didn’t see any insta-deaths. Not that I want insta-deaths, but this book just felt like it wanted to be a novel, rather than a gamebook. It’s slightly strange that, to the best of my knowledge, this story never got re-visited later, as so many of the other deleted scenes were.
The dialogue isn’t wonderful – but then, what gamebook has good dialogue? – and there’s a few continuity errors: Gilthanas fights at the High Clerist’s Tower, while in the novels, he’s already departed when that battle starts; in the novels, he refers to a secret female ally in Sanction, while here, it’s a male. By the standards of some of the continuity errors later on, these ones aren’t that big.
Overall ranking: One and a half Disks of Mishakal out of five. A better book than Prisoners of Pax Tharkas, but a worse game.
Shadows Over Nordmaar by Dezra Despain: We’ve saved the best for last! This is the sixteenth book in the series, but it’s the first Dragonlance tie-in with a completely original story. I wish I could say that much about the cover: it continues the classic trend of recycling art completely out of context. It’s a good picture of Kitiara and Lord Soth in a scene from the Legends trilogy. Claire found it a bit much in its 80s-ness: “It took me a while to get what was happening, mostly because that outfit is too much. It took me a while to look around the figure.”
Shadows Over Nordmaar is set 25 years after the Chronicles trilogy, in 377 A.C. I think that makes it the furthest ahead in the timeline we’ll be going for quite a while! You are ‘Jonn’, who’s been beaten up and left for dead on the moors of Nordmaar. Lorina, a cleric of Mishakal (goddess of healing), rescues you and lets you know that the remnants of the Dragonarmies have invaded Nordmaar. However, your attack has left you amnesiac, and the only clues that you have to your identity are a ring, a feather and a pouch of herbs. Can you save Nordmaar?
The first thing I noticed once I started reading this book is that the font size is considerably smaller than the other books! As a result, Shadows is much more descriptive, with better prose, than either of the other two books. All three books feature a romantic relationship between the main character and a supporting character; this felt like the only one that showed that relationship occurring, rather than just telling me that it was happening. Lorina, your companion, also gets more detail than any of the other sidekick characters.
The plot itself in this book is also far more interesting than the other two. I’m always a sucker for a mystery, but this one has not one, but two! At the beginning of the book, you’re given a choice about going north or west. Depending on which way you go, you get a completely different story! You’re a different person, with a different quest, different payoffs for the three items, a different villain, and a different resolution to the love story. I also appreciate a few less-common D&D monsters getting used: I can’t think of another thing that features lammasu so prominently!
There are problems, of course, and I’m not sure that the book wouldn’t have been better served having only one story and fleshing it out more. Once you’ve decided which of the two plots you’re going to follow, there are very few decision points. Most paragraphs end with dice rolls instead, so you’re locked on a railroad once you get going. I also felt like the difficulty was pretty high. It seemed like most of the dice rolls had less than a 50% chance of success, and to succeed at the final challenge, you need to have succeeded at all the rolls that let you regain your lost memories.
Overall ranking: Two and a half Disks of Mishakal out of five. The extremely linear nature of the two stories keeps it from getting a higher score, but I did enjoy this one.
That’s it for gamebooks, everyone! I’ve got a treat ahead of me next time: it’s the Time of the Twins, the first book of the Legends Trilogy. I remember this trilogy being the absolute best that Dragonlance had to offer. Will it still hold up? Let’s find out!