The Great DRAGONLANCE Re-Read – Super Endless Quest / Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Gamebooks

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!

Dev blog #36 – So, about those changes

As I have been saying for the last few weeks, things have been changing in my life. The big change I have been hinting at is a change of job. Actually a complete change of industry and profession! I am no longer going to be a software tester, but am going back to my first love, theatre. I am going to be the Operations Manager at the Classic Theatre Company in Auckland, New Zealand.

What does this mean for Sky Bear Games? Well actually, hopefully it’s going to be a good thing, because my new boss wants me to create games to promote the upcoming programme on the website. Sometimes they might just be little quiz like games, like the game for Sherlock Holmes coming later this year. But the next production after the current one is Alice in Wonderland. Obvious crossover there, right? I am going to be creating a new free chapter for Wonderland Nights. The concept artist for the show is going to be Rose, so the style will be continuous there.

I am also hoping that it will give me greater access to voice actors, and perhaps give James an opportunity to develop the roleplaying webseries he’s been thinking about for years. But more about that later.

Life continues as normal behind all the huge changes. I’m making improvements to the translation builds for Wonderland Nights, putting in the voice work and code changes for Nine Lives and getting ready for the translations there, and James is plugging away at Dragons of Tirenia, reaching 88,000 words now! Coming this week we’ve got the next Dragonlance review and the next podcast episode going up. So don’t worry, we’re going to keep going 🙂

Dev blog #35: Wunderland-Nächte: Tagebuch des weißen Kaninchens

Why yes, that is a German title you are reading up there ^_^

Just after writing to you last week, the German translation for Wonderland Nights arrived, and over the weekend I put that into the game. It’s really quick now that this is the fourth translation I have put in.

Then I got straight back to Nine Lives. I have finally crested a major hill in editing the voice files, and now I am importing many of the finished files and making the code changes I have been so desperately keen to get to. Today I finally felt confident enough in a release within a month that I asked my actors for their headshots and biographies for the publicity campaign. Once all of these things are in, I need to get a crack on with the Chinese translation! Having done it once before, it should be fairly easy for me to set up the translation infrastructure, but I should probably focus on getting any art translated that needs it (or just getting empty versions is probably easiest!).

James meanwhile has been getting back to some fun basics, playing Link’s Awakening on the switch, and board games with friends while I’m busy rehearsing this awesome show I am in. I came in to find them playing Battlestar Galactica last night. I was so jealous! But I might get to play with them next week. Maybe we can play Mysterium, since there will be seven of us!

We’ve also been geeking out over the new Magic set, Kaldheim, and I have been geeking out over Pokemon lots lately. Maybe a pokemon related post is needed soon.

The Great DRAGONLANCE Re-Read – Dragons of Spring Dawning, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

First Impression: The end of Chronicles is here at last! This is the shortest review so far – most of what I’ve said so far is true for this book as well. Once again, I showed Claire the cover art and asked her what she thought about it. Here’s her thoughts:

  • Original Larry Elmore cover: This is one of the most 80s things I have ever seen. Happy to see that green dragon is looking a little more threatening than its photobombing predecessors
  • Reprint Larry Elmore cover: I don’t 100% know why, maybe it’s the green and red contrasts in these last two covers, but I am liking these covers a lot. The dragon looks way too friendly and calm though. And geez that armour is camp. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.
  • UK cover by Keith Parkinson: So I am becoming familiar with the pattern of Dragonlance covers through the ages, and I get the feeling like this event depicted doesn’t even happen in this book? I quite like it in terms of an action image, although I also get the feeling that it is weirdly positioned/cropped. It’s nice to actually feel the threat from the dragon for once, and to see a character in an action pose rather than posing for the camera (James: She’s right – it’s the climax of Dragons of Winter Night; terribly cropped, once again. Why are the UK covers so bad?!)
  • Matt Stawicki cover: Okay I actually really like this one, I think it’s the mistiness of the background and the detail of the architecture behind the characters. On the negative side, I find the poses really awkward. But their clothing looks way more appealing to my modern sensibilities compared to the 80s stuff

Plot Summary: Tanis Half-Elven sneaks out on his girlfriend Kitiara, the Dragon HIghlord in the middle of the night and he and his companions try to escape. Kitiara chases after him on a dragon, but the ship is sucked into a whirlpool made of blood! Raistlin betrays the party and magics himself away just before the ship goes underwater. Fortunately, passing sea elves rescue the drowning adventurers and put them ashore along with the ship’s helmsman, Berem – an immortal MacGuffin who can win or lose the war. Meanwhile, Tanis’ other girlfriend, the elf princess Laurana, becomes the Golden General, in charge of the armies of Good. With the help of the good dragons, who have finally returned, and wielding the dragonlances, Laurana is able to win a series of major victories. However, she abandons her armies when Kitiara lies and tells her Tanis is hurt, and is captured in a very obvious trap. Our scattered heroes finally reunite and go to Neraka, the HQ of the Dragonarmies, to rescue Laurana and use Berem to win the war. Caramon, Tika, and Tasslehoff have to complete a final dungeon crawl with Berem to stop the dark goddess Takhisis, while Tanis has to choose which girlfriend he likes more. Suddenly, Raistlin returns – but now he’s Super-Saiyan Raistlin (except his robes turned black instead of his hair going golden) Thanks to this Raistlin-ex-machina, the heroes are victorious – but Kitiara takes control of the remaining Dragonarmies, and Raistlin is now free to pursue his own nefarious plans…

The Good: Once again, the characters continue to be the best part of this series. Weis and Hickman make an extremely sensible decision to not make the climax be the defeat of the Queen of Darkness – her brief appearance is impressive, but she’s too abstract a character to be an effective primary antagonist. Instead, the climax of the novel is the resolution of Tanis’ internal conflict, and the confrontation between the brothers Caramon and Raistlin. 

I’d forgotten how long it took him to appear, but the most legendarily badass character in Dragonlance finally appeared halfway through this book: Lord Soth, the undead Knight of the Black Rose! He has virtually nothing to do here, but he makes such an impression. I remembered him being more style than substance, but that’s not a problem here, and he’s got so much style!

My favourite character, to my surprise, wound up being Tasslehoff! I think it’s because I now have a toddler, but I appreciate his empathy, his innocence and his curiosity. His character development to become wiser, sadder, and more mature – in other words, his loss of innocence – happens slowly and organically.

The Neutral: This book is set in 352 A.C. It covers material from the eighth, tenth, and especially the climactic twelfth adventures. The eighth adventure, in which Gilthanas and Silvara infiltrate the enemy stronghold of Sanction to discover the secret origin of the draconians and recruit the good dragons to their side, is summarized by them in a single chapter after they return: the story is told more fully in Lords of Doom, a pick-a-path book. Meanwhile, the story of Raistlin’s rise to near omnipotence would not be covered until Dragons of the Hourglass Mage, published twenty-four years later!

The Bad: I got the feeling, reading this, that Weis and Hickman had lost interest in this book even before they started writing it. Their hearts were clearly set on telling their own original story about the wizard Raistlin, and so this book serves more as a bridge to set up the following Legends trilogy than a grand finale to this story. Characters are dropped along the wayside so that the story can focus on those who will be important next time: Raistlin, Caramon, Tasslehoff, and Kitiara. As a result, major revelations like the origins of the draconians are hurried, while the mystery of what’s been going on with Raistlin is deferred to be covered in Legends. 

Other major plot points are nonsensical. Laurana’s decision to go running after Tanis is particularly egregious. I was reading the Annotated Chronicles, in which both Weis and Hickman agree that Laurana’s decision is forced and out of character. Berem’s backstory, which is vital for the resolution of the war, also doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. The only thing stopping Takhisis the dragon goddess from conquering the world is getting the gem out of his chest – that she put there herself?

Final Impressions: Three Disks of Mishakal out of five. Weis and Hickman have done an admirable job wrestling twelve D&D adventures into three novels. By modern standards, the Chronicles trilogy doesn’t really hold up. I couldn’t in good faith recommend it compared to some of the amazing fantasy novels out there today. But back in the Eighties, when there was less variety on the shelves, this was excellent. Like all classics, it’s of its time and place. I really enjoyed revisiting Chronicles, and I’m looking forward to the Legends trilogy, which I remember being the high water mark for the Dragonlance saga.

But before I start Legends, there was another series of books that came between them: the Super Endless Quest pick-a-path gamebooks were the very first spinoff Dragonlance books, so I’ll be looking at them next fortnight.

Dev blog #34 – Never rains but it pours

So just after saying that there was nothing on the White Rabbit front, I got given the Japanese translation! But that was actually super easy to work on because I had basically done all the groundwork already with the Chinese translation. It was the matter of taking one night out of my busy schedule, sitting with James while he watched Hamilton and I half listened while I imported all the translations. I will need to run some QA still but first, the more pressing issue…

The Chinese translations for Nine Lives have arrived! But we still haven’t finished the voice work yet! AHHHH!!!! So Lauren and I are scrambling to get things done ASAP. I’m cutting up the clips from the master voice track recorded by Laura who plays Nim. Straight after that I have a collection of small fixes to code – hopefully they are small! – and then I will be able to split the game into two different builds, one for English, one for Chinese, and finally import the Chinese translations. I can at least do that before importing the voices fully if they aren’t done by then. And that’s not even stopping to consider the changes that are going to be needed in the art… But at least there is no major rush at the moment, there is no release date planned as yet because they are still coming up with what the Chinese title will be!

And just in terms of personal life, this is coming at a crazy time for me. I’m changing jobs, I’m in the first theatre show I’ve been in since having my child. Things are just so, so busy hence the title of this post. I really only have myself to blame! I am just so very glad that James and I pre-recorded and banked the two podcast episodes that are coming out this month on the 8th and the 22nd. Thank goodness we were so wise! They are very fun episodes, so I can’t wait to hear what you think of them, and I hope you’ll forgive the illusion of them being current at the time of release.

Between all the extra load of childcare James now has to do because of my absences for rehearsals, he has been getting a little bit more work done on Dragons of Tirenia, but mostly he has been enjoying the little nostalgia journey of re-reading the start of the truly intimidatingly large Dragonlance canon. I’ve been enjoying contributing to and editing his reviews. Check out the review of the end of the first trilogy this Sunday!

One little nice thing that has been happening in the past week… for some reason my games have been getting a little more attention lately. I have no idea why! Because Nine Lives was in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality, so thousands of people own it, I get a couple of views and downloads trickling in every day on Itch.io. But last week there was one day where suddenly Nine Lives got 60 views, and almost a total of 80 views on all my games! Since then I have been getting new followers almost every day. I’m not quite sure what has happened, but hopefully it keeps happening. Wish I knew how to encourage it!

Dev blog #33 – Lots of movement, plus Dragonlance news!

Since we seem to have become the Dragonlance news blog, let’s cover that first, shall we? Something new and interesting has been revealed that complicates our theories further. Remember how last time we thought perhaps they might be going back in the timeline? Well our suspicions are even stronger now that we see the title of the new series is Classic Dragonlance. There are also rumours of a new female protagonist! What could it all mean? Well, we’re excited to find out eventually.

Source: the public Facebook account of Tracy Hickman

In Sky Bear Games news, this week James got back on the writing horse and has reached the whopping total of 87,000 words out of his (completely arbitrary) 100K goal for the first major release of Dragons of Tirenia.

As for me, nothing new on the White Rabbit front, but Grand Vision have been back in touch with me and the Nine Lives translation will be ready to work with on Tuesday!! So I am hauling butt now to get the extra work I wanted to put in Nine Lives done, particularly any extra strings that will need translation. The quality improvements I am working on will improve the gameplay for the English language players too. I intend to make the tutorial a lot smoother and a bit quicker, improve the functionality of the menus, add in extra events that reward you for working on certain stats, and to make the hidden stats of Public Opinion and Connection to Faerie a little less obscured.

We had a great time recording our last podcast with the Bundle Buddies, so please check that out, or better yet check their podcast out. They are laugh out loud funny! More episodes of both podcasts coming out soon.

Right, back to work!!

Episode 16: A conversation with the Bundle Buddies

This episode of our podcast was extremely fun as we chatted with our new friends over in the States, Alex and Eric aka. the Bundle Buddies, who review the games in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. After you’ve checked out our episode here, check their podcast out too, including their review of The Nine Lives of Nim!

The Great DRAGONLANCE Re-Read – Dragons of Winter Night, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

First Impressions: I still remember Dragons of Winter Night pretty well. In fact, I still remember the first time I read it, sitting on a seat in the local shopping mall, waiting for my mother and sister to finish clothes shopping. I don’t think it was my favourite, back in the day. I don’t remember why – maybe it’s the increased romantic elements, or maybe it’s the inexplicable gaps in the narrative (More on that later!). That said, I remember all three books of the Chronicles trilogy fondly, so I think that dislike is only relative to the other books.

Once again, I showed the covers to Claire to get her impressions. Here’s what she thought.

·         Original Larry Elmore cover: A little campy with those bright pops of colour, I’m not mad at it. Still going with the whole dragon photobombing thing, I see.

·         Reprint Larry Elmore cover: Is the blue dragon friendly? Cos I’m not sure what vibe I’m getting here. Also I hate that knight lady’s perm, too 80s for me! (I challenged Claire on this, since she’s previously said she likes her Dragonlance characters with 80s hair, and she said, “I know, but I just hate short perms!”)

·         The UK Jeff Easley cover: I have no idea what I am looking at here. Boat sailing into a volcano? (Once again, this cover shows an event that’s not in this book, and manages to crop the dragon completely out of the art!)

·         The modern Matt Stawicki cover: Aww, I don’t like how these modern covers get less campy. That being said, I do quite like the poses, it’s like oh geez guys, here comes that dragon!

Plot Summary: Our far-too-numerous band of adventurers – Tanis the half-elf, Flint the dwarf, Tasslehoff the halfling kender, Sturm the knight, Riverwind the ranger, Goldmoon the cleric, Raistlin the wizard, Caramon the fighter, Tika the fighter, Elistan the cleric, Laurana the elf princess, and Gilthanas the elf prince – leave the kingdom of the dwarves to find ships in the port city of Tarsis, only to discover there’s no sea there anymore! They meet up with Derek Crownguard, a knight hunting for Dragon MacGuffin Orbs, and Alhana Starbreeze, another elf princess. During a dragon attack, the group is separated into two more manageable groups. Laurana, Sturm, Flint, Tasslehoff, Elistan, and Gilthanas go with Derek to the ice level in Ice Wall Castle to look for a MacGuffin Orb; Tanis, Caramon, Raistlin, Riverwind, Goldmoon and Tika go with Alhana to the undead-haunted nightmare-forest level in Silvanesti. Don’t worry, first group – because Sturm found a plot coupon, you get to take part in the worst acid trip ever too! Everyone dies, but it was just a dream, so they get better, but there’s lots of foreshadowing, and Raistlin (the party wizard) gets a MacGuffin Orb.

Meanwhile, Laurana’s group finds their second MacGuffin Orb and gets shipwrecked on the island of Southern Ergoth, where all the elven refugees are living. The elves are the chosen people of good, so they’re all on the verge of war with each other and are enslaving the native wild elves. Yay Team Good! Our heroes escape into the wilderness with the help of Silvara, a sexy elf with a big secret. There, they discover the Dragonlances – the only weapon capable of fighting back against dragons. All the representatives of the good races meet up, and immediately start fighting over who gets the MacGuffin Orb. Yay Team Good! Tasslehoff destroys the orb so they’ll stop fighting, and the arrival of the Dragonlances makes everyone moderately enthused to maybe possibly get off their backsides one day and do something. In the meantime, the assembled Knights have to defend a tower against the Dragonarmies. This task is made harder when unfulfilled political ambitions and the stick up Sir Derek’s backside drives him insane, but after a heroic sacrifice, and the lucky discovery of a THIRD MacGuffin Orb, the heroes are able to save the day.

Meanwhile, Tanis’ group puts on a travelling show, and Tanis gets laid. This does not help to resolve his angst.

The Good: This book is, by and large, an immense improvement over Dragons of Autumn Twilight. While that was extremely faithful to the first two adventure modules, Winter Night plays much more fast and loose, focusing on the characters and skipping over superfluous material like the dungeon crawls. This is a great idea, which plays well to the strengths of the format, even if it makes for some strange cuts – especially what happened between this book and the last one, and the attack on Ice Wall Castle, which is relayed in the form of a poem. More importantly, it allows them to focus the narrative around the two main magic items – the Dragonlance and the Dragon Orbs. 

The devastating dragon attack on Tarsis serves as a counterpoint to the later battle when the party, armed with the appropriate magical tools, is finally able to combat dragons. Furthermore, Weis and Hickman decide to focus on the characters that they find interesting, as opposed to the more even-handed focus of the previous book. Riverwind and Goldmoon, Elistan, Gilthanas and Tika all become supporting characters, propping up other characters’ arcs and then getting out of the way. Gilthanas does get to star in a romantic storyline, but it’s quickly resolved. The result is that Tasslehoff and Flint, who were rather annoying at times in the last book, blossom into a Laurel and Hardy-esque comedy duo. Laurana blossoms into the main character of her story arc, and indeed the book, while Tanis and Raistlin share focus in their branch of the narrative. 

Raistlin really is an interesting character, and he gets a lot of time to shine here. He single-handedly manages to exploit the foreshadowing in the nightmare of Silvanesti to defeat it, comes up with the performing troupe ploy, and masters a dragon orb. We get to see more nuance in his relationship with Caramon as well. It’s easy to see that he’s the writers’ favourite character, and why he gets to be the star of the sequel trilogy. I’m also a big fan of mysteries in role-playing games, and there’s a number here – in particular, ‘what’s up with Raistlin?’ and ‘who is the Green Gemstone Man?’ 

There’s a twist at the end of the book where (spoiler for a thirty year old book, which is ruined by the second cover!) Kitiara, the missing party member, Caramon and Raistlin’s sister and Tanis’ lover, turns out to be one of the evil Dragon Highlords. (I didn’t want to give this away, but it’s going to be absolutely impossible to talk about the books from this point on otherwise.) It’s hard to evaluate how effective a twist is when you already know about it, but it’s well foreshadowed and has massive consequences for the characters from this point. There are a few excellent sequences as well: the climactic sacrifice of one of the main characters was quite powerful.

The Neutral: This book is set at the end of 351 A.C and the beginning of 352 A.C. It skips over the third and fourth adventures, which cover how the companions discovered the hidden dwarven kingdom of Thorbardin and retrieved the lost Hammer of Kharas to earn sanctuary there for themselves and the escaped prisoners. (What ever happened to those prisoners? The impetus for this book is to find a new home for these refugees, but they’re forgotten very quickly. I guess they had to stay underground with the dwarves for the rest of the war, after all their leaders abandoned them to go chase magic items.) This book covers the 5th adventure (especially the first four pages in the city of Tarsis; it skips the lengthy dungeon crawl in Ice Wall Castle after that), the 6th and the 7th adventure, and also the 9th and a tiny bit of the 10th (which are about Tanis and his group). The missing adventure of Ice Wall Castle is covered in more detail in Finding the Faith, a short story in The Magic of Krynn anthology; later, Weis and Hickman returned to write the Lost Chronicles, which properly fills the gaps in the story. The first book in the series, Dragons of the Dwarven Depths, explains what happened between Dragons of Autumn Twilight and Dragons of Winter Night; the second, Dragons of the Highlord Reaches, tells the story of the battle of Ice Wall Castle, as well as a few other gaps in the story.

The Bad: Wow, this book has a lot of McGuffins in it! It’s a result of the original adventure design, rather than being Weis and Hickman’s fault as writers. However, we’re introduced to the extremely rare and powerful Dragon Orbs at the beginning of the book, told that only three exist… and lo and behold, by the end of the book, we’ve got all three of them! I was frankly sick of the things in the end, although I have to admit that after the amount that they’d been built up, the climactic scene with Laurana struggling to master one was quite tense. 

One of the problems with the tighter focus on certain characters is that they’re not very interesting! Laurana gets a lot of character development here, but it’s a pity that she’s a fairly bland person. She goes from passive and selfish to active and selfless, but beyond her immature love for Tanis, there’s just not a lot to her. Tanis himself is even worse. He’s torn between his human and elven sides, which could be interesting, but this conflict is personified in his love for the beautiful elf Laurana and the beautiful human Kitiara. Most of the time, it feels more like him agonizing about which gorgeous lady he should be with! 

The antagonists are also fairly problematic. Derek Crownguard is a caricature of a self-righteous paladin, with no redeeming qualities. He’s one of two competing leaders to take over the Knights of Solamnia, but there’s no reason why his side is right, or why anyone would support him. His sudden descent into raving lunacy also comes out of nowhere. It felt unrealistic and was a very disrespectful portrayal of mental illness. Kitiara is also problematic, in that her villainy manifests itself in an insatiable sexual appetite – one of the only characters who seems to have one! All the good characters nobly restrain themselves, with the exception of Tanis, the minute that he meets Kitiara again and starts giving in to his ‘human blood’, and Gilthanas and Silvara. They have a rather steamy love scene, but their tragic love is doomed, and founders very quickly once Silvara’s secret is revealed. It seems to be pretty clear that sex is bad in Dragonlance. 

Apart from this, we have more race essentialism with our race of mad inventor gnomes. (That said, I found the Mount Nevermind chapter to be fairly funny, and Dragonlance’s gnomes did go on to influence the entire portrayal of gnomes in fantasy from this point on – just look at World of Warcraft!) I did find the portrayal of elves interesting – they’re officially the chosen people of Good, but they’re the most close-minded, bigoted and judgmental people in all Krynn! I’d be a fan of this in a setting that didn’t feature capital-G Good so strongly. Meanwhile, the avatar of the main Good god prefers to hang out with the innocent, childlike kender rather than his own chosen people, and Tasslehoff is a much more caring, empathic, and innocent person than any of the elves. Why aren’t the Kender the chosen people of Good? I didn’t mention equitable gender representation in my last review, and I’m not really mentioning it again here, because there isn’t any. We should be glad to have Laurana and Kitiara as reasonably active female characters. The past is a different country; it doesn’t feel fair to criticize them too much for this.

Final Impressions: A better narrative and better characterization helps, but this book is still held back by its origins as an adaptation of adventure modules, by unevenly interesting characters, and questionable underlying morality. 3.5 Disks of Mishakal.

Next fortnight, the War of the Lance ends in a high-stakes episode of The Dating Game!