Category Archives: Campaign Design

Houserules for Tomb of Annihilation hex crawl XP: hexPloration

I am running a Tomb of Annihilation campaign but as with my previous major D&D campaign set in Mystara, I have begun modding the game adding house rules of various kinds. Some are simply dealing with adapting the campaign to the Mystara setting, which required some changes. Other rules are for adapting the game to our play style. One such set of rules are the alternate XP-system we are using to emphasize the settings hex crawl aspect.


XP are gained from travelling through and exploring the wilderness.

XP gained:

  • 1 XP for exploring a mapped hex (some parts of the map are mapped before the game begins)
  • 2 XP for exploring an empty hex
  • 1 XP for exploring a location in a hex
  • 1 XP for each week spent in the wilderness

XP needed to level: 5+lv*5 – so 10 XP is needed to reach level 2, 15 to reach lv 3 etc.

Spending XP: XP are kept in a pool, that can be spent on characters in safe locations (each player has three characters).

Multiple characters and levelling: each player controls three characters. A character can be no more than two levels higher than the lowest in the trio (e.g. a character cannot reach level 5, if one of the other characters is at level 2).

And that is it. The XP-system entices the players to send their characters into the wilderness and even to take detours, as it gains them XP while they risk running into strange and unplanned encounters and risk running out of supplies.


Tomb of Annihilation – Captains of Chult

Large stretches of Chult are coasts, and with Port Nyanzaru being a port, it is an obvious choice to reach distant parts of Chult by sailing along the coast rather than braving the jungles or the sluggish rivers – but ships are expensive, so how does explorers in Tomb of Annihilation get there? By hiring transport on a ship, and in the dingy taverns of Port Nyanzaru, there are captains who offer their services for a reasonable fee.

I really like the concept of guides in Tomb of Annihilation. It may seem obvious, and yet it is so rarely done this well in wilderness adventures. Expanding upon the idea, thus allowing us to increase the scope of expeditions into the wilderness, I added Experts for Hire as mentioned in my previous post, and now I have Captains for hire. An assortment of captains, each with their own little kernel of a potential adventure, and a series of random events ranging from bad weather to weird and inexplicable phenomena. Captains of the Coasts of Chult can now be found at DM’s Guild. My previous Expedition Crew supplement was Experts of Chult, and I am considering adding a third one.

I am running my own Tomb of Annihilation set in the Mystara setting, and there may be hidden a few references to that setting among the captains, but easter eggs seems to a part of D&D 5th edition, so it is merely keeping with the style.


Tomb of Annihilaton – Experts of Chult

Tomb of Annihilation is an interesting campaign module, not just because of the modern attempt to create a hex crawl adventure but also because of some the tools the adventure contains. One of these tools are the Guides. They are NPCs with well-developed personalities, quirks and secrets, and not just that they are set-up with nice handouts, making them easy to present for the players and keep in mind.

The guides may not be a revolutionary thing, but they are still something I have not seen in other hex crawl adventures. Some adventures may suggest hiring a guide and even add a few details, but having a roster and letting the players choose between these set-ups is quite inspiring.

For my ToA campaign (which is set in the Mysrara setting) I am planning on running larger expeditions with more henchmen, and thus I wanted to add more NPCs for hire, and they did not all need to be Guides. Some could be experts with valuable skills, and thus I set up a bunch a small selection of Experts for Hire. The Experts of Chult – which now can be found at DM’s Guild.

Using henchmen, that are more than anonymous torchbearers and sword caddies, is also an opportunity to add role-playing situations to an otherwise eventless trek through the wilderness. Travelling through the wilderness may present the players with obstacles and challenges, but many are dealing with savage beasts or difficult terrain, but many does not include beings to interact with, and having NPCs jog along means there continuously will be beings to interact with. The experts add skills or bonuses to skills, but getting access to these require interacting with them, and that creates opportunities for role-playing.

Experts of Chult is the first of my Expedition Crew supplements to Tomb of Annihilation. The next one is Captains of the Coasts of Chult, as seafaring along the coasts will likewise be a part of my campaign.

Tomb of Annihilation – Using the Mystara Setting

This fall’s great adventure for D&D is the Tomb of Annihilation, and I picked up the book with some interest. I like the idea of a hex crawl having the players to travel deep into jungles searching for lost cities and ancient ruins, but without finding everything on their first go. Instead, they will have to make multiple journeys mapping the jungles bit by bit, and between expeditions they have a home base in a large harbor town.

I like this. I do not care much for the backstory with the curse killing people, who has been resurrected and making the raising of people impossible. It is a fine, grandiose plot, but not one, that I care for, and neither does the jungles of Chult nor Forgotten Realms have my interest. That is mostly because, when it comes to D&D settings, my favorite is The Known World or Mystara. So, I want to run this campaign, and I want to run it in the Mystaran setting.

But where to place this wonderful, empty hex map filled with deadly wonders and ancient secrets?

An obvious choice would be the major hex crawl adventure for D&D becmi, namely The Isle of Dread from module X1 The Isle of Dread (1980), which is an obvious choice, and I could simply just use the map from X1 with the adventure from Tomb of Annihilation, but I have already explored The Isle of Dread, and it could be interesting to try some other area.

Tomb of Annihilation itself suggests The Savage Coast, but they are probably not thinking of module X9 The Savage Coast (1985) but rather the (sub)-setting later published for AD&D 2nd edition The Savage Coast (based on the expanded material from the articles Voyage of the Princess Ark), but even though the region is called ‘savage’ it is far from unexplored or inhabited, and adapting Tomb of Annihilation to this region would require a lot of work, if I want it to stay true to the Mystaran setting.

There is, however, an interesting alternative. South of the Sea of Dread lies the continent Davania, and though parts have scarcely been colonized by Thyatis, it is at least from the view of The Known World unexplored lands, that are vaguely known, and near the Serpent’s Peninsula on the opposite side of The Serpent’s Sound the continent of Davania is somewhat shaped reminiscent of Chult area from the ToA book, which means that I can use the map from ToA without it being too far off, and that saves me time.

The coastal city being used as a base in ToA will be replaced with its Mystaran equivalent – there is actually one on the continent of Davania in the right place – called Kastellos. The name could indicate a Thyatian origin, but its position is just next to the Yawdlom Divinarchy, which means that I can keep large parts of the material from ToA and add materiale from the box set Champions of Mystara, which describes The Serpent’s Peninsula and The Yawdlom Divinarchy.

Adapting ToA to Mystara

The Mystaran Tomb of Annihilation plays out in the harbor town Kastellos on the continent of Davania. The town was originally a Thyatian colony, but Thyatis was unable to maintain its control of the city, and soon a large part of the population were newcomers from the Yawdlom Divinarchy seeking adventure. The city still has a large minority of Thyatians, and both traders from the Minrothad Isles and Thyatis pass by regularly keeping Kastellos in the orbit of The Known World-region.

Besides Thyatians and Yawdloms, Kastellos is home to a thriving colony of wererats, who arrived from Karameikos, as well as a large group of skygnomes stranded here, when their skyship crashed, and they are waiting for the flying city of Serraine to pass their way again. Elves are rare, but the few that are here, are mostly forest elves from Karameikos and sea-elves from Minrothad. Dwarves are here as travelling artisans, and the few hin finding their way here, are mostly hin pirates from the coasts of The Five Shires. Small groups of tortles from the Savage Coast also call the northern coasts of Davania for home, and they can be seen in the streets of Kastellos. Davania is home to nomadic tribes of Rakasta – some are related to the Rakasta from Isle of Dread – and Lupins. This should give a hint as to which playable races will be used in the campaign.

I am right now in the process of adapting ToA to run it in the Mystaran setting. This is first post in a small series of posts about adapting ToA, and fitting its backstory and plot into the existing framework of Mystara.

#RPGaDay2015 – Day 27: Favorite Idea for Merging Two Games into One

rpg-a-day-2015Today it is all about merging at #RPGaDay2015 when asked about our favorite idea for mering two games into one. Rules, settings, stories – what to merge and how to do it?

I do not speculate much in this area, so I do not think I have a set of favorites, but I do have one grand idea.

Day 27 – Favorite Idea for Merging Two Games into One

The closest I have been to merge to rulesystems was, when I created my Delta Green campaign and merged Call of Cthulhu with Unknown Armies and added a slew of houserules in order to tailor the rules to suit my needs. I merged Transhuman Space (powered by GURPS) with the A Shadow of Yesterday rules because we wanted to play in the setting but not with the official rules for it. I have often stolen specific rules from one game and added them to another, but once during a Nephilim campaign we played out a major conflict using the rules set from In A Wicked Age, since that system would be better at handling the scale. I have considered using MicroScope to create settings and then play in those settings with other rule systems, but I haven’t had the time for that yet.

My grand idea for merging merging games include more than two, and the idea is to create a grand story spanning millenia tying several games into one big storyline. The basic idea is that the world transitions through different ages (just as with Shadowrun and Earthdawn), and the laws that governs realities changes with these ages. So it all begins with the end of the age using the Nephilim roleplaying game to play out the end of the occult magical age and follow the transformation into the high-tech non-magical world of Transhuman Space roleplaying game and how the discovery of a wormhole to another world – The Blue Planet rpg – triggers the worldwide catastrophe of the Eclipse Phase roleplaying game, and from here grows slowly a new civilization. From the ashes of the Eclipse Phase setting grows The First Republic and it is during this age, that scientists discovers that the suns are dying, they are fading, thus ushering in new age, where the whole universe seems slowly dying as all suns are suddenly fading, and in this world magic and the supernatural returns, and it is the setting of the Fading Suns rpg.

How to ever play such a campaign I have no idea, but as a thought experiment I have had much fun, and the idea of the setting shaped the grand plot of my Nephilim campaign.

#RPGaDay2015 – Day 24: Favorite House Rule

rpg-a-day-2015Today the challenge in #RPGaDay2015 is favorite houserule, and I will pitch in with a few thoughts on my own. Houserules are interesting but sometimes also controversial, but to my mind most controversies around house rules are related to how they are broadcast to the group, and the purpose of houserules. To some a houserule is used to mend a perceived flaw in the system, whether there is a flaw or not, and careless applied houserule might in such instances make the game less appealing for the other players thus hurting their game experience and creating a controversy.

Day 24 – Favorite Houserule

I like houserules, and we use them a lot. We usually play with two kinds of houserules: 1) Campaign house rules (tailored rules) and 2) Houserule of the day.

Tailored rules are houserules, that are added to the campaign to make the rulesystem help focus on certain aspects of the game. In a Mystaran D&D Glantri campaign, where all the characters were wizards attending The Great School of Magic, all XP were gained from passing courses in magic, not from killing and looting, which forced the players to divide their time between attending classes and going on adventures.

Houserule of the day is a favorite among my players. In this instance a rule is introduced, that only applies for one session (unless it becomes such a succes, that it becomes a permanent feature of the campaign). Houserule of the day is a specific rule introduced to support a certain event or feature during a session (just as when an episode of a tv-show is filmed entirely in black/white or as a muscial). One such houserule during the wizard campaign was A Night at the Opera, where the wizard students when to a yearly major opera and the action alternated between the story of the opera and the backstage intrigues among shady wizard nobles.

In this case the rule was: Everytime you want your character to do something at the opera (a clandestine meeting, conspirering, gaining intel etc.), you must play a scene from the opera, and the scene must last two minutes.

This meant that the action alternated between the play on the stage and the intriques behind the stage and among the nobles on the balconies at at opera house, and we had some great fun at seing the players act out the different roles of the opera struggling to keep a scene lasting two minutes (this required a lot of repeating the same lines “I love you … I love you … I looooooooooove you …” giving the events on the stage a feel of being an opera play).

So the opera house might have been a favorite, but mine would in this case be the following:

Play a scene, gain a bonus

This is the most basic version of the scene, but we use it in a variety of ways. In The Great School of Magic campaign, the rule was formulated as follows: Play a studyscene with another play to gain a bonus to pass an exam.

Passing exams was the source of XP and thus levels, and the players would do their best to gain as many bonuses to these rolls as possible – and one source was studyscenes. In a studyscene the player’s character would be studying together with a secondary character belonging to another player, and what happened during the scene was open, and was mostly being used to develop characters and explore aspects of their personalities. It allowed the players to shine, and was important for the development of the characters.

We use this kind of houserule in many different versions, and it works great to put a focus on the small things, but stille those that develop characters and settings.

#RPGaDay2015 – Day 23: Perfect Game for You

rpg-a-day-2015Joining in on #RPGaDay2015 in the last moments of the project, where people daily cover a specific subject regarding our hobby, I too will share my thoughts on these subjects.

(and use it as an excuse to write in English again, before my writing skills entirely wither away).

Day 23 – Perfect Game for you

Today we are asked about which game is the perfect one for us.

For me there is not a single perfect game, just as there is not the single perfect movie, book, board game or graphic novel. So choosing the easy way out, I am tempted to say, that the perfect game for me is the one, that is tailored specifically to what I am playing.

I don’t want to play with a system, where I have to house rule away flaws in the game engine, and I don’t want to play with a system, where you ignore its presence or play against what the rules are intended to do.

So when I run campaigns, I tailor the system to do, what I want it to do.

When we play dungeon exploration RPGs, we play with my D&D clone Hinterlandet (The Hinterlands), that rewards the players not for killing the monsters but for each room explored, and structures the encounters with monsters, so that the players can more easily choose between negotations, trickery, retreat and combat, and when I ran a Delta Green campaign, we wanted to emphasize how the missions of the agents slowly alienated them from their surroundings by having the system focus on both their family lives and their black op missions for Delta Green.

To me some rule systems makes this easier than others. Shadows of Yesterday was great for running our Transhuman Space campaign, rather than using GURPS, and we mostly just reskinned it. Delta Green Hoarfrost Dragon campaign used a heavily modified Call of Cthulhu and Unknown Armies engine, as the Basic Rulesystem is very easy to work with, and I sometimes default to some very basic d20 engines, that I then start modifying. Polaris, My Life with Master and In a Wicked Age along with Lady Blackbird are also favorites, since they are very focused on telling specific stories.

Re-Imagining DragonLance – Part 3b

Welcome to my fifth installment in the series on re-imagining DragonLance. In my previous post I revealed that DragonLance is a science fantasy-setting, and following this argument I will in this part of re-imagining DL3 focus on those aspects that lead DragonLance into the Science Fantasy genre. In the first post I covered those aspects of the module, that can be changed without the science fantasy-elements, and in my post on the hidden history of DragonLance arguing that DragonLance really is a science fantasy-setting I laid the ground for viewing the setting as such, and now I will cover the specific aspects in DL3.

The Ruined Tower

This tower contains some sort of apparatus that for one reason or another points the way to Fistandantilus’ grave, and this is one of many disguised science fantasy elements in DL3, where somehow a mysterious semi-magical apparatus has been designed.

Truly this is the poor ruins of technological wonder, that now is being reclaimed by nature, but some of the machines are still working. By exploring the tower, the PCs accidentally or on purpose trigger the machines, that spring to life with a hum, and an advanced laser pointer and a holographic projector helps the PCs to orient themselves and map the area, but energy is running low, and the tower soon cease to work.

The Steam City

Under the mountains are according to the module huge caverns generation heat and steam, and the dwarves build a city here, that drew upon the steam to heat the city. Now the place is abandoned, but a small clan of Aghar still lives here, and they guard a relic of the past.

Disguised as just a fallen dwarven city and just a magical crystal, this part obviously draws from science fiction archetypical stories, where the degenerate survivors lives on in an automated city that is slowly collapsing, and they guard ancient computersystems, they have the lost the ability to operate properly, and instead they venerate them and operate them in a ritualistic manner, however recently the machinery has begun failing more and more often. It is believed among the degenerate survivors that they have angered the gods, and that they should return to the olden ways. During the story the protagonists arrive, gains access to the systems, and the truth of the high tech city is revealed, but this occurs during a power struggle among the survivors, where one faction considers the protagonists for blasphemers, and the cause of the angry gods. The protagonists are captured, but they succeed in escaping and during the escape, the city is destroyed as the machinery finally fails.

The Steam City encounter can be run as this archetype:

The city utilizes a natural resource in the shape of lavapools or superheated pools, that generates steam. Pipes lead the heat or the steam into the city, where it drives the powerplant. This system must be maintained on a regular basis, and the Aghar does this in a ritualistic manner, but the old piping has begun to corrode, and now rituals can replace the piping. The city is doomed, and it is merely a matter of time.

The Aghar is divided into two or more factions struggling about what is be to done: Sacrifice the chieftains daughter to please the gods? Return to the olden ways? Abandon the city? Appoint a new regent? Led the (false) priests rule the city?

The PCs must navigate between these factions in order to gain access to the “black crystal”, that obviously is a computer system, that is semi-intelligent, and is just waiting for the PCs to ask it questions. It contains no new data, having not been upgraded or updated in centuries, but it can tell things about the olden days. It does not now about the events of the last 300 years, and is naive about the low-tech world of the PCs. Due to age some databanks have been corrupted, but the DM can inform the PCs about whatever is suitable on the olden days and on the presence of Thorbaddins realm.

The steam city naturally collapses during a aghar powerstruggle before all questions have been answered, and the PCs flee from the city as it is destroyed.

The Battlefield

Besides the fact that this location can be read as the Dead Marshes from Lord of the Rings, where the marshy land is swallowing up an old battlefield. This part is truly revealing for the secret history of DragonLance as this land is strewn with the corpses of warmachines.

The warmachines are of course not catapults nor ballistae, as one might assume of the medieval fantasy setting. The module itself states nothing on the nature of the warmachines, and that in itself is a bit curious. In the marshy lands are the remains of highly advanced technological warmachines, tanks and artillery, most likely hovertanks and mobile artillery units capable of spewing death at immense distances. Now it is all destroyed left rotting, and no one understands them nor can operate them. It is here important to describe how alien these objects that litter the place are. They are build of metals and alien substances, they are rusting and being overgrown, but their purpose is opaque, as is their construction. Some may still be vaguely alive, driven by remnants of artificial intelligences barely able to call out from dying speakers and perhaps able to operate a few lights, perhaps a mechanical arm. Beyond the eerie experience the characters gain no further from the exploring the warmachines, but the curiosity of the players should be kindled.

Mostly this part is creating mood and revealing the setting to the players and the PCs.

The Tomb and Fortress of Fistandantilus

This place in the module is a dungeon, that is mostly abandoned, but it does contain two dragons (whose presence seems to be a bit of a gaffe, since one has been bound by Fistandantilus since forever, but somehow it survived the catastrophe – and apparently is able to sustain itself – and has been there ever since. The other participated in the war, so it was a dragon present in the world of Krynn just 300 years ago, when the setting material claims that dragons have been gone much further than that, this dragon is an ally, who has been trapped in a stasisfield and for it no time has passed since the death of Fistandantilus, which means it possesses perfect knowledge of this era – and most likely it might know the hidden location of the dwarfgate, being an ally of the dwarves and a good creature.), and a bunch of undeads and mechanical traps, that have survived the ages.

Generally the dungeon works fine, so I won’t bother changing it much except for strengthening the secret history elements:

The Stasis Field

The module presents no reason as to why, there is a dragon caught in a stasis bubble. It just is. For some reason a stasis field manifested itself around the dragon and it’s victim (it is trapped with a goblin, that it is just about to swallow), and that saved it from Fistandantilus’ suicide strike, that killed everyone else (but the shadow dragon for some unknown reason).

The stasis field is naturally another piece of high tech in Fistandantilus’ fortress

What about the dragons?

Unless there is some reason later in the DL-series for the two dragons to have survived, I will generally just remove them. The dragon ally is relevant in the battle against the shadow dragon, and it is unable to explore the deeper parts of the dungeon, and the shadow dragon is tied to its location. So it can be removed as well.

Instead another shadow monster will be place here. Something horrible of course. What is in here, is one of Fistanditus’ monsters, that as such was killed in the nuclear blast, but its shadow was burned on the wall, and that shadow has come alive.

The ghosts

As with the shadow dragon one option is to see the ghosts as shadows burned on the wall, that has come alive, however several ghosts are rather holographic automated forces still running in the fortress even though they slowly are breaking down. In creating them as holographic forces, it connects with the strange apparitions in the sunken city of Xak Tsaroth in DL1, and ideally the PCs/the players now realize that the ghosts of Xak Tsaroth were holographic computer programs, as they are in the grave of Fistandantilus.

The Skeleton Warriors

The Skeleton Warriors begging to be released from the control of Fistandantilus and forced to fight against their will can easily be explained in science fantasy terms, as they are really mechanized armor with a semi-intelligent AI based on the personality of the wearer being forced to serve Fistandantilus. Trapped inside the armor is the bony remains of the warrior, who wore this technological marvel. Most likely Fistandantilus the AI hacked his way into the armor and took control.

The idea that the mechanized armor carries a rudimentary AI based on the personality of the wearer is useful for a later encounter, since the skeleton warriors will then foreshadow a later encounter deeper in the grave.

Chamber of the Mechanical Hydra

This chamber is in the module a labyrinth of invisible floors and walls lighted by a magical globe hanging under the ceiling, and in the midst of the chamber is a mechanical, firebreathing hydra.

As such the does not make sense whether it is fantasy, science fiction or science fantasy. It is just one those weird chambers, that challenges intruders in adventure stories, but otherwise does not really have a function.

The light in the room is not magical, but comes from a electric source, that has been running for hundreds of years. The hydra is covered in the next section, and as for the invisible walls and floors, they can be shaped by technological force fields, and one option is that they actually are mobile and a way to reshape the room so it can be utilised in many ways, but right now it is frozen into one position. By finding the controls the PCs can reshape the room. Whether or not it can be used as a weapon against the hydra is up to the DM to decide (safety measures in the system are likely).

The Mechanical Hydra

When we played this part, the players were convinced the hydra was a robot of some sort, even though we played the module strictly as fantasy and as written, and thus they decided to search for the on/off switch. In the module is uncertain as to how the mechanical hydra works, it just does. Re-imagined it is of course a part of the automated robotic defenses. With age it has begun to breake down as in the module. The only alteration really needed is to make it truly robotic and add an option of switching the robot off.

The Grave of Fistandantilus

The remainder of the grave contains more mechanical and technological traps, that are just as senseless as the chamber of the mechanical hydra, and they can be explained in much the same sense.

Of interest is only the encounter with Fistandantilus, which again is one the annoying scrptied encounters, that had my players asking all kinds of awkward questions, as they wanted to explore the room further and interact more with Fistandantilus the demi-lich.

In this interpretation he is of course an AI, and he can manipulate nano-particles or holograph projectors to create a manifestation with which he can present himself and interact with the PCs. Since this is just a manifestation and his mainframe is securely hidden away, he is safe from harm, and he can ignore the PCs at his own leisure. He can be manifested as a disinterested, incorporeal avatar, that might deign to answer a few questions, but otherwise just ignores the PCs. In this room is also the controllers for the Skeleton Warriors, and with these the mechanized armors and their highjacked semi-AIs can be put to a rest.

One main point in this encounter is to demonstrate, that not all holographic manifestations are primitive or automated programs, but that some are fully manifested AIs.

The Dwarven Helmet

Ideally aspects of the this encounter has been foreshadowed in the encounter with the Skeleton Warriors.

From an adventurers view the dwarven helmet might just be a part of a magical armor, and the module does portray it much like this, except that for some reason the owner, a dwarven prince, is tied to it, and is able to magic jar into the wearer of the helmet to tell his story.

This is not a magical helmet. It is an advanced piece of technology not much different from the apparatus that kept Fistandantilus in existence. It can carry an AI, and the previous owner of the helmet was able to leave a remnant of his personality in the helmet to tell his story and ask the heroes to return him to his grave. Briefly before his death he uploaded a part of his personality in order to survive. When the helmet is worn, he can use the technology to briefly download into the wearer to tell his story.

As to the dwarf aspect it is removed, as there are no dwarves in DragonLance, only the degenerate Aghar. Instead as detailed in the secret history post the dwarves are nothing but humans, and some of them fell and degenerated into the Aghar. So the owner of the helmet is human from Thorbaddin.

The Finale

In the Tomb of Fistandantilus the PC’s access an old computer, that has satellite maps of the lands for 300 years ago, and these maps show the route to the secret intrance to Thorbaddins realm. The mission is accomplished, the PCs har their map, and now it just a matter of leading the refugees to the gates, where DL4 Dragons of Desolation begins.

Final Words

DL3 possesses the second best dungeon in the DragonLance-series so far. It is far more interesting than Pax Tharkas, but the sunken city of Xak Tsaroth is superior. The travel section of DL3 is way more interesting than the scripted sequence of DL2, and more varied and interesting than the journey in DL1. However most importantly this module is where the science fantasy of DragonLance becomes truly obvious, and this trend continues in DL4, which however is a new low in the series due to its scripted encounters and vaguely interesting dungeon sequence.

The Hidden History of DragonLance – Part 2

In my previous post I argued, that DragonLance is really not fantasy as much as it is a post-apocalyptic science fiction or science fantasy disguised as fantasy – mostly due to the fact that the story and the setting is planted in the D&D-game.

The main evidence for DragonLance being a science fiction comes from the third and fourth module (and perhaps later in the series, but I have not studied the material that far yet), and it comes partly in the shape of some curious magic items and from vague descriptions, and then from archetypical science fiction narratives and tropes, such as domed cities connected by automated cars or trains and from “gods” destroying the world with “catastrophic” rains of fire – which in the world of pseudo-history as proponed by Ancient Alien Theorists is clear evidence of advanced aliens using nuclear weaponry and such like.

In the following I will sum up some the tropes, but others will be covered in detail in my post Re-Imagining DragonLance – Part 3b.

The Tropes

Degenerate People Living in the Ruins

The Aghar or Gully Dwarves are an obvious example of this (DL1, DL2, DL3)

Domed Cities Connected by Train

The seven underground cities of Thorbaddin in DL4 are a perfect example reminiscent of the cities in for instance Logan’s Run.

Doomed City Maintained in a Ritualistic Manner

The Steam City in DL3 inhabited by Gully Dwarves are an example of this. The city is supposed to run by steam utilizing the natural resources, but slowly it is collapsing as the city is falling apart.

Worshipping Forgotten Tech

The same Gully Dwarves in Steam City protects an ancient artefact, that they have lost the ability to use. The artefact is a black crystal on whose surface text appears, when the crystal is asked questions. This is a computer, and again this follows a not uncommon trope of lost tech in a post-apocalyptic world.

Lost City Protected by Invisible Guardian

In DL4 the PCs reach an ancient city or advanced tomb guarded by a gold dragon tied to the place, who uses an assortment of spells and shape shifting to interact with the PCs as a harmless guardian of the place. In science fiction terms the PCs have reached an automated city maintained by an artificial intelligence manifesting itself through robot and/or holographic projections.

Frozen For The Future

Another trope is the past trapped in ice in such a manner, that it easily can be observed and thus represents a perfect image of the past. In DL6 the PCs find a knight and his dragon mount trapped in ice.

The evidence

Flickering blue light

Strange ghosts and mysterious lights are present in both Xak Tsaroth og Fistandantilus’ grave (DL1, DL3), and time and again the ghosts in these sequences the ghosts are mechanically carrying out the same everyday action as from before the apocalypse. Ghosts repeating themselves in this manner are somewhat known from folklore, but these are very detailed actions with spoken lines etc. This is just as easily understood as remainders of holographic projections running own centuries later. A common element in post-apocalyptic fiction.

War Machines

In the marshes around Mount Skullcap, where Fistandantilus has his fortress are rotting war machines. These machines have been here for 300 years. Had they been catapults and ballistae they would have rotted away long ago, which is not the case. So what are these ‘war machines’? High tech weaponry slowly rusting away.

Stasis Field

Inside the grave of Fistandantilus (DL3) is a dragon trapped in a stasis field. The module does not explain the presence of the force field. It just is there, and it is hardly portrayed as a magical phenomenon, thus again a science fiction element.

Fistandantilus’ Blast

When Fistandantilus was defeated he took all with him, allies and enemies in a blast, that ruined his fortress and killed everyone on the battlefield leaving the aforementioned war machines. From one point it is just a powerful spell out of reach of the PCs, on the other hand this is just as well some sort of neutron blast, that left the war machines, but destroyed all living beings.

The dwarven helmet

At the end of the third module the PCs find the passage to the Gates of Thorbaddin, but they also find a dwarven helmet, that for some reason is inhabited by its previous owner, who magic jars into anyone who handles the helmet to tell his sad tale and have his helmet returned to his grave (in the next module). This is a curious thing, and again it may be magic – the module describes it as a magic jar-effect, but it does not describe, how or why this happened, but the science fiction point of view, this helmet carries an AI, and in this case the AI is most likely a primitive imprint of the original owner, who made it in his dying moments to send a message home, a message 300 hundred years late, but now the PCs are here, and the AI-imprint briefly manifests in the wearer of the helmet to deliver its message.

Next Up

There are more science fiction-elements to be dug out of DragonLance, and more of those in up-coming posts on re-imagining DragonLance. The presence (or absence) of the science fiction-elements does not change the flow of the modules, and can be ignored, if a reconstruction of the modules is all, that is desired.

There is one more way to view the general story of the DragonLance-modules, one that does not change the flow much either, but one that adds an extra dimension. More of this on the third post on the hidden history of DragonLance. Also coming up is the second half of the Re-Imagining DragonLance Part 3.

The Hidden History of DragonLance – Part 1

This post is related to my series on re-imagining DragonLance (DL0, DL1, DL2, DL3a). In the re-imagination of the modules, I strive to improve some of the flawed or weak parts of the modules, but also to introduce what believe is a hidden aspect of DragonLance, but before I continue doing this, this hidden history needs to be exposed.

Some time ago Monte Cook wrote briefly about Science Fantasy in lieu of his new – and rather interesting – Kickstarter (or kickstarted as it is) project Numenera, that plays out in a fantastic setting, where technology is so advanced, that it seems like magic – thus reminding us of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous third law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

This relates in its own manner to my re-imagining of the old DragonLance modules for my reason to re-imagine them came not from a desire to improve the modules though improvement were sorely needed having been designed in an age, where there was very little experience in writing story heavy functional modules (and in the 90s it was no better as several PlaneScape and Ravenloft modules can attest – and I am a fan of those settings).

No, the reason for re-imagining the modules were the obvious presence of science fiction themes and elements, and that by reading between the lines it became obvious, that DragonLance was a science fiction-setting.

Through the lens of D&D

The one main reason for this not being so obvious is the need to keep DragonLance within the D&D paradigm, thus you must have elves, dwarves, and halflings, there must be gnomes and other elements central to the D&D-rulebooks. This obscures the fantasy-elements, but they are certainly not gone.

Science Fiction … in D&D …?

Expedition to Barrier Peaks is a classic, where the heroes discover a crashed space ship, encounters robots and other strangeness, but it is not the only module with science fiction-elements. The DA-modules for D&D becmi had the heroes travel back in time to distant past, where a spaceship has crash landed. Later this spaceship became a central object in the grand history and cosmology of the D&D Mystara-setting (among other things including a nuclear physics scientist among the Immortals of Mystara, i.e. that is the Mystaran version of deities) – see Gaz3, Gaz10, Gaz13, PC4 as well as Hollow World Campaign Setting and Wrath of the Immortals as well as the final episode of Voyage of the Princess Ark.

In CM6 Where Chaos Reigns the characters travel in time to three different ages to save a dimension from a time travelling, technological highly advanced race, the Oard, that are a bit like the Borg, and now the PCs must save the world in different eras from the borgish monsters.

In the D&D becmi-module IM1 The Immortal Storm the characters being Immortals since this is the i of the becmi-scale they travel to another dimension, where they end up in modern-day New York.

In the PlaneScape-setting can also remnants of spaceships be found, but they seem almost like easter eggs hidden to amuse GMs and players, rather than an attempt to add science fantasy to D&D.

In the AD&D 1st DMG were also rules for cross overs to Gamma World, so in general the D&D-games were not exclusively tied to a fantasy setting, but kept science fiction-elements as an option.

The Science Fantasy of DragonLance

In my re-imagining DragonLance I have hinted at the presence of technology, but it is not until DL3 Dragons of Hope it becomes truly obvious, that the re-imagining includes science fiction-elements. This works best when presented as a surprise for the players. However the science fiction-elements are not elements that I am adding to DragonLance. They were there all the time. I will only be pointing them out.

Next up is retelling the story of DragonLance, but this time emphasizing the Science Fantasy elements.

Retelling the Story of DragonLance

This is not the complete story, but it covers most of the elements, that can be gleamed from the first modules.

Gods from Outer Space

Long ago an alien race came to Krynn, and they were viewed as gods by the inhabitants of this low tech world. They granted immense advances to the inhabitants, and they often communicated with the inhabitants using an elected class of priests, and often using their Messengers to bring the knowledge of the Gods. In the local language the word for Messenger of the Gods were ‘dragon’.

Things went well on Krynn, but the arrogance of mankind angered the gods – as the story has already been told in the DragonLance material – and it was decided to punish mankind. The gods dropped a nuclear device or some equivalent on or near the city of Xak Tsaroth creating the catastrophe, that forms the present post-apocalyptic DragonLance-setting. It is likely that one faction (Thakisis) tricked the other alien factions into doing this, and then led them into exile, so the Thakisis faction could return and reshape the civilizations of Krynn, perhaps as slave races mining rare resources for their alien masters posing as gods.

Having regretted their decision the aliens went into a self-imposed exile, where they abandoned the population on Krynn to fight for itself.

Meanwhile back on Krynn the survivors of the nuclear blast escaped to the plains of Abbasinia – thus the name of the plains, Lands of the Abandoned – and from here the survivors split into three groups: The plains people, who disavowed technology forever, the first emigrants who went west and settled the town of Solace and Haven – hence the names of these settlements – and then a group went south to find shelter in the Seven Cities of Thorbardin.

The southbound emigrants passed the ancient fortress of Pax Tharkas and soon reached the lands of the Agar and their Seven Cities of Thorbardin. However the gates were closed and the emigrants were left to their own, had it not been for Fistandantilus.

Fistandantilus and His Fortress

In an ancient past the engineer Fistandantilus never felt appreciated for his technological knowhow and immense skills, so he uploaded himself as an AI to his mobile, technological fortress. From this position he led the southbound emigrants in battle for the Seven Cities of Thorbardin. In the plains near the Seven Cities it became a mighty battle involving armies of war machines, however Thorbardins mobile fortress were invaded by hostile forces, and Thorbardin released his neutron weapons in order to stop his enemies at the cost of his allies. Now the plains are littered with lifeless war machines and the mobile fortress were frozen in place. In the depths of the fortress Fistandantilus lived on trapped in the isolated circuits of his computers.

The Seven Cities of Thorbardin

Hidden beneath the seven domes are the wondrous cities of the Agar. The Agar were another breed of humans being slightly different from the people of Xak Tsaroth. The Agar had one weakness and it was their susceptibility to radiation. The agar population living in the domed cities that survived almost unscathed, but any agar living outside the domes were corrupted by the radiation and their descendants became the gully dwarves. There were agar living in Xak Tsaroth and at Pax Tharkas, and their descendants all became gully dwarves.

The domed cities have since fallen from their technological might and the survivors of the Agar have become mere shadows of their great ancestors, and now they live in a state of war between the domed cities.

One of the wonders of the domed cities is the flying city, which was the seat of the leaders of the Agar, but now the flying city is being run by an AI waiting for people to return to its city.

The Dragon Army and Lord Verminaard

The lords in the heavens have disagreed on how they should treat the people of Krynn. After having been lured to destroy the human population by one faction of aliens, they all went into exile to reflect on their actions. The faction that tricked the other aliens into destroying the civilization of Krynn had other plans, and they have now returned to reshape the population on Krynn in a new image. To do this they have sent their servant Lord Verminaard.

Lord Verminaard is likely just a robot or a cyborg. Most likely a cyborg with psychic powers. He has been upgraded by his lords from the stars, and been given several dragons as his servants. Lord Verminaard may be the descendant of the human servants, that served the “evil” aliens from outer space, and he has now sent back to Krynn to conquer the world.

Through a program of genetic hybridization he has been given an army of draconians.

So where is the evidence for this?

I will address this in my next post on the Hidden History of DragonLance.