Sunday, May 24, 2009

By Contrast

I went on something of a scavenger hunt through my house today; it didn't turn up what I was looking for, but it did reveal my complete set of the original Dragonlance modules (DL1 through 13), compatible with the first incarnation of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

Flicking through the first module, Dragons of Despair, I was struck by some of its similarities to Keep on the Shadowfell. It features a small town (Solace), a semi-distant dungeon (Xak Tsaroth) and an expectation that the players will travel from the town to the dungeon and kick some butt.

Unlike Keep, it features some 80 encounters, three artefacts, a new player race, a foreshadowing of the future progression of the module line, a hundred square miles of fully fleshed-out overworld terrain, an eight stanza poem detailing the module's distant backstory, and a song, complete with sheet music (!).

It's hard to see under what circumstances 4th Edition would bestir itself to include sheet music in a module, which makes me suddenly disproportionately sad.

On the other hand, it should be said that the pre-rolled party that come with DL1 mixes third-level characters with sixth-level characters, it's very easy to lose the thread of the main plot while exploring the overworld, and as awesome as Raistlin is in the novels, schlepping around with 8 HP and the devastating might of Sleep for six months of play just does not cut it when it's you holding the character sheet.


Maelora said...

This pretty much shows up the discrepancies between the various games (I can't really call them 'editions', apart from 1st and 2nd)... and what was considered valuable for each.

What's also interesting is that - back in the days of rolling your characters on 3d6 - the Heroes of the Lance had very good stats. Today, those stats would be considered laughably sub-optimal.

Sure, there was plenty wrong with AD&D, but the Dragonlance series really sparked my imagination at the time. It finally offered us the story-driven, character-driven adventures that some of us had longed for. The 'first wave' of AD&D modules (Against the Giants, Tomb of Horrors etc) never gave us that.

Oh, and Larry Elmore art instead of the cartooning rubbish we get today!

Greg Tannahill said...

I have no problem with the art we get today, especially considering we get colour on every page instead of a masterwork painting on the front and then black and white scribbles inside (I'm looking at you, 2nd Edition Monstrous Compendium).

DL1 is, mechanically speaking, vastly worse than Keep on the Shadowfell. It's a Herculean effort to keep players vaguely within the ambit of the module's set story, and the majority of encounters are about a paragraph each and completely redundant.

But it's so enthusiastic about its own material that it's hard not to be carried along by it. You really want to give it the chance to show you what it can deliver.

And it's got little bits of fluff throughout. Thunderspire to all intents and purposes is the 4E debut of the Duergar - they weren't in MM1, and they've only now turned up in MM2 - but there's very little information on what the Duergar are or why we should care about them. Gully Dwarves and Draconians, by contrast, steal the show from the moment they turn up.

Maelora said...

Well, DL1 came out over 25 years ago, so frankly, some improvement in the design really SHOULD be apparent!

But I agree the power of that module lies in its ability to inspire, to kickstart the imagination. It hints at something more epic than anything that had come before - D&D's 'Lord of the Rings' if you will. And I didn't even LIKE the books!

I don't feel colour art is automatically superior to B&W though. The full-page Forestmaster Unicorn in DL1 is superb, whereas there is some seriously subpar colour art in the 4E books (page 257 being a major culprit)

Massawyrm said...

Arguably, these were also from the era during which D&D was about creating different worlds and selling supplements based upon them. Being that this is not a viable marketing strategy in this day and age, focused, sweeping product lines driven by a single creative team are simply not on the table. This was the beginning of a passionate project that would lead to novels, side projects and an animated film.

It has since been discovered that relatively generic, non-specific world based products sell better because if you haven't bought the first product, you have little or no use for the second - creating an ever shrinking market of buyers.

That said, honestly, if you opened a module with all that in it in this day and age, people would laugh - and it would be the butt of industry jokes. I mean, honestly, who has any use for sheet music in their D&D game?

Greg Tannahill said...

Maelora - With two hundred pieces of artwork in the Monster Manual the law of averages says some will be subpar. And D&D has always had its ups and downs. Even in DL1, you have to contrast the Forestmaster with the less-than-wonderful charcoal of the well at Xak Tsaroth. For each one of those gorgeous full-colour splashes in the 2nd Edition Player's Handbook you had a cartoony blue line-art drawing of a peasant or a gnome.

Massawyrm - I don't know if you've read DL1 or that series, but the sheet music actually works. It's less in the nature of something you'll actually use in a game and more in the nature of bonus material to increase your immersion, much as Infocom used to package its text adventures with "feelies" like maps and gold coins.

I think Wizards is making a mistake in not developing worlds any more. Hollywood has finally jumped on board for high fantasy as a mainstream big-budget genre, and cross-media development is gaining steam, where you develop a world and a movie and a game all at the same time (it's so far made for crappy products but someone seems to be getting rich off it so it's presumably good business).

Wizards has grossly underutilised the selling power of any number of its properties, and when it does use them (the animated Dragonlance film) it has no idea how to quality control to ensure that the end result is an asset to the brand.

I don't think it's that campaign worlds can't sell; I think it's that Wizards can't sell campaign worlds. The argument of diminishing audience clearly isn't inherently valid - in every other medium, sequels sell better than the original. Wizards just needs to stop looking at world supplements as encyclopaedic resources and look at them as entertainment events.

KoalaBro2 said...

Pregenned characters up to 3 levels different? That's just bizarre. I read the Dragonlance books, but never played any of the modules. Interesting to note that they start you on (at least) level 3. I think the unfortunate fact is that older editions were practically unplayable until that point, given that one hit would almost certainly kill you at level 1. Probably at least part of the reason that Dark Sun was popular in my circles, despite its claim of being "more dangerous."

I agree that they're sitting on a gold mine of marketable settings. Look at how much they've made from novels over the years. It's a shame that they've never managed to find anyone competent to license the settings for other media, as that would almost certainly help to draw more people to D&D, and make it more viable to publish more setting-specific supplements again.

Massawyrm said...

"in every other medium, sequels sell better than the original."

Not inherently true. These other mediums offer cheaper alternatives to checking out the material (Paperback, video) and even then sequels often do poorly. Prince Caspian, Hostel 2 and Angels & Demons are great examples of films with high grossing originals and poorly performing sequels.

Greg Tannahill said...

Yes, you've picked three of the most famous poorly performing sequels. I think there are some very good reasons for the negative reception of each of those but it doesn't detract from the truth that all things being equal, sequels on average outsell the originals.

It's particularly the case in videogames where the effect is exaggerated by the reduced production costs involved in sequels, which can often re-use the same software engine and many of the same art and sound assets.

I'd suggest that to some extent the same thing here; that original Larry Elmore and Michael Whelan art for Dragonlance is still just as potent today as when it first appeared on the original modules and books. Pieces like Laurana standing over Sturm's dead body and Lord Soth's Ride are iconic fantasy art and even if it's not being plastered over as many books as Wizards can fit it in, it forms fantastic visual reference for an entire pantheon of video games, television shows and blockbuster movies that inexplicably aren't being produced.

Just because the brand's lying fallow at the moment it doesn't mean it's devoid of value, and only the tiniest part of that value is represented by a possible campaign book.

Massawyrm said...

Actually, I picked recent famous failures so you wouldn't have to look them up. The point was your contention of ALWAYS doesn't hold. Neither does usually. The truth is sequels TEND TO do better than their predecessors. The problem is that you're applying contradictory sales models to your thesis. There are very specific reasons that sequels tend to do better than their predecessors.

When comparing box office totals you see that a film makes $100 Million in its first run. But then it goes to DVD. Then Cable. Then Network. By the time the sequel comes out, a substantially larger segment of the population has seen the film - thus the base for interest in the film has exceeded the audience present for its initial sales run (theatrical release.)

Modules do not possess anything similar to this model. Quite the contrary, the business models for modules are one of the worst out there. They sell VERY poorly. The BEST that they sell is a single module per gaming group. That they produce them at all is part of WotC's back-to-fundamentals approach to winning back old school gamers. They DO NOT make them because they are very profitable. They just happen to be great learning tools for new gamers and familiar fuzzy blankets to much older (1st/2nd ed) ones.

I definitely FEEL where you're coming from, brother. But the math is all wrong. And the numbers are against your thesis.

GregT said...

Your "cable and DVD" argument I don't think holds up. Sequels do better across the cable and DVD market too; I don't know whether that's counting the effect of "trilogy editions" and suchlike though.

And I wasn't talking about modules; they are definitely a terrible business model. I was talking about campaign worlds on the whole, and Dragonlance as a brand.