Tal’s State of the Lance 2006

(Please be advised—I started writing this on the first of February, my 25th birthday. It’s just taken an extraordinarily long time to finish =).

So it’s February (March) now, which means that it’s once again time for the annual State of the Lance address, where I look back at what the year has offered and then consider where we’re going from here. This year is particularly special to me, not just because I turn 25, but because it represents two very important DL milestones for me. Ten years ago, Dragonlance died, and my online fandom was born.

In 1995, I was 14 and had been reading DL for 3 or 4 years (I swear, I have no idea exactly what year I started reading, but I was in 5th grade…but this also means that Dragonlance has been an integral part of my life for nearly 15 years), mainly through the library, with occasional purchases on birthdays and holidays, and whenever I could con my parents into buying me a book. So Christmas season 1995 rolls around, and as I walked through the mall, I saw at Waldenbooks a sight that stopped me dead in my tracks. A giant red hardback with Palin, some knight in armor I’d never seen before, and a CRAZY looking charcoal black-and-red dragon. A hardback dragonlance book? Mind you, I’d hadn’t seen Second Generation at that point. And it was a new book by Weis and Hickman, no less! Sold in a heartbeat!

So day after Christmas (god only knows how I restrained myself for that long, as the book came out in November, and I’m a Hindu anyway…), I plow through that sucker in a day. Aside from a few moments of confusion (Tanin and Sturm died right away? Steel? When the hell did that happen?? Not in my copy of Darkness and Light, for sure…And who the hell are these Brutes?), I absolutely loved the story. From Raist:s pistachio green makeup to Palin’s awesome “I give myself” speech at the end, Dragons of Summer Flame remains one of the most powerful DL novels ever, and the Chaos War period is still my era of choice. More important on a personal level, the acknowledgements section from that book pointed me towards AFDL and the old MPGN DLML. I hopped on that train and haven’t gotten off since. Of course, being so new to it all, I didn’t realize that the consequences of Dragons of Summer Flame were much farther reaching than I could have imagined. To about half of the fan base, the phoenix of DL died that day, and to the rest of us, she was reborn from the ashes of Chaos.

Consider – between Legends and Second Gen, Dragonlance had little-to-no forward motion at all, outside of the novellas. Yes, Frank would argue that the 2nd ed modules did in fact move the setting forward, but man, the less said about Rick Swan, the better we’ll all be. Dragons of Summer Flame’s 30 year jump and massive story ending apocalypse caught the entire fan base by surprise, and sundered us in twain. There were those who derided the lack of stories set after the War of the Lance (a period only really being covered now, and only in the YA books…), complaining that the world had hardly anytime to get to know the gods or the new political climate before it went nova again. There were also those who felt that Dragons of Summer Flame was the best work W&H had ever done, and jumped wholeheartedly into SAGA and the Fifth Age based on that strength. I know that after Dragons of Summer Flame, I really, really wanted to explore the new world, and that the fifth age did not disappoint me.

It was also the best time since the founding to join fandom. A person could easily join in the discussion having read only the Holy Six and Dragons of Summer Flame, and the peripheral books were small enough in number and readily accessible that people could easily dig deeper if they wanted. Moreover, everyone around had read practically every book, and spent a lot of time thinking about it all, and discussing the ins and outs of DL. I still remember my first ever post (or at least I think it was my first—prehistory is foggy for me) comparing DL5A to Taladas. Anyway, that period from 96-99 was a great time to be involved in the community. Aside from the dinos who hated all thought of forward motion, there was a general good feeling around. Dragons of Summer Flame brought with it an infusion of new blood and a general renewed interest in the setting. The Grandmasters held court regularly, with the Conservatives (followers of the Canon of DL5 and Leaves 89) led by Morten, the Progressives (children of the fifth age) championed by folks like Matthew L. Martin and myself, and the Moderates (cause you can’t have DL without balance!) under the auspices of Frank the Wanderer and Galwylin and Matt Lynch and The Red Wizard and many more. We had fanfics and adventures and plot hooks and rules and characters and discussions galore. People would continually cry that DL was in a slump and that nothing was going on, yet the lists at that time were more active than they had ever been before or since. We got O’Rance’s Taladas, Tavin’s Nuggets (and by extension, Dragonlance Underground), and tons of lore and fun times (Steve Miller’s Summon Fluffy Wolfykins anyone? Stan’s Palin’s Oreos spell? Yeah, good times for all). DL5A’s design team was totally immersed in the community, and we flourished despite all the misdirected anger.

Why bring up this nostalgia? Aside from the obvious anniversary of DL’s major fulcrum, fandom in 2005 has started to return to the style of the halcyon days of the early fifth age. While still maturing, the forums have really come to life lately, with discussions deeper than Raistlove and movie casts. Consider the really great thread the other month about Shinare and slavery, for instance. Authors and Game Designers have taken permanent positions on the boards as well, just as in the heyday of AFDL. Kudos especially to the YA authors for really connecting with the fan base, and using us for the resource that we are. Of course, it helps that most of the new game designers are just jumped up fans themselves. =) As a side note, it’s very weird to think that my friends are all game designers now. Back in the day, there was a clear division between Them and Us. Weis and Hickman and Niles and Stan and Steve Miller and so on and so forth—they were in a different class than us fanboys. Even now, I still become really nervous when I talk to these folks. They’re my heroes and inspiration and all that, yeah? But now, open up any SP book and read out the names of the contributors. It’s like a who’s who of DL fandom (minus one notable exception—yours truly). In the old days, we would question a lot—just how much were authors and designers dedicated to DL? How much did they _really_ know? We can’t ask that question anymore, because we know the answer. Each of those guys is just as steeped in DL as any hardcore, and each of them has a long pedigree of doing awesome fan projects and the like. At the same time, these dudes are my friends. People I’ve spent hours with on mailing lists and messaging services, arguing the finer points of DL in and out. Can’t hero worship someone you’re so casual with =).

So let’s talk about SP for a second here. After they grabbed the license for DL (something we’re all eternally thankful for), we were eager to see what they would come up with. Unfortunately, the first two releases, timed to coincide with 3.5, were rather disappointing. It is absolutely commendable, then, that every single product released from that point onwards has been better than the last. 2005 saw the release of SOS, HOotS (best acronym ever!) Legends, and the first map pouch. Spectre, though delayed, was well worth the wait. Easily the longest DL adventure module ever (bigger than the first 16 mods combined!), SoS is packed with all kinds of amazingly obscure DL bits of goodness. Cam even shoved in a surprise guest appearance that made my eyes pop, for sure. And finally, Phaethons get some love after being ignored since Wanderlust. I missed out on the map pouch, since it came to my house after I had left for Japan already, but dude, it’s Kipper! How can that be anything less than radtacular? Sean is a damned good cartographer, and that’s enough for me =)

The real story of the year (since I haven’t seen Legends yet, and likely won’t for a long time) was HOotS. Here, finally, is the definitive guide to the most important players in the game—the gods. Over the years, we’ve had numerous different definitions of who they are and what they do and what they represent, from DL5 to DLA/Leaves 89 to Time of the Dragon to TotL to Dragons of Summer Flame to DL5A to the DLCS to the Hickman version of the Martinian Canon appended to Vanished Moon. Each of those has been subtly (or dramatically, in the case of Dragons of Summer Flame and Dragons of a Vanished Moon) different from the last, and each has been intrinsically flawed in some way. I’m not going to rehash old arguments here, but suffice to say, DL’s gods have been in the midst of a 20 year long identity crisis. The main issue is that the concept of Balance in DL has never really been addressed. We had a kind of post-vedic/early Christian monotheism, where there was an Overgod whom all the minor gods worshipped, and then a set of mortals who looked towards the middle management for intercession. The good gods did what they were told, the bad gods fought for control, and the neutral gods…well, Reorx is KJ’s squire, and the rest don’t really matter. Any attempt to clarify this has led to cries that good somehow doesn’t matter if evil is an equally valid path. The problem is that these folks are very western in thought, so the idea that there could possibly be anything beyond a strict dichotomy between good and evil is lost on them. If such was the case, there would be no point in having 21 gods at all. What sets DL apart from other fantasy is that each path is balanced with each other according to the will of the high god. So why fight at all, if evil is just as good as good, so to speak, and easier to attain? Paladine explains this at the end of Spring Dawning, when asked why they just don’t destroy evil once and for all, by explaining that they fight not to destroy but to restore the balance. If the Balance is off, then the path of souls to their enlightenment is obstructed and the world risks losing integrity and being destroyed. Good was ascendant once, after all, and we know what happened there. There was a somewhat interesting, if incredibly circular, thread about this on the DL Forums, which drew the conclusion that Good fights for the balance so as to aid the souls on their way, while Evil seeks to detain them from the path of progress, or something like that. We’re currently in a situation where neutrality is finally ascendant, but I sincerely doubt that we will see another cataclysm out of this. I postulated a highly noncanonical solution the other day, where the only souls who can progress are those who embrace the middle path, eschewing too much of good or evil. Of course, in the end, this discussion is so far out of the sphere of novels or games that it’s practically useless.

I must diverge from my point here for a minute and talk about fandom. Seriously, we need to give it a rest sometimes. Margaret famously said on the DL Forums that Canon is mainly a creation of the fans, and while I was fully prepared to argue the necessity of such a thing, after this month, I’m willing to concede that she is correct. Dragonlance has a massive corpus of books and game products which all have their diehard defenders, each of whom claim that their particular vision is the purified essence of canon. They refuse to acknowledge anything else, and hinder the growth and evolution of the setting. Consider the discussion of the Gods, for instance. Matthew Martin, a dear dear friend of mine, wrote what I consider to be one of the best fanworks out there in his Martinian Canon. For whatever reason, it became the Appendix and was canonized, for a time, at least. The problem is that what makes for a great fan project is that you can sit and appreciate it as an alternate view without having to realign the entire setting around it. But when it made the jump, suddenly the entire view of Gods and the DL cosmology went swervy. Out of nowhere, we had Ionthas defying the High God and Takhisis rebelling and all sorts of very very heavy Catholic reinterpretation of Good and Evil, with neutrality being a bunch of weak fence sitters. Whoa there, bro. This ain’t the DL I know, from everything we’ve read till that point. Putting it in the mouth of Paladine helped matters not at all. So when HOotS reset the gods to a more DLA viewpoint (though keeping with the Appendix progression of souls), suddenly there was an outcry from some folks who felt that DL was being mean and denying the appendix. Well, no, dude. It’s called a course correction back to the path it used to be on. Tracy did this once before, with his Compass analogy in regards to War of Souls.

Basically, here’s the deal. The fourth age ended 10 years ago. The Fifth age ended about 4 years ago. What we have now is a new blended vision of DL that is looking at every single piece of its history and finally deciding what to keep and what to jettison. The SP line of DL has taken a firm line and is establishing what is what, once and for all. That means that my beloved kodragons are gone, but also that Verminaard isn’t descended from Huma. Soth never went to Ravenloft, and Sturm never went to the moon, but Chaos isn’t the High God or the Miltonian Devil either. For the first time, DL has a set course and a firm hand guiding it. But personally, what I want to see, and have called for since 2000, is an Ultimates-style re-imagining of DL. Go back to the beginning and integrate everything properly. There’s no reason something as cool as sorcery can’t have existed in the ancient times, for example. Just because you don’t like how some of the trees look doesn’t mean you should clear cut the forest. Though I guess that’s kinda what I’m suggesting here in a sense.

I do have to wonder though. Why has SP suddenly gone crazy over Soth and Ravenloft? There have been some statements made recently where they basically yell that Soth never went and never will go etc. Honestly, I think they7re overdoing it. DL fans by and large really like our potted plant, and for the most part, the RL books have been incredibly well received. They were fantastically written to boot, and far better than the lone DL Soth book. War of Souls resolves the issue of this character anyway, so who does it hurt that he left and came back? Time and temporalism is a strange thing, so Soth could have just as easily have been gone from Krynn for the blink of an eye. But this kind of angry crackdown just strikes of being really bitter. And its not like the Soth chapter was worth the wait, anyway. Talk about a wasted chance…

That leads me to this transition phase we’re in. Yeah, going from the fifth to the sixth age (and lets not kid ourselves—this is definitely a new era) didn’t involve a cataclysm, but we’re definitely seeing the same drastic amount of change, only now over the course of many many books as opposed to just one. I almost believe that a sharp cut would have been preferable to this long and drawn out severing, bit by bit. We’ve seen so far two separate ways to wrap up the fifth and set up the sixth. The first is the slash and burn that we saw in war of souls, lake of death, wizards conclave and that sort. Elements of the old setting are taken, torn down, and spread with propaganda to make them look evil and useless. The stories end, but in a way that satisfies nobody who actually liked those elements. Its like they were in the prime of their lives before having their legs cut out from under them. The other, and more preferable way by far, was admirably shown in the Linsha trilogy. Now, I hated Mary Herbert. Clandestine Circle and Dragon’s Bluff are two of my least favorite DL books ever. Yet with the Linsha set, we got a fantastic tale which not only wrapped up fifth age elements in a clean and satisfying manner, but also set up a really really interesting future scenario. Other transition novels have replaced fifth age elements, but not in a way that makes me want to care. I end up feeling disappointed that the story wasn’t completely told, and insulted that their replacement feels so hollow. I’m looking right at you, Wizard’s Conclave. Sometimes, it takes a little longer for the payoff to come, as we’ve seen with Sanctuary and the elves, who are really starting to grow on me, but only Linsha has thus far been a transition that has left me feeling that yes, they did this arc justice.

In this new age of DL, we’re no longer going to see the standard canon path that we’re used to. Before, there was the core trunk of W&H novels, surrounded by branches filling in backstory and side story. A new reader could easily catch up on the main plot just by reading the core. In this new era, we’re seeing DL shifting to a Forgotten Realms style of many separate self-contained lines within the world, which is a bit hard to understand. For those who aren’t familiar, the Realms features many different arcs (Drizz’t, Elminster, etc) that focus on different parts of the world and hardly ever cross over. Fans of the FR novels are generally fans of one or the other storylines, but at the exclusion of others. Now, I don’t mind this, on the whole, because it will allow DL to diversify and give us a lot more options to read, which is nice. But I don’t like how the transition is being handled. Right now, in the Mina series, we have lots of crazy god stuff going on, as well as unkillable enemies in the form of the Beloved. Yet the Solamnia trilogy takes place after this, and mentions not at all this gigantic threat to Ansalon. Nor does the elven trilogy or the minotaur books or what have you. Ansalon is just too small to sustain independent story arcs when they are all still being written as core setting changing events. If DL wants to do this, it needs to scale down greatly. However, that means that DL will no longer be The Epic Setting that it was. And I’m not sure that I want to lose that. There must be cross pollination between the various arcs to maintain any believability at all. You can’t just move the timeline ahead without making sure to at least mention what has happened. Niles did it with the Solamnia books, and now we have to have sourcebooks sit and actually explain what the hell happened to change the knights from one to three orders. This is a bad precedence to have.

This leads into the point I wanted to make—authors need a canon. Or rather, they need to start using it. Yes, it’s hard to keep track of all the changes and characters and stuff, but it needs to be done. This is a shared world, and the words you write do not exist in a vacuum. Moreover, when in a concurrent time period, authors need to be mindful of what could possibly impact their stories, so as to avoid unfortunate continuity gaffs. While you may not personally care about anything outside of your writing, know that legions of fans do indeed care, and become very unhappy when writers go maverick. There is another way, though. DL has an army of insanely dedicated fans who devote their time to keeping track of everything in dragonlance and how it all interacts. Chief among these is the amazing DL Lexicon Project, whose chief maintainer Ben has posted hundreds and hundreds of reference articles about every facet of the setting. Then there are folks like me and Cam and Weldon and so on who know the setting inside and out. And as author Jeff Sampson has discovered, I’m always willing to help find a way to ground your story in DL lore. DL is a setting bursing with awesome flavor and poorly utilized unique elements, so its far better to use something we already have than to go and dig a new hole for the same niche. And please, don’t be afraid to add culture to your books. What is better, a generic ogre, or a warrior from the khanate of kern?

The main thing is to not feel constrained by canon. Mark Rosewater, lead designer of Magic the Gathering wrote a really interesting article on how having design constraints actually makes for a better experience than trying to come up with something totally free. As a teacher, I’ve seen this myself firsthand. Give a group of students the chance to free write and you’ll get pages filled with crap like “I don’t know what I want to write so I’m just going to fill space la la…”. Give them a prompt, however, or some music or picture as inspiration, and you’ll get pages and pages of awesome and unique stories. DL is the same. Work within the bounds, and you’ll discover amazing new things that fit the framework of the setting. Moreover, its ok to have characters who fit the mold of their archetypes. After all, if every character is an atypical example of his class/race then readers will have no baseline to compare it too.

The other side of this coin is that fans need to learn to keep their mouths shut from time to time. It does no one any favors to raise an outcry at the first or second book of a trilogy, since the wheels are already set in motion, and the end result may yet be awesome. Fans need to realize that we have absolutely no power over the storyline, which has been planned out far in advance, laying out many many years of in game events. Face it, folks. We’re just passangers on this train, and we haven’t the foggiest when it will stop or where it is going. At least this time, we know who the driver is, and we can guess how the map will draw out based on her past inclinations.

For the first time in a long time, the books and games are not only running concurrently, but are working together to supplement each other. With the Nexus and the Lexicon, Fans are also becoming far more organized than ever before, in terms of resource gathering. And with the guys of the Whitestone Council working on the game books, the line between fan and creator is blurring, and bringing both sides together. It’s going to be a rocky ride for a while to come, until all the dust from the transition trilogies settle, but the Dragonlance at the end will have accomplished what Weis and Hickman set out to do with WoS—unify the fan base. And that, barring all else, is a great thing.

Talinthas
2-1-2006 – 3-10-2006

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