Dragonlance: Fifth Age Design Team Interview

Dragonhelm sits down with four members of the Dragonlance: Fifth Age design team: Sue Weinlein Cook, Miranda Horner, Steve Miller, and Stan!

Dragonhelm: Tell us about yourselves, how you each got into game design, and how you got into Dragonlance.

Sue: When I started working at TSR in 1992, I was interested in publishing, not in game design per se. My first job there was in the Book Department as editorial assistant, which translates into “what no one else wants to do.” But it was great experience. I got to proofread manuscripts, review submissions, plan author appearances, and lots more. Later I moved into the Games Department to become an editor, but at that time, TSR wasn’t really publishing the Dragonlance game line. When talk started of bringing back the product line around 1995, I was first in line to join the team—I was a Dragonlance fan long before I started working at TSR. I edited quite a few products in the Dragonlance: Fifth Age line and became the team’s creative director/brand manager following our acquisition by Wizards of the Coast and the move out to Seattle.

Stan!: I came into game design through various jobs (editor, author, assistant art director) at West End Games and then at TSR. It’s a long story filled with many missteps and miscommunications, but it all ends happily (like a 1940s musical). Back at TSR they had product groups where a single pool of designers and editors worked together on various settings. The group I was in had both Ravenloft and Dragonlance. I was working as a Ravenloft editor when a hole opened up in the Dragonlance design schedule, and I selfishly jumped at the opportunity. Who knew that I’d be paying for … errrrrr … be so richly rewarded for my efforts for so many years.

Miranda: My first game industry position was as an editor at West End Games. They had an opening, and since I had made myself known to them by having game days at the local bookstore at which I was working, they thought of me as a possibility. After some time at West End Games, I gained an opportunity to work for TSR as a game editor. I spent some time in the AD&D; core group, then worked briefly on Ravenloft products. When positions were shifting around in the groups, I mentioned to those in charge that they could shift me to another fantasy line since I knew I would enjoy working with any of them. I had read game material and novels for each line over the years, and I was quite familiar with them all! So, that’s how I got shifted over to the Dragonlance line. I came to the team after Sue, Steve, and Stan! did. My involvement came right around the time of the Wizards of the Coast acquisition and after the Saga rules had been established.

Steve: I got into Dragonlance when I picked up DL12, an installment in the original adventure series that was based along the same plotline as the Chronicles trilogy. Up to that point, the only fantasy game world I had any interest in was the Known World, but DL12 fed my imagination like no module had before. The characters and their relationships and backgrounds as they appeared in that product caused me to spin all sorts of storylines based around them. I was particularly fond of Kit and Skie. Another aspect I loved about that product was the fact that lots of territory was mapped and filled with adventure hooks. The Goodlund Penisula and the Blood Sea Isles could provide months of gaming for me and my group. From there, I gradually picked up the rest of the DL series. They were the only AD&D; adventure series I looked at during that period, because I was more than content with the Frank Mentzer-edited D&D; editon (the one that originally appeared in a series of boxed sets and was ultimately complied into the D&D; Rules Cyclopedia).

I guess I am an odd man out as far as Dragonlance goes. I had absolutely no interest in the novels, and I didn’t even read a single one until went to work at TSR in 1994. One of the first tasks I had there was to create pitches for a Dragonlance animated feature, and to help create a line bible, so I felt obligated to be familiar with every scrap of DL information that had made it into print (and even stuff that didn’t… one of the fun things at that point was going through the thirteen or so file boxes of notes from the earliest days of Dragonlance in the 1980s).

As for how I got involved in game design, by 1994, I’d already spent a few years working as a feature and entertainment stringer and editor, as well as a publicist for PBS. I was getting burned out on journalism, and I felt that the PBS gig was a dead end. I mentioned this to my game group one night, and one of them said, “Someone gets paid to write RPG stuff. Why don’t you try that?”

The next day, I cold-called TSR, and asked for Bruce Heard–the product manager of my beloved D&D; line, as well as the co-author of the excellent DL12 adventure. It turned out that Bruce’s main job for TSR was as their freelance coordinator, and within weeks, I had my first freelance assignment for TSR. That was late spring, and by Thanksgiving of 1994, I had been brought in staff at TSR.

Now, I should probably say that working for TSR wasn’t the first RPG designing I’d done. In 1993, I was involved in an ill-fated attempt to create an RPG based on a fantasy comic book that was quite popular during the late 80s and early 90s. The basic mechanics for that game ultimately made their way into a series of comedy RPGs that I gave away during the early days of the Internet, via ftp sites and newsgroups. These were the NUELOW games, which included Fairies!, Horndogs!, and Ugly Ducklings and Ice Queens!

Dragonhelm: What are your thoughts on 20 years of Dragonlance? Any special memories along the way?

Stan!: Seriously, I never thought that on Dragonlance’s 20th anniversary I would still be involved in the world of Krynn! My best memories are of the amazingly talented people I’ve gotten to work and become friends with along the way.

Steve: I think Stan!, Sue, Miranda, Duane Maxwell, Bill Connors, Harold Johnson, and I made a great creative team. I particularly enjoyed working with Stan!, Sue, and Miranda. I think our talents played will off each other, and I think that our collaborations were great.

Sue: I’m not surprised Dragonlance has endured and blossomed for 20 years, because the storylines have such an ability to touch readers and players. I remember the letters I used to get when I worked in the TSR Book Department opening the mail. They were from mothers who wrote to the company to say, “Thank you for your Dragonlance books. My son never was interested in reading, and now that he’s discovered these books, he’s devouring 320-page novels and asking for more.” What better compliment could one ask for?

Miranda: I anticipate Dragonlance being around for a lot longer. It seems like just yesterday that I was working on material for the 15th anniversary, in fact! I have a lot of happy memories of my time as an editor for the line. I couldn’t have asked for a better team, in fact. As if it wasn’t already enough fun working on Dragonlance, those who worked with me made the experience the best it could have been, I think!

Dragonhelm: When you guys were working on Dragonlance, you had many challenges. For example, Dragons of Summer Flame had just concluded, which resulted in one moon and no magic. How did you approach these challenges?

Sue: We had started planning the new Dragonlance game line before Dragons of Summer Flame appeared. When we read the advance copies of the book, we were surprised at the turn of events, of course, but it gave us an interesting jumping-off point. Our lead designer Bill Connors took the disappearance of the gods as a challenge. Right off the bat, it helped us decide to advance the storyline by 30 years and make something of a fresh start with the game line.

Stan!: In addition, the first five follow-up products were designed at the same time that Jean Rabe was writing the Dragons of a New Age trilogy. This was the first time that books and RPG products were developed concurrently. (Even the original DL series started before the novels.) We worked very closely with Jean through memos and sharing drafts of the manuscripts.

Sue: That’s true. We also kept in touch with Margaret throughout the development of the Dragonlance: Fifth Age. I remember how happy I was when she gave it her stamp of approval!

Stan!: I know it was a challenge for us all, but in the end I think that the synchronicity worked to the benefit of both the games and the novels.

Steve: Then and now, I saw lots of untapped potential in Dragonlance as it existed in the game material. To me, Dragons of the Summer Flame was a fantastic waste of that potential. So, in the products I had major input on, I tried to strike a balance between drawing on elements in “Classic” Dragonlance that still had lots of room for growth and development while moving the world forward into its new age.

Dragonhelm: One of the changes to Dragonlance during the Fifth Age was the change from the AD&D; system to the SAGA system. Tell us about this change and how it impacted the setting.

Sue: Back around 1995, TSR management was interested in developing a non-AD&D; game. Our creative director, Harold Johnson, wanted to see what could be done along those lines with the Dragonlance Saga. I thought the idea had a lot of potential — right off the bat, I was intrigued by the notion of developing a “storytelling” game that could capture the Saga’s epic flavor.

Harold brought in game designer William W. Connors, known for his creative work on the Ravenloft line, as the lead designer for the game. Bill—who is a fan of all sorts of games, from RPGs to card games—came up with the idea of trying a card-based system with a special “Fate Deck” for action resolution. As editor and “continuity cop,” my role was to make sure the world advanced as well as the game mechanics and to supply story-related details to jibe with the new system.

Stan!: The game system had a subtle but ongoing effect on the storyline. We had to find ways to explain the changes in ways that would make sense to readers and to characters living in the world. For example, in the game, sorcery and mysticism were represented by different game mechanics, and in the novels, they were portrayed as distinct styles of spellcasting. It’s clear that the game rules had an effect on the story, but we never thought about it in that sort of blatant way. It all happened organically.

Sue: I was very gratified to see the Dragonlance: Fifth Age game win “Game of the Year” from Games Magazine the year it debuted, and I know Bill was too.

Stan!: I still think it’s a really great game.

Dragonhelm: How did the magic of the Fifth Age come about? It seems to have a “new age” feel to it.

Sue: Well, I spent a lot of time reading and rereading the last few pages of Dragons of Summer Flame when we were developing the new game. At the end of the book, as you recall, the heroes are told that this is their time, their new age. They must look to themselves to determine their fate from now on. We seized on that idea for the magic system of the new game. Without the gods around to bestow the power of divine magic and High Sorcery, mortals are free to access the inherent magic of Krynn via the mystical magic of the heart and the mental art of sorcery. At least, that’s how we saw it.

Stan!: We looked to the history of Krynn to find examples and rationales for how the new magic could work. Of course, we didn’t explain EVERYTHING to the readers. We saw it as rather like wild magic, which existed even before the Towers of High Sorcery were built. Our thoughts were that in ancient times, mortals were not mature enough to successfully manipulate these forces, but at the outset of the Age of Mortals, they had fulfilled that potential.

Dragonhelm: How did the Academy of Sorcery come about?

Sue: Bill Connors created the Academy of Sorcery as a place where Palin Majere could instruct followers from all over Ansalon in the new magical techniques.

Dragonhelm: Tell us about the origins of the dragon overlords.

Stan!: Twenty years ago, when Dragonlance started, dragons were the biggest, baddest monsters of all. Somewhere along the line, they became just another set of AD&D; stats. But in the Dragonlance setting, they can’t be “just another monster.”

Sue: So Bill suggested that the new storyline could make dragons bigger and badder than ever—the largest dragons ever seen on the face of Krynn, in fact. These became the dragon overlords. Each of the original design team members got to name one of the dragon overlords. Bill named Malys (Malystryx). Skip Williams (designer of Heroes of Steel and The Last Tower) named Gellidus the White. I named Beryllinthranox (green’s my favorite color), or Beryl. And Steve named Onysablet (Sable), the Black. And of course, Skie (Khellendros) was already there waiting for us.

Steve: I defined Sable (the mad scientist of the dragons–a concept that predated the whole overlord thing) and Sunrise (who isn’t an overlord, but who was to have played a role that ultimately never came to pass), as well as something of their part in the larger setting. I later expanded upon Mirror (who I think was originally Sue’s baby) and Khellendros (although he was disguised as a patron of the Citadel of Light).

Dragonhelm: How did Afflicted Kender come about?

Stan!: Afflicted kender turned out to be one of the most controversial additions to the setting.

Sue: The concept for them, of course, was to drive home to the reader the fearsomeness of the new dragon overlords. These monsters were so horrendous, even the lively-natured kender could never be the same again after having encountered them.

Stan!: Steve had conceived the perfect backstory for the afflicted kender. Unfortunately, the series just didn’t go on long enough for us to tell that tale.

Steve: They are clearly similar to the Marak kender from Taladas, and I took that as evidence that afflicted kender weren’t new in the setting, just in what had been presented about it. I came up with the (now invalidated) theory that afflicted kender had been present in Ansalon in the first couple of centuries after the Cataclysm–the kender suffered as greatly as a result of the Cataclysm as the Goodlund kender did when Malys laid waste to Goodlund. I was of the opinion that in three generations, there would be no more afflicted kender, as the horrible experiences that had scarred part of the kender population would be gone from living memory, and there would be no more paranoia among them.

Dragonhelm: There has been an ongoing debate in the Dragonlance fan community on whether or not the Legion of Steel is considered a knighthood. Some fans will argue that many of the original members of the Legion used to be Knights of Takhisis or Knights of Solamnia, while other fans will compare the Legion to Dragonlance’s version of the Harpers and say that they don’t have the same chivalrous feel. What is your take on this issue?

Sue: I always saw it as a legitimate order, just of a different flavor than the traditional knighthoods.

Stan!: It was an organization born of its times.

Miranda: I thought of it as an order, but, of course, each fan can choose how to implement it in his or her own setting.

Dragonhelm: One of the big characters in the modern era of Dragonlance is Mina. Tell us a bit about her origins in the SAGA game products, and about where you saw her going. Did you anticipate that she would head in her current direction?

Sue: Her origins? She started out as a character Steve introduced in Citadel of Light, a mysterious figure that was just begging for someone to pick her up and develop her. Steve had lots of plans for her as a character.

Steve: As I recall, Mina was the creation of Duane Maxwell and myself. I think he first put in on stage in Heroes of Hope, and then I set her up as a mysterious foundling in Citadel of Light. Our plans were for her story to unfold over many products-she was to basically grow up as the 5A line progressed. From the beginning, our idea was to have her make a choice between good and evil, as well as choosing between being a vehicle for the return of the gods (as Goldmoon before her had been) or to reject them and keep the world free of their influence. We were dreaming big, and we were thinking in entirely too long a term.

So, in some ways, we anticipated the direction she was taken in. However, I was personally very disappointed in the direction she went in. I think she could have been developed more. I also disliked the way she was characterized. But, one can’t really argue with success.

Stan!: Any time you collaborate with other writers, particularly ones as gifted as Margaret and Tracy, you’ve got to be ready to let go of your preconceptions and look at new possibilities. The Fifth Age team had a loose plan for Mina’s future, but when we started developing the War of Souls with Margaret and Tracy, we realized that this character would work well in the new storyline. Together, we all helped craft the new direction of her life.

Miranda: One of the fun things about working in shared worlds is the fact that you can work with a wide range of people and bounce ideas off of them (or listen to their ideas and add your own thoughts), then watch the ideas grow into something that you never expected. Crafting a storyline together can be a ton of fun, and each person involved can bring a new perspective to the elements that are up for discussion. So, when you start brainstorming, you may have a very neat idea that you’d like to add to the discussion, but then you may end up walking out of the discussion with something entirely different. As a result, you can’t ever expect unpublished things to remain static for long, I think, and that’s both a challenge and part of the fun of working within a shared world setting!

Dragonhelm: What are your thoughts on the War of Souls, and the modern era of Dragonlance? Did you ever foresee a time that the gods would return?

Sue: Yes, I think many of us believed that in time the storyline would circle back around to the gods’ return.

Stan!: They were too integral a part of the world to stay gone. They left before and returned when Krynn needed them the most. I always knew they would return when the stakes were high enough.

Sue: The development of the War of Souls was an interesting time. The creation of a new book-and-game storyline gave us a chance to all sit down together—the game design team and the author team—and conceive the plan together. The series of meetings where this occurred back in the Winter of 1997–1998 came to be known as the Dragonlance Summit, and we accomplished so much creative work that it wasn’t long before the Forgotten Realms team decided to have its own summit as well.

Stan!: The teamwork of the summit was incredible. I wish we could have continued to work in the same building. I think that’s what made the original Dragonlance Saga so strong: the fact that the authors and designers could sit down over a cup of coffee twice a day and discuss progress and new ideas.

Miranda: Having everyone there for the summit was great. The energy we all brought to the room with us almost brought tears to my eyes sometimes, in fact. It certainly brought home to me the fact that communication is a big part of working in a shared world. Not only is it important, though, it can be great fun, and I believe that the element of fun is a very important part of working with any game setting.

Dragonhelm: Tell us about the Sage and the Herald. Is there any connection between the Herald and Astinus?

Sue: One of my favorite things about Dragonlance has always been the silver dragons’ dual identity as both humanoid and dragon. I was glad we could introduce a new character like that in the Sage, who was also the elder silver dragon Solomirathnius (“Mirror”), a survivor of the Dragon Purge.

Stan!: As for the Herald, the question you should be asking is, “Is there a connection between the Herald and Harold Johnson, former Dragonlance creative director?”

Sue: The answer, of course, is yes. Harold had a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the Dragonlance saga, both the published material and the stuff that they discussed back in the Eighties but put aside for another time. It all lived in his memory. We created the Herald as a sort of homage to him.

Stan!: I wrote an article for Dragon Magazine Annual #2 called “Hark, the Herald,” which offers a list of possible explanations for his identity. The fact of the matter is that any one of these could have been true. We hadn’t decided yet.

Dragonhelm: What are you most proud of with your work on the Fifth Age?

Sue: I am most proud of the team we built while working on the follow-up products to the Dragonlance: Fifth Age game. Sadly, Harold, Bill, and Skip had to move on to other projects, but Stan! and Miranda joined the team then to fill their shoes. The four of us, editors and designers and managers, formed the most creatively generous team I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. Everyone was always ready to lend a hand on a project, and always with the good of the product line—and the best interest of the fans—in mind.

Stan!: I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment. I’m also proud just to have been allowed to become a part of the history of the Dragonlance setting. You don’t get many chances to be part of something that touches so many people’s lives.

Of course, if you’re talking about something more practical, I’d say the work I’m personally proudest of was done on the Dragonlance Bestiary (which now has a very deserving 3rd-edition namesake published by Sovereign Press).

Miranda: I’ll third the sentiment! I don’t know, though, if I can pick something I’m most proud of in terms of products. I enjoyed the time I spent working on them all!

Steve: I think Heroes of Defiance and Citadel of Light remain among the best work I’ve produced so far. I remain very fond of the cast of characters presented in Citadel of Light (with Princess Mercy and Linsha Majere being ones I am most fond of).

Sue: Along the same lines, I’m proud of the fact that I was able to make the Legends of the Lance newsletter a reality. This was another example of cooperation between the book and game departments that really bore fruit — and was free to all fans.

Dragonhelm: Miranda, tell us about the Legends of the Lance newsletter. How did that come about?

Miranda: You have Sue to thank for the concept and the creation of the newsletter. She had the idea for it well before Wizards of the Coast acquired TSR, as I recall. Then, as the brand manager for Dragonlance, she set up the initial discussions for it and brought me in when it came time to make the concept more of a reality. I was extremely happy to help her in her efforts to bring it into existence, and I had a lot of fun working with the people and fans who contributed to the effort. Many folks at Wizards of the Coast did a great job with the production of the newsletter, too, and you’ll see them mentioned in the credits!

Dragonhelm: Sue, tell us about your work with Malhavoc Press.

Sue: My husband Monte Cook (one of the designers of Third Edition D&D;) and I formed Malhavoc Press in 2001 as his own d20 System imprint. Originally he had hoped to publish just a few products a year under that banner while he was freelancing for other companies. However, it really took off beyond our expectations, and for the last three years it’s been a full-time job for us both. Monte’s the main designer, of course, and I’m the editor/marketing director/typesetting/webmaster. Our best-selling books include titles like The Book of Eldritch Might and Monte Cook’s Arcana Unearthed. We publish eight to ten books a year in both print (through Sword & Sorcery) and electronic (PDF) formats. You can find out what we’re up to now at www.montecook.com.

Dragonhelm: Stan!, we’ve just got to know – how did you get your moniker?

Stan!: Well, I’ve actually made it a policy not to put that story down in written form (though I gladly tell it in person). The short version, however, is that it involves a former girlfriend, a half-dozen roses, and a Valentine’s Day surprise plan that would have made for a classic episode of I Love Lucy.

Dragonhelm: What other projects are you guys currently working on?

Sue: I’m pleased to tell you that Malhavoc Press has just published its first fiction anthology, a book called Children of the Rune. It ties into our Diamond Throne setting (from Monte Cook’s Arcana Unearthed) and features stories by Miranda and Stan!, as well as Monte, Jeff Grubb, Ed Greenwood, and other talented authors.

Stan!: Well, I’m doing all sorts of freelance work. Besides writing short stories for Sue and Monte, I just finished my first Dragonlance novel (I’ve previously written 9 short stories for various DL projects). It will be titled Dragon Day, and it’s due to come out in March ’05 as part of the Dragonlance: The New Adventures young adult series from Mirrorstone Books. Of course, I’ve also been busy doing work for my company, The Game Mechanics, mostly on books to supplement the d20 Modern RPG. Right now I’m examining the possibilities of writing a “fantasy noir” novel of my own (in other words, not part of an existing game or fiction world) or to creating a campaign setting for use with d20 Future.

Miranda: I still edit various articles for the Wizards of the Coast website. As Sue mentioned, I have a short story in the Children of the Rune anthology, plus I also have one in The Search for Power. I do freelance editing work now and again, too, when my schedule allows for it. My most recent freelance work was for Malhavoc, in fact! I have a fair amount of work keeping me busy well into next year now, too.

Steve: Presently, I am mostly working on Ravenloft projects for Arthaus, with Legacy of Blood coming out in January. I also have a d20 System product titled Mind over Matter coming out from ID Adventures early next year. There are also a couple of additional d20 System products that I’m creating on a purely speculative basis; one’s pretty much done, another is in the earliest of development stages, but both will need a publisher eventually. And, as always, I am also trying to get my NUELOW comedy roleplaying game back out there in a new form… the manuscript’s done, I’m just working on overcoming some art problems, and trying to con-conVINCE someone they want to put it out. So, for me, the writing front it consumed by RPGs. I still dabble in fiction, but I’m not spending enough time on it to produce anything that’s fit for public consumption.

Dragonhelm: Thank you all for taking the time to speak to us.

Stan!: Thanks for inviting us.

Miranda: It was fun revisiting my memories of my time with this great bunch of people, so for that I must thank you!

About Trampas "Dragonhelm" Whiteman

Trampas “Dragonhelm” Whiteman is best known for co-creating and administering the Dragonlance Nexus fan site. He is co-author of three Dragonlance books – Holy Orders of the Stars, Knightly Orders of Ansalon, and Races of Ansalon. When not evangelizing Dragonlance and other settings, Trampas is a husband, father, podcaster, and web designer. Trampas also enjoys reading comics, reading fantasy and scifi novels, and playing D&D.
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