Posts Tagged ‘D&D’

The promise and disappointment of Dragon Wing


Returning to books and films you liked when you were young is an exciting but also slightly risky endeavour. It’s fun to rediscover old familiar territory, but there’s a very real risk that that old wonderland will turn out to have been a plastic swing, a see-saw and some sand with cat-poo buried in the corners.

And so, it was with some trepidation that I recently went back to Dragon Wing, the first book in the Death’s Gate septology by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickmann. I remembered it as a great world, but not the greatest story. And I was proven right.

Please note: this is a book review. But it is also a post about world building. There might be more to come on that topic, so if that’s your bone, stay tuned!

The sundered world

Dragon World takes place in Arianus, the world of sky. It is indicated that this takes place in “our” world sometime in a future in which the world has been split into four (or five, or more) worlds. Two races of powerful magicians, the Sartan and the Patryn, fought for control over the world, and rather let the Patryn win the whole world, the Sartan split the world. They made four worlds corresponding to the elements, and created the Labyrinth, a prison for the Patryn. Several hundred years later, the first Patryn are reaching the end of the Labyrinth into the glorious city of Nexus, and through the Death’s Gate into the four worlds to which the “mench” races of humans, elves and dwarves have been transported. But where are the Sartan? And why are the worlds failing?

The first book takes place solely on the World of Sky, Arianus. The people of Arianus live on floating islands of coralite, a porous material that secreted by a worm – like coral. The coralite is filled with a gas, keeping it floating in the air.

The floating islands of Arianus fall in three layers. In the Middle Realm, the elves and humans fight a long standing war, with human dragon riders raiding elves and elven dragon ships attacking human settlements. In the High Realm, the Mysteriarchs, the most powerful of all human wizards, have secluded themselves from the world. And down below, the Gegs (or dwarves to anyone but themselves) serve the great machine, the Kicksey-Winsey, every geg serving the great machine in some capacity for a significant portion of their lives. The machine is autonomous, seemingly has a will of its own, and is revered by the Gegs who serve it without really knowing why or what the purpose of the machine is. It does, however, produce a number of trerribly useful byproducts, like wooden beams, cloth – and water.

Now, in a world of flying, porous islands, water will fall, accumulating at the bottom. This means that while the Gegs live with almost constant thunderstorms, the High Realms have perpetual sunshine. It also means that while the Gegs have plenty of water, to everybody else, water is a most precious substance. Convenient for the elves, then, that the Gegs revere them as gods, delivering monthly supplies of water to keep the wheels of the elven empire turning.

The Assassin, the Idealist and the Changeling

The plot of Dragon Wing starts out rather dramatically. Hugh the Hand, a notorious assassin, is saved literally with his head on the executioner’s block, in order to be hired for what seems like a very easy job: to kill the king’s son. But the prince, ominously named Bane, is really the son of a mysteriarch. Along is also the prince’s clumsy and unseemly chamberlain (thought there is something odd about him).

Meanwhile in the low realm, the idealist geg, Limbeck Bolttightner, is sentenced to death for having incited young gegs to damage the Kicksey-Winsey – the worst crime a geg can commit. The means of execution will be flying out into the raging storms below. But like Hugh, Limbeck is saved, and he brings someone with him from below: Haplo, a Patryn, come to scout out Arianus for his master, and to seed chaos in the realm.

Of course, these two groups will meet and travel through the world of Arianus. When he book ends, the story of Arianus will be mostly closed, while the stage will have been set for the overarching story connecting the seven books.

But where are all the people

If the names of the authors of this book, Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickmann, sound familiar, it is because they are the creators of one of the most famous D&D campaign settings and book series: Dragonlance (they seem to have a thing for dragons). That world is a great and rich world, with many different cultures and races, interesting and exciting epochs and a great story that you can immerse yourself in. It is also, however, a world that is very much made for high adventure. Much of the world seems like a backdrop for heroics and villainy, war and, most of all, adventure!

Dragon Wing feels somewhat the same. I keep wondering how this world works – where are all the people? How are all these realms kept running? Where are they – physically, in a world that can seemingly be traversed in a few days? A world that can be kept running on water sent through just one tube for a few hours every month (there are a few other sources of water, but they seem limited). In one scene in the book, someone tries to trick our heroes by creating an army of illusions, reproducing the same people over and over again, but creating a hollow world in the process. The same goes for the whole book: it feels hollow, claiming to portray a whole world, but that world is just a backdrop, without any real gravity.

It seems such a shame. Weis and Hickman have the makings of a great world here, but they didn’t make it feel real. And don’t tell me it can’t be done! George R. R. Martin does it eminently in his Song of Fire and Ice! Joanne K. Rowling made a world that started out for kiddies, which hinders her worldbuilding a little, but Hogwarts always  feels real, teeming with students. But sadly, I don’t get that sensation from Dragon Wing.

Something else that Martin and Rowling do well, is write. Rowling has a playful attitude towards her language, without which Harry Potter would surely have flopped. And while Martin doesn’t write Shakespearean prose, his writing underlines his world, as well as the specific pair of eyes this chapter is seen through. I don’t get this from Dragon Wing either. The prose is a bit awkward, and the storytelling a bit off. I don’t really believe the characters. They seem to be caricatures, stereotypes. Alfred is too clumsy, the villain too cruel, Hugo too cold. And part of this is the prose, which doesn’t make it all seem real to me.

…but it was a good idea

Despite my criticism, I don’t dislike Dragon Wing. It was not a waste of my time to re-read it. It is a b-novel – a high-fantasy adventure. Well, that’s what I got. It’s less black and white, than Dragonlance, and more about a greater ethical dilemma, which is good. And it presents a great idea for a world – a world that, from what I remember from reading it long ago and reading up on it on Wikipedia, will be even more fleshed out in the following books into a great little cosmology. A special place in my heart is reserved to the Gegs, who may best be described as hobbits meet the industrial revolution minus unions, plus worship of the machine. If the world hadn’t been so shallow, I would have wanted the campaign setting immediately!

But it IS shallow. And that is what is keeping me from picking up book two, what prevents me from immediately following Haplo into the World of Flame. I will probably do it before too long – but it will be to discover the world and cherish the good ideas, not to savour a truly good book.

Archetyping classes: why the wizard can hog the spotlight.

Nis has spotted one of the big problems with the way AD&D was put together: a Wizard would start out as the wimpy apprentice, but end up as an all-powerful master of cosmic forces – think Elmister, Gandalf or beyond. The story of Raistlin Majere in Dragonlance is a very good example of this journey: he starts out as the sickly kid who is brought to the academy of magic by his strong and attractive brother, but ends up travelling the time-stream to go up against the mightiest wizard in all history, and ending it all by making a bid for divinity.

So, what’s the issue? Raistlin’s story is a very traditional story of the nobody who becomes a somebody, a very typical tale in fantasy literature. You can find the same tale in Wizard of Earthsea, in the Pern books (though they are rightly science fiction), Star Wars, both the old and the new (which are rightly fantasy). A true Hero’s Journey!

Yes, and that is all well and good for the person playing the mage. But the problem is that it is very much a story with the mage as the clear main character. And in a campaign with four or five players, you want four or five main characters, unless the point is expressly to have one character as the lead. Take a look at the place left for Caramon, Raistlin’s Brother: he starts out as an able warrior, but ends up as a chubby tavern-master in an insignificant little village. And while that could be a good story if told right, it pales when it has to compete with Raistlin and his play for power.

The problem, when viewed within the scope of D&D, is exaggerated because the character class of wizards have their own sphere of activities within which they excel, AND they can excel at all the other classes’ areas of expertise as well. Their fireballs and magic missiles can out-damage the warrior, while their knock, clairvoyance and invisibility can out-sneak the rouge. Furthermore, none of the other classes have much of a chance to beat the wizards at their own game: it takes a wizard to detect magic (a priest could probably do it, but they are in many ways on the sideline of this equation, being the “healer” who is indispensable, but in a support position).

Having identified this problem, Nis suggests a number of ways to scale down the wizard s0 that the others will still be able to shine. Some of these are: allowing non-wizards to detect magic, requiring concentration for keeping spells going, imposing risks of failing spells, requiring longer summoning times for spells and restricting the domain of spells each wizard has access to. Much of this has already been done in other games. Warhammer FRP 3rd edition restricts wizards to one of eight rather different schools and requires summoning spell power before casting your spell. Summoning too much power risks invoking the Ruinous Powers, with potentially horrible consequences. Shadowrun, on the other hand, requires a roll for casting a spell, and casting a spell deals an amount of damage to the wizard.

In many ways, I agree with this approach: in D&D, magic lacks the feeling of dealing with arcane and mysterious forces. With boring names (Summon Monster I-IX, anyone?) and no-flavour castings, wizards have become Reality Technicians rather than Wielders of Arcane Forces. Many other systems capture this element of wizardry far better, like the above mentioned – and Mage, of course. But I do feel that there is something else that could be done.

Re-archetyping the heroes

Morten identifies this other approach, although I disagree with his suggested solution: Wizards are so powerful compared to fighters and thieves because of the way a fighter and a thief is perceived: a fighter is someone who fights, and maybe breaks bars and lifts stuff, while a thief sneaks, steals and back-stabs. The domains covered by their archetypes are very limited, and so they are easy to replace.

If that is the case, we should change and broaden the archetypes, giving them more to work with, and making it more difficult to replace them. Morten suggest the “adventurer” as a replacement for the fighter and the “soldier of fortune” (or rather, the Danish equivalent, “lykkeridder,” which is far less soldiery) as a replacement for the thief. The adventurer is all about fighting monsters, exploring dungeons, talking to people on his way, and so on and so forth. Meanwhile, the Soldier of Fortune is all about using what Lady Luck sends his way, using sleigh of hands, deception, attention/intuition, sneakiness and a skill for talking to people. This would retool the characters in a way that still gives them a relatively clear domain, but one that covers many activities instead of a few. The adventurer is not JUST the fighting machine, strength powerhouse, and the Soldier of Fortune is not JUST the lock-smith and go-to sneak.

My first issue with these two examples is that they are both very clearly oriented towards adventuring. The good thing about the wizard is that he will graduate from his travelling life into a life of traversing the planes, being political and tending to his magical menagerie – there is a vision of maturity build into the archetype. In AD&D, the Fighter had a built-in assumption that he would eventually settle down as a castle lord somewhere, and most of the other classes had similar built in assumptions. But an adventurer is not an adventurer if he’s not adventuring. In other words, the adventurer is stuck as the travelling, restless guy for ever. Similarly with the Soldier of Fortune: if he’s not living on his luck, what is he?

My second issue is that these two classes don’t have clear appeals to archetypes of what we are striving to become. The Wizard is striving to become Gandalf, Merlin, Elminster or Raistlin. But what about the Adventurer? Marco Polo?

Instead, I’d like to suggest some other archetypes, and thus replacement classes, for some of the standard D&D classes. I’ll also try to indicate a starting point for them, on par with the wizard’s feeble apprentice.

The Fighter: The Hero/the Knight/the King

To my mind, the problem with the fighter is that he is more or less just a brute fighter. But if we look to literature, who are the great warriors? It’s Hercules, it’s Conan, it’s Achilles. In Norse mythology, it’s clearly Thor, the great god of thunder. In A Song of Ice and Fire, Robert Baratheon is an example of this archetype at its disgraceful end. They are the great martial heroes, wielding their powerful weapons, conquering their enemies. At the same time, they have a certain charisma, inspiring both fear and respect, seducing women and making boys want to be them.

There is another aspect of the warrior archetype, one that could either be perceived as part of the fighting class, or as its own class: that of the more strategic warrior, keeping a cool head and using strategy and wit to best his foe. Think of Tyr from Norse mythology: the god of war, not of fiery fights but reasoned battles and calculated sacrifice. In ASOIAF, it’s Eddard Stark, the intelligent, conscientious warrior. This is the archetype of the Lord, the General, or indeed, the King.

Which brings me to the one and only King, and no, it’s not Elvis: it’s Arthur, of course. Arthur bridges two fighter archetypes: he is the King, regal, authoritative, wise. But he is also the Knight: brave, courteous, inspired by Duty. Arthur’s Knights all represent this archetype, as do Joan of Arch, St. George, Jaime Lannister and many other people from ASOIAF. You could probably point to many people from the Saga’s, and I’d say that Beowulf sits somewhere between this archetype and the Hero

Now, in D&D, the Knight sits somewhere between the Fighter and the Paladin classes. Which gives me an opportunity to ask: does the Paladin have a place as a separate class, or is it just a fancy way to allow a Fighter/Cleric dual-class? Sure, Holy Warriors are a stable of many mythologies – but does it require a separate class? Not only that, a separate class, only for knights who can ALSO conjure miracles. In many ways, I like the Paladin, but if I were designing a role-playing system without any consideration for traditions within the genre, the Paladin, as a class with tight restrictions on morality, background and equipment, wouldn’t stand a chance. I’d consider it better to encourage people to multiclass as Fighter/Clerics (or possibly Knight or Hero instead of fighter).

As for starting out point, fighters in classic D&D start out as fairly competent warriors. But I would perhaps start them out a little lower in the hierarchy: maybe as militia, as young squires, hoodlums, or young men, just setting out.

The Rouge: The Trickster

In D&D 3.0, WotC actually broadened this class considerably, rebranding AD&D’s Thief to the more catch-all “Rogue.” Nevertheless, more could be done with this archetype.

So, who are the icons of this archetype? Off the bat, Loki seems the obvious poster boy for Tricksterdom. Varys the eunuch spymaster from ASOIAF is another good example – one might include Littlefinger as well, but he is a far less clear-cut case. Wormtounge is more clear-cut, I’d argue. From Anansi Boys, Anansi is a very good example of a (largely) benevolent Trickster. For some very benevolent rogues, see most of the (main character) hobbits in LotR, not to mention Bilbo in The Hobbit.

The Trickster is the manipulator and the sneak. This archetype is all about hidden dealings and tricking the other party. He is the spy and the thief, but he might also be the scheming courtier. In this way, one might perceive Cercei (from ASOIAF) as a rouge. In fact, retooling the Rouge to being about all kinds of hidden agendas would mean that both the Thieve’s Guild and the King’s Court are teeming with Tricksters.

The Trickster can start out as a low level thief. However, there might be more interesting ways to start off. Maybe a street urchin, a young courtier or a refugee from the courts could all be ways to start off. I feel like the Trickster’s story should also include a Loss of Innocence: getting used to deceiving people as a way of life.

The Bard: The Storyteller, the Observer, the Orator, the Soothsayer

The Bard is a strange bird. I mean, what on earth is his purpose? To tell the other adventurer’s stories? Be a mediocre replacement rouge? Not particularly impressive.

But that doesn’t mean that he can’t have a purpose. In some way, the bard can act as a counterpoint, or a complementary, to the Trickster. Where the Trickster/rogue is all about not being noticed, the Bard is all about getting noticed. In this way, you might peg him as Friar Tuck of the story of Robin hood, or, in a weird way, Tyrion Lannister and Lady Catelyn of ASOIAF (though the former is perhaps more clearly a Trickster).

I think the argument could be made that this should rightly be part of the Trickster class, but I could accept an argument to keep it alive – moreso than the Paladin.

The Ranger: the Ranger/ the Pathfinder/ the Outlaw/ the Hermit.

Some might think that I’d think the Ranger would better belong with the Warriors. But, no, not at all. You see, the ranger does have a lot of things that sets him apart from the warrior.

Some characters that might be associated with this archetype are: Aragorn (duh), Robin Hood, Faramir, Jon Snow and Artems. Heimdal is a maybe on this: he might be seen as a kind of Hero or Knight, but I’d argue that his primary task is guiding people.

A bit of a dilemma

…and so on. I don’t consider the above a complete list. For one, I haven’t dealt with the wizard, just as I haven’t really mentioned the cleric. One could also consider keeping the Druid (as a mystic/witch/wise man) and the monk (as a mystic warrior/martial artist/spiritual warrior). The Barbarian I’d consider a kind of Hero.

The question is, of course, whether to make very broad, non-specific classes and leave the  fleshing out to the players, or whether to provide very specific and narrow classes, thus also providing a lot of flavour. I am more partial to games that allow me to hammer out my own character with a lot of freedom, and to steer his course on my own. For epic storytelling, however, it might be good to set your hero on a course, and see him move towards a glorious finale right from the beginning.

In any case, I think it’s important to look at the story potential in whatever you want to include in a role-playing game. The game is all about storytelling, after all. And so, to me it is more important to balance story potential than to balance technical game play mechanics.