Posted on by Scott Delahunt

It’s a new year, it’s a new review.  To ease back into reviewing, let’s look at somewhat lighter fare.

In 1984, the idea of a pre-packaged campaign world for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was still new.  TSR had a house settings, The World of Greyhawk, based on Gary Gygax’s home campaign.  The idea first came from Tracy and Laura Hickman, who wrote two modules for TSR hoping to be paid for them after Tracy lost his job; instead, he was hired.  He worked with several people at the company, including Margaret Weis, decided to create a new setting, one not seen before, one where TSR could tie together a campaign setting, a series of modules, and a tie-in novel trilogy.  The result was Dragonlance.

To make Krynn, the world where the Dragonlance campaign would be set, different, the creators removed all divine magic from the world’s recent history.  The result of the removal would mean that classes that depended on powers granted by deities – clerics, paladins, and druids – would be severely hampered at the start.  The first modules, the name for published adventures, focused on the return of the gods of Krynn and set up the epic battle between Good and Evil.  The modules’ events were mirrored by the first Dragonlance trilogy, written by Weis and Hickman.

The novels and the modules were based on the playtest campaign, where TSR staffers took the roles of the main characters – Tanis Half-Elven, Caramon and Raistlin Majere, Goldmoon, Flint, Tasslehoff, Tika, Laurana – and the results noted.  Some changes occurred.  Tasslehoff, one of the halfling-like race of kender, had managed to pick up a ring of invisibility; the writers realized that the combination would get a little to close to a certain hobbit for Legal’s comfort.  The first novel, Dragons of Autumn Twilight, hit the New York Times bestseller list.*  The novel did two things; it let players, including the Dungeon Master, get a feel for both the world and the plotlinem; and, it served as an introduction to AD&D to people who had never played but were curious.

A lot of the success of Dragonlance came from the characters.  All of them were flawed in some way, and not all of them were good.**  There was friction within the group, characters made poor decisions that came from their motives and goals, yet the fellowship could still come together to thwart evil.  The setting expanded, in game material, in novels and short stories, in video games, and in comics.  When D&D went to its third edition with new owner Wizards of the Coast, Margaret Weis Productions licensed and released a compatible version of Krynn.

In 2008, Paramount licensed the rights to make an animated Dragonlance feature from WotC.  The movie, based on Dragons of Autumn Twilight, was to be the first of a trilogy based on the original Chronicles.  With Kiefer Sutherland as Raistlin and Lucy Lawless as Goldmoon, the production team went for star power to draw in viewers while filling the rest of the cast with experienced voice actors***.  The animation team made sure that the characters resembled their likenesses from the Larry Elmore covers.  However, the movie had some issues.  The animation, a mix of 2D and 3D techniques, clashed.  The main characters were 2D, but had to fight such three-dimensional monsters as draconians and dragons.  The 2D animation also became choppy in parts, jumping without a in-between work.  The differences were jarring.  The visuals for several spells also didn’t match the what the original descriptions in the Player’s Handbook.  In particular, Fireball doesn’t smash into targets; it explodes instead.  The Fireball spell as cast by Fizban resembled the lower level spell, Flaming Sphere.

Another problem was the running time; ninety minutes was just not long enough to cover Dragons of Autumn Twilight properly.  The novel spent time with world-building, setting up the intricate balance between the different races and nations, introducing the elements that made Krynn a different campaign setting.  One character’s death was moved to a different part of the story after the passage through Mount Nevermind, the home of the tinker gnomes, was removed entirely.  The death becomes far more dramatic, though.  Insufficient running time is an ongoing problem for novels depicting epics.  Books can pack in a lot of information in their pages; it takes skill to be able to figure out what can and cannot be removed, and is much easier when there is no Book 2, 3, or, in the case of A Game of Thrones, 7.  Blade Runner and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World both managed to extract the core story from the original works.  Unfortunately, Dragons of Autumn Twilight became shallower with the removal of material.

A third issue came from the rating.  Dragons of Autumn Twilight is a swords and sorcery tale.  Swords and axes mean bloody corpses, and blunt weapons like maces and staves aren’t much better.  The movie received a PG-13 rating because of the “fantasy action violence”, and while charred, featureless corpses were allowed, blood was reduced, to the point where swords were clean even after striking goblins.  Fortunately, the draconians could be stabbed; on death, the creatures turned to stone.  Still, to avoid the R rating, the blood needed to be cleaned up some.

With Dragons of Autumn Twilight not faring well, it appears that the next two books, Dragons of Winter Night and Dragons of Spring Dawning will not be adapted, at least as animated features.  Cindi Rice, the co-executive producer, estimated that a live-action adaptation of the book would cost around US$75 million.  While that is far less than many of the blockbusters that failed in 2013, Dragonlance doesn’t have the namespace among the general public that would get studios to take the risk to finance the adaptation.

The animated Dragons of Autumn Twilight comes out as a “nice try”.  Ignoring the animation issues, the running time was the biggest drawback, not giving viewers the time to properly experience the setting or the story.

Next week, the adaptational news round up.

* TSR’s publishing arm did well with fiction and was willing to take risks that other publishers wouldn’t.  The Edgar-winning novel, Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb, was first published by TSR after McCrumb passed her manuscript along to Margaret Weis.
** Or even Good; Raistlin, in particular, started with a Neutral alignment and shifted to Evil over the course of the novels.
*** This isn’t to say that the leads weren’t inexperienced.  Both Sutherland and Lawless had a number of voice acting prior to Dragons of Autumn Twilight, though they weren’t primarily known for such work.

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