We’re at a nice natural break in Dragons of Autumn Twilight; a good time for one of our Guest Highlords to leap in and tell us what’s what.
This month, we’re visited by Anne C Perry, Editor at Hodder & Stoughton and the devious editorial mind supporting fantasy authors like Nnedi Okorafor, Lavie Tidhar and Rebecca Levene. Which goes to show that a youth reading about dragons and rolling dice wasn’t wasting time as much as ‘career planning’.
Dragonlance hit my cultural awareness at about the same time Dungeons & Dragons did, and in the same way: I was 13, and boys I was friends with at school loved both. They played D&D together, they read Dragonlance novels, they copied the cover art and submitted it to school-wide art competitions, and they talked about it. They talked about it a lot.
I’d read my Tolkien and my Howard—and anything else I could get my hands on, so long as it featured dragons, dudes with big swords, violence or (preferably) all three. I’d been given a Dragonlance calendar several years earlier, and cut all the pages out to decorate with. I talked about dragons, dreamed about dragons, and doodled dragons in the margins of my school assignments. I was, as far as I could tell, primed to participate in the mysterious world of fantasy role-playing and extensive shared-universe reading.
But, as a girl—even a reasonably cool girl, according to various complicated 13-year-old boy metrics—this was male territory and I was not allowed in. The exclusion rankled, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. They wouldn’t lend me their Dragonlance novels, the local library didn’t have any in circulation, and I didn’t have anyone else to teach me how to play D&D.
It wasn’t much later that we all started high school and got distracted by other, less dragon-oriented pastimes. Between school and homework and band and track and, well, other ways to relate to each other, Dragonlance and D&D didn’t take so much as a back seat as much as they fell totally off the face of the earth.
And yet, I never really lost my interest in dragons. So when the opportunity to finally—finally!—learn how to play D&D presented itself, I went in with very good will, and discovered that I liked it quite a lot. Then I found a copy of the first Dragonlance novels, bound together in a single anthology, and was finally able to scratch that itch. I even sat through the Dragonlance animated film. And the D&D film.
And then: jackpot. Twenty years after I’d first learned about Dragonlance I finally, finally got to discover the thing that started it all: I got to play the Dragonlance roleplaying game. I’ve experienced total party kills. I’ve DM’d sessions where one PC died and was reanimated in the same body as another PC. I’ve blown off my own hand when I failed a safety roll, then blown off my other hand out of sheer cussedness. I’ve made a Flumph out of glow-in-the-dark Fimo. And yet. And yet.
Playing the Dragonlance RPG was, absolutely bar none, the greatest role-playing experience of my entire life.
There are any number of reasons for this ur-session. It was fun: just our regular D&D group, gathered together for a single day to play a single game to celebrate a party member’s birthday. It was a total one-off, so the stakes were minimal. No one cared whether they lived or died, so we all made stupid, hilarious decisions. A few of us hadn’t read any Dragonlance novels and so weren’t steeped in the series’ rich mythology; we only had our DM’s notes to guide our characters’ decisions. And we had chilli and beer, which are always conducive to a great session.
I played Tasslehoff Burrfoot, because he’s short and energetic and impulsive, characteristics which are also occasionally ascribed to me. And I played him hard. Turns out, his character was created with a weirdly specific talent: the ability to pick pockets really well. So I picked the hell out of everyone’s pockets, at every opportunity. Did it add anything to the story? Did my character grow, change, evolve, become a better person? Not remotely. But I did piss off Raistlin when I stole his pocket handkerchief and dropped it in a river, so that was fun. I may also have irritated the DM by interrupting the adventure once in a while to pick pockets, but he got over it.
The greatest thing about our Dragonlance RPG session, however, was this: even though fully half the party had never read the books and had no idea what happens in Dragons of Autumn Twilight, the basis of the game, we fell immediately into character and followed the plot entirely without meaning to. We even made the same stupid mistakes the characters make in the book—we walked straight into a Draconian ambush, because we’re idiots.
Perhaps this happened because our DM did a good job directing us. Perhaps it’s because there weren’t really that many options for us to explore; we had a journey to make and a goal to achieve, and we did it. Perhaps it’s because the tropes themselves were easy to fall into, the characters easy to inhabit, the world easy to understand. Perhaps it was the circumstances surrounding the game: the low stakes, the sense of fun. Perhaps it was the beer. Very likely it was a combination of all of the above.
I’m not sorry that I missed out on Dragonlance and D&D when I was 13; if I’d been more familiar with the series, I wouldn’t have had the same brilliant experience that sunny April afternoon that I did. And I still kind of miss that old Dragonlance calendar…
Anne Perry is an editor at Hodder & Stoughton. She spends much of her free time thinking about monster movies. Follow her on Twitter @TheFingersOfGod.