You stand on the road east of Solace, tired from five years of adventuring, from a fruitless search for lost clerical magic. You know the old proverb that claims "You must return to find what you left to seek," but the saying never really made sense. Soon, however, it will.
For the world of Krynn is not the same: refugees stream out of the northernmost human lands, telling horrible tales. An invading army has burned their villages and put their families and friends to the sword. Among these stories you hear even darker rumors-that older evils, the dragons themselves, have returned to the world, for new and more terrible purposes.
"Dragon of Despair" is the first in TSR's series of Dragonlance adventures for use with the AD&D game system. Your players will adventure in the world of Krynn, visit strange places such as Haven or ruined Xak Tsaroth, and encounter the bizarre draconians and spectral minions. They can play the modules as a set of separate adventures or as a great quest that spans the entire Dragonlance story.
An adventure for characters Level 4-6.
Written by Tracy Hickman.
DL1: "Dragons of Despair" (1984), by Tracy Hickman, is the first adventure in the Dragonlance Chronicles series of adventures and the introduction to the world of Krynn.
It was published in March 1984.
The Origins of Dragonlance. The first origin of Dragonlance occurred at Tracy and Laura Hickman's small-press adventure publishing company, DayStar West Media. The pair had an idea for an adventure called "Eye of the Dragon". It didn't exactly inspire Dragonlance, but it did suggest the idea of riding dragons as mounts.
The second origin of Dragonlance occurred while Tracy and Laura were driving cross-country so that Tracy could join TSR. They talked about making dragons exciting again and came up with the idea of a trilogy of adventures centered around them. The idea of mounted dragon-riders persisted, while the first three characters also appeared: Tanis, Kitiara, and Laurana.
The third origin of Dragonlance occurred at TSR itself. While the "cool" designers were all off working on a project to save the company (which was in increasingly dire straights from 1983-1984), Hickman created "Project Overlord", a conspiracy among the creative staff to make his dragon adventures a reality. Harold Johnson got Hickman to expand his trilogy of adventures into a 12-part epic and put him in touch with other designers who would help to create the setting — among them designer Jeff Grubb, editor Carl Smith, and artist Larry Elmore.
The fourth origin of Dragonlance occurred when this group pitched the idea to the higher-ups … and got approval! Dragonlance was put on the schedule as a major event beginning in 1984.
A Multi-Media Event! Dragonlance was more than just a (huge) set of adventures. It was also TSR's first foray into fiction, beginning with short story "The Test of the Twins" by author Margaret Weis, which appeared in Dragon #83 (March 1984). Novels, comics, calendars, and miniatures would follow. The result was highly successful; it helped to save TSR and it created a model for many future multi-media events that have crossed over adventures with novels and other media.
A New Setting. Dragonlance introduced a new setting: the world of Krynn. It was the first setting that TSR had ever purposefully created, as Gary Gygax's Greyhawk and Basic D&D's Known World had emerged through gaming books somewhat organically. With that said, Krynn only gets half-a-page of explanation in "Dragons of Despair". Most importantly, it notes that: gold has no value; cleric spells don't work; and dragons don't exist. Much more detail would appear in the specific locations that the Companions of the adventure encounter — revealing a larger world underlying this smaller adventure.
That half-a-page of text also talks about the races of Krynn, revealing that: there are other elves than the standard ("Qualinesti") variety; and that halflings have become "kender", who are fearless and can taunt. Finally "gully dwarves" appear as a dumb, somewhat pathetic variant of dwarves. The idea of having different races for a different setting was very innovative at the time, and would heavily influence settings of the '90s, such as Dark Sun.
Dragon of the Month. The Dragonlance series was imagined as 12 books in part to support 12 sorts of dragons — presumably blue, black, green, red, white, brass, bronze, copper, gold, and silver, alongside Bahamut and Tiamat. However, Hickman was adamant that the adventures not just become a dragon-of-the-month club where a new dragon appeared in each adventure.
Still, you can see the outlines of that original plan in the published adventures. "Dragons of Despair" is the black-dragon adventure, ending with a fight with the black dragon Onyx in a swampy city.
Adventuring Tropes. At their original DayStar West Media company, the Hickmans wrote a "manifesto" for how to create deeper and more interesting adventures. One of the manifesto's demands was that an adventure have "an intriguing story that is intricately woven into the play itself." It's thus no surprise that "Dragons of Despair" was the adventure that kicked off the storytelling revolution in at TSR.
At heart, the plot is pretty simple: the Companions have to go and collect the Discs of Mishakal from Onyx's layer; however, the story of the module is bigger than that: it's about the new race of draconians, about a dragon seemingly returned to the world, and about dark forces on the move in the north.
Surprisingly little of the plot in "Dragons of Despair" comes about through heavy handed railroading. There's a single page of events, and only the advance of the dragon armies has a major effect on the players. Instead the first half of "Dragons of Despair" is presented as a wilderness hex crawl of the sort you might find in the "X" series. Players are pushed toward the final confrontation in Xak Tsaroth by a variety of elements scattered across the map: the draconians, the Highseekers of Haven, and the Forestmaster of Darkenwood can all drive a party toward that swampy city.
The use of the Companions themselves was also quite unusual for the era. These were a set of eight pregenerated characters that the players would use throughout the Dragonlance adventures and that would be involved in the plot of those adventures in important ways. Though pregenerated characters had always been an element of tournament adventures, they were rarely used in home campaigns, so the suggested (almost required) use of the Companions in the Dragonlance adventures was a big change.
A Different Sort of Handout. Dragonlance is also unusual for its player accessories: it includes a song and a poem which are meant to be presented to the players at specific times. Call of Cthulhu (1981) had been offering player handouts since its inception, while TSR used images as player handouts in the "S" series and other classic 1e adventures. However, the inclusion of songs and poems that are meant to exist internal to the world was another historically innovative element in "Dragons of Despair".
This sort of in-world ephemera would become a trademark of the Dragonlance setting, culminating in Leaves from the Inn of the Last Home (1987), which includes recipes, dragon tactics, and more.
A Different Sort of Map. Another demand of the Hickman manifesto was for "dungeons with some sort of architectural sense". TSR readers had already experienced this sort of dungeon in one of the Hickmans' earlier adventures, I6: "Ravenloft" (1983). However the design of the dungeon in "Dragons of Despair" and the map that accompanies it is at least as innovative.
Like the "Ravenloft" map, the entire dungeon of "Dragons of Despair" is presented as a single isometric map that shows a three-dimensional, interconnected dungeon. However, the dungeon is more than that: it's a uniquely innovative design. Once the players enter the dungeon proper (actually: a fallen and shattered city), there are no stairs. Instead, a chain, sewers, vines, a chimney, and a vertical shaft provide access between levels. The map helps to put all this together, revealing one of the most interesting dungeons to date.
The Novel Connection. Margaret Weis was hired in October 1983 as a book editor at TSR. One of her job was to take the outline of the 12 adventures written by Hickman and his team and turn them into an outline for a novel. The plan was to hand that over to a writer hired by TSR, but that didn't work out and Weis and Hickman ended up writing the Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy themselves.
The first 266 pages of the first edition of the first novel, Dragons of Autumn Twilight (1987), covers "Dragons of Despair" with surprising fidelity. Encounter by dncounter, the Companions in the novel advance through Tracy Hickman's adventure. The following details the specifics. Beware, there are spoilers here far in advance of what you tend to find in these histories, so if you prefer not to see them, just skip forward to the next section.
In the novel, the Companions are immediately assaulted by goblins (Adventure Event) on their way to the Inn of the Last Home (Encounter Location 1), where they meet Goldmoon (Event). When they flee the Inn, they cross Crystalmir Lake (2) and are then attacked by Draconians (6) who call reinforcements (4). From there it’s on to Prayers Eye Peak and a sighting of the White Stag (5).
Hearing rumors of war (Event), the Companions follow the Stag into Darken Wood, where they encounter spectral minions (22), centaurs (23), and the Forestmaster (26), who assigns pegasi (25) the task of ferrying the Companions east to Xak Tsaroth. However the pegasi abandon the Companions in the plains; here they see the destruction of Que-Shu (36) before heading on to Xak-Tsaroth (44).
From there, the Companions move into the swamps (44b) that surround Xak-Tsaroth and cross vine bridges (44c). Unfortunately they’re captured by draconians (44f); however, where the adventure has 8 draconians, the book has hundreds, allowing Tasslehoff to become the hero by manipulating a wicker dragon (also from the adventure) to trick the draconians and save everyone. The Companions now move into Xak Tsaroth proper where they find a fallen obelisk (44j) and are attacked in the Plaza of Death (44k) when the Black Dragon Onyx flies out of the well there. Afterward, they enter the Temple (46).
Once the Companions begin descending into the areas beneath Xak Tsaroth, they move down the Paths of the Dead (46g), through the Hall of the Ancestors (47a), and into the South Crypts (47b) where they meet gully dwarves. Then they advance to Going Down (47c) where they fight draconians.
Rather then jumping into the bucket to go down, the Companions take a more circuitous route into the city far below and their travel also becomes somewhat more abstracted. They move through a secret door into the South Temple (47h) and from there go to the sewer entrance in the North Temple (47j). They travel all the way down the sewers, through the Sewer Branch (50) into the Bakery (53a) and then move to the View from the Falls (56) where they decide to climb down the vines into the city proper. Thankfully, everyone makes their DEX checks.
From the bottom of the falls, The Companions follow the river to the Great Plaza (67), where they eavesdrop on Onyx for a while. They then move past the river and through a complex of gully dwarf rooms until they arrive in the Court of the Aghar (68m) to meet the Highbulb gully dwarf. The Highbulb points them toward The Secret Way (69b), which leads them into The Court of the Balance (70k) where Onyx dwells. The final encounter with the dragon is followed by a flight from the city.
Back on the surface, the Companions discover that Solace is burning. Which is the exact same beat that "Dragons of Despair" ends on.
With all that said, Dragons of Autumn Twilight is not just a transcription on the adventure. It vastly expands on events and encounters, often to provide more detail on the world or more characterization of the Companions. It also picks and chooses what to omit by creating a single path between Solace and Xak Tsaroth.
Expanding Krynn. As the first publication related to Krynn, "Dragons of Despair" provides all of the initial information about the setting. A lot of this comes about through the encounters themselves — which reveal little bits of information about the Cataclysm, the Solomanic Knights, and more.
Geographically, "Dragons of Despair" depicts a tiny bit of southern Abanasinia — including Solace, Haven, Darkenwood, the Plains, Que-Shu, and of course the ruined city of Xak Tsaroth. At the time, players (and GMs) probably didn't realize just how tiny this area was, compared to the world as a whole. DL5: "Dragons of Mystery" (1984) was the first look at the entire continent of Ansalon; the areas in this adventure take up about six hexes on that larger map.
Monsters of Note. The most important monsters introduced in this adventure are the draconians. Both the baaz and bozak variants appear within. The draconians were the first take on draconic humanoids in D&D, long years before the introduction of dragonborn or even draconic kobolds.
Spectral minions and the gully dwarves both make their debuts here as well. All three monsters would continue to be important in future Dragonlance adventure.
About the Creators. Hickman was the leading proponent of story-based adventures at TSR in the early '80s. His other notable adventures of the period are the I3-I5 "Desert of Desolation" trilogy (1982-1983) and I6: "Ravenloft" (1983). Overall he would write or contribute to more than half of the 15 "DL" adventures, while simultaneously writing the Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy.
About the Product Historian
The history of this product was researched and written by Shannon Appelcline, the editor-in-chief of RPGnet and the author of Designers & Dragons - a history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time. Please feel free to mail corrections, comments, and additions to email@example.com.