Dragonlance How would you 'fix' DL1: Dragons of Despair for a 5E revisit? [spoilers!]

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I'm going to be running DL1: Dragons of Despair in 5E in January (and livestreaming it!) -- I ran it many years ago in 1E, and this will be my first time revsiting it. Of course, I've read the novels more than once, too.

This isn't about DL mechanics or changes to races or anything. Just the adventure itself. We won't be using pre-gens.

It has a reputation as being a bit of a railroad (though I find the first half actually lacks direction, and the second half is a decent dungeon crawl), and I feel there are some other areas it could be improved. I may be misremembering bits.
  • I'd ditch the wicker dragon 'fake out' - I feel it undermines the actual real dragon reveal later
  • I feel like the mission to Xak Tsaroth needs better signposting. There's a lot of wandering around wondering where to go next in the first third of the adventure. While there's only one real option - Xak Tsaroth - it's not made super clear until the Forestmaster simply outs and tells them heroes what to do halfway through the adventure. And in the novels at least its partly pushed by Riverwind's memories.
Thinking back to the novels it kinda went like this IIRC:
  • Meeting in Solace, staff revealed
  • Run away! Where to?
  • Lake, draconians on road, mountain peak
  • Darken Woods, get given mission by a unicorn
  • Hitch ride across plains
  • Swamp fake dragon
  • Xak Tsaroth
Obviously the adventure doesn't have to go like that. I think I'd want to streamline all that middle section -- I'd rather see:
  • Solace (and some clear direction)
  • Journey to Xak Tsaroth with expositional encounters (ie meeting draconians for the first time)
  • Xak Tsaroth
So what would you do to improve that first adventure?

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Wolfram stout

Adventurer
Is Fizban at the Inn in the Adventure? If so, maybe he could give some better hints/exposition to set the party on the right path from the beginning?

Or if they have the roadway encounter with the Draconians, they could mention the "fallen city" or something when demanding the staff?
 


Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I really hate railroads and illusionism, and I’m not a fan of linear adventures, so my fix would be to take the elements presented and turn it into a sandbox for the players to explore. Figure out a way to dangle all the right hooks in front of the PCs, but also be prepared for them to go left when the module needs them to go right.
I pretty much think it is that. As I said there’s very little guidance to the players to head to Xak Tsaroth, and a lot of wandering around figuring out what to do or where to go. It almost needs the DM to literally step in and tell them, the module is so light on directions.
 

In the module, Goldmoon starts as a NPC and can become a PC once she meets the rest of the party in the inn. Riverwind is supposed to remain a NPC the entire module, do you plan to use them that way or will those roles be replaced by newly created PCs?
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
In the module, Goldmoon starts as a NPC and can become a PC once she meets the rest of the party in the inn. Riverwind is supposed to remain a NPC the entire module, do you plan to use them that way or will those roles be replaced by newly created PCs?
Nope. 4 players, all new PCs.
 

Nope. 4 players, all new PCs.
How did you plan to handle the staff? There's a few points in the module where the party is given direction to take it to Xak Tsaroth, but some of them feel incredibly.. odd. The Seekers in Haven desiring to have the party return the staff if they won't hand it over makes sense since the Dragonarmies have threatened to destroy Haven if they don't get the staff back. This random bit from the inn though?

The Old Storyteller: I foresee great and terrible destiny in your eyes. There is a Blue Staff which you must return to Xak Tsaroth. There, in but a few days hence, you shall face
your greatest peril in contest for the greatest gift given to man.

I feel like that's just going to make my players hyperfocus on Fizban instead of just taking the hint and running with it. I'll probably omit that part and have him say something less specific.

I'm in a very similar situation, running DL1 in January for a group of 5E players. 6 players, no cleric so I'm leaning towards having Goldmoon and Riverwind be NPCs in the story at least up until the conclusion of DL4 when they can just remain with the refugees while the group moves on. I know that's not what you're trying to solve though, so the reason I mentioned them as NPCs for DL1 is if the party doesn't pick up on any hints to head to Xak Tsaroth, Riverwind can have a flashback to when he received the staff and that could be a way to help direct the party there.
 

Burnside

Space Jam Confirmed
Supporter
Is one of your characters a cleric or some other character with a logical connection to the lost gods? If so, that character could receive omens, portents, visions, or dreams pointing them to Xak Tsaroth - putting them more into the Goldmoon role narratively instead of experiencing that second hand through an NPC.
 

Kai Lord

Hero
Maybe instead of seeking to take the Staff to Haven as Rivermind and Goldmoon initially wanted to do your group will either decide to take the Staff back to the Que-Shu (if there are any Plainspeople in the group) or be commissioned to escort an NPC Plainsperson who carries the Staff back to their tribe (which conveniently is right on the way to Xak Tsaroth and pretty close to it.) Then when they come across the remains of the Que-Shu tribe they see Draconian tracks and maybe even some human tracks heading off toward the swamp suggesting that there are Que-Shu prisoners that may need to be rescued.

You could even change the carnage to be the result of Onyx and her draconians instead of the Red Dragonarmy as a further link to Xak Tsaroth and if you wanted a cool Easter Egg link to the novel describe a gory melted Plainsman similar to how Riverwind ended up after Onyx's first strike.
 
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Stormonu

Legend
I like @Kai Lord 's suggestion, though I would have that when they get to Que-Shu the tribe performs a ceremony on the staff (to determine what's up with it/why everyone wants it so bad/attune to it), and it teleports the PCs directly to the above-ground plaza at Xak Tsaroth, just outside the temple to Mishakel. From there it sort of acts like a dowsing stick, pointing the PCs towards recovering the disks in the deep ruins. (That lets you bypass the wicker dragon, though I think the wicker dragon is a cool encounter - sans Tasslehoff's antics).
 

Libertad

Hero
I actually have a series of blog posts for revising some of the more problematic plot elements of the Dragonlance Chronicles, including updating the adventure for more modern systems. However it is an incomplete series, as due to various events I petered out after the end of Dragons of Winter Night. I'll repost the DL1 article here for easy reading.



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Image by Clyde Caldwell


It's been a while since my last update. Nearly a year, in fact. A variety of factors came into play, for a while I was running the original Dragonlance Chronicles adapted for the 13th Age ruleset. As of last Saturday (September 17th), my players ended the campaign and saved Krynn from evil. It last a good 7 to 8 months, all with players I consider good friends, and plenty of DMing notes to spare for adaption into blog posts. Now would be a perfect time to delve back into things, and what better way than looking at the adventure that started it all?

Overview

Dragons of Despair opens up with the PCs venturing to the quiet burg of Solace to reunite at the Inn of the Last Home. While there they get hints of dark tidings, from the Seeker movement on the search for a Blue Crystal Staff to goblins being hired to search for it. The crux of the module is that the cleric/prophet PC begins play with this treasured artifact, which she obtained from the ruins of Xak Tsaroth before Dragonarmy forces moved in and forced her to flee. The PCs can gain information sources from various places on the goings-on in the land of Abanasinia lately, from Inn patrons to visiting the Lordcity of Haven. But all in all, the crux of the adventure is to get to Xak Tsaroth and find the Discs of Mishakal and help bring knowledge of the True Gods to Krynn. While in the dungeon, the PCs descend a multi-level flooded ruins and fight a black dragon guarding the Discs and a bunch of other treasure?

Things to Change/Look Out For

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Lost Kender by Amy Clark of Deviantart

The module suggests the PCs coming back to Solace in separate groups, each with their own encounters along the way to tell the rest of the party that things are not alright. This may or may not be a good idea depending on your party makeup and how your players feel about sitting around doing nothing while their fellows participate in several pieces of combat.

Fewmaster Toede is a Dragonarmy flunky and recurring villain who ends up promoted several times simply due to his superiors kicking the bucket. He's an overweight, cowardly, and arrogant fool with little redeeming qualities who the PCs will meet several times during the Dragonlance Chronicles. One of the possible first encounters with him has him ordering hobgoblin lackeys to attack the party. Depending on how your players feel about recurring villains, it's entirely possible that Toede will get killed in this encounter, even if on a horse (ranged attacks and spells can be a game-changer). If the GM wants to keep Toede around, perhaps have his presence be near the edges: seeing him as a boisterous bully in Solace demanding families tell him of the Blue Crystal Staff, or if escaping from a Seeker patrol amidst the linked trees of Solace seeing Toede off in the distance barking orders.

The Initial Hook: It's assumed that the Cleric/Prophet PC with the Blue Crystal Staff was already at Xak Tsaroth. That PC could be a great way to get the rest of the party into going to the dungeon. However, the main hook provided is having a mysterious old man in the Inn of the Last Home tell them to take the artifact there as part of a great destiny. This may be a bit cliche and overt for many groups. Another way is to have rumors that evil's afoot off to the east, that a strange army of monsters now inhabits a set of old Istaran ruins in the swamps to the east.

Pax Tharkas Rumors: The Dragonarmies do not have an overt presence in Abanasinia yet, instead having draconian minions go about in concealing robes and acting through intermediaries such as Toede. Even so, they're transporting slaves and prisoners of war to a fortress to the south. A refugee first tells the PCs in overland encounter 38 (AD&D version), telling him the specifics. Do not do this; although he tells the PCs to not head south and go to Xak Tsaroth first, it's likely that the PCs are heroic in nature as Dragonlance doesn't work well with evil-aligned protagonists. Hearing of this may cause them to go south as a first priority, bypassing the Discs of Mishakal.

Instead keep the hints of slavery as a background element; a friend of a friend claiming that their cousin went missing one day in Haven, or that a certain nomadic Plains tribe wasn't seen in their usual location route in the autumn months.

Xak Tsaroth Dungeon Crawl: There are many rooms with low numbers of baaz draconians. Fighting them one after another can get tedious after a while due to low enemy variety. This is going to be a common theme in Dragons of Renewal, but cutting out extraneous encounters (especially ones where the enemies are little better than easily-defeated mooks) can help speed things up and allow for focus on the more interesting encounters.

Interesting encounters in Xak Tsaroth include: a Huge Spider in a cellar in the Upper Levels (51a in AD&D, UXT21 in 3.5), swarm of poisonous snakes in Dance on the Wall (59b or UXT39), exposition talks among some draconians in Assembly and Mess Hall (64d and 64h/LXT8 and LXT 12), bozak draconian's high priest office (has spellcasting ability, 70h/LXT41), and of course the black dragon Khisanth/Onyx in the bottom room, the Court of Balance!



Overall, there isn't as much things to change in this adventure plotwise, at least in comparison to the following adventure Dragons of Flame. The PCs have quite a bit of places to explore, both in Xak Tsaroth and overland.
 

Kai Lord

Hero
Also if the PC's don't think to head to Xak Tsaroth on their own you could just have the Pegasi (or griffons if you wanted to change it up) drop out of the sky from literally anywhere (as opposed to only appearing in Darken Wood) and then fly them to the swamps. That way you can give the party a lot of leeway in where they roam if you want them to enjoy a more sandbox approach until finally plucking them up from wherever and sending them to the final stage of the adventure.

Maybe the Forestmaster is like the White Stag where she can just appear anywhere to advise the party should their travels take them somewhere other than Darken Wood.
 

Helena Real

Dame of Solamnia (she/her)
I'd highly recommend you take a look at the Dragons of Autumn 3.5 rewrite/revisit and use that as the basis instead. It approaches the whole thing from a much more cohesive and modern perspective without losing much of the original's appeal in my opinion. It doesn't really transform it into a full-blown sandbox, in my opinion, but it develops alternatives and unexplored paths the OG Heroes didn't take.
 

Libertad

Hero
I'd highly recommend you take a look at the Dragons of Autumn 3.5 rewrite/revisit and use that as the basis instead. It approaches the whole thing from a much more cohesive and modern perspective without losing much of the original's appeal in my opinion. It doesn't really transform it into a full-blown sandbox, in my opinion, but it develops alternatives and unexplored paths the OG Heroes didn't take.

Interestingly enough, I helped contribute to someone else's review of the original 1e Chronicles by highlighting how future Edition versions of the book changed things. The 2e 15th Anniversary version does a pretty good job in opening up the plot and even allows many of the bigger adventures to be played out of order. It's a really underrated book IMO.
 

Some general thoughts (I've only read the original version of DL1, and that was a long time ago).

If the PCs are wandering around the wilderness without anything interesting to encounter, I would drop in some interesting content (perhaps borrowing from other adventures or the PCs' backstories) not more signposts.

Goldmoon pretty much drives the plot. If you don't have a PC spellless-cleric with the blue crystal staff, I would run her as a DMPC, or as a sidekick to a PC playing her protector.
 

The module suggests the PCs coming back to Solace in separate groups, each with their own encounters along the way to tell the rest of the party that things are not alright. This may or may not be a good idea depending on your party makeup and how your players feel about sitting around doing nothing while their fellows participate in several pieces of combat.
Given that this is a livestream, it might be a good idea to ask each player to think of an adventure their character had on the way to the inn before the game starts, and be ready to tell the story (as interestingly as they can) in the first session.

I don't think running a livesteam is exactly the same as running a game without an audience.
 

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