Warning: wordy and nostalgic, but there’s a TPK at the end.
Among the Old-Timey D&D Nostalgia & Rehabilitation Crew, people will often talk fondly about the weird, evocative settings of the 2e era–Dark Sun, Planescape, Al Qadim, Spelljammer (okay, maybe not always fondly for Spelljammer)–but hardly anyone ever mentions Time of the Dragon. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person who remembers it existed.
what the heck are you talking about?
Time of the Dragon was an extremely non-Tolkien campaign setting box set, written by Zeb Cook and published in 1990.
Time of the Dragon was ostensibly set in the Dragonlance world, but on an entirely separate continent. Though there were a few scattered references to the regular Dragonlance setting, the connections aren’t very deep. The Acaeum suggests this started out as a new campaign world very late in the 1e era, and got retooled for 2e. It’s possible that someone said, “Hey, remember Zeb’s big project? We’ve sunk a lot of cost into producing that thing, and then retooling it for 2e. Dragonlance is pretty hot right now, let’s just slap a logo on this thing, sprinkle some references for the fans, and ship it.” Time of the Dragon got comparatively little support over the next year or two and then sank out of sight, which makes me wonder if its budget got cut midway through the design cycle. The fact that the boxed set’s cover was swiped from an issue of Dragon magazine hints that there may have been problems.
what’s in it?
Time of the Dragon presents the continent of Taladas, via 96 pages of fluff for a dozen or so cultures, 32 pages of new rules, a couple of huge maps, and 24 cardstock illustrations.
The backstory is pretty standard: Golden Age + Enormous Space Rock = Catastrophe, and now there are a zillion little groups running around in the aftershocks. Lately four gods have taken an interest in mortal affairs and have recently restored priestly spells to their most devoted followers, throwing some societies into confusion.
Here is what you won’t find in Time of the Dragon:
- Comic Relief Kender
- Comic Relief Gully Dwarves
- Comic Relief Tinker Gnomes
- Knights of Solamnia
- Towers of High Sorcery
- Draconians (well, one prototype version)
- Complicated, millennia-long histories
- Railroads or meta-plot
- Tie-in novels (well, not until like 15 years after the line sank)
By those standards, it’s hardly Dragonlance at all.
The rule book contains rules for Lizard Man, Ogre, Goblin, and Minotaurs as 2e player races as well as a new school of magic (but no unique spells for it), but the bulk of the rule book is taken up with “kits,” combinations of skills and equipment that help to differentiate the broad classes of 2e. I’m ambivalent about the proliferation of kits in the early days of 2e: I haven’t especially missed kits in the OSR generally. But some part of me likes the idea that my pseudo-Mongolian cattle rustler is going to look a little bit different mechanically from your pseudo-Polynesian islander, even though we’re both Fighters.
what do you like about it?
At the most basic level, I like that Taladas doesn’t feel like a mainstream fantasy setting. Personal faves:
- Roman-style Minotaurs, overseeing an empire of human plebians, locked in a border war with a nation of priestly necromancers.
- The Uigan nomads (Mongolians manque) feuding with the Elf Clans and other ancestral rivals on the high steppes of the Tamire amid the scattered ruins of a bygone age, as the Minotaurs gradually steal their territory.
- Beetle-armored, self-flagellating swordsmen sailing a Sea of Glass on ice-boats, between agoraphobic “deep dwarves” and Gnomes who are holding back the armies of Hell with steampunk.
Time of the Dragon came out after several of the late-80’s culture-heavy setting books: Kara-Tur, FR5 The Savage Frontier, and the several of the Gazetteers from the BECMI line. I had a few of these, but they often felt padded or boring, filled with calendars and holidays and stuff I never really gave a shit about. Mainly I remember these awful in-character introductory paragraphs for each chapter. Cook thankfully omits these, and the cultural write-ups manage to give me enough inspiration that I can come up with fun material, without bogging down in minutiae. This is admittedly a matter of taste: I want enough detail to be evocative, but not so much that I suffocate. It feels a bit like if an issue of National Geographic was published with eye for Sword & Sorcery adventure locales, except mostly text and no boobs. (Not the best analogy, I’ll admit.)
Also, I really liked the pantheon, though this is mainly due to spendingway too much time thinking about it during college. Taladas supposedly shares the same gods as the regular Dragonlance continent, but Cook selects the four gods he cares about and throws the rest away. Maybe the most influential of the remaining gods is Hith, the god of damnation–he who gives you everything you ever wanted, but it’s hollow on the inside. And Erestem, the goddess of savage destruction–but is necessary to clear away the old to make room for the new. I spent an embarrassingly large part of my junior year of college concocting various myths about and theological correspondences between these deities, Philip K. Dick, and all the other wacky stuff people think about in college. Yet the idea of Hith has some personal relevance to me even today, and although if that’s because I put in a huge amount of work fleshing out this pantheon in my own mind, Cook did supply a pretty fertile patch of soil.
what sucks about it?
Well: 96 pages is rather gabby for a culture book, at least to my taste. I don’t need to be told that pseudo-Eskimos herd reindeer, for example–but I can see the argument that, in the days before the Internet, it would have been handy to have a one-page summary of Eskimo-type stuff written for teenagers.
I’ve heard that some people don’t dig the interior art, though I rather like it: there’s a . . . silent quality to it, somehow, that really works for me. And the attempt to fix the Tinker class didn’t really go far enough–that class is just hopelessly bad (and you still need the Dragonlance Adventures book to play it, though that’s not the case with the rest of this setting). The kits could probably stand to be a bit leaner, maybe with a more radical design.
More importantly, paging through this thing at age 35, I have a pretty good sense of how to run something like this. Zero in on a particular region, highlight and complicate the conflicts going on there, and then just see where people go, sandbox style. Time of the Dragon isn’t especially dungeon-centric, so you’d need some good hex-crawling procedures, some skills at running soap opera/political intrigue type games, and maybe some workable rules for mass combat. (Time of the Dragon includes army stats for the then-current version of Battle System, but those seem way too involved for my purposes.)
my very first t.p.k.
In Ninth Grade we had been playing for just over a year in a Dragonlance campaign run by my friend Adam. (I played a Minotaur Ranger who, via cheese in the Complete Fighter’s Handbook, could dual-wield Two-Handed Swords.) I’d gotten Time of the Dragon the previous Christmas, loaned it to Adam enthusiastically, and he agreed to run a game where our guys took a world cruise.
Here is my recollection of the adventure, admittedly it was like 21 years ago:
GM: So you’re sailing in your boat, because you’ve heard rumors of another continent…
RED WIZARD: Wait, we have a boat?
GM: How else are you going to get to the other continent?
KNIGHT OF SOLAMNIA: Other continent?!
ME: Shut up guys, it’s gonna be awesome!
GM: …When your boat is approached by a Minotaur vessel. The captain of the Minotaur ship bellows out, “Furl sail and prepare to be boarded in the name of the Minotaur Empire! Your vessel may be carrying contraband! Come about and do not resist!”
ALL PLAYERS: We resist!
ME: Wait a minute, why am I killing other Minotaurs for the sake of humans? My guy stops fighting.
WIZARD & KNIGHT: wut
ME: I shout out, “Let us parley! There has been a misunderstanding!”
WIZARD & KNIGHT: Oh great they threw us in jail, good going.
ME: Bah! They have this gladiatorial justice thing, don’t worry, we’ll kick everyone’s ass and they’ll apologize.
GM: James, your guy has to do a solo combat against this Minotaur gladiator.
ME: Cool! I’m gonna climb up on the top rope, and do this flying headscissors takedown, where I launch my legs around his head and just force him to the mat.
GM: . . . . You do that to him? Like, catapulting yourself thighs-first at this guy’s head?
ME: What? I saw it on Wrestlemania one time. I think you were with me when we saw it!
GM: . . . Okay . . . so thighs first at. . . the Minotaur gladiator?
ME: . . . .
WIZARD & KNIGHT: Oh, he totally does that. Can we roll for the damage?
GM: Okay, for your punishment the court sends you to the ruins of the Aurim Empire, to recover some Dragonlances from shattered civilizations.
(lots of fighting and dungeon exploring; we get pretty banged up)
GM: There is a shrine here to Mishakal, goddess of healing.
KNIGHT: Wow, we really ought to rest and heal up.
ME: What? Come on, we’re adventurers. Stopping to rest every five minutes isn’t very heroic. The Wizard still has most of his spells.
WIZARD: I could use some healing, but I’m fine if we want to press on too.
ME: We don’t rest. “Fight on, my friends!”
GM: Okay… (rolls dice) You encounter an army of Frankenstein-Draconians.
KNIGHT: Oh man. We should have rested.
ME: I’m sorry, okay? Wizard, help us out here.
WIZARD: I cast invisibility.
ME & KNIGHT: wut
WIZARD: And then I fly away.
GM: The monsters attack!
ME: You can’t cast a new spell like fly and still keep your invisibility up!
WIZARD: The flying isn’t a spell. I’ve been a Draconian passing as human for the whole campaign. GM, I fly away real fast.
GM: Their archers pop out of cover and are peppering everyone they can see with poisoned arrows.
KNIGHT: You’re not going to help us fight?
WIZARD: The last words you hear from me, as I invisibly soar away on great leathery wings, are nearly lost in the din of battle, but if you strain your ears you can just barely make them out: “Kiss…. my….. ass…………”
ME: Gah, I’m at 0 HP.
GM: James, your Minotaur is unconscious. Knight, you can see the Draconian soldiers fall back, as their chieftain moves to the fore.
KNIGHT: I bellow out that I will challenge him to single combat and poop on his corpse!
(single combat begins)
GM: …Okay, so with that hit, he knocks you clear across the room, and you land in a pile of rotting human corpses, perhaps previous challengers. Your sword clatters on the flagstones, about 10 feet away. Under the corpses, there’s what looks like . . . yes . . . a Dragonlance!
KNIGHT: I’m going for my sword.
ME: What? No, the Dragonlance! You inflict your current hit points as a bonus to damage on dragon-dudes.
KNIGHT: I have 3 hit points right now. I’m specialized in sword, so I have a better chance to hit and would do almost as much bonus damage.
GM: You’ve only got time to grab one weapon.
WIZARD: Seriously, if you let this guy close in melee he’s going to get all those extra attacks again. You’ve gotta take him out at a distance if you can.
ME: Take the Dragonlance, and throw it at the chieftain. I saw it in a movie! Maybe Ladyhawke or Kull? What was that movie with the tri-blade?
KNIGHT: Throw the Dragonlance?! That’s stupid. If I miss, I won’t have any weapons and he’ll be right on top of me.
GM: Okay, come on, what’s it going to be?
KNIGHT: Sigh… Fine, I throw the Dragonlance.
GM: ….And you miss. Well, I guess you are all killed. Thanks for playing, guys!
The really sad thing is that my plans haven’t gotten any better over the past twenty years.