14
Feb
12

time of the dragon

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)
  • Dragonlances
  • 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.

map made by fans

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!

(fighting)

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.

KNIGHT: Sword.

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.


15 Responses to “time of the dragon”


  1. February 15, 2012 at 12:04 am

    I remember being quite taken with this when it came out. I wasn’t running Dragonlance at the time, but they gave me a free copy of the box when I went out to TSR for a job interview (which, I didn’t get, obviously). I loved that map, and the idea of the minotaur empire was very cool at the time.

    I liked the idea that Krynn was more than just the War of the Lance. If nothing else, this box broke open that glass wall surrounding Krynn.

  2. February 15, 2012 at 2:39 am

    “If nothing else, this box broke open that glass wall surrounding Krynn.”

    There’s definitely a Star-Wars-after-the-movies, or rather, What-Did-Rhadagast-do-during-the-War-of-the-Ring vibe to this material. If Dragonlance fans dismissed it as inessential, I wouldn’t blame them.

    On the other hand, as a “remix” of some of the Dragonlance elements–a cataclysmic slide into barbarism, the unexpected return of the miraculous, hermit dragons, sociable Minotaurs–I think it works pretty well in its own right.

  3. February 15, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    I didn’t own Time of the Dragon, but it sounds similar to what TSR did with the Hollow World setting, which built on the premise that Mystara was hollow in the middle and populated with fantasy twists on existing civilizations. There was an Egyptian nation built upon a river delta, a nation filled with evil Aztec elves, and an entire island devoted to cavemen, dinosaurs, and wooly mammoths. I think that there was also a sea devoted to merry, swashbuckling pirates.

    As far as I can tell, it was intentionally designed to make less sense than Mystara. The backstory was that all of these civilizations were in danger of going extinct, so the immortals turned the center of the world into some sort of game preserve and populated it with their favorite dying cultures.

    In high school, I thought that the Hollow World setting was the coolest thing. Apparently someone at TSR felt the same way, because they released a boxed set and half-a-dozen modules for it. However, I’ve never met anyone who actually bought it aside from me, and I could never find anyone interested in playing it. I can’t imagine that they made any money on it.

  4. February 15, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    Scott: “Oh man, I can make a Minotaur PC? AWESOME!”
    DM: “Sure, yes. You can. The world is FULL of them. You live in a minotaur village or city, with minotaur peasants, minotaur nobles, minotaur craftsmen..”

    T_T

  5. 5 James Nostack
    February 15, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    You are a hard man to please!

    “Why can’t I play a god?”
    “Well, the game typically runs on a zero-to-hero type of story, but yeah, if you want to play a god, you can…”
    “You’re just going to give it to me?”
    “Well, you’re wishing for it, and it’s a game of wish fulfillment…”
    “Booooooooo! Can’t you give me an unfair advantage over everyone else and let me feel like I earned it? Is that too much to ask for?!”

    I gotta work on my showmanship, clearly.

  6. February 15, 2012 at 3:33 pm

    This box has a special place for me because I think it may have been the first D&D game product I bought. I played for quite a long time with no other rule books, just the 32 page book with the demon cover. I had some experience with basic game procedures from playing with friends, but trust me you have to make up a lot when you don’t have any other books (no PHB, nothing).

    I love the glass sea sailors, the sea of fire, the necromantic empire of Thenol. The bakali lizard-men (I house-ruled them into my 4E hack game, actually). The fact that all those names are still on the surface of my brain says something. :-)

    I never did care for the minotaur empire and Krystophan, but then I rarely like fantasy civilizations that are based so closely on real world examples. It really is just the Roman empire but with minotaurs.

    The interior illustrations of Stephen Fabian are still some of my favorite pieces of game book art.

  7. 7 James Nostack
    February 15, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    Brendan, that must have been one hell of a game. Very ambitious!

    I’m torn on the whole real-world culture thing. Obviously if it’s just done as a caricature, that’s sucky and lame. On the other hand, using something that really existed, particularly something that’s really easy to visualize and research, is arguably far more accessible to players than weird stuff like Tekumel that only really exists inside Professor Barker’s head.

    “So what’s the deal with this region?”
    “Think Ancient Rome, but with Minotaurs.”
    “…All right.”

    “So what’s the deal with this region?”
    “Well, the world is populated with aliens that have no analogue to anything you’ve read about, and whose names you maybe can’t pronounce. Also, the human culture is this mash-up of Mayan culture, Southeast Asia, and sword & sorcery tropes.”
    “Okay…. Wait, come again?”

    I think the former, while less imaginative, empowers players to contribute more to the setting: everybody knows Ancient Rome stuff, or if they have to fake it, they’re at least in the right neighborhood. With Tekumel, Transhuman Space, and similar settings, there’s a lot of cool stuff but you have to do a whole lot of homework until you become imaginatively “fluent” in that fantasy idiom. That’s not necessarily bad, and when you get a gang of players who are practically native speakers it’s fantastic, but it does make the setting harder to access.

  8. February 18, 2012 at 12:08 am

    Regarding borrowing from cultures, up to a point I agree. I do strongly like to have some level of anchoring, exactly so a player is not totally lost. I think what I dislike most is when the copy is both very transparent and also situated near other transparent clones (unless there’s a diegetic reason for it, like time bandits or portals to earth). For example, fantasy minotaur Rome next to fantasy elven Mongols (or whatever).

    For some reason this works for the Conan stories though, so I don’t know what’s up with that. Maybe because the Conan stories are supposed to be part of the mythic past of our world? I’m really not sure.

  9. July 15, 2012 at 3:06 am

    I love the Time of the Dragon boxed set. I still own mine to this day, and actually just re-read parts of it earlier this week. Good to see someone else enjoyed it as much as I did!

  10. January 3, 2013 at 3:56 am

    It’s good to see some talk about Taladas!

    I was wondering if there was any way we could host this article on the Dragonlance Nexus. I’d like to get the word out a bit more about Taladas, and this would fit the bill.

    Thanks!
    Trampas Whiteman
    “Dragonhelm”

  11. 11 James Nostack
    January 4, 2013 at 1:33 am

    Dragonhelm, I don’t know how articles are hosted but you’re more than welcome to use the text as long as you include a link back to the blog…

    best,
    James

  12. January 4, 2013 at 3:03 am

    Thanks so much. I would be happy to link back to this page as well. Plus, I will be creating an expanded Taladas portion of the Nexus where I can also host this article.

    Thanks!

    Trampas

  13. 13 Sean
    June 4, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    Special place in my heart: it was the first setting I DMed in AD&D…

  14. September 19, 2014 at 2:24 pm

    I still own and love this setting. Never played it, even if I borrowed the Tomb of the Great King (and his Crown) for another setting, the fire sea for my 4e Nerathi campaign and unaligned dragons for another yet to be DM’ed setting.


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