Growing up, the The Lord of the Rings books was the canonical fantasy epic. It was the standard bedtime story, and all other fantasy was defined by or compared to it. I love the Lord of the Rings. Heck, I went to great length to ensure that I could work on The Hobbit movies. But I also have to admit that as an adult, I never bothered buying the books for myself. When I want to return to familiar fantasy, I turn to Krynn, not to Middle Earth. With the 5e version of Dragonlance coming out in just a few days, I asked myself why that might be, and as a result of that exercise I've got 10 reasons I read and re-read Dragonlance, and why you should read it if you haven't yet.
Dragonlance covers a lot of the same ground as LOTR, which often can be said of any fantasy story. After all, the way we use the term "fantasy" now was largely defined by LOTR. Before LOTR, there was Lord Dunsany and Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, but there are no elves or dwarves in those.
Dragonlance, however, is very much in the LOTR tradition. The Chronicles storyline is even superficially similar to LOTR. There's a dangerous magical object of power in the world, and it's the key to disrupting the power of an emerging evil. Have I just described Dragonlance or LOTR? Exactly.
But in dragonlance, there's lots of dangerous magical objects in the world, and none of them necessarily disrupt the emerging evil. The magical objects are tools for our heroes to attain some goal. Sometimes the goal is selfish, sometimes the goal is noble. Sometimes achieving the goal results in our hero's death, sometimes it grants them power that they must choose to use to save or destroy life.
In LOTR, there's one ill-defined puzzle: The Ring is powerful, but using it is a sin, for some reason, so destroy it instead. In Dragonlance, there are complex moral puzzles, and many are circumstantial.
Somebody's got to say it. LOTR is actually pretty boring. If you've only seen the movies, you might not know that because the movies do a really good job of pacing the books and emphasizing conflict (which is usually what translates into interesting action in a story.) But the books are not written to be exciting. They're mostly a lofty historical account of some political events in a fantasy version of Earth.
Dragonlance is set on Krynn. It starts with a party of wanderers who end up escorting a barbarian couple through occupied lands to protect a magical staff bearing the healing power of a forgotten goddess. Their journey takes them to an abandoned city, to a hidden temple, and into a battle with a black dragon. And that's just the first third of the first book.
I know that Tolkien wrote lots of letters that clarifies and expands the lore of Middle Earth, but to me that's not actual canon. If that counts as part of LOTR, then every person with a secret Great American Novel as yet unwritten counts as a best-selling author. I don't want to have to do extensive research to uncover lore. I want my lore integrated with the story, in the book, I'm reading.
Tika, Goldmoon, Laurana, Mishakal, Kitiara, Crysania, Bupu, Takhisis, Margaret Weiss, and that's just a partial list. Dragonlance has actual female heroes and villains and authors doing heroic and villainous and authorial things. It's refreshing.
I'm a big fan of Strider (Aragorn) in LOTR, and Bilbo in The Hobbit, but to be honest those are the only characters I feel are "whole" characters. I know Frodo wants to go home, I know that Sam loves Frodo, I know that Gandalf loves Hobbits, and that Gollum loves the Ring. That's about it.
If anything, you might complain that Dragonlance has too many whole characters. The Dragonlance books throws complex characters with inner turmoil, hidden desires, and overt passions into the story without a second thought. It doesn't hold back on exploring the character, and even when a character only lasts for half a book, you feel like you know that character. And because Dragonlance has had a pretty long life as a franchise, you can probably find more on that character in another book.
I always thought it odd that magic was so reserved in LOTR. Gandalf has some fire or light magic, but otherwise much of the "magic" in LOTR is just magical places, magical events, magical crafts, and so on. In a way, magic is an adjective in LOTR and never a noun. Some people love that about LOTR, but for fantasy that strikes me as too realistic. If I want no magic, I can just look up from my book.
Dragonlance, like the roleplaying system it was written to service, has lots of magic. It's got a magic user from the start, and the story of the Chronicles is as much his as it is anyone else's. There are magical items with magical powers. There's also the magic of the gods, and clerics who wield it. Magic is a natural thing on Krynn, and anyone with the discipline to learn its powers may utilize it (up to a certain point.) It's so much a part of the world that magic users follow their planet's moons, aligning their powers with the movement of the heavenly bodies, and there's an actual system for that in an RPG source book. The magic in Dragonlance encompasses it all, from party tricks to miracles to arcane summoning and conjuration, and because it follows the rules of a roleplaying game, there's an actual quantifiable system to it.
LOTR implies some thought-provoking questions. Some people see it as an allegory of the struggle of nature against industrialism, others as a metaphysical fight between Good (with a capital G) and Evil (capital E). Still others see it as a fight between social progressivism and conservatism.
Dragonlance doesn't make you work quite that hard. In Chronicles, there's the struggle of theocracy against freedom. Legends poses the question of why there's suffering in the world when there are gods and clerics and churches. Dragonlance asks questions. It doesn't always answer them, but the thought provoking part of the story is pretty easy to identify.
Do you like little fantasy people? Dragonlance features my favourite incarnations of halflings. All three of them.
The kender are wanderers, prone to what looks like thievery to outsiders but only because kenders are idyllic communists who believe everything belongs to everyone.
Gully dwarves are hated by most of the civilized world because they're filthy and uncivilized. Of course, the reader knows better, and we get to see some amazing gully dwarves do some amazing things.
Gnomes are the "mad scientists" of Krynn. They invented elevators well before the elevators should have been invented, only instead of nice safe platform-and-pulley system, they just fling each other around in catapults and catch each other in nets.
Seriously, the halfling ancestries on Krynn are so much fun.
Dragonlance's world of Krynn not only has a history to it that's actually explored in the text of the book, it also has a full pantheon of gods.
Tolkien eventually wrote about some of the mythology and metaphysics of Middle Earth in Silmarillion, but he considered it a fundamentally religious and Catholic work and so he avoided religions, cults, or pantheon.
I'm a sucker for mythology, whether it's "real" (it's never real, but the places they developed were real) or fantasy, and I love discovering and reading about the gods of Krynn.
There's no expectation in LOTR for there to be dragons, and to be fair a lot can be said for restraint.
You get exactly one dragon, and he's in The Hobbit, and that's it.
There's no sequel where Smaug's mother comes calling to take revenge.
Smaug isn't suddenly resurrected along with an undead army to take over Middle Earth (actually that sounds like it could have been fun. What if the Arkenstone was the object of power that Frodo had to destroy, allowing him to use the Ring during the
Point is, there's no promise of dragons in LOTR so it's not fair to say that it doesn't have enough dragons in it. But modern fantasy, for many of us and for whatever reason, has dragons. We faun over them in paintings, we watch them in movies, we fight them in games. The reason Dragonlance was developed in the first place was that the game Dungeons & Dragons had lots of dungeons but very few dragons in it. And so there is an explicit promise of dragons in Dragonlance, in both name and origin. And Dragonlance makes good on that promise. You don't just get dragons, you get dragonlords and dragonriders. You get dragon orbs and dragon lances. If you like dragons, read Dragonlance.
I have no prior knowledge of 5e Dragonlance, so I don't know what that product will be like. It'll definitely be an broad overview of Krynn and its rich history, because that's the established format of 5e books, and anyway there's a lot of history in Dragonlance and it can't possibly all fit into one 5e source book. Regardless of what we get in Dragonlance for 5e, though, there's a wealth of Dragonlance since the 80s, and I think it deserves your attention, if you're a fantasy reader. Start with the Chronicles trilogy and follow the publication dates from there. It's a captivating world with not just a few wondrous stories, and you really need to experience them.
Dragon art by David Revoy. Creative Commons BY.