I was still in my very early years of D&D when I first read Dragons of Hope. It’s hard to remember the exact year, but I’d say it was about 1986 or 1987, which puts me in my mid-teens. The beginning of the adventure sees the players escorting the refugees rescued from Pax Tharkas through a desolate, snow-covered landscape towards the dwarven realm of Thorbardin, hoping to find sanctuary from the Dragonarmies. On the way, they have to deal with the refugee leaders, which allows them to experience the fun of herding cats.
This idea of having to guide the refugees and needing to role-play with their leaders is an innovative idea. When I first read this, it intimidated me. It still does; I’ve never been the best at running multiple NPCs in one encounter. However, with the benefit of 30 years of playing D&D, I don’t think it’s very well executed. The adventure devotes a couple of pages to explaining how to run the council and the refugees, but mostly the council comes down to rolling percentage dice and seeing if they go along with the players’ plans. A good DM would be able to really flesh this out, but what this really wants is a suggestion of the issues they squabble about and need the players’ guidance on.
It should be noted that the rules for handling the refugees in combat and keeping them fed are simple and effective.
The wilderness section of the adventure is portrayed on a large poster map of the area. It’s a beautiful map, and it really allows the players to see the scope of the journey they are making. Unfortunately, the DM’s map is not so well rendered – some of the numbers are obscured by the background or are outright missing. For the most part, there aren’t that many set wilderness encounters, with random encounter tables provided to add more excitement – along with a few events – although the chances of having a random encounter are relatively low. As in DL1, the Dragonarmies begin to pursue the refugees part of the way through the adventure (exactly how long they take depends on the events of DL2). The Dragonarmies conquer encounter areas until they surround and destroy the refugees, giving the entire adventure much needed time pressure.
The most significant element of the wilderness section is the introduction of Fizban, a senile old mage who may be more than he seems. Or he may be exactly as he seems; later adventures reveal his true identity, which doesn’t necessarily correspond to who he is in the novels! Fizban has a few encounters which provide some humour in what is otherwise a pretty bleak adventure; it’s almost impossible to get all the refugees to safety, as many will die along the way. The adventure may be called Dragons of Hope, but there’s a lot of despair to go around! I know that Fizban is a controversial character, but personally I love him. (Then again, I also love Prit the Spoons-in-Architecture Historian from Pharaoh).
There’s a side-trek into an old dwarven outpost now home to gully dwarves, which doesn’t offer that much except for some role-playing. The main dungeon of the adventure is the ruins of Skullcap, an old fortress destroyed in a war between the dwarves and the wizard Fistandantilus.
Fistandantilus is one of the great creations of Dragonlance, but you really need to read the novels to get an idea of his importance; his use in the adventures is not much more than a footnote. I do admire the world-building here; the idea of the great battle between Fistandantilus’s forces and the dwarves is brilliant. The location of the hidden gates to the dwarven city of Thorbardin can be found in the depths of Skullcap, which gives a reason for the players to visit. (They learn this at the beginning of the adventure).
Skullcap has a lot of exploration and evocative descriptions, but it’s not overrun with monsters. Those that do appear are quite dangerous, and there are number of tricks and traps to enliven the proceedings. This is also the adventure where a Shadow Dragon appears…
So, what do I make of Dragons of Hope? It’s a mixed bag. For an adventure of this era, it feels slight. There’s a lot of description of areas without that many significant encounters, and the burden is very much on the DM to fill in the gaps. There are a few nice encounters, but overall there’s a lack of truly memorable material. That this adventure was originally skipped during the novelisation process (Dragons of Autumn Twilight ends with DL2, Dragons of Winter Night picks up the adventure again with DL6!) is not particularly surprising. The adventure isn’t devoid of interest, and I know some groups have done a lot with it, but I find it one of the weaker entries in the series.