The First Book of the Dragonlance adventures concluded in 1984 with Dragons of Desolation. In this adventure, the heroes guide the refugees of Pax Tharkas into the dwarven city of Thorbardin, and then have to persuade the dwarven council to let them stay. They are fine with it… just as long as the characters retrieve for them the fabled Hammer of Kharas from a floating tomb…
There are some interesting things going on in this adventure. A dream sequence has visions tailored to the pregenerated characters, preying on their fears. Many of these situations – further clarified – would appear in the novel series (most moved to the Cyan Bloodbane sequence of Dragons of Winter Night). However, they gave fantastic opportunities for players to roleplay, especially when they found themselves in situations like those of the dreams. While most of the dreams related to the climax of this adventure, two dreams – those of Sturm and Laurana – related to a later adventure.
Instead of mapping the entire dwarven city, the adventure provides a poster map that contains 16 geomorphic maps (about 300 feet x 300 feet) that can be combined to create certain areas of the city; their arrangements are then listed for the areas the characters are expected to enter.
We also finally get a climactic confrontation with Verminaard, the main Highlord foe of the First Book. As might be expected from this series, it uses railroading for dramatic effect in setting up the final encounter. We also get the revelation of who the traitor from Dragons of Flame is, as he (or she) finally reveals himself (or herself). To nobody’s surprise, it’s Eben Shatterstone; changing the identity of the traitor is likely one of the first things you should do when running the adventure for people familiar with the story. Make it Laurana! That will surprise your players!
So, we’ve got the conclusion of the first storyline, big battles against the Big Bad, an interesting location or two to explore, and dream sequences providing material to fuel role-playing. This should be great, right?
Unfortunately, it isn’t.
It takes seven pages to describe travel through the dwarven fortress, with very few significant encounters, and get the players to the main event: exploring the Tomb of Derkin. Later adventures would realise the power of the event-driven scenario that doesn’t need pages of unneeded room descriptions and just hits the highlights, but that wasn’t employed here. As a result, it’s not until page 16 of a 32-page booklet until we get to the Tomb. And that’s dealt with in three pages. Hickman is known for his interesting dungeons (see Pharaoh and Ravenloft) but that deserts him here.
Derkin’s Tomb is particularly problematic, as it eschews the traditional traps, tricks and monsters format to remove the monsters. Instead, a guardian uses magic powers to slow the characters down and try to get them to leave, aided by such spells as guards and wards. I think it’s hard to run, although a DM could make something of it. There are three items of particular interest in the tomb: The Hammer of Kharas, the revelation of the fate of the dwarven hero Kharas, and a pair of really powerful magical spectacles that give true sight, comprehend languages, read magic, infravision and ultravision. Tasslehoff Burrfoot would make those glasses famous in the novels. In an AD&D game? Wow! They’re incredible!
Maybe Derkin’s Tomb wasn’t the main event. Perhaps it’s the battle with Verminaard? Well, it forces the capture of the characters, a set scene where the traitor gets controlled by the Hammer and betrays Verminaard (who kills the traitor), and finally the players need to fight Verminaard, a few evil dwarves, and a new creature, a fireshadow – a creature from the lower planes that’s corrosive dark flame can convert characters into creatures like itself. It’s the best part of the adventure – a very dangerous and ingenious monster. It’s page 21, and the adventure is over. At least this battle is likely to be entertaining.
The remainder has some important story-telling stuff, like the marriage of Riverwind and Goldmoon, and a lot of monster and magic item appendices. There’s a lot of world-building going on here, so we also get some capsule descriptions of the dwarven tribes, and the wedding song. With scored music, no less. (When I first got these adventures as a teenager, I played through and sang all the songs presented in the adventure. This is not one of the better ones).
What has gone wrong in this adventure? There’s one basic underlying cause: The writers don’t yet understand the pacing of story-driven adventures. A lot of material is used here to allow the DM to create encounters if the players decide to ignore the plot. However, this isn’t inspiring material. The basic plot can be summarised very simply, and, without the Tomb being an interesting adventure location, it falls apart remarkably quickly. There is some tension in finishing the quest before the Dragon Armies catch up and kill the refugees, but the players are unlikely to be properly aware of that; whether they’re succeeding or failing with respect to the time pressures is hidden to them.
The remarkable lack of incident derails the adventure. Even Dragons of Flame, which takes railroading to an absurd level, has things happen all the way through. I’ve never read Dragons of the Dwarven Depths, the novel that was written many years later to fill in the gaps in the Dragonlance Chronicles, but from the plot summary it has a lot of events that aren’t in the adventure. I’m not surprised!
Ultimately, Dragons of Desolation is a disappointment. It ties up several ongoing plots, but the material rarely inspires. This is one of the biggest misfires in the Dragonlance series of adventures.