The big holiday release for 2022 from official D&D is finally here. Dragonlance: Shadow of the Dragon Queen is the big campaign book to wrap up a packed year of releases for D&D. Just from a casual flip through of this book and its accompanying board game, you can tell that a lot of time and money went into these combined projects. This book and its maps are in full color, and all of its illustrations have been handled by a murderer’s row of WotC’s most talented illustrators.
But money and polish isn’t everything. After a year full of amazing releases (Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep and Spelljammer: Adventures in Space being the two standout titles), as well as a very prominent press and social media push after its announcement at D&D Direct earlier this year. One gets the impression that a lot is riding on this book and its tie in board game ‘Dragonlance: Warriors of Krynn’.
So how does Dragonlance: Shadow of the Dragon Queen stack up against D&D 5e’s already dragon-rich catalogue of adventures. We’ve had dragon queen hoards, dragon heists, and dragon treasuries so far, what does the Dragon Queen’s shadow bring to the table?
What is Dragonlance?
For anyone reading this post who’s under the age of thirty (which, tbh, is almost all of you wonderful folks), Dragonlance was a multimedia setting developed by TSR for D&D 1st edition back in the early 80’s. It was a collection of modules and a trilogy of tie in novels called Dragonlance: Chronicles, both of which featured a large party of characters called the Heroes of the Lance.
At first blush, the setting of Krynn is exactly what one thinks of when asked to imagine a ‘fantasy themed painting on the side of a panel van in the late 70’s’. It is late 70’s/early 80’s the fantasy setting. Muscular men with Peter Wyngarde hair and moustaches, petite women with voluminous Farrah Fawcett curls and bronzed skin, scantily clad in leather and fur, and just a whole mess of dragons.
I read the first Dragonlance novel, Dragons of Autumn’s Twilight, when I was in high school and just getting into D&D for the first time. I can honestly say that I remember almost nothing about it. The only standout things I remember about Weiss and Hickman’s stories were the somewhat tone deaf Native American and First Nations cultural pastiches (Goldmoon and Riverwind), and that at some point in the story the gold skinned sorcerer Raistlin cast charm person on a female ‘gully dwarf’ to cause her to fall in love with him, only to leave her behind when the time came for the heroes to escape. It gave me big ‘Merlin turned me into a squirrel, now I have to break a lady squirrel’s heart’ vibes.
I’ve been told by nerds older than me that Dragonlance had a huge impact on D&D and fantasy in the 80’s. A lot of that I’ll have to take on faith, because by the time I was getting into D&D in the early 2000’s, Dragonlance was a complete unknown; a forgotten property of a bygone era of tabletop games.
Forty years(!) after its inception, Dragonlance is back. What does that look like in 2022?
A Dragon’s Hoard Spent
I’ve got a lot of critical things to say about this book, so I want to put the noteworthy things I liked up front before I get to everything else.
I’ve often said this year that D&D’s official releases keep getting better looking. The full color illustrations keep getting more and more vivid, more and more colorful, and more and more diverse in its depictions of race, gender, and body types.
That trend seems to have peaked with Shadow of the Dragon Queen. This book is chock full of gorgeous art and characters! If you like dragons and dragon themed monsters, this book has you covered. The best art pieces in the book are the big two page spreads of heroes standing around while dragons or draconians are either hiding just out of sight, or have been totally laid out. It’s all extremely influenced by the classic Dragonlance artwork by Larry Elmore.
The elements I like the most from all the art is the new key art of Lord Soth the death knight, as well as the art of all the new monsters and dragon types. The monster appendix in this book is fantastic.
Another noteworthy and helpful element of the campaign is the inclusion of sidekick characters and progression tables for them. D:SotDQ gives you six diverse sidekick characters to back you up and essentially squire for you as you take the fight to the forces of Thakisis.
This Time, It’s War
Shadow of the Dragon Queen is a war campaign. Its patchwork story of skirmishes, cross country travel, and showdowns with the villainous forces of Thakisis (Tiamat, if yer nasty) is told primarily through combat enounters or larger, more elaborate wartime encounters.
While battles, war, and grand conflicts have often been featured or been used as an effective backdrop in D&D 5e so far (Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount comes to mind as a good example), this feels like the first time D&D 5e has tried to tell a war story.
The war stories this adventure tells are pretty decent: a military reenactment that turns into a real battle, a downhill ride into a warzone with draconian enemies, a race to claim a holy artefact before the enemy does, and a climactic siege with a floating tower. There is some pretty epic set pieces available to play in this adventure.
However, your mileage out of it depends greatly on two important factors: ‘Do your players care about Dragonlance?’ and ‘Do your players want a war story?’. If the answer is no to both or to either, then this book offers little to you. Very little of Krynn’s setting and story outside of ‘the war of the lance’ is given over here, with much of it either available to learn elsewhere, or assumed to be already known by Dragonlance fans to begin with. This is definitely not an adventure or setting for the uninitiated.
Which is why tying in a board game into the campaign book feels like an odd choice.
Don’t Forget the Board Game
On top of the standard edition of the adventure book Shadow of the Dragon Queen, WotC sent me the Deluxe Edition, which packages a copy of the book with the new Dragonlance: Warriors of Krynn board game.
The book includes rules in every chapter on how to use the board game to either supplement the chapter’s encounters, or be used in place of the big siege combats. That is an extremely ambitious idea, and I think it’s a great option for in-person groups who want the feel of a really big battle but don’t have the space for a ton of miniatures and maps.
I just wish the board game was more fun to play.
To be fair, I am not the target audience for this kind of game to begin with. Multiphase cooperative wargames that use several different sets of cards, tokens, and chits to represent characters, units, and powers tend to go completely over my head. After playing through a scenario with a friend, I still only had a loose grasp of all the complicated rules, but it seems like a tile placement game with advancement handled by advancing units and rolling to see how combat encounters go.
For me, despite all the time, effort, and money that seem to have been put into the game, it lacks a lot of visual flair. Almost all the tokens, front and back, are just text on black fields. Same for a lot of the terrain and encounter cards/tokens. Only the six hero characters get plastic miniatures, and while the sculpts are good, I can’t help but feel like this whole package feels a little budget. Compare Warriors of Krynn to other D&D adventure board games like Wrath of Ashardalon, Castle Ravenloft, or even newer entries like Tomb of Annihilation, where you get an entire bestiary of plastic miniatures for both the heroes and villains.
As a stand alone board game, I can’t imagine it will merit repeat playthroughs, and as a companion to Shadow of the Dragon Queen it feels like an unnecessarily complex add on to an already overly complex set of encounters.
Who Was This For?
I ask this as both a game designer myself, and a big fan and proponent of almost everything released under the D&D 5e banner so far. I follow a lot of different D&D communities online (TikTok, Discord, Twitter, Facebook, I got my start on Tumblr) and have seen D&D fans get hyped for a lot of different things.
Any time a big Critical Role announcement drops, we are here for it. Any time another Ravenloft product is teased, we are ready. Any time a new streaming show is in the works, we wanna know about it.
In the past five years or so of playing, running, and endlessly talking about D&D 5e…not once have I heard anyone pining for a Dragonlance revival. This feels like it was on absolutely no one’s radar when it was announced. People had been speculating about the possibility of Spelljammer since Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage in 2018, but as far as I can tell, almost nobody was chomping at the bit for more Dragonlance.
Now I may be totally wrong. Maybe there’s a huge swell of grognards looking to give 5e a try that have been mentioning it in every Unearthed Arcana feedback survey. Maybe the Weiss and Hickman books have been rediscovered on #booktok or something. Or maybe this book is just a huge passion project for its designers and now was the best time to fit it into the release schedule.
I don’t know…but I can’t help but feel like this book and its board game tie in are missing the mark completely on the D&D community right now, especially with a live action movie set in the Forgotten Realms coming out in less than a year’s time. As the preeminent form of communal fantasy escapism for millennials and gen Z, I feel like D&D did not need a gritty, sweeping war epic in the year of our lord 2022, certainly not one that’s banking on 40 year old nostalgia for an evergreen fantasy doorstopper like Dragonlance. It feels like an odd choice, particularly now.
Dragonlance: Shadow of the Dragon Queen is definitely a ‘fans only’ purchase. If you’re not already enamored with the exploits of Sturm Brightblade and his doomed quest for Paladine, this book does little to win the players over to the Knights of Solamnia, or any of the setting details that make Krynn noteworthy (other than dragons).
Generationally, we’re also well beyond the fantasy assumption that ‘all dragons are evil’ and ‘the armies of darkness are just pure evil monsters’, which makes this book’s whole premise a bit of a harder sell.
However if that’s exactly the kind of grand ‘black and white, good vs evil’ conflict you and your players want to take part in, then Dragonlance: Shadow of the Dragon Queen might be exactly what you’re looking for!