Dragonlance: In The End, Evil Shall Always Triumph Over Good

Of the big three D&D settings (Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, and Dragonlance, ignoring meta-settings like Planescape), Dragonlance is the setting used to exemplify epic fantasy. A titanic struggle between good and evil rocks Ansalon down to its core whenever Wizards can find the money to pay Hickman and/or Weis to squeeze out another trilogy, bold heroes facing off against tyrannical overlords, whose triumph is inevitable. The tyrannical overlords, I mean. Good guys never win lasting victories in Dragonlance.

Dragonlance has had five major ages, but most of those are back story. With only a few exceptions, the novels and source books all deal with various times in the relatively short-lived Age of Despair and the ongoing Age of Mortals, and those times can be sorted into six different eras: The time of Istar (which gets the least attention and is actually right before the Age of Despair starts), the Dwarfgate War, the War of the Lance, the Chaos War, the War of Souls, and the modern day. As a general rule, evil comes out on top of all of these in the long run.

At the time of Istar, the world is largely at peace, but also firmly within the sphere of influence of Istar, a totalitarian police state that hates wizards, except the wizards it employs to read people’s minds for evil thoughts so it can punish them, those guys are okay. The time of Istar is considered by official Dragonlance canon to be a time when the forces of Good were too strong, which is what I will generously call a controversial definition of goodness. The gods ultimately solve this problem by casting Meteor on Istar and blowing up the entire nation. This is when anti-hero Raistlin absorbs the power of the Lifestream through the wounded planet. I’m only joking a little bit with that last sentence. The destruction of the world’s economic heart by the apocalyptic wrath of offended gods sends the entire world into fantasy Mad Max. By Dragonlance’s own definition, this leads to a significant decrease in the amount of Good in the world.

During the Dwarfgate Wars, it is fantasy Mad Max. Everyone is still angry at the gods (I can’t imagine why) and there are no particular good guys, just people killing each other over scarce resources and struggling to retain or reform governments. The main plot development here in the novels is that Raistlin is able to manipulate the course of the war and blow up a city in order to launch himself into the Abyss (which is not actually the same Abyss as the normal D&D Abyss, but it’s an evil plane so close enough for purposes of this post) to confront the dark god Takhisis and try to kill her and absorb her power. This doesn’t really pan out for him. I mean it does, but then it doesn’t. It’s complicated. The simple version is that the confrontation between evil Raistlin and evil Takhisis is a wash for the overall struggle between good and evil, and also we’re going to be hearing more of Takhisis and not so much of Raistlin.

During the War of the Lance, Takhisis forms five Dragonarmies, one for each color of dragon, and attempts to take over the world. The good guys spend like two years staring gormlessly while the dragonarmies invade one nation after another, but then finally get their act together and form the Whitestone Council of free nations. At this stage, the world is no longer Mad Max, and Solamnia has emerged as a world power, so it’s kind of a big deal when the dragonarmies take over most of it, but then the main characters show up and turn the tide and everything is roses. The dragonarmies and their assorted bad guy allies do end up in control of about a quarter of the world still, but their armies are badly depleted and overall this is a victory for the good guys. So if we ignore the weirdness with Istar, things are looking good right now. Oh, also, there’s some stuff about rediscovering the gods and cleric magic that’s very important to the plot of the novels but has alarmingly little impact on the struggle between good and evil, seeing as how the main good nations are already fully formed and do not especially require any guidance from the gods of good to decide they don’t want to be conquered by multi-colored fascists.

The War of the Lance is detailed in the Dragonlance Chronicles, the series that introduced the world of Dragonlance (the Istar and Dwarfgate eras are described in prequels that are also sequels – it’s complicated and not important) and you’d think this triumph of good over evil would’ve set the tone for the world moving forward, particularly seeing as how the rest of these stories get written in the second edition era, which is the era when Forgotten Realms was a thing and Dragonlance was now defined as a setting as being the D&D world where there are titanic struggles between good and evil and not just semi-random adventures happening mostly disconnected from one another in an iron age world where huge tracts of savage wilderness separate the centers of civilization from one another. In Dragonlance, adventurers driving goblins from yonder dungeon isn’t a local conflict, it’s a proxy war between draco-Sauron and a god whose actual name is Paladine. You’d expect Team Paladin(e) to generally come out on top of those confrontations. You’d be wrong, though.

In the Chaos War, some of the remnants of the dragonarmies reform into the Knights of Neraka (named after the bad guy capital) and invade Solamnia again. They conquer half of Solamnia when a crazy god named Chaos shows up to wreck everything, and the Solamnic Knights and the Knights of Neraka put aside their differences to fight Chaos. Chaos is defeated, but only at the cost of the gods leaving the world again. Even though it was supposed to be a plot point that we came back to them in the War of the Lance, now they’re leaving. Back in the War of the Lance a lot of people thought gods had left, but really it was the people who had left the gods, which was a plot point they spent some time on. Not this time, though, this time the gods are actually leaving. Additionally, half of Solamnia has been conquered by bad guys and there are no plans to liberate those territories. It’s a different half of Solamnia from the last war, but if anything it’s more important, since it’s got the religious capital of the world there, in a series where the comings and goings of gods (as representatives of good and evil common to all eras) is supposed to be pretty important. So, almost every bad thing that was prevented or reversed in the War of the Lance got redone, and the “triumph of Good” in the Chaos War is just that after surrendering to the bad guys, we prevented the world from being completely destroyed.

But hey, if you want the bad guys to be a serious threat, they do at some point need to have victories, and I’d applaud Dragonlance for having the bad guys actually win in one of the novels without having their gains reversed at the end of the trilogy if they were setting up the good guys to bounce back. That is not what they are doing, however. Instead, they’re setting up the War of Souls. Now, while Solamnia comes out of the Chaos War in very bad shape, the rest of the Whitestone Council is in pretty good shape. The elves of Qualinesti and Silvanesti have reclaimed their lands from the dragonarmies, the invasion of human/halfling Northern Ergoth was repelled, the halfling homeland is unconquered, and the elven refugees in Southern Ergoth who don’t return to their homelands after liberation all manage to get along and help the humans there defeat the local ogre menace. The plains barbarians come out of the war mostly unscathed.

In the backstory for the War of Souls, completely offpage, Southern Ergoth and Qualinesti both get taken over by evil super dragons and Silvanesti becomes completely isolationist, so that’s the elves out, another super dragon burns out the kender (halfling) home and a neighboring human nation, and a third super dragon kills a bunch of the plains barbarians.

During the War of Souls, the super dragon camping on Qualinesti dies, but takes the capital city down with him and leaves the rest of the forest in the hands of the Knights of Neraka, the super dragon who razed the halfling homeland dies but the halfling homeland remains a scorched, uninhabitable wasteland, and during the entire events of the War of Souls the forces of good do not claim any significant territory, because their backs have been completely broken by the super dragons and the Chaos War. Silvanesti ends up getting invaded by the Knights of Neraka and driven out by the minotaurs (also Team Evil), which places the number of elven homelands occupied at fully 100%, and the Knights of Neraka and the Knights of Solamnia end up teaming up against an evil ghost army again, and that ghost army turns out to belong to Takhisis who went backsies on the whole “no gods” thing from the Chaos War, but all this really represents is the forces of evil being so ascendant at this point that they can descend into fierce internecine warfare and still not face any significant territory losses, and in fact they conquer Silvanesti despite their internal divisions.

The War of Souls was the last major plot arc of the Dragonlance novels. For a full eight years afterwards, side stories continued to be released, and these form a sort of ad-hoc sixth era despite having no main plot. The minotaurs have an evil versus even more evil plot, where an heir to the minotaurs’ ancient brutal despotism triumphs over an insane death cult. Solamnia gets taken over by a megalomaniac, but apparently it’s okay because he’s somehow arbitrarily a good guy, despite ruthlessly (and repeatedly) slaughtering innocent people to get what he wants? The less said about Rise of Solamnia, the better, so suffice it to say that no, this was definitely not a return to form. I honestly don’t remember (and the internet has not recorded) whether any land ultimately changed hands or if the sociopath protagonist just takes over the tattered remains of Solamnia from the previous administration (a meritocratic oligarchy based on the ideals of justice and courage), but it doesn’t matter, because the author thinks he’s an anti-hero and the truth is he’s a villain, so at best we’re looking at the triumph of a lesser evil – at the cost of wiping out the last remnant of Solamnia, which at the end of the War of the Lance was the beating heart of justice in the world, the center of the Light’s sphere of influence on Krynn.

In all of this, there’s only a small handful of territory claims made by the force of good. Southern Ergoth is liberated from the last of the evil super dragons in the only adventure path produced for Dragonlance since the original modules about the War of the Lance. Northern Ergoth remains in decent enough shape. The elves, having been evicted from Qualinesti, Silvanesti, and Southern Ergoth (the original homes of what I believe are the wood elves, high elves, and wild elves of Krynn, respectively, although I’m not sure if I matched up the standard sub-races to the Krynn versions properly – Southern Ergoth was also used as a refuge for the other two elf varieties during the War of the Lance when both their homelands were briefly occupied by dragonarmies), team up and capture the city of Sanction, trade capital of Team Evil since the beginning of the War of the Lance when the dragonarmies captured it as one of their opening moves. Also in the general Neraka region, some good dwarves reclaim their ancient mountain home from some bad dwarves. So after losing very nearly the entire world  to various forces of darkness, the good news is that the elves liberated one city, the dwarves liberated another, and the player characters bump off the last super dragon, but only after the elves have vacated that island and left it to the ogres. Sancrist is basically untouched, but I don’t think they’re a Whitestone Council nation (except the parts that are a Solamnic outpost, which…yeah). Pretty sure they’re neutral. So it’s basically Northern Ergoth versus the world. And the last time a novel was released for Dragonlance was 2010, so that’s not the setup for the spectacular comeback you might be thinking it is.

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