A while ago I posted a list of the top fifty role-playing games of all time, as voted by the readers of arcane back in 1996. At the time I promised I'd post my own top ten list but that didn't happen because I wanted to give it a bit more thought. It is possible that I've given it too much thought, as you will soon see.
Anyway, at number ten is Dragonlance: Fifth Age.
No, really, it is.
I suspect that this game was doomed from the beginning. It was always going to be a tough sell even if its troubled publisher didn't implode a year or so after the game's release. Existing Dragonlance enthusiasts were asked to convert to a new -- although not unrelated, as we shall see -- ruleset to continue playing in their beloved setting. Except it wasn't quite the same setting because of a soft reboot killing everyone off and pushing the timeline thirty years into the future, the kind of move that never, ever alienates long-standing fans, honest. Just ask DC Comics. Those who already hated Dragonlance for its infamous railroading, its twee eschatology, and all of the embarrassing dragon sex were never going to be won over by the new game, and as it shirked dice in favour of cards, cynical gamers saw it as a blatant attempt to cash in on the popularity of Magic: The Gathering, a game that was at the time killing the role-playing industry, which is why no one has published an rpg since.
I'm not much of a Dragonlance fan myself -- I read some of the novels as a child, but I got better -- and I've never played the game in its intended setting but even so I like the system a lot. Enough to put it in my top ten, but you already knew that.
The cards themselves take the place of dice with their values added to a character's statistic and the total compared against a target number, but there's more to them than a simple numeric value. Cards are organised into suits and certain suits work better for certain tasks or with certain statistics, giving the character a bonus when those synergies come into play, the rough equivalent of a critical success or an exploding roll in Savage Worlds, except with a set of cards there's an element of planning for success more akin to the spending of action or story points in one of those fancy story games the cool kids bang on about.
Cards are also divided into black, white, and red types -- matching the three moons and three wizard groups of the setting -- allowing for positive, negative, and neutral readings or even something as prosaic as determining which moon is in ascendance, if you're playing in the stock setting. Each card also features a description of a personality type, a feature that has a bit of the feel of a cheesy inspirational poster to it -- it is Dragonlance after all -- but is nonetheless useful for determining non-numeric details in the game; flirting with a duchess at a ball may succeed or fail based on the value of the cards played but the duchess' personality -- beyond her susceptibility to flirting -- can be generated there and then by one of the cards played to woo her. Is Duchess Siebenundachtzig clever and demure or belligerent and hungry?
I also like that the mechanics are player-focussed. For example, when a player-character attacks an orc the player, er, plays cards to hit the monster; when the orc hits back, cards are played to avoid the attack. I've seen lots of praise of late for Monte Cook's Numenera taking this approach but DL5A was doing it in 1996. To be fair, even Pathfinder has had official rules for something similar for at least a couple of years but Pathfinder isn't -- SPOILERS -- anywhere near my top ten, so we'll just note how much I like player-focussed mechanics and how they let the gamemaster get on with running the world rather than the rules, then we'll move on.
The game takes an abstract, story-based approach to money and equipment -- rather than waste game time on shopping, characters are assumed to have what would be reasonable for them to have -- and to experience too, with characters increasing in ability upon the completion of an adventure rather than through accumulation of points. I don't think it's an inherent improvement over keeping strict records of every copper piece and experience point but it is the kind of laissez faire approach I favour when I run games so it's good to see in a rulebook from TSR of all people.
Of course, DL5A is by no means perfect. Few things are, aside from banoffi pie and John Carpenter's Halloween. The game's freefrom magic system is flexible and rewards inventiveness -- and seems a little inspired by Ars Magica but I may be way off, having never played that venerable game -- but is also a bit vague and more practical guidance would be useful. At the same time it's full of arbitrary restrictions left over from the setting's origins in AD&D; if a spellcaster can generate a fireball then they can't also heal the friend they caught in the blast, because those are different types of magic even if the old arcane-divine divide doesn't exist as such.
(It can become a bit of a philosophical rabbit hole if you let it. A wizard can't cast healing spells because healing is a life effect and wizards can't affect life forces, but blowing someone up with a fireball is affecting their life force, isn't it? ISN'T IT?)
The game also suffers from some wonky maths here and there; for example, by the rules using a sword to hit a cave bear is an epic feat equivalent to defeating the setting's Satan analogue in single combat. Oh dear. That said, the game's glitches are minor and a couple of sensible house rules fix them. Indeed, the core system was used again for the Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game in 1998 and tweaks were made to alleviate some of DL5A's rules problems, amendments that can be transferred over to the original game with little difficulty.
A revised or second edition of the game -- perhaps divorcing it from the setting -- would have been welcome but TSR's demise and the arrival of D&D3 put that out of the question. As far as I know it hasn't been cloned and I imagine the big obstacle to doing so would be the deck of cards. I have seen similar systems -- such as Tab System Classic -- that have used standard playing cards but that approach misses the extra functions of the deck and doesn't show all of the game's strengths, of which it has many. Those many strengths are why Dragonlance: Fifth Age is my tenth favourite rpg ever. In 2014.
Next: two dice, a pencil, and an eraser.