Magic…Magic Never Changes.
Warning – This article will include spoilers for The Verdant Passage.
Growing up in the Nineties, I think I read something akin to two hundred Dungeons and Dragons novels produced by TSR. If that sounds like an excessive or unlikely number, I should note there’s over one hundred and ninety Dragonlance novels alone and that doesn’t include four hundred Forgotten Realms novels or twenty-two Ravenloft ones.
No, I didn’t read anywhere near all of them but it was certainly not for lack of trying. However, I have a confession to make, I think there’s only three true “epics” among them. Stories that take full advantage of the massive scope of the universe and world-building. These three epics are the Dragonlance core books (Chronicles to Summer Flame), the Legend of Drizzt, and the Prism Pentad.
The Prism Pentad by Troy Denning (The Verdant Passage, The Crimson Legion, The Amber Enchantress, The Obsidian Oracle, and The Cerulean Storm) is sort of the odd man out in the group. Dark Sun was one of the lower selling of the Golden Age of TSR and never quite generated the same level of fanbase others did. It was, however, a fantastic setting. A combination of post-apocalypse fantasy and planetary romance where magic has destroyed the environment with all of the survivors living in oppressed city-states ruled by evil Sorcerer Kings.
Dark Sun was uniquely bleak with most races reduced to xenophobic survivalists, the forces of “good” being cell-based resistances always on the verge of extinction, and the environment being so hostile that players were encouraged to keep three characters that all started at level three because the lethality was believed to warrant it. It predated the grimdark Renaissance of assumed antiheroes in a corrupt society but also called back to Conan the Barbarian, Burroughs’ Barsoom, and Jack Vance’s Dying Earth.
The Prism Pentad was special to me, though, because Troy Denning took this bleak uncompromising setting before saying, “What if our protagonists were allowed to actually make it better? What if the way they did that was to challenge the status quo by utterly overthrowing fantasy assumptions about how the world should work?” The first book deals with a planned revolution against one of the Sorcerer Kings, a slave revolt, and plans to bring an end to the old order so that a newer freerer society could emerge from the ashes.
And it works.
So many revolutions and attempts to build better societies in fantasy completely fail. Either the people trying to change the status quo become just as bad as the oppressors or they go “too far” in some way that renders any attempt to do better than putting slightly less awful people in charge as wrong. The idea of real systemic change isn’t something that most fantasy, let alone Dungeons and Dragons fantasy, is willing to engage with.
Here, the Free City of Tyr emerges from a liberation of the people from tyrannical rule and you know what? Everyone is better off for killing those slaving bastards and liberating the people they held in bondage. Kings are not something the people need and the only time our heroes make any mistakes is when they’re persuaded they should make any sort of compromise with the old aristocracy. The lesson of our barbarian hero, Rikus, and sometimes Defiler, Sadira of Tyr, is not, “Are we going too far?” but “Maybe we should have gone further?”
Troy is also not afraid to be political in a way that doesn’t lecture the reader but makes it clear that there is a decided point A to point Z line for how the world became the horror show it is. The Sorcerer Kings were genocidal racists out to purge all-nonhumans from the Earth and didn’t care about magic being a finite resource in the world as long as they ruled the ashes. Years before Warcraft III, Troy had the “monster slaying is righteous because they’re bad and we’re good” as the ideology of the villains. It left an impression on me that maybe, just maybe, aristocracy, self-righteousness, and appeal to tradition were BS.
Plus Sadira was like Kitiara uth Matar and my thirteen year old self’s first fictional crush.
The Prism Pentad was conclusive in a way that only Dragonlance was really allowed to be. So much so that many fans complained about the canon changes at the end. For me, it was more a sign that the books were willing to tell the kind of epic fantasy that our PCs should be allowed to be the stars of. Besides, we had Dregoth the Dracolich to take the place of any people who were overthrown along the way. And if you get that reference, take a 100 EXP.
You’ll need it in the Tablelands.