Friday, December 27, 2019

Dragonlance: 5th Age (Saga System) - A review

I was rereading Art & Arcana over the Christmas holiday, and noticed an interesting caption for a small image, calling out an unpopular edition of a Dragonlance game played with cards called Dragonlance: 5th Age. Since I'm currently writing a game played with cards, I've read a ton of other card-based systems, but somehow this was never on my radar. As a lark, I looked it up.

When the OSR looks back to the earliest days of D&D, they're not really looking at this era. D&D3E was only three years away. At the end of its life, AD&D was doing some weird things. In the same way that D&D4E was contextualized and framed by the popularity of MMOs, TSR of this era is contextualized by Magic: the Gathering. Wizards of the Coast, the new wunderkind (who would eventually go on to devour its older brother like a bizarre terratoma), was perceived by TSR to be its main competition. And instead of defining itself by its differences, TSR wanted to copy what made MtG interesting. In 1994, they released Spellfire, which was followed the next year with Blood Wars. Neither imitator proved as successful as the original. In 1996, TSR also released Dragonlance: 5th Age, a rule set that used not the AD&D 2nd ed rules, but a new card-based system called the Saga Edition. It was not successful either.

But it is interesting! It's sort of like finding an archaeopteryx: a feathered link between the old and the new. It uses a specialized deck of cards with the characters from the Dragonlance novels on them and Tarot-like suits. It steps away from dungeon crawling, coin counting, and inventive solutions with ten-foot poles and packages of lard in favor of high adventure heroics. It has rules that genre-emulate the novels that made Krynn famous.

I can see why it wasn't a hit. The 5th Age of the setting is markedly different from the setting of the novels. In giving new players space to tell their own stories, they removed all the touchstones that made Dragonlance feel like Dragonlance. In a world that was supposed to be more dragon than dungeon, it dramatically reduced the draconic population. It even got rid of the token three moons of magic.

Also, the card-based system is interesting, but it's a real break from AD&D. This was a gamble on TSR's part--frankly, in 1996, D&D wasn't cool or popular, even in its own fanbase. The Satanic Panic had stained D&D's public reputation and taken the teeth out of the creature that remained. There were worthy RPG competitors (I was happily playing Shadowrun around this time, imagining a far future world with a cordless fax machine). By making a non-D&D game, TSR was hoping that the Dragonlance brand could popularize a new system of cooperative card-based storytelling. It was never meant to be.

As I'm reading through the rules for "Fifth Age," I thought I'd jot down my observations. The game is a weird duck, but interesting.
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You could be one of three heroic standers! (Dragons not included.)


The 5th Age came in a boxed set. It's well established that box sets rule. Book 1 has all the core rules of the Saga System and clocks a cool 128 pages. Not an unwieldy tome by any stretch. 

The art is very sparse. Occasionally a quarter-page of half-page black and white character piece will sit breaking up the two column text, but none of it is worth mentioning. 

The other stuff in the boxed set includes the specialized cards used to play the game (called the "Fate Deck"), a gazetteer of the current age of Krynn, and an introductory adventure. This review is all about Book 1. 

Book 1 glosses the high points of the differences between the 5th Age setting and your father's Dragonlance. First change? Like, no fuckin' dragons. Did you think you were gonna lance one? TOO BAD. 

Change the second? The magic system is different (read: non-Vancian). The three moons are gone. In its place is "Sorcery." The gods are gone; in their place is a new cleric-ish system of "Mysticism." These are puerile changes. 

The game defines that it's themes are heroism, tragedy, romance, and good vs evil. Romance is a weird one to throw in there; there aren't really any rules to support it as a core theme that I've read. It would be interesting if they had some. 

To me, it's a welcome departure from the AD&D milieu to explicitly make a game have "heroic" themes. It explicitly says that characters should work together, cooperate, and play the heroes. This sets good expectations for players who want to have an experience like the novels; no murder hobos welcome. 

Part of this focus on heroism explicitly steers GMs (called "Narrators," like a fucking White Wolf game or something) away from scenes about shopping, cooking, bathing, and other mundanities. The game is explicitly about larger than life action, and everybody--players and GMs alike--are supposed to focus on that. Even 5th Ed wasn't this bold.

Chapter 1: Character Creation

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Look at these dudes

Character creation is a mini-game, half-randomized. You draw twelve cards from the deck of fate and assign them to your eight attributes, two personality traits, your "quest/reputation" score, and your "wealth/social standing" score. 

The eight attributes are essentially "Strength/melee attack and defense," "Agility/missile attack and defense," "Intelligence/arcane magic attack and defense," and "Charisma/divine magic attack and defense." 

There are not classes, but class-like features and restrictions are generated from your attributes. Therefore, there's a little strategy to be employed as you assign your card values: attributes also have a "code" based on the suit that you use. For example, the suit of Swords is tied to the Strength attribute. If you assign a 4 of Swords to your Strength score, you'll have a Strength of "4A." This means that you're somewhat weaker than the average human (average Strength of 5) but you're well trained in matters of arms: you can wield any melee weapon. If you instead had put a 10 of Dragons card to your Strength score, you would have been at peak human strength ("10"), but untrained in weapons (can only wield basic melee weapons). Other attributes control your ability to carry shields, wear armor, and cast arcane and divine magic. I thought this was interesting. 

In addition to your attributes, you set your wealth level, assign two personality traits, and your "quest/reputation score." As the game focuses on heroic action and not bean counting, abstracting wealth makes sense. In terms of the personality traits: I can't find any storygame-esque incentives for following these, so I'd be a little worried that these are just dumps for your worst cards. Even 5th ed backgrounds would be used to reward inspiration, so that was a little disappointing.

Most interesting to me was the quest/reputation score. This value demarcates how many cards you can have in your hand (more on this later). Right from character creation, you can generate a rank newbie like Bilbo or a grizzled veteran like Gandalf, both in the same party. 

The advantages of random generation (speed, interesting/unideal combinations) are lost with this method. Still, there's no strategizing for deep builds, where you NEED to pick up the Shield Master Feat at 1st level or you won't be able to qualify for the Dwarven Defender prestige class by 12th. So the worst parts of planned "builds" are absent. 

There are various races: elves, dwarves, centaurs, minotaurs, and the hated kender. Each have attribute requirements to qualify for, so I imagine that players will strategize a bit to see if they can get the appropriate attributes to get the race they want to play.

Characters level up by increasing their quest score once after ever completed adventure. They also have the chance once per adventure to raise one of their attributes by drawing a card. If the card is higher than the tested attribute, it is raised by one point. Absent class features, it seems that characters are more or less flat after character creation. Sometimes their attributes might be raised, they'll gain social standing and win fictional positioning (titles, lands, castles, items, etc.), but won't change much mechanically after character creation. 

Chapter 2: Creating Adventures

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I wish the book had used the cover/calendar art, like this.
The game then jumps to principles for the GM to create adventurers. I think the common wisdom is to put this stuff in the back of the bus, where the GM is exiled, but honestly there's a good logic for putting it front and center: "This is what the game is about. This is what to expect." 

This chapter recounts the common wisdom of 90s RPGs about making plots. There's a flow chart with a basic sample adventure and crossroads of where to go if the party fails/ignores a plot thread, but ultimately it all circles back to the same conclusion. This is bad. If real failure isn't on the line, success isn't real either.

What is better is having a concrete play procedure that is clearly mapped out. From the book:
"To direct the play of each scene, the Narrator must:
1. Offer a short, introductory description to set the scene.
2. Ask the players what their heroes want to do first in the scene.
3. Resolve, through card play or role-playing or both, how well the heroes' plans succeeded."

That rules, and similar to the procedure that I recommend in my own games. It puts a focus on setting "scenes" with problems, lets the players act, and then uses a combination of role-playing and the game's mechanics to resolve the players' actions. More games should have their procedures so clearly articulated. 

Chapter 3: Actions

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The third chapter articulates the basic resolution engine of the game. 

Up front, it talks a bit about movement rates and weather. This isn't what the game is about, so I'm not super sure why this stuff is here. 

The game says explicitly that lighting doesn't matter, that torches are always on hand. In a less gritty game, I'm glad they just said this. It's not my cup of tea, but this is essentially the end state of every 2nd level 5th Ed character.

Finally, the book gets around to telling us the core mechanic of the game. Each player has a hand of cards based on their quest level. When they want to perform an action, even a small one, the GM considers the difficulty of the action and sets a secret target number. Then, the player plays a card and adds the appropriate attribute value. The GM interprets the results, saying whether the card was high enough to meet their secret TN. 

The Pros: I like how players have some autonomy; they can choose to use their best cards for situations they really want to succeed. 

The Cons: Having hidden TNs feels as if the essential gimmick is: "Do the player and the GM agree about how difficult a particular task is?" When the player can only see the world through the GM's description, this gimmick seems inherently problematic. 

When I GM a traditional game, I lay out all the modifiers to the players in a straightforward way. "So, the horse isn't trained for battle, so it's going pretty crazy. It will be a DC 20 to calm it. You did establish a rapport with it earlier, so go ahead and take a +1 bonus to your Animal Handling roll." Everybody knows the stakes up front, and can argue about the essential merits of the "difficulty" up front. Once a task has already failed, it feels crucially unfair to say "Well, nuh uh, it should have been easier to begin with."

I'm not sure how this actually plays at the table. I haven't played this game, only read it. 

Interesting note: the GM doesn't play cards or make actions. The players must oppose the NPCs to stop them from automatically accomplishing tasks. For my two cents, I've always liked systems where the GM doesn't roll. I got enough shit to do.

The book then tries to anticipate some potential bad behaviors and give alternate rules to the core mechanic to help a GM maintain the proper flow of the game. For example, it says that players should not be able to "waste" low cards on frivolous tasks. The GM should just say "No, you don't need to spend a card on that," and keep the scene moving. It also offers an alternative method for using Tarot-like interpretations based on the card's character art. For example, if a player wants to ask if there is an outpost of knights in this town, the GM should ask the player to discard a card. If the card has a knight on it, the answer is yes. The game points out all the cool, helpful characters from the novels have low rankings, so this is one way to get rid of low cards. 

That all seems...pretty wishy washy. 

Chapter 4: Combat

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Teach me how to Douggie
Combat plays out in range bands, from "visual" and "artillery" at its far end to "melee" and "personal" (for grappling) at its near end. Strangely, actions take a different number of minutes in each band, e.g., 1 hour for visual, 1 minute for near missile and melee, but 30 seconds for personal. Not sure why this needed to be called out. There's also a table for initial combat ranges by terrain. Not sure why a "high road" needs to be explicitly called out as "artillery range." Seems like this is easily handled with common sense; no table needed.

Three players have special roles. The one with the highest Presence gets to be the leader. The two with the highest Perception gets to be the sentry or the scout. These characters need to perform special actions during battle (avoiding surprise, setting up surprise, managing distance, etc.). Neat!

The flow of combat is:
1. Surprise attacks
2. Handle combat maneuvers (close vs retreat)
3. Heroes act
4. Check enemy wounds
5. Enemies act
6. Check hero wounds

This is interesting. Having distance management between the two parties is kind of cool, and reminiscent of my own experience LARPing. It's an interesting choice making the heroes always act first. In the game Sentinels of the Multi-verse, the villains always attack first and it gives it the feeling of a comic book--heroes reacting to a villain's scheme. This gives the heroes a much different feeling--charging in and brandishing steel.

That said, there's not a lot of guidance for PCs doing crazy heroic feats of daring outside of an "attack, then defend" grind. There is a mini-game of choosing cards, but yawn. I wish the book had given some additional rules for maneuvers that would break up the basic flow as inspiration for GMs and players. 

Chapter 5: Magic

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You can tell by the look in those hourglasses that he mad

Alright. So to justify the change in the magic rules, 5th Age got rid of the spell systems and lore established in the novels and created two "new" types of magic: sorcery and mysticism. They map to the same ideological space as arcane and divine magic, though. I could take or leave the new names, and think the fluff around them is pretty lame.

As mentioned, only people with a high enough "code" can cast spells. The rank of your spell casting attribute also determines how many spell points you have. 

Players "construct" spells using point totals. For example, a spell cast at archery range needs 3 spell points put towards its "range" attribute. If the spell would effect an entire house, it would cost 5 spell points. Spells can weakly heal or hurt targets, and there's a vague table for how "difficult" it is, on a scale from 1-5.

In general, the spell-creation system is much less robust than something like Ars Magica. This system seems really easy to exploit. It can be a solve-anything button if the most impactful spells have a base cost of 5 spell points. A lucky card at character generation can have a magic user character really overshadow other characters.

That said, if everybody is on the same page and the players all are talented role-players who know how to share the spotlight, it looks fun as hell to create your own spells. Especially if it was contrived to have an entire party of spellcasters. If I found the combat rules de facto repetitive, having infinite spell effects could be a way to really make this system shine.

Chapter 6: Monsters

The last chapter just provides a big tables of monsters, with lists of abilities to look up on another page. The most attention is paid to dragons, despite the claim in chapter 1 that there are only about 50 left, and of those half are "in hiding." 

This is hard to use at the table. I just glanced through this section. Even so, there's all sorts of annoying shit in here. "Brass dragons are slightly larger than bronze dragons" vs "Bronze dragons, almost the size of brass dragons." Well how fucking big are they? Maybe this gloss is good for somebody super familiar with the setting material, but it doesn't recommend itself well to me.

Final Takes

I don't know. I kind of want to play it to see how it plays out at the table, but I also don't really want to waste a precious Saturday getting my gaming group together just to trot this out. 

I think the spellcasting system looks fun--if the GM and players are somewhat heavy handed in making sure that non-spellcasters aren't overshadowed. I like the formalization of the party roles. I like the idea of playing around with cards. I think cards are fun. 

I think the setting is a swing and a miss. I can see why Dragonlance fans were disappointed. I think the core mechanic needs a lot of finesse to be fun, not frustrating. 

In all, I think this is a particularly weird evolutionary missing link in D&D's evolution, and I'm glad to have read it. 


  1. At the same time, TSR was keeping its license with Marvel Comics and did The Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game which it supported much better. I had fun with it and it seemed to work the two times I played it. It also uses SAGA and it may be worth giving a look if you're making something that uses cards as its randomizer.

  2. I was trying to adapt the Flexible Spellcasting from 5th Age to DnD 5th. Do you have any suggestions?

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