Performance Check

The Hyper-weirdness of Dragonlance Villains: Lord Toede

This weekend we have a guest post by Colin McLaughlin looking at one of my favorite Dragonlance villains, Toede.

When I was a teenager, I had a job working at a now defunct retail entertainment store. Like any kid into fantasy and sci-fi, I spent most of the money I earned at the store itself, buying up movies, novels, and roleplaying game supplements. I had already read Dragonlance Chronicles and Dragonlance Legends many times over, but I was lucky enough to be working at the store when the annotated editions were released. I thought reading the thoughts of the authors and contributors was just about the coolest thing ever (it’s like a commentary track, but for a book!), and I couldn’t resist picking them up. As I was reading through the book, one of the annotations piqued my interest. It was an annotation by a man named Jeff Grubb, whom I shamefully knew nothing about. The annotation describes Jeff Grubb being asked to write a novel for the Dragonlance: Villains series, one featuring Fewmaster Toede. Now, as many fans may recall, Fewmaster Toede is killed by kender before the end of the series, as was captured in the short story Lord Toede’s Disastrous Hunt. The conversation on the matter between Jeff Grubb and Pat McGilligan, editor for Dragonlance, is described thus:

“Many years after the publication of the original Chronicles, Pat McGilligan, editor fantastic, called me on the phone. ‘Jeff’, said he,’we’re doing a series on the villains of the lance, would you like to do a book on Lord Toede?’ I said I was interested and would do some homework and get back to him, when I did get back to him, I said, ‘Did you know he’s dead?’

‘He’s dead?’ repeated Pat.

‘Yeah, Harold Bakst killed him off in Lord Toede’s Disastrous Hunt.’

There was a pause on the phone, then Pat said, ‘Well, can you work with it?’

I had never read this book, or have even heard of it, despite reading several of the Villains novels (I was a Verminaard fan, sue me). I picked up the novel that day from my place of work, and took it home. Simply put, it is a damn shame more people haven’t read this book and experienced the glorious weirdness this book has to offer.

Dragonlance books are many things, but they are rarely weird. Sure, you get your one-off where Raistlin and Caramon end up meeting a lady lich they both want to make sweet, sweet love to, and are only saved through the intervention of Bast, the cat god. It’s safe to say that this is largely the exception. For the most part they adhere to the low-magic, character-driven world that Dragonlance established early on. Remember, this is a world where people lose their minds when Raistlin throws a fireball, and a sleep spell is crazy impressive. The dragonlances, the dragon orbs, dragons themselves, Fistandantilus, and so on are all from a time before, when civilization was at a high point, magic was rampant, and legends ruled the day. This is, of course, a purposeful juxtaposition. Understanding this is crucial to the discussion of Dragonlance Villains: Lord Toede.

The book opens in the Abyss, a place visited in Dragonlance Legends that is more mysterious and metaphorical than the same plane presented in the D&D mythos. Right away, the book starts talking about the land and the world being the literal face of the goddess Takhisis, and begins detailing the denizens of the Abyss, tanar’ri, yugoloths, kothmews, moondarks, bulette-liches. We are then treated to two abashai, an Abbot of Misrule and the Castellan of the Condemned, chosen of Takhisis, who are shirking their jobs and playing hooky. They are lounging about watching a paladin with a flaming crystal holy sword storm the plane and begin fighting swarms of demons. As you might recall from the other Dragonlance novels, this is hardly the status quo. Paladins are rare, and were heavily linked to the knightly orders, and this idea of plane-hopping is definitely unheard of. In short, this novel starts so far off the beaten Dragonlance path that it scarcely sees it.

These two fiends serve as the catalysts to the story, as they are part Book of Job, part Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and part Randall and Mortimer Duke. The two philosophize on the nature of good and nobility. They argue if these things are intrinsically linked. Essentially, can nobility exist without good? They decide to bring a soul of a bad person back to life with only the instruction “live nobly.” The Castellan, charged with watching over evil souls, draws forth the soul of Lord Toede, and the events of the story are set in motion.

If you haven’t guessed by now, this book is a flat out comical farce. Having a pure comedy is definitely outside the norm for the Dragonlance franchise. Sure, other novels have comedic moments, everyone remembers Fizban and Tasslehoff, but none are written to be a comedy. This novel is, and if the opening exchange doesn’t sell it, the rest of the novel drives it home.

The book reads as a story of acts. In the first act, Lord Toede returns to life, finds his old assistant who informs him that his old mount, a dragon frog thing named Hopsloth, is now worshipped as the ‘water prophet’ with his old draconian advisor, Gildentongue, as the high priest. As Lord Toede attempts to return to his rightful place as Highlord and Lord of Flotsam, he is captured by kender who seek to rehabilitate him, is almost assassinated, but spares the man’s life, and finally confronts Gildentongue and kills him. Of course, Toede ends up in a pit with Hopsloth, who is sentient and loves being worshipped as a god, and is summarily eaten.

Here, as they say, is where things get really weird. Yes, to this point, the story is downright pedestrian when compared to what follows. You see, the demons again bring Toede back to life, after witnessing Judith slaughter the paladin previously seen storming the Abyss. They spend time debating what nobility means, and agree to run the experiment once more. This time around, Lord Toede encounters an archaeologist out in the forest/swamp. Needless to say, this is the first time an archaeologist is mentioned in Dragonlance. Not only is he an archaeologist, he’s studying ur-ogre glyphs. Ur-ogres or proto-ogres, as you surely recall, are the Irda.

Irda were introduced in the Dragonlance Adventures supplement released in 1987, a full seven years before this book was written. However, this was the first time the Irda get a mention in any of the Dragonlance books. This is important, as the Irda begin to play a huge role in the future of Dragonlance, and are mentioned frequently in the books that follow. They are serious people that pose interesting moral questions. Here, however, they apparently just write smut, according to Bunniswot, the archaeologist that Toede meets. That’s right, not only is there archaeology, the archaeologist is used to depict the worst fears of all archaeologists, and to insult the “supreme race” of the Irda. Re-read the novels that follow now and try and not think of the Irda as a bunch of skeevy old pervs. I bet you can’t.

The weirdness doesn’t end there, oh no. Toede again encounters his old aide, Groag, whom he dragged with him on his second life adventure, and meets a gnoll, previously not mentioned in core Dragonlance novels, named Charka who is scared of this temple where Bunniswot is doing research because of the plinths. Well, as you might expect, things go sour, and when Groag and Toede are exploring the temple, Groag is tempted by a demon and led to believe that he should be the Highlord of Flotsam, and shoves Toede into a pit…where he meets a demonic siege engine named Jugger who needs to kill one thousand people. This is a literal demonic siege engine. It’s essentially described as a steamroller with demon features. In a case of the scorpion and the Toede, our favorite Fewmaster frees the demonic tank engine that could, and rides him into Flotsam where he murders a bunch of gnolls, and tries to kill Groag. However, just as Toede is about to take revenge, Jugger launches Toede into the sea for his one thousandth kill. Whoops.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate that this is taking place in the same world where a fireball is some heavy shit. The world’s most powerful wizards are agonizing over tests that allow them to finally advance high enough to cast web, and are being regulated by a mysterious mystical council in the process. Our boy Toede is riding an abyssal steam roller and being resurrected by Abishai that are watching a high level planar raid.

Of course, twice isn’t enough, and the abishai bring him back once more as a tiebreaker. This time around he’s asked to lead a rebellion against Highlord Groag by the very people that attempted to kill him in the past. Toede is now treated as a divine agent, and even has his own holy book written about him. This comes with a legion of holy warriors willing to die for him. Through the course of this life, Toede meets Bob the Necromancer.

Bob is a Necromancer who promises him aid, and even animates a dead whale. Bob is treated as purely comic relief in a book of comedy, which is even more ridiculous when you realize that there is a wizard out there with the ability to animate a whale, hardly low level magic. Bob wants Toede’s body because he is continually self-resurrecting, seemingly.

Those who willingly sought to kill Toede are now beseeching him to free the city of the tyranny of Highlord Groag, and Toede finds himself leading an army on behalf of freedom. Toede frees the city, doesn’t kill anyone unnecessarily, rewards the loyal, and rules the city now as a beloved hero. There is also some gnoll-human sexuality going on. Really.

The abishai are punished by Judith, who then comes to collect Toede. Toede instead hands her a resumé, yes, a resumé, and asks to take their place when he truly dies. Takhisis is pleased, and the Abyss undergoes earthquakes and devastation as she smiles.

Again, this is taking place in the same world where a single death knight and some skeletons make people lose their minds. Granted, Lord Soth is a bad mamajama, but still. This is some next level craziness that somehow not only got published, but is considered canon within the Dragonlance world. What the hell, right?

I absolutely adore this novel, and it is because of this novel that I always tell people, “Every campaign is just a Planescape campaign waiting to happen.” Planescape is by far my favorite setting. I love every single thing about it. What is great is that it supports all of the existing worlds, and just opens up more options to people when you play. Dragonlance Villains: Lord Toede is a brilliant example of this. One minute you are fighting gnolls in a swamp, and the next you are riding a demonic siege engine through a city to kill your archrival. It also supports one of the core concepts of exploration in Planescape. Having died, Lord Toede is really a petitioner of Takhisis and is now a denizen of the Abyss. When he dies, he returns to his home plane, because he’s now an Outsider. He doesn’t actually die. He is free to then return to the material plane, pending the restrictions of his banishment, which is being unable to return for a period of six months in this tale.

This is absolutely my favorite thing about Planescape. You can throw players into challenging and impossible situations without fear that they will be risking their characters. Instead, they are risking their objectives and the tension comes from the quest and goals rather than the innate fear of character loss. Dying is still a big deal because you can’t immediately reappear and continue what you are doing. It requires an alternate approach to encounters and goals, but it’s one that I find much more compelling than requiring fear of character death to build tension.

It’s funny to me that this novel is really a Planescape use case in disguise. When I think about it, it’s not too surprising as the development for the Planescape setting was ongoing at the time the novel was written. It’s fitting that this masquerades as a Dragonlance novel when it is really anything but. This isn’t to say the novel isn’t good, because it’s fantastic. It’s just an excellent example of how to sneak a Planescape game into an existing game world, and have your players start to experience the glorious weirdness that it has to offer.

Dragonlance Villains: Lord Toede is a unique gem of a novel in the Dragonlance and D&D novel world. Would that all of the novels set in D&D worlds dare to be so unique and weird. Whenever you think that a story or encounter you are planning might be too weird just ask yourself, “What would Lord Toede do?” If the players aren’t riding an undead whale to fight crocodiles while an archaeologist reads ancient pornography, well, you can still go weirder.

Image: This is the painting created for the cover of Jeff Grubbs’ Lord Toede book.