Tuesday, August 24, 2010, 2:34 AM
Bringing the Heat - Starting a Dark Sun Campaign
Like a druid, DMs bring life to Athas
This week I am writing for the DMs that are taking the intrepid step to create and run their own Dark Sun campaign. My hope is to provide a few ideas on the process that can be used to prepare for a campaign and then some ideas for the type of the campaign. Feedback on how whether this is useful is appreciated. I am starting my own campaign and my current plan is to share ideas as it progresses. I could instead focus less on the campaign side and more on the pure DM side or to some extent on the player side.
You need players
It is very easy to want to write a campaign and then go find players. Don't. If you don't have players, your campaign is a creative writing exercise and nothing more. It may also suck the energy out of you. If you are at all like me, you have enough three-ring and spiral-bound pages of creative scribbles. You want a real campaign. Find the players, then spend the time on the campaign!
It can be hard to find good players. Post in game stores, check Meetup, use the new ENWorld service, judge D&D Encounters, go to local conventions, post on WotC forums. If you really feel the need to be creative now, you could write a very short introductory adventure that you can run for players as a one-shot to attract attention. This can be a good way to ensure you like the players. Greg Bilsland has good advice on choosing players on his blog.
Regardless, save your energy and build the campaign once you really know it will get to run.
Taking it all in (especially a deep breath)
So long as you have players, the first step should be a reality check. You want to take a look at the effort your campaign will take and be sure you can provide that effort. Am I really going to commit to making a campaign? Am I going to try to breathe life into the setting, work to create a compelling story, spend hours on NPCs, locations, encounters, rewards, pitfalls, cliffhangers, twists and turns, custom stuff, placating players...?
I do hope that you, like me, answer "yes". While creating a campaign can be a lot of work, it is also one of the most rewarding endeavors a gamer can undertake. You really get to create. You really get to create an experience that resemble the best of what you like about the game and the setting.
It is useful in this first stage to make some effort towards a realistic time budget. Many questions are worth pondering as you get a feel for how much time you will budget and whether your time and your goals match:
- Are you taking on something were you use existing materials (published adventures, for example) or creating everything yourself?
- How far do you want to stray from core rules? Do you want to write down a lot of custom rules?
- For how long will the campaign run? A few weeks? Months? Years?
- Will the sessions be weekly? Every other week?
- Will you spend a few hours each day? A couple of hours on the weekend?
- Will you prepare a lot up front or just a skeleton of a story and encounters and write each one the week before the session?
- Will you know the players well enough to understand how receptive they will be to your ideas and for you in turn to gauge their requests? Are they likely to want a very fully-developed campaign or happy with a lean campaign?
As you think through these questions, you may find you want to change some of your assumptions. Maybe you want to put a lot of energy into the campaign, but change it to be just a four-month campaign. Maybe you want to use an existing published adventure series, and modify it. Maybe you want to run a few loosely linked adventures (more of a delve/encounters format) instead of really making it a very robust campaign.
For my campaign, I knew I wanted to do my own thing and not use pre-published adventures. I took some brief looks at my AD&D Dark Sun adventure collection just to get grounded in possibilities, but I am not really going to use more than a few ideas here and there and won't borrow an entire encounter from anywhere. I want my own custom story. I want to largely use my own NPCs.
I plan on developing a solid storyboard that walks through the campaign (to be honest, I am just about done with final versions. I will come back and talk about the storyboarding process later). I see myself having a very strong sense of what will happen up front, then spending a few hours each week on the upcoming session. I will probably run sessions about every other week. I have DMed enough that I feel good about "winging" a few things and instead putting energy into the setting, reacting to player/PC interests, and focusing on story angles.
I know the players very well. They are pro players that have great tactical and RP minds. These guys will be demanding. At the same time, they are reasonable non-cheesy people that can have a good time. They will cut me slack. My fear is low, my desire to please them high. I can trust them. (Edit: Of course, just an hour ago the miscreants reacted to my suggestion that it would be good for flavor to have a halfling or a thri-kreen in the party with the idea that they make two halflings who walk around inside a thri-kreen carapace costume. I promised a TPK if that happened...)
My own assessment makes it clear I have a lot of work on my plate, but that what I have is manageable... so long as I keep to my promise of not sweating the minutiae around combat encounters. I need to stick to the RP side and wing any rough spots in combats. I will focus on cool stuff in combats rather than sweat exacting balance the way I might when writing Living Forgotten Realms adventures. In assessing my situation I get a strong sense I am choosing the right kind of campaign for me. I want a fresh campaign with strong story, really good RP, some big story surprises... this is gonna be fun and I'm excited to work on it!
Selecting the type of campaign to run
It is also very important early on in the planning stage to think through the types of campaigns you might run. This is about the high-level feel for the kind of campaign, because a campaign should really have story arcs. This could fill its own blog (and I might devote time to it later), but a campaign should have various story elements that unfold over time. There is usually an overarching theme as well. Maybe the overall theme is about helping Tyr recover from the chaos of King Kalak's demise and would end with something that secures the city against both internal and external threats. In addition, you might have story arcs around a couple of major threats (external and internal) and some ideas for how adventures could change the city and even the PCs. At any point in time, the PCs are "just in an encounter", but when you step back and look at a few encounters you would notice that there are accomplishments and story unfolding as time progresses. For example, the players might accomplish something that reduces corruption amongst the Templars and changes how the average Tyrian looks at the Templars.
With that in mind, here is a list of high-level campaign concept examples:
- Help Tyr (the default as presented by the material) protect home-base campaign
- Veiled Alliance secret rebel campaign
- Merchant House trade campaign
- Templar political intrigue campaign
- Noble House campaign
- Arena Gladiatorial campaign
- Exploration/Dungeons within the Tablelands
- Exploration of distant areas of Athas
- Restoring Athas
- Defeating a Sorcerer-King/City-State (or becoming or helping someone become an Avangion) hero campaign
- More typical adventure plot lines, such as based on an artifact, a particular NPC, a particular foe, etc.
You don't have to choose just one and each is big enough for a lot of variety or overlap. It is still good to think through the possibilities and see which ones interest you and would make for a good campaign. Let's explore each of them in some detail.
This is the default campaign concept. Tyr has overthrown Kalak and there is chaos. Heroes are needed by many organizations (good and bad) to accomplish various tasks. As you climb in prominence, you can be more choosy about employers and probably work increasingly with the city (and probably good people like Agis of Asticles). Tyr, lacking a Sorcerer-King, is a relatively safe home base from which adventures can be staged.
This is an excellent choice for a campaign. Having a safe base of operations is very helpful, especially to new players. The threats are outside, or in parts of the city. It is easy to write episodes and solve them. Linked adventures work really well. The example adventure in the revised second edition boxed set uses this concept.
The campaign focused on Tyr can really swap nicely between focusing inward (stabilize the city) and focusing outward on threats, resources that must be secured, and competition with other City-States. The Prism Pentad novel series is full of ideas. The AD&D sourcebook City State of Tyr is very useful.
A VA campaign is sort of like being a rebel in Star Wars or a spy deep behind enemy lines. You take on secret missions. You work through operatives with code words. You fear templars will find you at any turn. You are forced to deal with shady organizations. Right and wrong can blur together, making for unexpected surprises. The dark side of Athas is easy to capture. Cliff-hangers are very cool and even seemingly unrelated episodes can turn out to be the key to a future adventure.
A VA campaign can easily take you to interesting places to gather magical supplies, take out defilers, or undermine other city-states.
This campaign works really well if you have a devious mind to plan things like double-crosses, if you have a solid feel for making believable NPCs (and a good personal bluff check), and if you like the spy or rebel fighter genre. It can be heroic or gritty depending on the players. The Veiled Alliance sourcebook is invaluable for this campaign.
A trader campaign can provide some really cool incentives, in that the work they do is often very measurable. Secure the trade route, start an outpost, find something to strengthen the market at the outpost, take out the competition. The episodes can feel very compelling as they can easily build on each other and give a real sense of gaining something. The PCs can easily climb a hierarchy in a tangible way. Athasian merchant houses can be ripe with intrigue, sending assassin bards and double-crossing traders, but you can keep adjusting to or away from that side to taste. This campaign can very easily take you across Athas and can delve into other campaign types (explorer, Nobles, Templars) pretty easily. It also naturally a great way to take PCs to several different city-states and villages so the players can RP with different cultures. The AD&D sourcebook Dune Trader is very helpful. Elves of Athas can be useful.
Working for Templars is very dangerous, but also very interesting. These are bureaucrats in a incredibly brutal world. They turn on each other in ways resembling Drow houses in other campaign worlds. This can be a challenging dark campaign rich in political intrigue. The PCs might sometimes be given missions that violate their own moral view, creating interesting predicaments. The maneuvering and backstabbing between Templars means their fortunes can rise and fall based on their boss, and their boss may change suddenly!
This campaign is best for advanced DMs and players that really want a lot of RP and enjoy political campaigns. A DM can also run this in a safer way, choosing a Templar that has enough strength to be protected from most of the political intrigue. For example, they might work for a Tyrian Templar and basically have a Help Tyr campaign where they work for a government agent. This can still create interesting conflicts at times - what to do when the VA attacks? If the Templar backs a measure that is not welcomed by former slaves, how do the PCs react? The Veiled Alliance is surprisingly helpful with this campaign and also really does a great job of explaining the differences between Templars in each city-state.
A campaign where the PCs serve a particular Noble family can combine short missions and some of the concepts of Merchant or Templar campaigns. Both Templars and merchants will at times be allies and foes, allowing for cross-pollination of ideas and threats. Other noble families may also provide intrigue.
At its simplest, this can work a lot like the concept of a Help Tyr campaign, providing a safe base of operations. A powerful noble family can shield the PCs and allow them to run missions as needed.
The subject of loyalty is an interesting one to explore with a nobility campaign. If they are loyal to the family, PCs may help protect them and help expand the family's fortunes. Or, the PCs may be slaves that secretly desire freedom and struggle to find a way to achieve it without being punished. Both things can be true... they could be slaves for a kind but traditional noble family. As trusted aids, how will they respond if they have the opportunity to gain freedom without punishment? Perhaps they can change the noble family? Perhaps they can bring it down and join another? How cool would it be to have players divided over which to choose?
This can be a great way to start a campaign. PCs can be lowly slaves with nothing but a bit of bread, some water, and the need to fight to survive. As was shown at Gen Con (and at PAX Prime in September), arena fights can be fantastic fun with a lot of imaginative angles. Competitions can come in various forms and NPCs can be very compelling (including masters, trainers, other gladiators).
The biggest challenge with a gladiatorial campaign is keeping the game fresh. It is easy for the concept to tire. One way to avoid this is to have other entities hire the PCs (allowing them to dabble in other campaign types) or to create different challenges over time. For example, they might start with proving themselves, then have to win a local competition, then establish games with another City-State, then become trainers and create a competition spanning all of the City-States. A second story layer (such as working secretly for the Veiled Alliance) can keep the campaign fresh. The Gladiator's Handbook can be useful, as can be Slave Tribes.
Exploration campaigns often resemble traditional games where you are hired by various entities to perform tasks. You go to explore some ruins one week, then protect a caravan to a distant settlement the next. Later you escort an employer to the Forest Ridge.
This campaign is usually very stimulating in terms of the locales. You can look at the setting, choose cool places, and have the PCs explore them. You can weave a story that links these places. For example, they may usually work for a Templar who is obtaining old books. Over time, the books provide information on something, which the NPC naturally wants the party to investigate.
This is an excellent choice if you are low on time and if your player base may shift over time. You can devote a little time to a simple concept (recover three books), then unveil the next piece (the books say there is something interesting here) if the players remain interested and you still have time. You can easily pull old material into this kind of campaign. It can play a bit like the Star Trek TV shows, with episodes that are more self-contained and then periodic threads.
Delving beyond the immediate Tablelands area is usually best at higher levels. It can be very cool for players that know the campaign setting and want to experience new concepts, such as a heavy Silt Sea exploration campaign that takes everyone into the Valley of Dust and Fire or to the Deadlands. Exploring can also quickly become a campaign focused around a location such as one of the larger ruined cities.
With so much devastation, it can be very interesting to create a campaign where the PCs try to reverse some of the damage. Maybe they want to kill the Dragon. Maybe they hunt a preserver with the power to create rain. Maybe they venture to the Forest Ridge to try to increase its size with magic.
A restoration campaign can be strongly heroic and have a nice mix of accomplishment where the PCs can impact the setting and setbacks where the setting reminds them who is boss (at least sometimes). It can involve high fantasy concepts (powerful beings and artifacts, huge spells/rituals), and other cool 'movie styled' events. Their efforts often attract the attention of powerful forces, which can be fun. The PCs may fix something only to bring the threat of it being destroyed by some powerful entity. The Prism Pentad novels also explored this concept. In general it is best to avoid campaigns that will completely change the world unless you are planning to no longer play in the setting afterwards. 4E moved back in time to before the last four books in the Pentad because the changes took players away from the concepts that can be so much fun.
Defeating a SK / Finding an Avangion
In this type of campaign the heroes seek to take down a Sorcerer-King or help undo their influence with the help of someone else. Avangions are natural enemies to Sorcerer-Kings, and can enable PCs that are lower in level to accomplish this task. The PCs may directly wish to eliminate the SK, or they may be more interested in being the champions for a city... and then end up having to fight the SK who would stop them.
This is a high heroism campaign, but setbacks can keep it gritty and interesting. Adventures like Black Sands or Forest Maker show how one might create a lot of intrigue around SKs and involve several powerful forces (both foes and allies). The Dragon Kings hardbound book is very useful.
More traditional concepts
Looking at famous campaigns often show less of a focus on an aspect of the setting and more on a particular story. For example, my favorite Pharaoh AD&D adventure series is all about exploring a series of tombs to unravel an ancient puzzle/prophecy. The Bloodstone series is about stopping a powerful foe/demon. Campaigns can be created around artifacts, around single locations, around a race of creatures, an infestation/invasion by monsters, etc.
The right campaign may be hard to choose. My advice is to rule out a few and pare down the list to no more than three options. Then just devote one piece of paper to jotting ideas around each of your favorites. I always find this process will make it clear if one is superior to the others. Keep in mind you can always combine aspects, such as gladiators that are owned by a noble house. With your analysis of the time you have available to devote to the campaign, you should have a feel for how much work you can realistically put into designing the campaign.
One final bit of advice. You can't cover everything. It is ok to leave several topics untouched. After all, you need something for the next campaign!
Next: We will talk about some further steps in the campaign process - storyboarding, story arcs, and helping players get started with PC generation.
Dark Sun Blog Index
Friday, August 13, 2010, 4:58 PM
After some time off and a lot of fun at Gen Con, we take a look at the new 4E version of Dark Sun and explore ideas for getting a campaign started.
Another Age Begins!
I could have really missed out on Dark Sun. When I first heard about it, back in 1991, it sounded like a munchkin product that would be all about too-powerful PCs. "No thanks", I thought. When the players in my game bought the set for me I had little recourse but to take a closer look. I was blown away by the incredibly interesting setting. Everything was so different from anything I had played or run before! The years shot by and it became like an old friend. When support for Dark Sun ended, it was a complete surprise. As luck would have it, the Internet was developing and fans found each other on listservers. We would trade mails with homebrew rules, new classes, campaign ideas, and so on. Dark Sun lived on for me, if only through the listserver as I had to put aside gaming during graduate school. I even moderated the list for a few years and wrote the Net Libram of Athasian Ecology. 3rd edition came and went without any support beyond a few Dragon magazine articles, but some of the listserver guys kept it alive and built Athas.org.
At Gen Con 2009, Wizards announced Dark Sun would be back for 4E. Now, a year later, I have Dark Sun 4E sitting on my desk! Moreover, I have been running Dark Sun through D&D Encounters for 10 weeks, played a one-shot at D&DXP in February, have seen Dark Sun Arena (and will run it at PAX), and have planned a slot 0 for the upcoming Dark Sun gameday at my Favorite Local Gaming Store (FLGS). A folder on my PC is filled with ideas for a campaign I will soon run.
You have to step back and realize how incredible this is. The world was as dead as Spelljammer! The last product was in something like 1996, 14 years ago! That is a very long time to make it by on old product and e-mails, but we did it. And because big fans like Chris Flipse stepped up and kept the game going, WotC noticed. In the Dark Sun seminar podcast you will hear the designer thank Athas.org and say DS would not be here without the devoted fans. Take a bow, folks, take a bow.
This is what changed our world.
I have many emotions when I look at the 4E Dark Sun books before me. Most of all, I am just glad that gamers of generations old and new can adventure in the sands once more. This is a truly cool world that can stretch the imagination. To go in deep is to never forget its unique character. From the variations in terrain, to the different city cultures, to new weapons, to how magic is treated, to how the different ages hold glimpses of better times... it is a remarkable world with many lessons for a game. I'm glad everyone can share in this.
Maybe it is because of this sentimentality, which I now promise to set aside, that I don't really have big criticisms about the books. Oh sure, I don't get why the word "goliath" needs to be mentioned more than once and I would like thri-kreen to have an elongated abdomen and walk on four legs... but when I look at the books I am actually impressed by how much is retained from the original setting. In particular, the brutality of the setting has been preserved despite 4E usually being a very politically correct product. Slavery, half-elf runts, cruel nobility, assassin bards... the vast majority is intact. Yes!
I have a huge abdomen! I lay eggs! I have no discernible gender!
With that in mind, I want to cover two additional topics. The first is about canon. The second is about getting started with a Dark Sun campaign.
In Defense of Canon
Most established campaign settings accumulate a lot of canon. From saying "Well met" to great someone in Forgotten Realms to understanding the Temple of Elemental Evil and the Elder Elemental Eye in Greyhawk, canon is made up of all the little bits of history, the ideas of what is prevalent, and the guidelines as to what should and should not be part of a setting.
A lot of people struggle with canon. For a new player or DM, it can seem like a tall mountain to climb and as if any step taken may bring forth from their more schooled peers. Chris Sims argues against absolutes in settings, saying flexibility is better for the game.
I embrace canon. I love it. I eat it with spoons. I yearn for it in sourcebooks, Dungeon articles, adventures, and random seminars. Canon gives the setting character and flavor. It gives it strong differences. In almost all cases, the absolutes have a great effect. Goblins are great classic foes... but we really can do without them in a single campaign world. Knowing that a species is gone, exterminated by an ancient Champion before they became a Sorcerer King (or died trying to get there) is part of what makes the world so very different.
When you look at canon you will find huge open areas that you can work with without conflict. Do you really like goblins? If you like their 4E powers, you can grab those and reskin them as a type of silt runner or other Athasian race. They could make good deep-desert twisted halflings, for example. If you like the concept, what they represent, there are several Athasian races that fit the bill - belgoi, gith, wild halflings, hejkin, and silt runners fit the same gaming niche. You can also make your own, which is easy with the Monster Builder or even just the DMG2/MM3 rules.
The absence of canon, maybe especially of absolutes, is far worse than their presence. Canon stimulates the mind. This is a world where the kings of the land are racist xenophobic murderers that each were assigned a species to wipe out. Oh, and they murdered their leader and destroyed the world in the process. That mind-blowing premise does a ton for the setting. Without it you end up with a pretty bland setting. Mike Mearls (in 2005) talks about Eberron lacking enough of a core story, which to me sounds a lot like clearly defined historical and current canon. He goes on to say that Dark Sun abandoned its core story, which it did in the novels.
So, my advice with Dark Sun is to embrace the canon you see there, as well as the deeper canon you will find in the old AD&D products. Keep your kank meat inedible, kill off the goblins, and enjoy the incredibly different experience that DS offers.
Half Giants used to be very big!
Ok, ok, I'm human. I have my preferences, and so should you. Over time, it is important to take a look at canon and adjust it both for your style and for that of your players. You see, that is one of the gifts of canon. Canon forces us to make sure that we come up with something sound.
The example of a player wanting a divine character is an excellent example. There are no divine power sources/classes in 4E. But, in the AD&D version, there were Athasian elemental priests, which is now covered by a theme. An excellent project would be to actually create a cleric variant that is completely elemental-themed. Modify the features, the power source (to primal), the powers, the feats... it could be really awesome. Because of the canon, you will likely treat it carefully and with great thought. The end result will likely be very cool.
Similarly, you might very well love goblins enough to bring them back. Maybe Daskinor failed to kill every single goblin. A few that were canny or powerful enough escaped him. Maybe they were protected by someone for some reason. Maybe they were altered in some way. Coming up with this story and with what they are like now will be huge fun, and all thanks to canon.
In both cases, what is truly important is that you not just slap in some goblins in an encounter or allow any player to bring a cleric. To do so would cheapen the setting and even ruin it.
Love canon. Hug it. Then have a long conversation with it and impose your will upon it. While you should respect and admire canon, it is your (and your fellow players') game.
I've allowed myself to rant. Therefore, Campaign ideas will need to be a separate blog. There are a lot of excellent ways to start a DS campaign. It isn't in a tavern answering a wanted add for adventurers! A world as unique as Dark Sun deserves a fresh approach that brings your players into the setting. I can't wait to talk about them... except I need to go help make dinner.
Dark Sun Blog Index
Wednesday, July 14, 2010, 10:49 PM
We return to lore and take a look at some of the major organizations on Athas. Some are secret organizations, while others are just ones where you might lose your head if you say the wrong things about them. You didn't get this information from my PC!
Shh... Unspeakable Organizations in Dark Sun
As you might expect in a world ruled by incredibly powerful and cruel Sorcerer-Kings, it is very difficult to get away with creating a secret organization in Athas. Without question, the most successful one and the most likely to be mentioned in a campaign is the Veiled Alliance. And yet, it is a fairly small and fragile organization. The Order is even smaller and more focused. There are a few others detailed in Dark Sun supplements, but they are small enough to not deserve mention at a broad campaign level. However, both the Templars and nobles in each city deserve mention, for they often conspire secretly to accomplish their own goals. Merchant Houses also engage in many secret acts as they struggle to control commerce.
When DMing or creating a campaign, secret organizations can represent excellent ways to provide opportunities, information, and plot hooks (or twists). These organizations have power and knowledge, as well as cool mysterious motives. Better yet, the PCs have reason for caution, which is ripe for good RP. In most cases it is best to use a cloak-and-dagger approach. The organizations will contact the PCs through intermediaries and carefully test the PCs. Over time, such secretive organizations can serve both as ally and foe, for their goals and membership are diverse.
For players, secret organizations can be a tantalizing double-edged sword. On the one hand, they may offer power and resources that the PCs can use to further their cause(s). On the other hand, secret organizations are dangerous and involving oneself with them can create a reputation and bring danger - even if the opportunity itself is not a double-cross! Secret organizations often cause your PC to examine their worldview - where does the PC stand on issues like slavery, magic, Sorcerer-Kings, the ages of Athas, or the Dragon?
The Veiled Alliance
The Veiled Alliance (VA) is a secret organization operating in all of the seven city-states. It also has some members in a few villages and other remote locations. The primary goal, other than protecting itself, is to protect preservers. With most Athasians fearing and despising magic and blaming the state of Athas on all arcane casters, preservers face incredible dangers. When an arcane caster joins the VA, they gain access to hidden safe-houses, instruction by teachers, rescue in case they are captured, and transportation should they need to leave a city in secret. In exchange, members help recruit other members and swear to uphold the goals. Membership is for life; to protect the secrecy, any member that tries to leave is hunted down and killed.
In addition, a number of non-casters may seek to join the VA. Martial practicers make for excellent bodyguards, Psionic classes can use power similar to magic more freely, and so forth. These "auxiliaries" are also offered protection by the VA.
Finally, the VA seeks to oppose Defilers and to undermine the Sorcerer-Kings. While these two goals are secondary to protecting the organization and the membership, they receive a lot of attention from the Sorcerer-Kings and their Templars. VA cells are constantly hunted in each city-state. In turn, the VA seeks ways to find defilers and kill them (or in some cases reform them) and to uncover and oppose the will of the Sorcerer-Kings.
The VA protects itself very carefully, resembling a modern-day terrorist cell. When someone is recruited, they are brought into a small group and given one outside contact. Only the leader of that group has a contact to the next-highest rung in the organizational ladder. The members do not know what any other group is doing, nor do they know the contacts everyone else knows. In this way, the VA as a whole is protected. If a group is found and interrogated by Templars, the group knows little and can only pass on a small list of contacts. By the time that information is out there, the VA has likely taken action to hide those few members. Even if a group is infiltrated, it is hard to gain any true understanding of what is taking place. On the other hand, the group is sluggish because of this. The only way the VA can respond is via the chain of contacts, and this can take time. Leadership has the psionic means to create a group-wide communication for votes on major issues, but the difficulty of setting this up limits it to once or twice a year at most.
Members are typically kept in the dark as to what the VA organization is doing. A single cell may be told to retrieve an item. This item may be passed back through the group's leader. The next day, a different cell may take the item and enchant it. On the following day, another cell may plant it back where it was found. This veil of secrecy can make for fun adventures where the truth of what PCs (or NPCs) accomplish is not seen for some time. DMs should strive to still give meaning to each action the PCs accomplish - they should see immediate results even if not the ultimate reasoning and cause for the action.
VA members have a number of signals they use to communicate with other members. For example, a common way of ensuring that a person is from the VA is to start with the phrase "My fathers is a templar", which results in the other saying "My mother is a gardener" and the return phrase "You come of good stock". Various hand gestures are also taught to members so that they can communicate wordlessly in time of need. Drop-off sites and intermediaries are also common tools for communicating across the membership.
In part due to the difficulties in communicating, the VA is a little different in each city-state. The supplement Veiled Alliance describes each city-state's VA, including leaders, goals, and particulars about the city. In Nibenay there is little chance to overturn the Sorcerer-King, while in Tyr the Sorcerer-King is overturned and there is debate as to whether cease to operate in secrecy. In Gulg they seek to restore Athas to a verdant state, whereas this is not a goal in any other VA chapter. If you are interested in running a campaign that uses the VA heavily, this concept can allow you to choose a part of the organization (and a city) that fits your play style.
The Order is a secret fraternity of incredibly powerful Psionicists. These practitioners of the Way wish for psionic arts to be neutral and blanced. Somewhat similar to the view of druids, they see psionics as a natural force that must be protected against corruption and miss-use. First, they seek to study psionics in a pure way and aim to unlock further psionic power. Second, they work to ensure that psionic Will is only used to preserve the natural order of the world.
The Order's membership is spread out, largely consisting of individual high level members. Several members live in Tyr. Members study the Way while staying alert to any developments that might show psionics being used in an unnatural way or which might afford new opportunities for study.
Because the Sorcer-Kings have been in place for so long, the Order does not seek to oppose them. However, they will take action to prevent anyone else from combining magic and psionics. Hunting rogue psionicists is one of the main activities of the Order.
While as a whole it is neutral, the Order can harbor dark secrets. Some view themselves as leaders that should unlock ways for the people of the tablelands to evolve - foreseeing a new psionic reality. Recent events have seen at least one member attempt to control all of Athas with psionic power.
To the common Athasian slave, it can seem that the life of a noble is filled with luxury and ease - nobles have it all, right? In truth, the wealth of a noble is precarious and only maintained by power, authority, and political cunning. Nobles devote much of their time to opposing the intrigues of other nobles... and furthering their own. The way nobles fit into society differs by city-state. In some they may hold greater power, arguing for their needs (and wants) with the Sorcerer-Kings and their emissaries. In Tyr, for example, the Senate worked with Kalak's high and mid-level Templars to ensure their needs were met. In turn, Kalak had a stronger city and the nobles were more productive. In other city-states, the nobility is weaker and must be much more careful in requesting something from the Templars and Sorcerer-Kings.
In all cases there is ample reason for the nobles to band together at times to gain something they want. They may employ adventurers in attempts to undermine another noble or Templar. They may seek PCs to accomplish goals that would otherwise sully their reputation. And, they may need protection when another noble house or organization turns against them. Under the right situations, a noble may seem surprisingly like a merchant house or even the Veiled Alliance. (See the novel The Verdant Passage for the story of the noble Agis of Asticles).
Intrigue with the nobility can be an excellent way to shake up a plot involving late heroic or higher-level PCs. When tasks involve the Templars or Merchant Houses, the danger can be very high.
Templars act as the government for the Sorcerer-Kings. Each city has variations on the structure and organization of the government, but in all cases there is a hierarchy and plenty of political intrigue. Just like nobles, it is challenging and even life-threatening to gain power. Even holding onto one's position requires constant vigilance against backstabbing and the machinations of peers, upstarts, and those above.
Because of this, at times the Templars themselves will act outside of the system and find adventurers to do their bidding. These may sometimes be dark deeds, but they can also include neutral activities, such as delivering a missive they do not want others to read. It is even possible to find work that has a positive benefit, such as helping a Templar take down another corrupt Templar. (Of course, that may further the first Templar's own nefarious goals).
Intrigue can even include the nobility. A Templar often has to placate the nobles and in some cases may require their assistance. Templars collect taxes from the nobility, are involved with land disputes, and enforce the Sorcerer King's edicts. Those nobles and Templars that work together are often in a stronger position.
I have mentioned Merchants in some of my earlier articles. Merchant houses traverse the wastes bringing goods from one city-state to the other. The quantity of goods and money passing through their hands is very high and ripe for corruption, greed, and intrigue. Interplay between the nobles that often supply goods or materials, the Templars that enforce trade laws and taxes, and the various merchant houses that compete against each other all can create very interesting adventuring possibilities.
The supplement Dune Trader does a great job of discussing the various merchant houses of Athas. Each one has different areas they control, different amounts of power, different cultures and organizational styles, and different trade specialties.
In many ways, the houses act as secretive organizations. They carefully hide the locations of outposts, their trade routes, their shift in goods they aim to sell, etc. On brutal Athas, each merchant house constantly competes with the others, and the competition is known to be bloody. While the houses all pretend to be civil overtly, they all know they are covertly seeking the destruction of the others. Bards are commonly loaned to another house as an entertainer, for example, with both houses knowing that it is common for bards to be assassins. This duality between public civility and secret warfare is a way of life for the houses. PCs should bare this in mind - accusations in public will be seen as a grave insult... and a reason to mark the person for death.
For DMs and PCs, merchant houses can be excellent adventure seeds. They can also act as villains or allies. For example, a merchant house could procure a good that is illegal. Or, they might be able to smuggle PCs into or out of a city-state.
What is Next?
I will likely take a week off and think about what to cover next. Any ideas?
I added information on the Dray to the article about races. I also added some weapon handouts and will be adding another soon to the blog about weapons.
Dark Sun Blog Index
Wednesday, June 30, 2010, 2:31 AM
Dark Sun's unique flavor extends to equipment. From the materials used to the differences in construction to paying with clay pieces (cp), Athas is very different when it comes to weapons.
Bone, Wood, Stone, and Obsidian - Fighting in Athas
Athasian weapons are shaped by the materials available and the difficulty with which to find skilled craftsmen. Metal weapons are extremely rare. Expert gladiators might spend their whole lives without so much as a rusty dagger. Weapons are crude and lashed together from materials scavenged from the desert. Knowledge of weaponsmithing is lost, replaced by ingenuity borne from the gladiatorial arenas of the city-states or the slave tribes and raiders of the wastes.
Materials and Weapon Breakage
While the full rules have not been released, we do know that most weapons will be of materials other than metal. Previous editions had penalties associated with the material - bone, wood, stone, obsidian, and even other scavenged materials were used and incurred penalties to attack, damage, or other aspects.
In 4E, the main downside seems to be weapon breakage. Here is the rule from D&D Encounters:
Reckless Breakage: When you roll a natural 1 on an attack roll, your weapon has a chance to break. You can accept the result, automatically missing the attack as usual, but keeping your weapon intact. Alternatively, you can reroll. Regardless of the reroll result, a nonmetal weapon breaks once the attack is complete. A metal weapon breaks only if you roll a natural 5 or lower on the reroll. This rule gives you a say in whether a weapon breaks. You can play it safe and accept the errant attack, or you can attempt to avoid a miss by risking your weapon.
Designers have said that other rules exist, but that they are optional and given so DMs can choose the right mix for their game.
Regardless, players and DMs should both keep in mind the nature of the materials used in Athasian weapons. A metal weapon is likely rusty, maybe bent and chipped. A stone weapon is heavy and unbalanced. An obsidian blade chips when it hits armor or another weapon. Wood cracks and is easily broken by another weapon. Bone can crack and chip and is brittle with age. These are fun aspects to role-play.
Common Athasian Weapons
Edit: See the new handout at the end of this article!
In reality, weapons vary across regions. Some city-states favor certain weapons in their militia or gladiatorial arenas. A single gladiatorial champion may popularize a weapon, or a sorcerer-queen may decide that resources or an upcoming battle dictate the militia utilize a certain weapon. Tribes in the wastes may be particularly adept at constructing certain weapons. Why does your PC wield their choice in weapon? Are they emulating a gladiatorial hero? Following cultural convention? Lucky enough to pick it up from a tribe known for crafting them?
The various sourcebooks (first boxed set, second boxed set, Gladiator's Handbook, Dragon Magazine 319) each describe weapons. Interestingly, only the later two provide pictures.
What is truly common is up to each DM, though the game likely plays best if all weapons can be accessible, with some favored in certain areas.
Here are images and descriptions of common Athasian weapons:
As you can see above, the weapons and armor look rough and speak to specific fighting techniques. An Alhulak is used to swing wildly, to trip, and to block. The Tortoise Blade combines a shield and blade. The carrikal is a popular double-bladed axe. The Trikal compensates for the heavy blades with a weighted ball at the other end. The Dragon's Paw is a fearsome weapon made famous in the arenas of Tyr and Urik. The weapon's two ends provide flexibility in choosing how to attack while the central blade protects the hand and serves as a weapon up close.
The image above shows the Gouge, brought to popularity by the army of Nibenay. The strap goes over the shoulder, with the two handles being used to gain leverage to swing the sharp blade into opponents. The Dejada fits over the hand and is a cesta - a small basket used to whip a ball (pelota) at great speed towards an opponent. The pelota varies greatly and can be spiked, made of brambles, etc.
The Puchik is a punching dagger and the most common type of dagger used for fighting. Forearm axes and Talids provide alternatives to a wielded dagger. The double-headed spear and Lotulis provide reach and are vicious weapons in combat - the Lotulis is especially useful against multiple opponents or to ward off attackers. Singing Sticks do little damage, but the light semi-hollow wooden rods are quick - and make a distinctive whistling sound as they move and strike.
And, yeah, you really hope you don't meet the above two monsters in an arena someday...
Weapons Used in D&D Encounters
Three of the pregenerated PCs in D&D Encounters use weapons specific to the Dark Sun setting. Each is detailed fully below, based on the information in the revised boxed set.
Castri: Bone Carrikal
Carrikal: By lashing a length of mekillot bone to the jawbone of any sharp-toothed creature, a kind of battle axe is created. Sharp ridges of teeth run down half the length of the bone handle, and the hinges of the jaw are sharpened to a keen edge. This gives the weapon two deadly axe heads oriented in the same direction. A leather thong connected to the bottom of the bone shaft ensures it remains with its wielder.
Shikrr: Stone Trikal
Trikal: This small polearm is a 6-foot-long, mostly wood shaft. The uppermost 12 inches consist of three blades projecting from a central shaft. Beneath the blades is a series of serrations, generally extremely sharp. The other end of the shaft is weighted to increase the momentum of the weapon. (This seems to be a reach weapon based on his statistics).
Yuka: Bone Alhulak
Alhulak: This weapon consists of a 5-foot length of rope with a four-bladed grappling hook on one end. The other end is secured to a 2-foot-long handle, which can be used to block attacks. The bladed head is commonly carved from mekillot bone, while the handle is wood or bone.
In addition, you could choose to RP that some of the other PCs have weapons particular to Athas.
Jarvix: Bone Dagger.
A puchik is an easy substitute. You can RP punching creatures with the dagger.
A tough one, but the ends could be flecked in obsidian. Singing Sticks could work, perhaps making the singing noise as they are wielded or when casting.
Phye: Iron Longspear.
A Lotulis, Double-Bladed Spear, or even a Dragon's Paw could work. The Lotulis could be part of some of her defensive moves, such as her Mantle of Clarity.
For Players, enjoy the concept of the weapon you wield. See if you can role-play the weapon's characteristics and materials as you hit or miss. What sound does it make? Did it come close to breaking? Do you wish you had another foe's or PC's weapon instead?
For DMs, RP the way the weapons and armor interact. Also, consider having some of the weapons found on bodies be an Athasian substitute. For D&D Encounters, give them the same stats as a current weapon the PC wields - this is simpler and more fun given the game's format. If you want, consider a bonus if the player does something that might be easier with that weapon, such as a grab, as an alternative to a Twitter buff or as a prize for great RP.
If you want to have a handout to show players the common weapons, I have included the three images found above in a single pdf file (please print double-sided to keep our world from looking like Athas...).
What is Next?
A bit of a departure, as we move away momentarily from lore and instead tackle some tips on DMing various aspects of Dark Sun. We will explore some ideas on making your combats, skill challenges, and role-playing feel Athasian.
Edit: Our D&D Encounters DMs group created a two-page weapons handout as well. Page 1 provides images and PC-specific information. Page 2 provides ideas on substitutes that can be found if the PCs break a weapon. Printing them back-to-back makes a very useful handout for each table.
Dark Sun Blog Index
Monday, June 21, 2010, 11:06 PM
As with previous posts, this information is based on previous editions. It is possible that the 4E version of Dark Sun will remove or modify the current terrain types. However, this discussion is probably useful because it underscores the incredible diversity found on Athas. Even on Earth, deserts vary greatly in topographical features, micro-climates, temperature ranges, ground composition, flora, and fauna. Athas is a fantasy campaign and one transformed by powerful forces - it should have even more variation.
Varied Threats - Understanding Athasian Terrain
The Common Terrain Types Are A Starting Point
In previous editions, Athasian geography was broken down into six types: Sandy Wastes, Stony Barrens, Rocky Badlands, Salt Flats, Scrub Plains, and Silt. In addition, the Tablelands are surrounded by the Ringing Mountains. Though very few know it, atop and beyond the Ringing Mountains is a ridge of Forest. Forests can also be found in a narrow arc between and around the city-states of Gulg and Nibenay.
Edit: A new article on DDI describes Sunwarped Flats
Each of the terrain types should be considered a starting point and a broad generalization. An area of rocky badlands can include features from the stony barrens where the wind has broken down the rock sufficiently. Traveling further, an area of rocky badlands may be sheltered from the elements and receive a small stream from the mountains, causing a small pocket similar to scrub plains. I will try to delve further into ecology in a later session, but for now it suffices to say that terrain should be treated as a classification system and not shackles that confine the campaign.
On the other hand, typecasting can be fun and useful. Saying you grew up in an elven tribe that herded kanks in Scrub Plains near Urik can be fun. Terrain types are a good conceptual tool.
Here is a description of each of the types.
The most common terrain type on Athas is made up of orange-red hard bedrock that is in varying degrees of being weathered. The scouring winds, sun, and even rain (which falls very infrequently but tends to be a brief and raging flood when it does occur) result in everything from small grit and fine sand to huge boulder fields. The result is a very varied and treacherous terrain.
Travelers must exercise caution with mounts, as the uneven terrain can render a medium or even large mount lame. Losing a mount can doom a traveler if they do not have enough supplies. A traveler on foot must still travel with care to avoid a twisted ankle or similar injury. A huge beast such as a Mekillot can ignore the uneven terrain and small rocks, but any cart they would pull would quickly find their wheels destroyed.
The Stony Barrens are known for an incredible diversity of cacti and thorny bushes. While these may seem inedible, many can be eaten and many can provide liquid sufficient to keep a traveler alive... so long as they know to recognize the safe species. Unfortunately, few live to tell the tales of the harmful cacti such as those that contain poison or lash out with harpoon-like spines.
Many of the domesticated animals (Crodlu, Erdlu, Kanks, etc.) can be found here in wild form. Braxat, Belgoi, and Tembo are amongst the dangerous monsters commonly found here.
Sandy Wastes are the terrain type most of us picture when we think of a desert such as the Sahara - endless sand dunes stretching across the horizon. This is actually a fairly uncommon terrain type, though it does capture the imagination and certainly exists on Athas.
As in real geology, the sand dunes in Dark Sun come in a variety of shapes and sizes due to how various forces (especially wind) form the dunes. Each variety holds different challenges for the traveler seeking to traverse them. In addition, terrible and lethal sandstorms can be created by the winds. Even if the traveler avoids the brunt of the storm, the resulting haze can obscure terrain for days.
Mekillot dunes are named for the huge beasts of burden, as they are soft rounded mountains of sand that can be up to 700 feet high! They are usually created by strong winds that pile the sand high. Travel is slow and difficult on the soft shifting sands, though an experienced traveler can travel faster. Navigation is difficult as the horizon is often obscured and lacks defining features.
Wave dunes are sharp long ridges of sand up to 100 feet tall. They are created when the wind blows for an extended period of time from a single direction. The traveler can be forced to choose between crossing them (which is difficult) or traveling in a single direction until a break is found... then repeating the process.
Crescent dunes are formed when the volume of sand is lower and the surface below is hard. The wind scatters the dunes into a shape similar to a crescent moon due to the wind coming low around the sides. Travelers usually go around them, forcing a meandering but relatively easy path. The shape can offer respite from winds or sun, but also provides excellent ambush points for raiders or hungry creatures.
Star dunes form when the wind blows from varying directions, creating tall radial arms of sand. The arms can remain in place for long times, allowing for easier orientation. Some even serve as landmarks.
The shifting sands are poor terrain for plants to grow. Oases can be found but may dry out or be buried by shifting sands only to reappear months later. Creatures include a variety of threats that hide amongst the dunes or even below the sands, with Anakore being a common example of the later.
The Joy of Traveling Through Sandy Wastes
While even the most desolate desert landscape can conceal a surprising quantity of life, the Scrub Plains are very different than the typical Athasian terrain. These small areas of dry land are dotted by thorny brush, a variety of grasses, and thin trees. Cacti are present as well. (Deserts in Phoenix and California are often similar to the concept of scrub plains, though many areas in real world resemble this type.)
Herders and hunters come to these lands of relative bounty. When a rare rain comes, the land explodes with colorful if short-lived flowers. This beauty is balanced by the prevalence of many cunning creatures, including the common Gith and Jozhal. Many will say the true threat is the druids that often protect the lands. If they judge those in their lands to overuse it, let alone defile it, their wrath can be quick and unforgiving.
Rocky Badlands are areas of tall maze-like canyons of crumbling rock. (Think of Utah or Colorado in the United States). Relief from the sun is balanced by many other dangers. The land can on one hand hold many oasis and places where fauna and flora thrive. On the other hand, the meandering paths are difficult to navigate as the walls cannot usually be scaled. Many of the plants are harmful to the traveler that is not wise in their nature. Some leaves are so sharp as to kill the animals grazing upon them, while others are poisonous.
The area is perfect for ambushes and travelers might stumble upon the secret lairs of those that do not wish to be disturbed. This may include raiders, escaped slaves, merchant houses, secret organizations, or crazed hermits. Belgo, Tembo, and Silk Wyrms are common monsters. Rocky Badlands often surround mountainous areas, such as the Ringing Mountains.
Salt Flats are flat rock-hard plains of crusted salt. Water, plants, and game animals are rare to nonexistent. Any water is usually tainted with salt and undrinkable. Because of this, very few creatures make their homes here. Travel is usually fast and easy so long as sufficient supplies are brought for the voyage. Mekillot caravans often travel through salt flats since the wide wheels encounter little resistance. Some city-states mine the salt for use in foods, but there is otherwise very little provided by the land. Some villages hunt snakes, but usually live in border areas and hunt or herd in other types of land. Travelers should consider cloth headgear to protect the eyes - a windy day can cause painful stinging.
Silt Pockets (Dust Sinks) and the Sea of Silt
Most Athasians have heard of the Sea of Silt, which forms a natural barrier to the Tablelands to the South and West. The Sea of Silt is a huge (many assume endless) low-lying area filled with fine grey-white powder. The borders can be shallow shoals, but steadily and often without warning drop to well over a person's head. A person stepping onto silt falls and will begin to "drown" as they will be unable to breathe when covered by the fine particles. At a certain depth the silt becomes packed and dense enough to support a person, but outside of shallow areas this is usually below the drowning depth.
Islands and estuaries are formed by the meandering shoreline. Visibility varies greatly, from seeing endless plains of gray-white dust stretching to the horizon to the wind blowing silt into the air and obscuring everything further away than a few feet and making it hard to breathe.
Giants live in the area, usually on islands. Their great height allows them to cross areas most humans could not traverse. The islands can be hosts to many varied and wicked creatures and even greater terrors, such as the tentacled silt horrors (which can consume a giant) that can grasp a traveler and pull them to their death below. Silt Runners are agile but cowardly hunters that rely on numbers to overtake their enemies.
Pockets of silt, sometimes called Dust Sinks, can be found in various areas, especially near the Sea of Silt. These pockets may or may not be deep and pose the danger of drowning when they are deep.
When silt becomes wet, this creates terrain known as mudflats. Water is hard to find, often already mixed into the ground and quickly consumed by grasses and similar plants. Often the upper level becomes hard cracked mud under the sun's rays. If the surface cracks under a traveler's weight he or she can become trapped in a mixture of mud and dust.
Mountains and the Ringing Mountains
Mountain ranges are found in small quantities throughout the Tablelands, such as the crescent near Gulg and Nibenay. However, the largest concentration is a massively tall set of mountains that border the Tablelands to the North and East. Tyr is located near these mountains. The mountains are surrounded by rocky badlands.
Few travelers brave these treacherous mountains, for they are said to be filled with dangerous crumbling passes, dizzying heights, perilous climbs, and terrible creatures such as giant birds of prey and insects. It is said the climber often loses their mind and gives up, sometimes letting go and falling to their deaths below.
A small number of trading houses are said to have a means of securing some goods from the mountains. Very few know that halflings live above the mountains, or that the Ringing Mountains gives way to a lush Forest Ridge.
Forests and the Forest Ridge
Those hailing from Gulg or Nibenay know that these two city-states are within small forests. The forests are sparse and maintained carefully by the sorcerer-king/queen. A very few realize that there is a massive and lush area of forest beyond the Ringing Mountains, known as the Forest Ridge.
The Forest Ridge is filled by wonders, if rumors are true - falling rain, colorful birds, cannibalistic halflings... but it is certain a player character would not have heard such things and would be unlikely to believe them if told.
While not a true terrain type, it bears mentioning that the surface of Athas is covered by the ruins of previous civilization. These ruins are an enigma to most, suggesting a time when Athas was much wealthier, resources such as metal were not rare, and when water may have been abundant. Carvings of men in armor made of sheets of metal or boats on rivers will likely confound the player characters. The treasures these ancient ruins may hold and the dangers within is the stuff of adventure. Even without they can make any terrain type more interesting.
Edit: Sunwarped Flats are described in a new DDI article. The article describes them as "areas where the blazing rays of the red sun interact with the remnants of powerful defiling magic to create pockets of highly unstable terrain where everything from the land to creatures to magic quickly mutates." (Presumably, this is a new way to describe the effect the Pristine Tower had in the novels and previous sourcebooks, though it is not clear if it replaces it or just adds to that lore).
Next: Your continued ideas for future topics are appreciated. I think I will next cover Athasian weapons as it is something players in D&D Encounters could utilize as they use and pick up weapons during the adventure.
Edit: I was fortunate enough to write an article for Dungeon entitled Traveling the Athasian Wastes. It provides additional information and encounter examples for each terrain type.
Dark Sun Blog Index