Friday, October 8, 2010, 5:49 PM
Cool Stuff for Gamma World!
Now that Gamma World has been released to the premiere stores, I can share some cool add-ons that one of our local RPGA/LFR DMs (mvincent) created for PAX. You can thank mvincent on his page. We used these at PAX when we ran the global premiere event for a lot of really happy players.
This is my favorite of the bunch. The two files contain full color images of every bit of junk in the game! You can use these as a random deck and have players pick cards instead of rolling on the table. The cards are really useful for stimulating RP and for helping PCs come up with creative uses. At PAX we had a lot of fun with the random junk. As a DM I was very liberal with allowing their use, because that in turn was a lot of fun for everyone!
Download the Junk Tables, Part 1 and Part 2
Player Cheat Sheet Cards
This document contains basic rules that help a 4E player remember the main differences. It also has a second side with a Weapons Table. What I do is print both out, cut them, and place them in a CCG sleeve. I then make sure each player has one. It is very helpful for choosing weapons when making a character. The skill list is helpful for everyone in recalling options.
Download the Player Cheat Sheet Cards
Gamma World Origins
These are really useful to cut out and hand to new players. All the important information is there, so you can easily see your powers and bennies.
Download the Origin Summaries
There you have them! Awesome enhancements to your Gamma World games on day 1, thanks to MVincent and PAX!
Thursday, October 7, 2010, 2:38 PM
I am a sucker for tweaking stuff. I love finding some new way of doing things, trying it out, tweaking it, blending it with another idea, finding something else... repeat.
This sort of cycle is what makes the hobby so approachable for me. The first decade of gaming for me was largely devoid of this. The only input was what my long-term DM did and the things I saw in adventures. When you read about how revolutionary the original Ravenloft adventure was or you keep hearing people mention ToEE or Tomb of Horrors... these are the only inputs we had. Today's Internet provides endless cool stuff for our hobby.
One of the brilliant ideas I recently found was on SRM's blog on Neogrognard, where he tackled a system for exploring/traveling. The idea is to combine some of the ideas of sandbox play (where PCs choose how to proceed) with the concept of the terrain posing actually cool challenges and environmental stresses with the old idea of random encounters, all while still preserving story and the DM's hand. At least, that's my take on it. SRM explains it really well in a series of posts, and I'll quote this for good measure:
I wanted the exploration of this area to be fun and exciting. I wanted them to make interesting decisions, but I didn’t want to have to detail every little part of the game or to breathe life into the wilderness. I wanted the players to be challenged; I was too busy running the game to be the one who was challenge(d). I could make a skill challenge, and I wanted something skill challenge like, but I was getting to the point where the skill challenge formula, as mutable as it was, was becoming old hat. I wanted something new. Something fun. Something…well… “gamey.”
The thing I liked about the game is that it simulates the uncertainty of overland travel into new vistas while traveling on foot or horseback. The world really is a different place without maps, roads, or any idea of where the hell you are going. Even in our world of satellite maps and GPS software people still get lost in the wilds. In the Northwest, there seems to be a news story at least once a month, if not once a week, where someone gets lost in this stretch of wilderness or the other. Now imagine you are living on the frontier. Beyond those points of light everything is uncertain. That’s the sense of wonder, uncertainty, and danger I wanted to create.
(To come clean, I am very self-serving. I link the above for myself in part because I can never find these articles on his site!)
Dark Sun Applications
The concept of having a trek through the wilderness be a cool experience is especially applicable to Dark Sun. It is one thing to travel a road to the city of Greyhawk It is an entirely different matter to travel from Nibenay to Raam! Even along the "road" (really just a worn travel route) the terrain is inhospitable. Rocky Badlands, Sandy Wastes, Boulder Fields, and even Silt are threatening you... and then there are monsters, slavers, templars, merchants, raiders...
So, I took SRM's idea as written in Tiles and Tables and I cobbled together something for my home campaign last night. I really like the idea of using Settlers of Cataan styled hex cards, but instead I drew a hex map of the area. I decided they could normally cross 5 hexes a day, but mountains or rocky badlands terrain would slow that by half. PCs could only see the adjacent hexes plus the main features. Thus, as they moved, they had to make some choices. They had enough survival days to last the trip, so long as they did not get delayed. The default for travel is you use up a survival day. If out of survival days, you face Sun Sickness - all per the DS rules.
You can check out the map here. (Yes, I can barely draw stick figures, why do you ask?)
I then added the encounter table SRM made, using it for Rocky Badlands areas. I made two altered versions of the table, one for harsher terrain (Stony Barrens, Mountains) and one for very harsh terrain (Boulder Fields). The general difference is a slight change to how often you trigger bad stuff. Oh, and in the base one I actually added a Benefit entry where something good happens. Every two hexes a player would roll and I would consult the table. I honestly like the idea of flipping cards over a bit better, but this is more random and the DM can also adjust on the fly. I'm torn on which would really be better. Here is what I used:
I spent a fair bit of time on the encounters and hazards. I designed one true combat encounter and saved time by having any "Encounter" roll advance the plot towards the combat. I made notes for each roll of Encounter. They might see something at a distance, have a lone member of the group come scout at night, encounter a creatures, etc. It all leads up to a big fight... maybe. They can avert it and I wrote down how things can trigger or remove the actual Encounter.
I wrote up several short bits for each category. Last night, an easy hazard was a stone arch over a rift in the ground. Something dangerous was in the area, but it was resolved through skill checks and would not have been particularly taxing even on a failure. Many of the hazards are based on terrain challenges or climate. A particularly hot day, cold night in the mountains, blinding sandy wind, etc.
A difficult hazard was the activation of a particular monster, which then can play a role in future checks (or not, based on PC actions).
A benefit was rolled, which was finding an old skeleton - a villager that had attempted the same journey the are undertaking. A bone grappling hook and climbing kit was found.
I also put a few features on the map. A road automatically activated an encounter, with some of the encounters above being earmarked for possible ones. Gulgan slavers looking for escaped slaves. A tall spire afforded a view of the surrounding terrain and provided bonuses to terrain challenges. Caves might offer shelter but hold foes. These all activated certain encounters for weal or woe.
Oh, and each night I described the two moons and lighting conditions and then they rolled two checks. An encounter may or may not activate at that time (a terrain one might kick in the next morning in that very hex).
Reviewing the System
It was really positive! I thought the random aspect kept the game fairly fresh. Everyone took turns rolling and there was a sense of mystery about what might come up. At the same time, it was a bit mechanical. I am never certain if it would be better to just run a story or use these kinds of tools. Even trying both I am never able to make up my mind. I guess it is just best to try different things and keep it interesting.
But, I did really like how the random nature, with some logical mechanical backing, meant that it was interesting for me as well. I was certainly having a blast seeing what they triggered and how they RPd a response. It is worth mentioning that this was RP-rich. This whole thing was far from being a mechanical skill challenge or even a good skill challenge - it was a much more open experience. This system facilitated good RP, player driven sandbox-style (without losing a sense of purpose), and story.
We are halfway through and now the players head back. I see myself looking forward to that and also to using this in the future. I hope SRM codifies this soon and releases it or sells it. It has real potential as a system. I would totally buy it (and then, of course, tweak it, blend it with other ideas, etc.).
By the way, if you ever need to print out hex paper, this site allows you to scale the hex size and make a pdf to print!
Tuesday, October 5, 2010, 1:36 PM
Outside Perspectives on Campaign Design
The Internet is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you see optimization forums drive players to all pick the same PC options... on the other, you can get some really fantastic ideas. Of late, idea sharing has really started to take off. I am seeing some really nice examples of campaign design thoughts that start with one blog post and then find their way into others. The result can be really helpful to DMs that want to find new tools, techniques, and tips for their campaign.
Here are some links with a few comments.
Nolorfin's DM Tips: Railroading vs Sandboxing
Nolorfin does a great job talking about some of the problems with Sandboxing. Sandboxing is the concept that the PCs can do whatever they want. Penny Arcade had a few posts that started a lot of discussion on the subject. Nolorfin tells us to railroad the present but to sandbox the future.
In a home game one of the best DMs I know experimented with using Pathfinder's Kingmaker series (using a 3.5 4E hybrid rules set!). The mod is all about the PCs choosing where to go. Almost every player felt it was fun as a change but lacked direction. And that is really the problem with Sandboxing. You want players to feel connected to a central story as well as to sense that what they do matters and see the story respond to them. (I will discuss this more in future blogs).
I highly recommend Nolorfin's blogs; they are amongst the finest on the WotC community.
Old School vs 4E -- Who Wins?
WotC_Huscarl writes (last year!) about 4E's fantastic combat system and posits that it overshadows other parts of the game. They are so easily "good" that they entice us into focusing on combat. This is certainly true from a publishing standpoint. It was common to have a low combat/rooms ratio but many adventures are now almost 1 combat for every room... which robs us of space to be creative. Similarly, in RPGA organized play almost every encounter is either a combat or a skill challenge... forcing a very dice-oriented experience.
Combat Investment and How to Err... Combat it
Wrecan is also one of the finest bloggers the WotC community has. He writes almost a year ago about how the issue with low RP might be due to how much we now invest (as both players and DMs) in preparing for combat. From PC builds to encounter building, we are often spending a lot of time on combat.
I am torn on the culprit. I think they are all symptoms. I think the whole of 4E is filled with usually subtle incentives to focus on combat and away from RP. It isn't deliberate. I know enough WotC guys to know they love RP. I think RP was taken for granted and it is just a big surprise that this happened. I think right around now WotC is waking up to this, or at least some key designers. Rob Schwalb's post on reexamining dungeon design, which I talked about recently, is one of those lightning rods to the issue, but we can see in these two blogs I linked above that many fine minds have been wrestling with it. The RPGA's LFR campaign has been fighting this since they started.
As I wrestle with the issue I end up wishing 4E had a written system that encouraged different types of encounters. There should be some sort of codification that sets DMs on the right ratio of combat to RP/exploration/story. In a home campaign you can just do this, but that assumes you have been playing in great campaigns and know what to do. For new players... they can be completely unaware of what a great campaign feels like. A brand new LFR player may not believe you if you tell them that the RPGA Living Greyhawk campaign had adventures that reduced players to tears because of how the story impacted their PCs... and even the players.
If I could rewrite two core concepts, they would be Skill Challenges and Quests. I think both of these come across as dry mechanical tools that could instead be dynamic systems for bringing a lot of story, RP, and player involvement/PC empowerment to the game.
Exploration and Discovery
Back in April, The Jester writes about the same topic Rob Schwalb addressed. Jester bemoans how easy it is in 4E not to focus on exploration and discovery. It made me recall being a player in the Moathouse (before the Temple of Elemental Evil) and being so afraid of entering a room. We would throw rocks, prod with 10 foot poles, take turns being he first one in... And when we did find the room empty, we would move shelves, rip pillows, consider whether a faint painting meant something. It was a lot of fun! We want players and their PCs to have a sense of wonder and to look in the nooks on crannies of the campaign world. This is not done to the point of boredom but exactly the opposite - because the world (the DM) often places important bits there.
Unbloodied Heroes 1: An Introduction (the noncombat system of D&D)
In a way cool series, Wrecan explores diceless ways to explore, enjoy story, and have non-combat fun. If you just read the first post it will be time well spent. Read more for some great ideas.
Nolorfin's DM Tips: Campaign Without Any Treasure Whatsoever
Nolorfin's comments can easily come off too strong to the average reader, but he has a great point regarding how treasure can be completely mechanical. I recall fondly in AD&D that each treasure I found was a mystery and an opportunity. There was no crafting, no wish list, no demands on the DM, no build optimization. There was simply the gleam in our eye as we opened the treasure chest. With my current Dark Sun campaign I am using Inherent Bonuses and really freeing myself of a lot of treasure issues. I can adjust the throttle on campaign difficulty to match the PCs, and treasure will be infrequent but mean a lot to each PC. And when they find things, they will really treasure that moment.
Campaign Components (Story Backgrounds)
This one is a segue to my next blog topic: PC backgrounds. Rob Schwalb presents a cool look into his Greyhawk campaign. He drew on classic Greyhawk stories and awarded each PC a background aspect filled with rich mystery and promises of things to unfold in the campaign. I can't read that pdf without wanting to be in that campaign.
Solution for Cooperative Epic Campaign Creation: The Problem Anchor
Goken100 beats Rob by a few days in posing a similar solution. I like his thoughts on how to involve the PCs in the plot. We are thinking on similar lines. Players that are emotionally invested in the setting will react to plot more and will also want to be a part of plot more. They will want to RP, want to explore, want to learn... which in turn draws them into being heavy participants in non-combat events.
Monday, October 4, 2010, 3:18 PM
Dark Sun Campaign Development: Storyboarding and Story Arcs
I can't properly describe my excitement at finally having a true Dark Sun home campaign again. My last one ended somewhere in early 1994, so it has been a long time coming. I am blessed with some excellent players, so the task of building a compelling campaign is much easier. Nonetheless, I want to share thoughts on how I am setting up the campaign (without spoiling things for the players, some of whom may read this).
In my last Dark Sun blog I wrote about choosing a campaign and suggested some campaign types (such as a Free Tyr campaign or merchant house campaign). Because I have a good amount of experience with the setting, I chose a different starting point and I will be mixing in some of those themes in over time.
Additionally, there has been a lot of talk this year about the concept of Sandboxing, where players have full control to choose their path, versus the more traditional "railroading" or driven style of DMing where the DM presents the story in an ordered fashion.
Finally, there has recently been a lot of discussion about Dungeon Design, which in turn leads to a larger discussion about 4E and how the wonderfully engaging combat mechanics can overshadow and undercut the excellent role-playing that should take place.
With this campaign I want to tackle all of those issues. I want a really compelling story experience for the players that gives them ownership in how the story unfolds and that will create truly memorable role-playing experiences. How do we do that? I will cover this across various blog entries, starting with this one.
Dreaming and Scheming
The first thing I like to do is just come up with ideas. There are many ways to approach this stage, and it often happens in tandem with deciding on the type of the campaign we will run (as described in my last DS blog). Anything can happen here, from ideas about NPCs, types of battles, types of creatures, story components, locations we like, etc.
My personal approach is to just think about the campaign a lot and when something sounds worthy I jot it down. Some DMs/authors use a notebook specifically for the adventure. I use the backs of old printouts (I take personal delight in reusing some of my old AD&D Dark Sun netbook stuff that no longer fits in 4E!).
As I dream and scheme I jot down ideas. Every now and then I bring it all into one giant word processing file (Word, Open Office, whatever) on my computer. Here I give it some organization, and even an index. I tend to organize things into general campaign ideas and then just place the ideas in the order I think they might come up. I might place some ideas on Urik up front if I think I will start there, for example.
I usually keep a separate file for NPCs and another for things related to PCs.
The important part is just to train your brain to constantly think up good ideas and to have some system by which you file the best thoughts away. Reading the Campaign Setting book, Creature Catalog, WotC forums... all great times to keep pencil and paper handy.
Here I will make an assumption. We want a campaign that feels like a novel or movie (or a series of either) instead of a series of missions/explorations. We may want to start simple, give hints of something larger, develop the setting aspects for the story (NPC allies and foes, locations, etc.), develop the threats, reveal some surprises, have some initial conflicts, reveal more, have some successes and setbacks, reveal the big threat, and end with some fantastic battles that the players really care about.
For that kind of story-rich campaign we want a clear sense of the story. It is natural to think about aspects, like threats, and I like to file those away in my ideal file until they solidify. Instead, here I like to work with a broad brush to paint the campaign's development. By the very nature of this exercise, we have to make choices. It forces us to decide as DMs and authors what will be best for the players.
For example, we may be working with a Gladiator campaign. We may want PCs to start with a sense of losing everything and become enslaved. They become gladiators. They can prove themselves, gaining glory and recognition. They might be hired out by various parties, giving the campaign some variety. Maybe over time a foe is revealed, and that can run in parallel with their gladiatorial efforts. The foe might be a front for an even bigger foe, and the end of the campaign is about tackling that foe, perhaps with implication of change (for them, for the city, for Athas).
Storyboarding really kicks in when we start mapping out how the story will play out. My storyboarding technique is a simple written version of that employed by movie, comic, and video game companies.They are dealing with visual organization, but the key idea is to experiment with the organization of the story and to get a sense of how the parts will fit together. Importantly, it is also an idea generator.
I place my ideas on discrete entities (boxed sections on a large piece of paper or chalkboard, index cards, etc.). In each "board" I write down what might be seen as a chapter in the story. This might be a single gaming session or it might be a couple. Something like the attack on the caravan is one. A trek through the wastes is another. Gladiatorial combat in Urik could be one box despite consisting of three matches/encounters.
Each story chapter gets a few notes. Enough for me to know what it is about, plus room to jot down ideas (this process often provides inspiration). If using index cards, I would have a title in big letters and then 1-3 lines describing what happens.
Now I arrange the "boards" in order. Many of these cards don't start with an order, because they come from the idea file. I might have an idea of a series of missions where a merchant company hires the gladiators for some task. I might also have the concept of a desert trek and a certain monster.
As we plunk down the cards we note how the story feels and we make changes. We might try three different spots for the "merchant hiring" series before it fits well. We might suddenly see where the desert trek fits. We might notice that one index card we thought was wonderful now seems out of place and needs to be replaced.
During the process we look for story connections. We want to find ways that each card really feels like it connects. For example, we might jot down at the end of one gladiatorial combat card "rich merchant sponsor becomes a fan, calls them forth to congratulate them, private dinner" as a way to segue to the merchant hiring series.
It is critical that the overall story feel good. We want each step to contribute towards the campaign's concept. At the end of this process, we want to be able to summarize our campaign in no more than a few sentences and feel great about it!
By the nature of this process we also think up a lot of more detailed ideas which can go in our idea file. For example, we might see how that first card, the attack on the caravan, could fail. No one wants to start a campaign as a player by failing. So, in our idea file we might jot down that the PCs should know from the start the forces are overwhelming. However, they see things they can do. Maybe they befriend a young NPC boy during the ride, and they can choose to distract the attackers and get him out. Now this can be an NPC that works from the outside to free them... maybe he is even the son of someone important and that can end up affecting the story! We might also be able to provide some bigger dynamic options. Maybe the PCs can force the attack to be harder than the slavers expected, such that they negotiate for the PCs and spare the others? We start scheming how this first session can be about loss, but also have accomplishments - a hint of things to come.
I need to repeat this one more time. At the end of this process, we want to be able to summarize our campaign in no more than a few sentences and feel great about it! We also want to feel really good about the number of gaming sessions and have good ideas on the encounters in each one.
The technique of story arcs is based on the idea of linking episodes together. This is done often in TV, where the goal is to make weekly episodes feel like there is a larger story in play and that the setting of the show is realistic and complex. This also works with D&D, because each gaming session is a discrete episode but our story plays much better if every episode feels like part of a larger whole.
Additionally, a good story often has a bit of complexity. Story arcs are a good way to have complexity and to introduce change. Most dungeon crawls are very linear. Go into the dungeon, defeat adversaries, and recover the artifact. We can easily add some story arcs to make things more interesting. For example, on level 2 the PCs might find some captives. One of them becomes a nemesis to the party. The story of why they were there, how they react to the PCs, what they do, and how the PCs finally triumph is a story arc that makes this level of the dungeon much more interesting. As a classic example, consider any movie and how story arcs help develop the main characters (Luke and Leia and Han, Aragorn and his birthright, etc.).
On Athas, we might have a story arc around the boy or other members of the caravan. We might have a story arc about one of the gladiators the PCs meet, a thri-kreen that is near desperation without a clutch. We might have a story arc about how merchants and nobles interact (which plays out when a rich merchant hires them). Ideally, try to have these stories be flexible and even revolve around the PCs so the players will feel a part of them. (More on this later).
As we storyboard, we want to be on the lookout for new ideas. Story arcs are great opportunities for us to expand the scope of the adventure. That gladiatorial campaign can delve into "Free Tyr" and VA campaign aspects when the gladiators meet a captured VA spy forced to fight to the death. If they find how to spare them (perhaps through training, perhaps a deal with the arena manager, etc.), it opens up opportunities to serve the VA and strike out against those that threaten a free Tyr.
We can mark story arcs on the storyboard cards by adding in colored pencil/ink a note about how the story arc starts, develops or ends. It is important not to have the story arcs sidetrack the campaign, unless you want a parallel feel. The X-Files TV show would often trade between the conspiracy plot and smaller episodic plots. That can work, but players often prefer to have plots weave together and feel connected.
You also want to keep a small number of active plots. A good guideline is no more than three concurrent plot arcs - you can adjust this based on an understanding of the story and what the players and you can handle. It is usually ideal to hatch a plot arc early, develop it a bit later, and then focus on it and end it. You might have no sign of the escaped boy for many sessions, then he shows up in the crowd. A few sessions later he shows up as a helper in the arena and hints of others that he works with. Then you focus on his story and the group of which he is a part, closing out that story before working on any others. This gives a real sense of a living breathing campaign setting but does not overwhelm players with complexity.
Next we take a look at the PCs. They are the stars of the show, right?
Dark Sun Blog Index
Friday, September 24, 2010, 12:17 PM
Before I jump in, some of you might ask "What is happening? Why aren't you writing about Dark Sun?" I fully intend to do that. The ravages of convention season plus some work helping other authors has taken a toll, as have family pressures. Further, my Dark Sun campaign is in a very great phase of players making PCs. That ends this coming Wednesday, and at that time I hope to share a lot more about my campaign. I am also comparing Obsidian Portal and Epic Words and hope to share that when I next post.
Changing Adventure and Encounter Design
If you read just one blog this month, it should be what Robert J. Schwalb (the guy that writes every other Dragon article) wrote in Reexamining the Dungeon. He brillaintly analyzes the way that 4E's formula for encounter design ends up producing fantastic tactical combats... but then the adventure and players end up revolving around this. The tactical combat becomes everything, and this robs us of the diversity of experiences usually present in D&D (and other RPGs).
The analysis is fantastic. The solution is also innovative, though I am not sure it goes far enough. He proposes using the concept of "Sectors" that encompass a slightly larger budget than one encounter but then spreads out the components over several dungeon rooms. You only get a short rest when you complete the sector. This allows the DM to shift the emphasis from combat to a combination of combat, exploration, RP, skill use, etc.
This has lit a fire in many. Responses from Mike Mearls and other major WotC minds has spread to other blogs and forums. Chatty DM was writing about this on his blog. He was mentioning quests (and some other concepts) and Chris Sims was talking about not using traditional XP-granting mechanics.
It all led me back to the game needing a better top-level building formula that addresses the larger story/campaign needs. Not everyone needs this. Great DMs with great players can create a setting/story/campaign that really evokes lots of RP, exploration, and non-mechanical interaction. But, the general system influences the vast majority of gamers and causes damage.
Skill challenges are something that in theory could have codified RP moments. We see this in Living Forgotten Realms or D&D Encounters, where an SC is placed where a loosely structured investigation would take place. The open format becomes a framework that begs everyone to just roll dice. It is rather hard for the average DM to conceal that a tally is being kept and that this is an SC. Metagaming begins. Despite tons of material on official and other sites, this remains in today's game.
Quests are also attempts to codify story elements, which in theory would be very rich. Instead, what we codify is MMORPG-like obvious interactions. NPC deploys hook, PCs accept, they do, they get XP. Yawn, and it just begs for metagaming.
Also, the quest XP idea really stresses obvious accomplishments that tend to include combat. You recover the lost book by slaying the monster. You end the town's threat (through combat). Etc. RP-decisions seldom are part of a quest or the focus of a quest.
It all adds up to be a recipe for what we see today - mechanics driving our play style. Just like "sectors" can act as an umbrella for encounters and potentially reduce the mechanical feeling of XP budgets, we need something that can codify the need for a diversity of experiences within the adventure itself.
One idea is that of "Goals". A Goal would be an overarching building block concept that encompasses traditional quests as well as Sectors, SCs, and Encounters. You might replace XP at the combat and quest level with Goal XP, which is the true budget keeper. Or, you might use traditional accounting and simply award XP when Goals are completed.
In designing an adventure or a campaign you would break down the story into goals, each of which would have a variety of components. Importantly, goals would mirror story arcs. You can have several goals and trade out components based on the different approaches. Goals can conflict, yet share components. Goals could be dynamic. You might look at Temple of Elemental Evil and have many goals that are possible based on alliances made, foes defeated, information gained, etc. Dealing with the fire temple can be a very rich goal that allows for a lot of options (alliances, setting another temple against them, skill challenges to infiltrate, working with external allies to defeat them, freeing captives, etc.).
Another way to do it is to have "Checkpoints". You can award the XP for reaching a certain progression point in the campaign. Maybe we start in Hommlet and need to choose NPC allies, establish relations, find info, uncover and resolve some problems. Checkpoint reached, XP given. Now we need to get to and explore the moathouse. Checkpoint reached. Now we need to... Many DMs already award XP this way, but by codifying it we suggest to DMs that they choose from a wider menu of options than the combat encounter and skill challenge.
In Living Forgotten Realms, for example, authors work hard to mirror suggested 4E XP budgets. This forces 2 or 3 combats per 4-hour adventure, either of which can lead to way too long a play experience and frustrating sameness. If you compare this to Shadowrun or Legend of the Five Rings or Spycraft living campaign 4-hour adventures you see real differences. These other systems don't force a budget and just reward the overall concept of what is being accomplished. The result is a much more open type of gameplay. You see players coming up with all sorts of ideas. A one-paragraph mention in a Spycraft mod of how a villain likes race cars led us to an extended awesome scene where the "Wheelman" PC raced the villain Bond-style for high stakes that further the mission (true story). In L5R, you can see entire mods without combat and players love it. You do things like have your samurai enter a poetry contest because of Clan and the societal concepts. Suddenly you find yourself writing a haiku your swordmaster is about to recite! This exists in the adventure in part because the author was not led to create a certain type of adventure. In Shadowrun, delivering the goods to the fixer is what matters, not whether you beat up Lone Star cops and four street gangs or simply outsmarted the foes.
What most good DMs do, it seems to me, is use the awesomeness of 4E to build really cool tactical encounters, but they space those out further based on their knowledge of earlier editions and other RPGs. But, the inexperienced DMs or the ones that feel they must follow the literal page end up trapped into making very formulaic adventures. This means we need to change the overall formula that leads these new gamers astray (and hurts organized play). And it isn't just solving encounters with Sectors (a brilliant idea). It goes all the way to how you build the adventure itself.
Monday, September 6, 2010, 2:31 PM
Mini-Review of New Products:
Dungeon Tiles Master Set,Rules Compendium, Ravenloft, Gamma World, and the Red Boxed Set
PAX Loot (Image by Chris Tulach, who provided the loot along with organizer Robert Altomare. Thanks, Robert and Chris!)
This weekend I judged two days at the PAX Prime convention. PAX is a hybrid RPG and Video Game convention created by the Penny Arcade guys. It packs some 70,000 gamers and this year it really grew to bring more attention to RPGs and D&D.
I ran the Dark Sun Arena, judging continuously from 11Am to 11PM two days in a row with just one break (to play Ravenloft) and one slot where I judged Gamma World. It was as fun as it was exhausting. My thanks to the players at my tables and the great camaraderie from fellow judges. The D&D area was very well-run.
So, having played and looked through all this swag, here are some quick takes on the new products. I won't normally make it a point to review stuff, but because some of these products are not out yet and since I did get some special opportunities to review some items, I will break from my Dark Sun blogs to do these reviews.
Dungeon Tiles Master Set: The Dungeon
This is a very easy one to review. For $20 you get 10 sheets of double-sided tiles. The tiles are almost entirely from previous sets (I saw one or two that seemed to be modified or new) and are of the same style and quality as previous tile sets.
The tiles come inside a large box that holds these tiles and could hold other tiles (either in their original frames or loose - I store mine back in the frames when done and keep them on my bookshelf). You can probably store about 2-3 more sets in the box if you kept everything in frames. The idea of providing the storage box is very cool, and I hope future master sets do the same.
A fantastically cool aspect is that the box itself has a 12x9 floor tile pattern! This means the box lid and underside each are a useful surface for playing. And, the edges are decorated to look like the dungeon walls from Harrowing Halls (with images of wall bricks and stone pillars), so you could use one or both as elevated platforms! The lid is actually one square high and the box bottom is two squares high - absolutely genius! The person at WotC that came up with that needs a raise immediately.
The tiles themselves are a good selection across many sets. Even though I have two copies of almost every tiles set, this is a good addition to my set. And, at $20 I find the price very reasonable as a way to get some good tiles. I think this is a fantastic product.
Edit: Unboxing video by PAX judge Thadeous C!
The Rules Compendium is a very attractive 6"x9" 319-page mini-book containing rules for 4E. The rules of course include the various errata, but also are written in a slightly different style which is often a substantial improvement over the original source. Rules often have new diagrams and play examples.
As an example, one of my big pet peeves with 4E is how stealth has been written up over time, leading to massive confusion on how stealth works (even amongst WotC staff). The Stealth rules in this book are much better in wording and the example of play is a very cleverly chosen one that really explains how hiding works. The same is true of Charging.
The book is surprisingly comprehensive, covering all sorts of topics. It includes information on deities, on campaign worlds, on leveling up, etc. Individual powers or magic items are not covered, but topics like weapons as implements and understanding powers are covered. The magic item rarity rules are covered but in no more detail than has already been previewed.
I can see a new gamer buying this and DDI and being in really good shape. I can see judges buying this to have as a portable reference and to help new players understand the rules. I am not sure if most experienced players (that do not judge) really need it, but it might be of value to them as well.
All-in-all, I can recommend this item. I would not have expected this, but it really has been written well enough that I might bring it along with me to gamedays so that I can show players both rules text and the examples. It is a strong piece of work and I consider it a good product. For a new player, it could be an excellent product.
This is a cooperative board game using very simplified core 4E rules and a narrow set of options (though more than sufficient for a fun board game). The Ravenloft board game is in the style of Pandemic and similar games where all players seek to accomplish the same thing together and thus must discuss how best to tackle what is thrown at them. On their turn they both choose actions and trigger changes in the game.
Many of my friends have been critical of WotC focusing on board games. However, Wizards of the Coast is historically a gaming company focusing on non-RPG games. Richard Garfield pitched Robo-Rally to them before then showing them Magic the Gathering, for example. What is different is that the D&D teams are now looking to support board games and board game/RPG hybrids, and that can worry some that the devotion to a good RPG game will waver or that the board game side will be weak. When it comes to the board game side, Ravenloft is a very good offering.
This review by Jester really covers the board game in detail, so I won't duplicate the efforts. At a very high level, players take turns moving and/or attacking, uncovering a new tile if they choose to explore, triggering a monster or an event or both, and then activating any monsters they control. Monsters have instructions on how to run them so a player ends up controlling them fairly. Magic items and PC powers add good variety and interesting options. You choose your PC powers, which is fun, using traditional At-Will and one-use options.
My buddy Jeremiah and I had an awesome time playing at PAX. We added a layer of role-play for fun (we had the table rolling on the floor at times with our antics) and really enjoyed the tactical angle, the gameplay, and the challenge level. Between the tiles and the events and the monsters all being random you get a varied experience. We had some fairly new-to-D&D players at our table and that did not hurt their ability to play. In fact, this is an excellent "gateway drug" to get non-D&D players to want to try D&D. I will absolutely play this game with my non-gamer adult couples-night board game group and I think it could cause one of them to want to play D&D. It is low on geeky and high on playability. Unlike what Jester concluded, I am very positive on how it plays for casual gamers and experienced gamers alike. He is right that it isn't so much a Ravenloft product as a game with some basis on Ravenloft. It is also not an RPG and does not evoke RP (though you can choose to do so).
It is an impressive offering. I do recommend this game highly and consider it an excellent game. That being said, Pandemic is a better buy if you don't care about the D&D connection.
This is a really interesting product. Unlike Ravenloft, GW is not a board game. This really is an RPG - though a very light and confined one. And I will disagree very strongly with what Jester wrote here; Gamma World is not a CCG. What WotC has been saying is true - Gamma World plays best when you don't collect the cards. More on this later.
Let's go back and look at the product. For $40 you get a large box with a small-footprint but well made (and very pretty) 159-page rulebook. The rulebook is well written and does a great job of walking you through character creation, gameplay, and things like available monsters. You get what could be called a "starter deck" of well-made CCG-style cards. The 80 cards are half Alpha mutations and half Omega technology items (more on that later). You get two sheets of well-made tokens which contain different images on each side of the monster tokens so that you can use a wider variety of monsters (though this means you can't run certain combinations). You get two double-sided poster maps (similar look to D&D Tiles but made of thin poster paper). You get one booster of Alpha and Omega cards.
The game is a campy sci-fi RPG where the world went crazy thanks to the Hadron Super-Collider. Alternate time-lines of AI robots, aliens, Armageddon, and other wacky stuff all merge into our world. You end up in a post-apocalyptic future setting with a lot of humor because the players know things the PCs do not. For example, the PAX adventure was based in Seattle, but the PCs did not know this (and would not understand the name). A postcard with the Space Needle and the words "Greetings from Seatt" were a hint to the players.
PC generation is extremely fast - you end up with funny combinations of origins such as Cockroach Empath. Each provides skills you are trained in, powers you can use (sometimes Encounter, sometimes At-Will), and other cool but short features. A friend of mine made cut-out cards and this is a good way for players to track their Origins. You then assign abilities based on the origins and finally roll the rest randomly. You quickly calculate a few numbers for skills and attacks, choose weapons, and roll for gear (giving you funny things like a canoe and a wagon).
You also get an initial Alpha Mutation. One of the card types, this is a strange short-lived mutation. The power of these varies widely. One PC might be able to do a blast 5 that stuns creatures, save ends. Another might get tentacles that let you draw or sheathe items as a free action. Many of the Alpha Mutations have an "Overcharge" option, where you can roll a die and see if something cool (make basic attack with tentacles as a minor action) or bad (tentacles decide to strangle you and you are stunned save ends) happens. You discard Alpha cards at the end of each encounter and then draw new ones. The wide variety is part of what makes this not worth collecting. They play best if you are surprised by what you get rather than players making a super-deck and knowing all the cards. The option to use the GM's deck helps this, as well as buying a periodic pack. In this regard, I see boosters as a board game style add-on that can help keep the game fresh.
When you explore you might find random ancient junk (stuff from our world). This can include a car stereo, inflatable kiddie pool, or smoke alarm. This can be a ton of fun. When the young boy at the table I DMed hooked up the car stereo to his power generator and played 80's music... well, let's just say he did very well with the Dancebot 1986 robot. And when a player asked if he could use his foosball table as a weapon... who was I to say no? A friend made some awesome random junk cards, which I will post once the game releases.
The setting seems ideal for short campaigns and periodic adventure settings. The rules may be somewhat limited if you tried to do a protracted campaign. A game like Eclipse Phase would be better, especially if you want serious sci-fi instead of a humorous setting.
Overall, this is a fun game and worthy of your gaming shelf. I think it is a very good product.
Edit: Read about Wil Wheaton's celebrity GW game and see what author Logan Bonner came up with for a character image!
Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set (The 4E Red Boxed Set)
Trying to figure out Essentials has been its own mini game for most gamers. The Red Box sells for an incredibly reasonable $20 and comes with two short books, token sheet, black dice, a poster map using images from Dungeon Tiles, character sheets, and some power cards. The tokens are well made. The power cards are a bit thin and are not poly-coated like previous power card offerings. The character sheets are a slightly different format, breaking up skills amongst abilities, for example.
The Player's Book is fantastic. It uses a choose-your-own adventure format to help players make decisions and guide them in ending up with a PC that meets their style. The DM's Book is also done in a new style, working through encounters and not delving deeply into DM topics or doing so as they come up. For example, the skill challenge system is explained as part of the skill challenge encounter. After 7 encounters there is information on making your own and additional monsters.
The boxed set seems like a good offering for a new person that wants to learn about the game and help them get started with the game. For example, an interested player might buy the box, then talk their friends into playing with them. It does not really cater to the existing player. For example, other than the power cards, there is no place that gathers the powers in a way an existing player could skim them and see what they want to take. Nor are the class features explained in a traditional PH format. A DM will not find an encyclopedia-style covering of terrain or how to create encounters. These things would be presumably found in other Essentials offerings.
I find it very hard to evaluate this product. I have little personal need for it. The power cards, dice, and tokens are of no value to me whatsoever. The two books are really angled toward very new players. In comparing this to the many previous boxed sets I have seen over the ages (the OD&D Purple Box I started with, original Red Box, Basic Game for 3E, etc.) there are some nice innovations. It is a sound purchase as a way to get into the game. However, it is not a good replacement or even supplement for anyone with actual experience. Once you get some experience I am not sure there is much value.
I have seen the DM's Kit box at my local flagship gaming store, and I feel the same way about that set. There are some nice innovations but it seems to be best for a fairly confined demographic. I find the 3E Basic Game box to be of greater value to all demographics and I wonder if these two Essentials Offerings could have been made so they were more widely appealing. If the Red Box had real minis, real tiles, and offered something like an innovative power sheet, then it would be much closer to a must-have for everyone.
Edit: Picture of all components by DMSamuel!
I see some excellent innovation from WotC. The new offering show some really different thinking within Wizards and these products are by and large excellent purchases. The future seems very bright to me and I clearly need to judge big conventions until I keel over (hopefully due to age and not exhaustion).
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
Thursday, July 8, 2010, 3:22 PM
This post takes a departure from describing the world and instead focuses on what it is like to DM this world. This is a huge topic, so I will concentrate on two aspects that can be particularly important for the campaign world: maintaining the sense of Athasian uniqueness and achieving an appropriate challenge level.
Running the Sands - Tips for Surviving as a Dark Sun DM
Keeping Athas Interesting and Unique
One of the hardest aspects of DMing a unique campaign world is that everyone wants it to feel unique. The DM wants it unique, the players want it unique. And yet, when you play past a few sessions, it is surprisingly easy to have it feel like the PCs are just crossing terrain, just speaking to an NPC, or just fighting in some place. How can you keep the Athasian feel without running yourself ragged or repeating yourself?
The technique I like to use is to prepare two unique aspects for each session. You can go with more, but it is usually better to try to have two really memorable aspects (where you go into something in depth and leave a real impression) than to have more but explore them in only a very shallow way.
Here is an example. We might be traveling through stony barrens, with the point simply to be to get from one place to the other. We could describe a lot of things, such as color striations in the rock, the pebble-rich sand, the dust-filled sky, or different types of plants. And, in fact, it is good to do that.
However, an idea for more depth could be to single out a single type of plant and make that unique to that area (and make a note of it in your campaign notebook or other tracking device). Maybe there is a tiny barrel cactus that is a dark grey and covered with stubby thorns. Making some nature or history checks, the party learns that the cacti are very dangerous to mounts, because they can easily be covered by wind-blown sand, acting as caltrops. On the positive side, they are often desired by merchants because after a rain they put forth a bright yellow flower and a shriveled brown fruit that is very nutritious. The flowers are also collected and are popular with nobles in the closest city-state.
This might lead the PCs to ask about when it last rained, to seek some that have fruit, and even to dig up a few (even without fruit) to sell them to merchants.
At the simplest level, such detail gives variety to what would have been a routine trek, provides an opportunity for discussion and role-playing, and creates a bit of lore for your world.
At the next level, you can make this part of your living campaign. For example, you might at their destination have the NPCs respond positively if offered some of the fruit/cacti. Or, perhaps next time in the city-state they see a noble wearing the flowers and recognize them. It all adds up to making Athas very unique.
The best part is that a lot of this you can just make up as you go. Make a few rough notes on the two things you want to introduce and some ideas, then feed off of your players. You might have an idea of a type of distinctive clothing with plans to show it later on in other sessions. Then a player asks if they can buy that type of clothing, leading to an encounter with an NPC weaver/tailor (which might further the adventure) and perhaps a bonus to skills interacting with people from that area.
You may be surprised at how this technique adds up over time to create a very interesting campaign world. Sometimes one of the elements won't receive much attention, but usually one of the two will help make Athas memorable each and every time you play.
Fair Brutality - Maintaining an Appropriate Challenge Level
Another challenge with running a Dark Sun campaign is maintaining an appropriate challenge level. Like an Athasian arena, you want a lot of blood on the sand. You want the feeling that no matter what, the PCs are in a brutal world that could swallow them up at any moment. With such dangerous environmental conditions and with beings like Sorcerer-Kings, gargantuan drakes, and massive elementals, your PCs should always be worried about surviving.
But, if we look at the DMG, there is a stated challenge level. For reasonable play, you want to periodically give the PCs easy encounters, encounters at their level, and then every now and then a challenging encounter that is a couple of levels above their average PC level. Now, sure, we can push that a bit for a Dark Sun campaign, but at some point we are just making the players suffer - after all, the guidelines for reasonable play exist for a reason. Players want to feel like their PCs are heroes and they want to win. They don't want to die every other encounter. A quick look at the D&D Encounters forums will demonstrate how unhappy players can get when they fell the game is unfair.
The trick is then to angle for fair brutality. It should feel brutal but always fair. There are a couple of ways to achieve this.
1. Use more extender rests or methods of renewing resources
For reasons of rules balance, the Dark Sun PCs are not significantly stronger than their non-Athasian counterparts. Sure, they get an extra encounter power via a Theme, but the second edition DS PCs had huge ability, class, and weapon specialization benefits and started at 3rd level.
To get the feel back, find ways to renew spent player resources. Put simply, in a Dark Sun campaign it is cool for players to spend their cool powers more often, but also to regain them. An extended rest works, but you don't always want to fight once in a day. Instead, consider ways to:
- refresh a daily power in between encounters
- refresh a spent encounter power within an encounter
- heal yourself or an ally, even if you aren't a leader
- refresh a daily magic item power
- refresh a class or racial feature
- renew a healing surge in between encounters
- gain a bonus to a skill to enable something difficult
- pull off a stunt to gain a bonus that makes a big power more likely to hit
On Athas, just as you might look to design the encounter to be difficult, look for ways to make it easier. You might increase the level of the encounter by two, but then add a cactus that only the PCs know would deal damage and ongoing poison if a foe was pushed against it, plus ruins that one PC could jump off of in an acrobatic stunt to get combat advantage and a bonus to damage (only once, the ruins crumble after that and become unsafe). When the PCs are finished, they find a cactus that replenishes a lost healing surge with a moderate heal check.
Experimenting with D&D Encounters, players seem to really like having ways to renew resources, spend big powers more often (and regain them), break weapons and get new ones, use terrain to pull off cool stunts, and find things in the wilds that can boost or renew them. It all makes the high challenge level seem manageable, and can be more fun than lowering the challenge level to normal levels. Plus, it is more imaginative! In fact, you can combine the idea of something unique to Athas and make it something that also renews the player. For example, a player wearing the clothes local to the area might be able to make a bluff check as a minor on their first round to gain combat advantage as the foes are not sure if the PC is on their side.
2. Provide constant threats more often
One way of making the world seem meaner is to provide some sources of constant damage more often. The rain of obsidian shards in D&D Encounters is a fantastic example, but more mundane ones are fine. Maybe the ground is littered with cacti that cause damage when stepped upon or brushed against. Maybe the sands are literally burning hot. Maybe swirling winds blow things around, causing low constant damage. The point is to have everyone taking a little damage. Even a very low amount, such as 2 at heroic or 5 at paragon, can be send the signal of how the world is constantly out to get you.
You can come up with some fun and clever ways to do this. You can also make it non-automatic and story-based. Maybe, when fighting in an arena, the PCs will be attacked twice at the start of their turn by hateful spectators. One attack is with a rock, with low damage if it hits, while the second is a rotten fruit, causing discomfort and foes to gain CA against the PC. Of course, the PCs can gain the favor of the crowd. They might do something cool tactics-wise, spend a minor to use a social skill on the crowd, or get lucky and crit the opponent. They might even get the crowd to attack their foe...
These can also be excuses for skill use. Maybe the sands are incredibly hot, but there is a barrel storing precious water. Any PC can use athletics to knock the barrel onto the sands, cooling them. Maybe the ancient tomb has unearthly cold, but the spirits can be appeased if PCs make a group religion check (each using a free action on their turn).
3. Someone else is always bigger than the PCs
In Greyhawk there is the time-honored tradition of "wheels-within-wheels", where any threat usually turns out to be part of a larger machination from some more dangerous threat. In Dark Sun, it often works a bit differently. There are some really powerful evil forces, but with no powerful good forces (at least not overt ones), they can often be more obvious and become involved more often. For example, if the PCs recover a powerful relic from the green age they might find that an interested Sorcerer-King sends a mid-ranking templar to request it. If the PCs decline, they receive a summons to visit the Sorcerer-King himself! The PCs would be foolish to refuse, but that is part of the plot...
This concept of being small fish in a dangerous pond can happen in many ways. PCs in an arena have no chance to fight their way out, so they must win their freedom. PCs fighting templars can't possibly kill them all - they need to win this fight and run. Defeating an entire slave tribe is difficult. Etc. This knowledge should generally be freely given and should help establish a unique feel to the campaign. In Greyhawk the PCs might kill some elven thieves and be done with it. In Athas they find the elven merchants will no longer trade with them - something they need to progress. Now they may want to appease them, performing an act for them to regain their trust and complete the trade for the item they seek.
The trick is to make this fun, but not to block the PCs. The PCs should still feel they have choice, should still feel they have room to operate. For example, they might choose to work with templars who would like to deal a blow to the elven merchants and steal the item they need... Regardless of the choice, they know they are dealing with powerful forces and that should be a fun tension.
The corrolarry to this is that they should be able to prove themselves. As they rise in level they also rise in stature and gain recognition and respect. There may be many more powerful organizations and creatures, but they give them some respect and treat them differently in many cases.
There you have it. Two broad tips for being a better Dark Sun DM. Give them a balanced but brutal-feeling challenge and give them two cool unique aspects of Athas every session. Now I turn it to you - do you have any broadly applicable tips for DMing Dark Sun effectively? I would love to see readers comment or blog responses.
Next: We will return to lore and take a look at the major organizations on Athas. Templars, nobles, Veiled Alliance, and more!
Dark Sun Blog Index