Dark Sun Apprehension

My group is looking to wind down the current campaign. That’s probably for the best: The current plot has dragged on for months, mostly due to our inability to get together this summer. A gaming drought makes it easy to loose interest move on to the current shiny, and from my experience this is common in our hobby.

It doesn’t help that the Dark Sun setting is finally out now. It’s certainly the new hotness, and the ‘nets have been going crazy for it. My fellow players are itching to play it, so we’re going to be moving on to it, once we finish up our current campaign.

Dark Sun presents a lot of interesting character options, but somehow I’m not jazzed by it. I read the novels and played a few adventures there back in the 2e days, but it doesn’t bring back warm memories for me. Maybe it’s because the DM kept trying (and succeeding) to kill us, or maybe it’s because I’m more of a high-fantasy type player. On the plus side, the savage monsters and hostile landscape are cool aspects of the setting, and Wizards has done a great job of providing lots of new monsters, themes, hazards, skill challenges, etc to go along with the setting that sound like a boon for any campaign. And on down side, the tireless struggle against all powerful sorcerer kings, the dismal life, lack of traditional arcane and divine magic, twisted races, and the whole Dune meets Conan setting doesn’t inspire me to be heroic.

I think I’ll give it a chance anyway since that what my group wants. It sounds like we’re going to spend a lot of time on the city, so I was thinking some kind of court intrigue/spy character. Any suggestions for race/class/theme combo?

DM’ing in Athas

Today’s Penny Arcade reminded me that I wanted to write about my experience DMing the Dark Sun preview at PAX East. This has also been on my mind lately because I’m gearing up to run a homebrew one-shot tomorrow. I don’t remember the exact sequence of events that got me in to the DM’s chair, but I found myself Sunday sitting at table in front of 6 strangers and a giant photocopied encounter map. I’m curious about what WotC provides the D&D Encounters DMs with, but all I had going into was a quick print-out of the adventure. I think the haste and low-bugetness of it might have been because they were just overwhelmed with the turnout; I had to use my own minis and borrowed Banagrams and DM screen from Sarah Darkmagic.

The adventure, Death in the Arena, itself was rather straightforward. The introductory paragraphs highlighted the main flavor points of Dark Sun, the elements that give it a post-apopolyptical feel: defiling magic, lack of gods, savage halflings, scarcity of metal, etc. There was also an explanation on the rules regarding magic, and the breaking of weapons. The author of this adventure, Chris Tulach, did a good job of understanding the DM audience, as there were a few pages devoted to the background of the adventure, the motivations of the main bad guy Gazal, as well as the motivations of the two pregenerated groups of PCs. In addition the adventure has an ending point that would make a logical jumping off point for a future campaign. My guess is that this will the model for the first adventure in the next season of Dungeons and Dragons Encounters, which will be set in Dark Sun.

So how was my actual experience? I was a bit nervous and very tired going into it. It’s been a few years since I last GM’d and I had never run a 4e game. I felt comfortable enough having read so many blogs, and having played the adventure on the previous day. My two biggest fears was getting the rules wrong or that that the party would not have fun. I also had the goal of really trying to make Athas fun and exciting, which is hard because it’s not a traditional setting. Thankfully I think the group did have fun, and I didn’t let on that I was a total noob at this. They were easygoing and not rules-laywery, which helped. The other factors that made it were a success was its one-shotness, no one was that invested on what would happen next time, and that the adventure game with pre-generated characters and was well-structured. And nobody complained that that the session ended early.

Some of the things that I learned:

  1. Skill challenges are hard to run. I tried my best to say yes to proposed actions, but if a skill isn’t used the way it’s listed you need to think fast on your feet.
  2. Monsters can be challenging, especially keeping track of and remember to use all their available powers. My Giths were cut to shreds before they could do anything because I forgot to use their teleport powers.
  3. It’s not solely the GM’s responsibility to keep everyone engaged and having fun. I tried really hard to be energetic, but since I hadn’t slept in a few days and it went through lunch, my energy faded towards the end, which the party resonated. If one of them had some extra energy, I probably could have activated my second wind. But despite that, I think it still went really well.
  4. DMing isn’t as scary as I thought. I look forward to my session tomorrow and perhaps some chance as well. Although in many ways its great when you get a written adventure with pre-generated characters, because they you don’t have to worry about making the encounter designs interesting or balanced.

Dark Sun Preview Review

At the request of commenter “The Hockey Czar”, I’m going to review the Dark Sun adventure I played in last weekend. I also had the chance to DM this adventure as well, and I’m going to have a separate post on that experience as it was my first 4e game on the other side of the table. The adventure, Death in the Arena by Christ Tulach features six characters that show off flavor of Athas: use of Psionic classes, lack of Divine magic, new races: Goliaths (as half-giants), the Mul (half-dwarf), and Thri-Kreen (humanoid praying mantis), attention to nature and magic that ravages the environment. Each of the characters also has a Theme which is an additional background choice that provides an extra encounter power, societal role, and I assume, paragon paths. The two big ones that I liked were Templar (a priest of the sorcerer-king) and Gladiator. Any character can take a theme regardless of class, although my guess is that some classes are suited better for some themes (for instance fighter or barbarian for gladiator).

The adventure itself was a lot of fun. SPOILER ALERT for the rest of the paragraph. The party starts off divided into two groups of three competing to win an artifact from the days when Athas was green and happy. The adventure rolls right into a skill challenge where each side makes a case to get the artifact. The negotiations end poorly with a series of interesting combats in the arena. These show off some of the new monsters  (the big guys had cool psychic blast attacks) and made use of some interesting terrain. The flavor text of the battles brings to life gritty combat in a hot pit surrounded by thousands of cheering or jeering spectators (showing off for the crowd is worth a few bonuses as well).  In the first battle the two groups are in separate yet simultaneous combats; something I haven’t seen in a long while. It challenges the DM to keep things fluid but to fun effect (you get to be a spectator in the other combat while being participating in your own). The combats are followed by a series of chase skill challenges, culminating in the final battle. The last battle was a bit pedestrian and anti-climatic compared to the first few, but the marketplace scene made for a lot of interesting strategy. The party wins by collecting the artifact and the text leaves off unsatisfactorily at the start of a grand adventure for the future.

Dark Sun Combat

Combat in Tyr's gladiator pit

The adventure, which will run at various conventions through GenCon, shows off the new campaign setting Dark Sun. For those of you don’t remember it from second edition, it’s a rough hot world where magic has literally boiled the land and burned the seas to the point where civilization is limited to a handful of city-states ruled by tryrannical sorcerer-kings and pockets of wildnerness controlled by mean-spirited demihumans. Oh yeah, and all the gods have been killed or driven off such that the priestly templars derive their powers from the sorceror kings (there’s a new sorceror-king pact build for warlocks). In 2E players were encouraged to roll up multiple characters and nott get too attached. Thankfully the setting seems better suited to 4e: while still very tough, the conditions, skills, and treasure bring that sense of danger without having to constantly overpower and kill characters (mileage varies by DM). If Eberron is Indiana Jones + Steampunk, Dark Sun is more like something you’d get if Ridley Scott directed Mad Max.

Some other features of Dark Sun:

  • Metal is scarce. Characters start off with bone weapons and carapice armor, metal is used as gifts and is a sign of wealth. To go along with this there is a new mechanic where if you roll a 1 on an attack, you can choose to let your weapon break and roll again (metal weapons have a chance of surviving). This is a neat bit of flavor, but everyone in the adventure wisely choose to protect their weapons when this came up…we needed them. I think this choice is the point of the mechanic, but it remains to be seen how this actually plays out.
  • Magic kills. Casting spells literally draws life energy from the flora around you. Arcane characters are generally despised for this. There wasn’t really a chance for this to matter in the adventure since it was a one-shot. Arcane casters can either be defilers or preservers, depending on their level of respect for the native plant-life.
  • City states. The adventure takes place in the main city of Tyr, ruled by the Sorceror-King Kalak.
  • Harsh environment. Although the adventure took place in the relative saftey of the a city, the hazards of a harsh world were mentioned in the flavor text, and we can expect dangerous terrain and elemental wastelands, so save up those healing surges.

Not surprisingly I had a lot of fun despite the DM being pretty bad. I am looking forward to the campaign setting coming out this summer, although I don’t want to switch to it from our normal campaign. I hope they do series like the D&D Encounters or LFR with it. In fact the preview adventure could benefit from a little expansion into first adventure of a campaign arc. The best part about the adventure were the characters. They all had interesting back stories and deep (for a one-shot) motivations. I almost cared a lot more about their indivdual stories than the adventure’s plot, especially since it ended so abruptly. On the plus side it took less than the scheduled 4 hours, and every extra minute was a boon at PAX.

If you get a chance, check it out, the setting looks very cool. If nothing else, you may be able to bring certain elements to into any standard campaign.

Happy New Year

It’s hard to believe it’s 2010. This year will be 4th Edition’s 3rd year (and my blog’s second). I’m looking forward to all new monsters, dungeon tiles, and of course, Player’s Handbook 3.  PHB3 will have additional Psion builds and hopefully some new Psion feats and items to use in my game. I’m also looking forward to the Dark Sun setting. I enjoyed the original novels but not so much the setting when I played it in 2E. Thematically it felt like a mix of  Planescape and Dune, and it never really jazzed me. I’m the only person I know who enjoyed Spelljammer, so you don’t have to follow my opinion. This time I think they’ll do a much better job than before. What I find interesting is how they will adapt the 4th edition philosphy to the setting.

As for this blog, I’m looking forward to trying out some new moves at the table for improving my play and the experiences of my game-mates. I’ll share here what worked and what didn’t, and continue to review player tools, talk about how to handle playing through various fantasy tropes, and how to work with a DM following all the great advice out there on the interwebs.