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My first Dark Sun post: a meditation on world building

The Dragon by Brom (’nuff said)

To begin, I want to be sure that I clear up something. In a prior post I stated that I saw some efforts by others to re-imagine Dark Sun using Lamentations of the Flame Princess or some other OSR game engine and I said I didn’t like it. I don’t want to disparage the efforts of the authors. I think they are valiant efforts and I like some of the ideas, but I think the problem is that these game masters/designers made a mistake by starting with character generation. It is a logical first choice IF your world, campaign, or one-shot adopts the typical fantasy role-playing tropes of a medieval European world. That ain’t Dark Sun by a long shot. You need to start with the world and the mechanics that effect the game before you go into how characters mechanically function in that world.

Dark Sun’s world is called Athas. It is a world devastated by ecological disaster brought on by war and the misuse of magic. The result of which is that many (if not all) of the typical fantasy RPG tropes have been turned on their head, if not completely replaced. It is my position that, because of Athas’ history and backstory (it is a character in its own right, isn’t it?), we need to start with the fundamental rules that govern the world itself. These rules will make the post-apocalyptic desert more than just window-dressing in a description provided by the game master or referee. These rules will have a direct effect on the choices the PCs make for there will be both an in-game consequence, as well as a real world consequence that the player will have to contend with in terms of dice rolls, penalties, set-backs, etc.

I should also take a moment to interject and note that currently there are D&D 5e projects out there that have people jazzed about bringing Dark Sun into the brave new world of 5e. I have taken a look at several. The one at GM Binder looks fairly decent. It honestly appears similar to some of the choices I made when I tried to make a 5e version of Dark Sun back in 2015. I am not going to comment on it other than to say I think it will be suitable to your needs to play a 5e version of Dark Sun. The author has also provided some interesting rules options for flavor. But, as a game master, you will need to do a lot of monster stat conversions, find some psionic rules (I made my own…never play tested unfortunately), and figure out how to make survival “a thing.” Again, as per the first paragraph of this post, the author focused on character creation first. I made the same mistake with my 5e Dark Sun campaign. It was fun, don’t get me wrong, but there was something missing.

One of the reasons I want to look at a “retro-clone” of the earlier versions of D&D is that the current version of D&D makes the player-characters too powerful and game balance is decidedly in their favor. I do not think you can capture the flavor and tone of Dark Sun in a system designed for the players to succeed on average 60-75% of the time. Dark Sun needs to be hard and it is the hard that makes it great! That is why I think an OSR styled project is in order here.

At the time it came out, the D&D 2e resource materials did a fine job defining the world and provided alternative rules that brought the world of Athas to life. I loved it. No other campaign world provided such detail in terms of game mechanics. Thus, my disappointment with some of the stuff that is out there. WoTC’s 4E was an absolute joke (chitin plate mail? What!?) However, 2ed D&D, in general, was not without its problems…*cough* THAC0 *cough* Thus, using and/or designing my own retro clone is the way to go.

So, with all that said, I am going to turn to what every foray into Dark Sun starts out with: what makes Athas (and a campaign in Dark Sun) different.

  1. The World is a Desert – Survival under the hot sun is going to be difficult as water is scarce. There are no rivers or lakes. The terrain is treacherous (salt flats, deserts, etc.). Thus, rules governing weather, travel & encumbrance, supplies & resource management, as well as specific rules for water & dehydration will need consideration.
  2. The World is Savage – Life is brutal and short on Athas. Everything is about competition for survival. Whether your PCs are facing off with terror from the desert, a group of desperate and hungry dune raiders, or the minions of a tyrannical sorcerer-king, the PCs will have to fight and they will have to win. Thus, rules governing hit point loss, recovery, and combat will have to be examined. In my old game, I used permanent injury rules to make things even harder on the players. I am already considering doing away with initiative just to add to the ferocity of combat.
  3. Metal is Scarce – Due to the socioeconomic set backs created by the ecological disaster that is Athas, metal is just not available. Plus, there is a level of impracticality to walking around in 120-degree heat wearing a suit of metal. Thus, rules for alternative materials for weapons, armor, and other mundane objects are necessary. Weapon breakage was a big thing back in Dark Sun’s heyday. I will most certainly be utilizing something such as this.
  4. Arcane Magic Defiled the World – Magic is powered by the essence of life. Thus, to cast a spell, a magic-user would destroy the life around him. At higher levels, this could actually cause physical harm to non-vegetation. I think this treatment of magic fits nicely with the LotFP view on magic being dangerous and weird. I think I will shift away from weird, and hit upon dangerous and frightening. I also think this may be an opportunity to develop more than just how defiling works. Rather, how about devising a totally new magic system where a miscast of magic can cause even more disastrous results…?
  5. Sorcerer Kings Rule the Cities – The sorcerer kings jealously guard oases where their city-states reside. They also jealously guard the secrets that made them kings. Sorcerer Kings can be villains, quest-givers, or both. They are, at all levels of the game, beings to fear. Given that they rule through priesthoods and bureaucracies, I think a more robust social encounter system is in order. I think The One Ring and its 5e doppelganger, Adventures in Middle-Earth, did a nice job developing how a PCs background and social cast can effect how a ruler or lord would respond to a PCs entreaty. I am going to piggyback off this.
  6. The Gods are Silent – So there are no gods in Dark Sun. To me, this is one of the more profound deviations from typical fantasy worlds. There are no gods to worship. By the time 4E Dark Sun came around, the gods had been killed by the primordial elements. It is an idea I like and I ran with in my 5e game. Where I differed was to place the concept in an anthropological context. For the people of Athas, most of whom are slaves in some way, saw the primordials as slaves to the gods. They rose up and tore them down. In terms of game mechanics, this is really about clerics and what to do with them. The sorcerer-kings can grant power to those devoted to them–the Templars. This class would function very similar to the cleric. But, for those who worship the elements and/or nature, nature magic and an entirely new class will need to be generated.
  7. The Rise of Psionics – Back in the 2ed days, psionics wasn’t wildly used and I suspect Dark Sun was a means of bringing psionics to the forefront of any D&D gaming group. I will be doing it here as well. That will require development of an entirely new system, probably borrowing much from the 2ed game. I plan on working off the 5e home-brew supplement that I drafted which divided the metaphysics of psionics into three parts (Mind, Body, and Self). This allowed me to incorporate monks into a 5e Dark Sun game (theirs was a study of “Body”). I am going to use this to create a class that is versatile and captures the metaphysics of psionics.
  8. Fierce Monsters Roam the Land – The monsters of Athas were no joke. Small villages huddled around a puddle of mud they called an oasis could be devastated by a monster looking for food and/or water. Your PCs could be killed by a 25 hit dice wandering monster at 1st level. (A more memorable gaming moment as a player in Dark Sun comes from one such occasion…my brand new 1st level character didn’t make it!) Staying in the cities made a lot of sense. Dark Sun had its own monster manual, but I think I want to take a stab at creating my own. Given the backstory of ecological disaster, wild magic, and defilement, the PCs can encounter just about anything out there in the wilds.
  9. Familiar Races and Classes Aren’t What You Expect – Finally, after all of the above, we come to class and race. Because of the devastation and brutality, dwarves and elves aren’t the dwarves and elves of Tolkien. Halflings are wild and feral…although, they still have a fondness for cooking. Its just that what they cook tend to be humans. There are new races, such as the Mul (or half-dwarf) who is purposefully bred for slave labor. There are new character classes, like the gladiator or merchant. All of this is a direct result of the above world considerations. All of the choices a player makes during character creation must take the above into consideration. Everything is different. That is why I do not think it makes much sense to start here.

I like the idea of using the class system of the old D&D basic set where race and class are one. However, like Five Torches Deep, I may give each class an option or path to choose from so as to provide some player choice. I will probably add to the character generation process something to do with backgrounds for more choice. I think the 2ed skills system was a joke and cumbersome. I do like how Lamentations of the Flame Princess handles most common adventuring skills. I will probably incorporate something like that system, but with some tweaks.

Anyway…so there it is. The beginning outline of my next home-brew project. I can’t wait to really dig into this. I hope you stay tuned for updates on this. When it is completed, I am going to put together a hex crawl campaign for Athas. Maybe I will do live plays…? I don’t know. I do not want to get ahead of myself. But regardless, I hope you enjoy following along with me on this project, dear readers.

And always remember, whether you are making your way across a burning salt flat or a sea of endless dunes in Athas, no matter how thirsty you are, never trust an elf…


GTFO Dude! Seriously…we need to GTFO.

Trust me, the plague doctor suit is NOT going to help you!

Last night I Refereed a Lamentations of the Flame Princess publication, Going Through Forbidden Otherworlds, by Zzarchov Kowolski. It was an online one-shot with my podcast compatriots, Gary and Brian. I was a bit nervous as this was pure voice chat–no zoom meetings, no discord-esque screen shares for images, and certainly no handy-dandy maps to share via a platform like Fantasy Grounds. Just my nasally voice describing everything to two seasoned players–no, seasoned game masters! To say I wasn’t at all worried would make me a terrible liar. But we had fun and I have to say it was a smashing success. I will post a link to the podcast live play of the session when it is ready. We will also be doing a session debrief where we discuss our impression of LotFP and GTFO now that we have actually used the system.

With regard to the module, I have to say this is a perfect little introduction to Lamentations of the Flame Princess. First, it is a nice modular adventure that can be dropped into any campaign at any time. Zzarchov Kowolski has provided some nice ideas for adventure hooks that can pretty much go in any direction the Referee or his/her players feel they need to take it. Secondly, (and this is important), GTFO breaks quite a few rules of RPGs. Game balance is tossed out the window, and, unlike what is recommended for a LotFP game, the author has filled this game with a bunch of gross monsters/adversaries that can (and almost did) overwhelm the party. I say “this is important” as my take on the LotFP brand is that it likes breaking the traditional rules of RPGs. GTFO breaks those rules and even those rules of the rule-breaker…if that makes any sense. Just pick up the damned module! It’s awesome!

SPOILER ALERT!!!

So the whole story behind Going Through Forbidden Otherworlds is that a rogue member of the church has discovered the ability to travel between worlds. By using the dark arts, the priest can open a portal to another dimension that, in turn, can take the dimension hopping tourist to another place. Misguided members of the clergy have allowed this Jesuit priest to build a temple (or something like a temple) in this middle dimension which will act as a staging ground to bring the light of the Holy Mother Church to other planets. Sounds pretty straight forward right?

Well, the problem is that this pocket dimension has some properties that cause a problem for visitors. First, fire tends to burn more intensely and can cause seemingly ordinary torches to..*ahem*…explode in the hands of their wielders. Secondly, thoughts can create nightmarish demons to attack the party. Finally, if you fall asleep in this place, your dreams will cause you to move toward another sleeper, which will cause you to meld with that creature. For example, there is a “survivor” of some incident (not detailed) who has a living cat melded into his chest, with flies stuck to his face. The only way to avoid being melded with another being is to get blackout drunk so you do not dream.

One plot hook is that the Church lost contact with the priest and the party needs to go into the other dimension, find out what happened, destroy the place (maybe), and GET THE FUCK OUT! As the party explores, they will face off with survivors, contend with the dimension’s random flares, and, potentially, face off with a demon or two, or three, or…who knows how many!

For a game master, I would recommend doing a bit of leg work up front before running the adventure as there are some mechanics that could slow down the pace of your adventure. Sometimes a demon will randomly come through a portal. You are instructed to roll up a random demon using the Summon spell. If you do not know how Summon works in LotFP, there are charts, upon charts, upon charts to create random, but totally weird and cool, monsters. Making a demon can take some time. I made six minor demons and 1 major one ahead of time just in case I needed them. I did and I am glad I was prepared.

I think pacing is key here as the PCs are going to start losing resources and become desperate to figure out how to escape the dimension. So, I recommend keeping track of time and be religious in rolling on the random events chart. You must put pressure on the players. You must be the terminator-you do not let up and you absolutely do not stop.

I am not going to tell you what happened with my play through. But I will certainly use this module again as it does have replay value in terms of how the portals (and related spells) are added to a campaign…that and it was damned good time!


Gaming is a source of joy.

So, what happened in the past year? Well, I got a job working with a firm that ate up quite a bit of my time, which was expected. My role-playing group continued to gather each week to play Darksun and we had quite a bit of fun. (I will try to do a recap at some point and pick up where I left off with prior posts).  My job, unfortunately, was temporary and after six-months my contract was up and I was let go. Also, my gaming group decided to put on hold any campaign during the summer months as many in my gaming group have families and would prefer to enjoy the summer outside doing family things.  We live in upstate New York. Winter seems to last an eternity and the summer months become a flurry of events, outings, cookouts, picnics and vacations. Gaming generally takes a back seat anyway.

After being let go, for the past few months I have been looking for work and “freelancing” as an attorney taking whatever client comes my way.  Needless to say, I’m broke. And given my financial situation, I haven’t been feeling too good about the future.  I am currently writing, part-time for a local legal publication that pays the bills, but that is about it.

There is, however, a silver lining to all of this.  Well, two silver linings. The first is my fiance and her heroic level of patience and understanding with my struggle to find legal work. The other is that I have discovered that I missed writing this blog, writing adventures and being creative.  In order to keep my sanity, I’m going to pick this blog back up and write. I will find time, no matter what, to keep at it.  My gaming group will be gathering to play again in a few months and I have a ton of ideas. Sitting down and putting those ideas to paper has been such a source of joy and relaxation during the past few months, that I am almost taken aback by how much I really do love gaming. Perhaps I should try to get published…?

I don’t know. The thought has always been in the back of my mind, to take part in game design and story-telling. Perhaps this could happen in the future. But as of right now, I’m focused on the next job interview and writing to keep me sane.


Moving to Rivendell and Playing in My Athasian Sandbox

I haven’t posted in some time and that is because my fiance and I have moved from our run down apartment in Albany, New York to a very nice townhouse in East Rochester.  It was a very hectic move as everything that could go wrong almost did.  Our car’s master cylinder fried itself a week before the move.  I got sick before and after the move.  I had a job interview two days after our move.  And, of course, because my fiance and I are from the Finger Lakes area, the past week has been one filled with “we need to get together and have lunch/dinner/beers with insert family/friend/acquaintence here>.”  Not that I mind…it’s just hectic.

Our new home is nestled amidst a wooded area that is absolutely beautiful.  Rivendell was the first thing that came to mind when I saw it.  The only thing missing is a river and some elves…(and, of course, if I had the One Ring, the whole job situation would be the least of my worries!)

In a few hours my old gaming group is getting together to play Dark Sun with yours truly as the Dungeon Master.  I am very excited to play, for it has been at least three years since I have played with these guys and five or so years since I have really DMed a session.  I have spent a lot of time trying to find ways to get my buddies into the “feel” of Dark Sun.  That has involved a series of House Rules that I will be experimenting with as well as background music to play.     

To make Dark Sun more brutal, I am incorporating critical hit charts and critical fumble charts that are based on damage type.  Included in these charts is the chance for an instant kill.  Calculated it is approximately .017% chance that on any given attack roll, someone is going to be killed instantly. I like that.  I have also included the 2nd Edition weapon materials rules that modify attack and damage based on the materials used to make the weapon.  I suspect that after a few sessions we will stop using this rule as I am finding it to be a tedious addition to my own NPCs and monsters while writing adventures.

The background music I have selected include the Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures Soundtrack from the online video game.  It is incredible and fits perfectly.  I plan on adding the original Conan Soundtracks to the playlist. In addition, I am adding some pieces by Lisa Gerrard (of Dead Can Dance fame).  Her particular and unique vocal style and language add a otherwordly quality that I think will enhance the gaming experience.

In any event, it is six in the morning and I have approximately ten hours before we begin playing…I can’t wait.


Yikes!

To pick up where I had left off the other day, (and to continue venting my disappointment with Dark Sun), I am happy to point out that there are 117 pages of rules errata for the 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons.  And, to be clear, the statement ‘I am happy to point out’ is utter sarcasm.  There is something terribly wrong with this product when the game designers at Wizards have to “rely on the input of others”.  What happened to thoroughly play-testing a product before releasing it?  I have no idea. 

To be clear, there are plenty of good things about 4e…I’ve just haven’t decided I am ready to stop complaining about it yet.