Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Little Knowledge

Continuing the adventures of my Dark Sun campaign, our group has successfully concluded what I refer to as "Chapter One", a conversion of the original flipbook adventure "A Little Knowledge". As an introduction to Athas, I think it went very well. As the basis of a campaign length story, it fell flat. But that later part is entirely my fault as the adventures was meant to stand alone, and I had not yet decided where I wanted to go next with the story.

First an overview of how the game went. For this second session, we added a player in who couldn't make the first session. I'm blessed with players who have far greater imaginations then my own, and they did not disappoint in coming up with a great story for how to add the character into the group. It was decided that this character had escaped from the same slave caravan as the party, had wandered for days before picking up their trail, and had been following them for some time. The character then snuck into camp to steal supplies, found out there weren't any supplies to steal, and decided to try joining the group instead. This all came together in a very Athasian manner, with plenty of distrust amongst the characters (but not the players, this is an important point).

The first comabt of the session was very interesting, as it saw not one, not two, but three uses of the brutal weapon breakage rules in the first round of combat. A total of five weapons were broken due to natural 1's being rolled, two by the same character. We also were presented with the question: when one is reduced to bare hands and rolls a 1, do their hands break? Half the table wanted to go with 'yes', the other half looked like they'd get up and walk away if we went that extreme. My feelings on the matter are that there comes a pont when too dark becomes too little fun, even in Dark Sun. After all, these are first level characters in a fourth level encounter with no armor, things are already looking bad.

We only had two combat encounters for the session, though I had prepared a few more. The rest was role-play and skill encounters. I had two goals for the night: to wrap up the chapter, and to determine how they would start the next one. Would they start it free, or enslaved once again? Thus it was not very important to me that they follow the hooks which were presented, nor (with the benefit of hindsight) was it much of a suprise when they didn't. This I will have to note for the future. But it turned out for the best as I was able to wrap up the chapter right on time without things feeling too rushed (or so I think). For those keeping score, the crafty PC's managed to evade the shakles.

So how did I pull this off? The flipbook adventures break things down to one or two page encounters. A Little Knowledge has 24 such encounters. I went through each one and did my best to convert them from 2E to 4E. As I do not have DDI, I relied heavily on Sly Flourish's DM Cheat Sheet, as well as reskining. The Wezer (a wasp-like five foot tall insect) and the Kluzd (a Meso-American looking snake) were the two creatures I stated up on my own using these tools, while the Silk Wyrm is one that I toned down from the Dark Sun Creature Catalog.

Being that Dark Sun is a challenging world, I purposefully aimed towards making most the encounters 3rd or 4th level. But once I got to the table I second guessed myself and softend some of the encounters up a little (though not much--I blame the total lack of PC deaths on this). I also kept a copy of Marauders of the Dune Sea and Bloodsand Arena handy to pull out filler encounters, which I ended up using two or three times.

Next up is "Chapter Two: Freedom?" I've advanced the story to about a year later and bumped the PC's up to level 5, which was met with great enthusiasm. I believe I know what story I want to tell for this chapter, I just need to figure out how I'm going to chop it into two 6- or 7-hour blocks. I want to put together a dozen or so encounters which support the story, yet are not necessarily A to B to C, creating a sort of Choose Your Own Adventure style. That being said, there are certain encounters which need to be had in order to actually tell the story.

A combination of limited time to prepare, and just my natural inclination, shows me that I lean towards the "winging it" style of DMing; but two sessions at the table make it clear to me that I have a lot to learn before I can successfully pull such a thing off. Currently my biggest challenge is characterization, which will be really important in the next chapter of this campaign. I find I'm really liking this chapter-based approach, and hope to further fine-tune it so when I start my homebrew it flows more naturally.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Defiling vs. Preserving in Dark Sun 4E

Perhaps the single most defining aspect of the Dark Sun campaign setting is defiling magic. It is the reason the world is a desolate waste-land. So I think any game set on Athas needs to have a good mechanism to represent this.

In the stories, all magic is cast by the spell-caster first drawing energy from the surrounding vegetation. If the caster is not careful and draws the energy too quickly, the plant life will quickly wither, die, and turn to ash. This can be avoided by carefully pulling the energy, and only taking exactly what is needed. Wizards who did this were called Preservers, those who cared not were called Defilers. Mechanically, any spell caster could preserve or defile, the choice was made at the time of casting. Really powerful magic ("Dragon Magic") could pull energy from creatures, and there was at least one wizard who drew her power directly from the sun.

In the original game, these were two separate classes. My memory is foggy on how it was supposed to work around the game table, but 2E was sufficiently complex that I'm sure this was all covered by the rules. 4E takes a different approach, trying to simplify defiling by giving any Arcane caster with a daily power an At-Will Free Action to re-roll any attack or damage roll for a daily power. Though indeed simpler, it just didn't feel right to me, so I've created a set of house rules to make defiling more representative of how I envision it.
The 4E Dark Sun Campaign Setting book outlines “Arcane Defiling” as a free action which can be used to re-roll an attack or damage roll for a daily power. I’m going to allow this to be used for any roll done in the execution of any Arcane power, but only once per round. (This means anyone who has any Arcane power has access to this ability. ) Further, the re-roll is done at +5 per tier. However, each time it is used all allies in 20 squares take necrotic damage equal to 1/2 their healing surge if the power is a daily power, 1/4 if it is an encounter power, and 1/8 for any other.

Further, use of Arcane Defiling creates an area of Defiled Terrain (as outlined in 4E Dark Sun Creature Catalog p. 134 - usually producing a “Dead Magic” zone, but could produce others depending on circumstances). The area is a burst equal to twice the level of the power for daily spells, equal to the level of the power for encounter spells, and equal to 1/2 the level of the power for at-will spells (minimum size is the square the defiler is standing in).

Lastly, every use of Arcane Defile earns the caster a Defiler Point. I’m still working out exactly what this will mean, but at this time I think this will be significant mostly in social encounters. If you are familiar with Dark Side Points from Star Wars Saga Edition, I’m thinking something similar to that.
I think this gives more of the flavor of defiling. It is not something only done by powerful wizards for powerful spells in the fiction of the world, thus I was unhappy with the original rule. These house rules give a solid benefit beyond just re-rolling, which represents the extra power a defiler can wield. They also extend the ability to all types of spells, which again is more representative of the source material. The biggest difference is that defiling in 4E affects creatures and vegetation, much like Dragon Magic in the original setting. I'm keeping this as part in part to keep the power balanced.

So, what do you think? If you use this at your table, I would love to hear about it.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Let the Game Begin

It's been awhile since we last spoke, but not a lot has happened, so I guess that's okay. I've managed to read through a bulk of the old Dark Sun novels (though not all of them), as well as many of the original source books (I'd guess about 33% of them). All the while I had not been able to come up with a campaign idea.

Instead, I came up with what I believe to be a really cool campaign idea for a homebrew campaign, using the Nentir Vale stuff as a springboard. I've actually got a lot of ideas for that game, with specific encounter ideas and story arcs for all three of 4E's tiers of play. It should be noted that literally none of these ideas fit into Dark Sun as I envision the campaign setting. I presented this to my potential players as an option for when it came time for me to run, but it lost out to Dark Sun (though it was second amongst several options).

So Dark Sun it is. I do have a long-term story idea for the party. The goal will appear to be fairly obvious, but, this being Dark Sun, the end-game is not. I even have a story idea for the heroic tier. I'm still going to mine the 2nd edition adventures heavily for story and encounter ideas. I don't think, however, that I'm going to run the game straight through from 1st level to 30th level. Instead, we're going to skip around.

My current plan is to divide the game into chapters, spreading each chapter over 2-3 gaming sessions (we generally play for roughly 6 hours twice a month). Each tier will be maybe 3 or 4 chapters. This will give us a taste of the Dark Sun world at each tier, but save me from having to force story elements which don't fit the arc. Plus, I think the players tend to prefer paragon tier.

And we've already started. This past weekend (on July 2), I ran my first D&D 4E story-based game (I was able to run a one-shot encounter a month or so ago, but that's much different). We stated out at first level, and I ran the first half of my conversion of "A Little Knowledge" from the original box set. I think it works as an introduction to the world of Athas, though it has little connection to the overall story I have in mind (not necessarily a bad thing, in my humble opinion). Though there were no PC deaths, there was some hurting going on (it is either ridiculously hard to kill PC's in 4E, or it was ridiculously easy in previous editions).

As far as running the game goes, I was quite nervous about the whole thing, and very self-conscious about what I was doing wrong as a DM. I also kept second-guessing myself as to the toughness of the encounters and creatures I was running. However, the players were very forgiving, and I hear with time and experience one usually improves. It is because of this that I think running the Dark Sun campaign before my homebrew story is actually a good thing--the story for that game will be much better with (potentially) dozens of sessions worth of experience.