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.


  1. I like the changes you've made to defiling...but I'll tell you's still not nearly tempting enough. The failure of Defiling in 4e is that it gives you a boost and a penalty, and the penalty is huge by comparison. You fix this somewhat (making the boost a bit better and the penalty a bit lighter) but then add on a new penalty to boot (which makes perfect story sense, but does deter using the ability).

    I see very few times that anyone will use it...if ever, though I appreciate your attempt.

    It vexes me, because I think we're moving along the right track, but we're not quite there and don't know the solution.

    Maybe (and this could be me harkening back to my 2e days) the solution is to make the penalty more randomized. Bring out the old percentile chart to see what happens as a result of your defiling. Sure, most of the time the penalties can be minor so you're encouraged to give it a shot...but when things go bad...they go real bad (like hitting a 100 outright drops one PC and drains their surges...start making death saves).

    Alternatively, and this would make as much story sense, but perhaps be a balance issue...but then again, it would make it tempting...and that's the point keep it as you have it, but don't have it just hurt PCs. Have it hurt all creatures. Hurting my party some doesn't seem all that bad if I'm also hurting the enemies. It never did make sense to me that only your friends had their life drained anyway. It's killing the grass, the birds, the bugs, and your buddy...but the bruiser in front of you is unaffected. Huh? Wha?

    Anyway, random food for thought, I guess...

  2. I actually was thinking about extending the HP drain to all creatures in range, as that does make a lot more sense then the relatively lame 4E explination. I think, though, this would cause too many problems when the enemy starts casting spells.

    I was also thinking about dropping the HP drain entirely, keeping that a part of Dragon magic. Perhaps add the HP drain as a feat or part of the Defiler paragon path and/or Dragon epic destiny. That would keep in-spirit with the original setting much more, I think.

    If I did that, I think I'd drop the bonus to +2 per tier. Creating the defiled terrain is possibly a good enough penalty, as it forces the arcane caster to keep moving during combat if they're going to keep defiling. I had forgotten about the random effects, I may dig that stuff out and take a look.

    The more I think about the second alternatvie, the more I like it...

  3. As Jeff said, I like what you did, but I feel like my players wouldn't be tempted enough. In 2e defiling just meant the plants died and people had life drawn from them...but only enough to cause nausea, which resulted in a penalty to everyone, except the defiler's initiative. To simulate this I made a theme power you can find at my WIzards blog[1]:

    Frivolous Defiling

    By constantly draining the life of those around him the defiler takes advantage of their temporary shock.

    Frivolous Defiling: Each combat round the defiler acts before the combatant that was before him the previous round.

    That was for NPC's, but could be used for PC's too...however I still dont' feel like that's enough.

    I dont have any Preserver PC's so it's not much of an issue. I do have a Templar who technically has arcane powers so they could defile, but she has chosen not to.

  4. We are still playing around with the defiler rules. Last session we went with the changes I mentioned in my previous comment, and I believe the Arcane player was indeed a little more tempted to use defiling, but didn't. By next session I'll have the house rule formaly updated, and we'll see what happens.