Yeah, I know, I dropped the ball on this whole "blogging" thing. Good thing I don't claim to be a professional. I have still been running the Dark Sun mini-campagin, but haven't kept you all up-to-date. The good news is I've got at least three articles in the works after this one. What follows below was half written back in September when we played the sessions in question, though I've edited and finished it now, three months later...
It is time once again to tackle the harsh world of Athas. I hadn't been able to set aside dedicated time to prepare, but I have been trying to think of some ideas. It got to the point were I looked at my 8 yo daughter in despair and said "Daddy doesn't have any ideas for his game; his friends are gonna be mad." She immediately offered up "how about a dragon?" to which I smiled and went on with the day.
Later she brought me an index card of "Idias" (her spelling is almost as bad as her fathers) with four items: Dragon, Regular Men, Monsters, and Dinosaurs (my daughter hasn't been properly introduced to Dark Sun just yet).
This actually got me thinking.
Aside from enemies to dispose of, I also needed a location. At the end of chapter two the characters had been banished from Tyr, but chapter three starts at least a year and several levels later. As I didn't have a lot of time to plan a bunch of NPC's, I wanted to avoid a city setting. Lately I've been playing around with a terrain generation program called TerraRay (Mac only, can be found in the Mac App Store). I've generated several scenes, including some set on Athas. This also got me thinking.
I also needed goals. I know the epic tier is going to be about the future of Athas, with the characters trying to secure a better one. I've got a few of the elements for the two chapters which comprise the epic tier already sketched out. But what about paragon tier? In order to secure the future of Athas, the PC's are going to need to know about it's past. This got me thinking some more.
A plan was actually coming together.
Dragons. There are very few actual dragons in Dark Sun, with the most infamous being the Boris, Dragon of Tyr. On Athas, dragons are 30+ level creatures which are the result of a metamorphosis (usually starting as a human) brought on by a powerful combination of arcane and Psionic power. All of the sorcerer-kings are (or were) on this path. The players need to know about the history of the sorcerer-kings. Dragon: check.
Regular Men. Easy, the PC's are regular men. Regular Men: check.
Monsters. Again, monsters are easy. They're everywhere on Athas. Monsters: check.
Dinosaurs. Interpreted as in "relics of the past" rather then the T-Rex variety that my daughter was likely thinking of. A very important part of the history of Athas was the cleansing wars. Each sorcerer-king was tasked by Rajaat to eradicate one (or more) of the races common to Athas at the time. Gallard (who became Nibenay, sorcerer-king of that city) was to wipe out the gnomes; Keltis (now Oronis, sorcerer-king of Kurn) the lizard men. The PC's will experience a part of this. Dinosaurs: check.
Location. I named one of the landscapes I rendered "Mysteries of the Green Age". The cleansing wars brought about the end of the green age, but the world is dotted by the remains of this ancient history. I decided this ruined temple would make a great setting for these plans to come together. So I opened the file in TerraRay again, put the camera directly over the scene, and created an image which I then added a grid to, and printed out as a battle mat. Location: check.
[[NOTE: Material after this point was written in December]]
So how did this all play out? Pretty good, if I do say so myself. We started the first of the two sessions out with the PC's (i.e., "regular men") having been traveling through the desert (on kanks with no names) for many months when they encountered, and assimilated into the group, a new PC (another "regular man") who believes the world literally talks to him in many different voices inside his head (okay, maybe not "regular").
From there they stumbled upon an oasis by following a set of tracks, where they met a group of lizard men, which are thought to be long extinct (i.e., "dinosaurs"). Fortunately rather then fight the lizard men, the PC's broke bread with them and got direction on where to head. Unfortunately this is yet another example of my biggest "on-the-fly" weakness: linear a-to-b-to-c story chasing.
They were directed to Varat's Temple, the place where the last gnome was killed. As the PC's drew nearer, they kept seeing flashes of that last battle, where the last of the gnomes tried to defend the temple along with some of their lizard folk allies from the armies of Gallard & Keltis. Upon reaching the ruined temple they were faced with some monsters: the cacti in the image were all zombie cacti.
I don't remember if I reskinned the stats here, or if I used SlyFlourish's DM's encounter cheat sheet, but I do remember I made one mistake: they were all stationary. Luckily this didn't prove to be a huge problem. PCs being PCs, they killed anything that looked killable. This provided the big battle of the night.
During the battle the PCs kept getting the flashes of the ancient conflict. They also saw Athas as it was back then, before the end of Cleansing Wars when the toll of unchecked defiling started to become prevalent.
One of the players missed that first session of the chapter, but made it to the second. Instead of hand-waving his character in, I outlined how he had somehow got sucked into this past as a passive observer many months ago, and had seen the battle from beginning to end over and over. This allowed me to hand narrative control over to the player, as I told him his character had seen this battle far more often then I had. I hope to do more similar to this in the future.
The PCs were sucked into the bodies of the last standing defenders. I had each roll a d6 to determine if they were in a gnome (1-5) or lizard folk (6) body. Half of them rolled sixes, go figure. This was to be the gnome's story, as the last of the lizard folk were not killed in this battle, but it's all good. To keep things moving quickly I ruled that they had the same class abilities, but their racial powers were switched with those of the body they inhabited. This is how I got my TPK, as the odds were about 600 to one against the PCs.
As each avatar was killed, the PCs jumped into a body of a soldier near the sorcerer-kings, and were able to observe Gallard ceremoniously execute the last gnome using a ritual which pulled in all the spirits of the recently deceased gnomes and trapping them under the spot where that middle cactus rests. As the scene faded away and the PCs returned to their own bodies, the gnomes cried out to them to be freed.
The final battle occurred as they dug up the artifact which contained the gnome spirits. I forgot exactly how I described it, but they were attacked by a reskinned dracolich (dragon, bingo). When they finally did free the gnomes, I explained how the spirits swirled around them, imbuing them with knowledge and wisdom (i.e., leveling them up from 11 to 16, along with some of their equipment), but also giving them each a visible and obvious physical gnomish trait. They also whispered "the Mind Lords" as they faded away, which was supposed to be their direction for the next chapter, but I flubbed that. (More on that in the next installment).
I believe my players had an enjoyable time. As I looked down at the index card of "idias" my daughter gave me and check each one off: dragon, regular men, monsters, and dinosaurs; I smiled. I think I may be getting the hang of running things on-the-fly, at least the basics...