Program note: D & D Next was announced today. Of course I have thoughts on it. NewbieDM tells me it is obligatory to post these thoughts. This post is not it. That post will come after the initial wave has passed, perhaps in a week or two. For now, we return to Athas...
Our group had some ideas we wanted to try out which didn't necessarily fit into the story we were telling, so we decided to take a session and run it outside the story as a sort of interlude or flashback. I've heard about this technique many times on various podcasts, and I was itching to give it a shot. This session took place a couple months ago, but I think I remember the more salient points.
I had two story ideas for the interlude, both taking place in the Green Age. One would be a mid-paragon explanation of the egg's origin. The other was a mid-epic tier adventure where the player's characters would play a hand in the destruction of Athas. The feedback I got from the players is that they wanted to go epic, thus we went epic. The entire session was framed as a series of dreams which came to one of the PCs as he guarded the egg on the groups journey to Kurn.
This time I actually was able to prepare, at least a little. I did some digging into Dark Sun canon, and found references to Rajaat conducting experiments with magic and discovers preserving/defiling magic. "Officially" this start the Time of Magic.
In a rare nod to the official 4E multiverse (I'm not a huge fan of "Feywild", "Shadowfell" and the rest of 4E's backstory for the worlds), I decided that for our Athas, the Arcane, Divine, and Primal power sources functioned pretty much as described in the 4E books before this time. Further, I decided that it was around this time that Rajaat opened the world to a more direct contact with the Elemental Chaos. This all happens roughly 8200 years before the current year in Athas.
I was able to use this to give us a backstory for our epic level PC's. The contact with the Elemental Chaos manifested as an affliction upon the world, with the PC's being more affected then others. It was their life-long quest to seal this rift, healing the world of the affliction. Rajaat also wanted the rift sealed, as he had discovered a way to not only gain more control over his magic by doing so, but also to cut power to some of his most powerful adversaries. He groomed the five PC's to implement his plan.
I also dug out of the Athasian timeline (one can be found at http://athas.org/events) that "an unknown disaster befalls the city of Celik, which casts it into ruins" some two or three hundred years after I had decided Rajaat opened the rift. I don't know if there's a canon reason for the disaster, but I decided it would be the PC's fault.
Below Celik was a natural formation known as the Celestial Focus. Their guides to the focus were Ferger and Stev (yes, the same two brothers that the party meets nearly 8000 years later), who conveniently disappeared before the action started. Most of what followed I came up with on the spot, and am actually kind of proud of it.
The encounter took place in a huge room, divided into four quadrants with a large column in each. The center of the room was a large bowl into the ground with a platform hanging in the middle, level with the rest of the room. The group had been given a ritual to cast once in the room to activate the Focus. They only had the resources to attempt one casting of the ritual. During the casting, one PC had to stay in each quadrant, and one in the center bowl.
And of course they were attacked. Again using my On-The-Fly Reskinning Skillz(TM), I grabbed three different cratures from the monster books, making two elemental artillery (air and water), two elemental brutes (earth and fire), and a single elemental leader in the middle (a combination of each). I don't remember which three creatures I re-skinned, just that they were a few levels higher then the party. In order to keep the ritual going at least three PC's had to give up one action per round. More would help speed things up, but each PC could only contribute one action per round.
I set a number, I think it was 35 or 40 (players did not know the target number), that they had to beat by rolling a d20 each round and adding the total number of actions contributed to the pot. Though there was really no hope for them to reach it in the first few rounds, I had them roll anyway to get them in the habit and keep them guessing as to what they were rolling for. Comically, they rolled miserably for many, many rounds.
I think the combat played out well. The players (and their characters) were challenged by having to be spread out as necessitated by the ritual's requirements. For the leader, a d4 was rolled each round to determine damage type. I decided if one of the single elements was forced into the bowl, the leader and the elemental would get a healing surge, and the elemental would be forced back to its beginning square (but an elemental could not willingly enter the bowl). The players almost tested this, but ultimately decided to change their tactics.
They did try to force one elemental into another’s quadrant, but I had already determined that the boundary blocked all movement for the elementals, though they could attack upto their reach on the other side.
Eventually the heroes vanquished a few of the baddies, and finished the ritual casting, which got rid of the rest. It also brought the emergence of aspects of the Mind Lords who were hell-bent on stopping them from completing the last step, something I threw in at the last minute. The players decided to complete the ritual rather then fight the aspects (which was my intention).
The last step was for one PC to step into each of the elemental pillars, and one to stand on the middle platform. That was almost a problem as this epic-level group had very little which allowed them to travel through the air. But they managed to do this before the aspects got in their way.
On our Athas, activating the Celestial Focus is what destroyed the town above (Celik). More than that, it sealed Athas off completely from the Divine power source, as well as the other planes, and changed Arcane so that only preserving/defiling-style magic worked. The timeline notes that "Survivors [of Celik's destruction] blame the ordeal on the reckless use of psionics." This is due to the involvement of the Aspects of the Mind Lords.
It was in this session that it started to dawn on me that I should let go of canon when it got in the way of telling the story our group was creating. It is the next session which brought that realization all the way home. But that's another post...