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Archive for June, 2010

Poisonous grasping sands

Week 4 of DnD encounters began with the trek through the desert at night. The sun went down fast, and travel continued in relative comfort for awhile until the coolness turned to cold. They rested for a meal and subtracted their daily survival ration, and each character rolled for the sessions group endurance check. They passed the challenge, and were ready to continue on their way. The party was made up of 4 tonight: Castri, Phye, and a pair of Thri Kreen, Shikirr and PakCha (from Free Rpg Day – Bloodasnd Arena.) Each of whom led the party for one hour through whatever terrain lay ahead. Jarvik and Barcan (the two Veiled Alliance characters) straggled behind.

Phye took the lead first and had to pass through a region of sharp rocks using acrobatics to navigate safely. Next up was Castri, who had to cross a plain riddled with pits and holes hidden by the wind-blown sifting sand. His high perception allowed him to find the safe path. Next up Shikirr needed to navigate an area of steep dunes through soft sand. Only sheer endurance could forge the path through those desert waves, but Shikirr managed, leading to the next Thri Kreen, whose turn to lead was through an area where the desert was melted into glass and then shattered. His heal skill allowed him to locate the most dangerous areas, and to bind any cuts along the way.

When the shattered plain of glass was past, they heard the calling of a dwarf and met Rollo. Upon mention of an obsidian storm, he reveals that the Wastewalker is known to call upon storms and that he hates arcane magic. He makes a hand signal of recognition to the Veiled alliance characters, then sounds the alarm of approaching danger. Suddenly it seems like the desert itself rises up to attack them. The dwarf cringes and soon perishes.

The dust devils go first in the surprise round, followed by the elf and then the shaman. But even before that, the battlemind gets to rush forward to confront one of the dust devils before it has a chance to move. The dust devil retaliates by lashing out at Shikirr, wounding him and sending him into the edge of the quiksilt (quicksand) pool, where he is attacked (+4 vs Reflex.) Shikirr is restrained in quicksilt. The next dust devil flies into the crowd and knocks each of them prone. Next to go is the ranger who attacks while laying on the ground, but misses. The shaman sends his spirit companion adjacent to the battlemind.

On round one, the dust devil adjacent to the party took damage reducing it to bloodied, attacked by Castri, Phye, and PakCha, while Shikirr fought his way out of the quicksilt and attacked the dust devil nearest him. Then the dust devils went, and each of them blew up. The first scouring sandblast did 15 pts of damage to everyone, while the second blast hit almost no one, as I rolled my 2nd and 3rd natural 1 of the night. Nonetheless by the end of round 1, everyone was in the single digits of HPs. And blinded.

It was at this point, 1st to go on round 2, that the Reptilian Priest made his appearance. (It is here, dear reader, that we will discover the major maistake that I the humble and often mumble-headed dm has made for the evening.) I mis-read the encounter power as being a close burst, so instead he cast his standard attack, and damaged one of the thrikreen. I soon realized my mistake and next round he made up for it.

The dust devils came around again, and the bloodied devil hit Phye, knocking her unconcious into the other quicksilt pool. Phye was healed by Shikirr before Phyes turn came around, and managed to escape the clutches of the deadly restraining silt. It may have been Castri who dealt the killing blow to the first dust devil when rolled a 1 and used the weapon breakage rule to hit and kill it, but it was Castri or Phye both of whom bore the brunt of that whirling dervish of slicing bloody destruction. Another round of action and the Voodoo Lizard cast his poisonous burst. Both Castri and Phye were taking ongoing damage. Phye had to spend more healing and was out of healing surges, with 3-5 hp left and taking ongoing 5. Phye went down. Castri had 2 hps. Then the Lizardman shaman went down, slain by his rival PakCha the shaman.

2nd dead elf ranger

The second dust devil accepted an opportunity attack from Shikirr and charged the ranger. He hit, with a critical, and did 13 pts of damage. This blow instantly slew Castri, knocking him below his negative bloodied value. One more dead elf. It is becoming an addiction, I tell you.

That attack was the swan song of the last bloody remaining enemy, and he too was soon slain by the combined efforts of the two standing members, the mantis warriors. While Castri was outright flattened, Phye suffered a worse fate, unconcious and out of healing surges, the ardent must have an extended rest before coming round, which is impoossible while on the run from the tribes of lizardmen and a sentient storm of obsidian which has already wrought catastrophic destruction, and now chases the survivors of that ill-fated caravan through the dry dry desert. Another day begins as the Dark Sun rises…

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Since Harrowing Halls Dungeon Tiles set made its debut in spring of 2010, I have been experimentally adding various 3d enhancements to our Friday night battles. With the second set of elements included in Desert of Athas, even more options become available, as I will attempt to show in this article.

The tiles themselves come on a pair of the same thick cardboard stock as the regular tiles, and inter-lock with dove-tailing grooves and slots. They are complicated, fiddly, and can take awhile to assemble. There are no instructions, other than a scene showing them all assembled. Luckily, like all problems in modern life, a quick search on the webs will turn up some help with construction of these tiles. I found that in the Harrowing Halls set, the joints were slightly loose. Door jambs and stair treads slip off, or the tops of the larger pieces pop off when picking up or moving them. I resolved this issue with small amounts of Elmers Glue.

With Desert of Athas, the opposite was true. They tried to fix the loose problem of the first set but have gone a bit too far, because some of the pieces were difficult to fit together. (I know, never satisfied…) I even bent one or two items by applying too much force. In the end, they all worked, and I wont be needing glue any time soon. I would say for the traveling DM, the Desert of Athas tiles will hold together better since they are tighter. One other thing I noticed is that the table leg missing on the first set is present in the second, thus enabling the completion of that last table from Harrowing Halls.

The party begins the battle surrounded: Kalarel at the dais, The wight at the other end, and 8 skeletons all around.



One of my earliest uses of 3d tiles was to enhance the (slightly modified) final encounter in Keep on the Shadowfell.

This was the first major use of the 3d tiles for us, which so happened to accord with the grand finale of our first 4e adventure. I changed the way the stairs to Kalarel were set up, and added chain chompers, because every encounter can benefit from chain chompers. I also made the steep stairs difficult terrain, and lots of barbarian combat took place on those stairs as the battle unfolded. The rest of the action took place in and around the chains and tentacles, but the over-all affect of the window dressing really made for an awesome looking encounter. With movement more of a focus in 4e combat, showing the height perspective can help create more dynamic, and therefore dramatic encounters. Falling plays a more important role when pushing or leaping. Difficult terrain is also enhanced, as is my own house-rule of having a +1 high ground advantage, as proved in Star Wars Revenge of the Sith.

This perspective makes battles on stairs especially fun, as it focuses many of these rules into tricky situations. Difficult terrain, mixed with the chance to fall prone or be injured (barked shin damage type) on a failed acrobatics check to navigate rickety stairs while in combat, mean that charging up stairs toward an enemy prepared is often like trying to assault a fortified position. I dont rule that all stairs are this deadly, only steep, damaged, or slick stairs need cause so much grief. In other words, dms should not use the 3d aspect of the tiles as a cudgel against players, but should coax them into accepting and valuing the tactical opportunities that this new dimension adds to the encounter.

What in the name of all that is holy is that?

Here is a recreation of the battle with the elite globe of mayhem from Encounters Week 7. This usage of stairs as a serious impediment first showed up in Dungeons and Dragons Encounters: Season 1 Undermountain Week 7. Throughout the encounter that night, those stairs played an important role, and it was great fun. The addition of difficult, dangerous terrain is a great achievement for 4e, and now with 3d elements, we can better represent the battlefield to take advantage of those elements.

Further stairway themed ideas I would like to try out would be to get at least 6 stairway sets together, hopefully more, to form a grand stair style battle. Also, I have tried many different varieties of the winding staircase in or outside a tower, but these jenga-style contraptions eat up so many sets that with 3 Harrowing Halls and 1 Desert of Athas I still havent gotten above 3 tiers without some serious suspension of disbelief required.

D&D Encounters: Undermountain Week 1

In another play session, I recreated the first week of Encounters, which featured a back alley brawl behind the Yawning Portal. The walls were added for dramatic affect, while the key terrain features of the encounter were a rickety, dangerous bridge over a rocky section of open sewer. This encounter was especially fun to play, as it featured a lot of falling and being knocked off the edges into a sewer. The reason that I mention these are recreations is because I have not taken 3d tiles to Encounter Wednesday, due mostly to being worried about transporting them. I have begun bringing a minimum of paraphernalia to the sessions, and these would take up valuable space in my plastic minis box. While weight is definitely not an issue, they are bulky and cumbersome. I could see carrying a few sets worth around in a paper sack for example.

The idea of taking them apart for transpor, possible sliding the pieces into envelopes, then assembling them as required upon arrival might be another solution. In this case, one of those multi-dividing folders might be a great way to carry them. Have the players assemble them, it can be the first riddle of the night. I think, over time, they would become too loose with over-use, so I prefer to store them assembled. They can stack, assembled, on a shelf or mantle nicely, then toss the bits and pieces into one of the upside down big pieces.

Overall, Harrowing Halls provides a great set of basic 3d options for the edification of encounters. With stairs and building blocks, along with some small tables and doors, it is also worthwhile to purchase more than one set, as all of them can be used in a multitude of ways. These 3d tiles are a must have for those of us who like the tactical quality of battles. But how do the non 3d tiles from Harrowing Halls stack up?

Tara swings from the beholder by the hilt of the Spirit Knife as Thokk looks on immobilized.

Here we see the party in the infamous Inn of the Welcome Wench

The Harrowing Halls set is an excellent addition to any dungeon tiles collection, with its wooden-floored urban theme. Using these various room tiles, such as sleeping chambers, studies, dining rooms, and tavern floors, it is possible to create an infinite number of civilized or urban floorplans. With three sets of Harrowing Halls, I could lay out an entire mansion, or even a small neighborhood setting. These tiles are brilliant and a welcome addition to the line up of possible locales. 3 sets might actually be overkill, but I wanted the 3d sets, and at 10-12 bucks a pop, storage is a more important factor than cost, but that is a discussion for another day, lets just say that you should find the plastic bin or tub system that is right for you.

So the Harrowing Halls set was a great success from every angle, both horizontally and verticaly. I cannot recommend it enough for anyone who is a fan of Dungeon Tiles. The set also seems to mesh well with older tile sets, including the Sinister Woods set to make rustic mansions in the wilderness, a la Chateau D Amberville.

Whether it was restaint or the imminent release of Desert of Athas that kept me from buying a 4th Harrowing Halls set I will never know (it was that good) but I am, as of this writing, the proud owner of 2 Desert of Athas sets, and i plan on giving them both a good work out in the weeks and months to come.

Its 3d elements were different than the previous set. It included a 4×4 square hut or block, along with a short and long dock or bridge, and another stair. The unique items this time around were the wagon and the fruit sellers stand. Both of these look slightly odd translated into the 1 inch square size, but I have had great success with the wagon, and the fruit seller will surely make an appearance at the next market.

I recently I used the tiles to create a wizards tower, with a flying buttress observatory to one side. This was intended to be an epic battle, and during the encounter, the tower itself was ripped from its mooring to go wildly teetering through a dimensional rift. The bridge and wagon from Athas can be seen in this poorly lighted snapshot.

This encounter has been the culmination of an attempt to get as tall a jenga-like structure as possible, and it is 4 stories, or 40 feet high at the tallest point. Originally it was going to be one structure but I changed to the flying buttress with a courtyard underneath at the last minute and to good affect.

My biggest mistake while playing this encounter was forgetting that the shifter, who was guarding on the bridge, would have been able to see the White Rose and Company enter the courtyard. This is a good example how the new layers of perspective can complicate matters, and make for dumb mistakes. Another thing to look out for are the rules questions which arise when calculating range or burst area affects. I try to rule without going into details of height, i.e a diagonal line is the same distance whether going across the map or up or down. Another way to put it would be to give the example of an enemy hovering 4 squares directly above a PC versus the same enemy 4 square up and 4 squares over. Still a range of 4 squares, finit.

More recently I have been experimenting with creating an encounter at a ruined tower in the desert of Dark Sun. This grainy hideous pic taken with my new phone (my phone tells me that I spend at least 95 percent of my time in low light conditions, strict phone!) shows off some tower ruins among the dunes from Athas. This picture shows off some of the rocky desert terrain tiles of 4e, and you also see the grass-turning to sand tiles at the near edge.

The 3 affects in the Desert of Athas are interesting but have fewer building blocks than the Harrowing Halls had. Instead they focus more on niche items, bridges, carts, and wagons, and an excellent sarcophagus. The old standards include a stair and a 4-square cube. Now I have 4 stairs so I am happy (edited to say 5 stairs total now with my second, and most likely final Desert of Athas set.)

A view of most of what the set has to offer

This brings us to the issue of the Desert of Athas 2d tiles, and how they stack up. There are a lot of great things to say about them, but first I must air a personal gripe. The fact that the only large tile has stones on both sides, rather than one side being solid dunes, is a real pain. It is almost impossible to make a large swath of rubble-free desert, and this is due to the fact that there is only a single large tile, and that both sides of it are devoted to big chunks of rock. Now then, what else can we say about the tiles?

The fact that they managed to make a set that can be used for desert, for water, and even for a beach with water-to-desert-to-grass is quite impressive. However the optimization of what they included, as far as the flat pieces are concerned, seems to favor the acquisition of multiple sets to truly lay out a battle map of appropriate size for an encounter, and this is only exacerbated by the lack of a large swath of open desert. I strongly urge getting two sets of tiles for any serious desert-dwelling; you will need them for appropriately large settings. After all, deserts are wide open. Lots of LOS – if it werent for the 400 ton chunks of obsidian everywhere.

Each of these sets were made with two packages of desert tiles. It greatly expands the range of possibilities, or I should clarify, it gives those ideas a proper amount of space for a reasonable encounter area. Here we have a beach assault prepared, complete with fortress ruins waiting to repel any invading force.

Next we see another ruined stronghold in the desert, its protective but crumbling walls embracing a hidden oasis. There is a certain vibe happening with the scenes I have built with this new set. The desert theme, obviously, but maybe it is the Dark Sun I have been playing recently, I am seeing lots of ruined walls and half-buried wizard towers.

Another feature of this tile set is that is partially compatible with the Dire Tombs, with the 3d elements being of the same yellow sandstone look. In fact, before I got my second set, in order to get my large swaths of blistering desert, I have used one of the many large tiles included in Dire Tombs set to fill out the desert. I will end this with one last photo showing the maximum size of open desert using the open desert tiles from 2 Desert of Athas tile sets. The map is 60 ft x 90 ft, or 12×18 squares. Using the rocky tiles it would be possible to get a much larger area. Also I suppose one might stack open tiles on top of rock tiles to get the open look, but I try to avoid that messiness.

The Desert of Athas tile set was not as mind-blowingly awesome as Harrowing Halls was when it arrived, but then the whole idea of 3d tiles was new. Now that I have incorporated the mentality into my game, I was expecting more from Desert of Athas. On the other hand, I am a huge fan of Dark Sun, and plan on spending many encounters in the scorching desert of Athas, so the tiles are a god-send to me and my campaign.

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Dark Sun art by Silverblade

The Lords and ladies of Shadowdale awoke in the desert with a crimson sun burning down from directly overhead. Around them were the bits of rubble and debris, all that was left of the Wizards Guild Tower. Amongst the party of adventurers, only a few favored few items survived the trip from one world to another. Poppy opened her eyes to find the greatsword of her recent foe, Ninarens sister White Rose, erstwhile captain of the Black Company stabbed into the ground near her. With a silent oath of vengeance, Poppy took up the sword and her elven wisdom bade her forget the bow in favor of the blade. With naught to cover her pinkening skin but her magic cape and gloves, she began a new phase in her short wild life.

Thokk held his axe and wore his magic armour, but his exposed skin was blackening and giving off a corrupting steam. Felipe, the pink panther lady, could not be separated from her quested set of panther magic, but it took all she had to retain them. Tara held the spirit knife, her armour, and her prized lions, Glimmer and Glamor. Molly, so maddeningly thoughtless on the outside, was nonetheless able to hold onto the most items, keeping her spell book, her magic cloak, her chalk, and her well made suit of leather adventuring attire.

After searching the area, Poppy found a banner of the White Rose, which would help them survive the heat of this desert. Felipe looked around, and saw the faintest line of mountains far to the west, 2-5 days away. Tara found the two halves of the sundered ruby, and as he held them near to each other, Tara received a psychic message. Solve the Riddle of Dark Sun by uncovering the 8 truths of the world of Athas to unlock the ninth, and the ruby shall be mended.

Far in the distance they saw dark shapes moving towards them and decided they must move towards the mountains. It was a hard decision to make, but they knew they had to seek shelter, and more important, water, before their time ran out. They were in a section of large dunes, and Poppy and Molly used their cantrips to help cool and protect the party as they crossed the wasteland, Felipe forging the way with sheer endurance. After an hour, Tara took over the lead. Eventually they came to an area of slopes with deep cracks and crevices, but the elf led them to the top until she too became exhausted in the process and Thokk, burning to a blackened crisp, he led them across the table-like mesa at the top of the slopes. The stone was pitted and pocked with holes hidden by the shifting sands, but his natural athletics saw them through a safe path.

This was the hottest part of the day, late afternoon, and the temperature reached 150 degrees. Each of them was threatened with sun sickness, but Molly was the first to succumb. Her head was swimming and she was in too much pain to recover.

The sun finally set, and for a few dusky hours they seemed to make real progress towards the mountains. The flat mesa seemed without end and all night they walked until the temperature had dropped so far that they began to shiver with the cold. As the sun rose, they knew that they could not survive another night like that without aid. Early in the morning a line of brown appeared to the eat, and a sandstorm was roaring towards them. They saw some rocks ahead and made towards them for shelter.

More Dark Sun art by Silverblade

They entered a narrow canyon through tall rocks, and as the sky overhead darkened Felipe caught a glimpse of green and felt the presence of life ahead. The ranger sent his lion ahead to scout and saw a tall fruit bearing tropical tree surrounded by the steep canyon walls. Around it the dust and sand seemed to swirl like a protective dust devil. Felipe went forward and saw there was a face of a beutiful woman, elvish or human perhaps, formed by the swirling sands.

The rest of the party came forward and as they did, the face sent out a psychic message, Sacrifice and be rewarded ten fold. Tara knew what to do and went forward and pricked her finger with her dagger until the blood ran into the sand near the plant. When enough blood flowed a fruit shook and fell to the sand to roll to Taras feet. It was rich and juicy and give her sustenance to survive another day in the desert. Soon everyone had their fruit and they went on as the storm passed.

The sun reached its second zenith since their arrival when they felt a distant rumble in the earth and soon saw a huge herd of animals bearing down on them. They looked like enourmous long necked reptiles with small heads, and long thick legs, and the party was directly in their path. There were at least a thousand of these behemoths. The Druid cast her flaming circle and the party huddled behind it, Poppy and Molly once again using their presidigitation to good affect, causing sparks to swirl and flash above the fire to increase its appearance of danger to the lumbering beasts. Thokk and Tara meanwhile stood to either side and flashed their arms and armour to intimidate the beasts from coming too close.

As the last of the beasts ran past, they met the horned behemoths that started the stampede. Above the four armour plated dinosaurs soared a large skinwing behemoth, with claws and beak large enough to rend, grasp and flay. Thokk charged a behemoth before he could be charged, and proceeded to hack away with his axe against two of them. The druid unleashed a insect hoarde that damaged three of the horned horrors, and she was gored by one as a result. The last behemoth charged Poppy and was soon beheaded by the Swod of the White Rose. Molly was next to go, and as she cast a Fire Shield about her, everyone nearby was wracked with sudden intense pain. The behemoths bellowed an pain and rage, while the heroes held their stomachs and gasped. Everyone but Molly, who felt nothing but the surge of magic.

As Molly wove her magic, she was unaware of the diving skinwing, which grasped her in its claws, suffering the burst of magic flame as it pulled her aloft by the shoulders. Soon Molly was forty feet above the desert sands and the skinwing continued to struggle upwards. She wriggled free and fell back to the sound, winded and almost unconscious by the fall.

The lions charged forward to attack the the second behemoth threatening Thokk, as the ranger went to Mollys aid. The skinwing landed and Poppy, who had just finished off the first of the horned behemoths, charged it. She was bitten savagely but soon it too was added to the corpses laid at Poppys naked feet.

Thokk, Felipe, and Tara each fought and slew their behemoths. They each then feasted on the precious liquid blood of the slain beasts and as the buzzards began to circle overhead, they made a sled out of the skinwings wings to carry a supply of meat and bones. For an hour they dragged their sled across the sands to get away from the sight of so much carnage, and as the hottest part of the day arrived, they made a rude lean-to out of their meagre supplies to wait out the day. Each of them was now suffering from sun-sickness, but Molly took a turn for the worst. Poppy knew that a damp cloth over her forhead and eyes would help, and for an hour Molly lay with a steaming slab of dinosaur over her face, until the dizziness finally went away. After 36 hours without rest, they needed shelter. It was time to continue towards the mountains, which were four impossible days away.

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Kill the humanoids!

The heat of summer is upon us, and it is a fitting accompaniment to Dark Sun. The heat shimmering off the pavement helped recall the shimmering oases and other optical illusions of the deep deserts of Dark Sun. However, in our cool dungeon beneath Game Cafe, we were insulated against the worst of the element above, and were able instead to use our imaginations and have our characters suffer through the agonizing march across a desert towards elusive mountains in the far distance. Like a dream long-held, like unrequited love, the dark line of mountains shimmering on the horizon were always in sight but never any closer.

So began Dark Sun Encounters Week 3. We had another full table, all six PCs were being played and one extra. The PCs were played by a regular rotating group of 8 or 9 players, one of whom brought a guest, M, a first time player who took up the character of the twin sister of the sorceress Barcan. Together Barcan and her twin sister Barcans Twin were quite the duo blazing away with fiery spells.

The adventure continued with their trek across the desert, to the aforementioned Ringing Mountains. The afternoon became the hottest part of the day with the temperature reaching 150 degrees. It became difficult to travel, and each PC had to make an Endurance check as they crossed a flat plateau of baked desert. On of the sisters failed her endurance check, but the other passed and was able to take her arm and help her cross the wasteland. Then the thri kreen shaman (Paksha from Free RPG day) also failed, but his extra limbs helped drag himself across the last few sand dunes of that long table. It was a group success, and after that, we went to the individual part of the desert survival skill challenge.

For this, I went around the room, and each player rolls a d20 to see what the desert is like during his hour-long shift in command of the march. It started with Phye, who had to cross an area where the plants had sharp edges. He used perception to find the true path thru. This led to Castri who had to traverse an area where the plants had changed to purplish color and were poisonous spike. He used his nature to know that he could turn the points up to prevent harm. Jarvix had to cross an area of steep slopes, but each one led to twisting and sometimes ended, requiring backtracking. This led to an extra hour spent finding the correct path up the slopes of the foothills of the Ringing mountains.

At the top, the guest sorceress took over the lead as the band of survivors crossed a long flat table of shifting sands. The shifting could cause dangerous falls, but she led them through with success, however, the rising winds from the shifting sands turned into a sudden sandstorm that came out of nowhere and the sister sorceress who we still call Midget led the party through it with success. The storm however had kicked up a swarm of terrible insects which bored into the skin to lay there eggs, and it was up to the thri kreen shaman to heal the party, which he did. The desert had not yet defeated them and they were entering an area of tall rocks and ahead they saw a bush bearing luscious fruits. It was a very fine tree nestled betwixt protecting rocks which allowed it to thrive and grow its shapely limbs and supple bark.

Just as the party stepped up to the tree to shake down its fruit, they heard a maniacal laugh from above and behind them. It was a dark skinned desert humanoid. Ha ha, give us your food and water and we will let you live! he screamed.

The party was not afraid of this posturing desert people. They tried to bluff, that they were no threat, and the humanoid agreed to take only half their food. They tried the diplomatic approach that they cold share the tree, but the robed creature in primitive bone armor replied it was his tribes tree, and they would fight to protect it. Finally the fighter Yuka tired of the argument and drew his short sword to threaten the precious plant. He rolled a 1.

That meant one thing. Time for initiative. It was on.

The battle began with the humanoids, who revealed themselves from concealed locations atop other spires of rock. Two stepped forward with strange wings made of rib bones of large beats, and he had small perpetual dust devil swirling about them. This enabled them to fly overhead and shoot their short bows down at the sorc sisters, which they did, repeatedly. The sisters replied by blasting one of the archers with their fiery rays and burning hands. The fight was grim and Barcan the first ended up with an arrow in each shoulder, and the other took at least one hit. She was also damaged when she set the brambleweed alight, forcing the flyer to leave his perch. Burning brambles fell on her, and the other sorceress was hurt when the goblin was killed while directly above her. She failed to leap clear of his descent. 1d6 in each case.

The ardent had surmounted the main tower of stone to find a second curser out of view from below. It held in one hand a bone knife, while in the other it held a thong of leather with a bowl on one end fashioned out of the top of a skull. It was a skull bowl. He turned his back on him to focus on the first curser, still wildly casting his curses at the sisters while brandishing a black obsidian spear above his head. The spear was noticeable for the dripping fizzing fluid that seemed to constantly ooze from it.

Meanwhile, there was a spiretop drake on the loose, and it managed to snag a days ration from the ardent with a loop of rope, before flying from rock to rock and harrying the enemy. He landed on the main rock next to the curser after a couple fly-bys. One of the minions did a mad charge off the rock to attack Castri at the base of the cliff before landing prone. The other minion took the safe way and spent its turn climbing down. Yuka charged and slew this one, the chain of his primitive weapon wrapping about the neck of his foe. With a tug, the head came free, and just as it was being wrenched the curser screamed Do your duty to the tribe! and the minion blew up, showering Yuka with blood, guts, bone shards, and gore. Blood stained Yuka avoided damage from the explosion, and might felt a bit of relief from the shower.

The next minion exploded when Castri went, who first threw a dagger at the curser on the rock before charging the minion. It too remembered its duty to the tribe, and soon Castri joined Yuka being bathed in red while avoiding any bone-shard damage. Castri went on to hurl his precious few daggers at the other flying humanoid. He used all his daggers and in one final act, he scooped up the largest rock he could find and hurled it. The rock struck the desert dweller square on the head and sent it falling backwards. Onto an even bigger, sharper rock which cracked its head like a melon.

Jarvix was dueling with the curser, and each threw curses at the other. They made each other cry. But when the Cursers saw the arcane magic of the sister sorc, he commanded all his troops to slay them, by command of the Wastewalker. This didnt work out well for him, who had a coiling spirit snake of the shaman Paksha constantly tickling the back of his neck with its forked tongue. He was bitten numerous times, but never gave up his curses on the sorceresses. Until he died, which he did.

Paksha the shaman was no novice to battle, and with insect precision the mantis man calmly stood back and cast his summonings to the most tactical positions. Then like a general staring down at a battle mat, he would point to this ally or that, this spirt or that, and would grant them the power they needed most, whether to bolster their flagging will, or to harm their enemies with savage attacks. The controller was in control.

Yuka meanwhile climbed the main rock and grabbed the drake about the neck and started throttling it. It was sinewy though, and it managed to escape his grab, even stealing his short sword out of its scabbard while it did so. But it was hit from behind by another crazy arc of fire from the wild fire woman and it fell dead, second victim of the blazing magic fire. Yuka turned his attention on the curser, and with the ardent, first to surmount that summit, they slew the cursers and the battle came to an end. Treasure was handed out, and everyone survived.

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A hands on with the free Dark Sun preview adventure Bloodsand Arena.

This past Saturday marked Free RPG Day which I celebrated at the local store I frequent on Wednesday Encounters nights. I had agreed to DM the adventure Bloodsand Arena for the event, and it turned out to be a great time for us, and for the whole store. There were multiple games going on, including a catch up Encounters session 1&2 DM-ed by the owner, and other full tables of games. I believe there might have been a Legend of the Five Rings game and possibly Warhammer among others. We played (most of) the first half of the module in about 3 hours of play time.

The players were made up of 4 DnDers from Encounters Wednesday, one of whom was a fellow Dm at one of our multiple tables. This excellent lady is a true hero. New to the game, on the first night of Encounters season 1, when the store was a packed mad-house, she stepped up and took on the mantle of Dm. That takes courage, and her success shows she has awesome dm skills as well. Her son was another player. Then there was a player from my Encounters group, who had just discovered Dnd and this was his 3rd time playing. His 2nd time playing was this past Encounters Week 2, where he was mercilessly targeted due to his arcane nature. The next was a player from the table of the DM who also works at the store and organizes all the Dnd events. Rounding out our party were my wife and 13 yr old son, playing the fighter and battlemind respectively. We also play together with friends on Friday nights, where my wife plays the mysterious fey Poppy the Angry, and my son hacks his way through all obstacles as Thokk the Half-orc barbarian.

Due to a freak rainshower, we arrived a little bit late to the store. This has been a season of insane rain. I cannot count the number of times this spring Ive been caught driving in wild torrents of rain. Once I was nearly washed off the road by a hilly side-street turned into raging river. Crazy rain, but enough, we were late, and in a rush to get started, but at the same time damn I wanted to check out the free stuff!

Four players waiting, and two with me, there was little time wasted, and even before my bag was all the way unpacked, we had all picked out characters and were getting things started. Even still, as you will read, we didnt get through all of the fist half of the module. Thats ok though, more for later.

The game starts with a rather lengthy description of the characters and their backstory. They were long-winded but good, one group of three were on the run from a local crime lord, and the other 3 were desert dwellers come to the city to help their settlement gather much needed supplies. Even before the character description there is a chapters-long overview of the world of Dark Sun. This will be familiar to anyone in the Encounters game, however there were some minor differences. This one left out a few elements from Encounters, but added a few things, such as character themes, arena combat, and an alternate magic item system, based on the rules in the DMG2.

The arena combat rules looked especially sweet, with a chance to gain the (dis-) favor of the crowd, which can grant boons. One of the encounters was actually a mini-game, where two teams fought to carry heavy disks across the arena without being knocked into dangerous brambles.

All in all I found the introduction to be a great aid to painting an introductory picture of the world. I had previously highlighted the sections of the 8 Things to know about Dark Sun from my Encounters adventure Fury of the Wastewalker, so it was a breeze to introduce the campaign world to the table.

Ware ye, beyond here be spoilers

The adventure opens with the party hired on as guards for a wily old elf peddler and his caravan of goods. The ceramic good look to be of little value, but they are traveling from Tyr to the outland town of Altaruk, and the PCs seek a change of scenery. A skill challenge takes place, which seeks to introduce the players of Dark Sun to the trials of the desert. I minimized the skill challenge for this event, something I regretted doing, but I simply hadnt had enough time to flesh out the challenge to the point where I feel comfortable running them. Instead I went with a description of their travels, and tried to make it interactive, before asking for a groups skill check. This went on for two group checks, before the third section of the challenge opened with a combat encounter prior to the check.

If I had more time to prepare, I would have described the environment and given them each a chance to choose a skill as a way to successfully navigate the environment. I like to have descriptions prepared, or at least visualized prior to jumping into a challenge. My lack of preparedness meant the day would be mostly made up of combat, but I did try to spice it up just a bit with some minor role-play.

Weirdly, the adventure didnt contain a map for this introductory encounter, but I happened to have a new set of Deserts of Athas dungeon tiles (imagine that, product tie-in) so we were good to go cuz it gave me a chance to use them. I created a desert area with a sort of shaded grotto created by 3 or 4 large rocks. They were off from the caravan, catching some rest, when they are ambushed by 10 slave clubmen and their 3 slave-master raiders. I had them encircle the party and attack in three groups. One group went over the largest rock, while another came from the north, and the third from the south.

The attack was quick and brutal. Dark Sun has upped the danger meter from previous games, and these slavers are no exception. The slave minions have two things that set them apart. The first and most important is the fact that they will remain standing until the end of their next turn after being slain. Total carnage. And the second trait of these human slaves is the +1 to damage for each adjacent ally.

The slaves attacked in waves of 3 or 4, led by a raider. They would mob some one and even though most of them were killed on the first round of combat, they did grave amounts of damage to those they mobbed. These slaves swarmed the barbarian, the battlemind, and the fighter. They were minor compared to the hideous double attack of the raiders. They wielded cruel barbed spears and daggers. Interestingly, barbed spear did no damage on a hit but merely grabbed an opponent, and set them up to be gut-stabbed with the dagger. This was a powerful attack, and at least three PCs were knocked below their bloody value, and the fact that it did ongoing damage meant that unconsciousness was a possibility for each one hit.

This combination led to a two round period when the press-gang looked like they had the edge and were starting to overcome the party. By round 3, many minions were felled and finally fallen, so the battle hung in the balance. Two of the PCs were knocked unconscious, but the shaman saved them both, as well as himself in the melee. The heroes prevailed.

After the combat, the PCs used their healing surges, and had little to loot but what the raiders carried. They then rolled their final group skill check and arrived at the town that evening. Therefore the second combat took place without an extended rest.

As the party stood around outside the tent in the elvish market, they notice what looks like they are being surrounded by elves with… chakrams? The fight broke out, and the PCs went through a wild battle with elves and kanks. One character cut through the side of the tent, while the half-giant charged the elf peddler at the doorway. The kanks spat, and the elves took pot shots with their chatkchas (oh I guess they really are boomerang throwing disks)

-At this point, it was 3 45, and we had to wrap up no later then 4 30. I decided to just play this battle out to its bitte end, rather than to mess with opening up that gorgeous arena map for the arena games. It was unfortunate, but I will find a way to use it. Often. Entire adventures are centering around those three eminently useful maps – a market place, the arena, and the slave pens, possibly under the arena. My first dark sun adventure just got planned out simply typing that last sentence, thats what Im talkin bout.

So, back to the story. Lots of fighting took place around that tent, and again the fighter was reduced to zero, to be raised by the shaman. Good usage of action points and some teamwork carried the day for the party, and as a reward they were granted the caravan of the old elf peddler as fair loot by the town guard Tellemon.

It was a fun experience over-all, and I think with more time to prepare, the skill challenge could have made for a great evocative crossing of the desert. I knew going in that I would try and do some brief rp and skill usage, but that combat was going to be the focus, and with that mind-set I sort of improv-ed through the rest while skimming it as I jabbered on about Athas. The encounters themselves were also very evocative of Dark Sun, they felt different, harsher. The slaver press-gang, and the family of elf outlaws, also slave-traders it turns out, make for a good sneak peek at the up-coming Dark Sun Campaign Setting.

With this, and with the DMing I do for Dark Sun Encounter Season 2, there s a lot of Dark Sun in my DnD right now. It is great. So great, or perhaps, inevitable that my own campaign took a sudden turn last night and wound up in a desert…

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Having thoroughly investigated the city of Fallcrest, the heroes of Winterhaven reunite in the inn outside town. As the sun sets and the stars begin to wink into night sky, a new bright red diamond in the sky glares down. This new Red Star is a mystery, but as the night passes, otherwise without incident, a sense of impending dread settles on each of their hearts. By morning, each character is feeling the dread like a weight pressing against his or her breast. Not only dread, but an overwhelming feeling of fate drags them towards an unavoidable doom. Each character in the party feels that they must do something to prepare for the doom that awaits them.

As they eat their porridge in the main hall of the tavern next morning, a scuffle erupts as a wily old raven flaps into the room. Th two serving wenches chase the raven around the room with brooms, the raven hopping, flapping and squawking until he finally lands on the heroes table and belches forth an enormous SQUAAAWWWK! Suddenly the voice out of the raven became a whisper spoken in the elvish language. The Arch Wizard Vandalliance is made aware of your inquiries into the Arcane mysteries, and agrees to meet you at his Wizards Guild Tower of Fallcrest at Dusk.

So saying the raven quickly departs the premises and the villains of Hommlet are left with a day to spend in Fallcrest. Each character feels a need to prepare for the doom that is awaiting them and also to understand and hopefully remove the dread that is darkening their hearts. Poppy is the first to leave the inn, and she spends the morning wandering the town. For her, towns are rare exotic places, but it was the people who she spent her time watching. She was trying to understand the dread and find out who else might be suffering. She learned that there were few people who felt anything more than surprise about the unique occurrence of the red star in the sky. Poppy then calls upon her innate elvish healing lore to meditate upon the doom and to shrink it until only a rwinge remains. She then meets up with each of her friends and teaches them the same meditative technique, thereby lessening the dread of everyone.

Next Thokk went across to the encampment of the Black Company and began sparring on the practice field. Soon Vonrippenspine joined him and they fought across the field, with Thokk coming out ahead in the match.The commander of the Black Company, who goes by the name of the White Rose due to wild silvery white hair, watches the bout, and motions for Thokk to join her.

They have lunch together and during the conversation Thokk recounts in great detail the treachery and killing of Ninaren, all the while the White Rose’s eyes grow wider and wider. She questions him for every detail, but Thokk becomes aware of her growing anger and stops giving her answers. Finally she orders him to leave. Thokk then spends the rest of the afternoon in physical activity, and shrugs off the dread that has been dampening his spirits. He feel ready for whatever is to come.

The druid and the ranger both leave town to commune with the wilds of nature. The druid learns that the animals are not disturbed by the blot in the sky, and that reassures here. She feels ready for the encounter to come.

Mad Molly receives permission to search through the Lord Wardens library, and her knowldege of arcana and history allows her to discover information about the star. It apparently hubg in the sky a thousand years past, during a time of great upheaval and unrest for the peoples of D Erte. Further study reveals information about and Eldritch Giant named Gagnasdiak or the Lord of Time and Space, who is associated with the Dark Star. Her studies calm her spirits, and knowing that the danger has been faced before gives her confidence and her dread vanishes once and for all.

Evening approaches and the party meets outside the Mage Tower of Fallcrest. A grey old gnome with a walking stick greets them at the door to the tower, and announces that he is K-poot long-time apprentice to Vandalliance, Arch Wizard of Fallcrest. As they meet Vandalliance at the top of his tower, they see that he is an ancient eladrin. His long hair is silver and his skin is so pale it is nearly translucent. He begins by telling them of his past, where he was court wizard to the Dwarven king of Forge Helm. He tells them of many of the wondrous items he made and then asks them if they have heard of him or his relics, lost when Forge Helm fell to ruin.

The characters resist mentioning the ownership of items, where upon he laughs and tells them that he has known what they carried since the moment they entered the tower. Abashed, they rely on their intuition, which trells them that Vandalliance is a proud, powerful, but also good wizard. They tell their tale, and Vandalliance nods. He says he can release those within, but that they must hurry. The magice device he uses is tied to the celestial bodies in the sky, and for the past day, its focus has been shifted from the moon to this new crimson star, pulsating with otherwordliness. But either way, they have no time, they must begin the ritual immediately.

As they cross a bridge to s second higher flying buttress, his observatory, he explains all he knows, siaded by scraps of information Poppy and Molly picked up. The eldritch Giant Gagnasdiak, also known as the lord of Time and Space, was a general of the primordials in the Dawn War. He was known to wield the flow of time like a weapon. In due time, he had 7 daughters. Ninaren was one of the daughters.

As he speaks he is placing the dagger beneath a bowl shaped mirror pointed at the night sky. The Dark Sun is reflected onto the mirror finish, and redirected to a pink crystal hanging by mithril thread at the mirrors apex. The pink crystal begins to glow, turning darker and darker until it is a deep pulsating red.

Suddenly a red ray of energy shoots from the crystal at the spirit knife. It is bathed in a red glow, until with a shocking clap and a brilliant flash of white, a spirit lion leaps forth from the dagger and materializes at Taras feet. Then another spirit drifts out, it is Rosanna Anastasia Delphina Danna. She smiles and waves to the heroes who saved her, before drifting into the night. A moment of peace comes over the party as they watch her depart.

Felipe has moved across the bridge, and she hears booted steps coming up the stairs. It is the White Rose, surrounded by half a score of Black Company soldier in mail and wielding morning stars. She is in full plate and carries a longsword. I am the second daughter of Gagnasdiak, and you killed sister Ninaren. For that you must die. Come sister, let us destroy these fools! she cries.

Up in the observatory, Vandalliance has lost control of the ritual. The crystal has burst and in its place a red ruby the size of a fist spins freely. Suddenly there is a crack in the sky and the face of Gagnasdiak appears. He is filled with rage and his head is as large as a mountain looming over them. You have slain my daughter and more that you know not. For this you must perish! He casts a lightning bolt of flaring crimson towards the party. Just as he does so, another figure appears out of the darkness. A screaming, flapping dragon hoves into view. Its white body seems electrified, and clouds of swirling sleet surrounds it, with flashes of lightning. It is a blizzard dragon, and it is Koldikoff, another daughter of Gagnasdiak. Too late does the lord of Time and Space realize his mistake, his daughters he has doomed with his enemies, and the lightning bolt hits the ruby, shattering it.

A great explosion of ruby energy washes over the area and the tower tilts and is suddenly not attached to the ground but instead enclosed in a red bubble, tilting and swinging crazily. The party is forced to fight the two daughters of Gagnasdiak in this environment, which is also becoming hotter and hotter by the moment.

The party prevails in the end. The dragon is the first to fall, subjected to the blows of Thokk, Tara, and Poppy, while Felipe holds off the army marching towards her. Molly Aids is the fight against the dragon, which is the first to fall. The White Rose lasts until the end, all her minions dead about her, and then she too falls.

As the party tries to make sense of the insane flight of the tower, the bubble grows brighter and brighter, and the shaking grows until the tower breaks into individual bricks, and then the party can feel their own clothes and items begin to shred and crumble. Suddenly they can see a desert, as from a great height, coming closer and closer.

They crash into the hot sands of the desert and are knocked unconscious. Eventually they wake up to find themselves missing nearly everything they own, including clothes, and stranded in the middle of a great, hot, and bright desert. A few bricks and other rubble from the tower remains but not much. In the sky a Red Sun glares down upon them, recalling the despair they felt at the beginning of the day.

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With week two of Dungeons and Dragons Encounters: Dark Sun, we find the band of six survivors escaping from the raid on their destroyed caravan in hopes of reaching the safety of the Ringing Mountains to the north. This week was all about the difficulties and dangers of moving through the scorching desert that is Dark Sun. The world of Athas is a desert world, and what life remains on the shattered husk of the world scrabbles and scrapes for a meager existence in the few arable areas left. The heat is oppressive and water and sustenance are rare commodities. This is especially true when stranded in the deep desert away from the protections offered by the caravan.

As the party retreated from the reptilian silt runners, they found time to take a short rest and sort out their supplies. It was discovered that within the looted survival rations were two healing fruits. These were divided out. The party then discovers that the obsidian storm is moving steadily northwards in their general direction. On top of this, they notice that more small bands of reptiles are taking up the pursuit of them. There is little choice but to flee to the mountains in hopes of discovering some kind of aid. The mountains were at least a day a way according to their best estimates, but distances can be deceiving in the desert.

They began a march, with each character taking one hour as the lead pathfinder. During each hour, that character would have to surmount whatever difficulties the desert threw at them with a skill check. This is part of an ongoing skill challenge that will play out each week until they reach safety. The cruel desert does not want to release the party from its suffocating embrace.

The party encountered a great deal of obstacles and dangers during this segment of travel. First, the party crossed a large section of loose but tall sand dunes. Then swarms of tiny bloodsucking insects began harassing them until they passed through the next area. Overcoming this, they came to a valley in which the tops of the town walls still jutted out from the sand and silt. The party crossed the valley by walking across the tops of the crumbling walls. Next, they entered a field where sharp cacti plant lived just below the surface of the sand. This was a delicate area to cross and it led them to a steep cliff which they must climb.

At the top of the cliff a large blossom-killer plant began attacking them, until one character drew its anger and endured its attacks until the rest of the party made it safely past. Finally, passing through a twisting box canyon, they came to a valley littered with giant bones and with still standing but petrified trees. They saw a figure composed of pure flame beckoning to them from some distance away.

As they approached, the day became cooler and seemed to lose some of its unbearable heat. I described this as the fire spirit drawing in the heat around it. It could not speak but drew letters in the sand with its liquid flames. It described a world of greenery and said it was trapped as a fire spirit until the world turned green again. The party gained its confidence, and before vanishing in a puff of smoke, the flame spirit told them how to make a revitalizing tea out of some of the bones. (The tea, 4 doses, will each give a character 4 temporary HPs.)

The encounter proper began after the flame spirit vanished – they hear a wild howl and see a large insect come bounding out from behind the rocks with a dwarf holding on for dear life. A seeming multitude of other insects, known kanks, boil out of the sand all about, surrounding them. The heat returned a thousand-fold after the flame spirit vanished, and it is so intense it creates a shimmering heat haze, making it difficult to tell how many kanks there are. The dwarf shouts “Don’t just stand there, grab a ride!” before being bucked off the large kank and trampled underfoot.

And so began a furious battle against the kanks. The party divided itself to the north side of the map, where Yuka and the Barcan faced off against the kank spitters to the north while Phy, Jarvix, and Shikkir faced the large kank to the south. The ranger Castri faced another large kank all alone to the southwest, determined to mount and tame the beast.

The battle was ferocious. The spitting kanks seemed to gang up on the sorcerer, even though he was not always the optimal target. He was brought to single digits at least three times from kank attacks, and teleported to the top of one of the tall rocks for some added protection. Barcan was played by a new person to our table, New Jake, as opposed to just Jake who played Castri. New Jake was a new to us and to the game, only having played the game once before, but he was knowledgeable about the game mechanics and helped determine which kanks were real and which were haze-illusions caused by the heat shimmer. He had a power that could shift an enemy, and came up with the idea of shifting monsters into each other. If they were an illusion, they would vanish. Soon it was clear which were real and which were merely optical illusions.

Meanwhile, Castri concentrated on the other large kank, and never landed a blow against it, instead using his turn to use skill checks to try to control the animal. He was caught in its mandibles, but when Castri escaped, instead of freeing himself, he used the escape to clamber atop the wild kank, and rode around the battlefield while the kank tried to knock him off. He avoided it and by the next round he had subdued the kank. Castri defeated the monster without a single hp of damage to it, and this allowed the party to win the battle with less resources exhausted.

Yuka was pounding away against one spitter. He grabbed it and dragged it across the battlefield while the sorcerer fought off the other two, aided by the ardent. The second large kank was eventually killed by Shikkir and Phye, and then it was a simple matter to slay the remaining two spitters. After 5 rounds of combat, the monsters were slain and Castri was just getting used to his mount, when it decided to burrow into the sand. Castri jumped off before he was taken under the sand and watched with regret as his new mount vanished. Will he see the tamed mount again?

The party was able to extract some kank honey from the corpse of the large kank, and had just time enough to catch breath before resuming their trek across the desert. It looked like the storm was actively tracking them, as well as multiple bands of lizard men. There was little time to lose.

Afterword: I must thank the message boarders at Wizards of the Coast for some great ideas to add to the Encounters program, especially the Kank riding skill challenge, which proved to be a great success, as well as some ideas for the obstacles and dangers that the PCs must pass through on their trek across the desert.

I would also like to wish luck, happiness, and great fortune to two of the absent players, Jenna and Dave, who are soon to be joined in marriage. I hope they have a great wedding and that the honeymoon never ends. (But please come back soon! We all just love basking in your moon-eyed staring into each others eyes, and all.)

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