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…