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Archive for the ‘Dark Sun’ Category

Season 2 of the Dungeons and Dragons Encounters program featured the newly released world of Dark Sun campaign setting. In a gritty dying world of defilement and deprivation a tough band of survivors struggles to reach the safety of their homes whilst being chased halfway across Athas by a sun crazed susussuran who wields the power of the Obsidian Storm and calls himself the Wastewalker. 15 weeks long, played at the great Game Cafe in Independence, MO. from June 9th – September 15th, 2010 between the hours of 6 – 8 pm every Wednesday.

Week 1
Week 2
Week 3
Week 4
Week 5
Week 6
Week 7
Week 8
Week 9
Week 10
Week 11
Week 12
Week 13
Week 14
Week 15, the Grand Finale

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so beautiful

This review is my second in the Dark Sun Review Series I am writing to honor the new campaign setting being released. I wrote my first review of the set, of Marauders of the Dune Sea, last week, and my review of the Campaign Guide itself should finally be published next week. I have also posted game-play recaps of the non-public material Wizards has released for the Dark Sun setting. These include Bloodsand Arena, a Free RPG Day 2010 offering; The Lost Cistern of Aravek, a Dark Sun Game Day 2010 release; as well as the weekly retelling of Dark Sun Encounters: Fury of the Wastewalker. And if you still cant get enough Dark Sun, my own campaign has dipped its toes into the hot sands of Dark Sun, and the characters have been rolling endurance checks ever since.

Before I get into the Creature Catalog, I want to add a special message about the intent of these reviews. First of all, I am an unabashed fan of 4e Dark Sun as released by Wizards of the Coast. I never had the pleasure of playing the original 2nd edition set, though I have acquired a copy of it for posterity. I have however steeped myself in the lore of the land for this edition. This is a biased review by a fan, not an objective breakdown of its strengths and weaknesses. I will go into very specific details of what makes the campaign setting special, and hopefully give insight to those who read this with the hope of understanding what makes the setting, and the monsters, so unique.

One thing that this review will not do is to make comparisons between old Dark Sun and new Dark Sun. I have no working knowledge of Dark Sun of the 90s, and so I approach this iteration with no pre-conceived notions or prejudices. In the same sense, this review will not make comparisons to other campaign settings released for DnD 4e, which include the Eberron campaign setting and the Forgotten Realms setting. These releases have little bearing on the subject matter or publication methods of the Dark Sun Campaign.

One fine looking book

The cover of Creature Catalog features a striking example of the major Dark Sun art pieces, and it is one of my favorites. The cover is gorgeous, and the rich oranges and browns make this book really stand out. The entire book is very attractive, and just cries out to be held, fondled, and cracked open. The inside cover is classic black. According to 4e tradition, the featured monster on the cover is also the mightiest foe in the book – in this case the Dragon of Tyr. Ringing in as a scrappy level 33 solo controller, the Dragon (always capitalize that D) looks fierce indeed.

There is an interesting story concerning the cover of this book – it almost didn’t have one. According to Wizards, originally the book was slated to have a soft cover, but the printer made a mistake and printed them in hard cover (and apparently ate the cost.) This was fortuitous to customers, because not only because we get the book in all its hard cover glory, but we are only charged the surprisingly low soft cover price. This is a sign of destiny – one more reason that Dark Sun was fated to be the greatest campaign setting of all time. I can see why they originally called for soft cover. 144 pages makes for a slim tome, but it is well worth it, and even for full price, I would not hesitate to pick this up. Another interesting discovery I made while inspecting the cover has to do with the authors. Richard Baker is listed as the main author, but following him, are the names Ari Marmell and Chris Sims, which is different than the online sites, including the publisher Wizards of the Coast, who list the authors as Richard Baker and Bruce R Cordell.

I have been lucky enough to fight with or against many of the monsters in this catalog, at least up into the lower paragon tier. I was happy to find the majority of the Dark Sun creatures in the catalog are for the heroic tier. A quick rundown of the monster by level tables in the back shows that over half the beasties are level 10 or lower. While the upper tier of level 20+ probably accounts for 20 percent or less. This is a great ratio, and I hope it is one the publisher uses for all future monster books. I was surprised by the ratio at first, especially as Dark Sun is labelled as higher level and more dangerous than a typical setting. In the original edition, characters were assumed to start at 3rd level to account for the difficulty of the setting. Have no fears, though, as these monsters are truly fearsome, and they crank the damage up a level beyond the Monster Manual 3, which is known to have hit the turbo button for all its monsters. Until a character has been hit by a dart for over 20 points damage by the lowliest creature in here, it is hard to fully accept the difficulty. Imagine biie one-shotted by a kobold.

The first thing one notices when using the monsters in the Creature catalog is that they are Deadly with a capital D. Dungeons and Dragons IV has been out nearly 3 years, and as the game continues to mature, and players become comfortable with their characters and the rules, the designers felt that some of the challenges from the early years were not quite up to snuff with a thoroughly modern optimized party. Design changes took place last year with the Monster Manual 2, where the solos and higher level creatures were adjusted, and again in the MM3 where all monsters got a damage upgrade. Addtionally, with the MM3, the stat blocks themselves got an upgrade to assist playability. And now we have the Dark Sun Creature Catalog hot on the heels of the MM3. It looks like the same underlying philosophy was used to create the monsters, including the new stat block format, and then they were perfected with a heaping helping of extra Dark Sun Deadliness. This creates a group of monsters able to tear through lazy or strategically inept parties, and maintain a white-fisted challenge for even the most jaded group of power players. The monsters are tough, as the short happy life of Bennybe the rogue will attest.

Cracking those covers open, we are confronted with a slim 144 page volume chock full of around 200 monsters. Reading the small table of contents, we notice that unlike any previous monster manual, this book is split into 3 sections. The first section is called Creatures of Athas, followed by a section of Personages of Athas, and finally the book rounds out with a section called Encounter Options. This is a unique layout for a monster book. It is also a little confusing. For example, you might find a human templar of Tyr under Human in the Creature section, but you could find templars to other city states in the “Personages” section. I think once I am used to the book, it will become second nature to know which section to look under, but for now, it is unclear.

Turning past the table of contents, we see the next 4 pages are devoted to breaking down the monster stat blocks. This is fairly important, especially for those who don’t have the MM3, where the new stat block made its debut. On the other hand, not much has changed, and comparing this section to the Monster Manual, I see little difference. Still, this is an important section, and I could save time during play by remembering this section rather than searching through the PHB and DMG for answers that are right here.

Now we move on to the meat of the book. Coincidentally, the first monster in this book is the same as the original first edition Fiend Folio – the Aarakocra, a race of flying humanoids once associated with eagles, but now known as vulture folk. It is a long ignoble drop from their previous existence, but Dark Sun is known for forcing the familiar to fall from grace. Following the aarakocra entry comes page after page of meaty Athasian monstrosity. Most of the monsters are weird in some way, often having psionic powers, and many of the beasts are either reptile or insect. Or plant. My players will never forget the zombie cactus they recently faced. What an evil, evil cactus.

Aarokocra then and now

t looks like most of the classic Dark Sun monsters are here. As I said, I never played the prior edition, and I don’t want to compare the two, but I do know something of it, and I can see most of the legendary monsters represented here: belgoi, gaj, gith, and tembo, check; athasian giant, silk wyrm, and tembo, all present. Kanks and crodlu, elf dune runners, it is all here. I wonder how many of the creatures in this tome are totally new, as I don’t recognize all of the names, such as: Chathrang, Cilops, megapede. One thing that I find extremely useful is that there is a new racial entry for the main races of Dark Sun: dray (dragonborn), dwarf, eladrin, elf, Halfling, human, Half-giant (goliath), mul and thri kreen. This will go a long way to fleshing out a Dark Sun campaign world, and most of the entries have multiple monsters to span one or more tiers of play. The human, for example, has a total of 10 entries, ranging from a lowly level 1 minion, up to a level 17 creep.

Some of my favorite monsters from this book include the hejkin, a race of grubby grouches who speak dwarfish, to the id fiend, a terrifying level 1 solo which I cant wait to drop on an unsuspecting 1st level party. The tembo is terrifying, and recently resulted in a total party kill while playing a character for the first time since the 1980s. There is a solo or elite monster for just about every level in the book. I counted about 20 solos and maybe twice that number of elites. There are plenty of minions, too, with all the major races getting at least one minion, and many of the monsters as well. There are some great new mechanics to help out these minions. For example, the human slave doesn’t drop until the round after it is reduced to zero.

There is a side bar discussing dragons, and how on Athas there is only one true Dragon, the undisputed master of the habitable lands. Even sorcerer kings pay tribute to the Dragon of Tyr. However, there is a set of epic level drakes, which can take the place of de-evolved dragons. It is suggested that any dragons be less intellectual and more bestial in Dark Sun. It would be nice if they had broken down the four elemental drakes into age categories for some multi-tier fun, but I expect that will happen in an upcoming article or supplement.

The creatures in the catalog go a long way to making the Dark Sun world so dangerous. The next section, Personages, gives the Dark Sun world much of its flavor. This section is full of locale specific personalities and should be perfect for urban adventuring and political intrigue. Each sorcerer king is statted out for the major cities left on Athas, and besides the ruler, a few other choice NPCs are given for each city, whether they be the temple guards, the sorcerer kings most devoted lieutenants, a prominent merchant or powerful gladiator. The sorcerer kings are all epic level, and each of them should provide quite a challenge, while NPCs associated with them run the gamut from upper heroic all the way to powerful enough levels to be a match for the sorcerer kings themselves. One sorcerer king, Kalak, is missing, because Tyr has thrown off the shackles of royal domination.

I like this section of the Creature Catalog – it helps make Dark Sun the unique setting that it is. Having single, named personages, who are tied into the campaign world in specific ways makes the world of Dark Sun that much more distinctive. Another way to look at it would be that you could take the Creature catalog and pull just about any monster out of it and throw it into an encounter that made sense, but the monsters listed in this chapter need to be handled carefully for maximum Dark Sun Flavor. For example, there are templars for all the cities, but each templar sect has its own strengths and weaknesses, and fighting a templar of Tyr (which are listed in the creature section, oddly – probably because there is no Sorcerer king to stick them with) and fighting a witch-doctor templar of Lalali-Puy is a very different experience. Finally, I get giddy imagining an Epic heavy metal campaign of assassination of the sorcerer kings, one by one as we go through this chapter – much like our group worked its way through Dieties and Demigods in our foolish youths.

This is what its all about, right here

The final section of the book is all about building Dark Sun encounters. The section begins with the idea of customizing monsters for Dark Sun out of the standard Dnd monsters. One example they give (complete with epic artwork) is the Silt Shark, based off the fleshtearer shark from Monster Manual 2. The customizing monsters introduction is short, and precedes the larger section on using monster themes. Themes have been with us since the Dungeon Master Guide 2, and the Creature Catalog devotes a few pages to expanding the list to include some popular Dark Sun themes, such as sun-warped, or arena-bred monsters for example. Because there have been so many monsters released, it is good that they have included this. I know that even with the great choices for monsters provided in this book, there is lots of room for more – and with this section, it becomes possible to take your favorite monsters and give them an injection of Dark Sun flavor to freshen them up, conceal their aging wrinkles, and make for more challenge.

We are coming to the last few pages of the Creature Catalog, and here we find another unusual addition. The world of Dark Sun is bizarre, and the ecology itself is one of the distinctive aspects of the world. It has been called post-apocalyptic, and this can be recognized in the fantastic terrains and hazards of the last section. Defiling is a mechanic in Dark Sun by which powerful spell-casters can hurt the world in order to channel more powerful magic. (In fact this is one of the basic tenets of the campaign – that careless usage of arcane magic irrevocably damaged the world.) Many types of defiled terrain are included, as well as other extraordinary landscapes, from salt flats to mirages, to Ztal hordes – massive colonies of tiny poisonous lizards.

Flowing seamlessly from fantastic terrain we move into the hazards section, and this too, while sparse, offers up some flavorful hazards to throw at adventurers. There are arena hazards, such as the worthy sacrifice, and wilderness hazards, such as the dust funnels and false oases. These are great, but I wish the section had been expanded to add even more unique traps and hazards. In fact, my only complaint about this book, really, is that I wish there was more of everything, and honestly that sounds more like a compliment.

I am not sure why this last chapter was included with the Creature Catalog rather than in the Campaign Setting. However, the section is entitled Encounter Options, and terrain is an important part of encounter design, so there is an argument for its inclusion here. Time will tell whether or not this method becomes the norm, but I have a sneaking suspicion it was done for space issues. The Creature Catalog is pretty slender, at least 14 pages less than any other hardback I own (the other thin books seem to be a minimum of 168 pages) but since this was never meant to be a hard cover, I really am stumped. The publishers must feel that rather than a monster book, so to speak, it is more an encounter book, but if that was the case, the last section could have really be expanded upon. I see this last chapter as one more aid to the Dm to give him the tools he needs to create his own challenging world of Dark Sun for his campaign.

Everything in this book drips of Dark Sun flavor, from the creatures to the major personalities of the world. From the monster themes to the fantastic terrains, this book is here to help you inject into your campaign a massive dose of Dark Sun. If I could only have one Dark Sun book, it would be this one. These monsters are the meat and potatoes (sometimes literally) of any adventure through the dangerous and difficult world of Dark Sun. Just flipping through it fills one with a sense of the strange dying world of Athas, where the struggle for survival is paramount. It would take very strong survival instincts indeed to survive all the nastiness contained in these pages.

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This is not a play-test review. I think any good adventure should be played before it is given a final review, and so I consider this review incomplete. Many times I have found that encounters, challenges, and other facets of an adventure can play wildly different from how they read. This seems even more true with 4th edition, where many of the combat encounters can hinge on subtle powers of the enemies. In that regard, I consider this review to be more of an overview of the adventure with my first impressions. If I ever get a chance to play this adventure, and I hope to find time in the coming weeks, I will add an after-action update to the article. Until then, we will just have to muddle through as best we can.

The adventure is full color, 32 pages long, and includes a double sided poster map. While detachable, the inside of the cover is sadly left blank. One must turn to the middle of the booklet to find the main encounter map. This is not bad in itself, but I am always hoping for more old school flair. Also, from a purely mechanical standpoint, it is handy to have the map open while flipping through the pages of the adventure, which is not possible if the map is included in the body of the adventure.

The cover is a matte finish, rather than the glossy covers of everything else Dark Sun related, and likely depicts a new direction in providing lower cost adventures. It follows the trend of recent releases in this regards as well as in price point. The days of the large, expensive modules appears to be over in favor of these humbler affairs. I for one applaud this move, as I like store bought adventures. I rarely use them in their entirety, but I often mine them for ideas, and I really like the poster maps. I bought Keep on the Shadowfell for full price, even though it had already been released (and errated) as a free download, solely for the three double sided poster maps included. This method seems to offer the most for the least.

Marauders of the Dune Sea

The cover art is a stunning, vibrant affair showing a thri kreen riding a kank. In the background lumbers what can only be Slither, the movable camp of the marauders. While the artwork lacks the style of Wayne Reynolds, who adorns the covers of the Dark Sun hardbacks, this work has a style all its own, and it looks good. The inner artwork is almost non-existent, featuring one small shot of the cave mouth (which is a pretty cool little pic) and a pair of player handout art pieces on the last page. Honestly, it looks like art is one area where the publishers cut some corners since the entire product features a grand total of 4 pieces. This does not include the section of faux poster map art on the back cover. The Tyr market featured on the back cover is inexplicably not the Tyr market on the poster map included. The publication values of the module are very high, and the interior is well laid out in a colorful, eye-catching way. Every encounter area has a full color accompanying map, and there are plentiful colorful touches, including read aloud text, headings, and page adornments.

Now that we have looked it over, lets dive into this adventure. It is written by one of the big names in the industry, Bruce R. Cordell, who also wrote the seminal adventures for BOTH 3rd and 4th editions: The Sunless Citadel and the Keep on the Shadowfell. Cordell knows his business, and this adventure shows throughout its pages the professional quality of the craftsmanship. To summarize the plot, there are rumors of an unexplored ruin that hold fragments of an ancient artifact. The characters hear about this, it being all the buzz about Tyr, and the DM is given a few options to entice the players into accepting the mission. A dozen or more encounters later, if they survive, they could have an artifact and be fast approaching 4th level.

At its heart, this adventure is a simple tomb raid. Some might complain that the adventure is too linear, but I see the tomb raiding type of adventure to be suited to a linear style. After all, if you are making a series of traps to slay potential robbers, you don’t want to provide routes to bypass said traps. In the end, there are a few choices the characters make along the way, but most are minor diversions rather than plot-changing, and in this way, it is a linear adventure. I would call it linear with optional side branching. I have no complaints about this type of adventure, although like most, I prefer when the characters have meaningful choices to make, and the work to provide more meaningful choice will have to weigh on the DM who runs Marauders.

The DM who has time to prepare, or likes to improvise, has ample opportunity to do so in this adventure, so one of the adventures best qualities in my opinion, is that it can meet the needs of multiple styles of DMing. If I needed an adventure to run right now, I could pick this up and be rolling 20 sided dice in an hour. Or, I could weave complex political turmoil in the form of spying templars from other city states, and the mad treasure hunt going on in the wastes as numerous parties hunt for the newly discovered Face in the Stone.

One last commentary on this linear approach is that the book reads the same way. Unlike some recent adventures, we dont have to keep flipping between sections for different aspects of the same encounters. The module reads through from beginning to end in the assumed order that the adventure will play out. One encounter blends into the next by flipping the page. It is very natural. This is much improved over some other recent modules. One in particular that shall remain un-named for the time being has each encounter broken into three different places. Utterly ridiculous, two was bad enough. Let us hope this system catches on, one based on logic and reason.

One of my favorites parts of this adventure for me is the beginning. Cordell seems to be thinking of the DM, and he knows that after the opening challenges of role playing and handing out quests, the characters will want to cleanse their palates with some combat, and he does not hesitate to throw down a pretty exciting introductory battle in the streets of Tyr, using the first side of the poster map. I really like this encounter. Urban battles can be fun, and the author even gives thought to some dialogue during the fight. If I wanted to improve the encounter, I would try to add more urban themes. Crowds of innocents, knocked over carts of figs and dates, that sort of thing. Needs more camels and cacti.

No Dark Sun adventure begins without a hopeless trek into the wastelands, and here Marauders does not disappoint. The initial encounter was just to get them moving, now it is time to head out into the blazing heat of the desert and do those survival skill challenges everyone seems to love so much. If Dark Sun hasn’t caused an increase in the numbers of PCs with the Endurance skill, then nothing ever can. Remember kids, pack your survival days, or you might get a bad case of Sun Sickness. It is a common complaint, but I do wish that success or failure in such a large thing as a skill challenge would have more of an impact than whether one loses a healing surge, but thankfully there are some better skill challenges along the way. Personally, the “trekking across the desert” skill challenge has been done so many times, and so many different ways, I can usually just improvise them. Sun sickness, or the risk of it, should be a side effect of many of these type of skill challenge failures in my opinion. That, and using up excessive amounts of survival days.

Once the characters have gotten into the tomb (through another, much better skill challenge) the tomb raiding begins in earnest. Here we start out with some standard Dark Sun dungeon dwellers to defeat, and as the party works their way through the tomb, the encounters get more and more interesting. Almost every chamber has a unique trap or hazard of some sort, which plays up the tomb raiding theme.

One thing I love about this adventure is that throughout, there are side bars with bonus encounter information that can lead to all sorts of unexpected places, depending on how the dm chooses to prepare or improvise. These hooks and hints sometimes describe social situations, politics, or intrigue, while other times they lead to cool or unusual minor side treks and small encounters, like magical pools. There must be almost as many bonus encounters as there are keyed encounters. These are exceptionally well thought out and original. There is even one door which Cordell tells us is for the DM to decide whats behind it. So if you have that one encounter planned out, here is where you can plop it in. Thanks Bruce.

The artifact, the Crown of Dust, actually seems a little weak for an artifact. However, I am no expert, and I think any character would be happy to own it, especially those who love to go out on skill challenging treks across the desert. There is also plenty of other treasure strewn throughout the tomb. I am ambivalent on this subject, as my preferred way to hand out magic is to pry it from the dead fingers of the enemy they slew who actually USED the item, rather than dying to keep it protected in a nearby chest. PCs use their magic, why shouldn’t the monsters? On the other hand, I have been known to hold up a hand of magic item cards and ask a player who is looting some corpse or what-not to just pick one, so my tastes vary. The adventure keeps it vague enough that the dm can tailor the treasure to suit his needs.

Finally, the adventure ends with another skill challenge. This challenge is brutal, difficult, and failure is not an option. I mean it is an option, but it means a fate worse than death. I love it. Many times in the adventure the author gives advice on what to do if the PCs fail a challenge or lose an encounter. Here is no different, and the final encounter could turn into a blood bath if the PCs do not succeed.

In conclusion, this is an adventure of highest quality and craftsmanship. Its production values are excellent. It is written with enough detail to be easily run by a busy dm, but with enough hooks, seeds, and ideas that a dm could expand on to fill out the adventure. It ties in well with the lore of the land, and offers plenty of opportunity to battle, to role play, or to explore off the map. From the capital city Tyr, to the deep lost deserts, to forgotten tombs of an ancient age, this adventure takes you on a walking tour of Athas that can be used to bring the dark world to life. Marauders of the Dune Sea is accessible, beautiful, well written, and filled with exciting encounters.

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Here it is in all its glory, my entire collection of Dark Sun material for 4e DnD. It is so beautifully crafted, and the covers themselves are so incredibly beautiful. The artist has created great covers for this set, and the rich adn dark orange just make me want to pick up the books themselves.

My collection in all its completeness and glory

It is a fact thet due to mis-communication between the publisher and printer, the Creature Catalog was supposed to be soft cover. It is instead a hard cover and yet its price remained at the lower 20 dollar price. Way to go Wizards, and I feel bad for that printing company, I bet they lost out on that one. Hopefully they make it up in volume!

Besides the store bought items in the picture, are all three segments of Encounters Season 2: Dark Sun Fury of the Wastewalker. whicch I am DMing every Wednesday night at Game Cafe in Independence. The other two special items are Bloodsand Arena which I DMed at Game Cafe earlier this year for Free RPG Day 2010, and Lost Cistern from Game Day Dark Sun. I made a deal with a new player and rising star dm that I would happily set aside DMing for the chance to play a character – if he would be willing to let me have the adventure afterward. After all, otherwise I couldnt take the above picture. woot

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Special players perspective edition

or the Short Happy Life of Bennybe the Rogue

Before today, my last character was a human druid named Shmuckly. He was known for having invented a backpack for transporting potted plants. He would hurl a plant as his opening salvo in an engagement and in this way he was able to cast his main spell, entangle, in almost any environment. It was Shmucklys way of spreading nature, like Jhohnny Appleseed. This character only rose to 5th (or was it 7th… hmmm…) level, and I last played Shmuckly in 1985. I then became the dm for my group of friends and never played a PC again with little regrets. That all changed today, when I took up the reins of the PC once again, and rolled up Bennybe the Eladrin Rogue 4. Bennybe was a wastewalker though I forgot to use his encounter power the entire time we played, much to my chagrin. I did use most of my powers though, and while I am mixed as to my final verdict on Bennybe as an effective character, I had a lotta fun. Read on to find out how Bennybe and his friends, the tiefling warlock, the goliath barbarian, the thri kreen seeker, and the half elf bard went in search of the lost cistern of Aravek. I cant remember any of the characters names, so from here on out, they will be known as Ron the warlock, Midget the half giant, Dr Flamulus the Mad Guitarist Bard and my son the seeker who well just call Pakcha why not. I might be called Bennybe, Barnaby, Bugz Bunny or a few others.

Well, the plan was to play from noon to 4 pm, and I was late by almost half an hour. Not being the dm had instantly converted me back into my slothful, chronically late and unprepared usual self. Once we got started, we still managed to get through two encounters in our time, so it wasnt too shabby. The adventure began in the usual Dark Sun tradition, a doomed expedition into the Wastelands on a hopeless mission. This on involved water, magic wter perhaps, so we knew it was serious busiiness. I reminded everyone to buy survival rations and sunrods. And healing fruit. I wanted a bunch of healing banana fruits. So my first roll of the day was part of a group endurance check, and I rolled a 20! Auspicious beginnings indeed.

Some more skill checks happened and might have included zombie cactus, butin the end a few of us lost healing surges and we were attacked by a herd of elves. To me, it was worth failing a skill challenge if it meant we could rid the world of another herd of elves. And so we commenced to do just that.

They must be destroyed

We were surrounded on all sides and attacked by 8 or so of these elves. There was a leader who stayed well back, a group of slinging minions, then 4 or so regular old elf dune striders. The battle went ok, and it took a while for us to whittle them down, but in the end we were victorious and no one dropped. Most of us however, were bloodied, especially Bennybe and Midget. It was during this battle that I noticed my rogue was not quite meeting the min-maxed damage output I was expecting.

Bennybe was an eladrin, a dagger wielding cunning sneak rogue, multiclassed into assassin for the shrouds. He was +12 to hit with his basic at wills, and with combat advantage (+4) he could put out 1d4 + 2d8 + 1d6 +6, for a minimum of 10 points damage and a max of 32. In addition, I had a minor encounter attack (low cut) which gave me a great opening salvo. My fey strike dagger was my other secret weapon, a dagger that once per encounter would allow me to make a melee basic from 20 squares away and once daily would allow me to teleport the target to any square adjacent. Oh yes. bennybe was hitting on all cylinders. His dex was 20, and everything else was 14 or 10. In his other hand he wielded a long sword, and I often switched between longsword attacks (1d8 but only +10 to hit)) versus the puny dagger d4s. It didnt seem to make a difference, I rolled a 1 for damage either way 😦 Over all, he was a great character to play. I used my ninja mini for him, which might be the first time that mini was ever used as a pc. Ninjas are very out of style now. it is all about pirates, or it looks like actually pirates are on their way out the door, what is next, maybe mental mutant psychic purple giants?

One big difference between playing and dming is the delay between my turn, and well, my turn again. This is obvious to all players in DnD, but a dm sometimes forgets the importance of moving the turns along, since in some ways it is always the dms turns. In fact, as a dm I sometimes get annoyed when a monsters initiative comes around, since it takes me away from keeping track of whats going on to actually DO something. Thats not entirely true, as I am i on the edge of my seat, hoping against hope that the monster survives the tide of players turns to even get an attack. So the half hour spans between turns can really add up. Our dm did a good job of keeping the game rolling, so I never felt too distracted, it was fun just to hang out and try to be funny and play the game, regardless of whose turn it is. That pretty much sums up my gaming philosophy right there, though.

After the elf battle we moved directly into the battle with the solo, a Tembo, a frightening creature of Dark Sun who uses its hideous strength and deadly prowess in combat in combination with its ability to drain the life out of its enemies. This level 6 solo proved to be one tough cookie and it killed us all, but it was a quite close battle and the outcome was never fore-ordained.

I rolled my second natural 20 of the night for initiative, and it meant I would go first. I knew this would be my last battle of the day, as 4 oclock was fast approaching, so I decided to use my three secret weapons: my action point, my daily power, and my daggers daily power. The layout of the battle pitted us on one side of a flowing underground stream of unknown depth and the tembo on the other. I cast my dagger at him, struck, but when I attempted to use the daily teleport power, the tembo stopped it. Arggh! This did not bode well. In the end he came over of his own accord, and that proved to be worse than him staying far away, and besides the water wasnt that deep. I didnt want t waste my minor action to examine the stream at the moment.

The battle continued on for many rounds. As we fought over the course of the next few rounds I used my second wind, activated my daily which was a stance that gave me a free attack against anyone who attacked me, and I administered a healing potion to the fallen barbarian. This proved to be a mistake, since the tembo had an aura that reduced all healing by half, as well as doing 5 damage at the start of the barbarians turn. So she was not saved. Oops!

Our options looked better when later that round the thri kreen rolled a natural 20 on his death save and made a surprise recovery. It too would prove worthless, as the tembos damage aura had gone from 5 to 10, and no amount of healing could save us by this point. Pakcha fell the instant he rose just like Midget before him.

The bard had the greatest daily power ever, which gave us 5 healing hit points back whenever we struck the fell beast, and in the early part of the battle this seemed like it would be the defining cause of our victory, but after the tembo reduced it to 2 hp healing, it was less effective, though still important!

FInally it was Ron the warlock and Benneby left standing. The warlock got off one last curse that did massive damage. Impossibly the beast still lived! The dm informed us that it had been minionized (a term I define to mean it was knocked down to 1 hp.) The warlock fell and it was the monsters turn, then mine.

I had 1 hp left, it had 1 hp left. Either way, if it attacked or delayed, I would get the first blow, since I had my daily power stance activated. I was sure that victory was mine. The minor inconvenience was that all my allies lay dying about me, thus I had no combat advantage. No matter, he attacked, I retaliated with my immediate interrupt. I rolled a 5. I missed. he didnt. I died, and with me the hope of our entire party, and possibly that village or whoever it was that needed the water. WHo cares, though right, cause I know Bennybe dont.

Yeah, so my first character played in 25 years or so bites the dust in his second encounter, taking the whole party down with him. Not quite the ending I had hoped for for the session, but it was still loads of fun. As I said, after many years of watching my minions die at the hands of blood thirsty player characters, to have a single little guy like Bennybe last for as long as hed did was amazing to me. And besides its all about the hanging out, the joking around, the fun and camaraderie. The killing things and taking their stuff is just like a bonus on top of everything else. And sometimes, you get slaughtered mercilessly instead of that sweet desert, thems the ropes, and they make the victories we do see all the sweeter.

Special thanks go to Jake, who ran the session that killed me (us.) The battle with the solo was a really complicated battle, but he did it by the book and with skill and tactical awareness. Thinking back over the encounter, I am not sure we could have done much else to win. There were plenty of little things, like the healing fruit mistake, or possibly not activating my stance soon enough – I should have done it in the first round, but waited till round 3. But most of my mistakes came down to being unfamiliar with the character. I think the biggest cause of this, and many TPKs like it, come down to the player not being entirely familiar with their characters. By the time we were 4th level, we all had 2 pages worth of powers to choose between, and many of them have subtle differences that if applied at the right time and place can make game changing differences.

all dead here

And a level 6 solo, 2 levels above the party, was a challenge to begin with. Dark Sun is known for its tough foes, and the game itself has become noticeably tougher with the new Monster Manual 3 design philosophy of monster creation. This involves giving the monster much higher damage output, without increasing the slog by raising its defenses and hit points in the same amounts. This monster was particularly designed to wreak mayhem with healing while fighting it, and its combination of high hit points and low defenses were mitigated by other actions of the thing. Becoming insubstantial was a very frustrating thing to happen, and when you add it all up, it ends up that we players were doing tiny thing for minuscule amounts – our healing nullified, our damage cut in half, if we could even see him to attack, while the tembo tore us up repeatedly, multiple times per turn and multiple turns per round. We became muppet babies fighting godzilla.

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I have nothing better to do at the moment so I will spend a bit of time giving my first impressions of recently released Dark Sun art, I will review the 8 new preview screenshots that Wizards released for their upcoming Dark Sun Campaign Setting.

Preview 1 - Iconic Dark Sun Imagery

The artist has one of my favorite modern styles in fantasy art.  I love the gritty poses and the over-sized weapons.  There is a surreal quality to the artwork where certain martial aspects are exaggerated.  The feeling is evocative of a struggle for survival where the scant rewards are relished for their cost.  In no other campaign world as much as Dark Sun is the fight for survival as keenly felt as Athas, where the dying red rays cause  sun-warped madness.  In the world of Dark Sun every breath is a fight against burning lungs, every sip a struggle against drowning.  To survive youth into adulthood is to reach mastery in the art of death and killing.  To live is to fight. Yes I would say this is some iconic art right here. The particulars of the scene are also iconic, symbolic and all around great depictions of Dark Sun details.  From the obsidian sword, to the blazing ball in the sky, this picture is full of Dark Sun.  My favorite part of this piece is that it is made up of that leathers and feathers look of post apocalyptic attire.

Preview 2 - Desert City Street Brawl

This piece of art has one awesome component, and that is the elf.  This is how I want my elves in Dark Sun –  insane scantily clad thief acrobats.  They are amoral fey thieves and robbers who delight in taking what they want through deception and their own physical prowess.  The rest of the combatants are less striking visually, though there is a good depiction of bone armor.  The background shows a pretty typical urban alleyway or bazaar in a desert region.  Lots of sand and fabric.  I am not such a fan of the cowering and weak populace, as I tend to like the idea that in Dark Sun even the peasants are warriors first.  These people all look like Annakins mother in Phantom Menace.  And while I draw a lot of Dark Sun inspiration from Tatooine, the peasantry is not really one of them. It must however be admitted that she was a slave, and that slavery is one of the themes of Dark Sun, so perhaps the image of the cowering slave-peasantry is apt after all.

Preview 3 - Thri Kreen Ranger is King

Preview 3 - Thri Kreen Ranger is King

I have never before wanted to play a thri kreen before this moment, but that dude is one bad ass, I dont care what animal kingdom you come from. I mean he has a leopard skin kilt for crying out loud. And just when you thought his bow-wielding could not get more epic, you realize that his great axe is not slung over his chest, oh no, he is wielding it in his second set of arms! The rest of the scene serves only to do him justice, as it took all the artists skill and imagination to throw a force at this master ranger equal to his abilities. I also approve of his twin bald bodyguards. This thri kreen knows how to roll.

Preview 4 - Dark Sun hobbies and pastimes

There is no better place to fight the mighty behemoth than on the wind-swept planes of Dark Sun. In my campaign the party came into Dark Sun like we all come into the world – naked and hopeless. Nevertheless they threw themselves at a wild stampede of post-prehistoric monstrosities for no other reason than to slake their thirst on blood. Dinosaurs are fun to fight. In Dark Sun they do it for sport. Of particular note in this piece is the weird architecture in the back ground. I prefer my cities to be more bubbly and spire-y, like a Martian city ought, but Spikes and bones are cool too. Wait a minute, thats no building, why its on wheels! Ok this picture gets better and better. I havent even mentioned the incredible characters here, with that awesome turtle-shell shield, the flying barbarian attack, and hot sand-caster in the background.

Preview 5 - Still as dungeons and dragons or is it a wyvern?

This piece is unusual because it is generic enough that it could appear in almost any setting. There is nothing that stands out as belonging to Dark Sun. The characters seem over-dressed and well equipped. Another hairless purple giant, what is it, a Mul, goliath. half-giant? Im not sure why, but in each picture they look equally out of place and un-fun in my opinion, and this goes back to all large and giant type races from every edition of the game. The only large species I have been fond of as a PC race in my many years of gaming was the half-ogre (+6 str max 18/00 , -8 int min 3) and mostly because his size was made up for by the fact that he was usually a slobbering idiot. In one campaign, the player actually wrote out the 30 or so words his half-ogre knew with his 3 intelligence. Even with 30 words, the only one he ever seemed to use was tasty. Back to the artwork, even the castle looks distinctly medieval fantasy, although it scores a point for being ruined. As for the middle character, what puny weapon is he holding? If that is a mace, ahem, please compare it to the morning star twice as big as your head, nod to mention the dainty bumper on the end of that slender stick in his hand. Must be a bard.

Preview 6 - More art

Preview 6 - More art

We seem to have reached a nadir in the art department with this piece. I am not one to complain, but this art is one of my least favorites. It has some Dark Sun flair, as in it appears to be posed in an arena, with what looks like a gladiator slaying some kind of petty ruler. There is very little movement, bleached out colors, and no hair, everyone is either bald, a common affliction in a world where the average noon temperature can set your head on fire, or they are wearing a turban, a common solution to the head burning issue. Remember kids, it only takes once going outside without the turban, then WHOOSH no more hair. And that king deserved to die. What a pathetic lose rof a ruler, give the crown to the gladiator, maybe he can finally bring the kingdom out of this economic slump. Incidentally, this picture cant be wholly slammed, because it did give me the kernel of the idea for my whole campaign in Dark Sun, so there is that. Possibly its psychic qualities outweigh its physical attributes, which would go a long way towards helping it fit in better with the Dark Sun theme. Perhaps.

Preview 7 - My new desktop image

My least favorite piece is followed by my most. The grand scale of this artwork is as awesome as the scene it depicts. An endless sea of dunes, planets hanging gibbous in the dark sky, and relics of ages past half sunk in the world-spanning desert, while a lone wanderer braves the journey towards emptiness. This is Dark Sun. This piece speaks for itself.

My old desktop

This is one of the earliest Dark Sun images released, and I have had it as my back drop for a number of weeks. First the good. I have always loved the idea of buried cities in the sand, and this piece shows off exactly that – the ruins of an ancient city state of vast power uncovered in the ever shifting sands of the deep desert. A brave group of adventurers seek glory and wealth in the hidden dangers of that post-apocalyptic landscape. It also has a powerfully baleful red eye glaring down.

The picture loses some of its hold on me with the depiction of its heroes. First there is a blue giant, which I have already lamented in a previous work, so I will not go into it, but there he is again in all his bald-headed glory, and he even manages to get himself in a more ridiculous position than the other as well. I will crush your skull until it is small enough to fit between my buttocks, when I will crush it even more. The middle character is my favorite, bone swords are cool. She is attractive in her spiky armor, but as our eyes move over to another shirtless hairless stocky fellow. Dark Sun is full of them – short ones tall ones, big ones, round ones, we have all the purple hairless strongmen one can imagine. Entire races were tampered with to produce the most garishly pigmented entirely hairless stocky species possibly. They have accomplished this with the Mul, a word no one seems be able to pronounce, cause it cant be MULE can it, another stocky half-breed? I refuse to even discuss the halo of psionic power that rings this mules forehead like an asteroid belt of miniaturized ioun stones. My how far the game has gone these few short years…

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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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